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?

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Has Missionary Experience Anything to Offer?

            I wonder would members of any western missionary society be surprised if asked how many of their confreres are still convinced of the need for ‘Ad Gentes’ mission? And by ‘Ad Gentes’ I mean going to countries where the culture and thinking of the people were still untouched by the message of the gospel?
            It is not so long ago that missionaries from the west were journeying eagerly to the east, confident they had something valuable to offer. In the early days, when they went by sailing ship, half of those who set out never got there because of shipwreck or disease. Those who got there had no expectation of ever returning home. Yet their commitment never faltered.
            Today it is different. The excitement of mission is gone from the west. Christianity is less important in people’s lives. Young people are willing to travel the globe to offer their services in humanitarian causes but most do not regard any one faith as superior to another.
            There are a number of reasons for this. One is disillusionment with the sad state of the Church in the west where it seems to have little to offer modern life or other cultures. Perhaps because of that, it had been stressed that every generation has to be re-evangelized and the situation is as urgent, if not more so, in the west as in the east or elsewhere. Others go further and, based on the observation that religious practices have a great similarity throughout the world, claim that looking on Christianity as being special is just the relic of a western superiority complex.

Similarities and Differences
            This last point is a good example of the confused thinking about mission today.
            There is no doubt that religious similarities and parallels do exist around the world. Anyone who has read Mircea Eliade’s works on sacred symbols will have been struck by the fact that rocks, trees, wells, fire and New Year festivals have been treated in an almost identical religious manner in traditional cultures all around the globe.
A similar phenomenon can be found in the ways people seek divine intervention or help in urgent financial, health or personal needs. I have witnessed this in places as disparate as Taoist and Buddhist temples in Korea and China, a cathedral in Cebu and the shrine of a holy man in Lahore. In each, the devotees performed basically the same devotions: humbly approaching or circling a sacred image, sometimes on their knees, offering candles or incense and repeating a prayer or sacred phrase.
            In their private live those believers were probably aware of precepts, similar to the Ten Commandments, which they knew they should be observing and felt guilty when they failed to keep them. They were good people, trying to do their best as their traditions guided them. Only the identity of the deity differed. If one of those religious acts was to be judged superior to any other it would be in terms of which deity was more powerful or successful in providing the desired help.
            Here I do not want to make too strong a distinction between people with a ‘favor seeking faith’ and a ‘spiritual search faith’. The reality is that the two are intermixed but at times, in individuals and in cultures, one dominates the other. To spell this out would take a book in itself, here I do not have the space and hope my point is not misunderstood.

Answering Questions
            In many parts of the world today, most pressing material needs can now be solved with human resources. In the 1980s and 90s when tens of thousand of young Koreans were drawn to the Church it was not in the hope of divine assistance in economic or other physical necessities but in a search to satisfy their deeper and inner yearnings. The Church’s stand for democracy and human rights on the national level had given them grounds for thinking it might have the answers.
            What they were looking for was inspiration in their lives, a source of encouragement and strength, a guide for moral conduct and a gateway to the transcendent they could vaguely sense around them. Young people in present day China show the same need for a view of the world that includes the timeless and profound in human nature.
            In my experience, Christianity, and no other religion today, has the answers to the questions emerging in minds both east and west. This is not to belittle the role of other faiths and the important contribution they have made in the human search for fulfillment. It was my involvement with oriental religions over a number of decades that led me to question what was of universal value in my own Christian tradition. In the process I also benefited personally from many of the insight and practices I found in the great religions of the east.
            It was my search that led me to discover what is unique in the message of the gospels. I had been warned by those closely aligned to modern thinking that it is not possible to isolate a core Christian message because of the bias of cultural interpretations. Theoretically that might be true, and indeed such considerations may have persuaded many to give up the effort. However practice shows a different reality. I have found that if the gospels are taken in their entirety they do give a clear and coherent message that is valid for any culture.  
            What I found in the human figure of Christ was his image of a compassionate Father, of the Spirit alive in the individual, the call to be part of a new creation, an answer to evil in the world, a spirituality that seeks the transcendent in ordinary life and a reaffirmation of the individual which challenges him or her in either western or eastern culture.
            Fortunately there are enough credible mainstream theologians in the Church today to reassure missionaries that what people in other cultures are seeking can indeed be found in the heart of the scriptures. 

            Unfortunately, many of the young Koreans in the 1980s and 90s did not find what they were looking for in the Church there at that time. Despite its public stand on political and social issues, on closer inspection the Church proved to be less democratic, individual-orientated, supportive and Korean than they had expected. While Korean society was becoming more liberal and forward-looking, the Church continued to draw on the nation’s Confucian past with its emphasis on formality, doctrine and hierarchy.
            Because of this, many of the young people left unsatisfied. That does not prove that Christianity is deficient, it just shows that in many Churches practice has still to catch up on teaching. As one Church leader recently put it, after the Reformation the Church moved from evangelizing to catechizing and has to return to scripture if it is to engage modern society.

