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Lausanne Global Analysis

September 2014 - Volume 3 / Issue 5

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Mission Studies in a Postmodern World

A peculiar paradox

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When it comes to ‘mission studies’, evangelicals are confronted with a peculiar paradox. Despite growing biblical, theological, and pragmatic appreciation of the centrality of ‘mission’ for a true evangelical Christianity, many flagship ‘mission studies’ programmes in Bible colleges and seminaries have removed ‘mission’ from their title.

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Behind this quixotic prominence and elision of mission lie three streams of influence:

  • the dramatic rise of Christianity in the Global South and East;
  • growing biblical and theological emphasis upon the centrality of mission; and
  • growing awareness of and interest in mission studies as an active agent to bring about holistic transformation.

The rise of Christianity in the Global South and East

The growth of global Christianity is making headlines. On 25 April 2014, the London Daily Telegraph reported: ‘China on course to become “world’s most Christian nation” within 15 years’. Such news would appear to validate the success of two millennia of Catholic and Protestant mission. Indeed, schools of mission at Fuller, Asbury, Trinity Deerfield, Gordon-Conwell, and other evangelical seminaries have become magnet schools for evangelical church leaders and mission scholars from the Global South and East. These leaders and scholars from Asia, Africa, and Latin America recognise that their churches, once the object of mission, are now at the leading edge of missions and church growth worldwide.

In turn, these global leaders have brought fresh insight, perspective, and innovation to mission studies and theological reflection. A key emphasis has been ‘holistic transformation’, which advocates a full-orbed embrace of mission not limited to evangelism, church planting, or mercy ministries to those in need, but mission that also addresses challenges in education, economics, development, politics, nation-building, justice, peace, and reconciliation.

Nonetheless, this rise in global Christianity and engagement with a wider public sphere have come with recognition that the term ‘mission’ is tainted in lands subjected to imperial and colonial Western domination, manipulation, and coercion. Thus a significant rebranding of mission is not that surprising and has led to former ‘schools of mission’ changing their autograph to ‘schools of intercultural studies’.

Meanwhile, mission agencies have sought to shed their Western colonial ‘mission’ skins by adopting acronyms such as CMS for Church Mission Society, SIM for Sudan Interior Mission, or OCMS for Oxford Centre for Mission Studies. This has had the added benefit in a post-colonial world where the title ‘mission’ or ‘missionary’ can bar entry or complicate visa applications.

Centrality of mission

Yet, even as the term ‘mission’ has been being scraped off mission agency logos, mission now graces prominent biblical and theological tomes. Books such as Christopher Wright’s The Mission of God’s People have drawn mission from the periphery of biblical and theological reflection to the centre and added weight to emphases on holistic mission. As Wright argues, a sound biblical theology views ‘the whole world as the goal of God’s Mission’.

Accordingly, the nature of God, creation, Christ, and redemption are only understood in light of the ‘Mission of God’ that in turn informs the church of its identity and true vocation. Sound ministry is thus not constrained within the walls of the church but oriented towards to the world and engaged in all aspects of life. Theologically, this has led to emphasis upon the ‘kingdom’ or ‘reign’ of God. This reign of God is neither transcendent nor otherworldly, but the action of God through his people in their present circumstance. Nonetheless, appeal to this reign is neither a call to a naïve triumphalism nor an imposed Christendom, but rather a winsome alternative to banal secularism with its attendant relativism.

Mission as an agent of transformation

Into this brew of global Christianity and biblical theological ‘mission’ reflection has been poured keen interest in mission as action:

  • Christian leaders and missionaries in the Global South and East have grown impatient with traditional modes of inquiry as they grapple with issues from effective evangelism to economic injustice.
  • As agents of transformation, they are embracing new modes of research that transform their work and worlds into laboratories of holistic mission.

Traditionally mission studies have emphasised mission history, cultural anthropology, social sciences, or missiology. Today mission study is beginning to incorporate ‘Action Research’ and ‘Practitioner Research’. Though once relegated to the pursuit of ‘professional degrees’ such as the Doctor of Ministry, today, research in action is available at the MA or PhD degree level:

  • Such research goes beyond observation and analysis of a disinterested mission scholar, to experiment with action occurring within mission by the actors themselves to help bring about effective change.
  • These approaches provide not only useful research for mission practitioners, but they have immediate impact on mission and practical engagement.

Though these approaches have met resistance both in theological institutions and secular universities, on the whole, practitioner methodologies are gaining significant converts and supporters within the academy and in institutions and agencies that seek to utilize sound research to improve what they actually do.

Outlook

The growing significance of action and practitioner research in mission is timely given the attention to ‘impact’ by higher education authorities when it comes to determining research funding. Mission research that is directly involved in action and impact has currency in the postmodern academies of Europe and North America. Certainly, this should not lessen the value of the traditional disciplines of mission history, cultural anthropology, linguistics, social sciences, and biblical/theological studies in intercultural studies programmes.

