Mission as world Christianity and intercultural theology

‘Mission’. The term excites a range of passions.

More often than not, the popular conception of the term is linked to colonisation. Mission is something negative. Something which, in worst case scenarios, accompanies invasion, manipulating those in the most vulnerable circumstances to become enculturated into an identity not their own. This change in religious belonging, it is further argued, makes possible a wider political, cultural, economic, and ecological exploitation.

No doubt gentler renditions of this position exist, but as a generic approach, it informs many people’s understanding of mission. Whether or not this position reflects well the history is a question to be asked; the point being made here concerns the barriers to understanding the term erects, and the effect these barriers have on us as a church.

In short, by ignoring mission we not only fail to understand the lessons colonisation teaches us, we may also be perpetuating the underlying problem.

As the above popular opinion might have it, the key problem lies in the communication of the gospel in non-Western contexts. Yet, non-Western Christianity sees the communication of the message across the range of religious, cultural, linguistic, gender, economic, power boundaries as essential to the celebration of the gospel itself. To identify this movement of the gospel with colonialism is to declare a driving concern within world Christianity false and itself derivative of an error the West has itself overcome. We in the West again assume a position of authority over against the rest of the Christian world.

A common response to the problem of colonisation among the churches of the West is to identify the problem with missionary activity. This results in a coordinated reduction of the practice and study of mission. We may still look to give money and keep the existing infrastructures going, but we have ceased to think theologically about missionary movement. Indeed, much energy went into ecumenism as the form of global relationship between communions. The focus shifted to ministerial forms, liturgy, and structure.

Sounds good, but already in 1952 the WCC document titled A Statement on the Calling of the Church to Mission and Unity raised significant concerns with this approach. The problem of missionary colonialism, it argued, stemmed not from the communication of the message, but in the expected form the message was to take. That is, mission revealed the Western location structure of the sending church (the Western nature of the church became apparent in non-Western contexts).

Mission functions as a mirror which reflects back our own domestication of the gospel message. To retreat from this missionary lesson by focusing on form is to perpetuate the assumption that form is itself the key issue, and that the parameters of the discussion concerning form are already in place. That is, it is to maintain characteristic Western assumptions concerning the nature of the church.

While we view the retreat into structure and process as a positive solution, this does not stop missionary outreach. Instead, it is the structure and process which is to be replicated. Our message, in other words, becomes the process – the form. This, of course, echoes the historic problems and the interest in ‘civilization’, and directs the development of mission method. In simple terms, forms of mission develop in relation to the perceived need; the method echoes the social circumstance.

As an example, if we understand society as driven by choice and market theory, we propose forms of missionary activity which echo this understanding of human society and its accompanying anthropology. We focus on leadership, management, technique, and argue for competitive marketplace forms which cater to niche identities.

One may build a theological shell around this, but the driving concern is found elsewhere. Nor is it too difficult to find this exact approach to missionary method as basic to the colonial period. For example, volunteer mission societies were modelled on the forms made famous by the Dutch East India Company.

None of this denies the importance of worship or the need to think about missionary method. Quite the opposite. It is due to the central importance of these embodiments of the faith that missions studies is key.

To put this in positive terms, my position at Pilgrim Theological College has recently been renamed “missiology and intercultural theology”. “Missiology” simply means “theologies of mission” and these can only be developed in relation to world Christianity and intercultural theology.

Instead of hiding from difficult questions of interreligious engagement, of the relationship between faith and culture, and of the forms of the gospel’s appropriation, these become of central interest. Mission defined in terms of world Christianity takes on a very different character than the traditional sending models.

This has local application. Though we may be tempted to focus our energies internally due to the urgency of the local situation, local mission is served by a wider vision of God’s mission. It directs the local church beyond itself and, in moving beyond itself, the church finds its identity.

To study mission is to participate in the movement across the borders of our own domestication of the gospel. It is to be challenged by forms of faith which look, sound, and taste different from our own. This is and remains necessary precisely to avoid the traps of colonisation.

Rev Dr John G Flett
Coordinator of Studies – Missiology

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