Welcome to the discussion!

As the articles below indicate, for a number of years I have being trying to understand the changing concept and practice of mission.

My search has moved progressively from ‘Is there still a need for mission?’ to ‘What should the new focus for mission be?’ and finally to ‘Where can we find examples for this new direction?’

Some progress has been made but the effort to get this far has brought up a wider question. Why are so few people doing the practical reflection and research that is necessary to bring mission out of its present decline?

Theologians produce books on the academic aspects of mission but those actively engaged in cross-cultural mission are not writing about the real-life issues that face them. In this age of dramatic changes most businesses and NGOs are plowing resources into research for their next step so why are Christian missionaries, especially Catholics, not doing so?

I’m sure there are many answers to this complex question but by naming them, one by one, we may get a better idea of where the problem lies and what can de done about it.

Have you any ideas to share on this topic?

Monday, 19 March 2012

The Dangers and Benefits of a Church’s ‘Localization’ Part 1

Before the arrival of the Jesuits in 1580 there had been a number of attempts, going back to the Nestorians in 635, to bring the Christian message to China. They had little success mainly because they made no deliberate effort to adapt the Christian message to the religious traditions and spiritual heritage of the people.
      The Jesuits were the first to recognize the importance of making the message understandable and acceptable in the Chinese language and Confucian world view.

The Jesuit Accommodation
It took twenty years for the Jesuits who entered China in 1580 to work their way up to Beijing and get acceptance from the Emperor. By showing deep respect for the Chinese way of life and offering their services to the court they were given a degree of freedom to evangelize inside and outside Beijing. For the next 120 years they had comparative freedom to introduce Christianity in Chinese terminology and religious experience. By 1700 there were about 200,000 Catholics in the country, mainly in the countryside
The ‘Chinese Rites’ controversy brought their efforts to an abrupt end. The Dominicans opposed the Jesuit’s policy of honoring Confucius and ancestral tablets and in 1701 the Vatican banned participation in sacrifices for Confucius or ancestors. In response to this snub to Chinese culture the Emperor Kiangxi, who had been very favorable to the Catholic Church until then, prohibited all forms of evangelization.
The Yongzheng Emperor, for similar political reasons, renewed the ban on Christianity and expelled all missionaries. This policy was continued under the Emperor Qianlong, who reigned for sixty years from 1735.
It is interesting that all three emperors befriended individual Jesuits and allowed as many as twenty of them to continue working for the court in Beijing. However they were not allowed to preach.

The Chinese Church Left on Its Own
The initial effort to inculturate by the Jesuits was followed by 120 years of oppression and persecution when the Chinese Catholics were more or less left to themselves without foreigners or priests. Rather than continuing the Jesuit’s efforts to adapt Catholic tradition to the local culture, they allowed church practices to merge with traditional religiosity to the extent that a modern scholar could accuse their church of becoming “as much a folk religion as a world religion.”
      From 1742 to 1842 small numbers of Jesuits, Dominicans and Franciscans were able to make covert visits to the countryside and tried to provide basic pastoral services. However, their visits to the scattered communities were irregular and in the absence of priests the local Catholic leaders (jiao-tu and hui-zhang) led the communities on a permanent basis.
      Most of them had little training in the official teachings of the church and were open to the influences of the traditional popular religion around them. Thus a form of ‘indigenized Christianity’ developed that would shape the Catholic church in China up to modern times. Since the Korean church got many of its practices from China, it too was to be deeply influenced by these developments.  