Nonetheless, wise institutions will supplement traditional mission studies with new emphases upon action and pragmatic engagement. This is particularly true in secular universities in the UK and USA, where there is increasing pressure to fold Bible, theology, and mission faculties into secular history departments that are themselves under pressure given limited funding. Collaborating with newer modes of research in action and practice will nourish and benefit traditional modes of mission inquiry and vice versa, thus providing crucial justifications for each in an increasingly hostile university milieu.

The changing understanding of mission, mission engagement, and mission education will significantly change curricula at evangelical Bible colleges and seminaries:

  • Both evangelical and more traditional seminaries will need to develop their faculty and curricula to reflect the full-orbed emphases of holistic mission and its attendant public engagement.
  • Faculty in theology, Bible, history, and cultural anthropology that at times have shied away from immediate engagement in favour of more passive reflection will find themselves increasingly in conversation with practitioners in mission who will seek their insight into ongoing pragmatic engagement in the public square.

This will require an ability to move beyond specialisation to enter into wider conversations beyond the narrow confines of departments to fashion effective cross-disciplinary research that is collaborative and mutually beneficial.

This is particularly true of those in traditional disciplines such as biblical studies, theology, and history in secular universities:

  • The combination of declining funding and emphasis upon disciplines that ‘make a difference’ is already threatening history and theology departments, let alone specialities such as ‘mission history’.
  • Being able to justify mission history by showing its relevance to ongoing activity in Christian mission and that impact upon wider society seems prudent, given the current financial pressures upon the academy.

Wider implications

Mission education, especially beyond the West, will emphasise holistic transformation, the biblical and theological centrality of mission, and modes of research that incorporate transformative action. Unlike Western societies that have grown steadily more secular over the past century, the growing churches of the majority world do not separate religion and the state. This will have both positive and negative effects upon missions and evangelism as demand grows to establish not only Christian states, but also Islamic, Jewish, or Hindu ones.

Nonetheless, whether in the minority or the majority, increased interest in local and global mission will have social, political, developmental, national, and international implications. As a key agent in this unfolding reality, the church will strive not only to understand its changing identity, message, and mission, but also to use that knowledge for more effective action to work for the reign of God.

Emphasis upon mission and holistic transformation will also demand rethinking traditional approaches to education:

  • The modern university has in large measure developed in light of the need to specialise in order to grapple with the ever-increasing complexity of knowledge. Certainly that will continue.
  • Nonetheless, emphasis upon holistic transformation represents a countervailing pressure to develop interdisciplinary research and collaboration.

Though some may see this as an unnecessary muddling of disciplines, in terms of mission and Christian engagement it represents a tremendous opportunity:

  • Too often Christianity and its relevance have been restricted to the academic ghettos of Bible, theology, religion, and history departments. In turn, research and analysis within these confines is too easily ignored in that it is viewed as having little relevance to the wider university or society at large.
  • On the other hand, global Christianity can hardly be ignored and its significance is legion.

The Telegraph article on the growth of Christianity in China1 drew an immediate retort from the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. Just as the Party in China is cognisant of the impact of global Christianity and mission, so are most places of the world beyond the West. Nonetheless, where is that impact best understood? In a secular religion, history, or social science department, or in research institutions that have the resources and expertise of global Christian scholars embedded within mission and ministry globally?

Responses

In this time of significant change in mission education, the contribution of Christian scholars from Asia, Africa, and Latin America as well as from Eastern Europe will provide an invaluable source of knowledge, wisdom, and effective practice. Research centres that wish to tap this well of expertise must move now to ensure their contribution. Pursuit of this global diversity, however, must go beyond the merely cosmetic, multi-cultural, politically correct inclusion rampant in Western universities to ensure a global diversity that is part of the deep structure of the whole research institution from its governance, to its faculty, and to its students.

Endnotes

1 Editor’s Note: See references in ‘China’s Churches: Growing influence and official wariness present twin challenges’, by Thomas Harvey, Paul Huoshui, and David Ro in the July 2014 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis at http://www.lausanne.org/en/documents/global-analysis/july-2014.html.

References

Singh, David Emmanuel, and Bernard C Farr, eds. Christianity and Education: Shaping Christian Thinking in Context. Oxford: Regnum Intl., 2011.

Adogame, Afe, Janice McLean, and Anderson Jeremiah, eds. Engaging the World: Christian Communities in Contemporary Global Societies. Oxford: Regnum Edinburgh Centenary Series, 2014.

Tizon, Al. Transformation after Lausanne: Radical Evangelical Mission in Global-Local Perspective. Oxford: Regnum Intl., 2008.

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Thomas Harvey is currently Academic Dean of the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, Oxford, UK. From 1997-2008 he served as Senior Lecturer of Systematic Theology at Trinity Theological College in Singapore.

05 Sep 2014

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