In September, I gathered with 31 other participants in Bangkok for a seminar co-hosted by the World Council of Churches and the Council for World Mission. We met together to consider the official 2013 World Council of Churches statement on mission, titled Together Towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes (TTL).
This was a gathering of 32 ‘Asian’ representatives, a geographical grouping in ecumenical parlance which spreads from Iran to New Zealand. It was not simply a meeting of theologians. Educators were present, as were high-school teachers, ministers, youth workers, and administrators. We were a diverse group with a diverse range of experiences.
Of course, use of the term ‘mission’ risks alienating readers who may associate it with the historic practices and injury of colonisation. TTL heads in a different direction: it is understood to be the first formal ecumenical statement of mission developed by Christian voices from the global south.
It is only the second statement issued by the WCC, following the 1982 document titled Mission and Evangelism – An Ecumenical Affirmation (ME). The key point of difference lies in the role given to the Spirit in mission. Whereas ME talked of mission in ‘Christ’s way’, TTL speaks of the Spirit as the breath of life, the source of liberation and the creator of community.
It is intended that the two documents be read together, so it is not a question of replacing Christ with the Spirit. But, reading mission through the Spirit gives an additional set of emphases.
Mission is first an action of the Trinity as creator. Mission is not something to be reduced to the human, but includes the reconciliation of the whole of created life. Ecology and eco-justice are of central significance when thinking of God’s own mission to the world. Nor was this an abstract concern. A number of delegates, and especially the Indigenous peoples present, related moving experiences of ‘natural’ disasters. We heard of a flash-flood which had swept through a long established Indigenous community, and of the flooding which occurs within the Philippines as a result of deforestation. These ‘natural’ disasters resulted from human behaviours and a lack of care for the fragile balance of creation.
TTL regards the unfettered exploitation of creation as a result of our “idolatrous assumptions, unjust systems, politics of domination and exploitation in our current world economic order” (TTL, §30). Our serving ‘mammon’ includes these direct and devastating consequences. The problem is, in other words, a spiritual matter.
Mission is defined, second, as a transformative spirituality which resists every power that denies, destroys, or reduces life. At this point, the statement’s central thrust emerges with clarity: “…to experience life in the Spirit is to taste life in its fullness” (§34).
Transformative spirituality finds concrete expression in empowering the powerless and challenging the powerful to empty themselves in service to the powerless. Using spirituality as a lens undoes notions of salvation that trade upon a fragmentation of life, an isolation of the soul from the body as the only thing to be saved. Salvation is holist and liberative.
The driving notion of ‘sending’ during the period of colonialization rested in western churches going to other regions bringing civilisation, religion, and enlightenment. Those on the margins were often characterised as passive recipients of a message, but did not themselves have any agency in its reception. TTL inverts that line of thinking. The accent falls on the reciprocity of sending and receiving. These are coincidental activities.
TTL defines mission, third, as a movement from the margins: the “orphans, widows, and strangers” are the messengers of God’s grace and comfort. In a time of significant refugee movements, we would do well to heed the point. We encounter and serve the living Jesus Christ in the reception of the stranger, and in her telling of God’s grace and peace in the journey.
Of course, nice ideas are one thing, but giving those ideas shape within our communities is quite another. The seminar concerned itself with the document’s reception, at how it might become a living document.
A range of important contextual concerns came to the fore: The differences between lands with a Christian majority (Samoa, Philippines, East Timor, PNG, Romania), and those with a Christian minority (Thailand, Bangladesh, Malaysia, India, Myanmar) informs the practices of Christian witness. But this is perhaps one of the document’s strengths.
Discussion quickly focused on gender issues and hearing women’s voices within the church, on ecological issues and the need for harmony with nature, on the challenges of interfaith marriage, the recovery of mission within preaching, the development of liturgies which call us to the marginalised.
The whole event was testimony to the creative power of gathering together to reflect theologically on God’s being in the world. I recommend the text to you.
The 2013 WCC statement Together Towards Life is available online at: http://bit.ly/wccmission. The print version comes with a study guide for use at a congregational level.
The 2010 CWM statement Mission in the Context of Empire is available online at: http://bit.ly/cwmmission
Rev Dr John G Flett
Coordinator of Studies – Missiology
Pilgrim Theological College