An Indigenous Chinese Church?
The distinctive form of the Chinese church, evolved over 120 years outside foreign supervision, is an interesting example of how a Local Church might emerge if left to the ordinary people. It poses the question whether it ended up more Chinese than Christian?
According to Daniel Bays, (A New History of Christianity in China, 2011, p 25) in the 1700s, “The religious consciousness of Catholic congregations in the countryside was to a great extent drenched in the world of miracles, visions and other manifestations of the supernatural.” The ‘new’ Christian world differed little from the religious world the people had always known, with Christian saints replacing traditional spirits and rituals taking forms that resembled those of popular religions.
The mainly rural church conformed to its local environment in a number of ways.
      It supported filial piety and family solidarity despite the Vatican condemnation of ancestral tablets.
      The separation of men and women in gatherings was strictly observed, sometimes leading to separate services.
In line with Confucian thinking, the people were motivated by a desire to develop the innate human goodness within people than a remorse for original sin. As a result, confessing a felt need for redemption was not a major step in converting to Christianity.
The practicality of the people also led to compromise on the church’s insistence on monogamy and some other moral demands. Strong millenarian traditions in the Chinese countryside began to find expression in Catholic communities.
Religious identity centered around Christian symbols (holy water, crosses and statues), rituals (baptism, marriage and funerals) and the observance of Church holydays.
All this has led scholars such as Jacques Gernet to question whether conversions at that time were authentic since they often seemed to come with a desire to gain benefits (healing, effectiveness, power) rather than an understanding of the teachings of the gospels.
For such reasons the Chinese church of that period has been likened to folk Buddhist sects. Local persecutions were sometimes caused by the authorities fearing that its Buddhist-like millenarianism might cause disturbances at times of crises.

Korea, a Mirror Image
Working in Korea in the early 1960s, I could see many of the above characteristics (except the millenarianism) still visible in remote rural outstations which might be visited by a priest only once or twice a year. They were run by lay leaders (hui-zhangs), had a daily schedule of morning and evening prayers and large gatherings on Sunday or when the priest visited.
The leader performed baptisms and funerals, though often baptisms and first communions were held over for the priest’s annual visit when marriages were also held solemnized. Being able to recite the catechism, as taught by the leaders, was the main condition for baptism.

Communal Faith and Individual Faith
      While this is a fairly broad sketch of an era and situation for which little historical data exists, it does illustrate a question that has troubled missionaries for centuries. When are communities or individuals considered genuinely Christian or when are they just practitioners of ancient popular religion with some Christian externals?
      In any rural Catholic communities of that time, in Europe and elsewhere, the same questioning could just as easily have been posed. Is it sufficient to be baptized, observe certain festivals and rituals and, as best one can, observe certain rules of morality, to be considered a true Christian?
On the one hand it can be asked whether a person who claims to be a Christian should not at least be aware of the main message of the gospel and try to follow Christ. Many members of the rural Catholic communities in China, and elsewhere, would have failed if that was a requirement. They were more familiar with God than with Christ, and with a divine Christ rather than a human Christ. God was a remote potential helper or judge rather than a living inspiration and example who too form in a person like Christ. For them the Kingdom of God was to be experienced in the next world, not this one.

The Case for Popular Catholicism
On the other hand, it could be claimed that the rituals, prayers and symbols of the Church, formal and foreign as they might be, were effective. They could bring a deeper awareness of God’s presence, concern and assistance into the lives of people than their previous understanding and practices were able to do. After all, deepening the relationship between God and people are the ultimate goal of religion and Christianity.
It was the indigenous practices of the Catholic communities that kept the faith alive during the 120 year of persecution and also in the later period of Communist suppression. Today it is the background from which most of the new leaders -- priests, Religious and lay -- have emerged.  It must have certain strengths and value.
When the Catholic faith was strong in Ireland it did provide this function for most of the population. The doctrines of the church may not have been deeply understood, and often seemed unrelated to the realities of daily life, but its practices helped to keep the sacred alive in people’s lives and gave them inspiration as to how they should live and die.

Relevance Today
These are not just academic or armchair concerns, at least two realities demand that the question be taken seriously and some agreement reached on how to deal with them.
First, in our developing understanding of the Christian message today, does the gospel not seem to demand a personal relationship with Christ, a sense of being called,  of relationship developed through reflection and prayer and a conscious effort to practice charity? How do modern Christian match that description? Missionary and pastoral responses depend on knowing the answer.
Second, rural communities that supported a family or community style faith, centered on ritual and a publicly supported morality are disappearing as people move to cities. In an unfamiliar urban setting they had to depend on their own resources, find an individual relationship with God and develop a personal conscience.
While it can be said that communal faith provided a useful function in the past, it is not adequate in the modern urban situation. A new attitude to evangelization is inevitable.

A Further Stage
For Chinese Christians, these realities became urgent as their county moved towards the modern era.
On consequence was that on the eve of the Communist takeover in 1949, the number of Catholics was over three million while Protestants numbered one million. Yet, the proportion was reversed by 1978 when the communist government relaxed restrictions. Then there were 15 million Protestants and just 5 million Catholics. How this came to happen will be addressed  another time.

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