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franciscan - January 2000

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1999

Mission moves on

by Mark Oxbrow

At seven-thirty at night the air is still and sticky. With rock music drifting in through the open window of his fifth-floor room, Linggi switches on his computer to collect his email. Outside, other engineering students are returning from night prayers at the university mosque. Linggi, however, is eagerly searching his screen for one particular message – the next exchange in an email Bible study. At home, in Sibu, his family mostly follow the traditional religious practices of the Iban, the tribal people of East Malaysia, but as a young man making his way into a new millennium, Linggi has embarked on the demanding road of Christian discipleship. I met Linggi once in 1997 but, over thousands of miles of cyberspace, we regularly study the Bible together. Mission is changing.

Three hundred years ago, it was Thomas Bray, the founding father of both the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) who petitioned King William in these words: ‘The numbers of the inhabitants of your majesty’s provinces in America have of late years greatly increased . . . they are in very much want of instruction in the Christian religion, and in some of them utterly destitute of the same, they not being able, of themselves, to raise a sufficient maintenance for an orthodox clergy to live amongst them and to make such other provision as shall be necessary for the propagation of the Gospel in those parts.’

A hundred years later, in 1799, the members of the Clapham Sect, under the leadership of John Venn, established the Church Mission Society (CMS) observing that, ‘The whole continent of Africa, and that of Asia also, are open to the missionary labours of the Church of England.’ As SPG and CMS held their respective bicentenary and centenary celebrations a hundred years ago, there was not even the slightest hint of doubting the superiority of the religion and culture of the British Empire. Christian mission was the responsibility of western Christendom and it was proving to be very successful. Today, we find some of the triumphalist speeches delivered at that time almost too embarrassing to read.

Two world wars, the collapse of empire, the growth of Asian economies, the arrival of peoples of many faiths in Britain and, perhaps more importantly, the rapid growth of large Christian communities in the southern hemisphere, have radically changed the way we think about mission today. In 1899, dozens of diocesan bishops, members of parliament, and hundreds of clergy and lay people attended seven days of celebrations in Exeter Hall for the CMS centenary. In 1999, a much more modest, but perhaps more vibrant, gathering marked the bicentenary of CMS in a tent on Clapham Common. Is this a sign of decline, of failure or, perhaps, of re-focused priorities? I want to argue that as we enter the third Christian millennium we are seeing a recovery of the core of mission, set free from the constraints of imperialism, materialism and cultural myopia.

One of the glorious facts of life today is that most Christian mission does not originate in the West. The great army of those whom God is calling today to leave their homes and go to another place in the service of the Gospel are not white – they are Brazilians, Koreans, Indians and Nigerians. Even in the Anglican Communion, the impetus for new movements in mission often comes from the South. The birth of the Church of Nigeria Missionary Society, and its rapid deployment of missionaries just two years after its formation, is an encouragement to us all. The shift in Christian demography to the South also challenges us to revisit inherited power structures within our Churches. How much longer can Rome, Geneva, Istanbul and Canterbury remain the centres of ‘control’ within the Christian family? When will the vibrant theologising of Asia, Africa and Latin America begin to replace the propagation of classical European theological systems? How much longer can American and European mission agencies use the might of the dollar to lead the way in mission studies and strategies for mission around the world? Letting go the strings of power, we might release also a wonderful renewal of the Spirit, brought to us by our sisters and brothers in the South.

At the end of the second world war, the refugee crisis in Europe led to the formation of both Christian and secular ‘aid agencies’. In this crisis situation, Oxfam, Christian Aid and others took on part of the rôle that had previously been the responsibility of mission agencies. Today, we have, within the church in Britain, a number of very effective aid and development agencies – Christian Aid, Tear Fund, World Vision, etc. – who have, over the years, relieved the mission agencies of a major aspect of the work they were doing before 1945. As long as the church continues to hold together the vital practical and spiritual aspects of mission, then the development and mission agencies can work effectively together. There is, however, a worrying trend within the churches, a symptom perhaps of our materialistic age, which tends to focus on the immediate humanitarian needs of others whilst neglecting their spiritual nourishment. A recent national opinion poll asked members of the public what types of charitable work overseas they would support. Respondents ranked disaster aid top, then relief work, then medical work and development, with peace and reconciliation work and spiritual support at the very bottom. Even mission agencies, like my own, find it much easier to raise funds for medical work than for evangelism, discipleship training or the equipping of leaders in the church. The effective partnership that exists ‘in the field’ between Christian mission and development agencies needs to be matched by an understanding within the church of the indivisible nature of mission – the mission of Jesus who came that we ‘might have life in all its fullness’, spiritual as well as psychological and material.

What are the priorities in mission as we enter 2000? I would like to focus on just four which seem to me to be issues that are crying out to be addressed by any church which is serious about mission today.

As Jesus paid special attention to those who were forced to exist on the margins of society, so today Christians have a special responsibility to reach out to those who are marginalised within our global community. It has often been the experience of the church that God speaks to us most clearly through those whom society rejects. I therefore prefer to speak of mission ‘with’, rather than ‘to’, the marginalised. At the macro level, we are called to focus on the continent of Africa, burdened with debt, economic stagnation, corruption, war and democracy distorted by tribalism. At a different level, we will find ourselves working with refugees, women, the disabled and young people. At the micro level, we must listen to those whose race, class, sexuality, theology or personality has led to their exclusion from the fellowship of the church.

Two centuries ago, most British Christians would have spoken of Hindus, Buddhists or Muslims as ‘heathen needing to be freed from the snares of the devil’. Today, a significant number would regard members of other faith communities with respect and would hold back from sharing the gospel with them, believing that they have ‘their own way to God’.

Neither position does justice to the mission to which we are called. Today, we are called to walk the challenging road of respect for, and openness to, other religious traditions whilst maintaining a clear witness to the unique experience of God in Jesus Christ which is ours. This will require tough theology, honest debate and courageous witness.

My last two priorities are linked. As the clock ticks past midnight on 1 January 2000, we will enter a world in which more than half the population live in urban environments. Much mission over the last three centuries has spoken effectively to agrarian society but has had little to say to the city dweller. Mission today needs to discover new ways of inviting people to be church in the city. The communications revolution, and a consequent globalisation of culture, means that the secularist materialism of the West is fast becoming the predominant world-view of civil servants in Bangalore and students in Nairobi, as well as city slickers in London. Perhaps the most urgent need in the coming years will be for an understanding of the gospel which speaks powerfully into a postmodern, materialistic, narcissistic culture. In CMS, we have just launched a major research programme to tackle this issue, but much more work will be required if we are to have anything meaningful to say to generations to come.

As we study the scriptures together, and Linggi teaches me the significance of ancestors in my understanding of being who I am in Christ today, I long to share with him my real excitement for mission into the third Christian millennium. §

Canon Mark Oxbrow is Regional Director, Europe, of the Church Mission Society.


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