A Further Role for Missionaries?
            If western Churches are to recover their vitality and missionary spirit, they could benefit from a reminder of how fresh and inspiring the Christian message can be when freed from it historical weights and presented in narrative form, relating to the life concerns of ordinary people.
            This is the challenge that missionaries faced when they tried to bring the gospel to people who could not appreciate the message when it was presented to them in terms, formulations and practices borrowed from another culture and age. Many discovered that they had not been adequately prepared for the task of identifying the essentials of the gospel and introducing them to another culture. As a result some took more time than others in making progress.   
For over four hundred years missionaries took a confident faith from the west to the east, knowing they were providing the greatest service by doing so. Now it may be the time for modern missionaries to take that faith, refined and renewed, back to their home Churches and help rekindle enthusiasm there.
                                                                                                          Hugh MacMahon    11/28/07

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

What it Means to be a Missionary

Recently a Korean Sister wrote about the small town in the south of Korea in which her congregation started a school in 1960, not long after the end of the Korean War. She said that in those days what the people wanted from the Sisters’ school were “scientific skills, pianos, folk dances and a knowledge of English”! She wondered what they needed from people like herself today, now that their basic needs are already being met.
            I immediately recognised the small town she mentioned as the one in which I had been for a short time in those post-war years and the place where I was first forced to ask myself, “What have I to offer the people here as a missionary?”
The questioning was sparked by the arrival at the church of two American Air Force sergeants looking for directions to the foreign Sisters’ convent. I had come to the country just nine months earlier and was taking care of the parish temporarily. After listening to my instructions on how to get to the Sisters one of the sergeants looked at me standing in my western clerical garb in the empty yard and asked, “What do you do here anyhow in this isolated place?”
            I was stuck for an answer that might make sense to them and as they drove away in their dusty jeep I decided it was time for me to clarify what I was about. If I could not explain it to others – even in English --it was probably because I was not too clear about it myself. Finding a satisfactory answer was to take me a lot longer than I expected.
            First I began to ask the local people what their old beliefs meant in their lives. They replied that traditional religious practices were a help when a relative died or there was some emergency. They prayed at the local shrines or offered up money in the hope it would improve their health, protect them for evil spirits and bring good luck. The old religions also gave them some guidance on being truly human and on what was good or bad.   
            However, already some of these people were turning to the Catholic church for a more satisfactory means of meeting their religious needs – it seemed more modern and credible, had a formal liturgy that suited their Confucian background and reinforced their basic belief that there is one universal creator God. Its doctrines were sometimes hard to follow but accepting them seemed part of becoming a Catholic.
            As Korean society developed the younger generation showed that belief in a distant God meant less to them, they felt that liturgy should be lively and something in which they could participate actively and the church should be a witness to human rights in the world. They were moving away from traditional ways, and even from the congenial church that their parents knew, and were looking for a community where personal understanding and responsibility were important.
It was at that stage that I began to realise what I had to offer them as a Christian and a missionary. If I met those American sergeants today I would say, “The only way we can avoid more wars and human disasters is to be genuinely aware of how closely we are related to the rest of the human race and to the earth in which we live. The source of that bond is God and the story of what that means is in the Bible. Bringing this bond alive in people who have not already heard the story of Christ is what I try to do.”
Probably the two soldiers would not immediately grasp what I was trying to say but at least it would be a sign that I was getting closer to expressing what it means to be a missionary.       Hugh MacMahon  3/31/10

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

A Modern Missionary Success Story

                                                                                                Hugh MacMahon

            Word has spread about the small missionary society in Canada that shows impressive growth and regeneration while other groups are in decline.
            I asked their Vicar General what was the secret and he admitted that their vocation situation had improved and their lay mission program was generating new interest. “Actually it’s not that the numbers have greatly increased,” he said, “But the type of person we attract is encouraging.” Most of their applicants are in their twenties or early thirties and have a clear idea of what they wanted to do in life. Many have done graduate studies.
            What is the attraction? The Vicar General explained that it was probably because they highlight a single missionary challenge that appeals to young people. “We draw attention to something we call, ‘A Third Stage of Mission’ or ‘Third Generation of Mission’ and this makes people curious. They are looking for something more focused than what most missionary societies offer. Our objectives fit in with how they see themselves as Christians and they know that by joining us their creativity and abilities will be tested. Our older members have got new energy too. Many of them are off doing courses to prepare themselves to be part of it.”

How It Started
            When I asked him to describe this ‘Third Stage,’ he said that reaching consensus had not been an easy or rapid process. “Even three years ago the only thing our members were able to agree on was that we disagreed. Many felt a need to redefine our goals to serve the new world we live in but it seemed impossible to reach any common vision.”
Some thought it was too late to be making changes. The Society was still doing valuable work and most of the members were happy with it. They were not trained to look beyond parish or individual apostolates. They had done a good job and perhaps it was time to fade out. Some saw the present situation in a positive light. The Society was becoming a vehicle for those wishing to do Christian service either at home or aboard. Theologians were beginning to popularize this expansive vision of ‘mission’ so no other change was called for.    
A more optimistic group called on the Society to be engaged in issues that appeal to the modern mind. Traditional religious language and practices have lost their meaning for many, so new ways have to be found to relate to them. Involvement in seeking social justice, ecological awareness, political or religious reconciliation and assisting immigrants not only helped expand God’s Kingdom on earth but could also be a starting point for getting people to reflect more on the ‘voice within’ which was the inspiration behind their search for a better world.  This could be the start of a renewed interest in religion.  
Others, who worked in non-Christian countries of Asia and Africa, pointed out that the people among whom they worked still had a strong religious sense, coming from their spiritual heritage, but that religious reservoir had never been fully tapped by the church. As a result, even though the church was established among them it was still seen as foreign and failed to attract a significant number of the people. For them, helping to build a more genuinely local church was an urgent task and in line with the history and the traditional goals of the Society.

Reality Check
However, whenever the members got together to discuss these ideas, their different viewpoints blocked any progress. Eventually everyone became weary of meetings and wanted to avoid debates on goals or objectives.
“At that point,” said the Vicar General, “It became obvious that we were going  over the same old issues every time – mission spirituality, vocations, dialogue, partnership with laity, intercultural living, urgent global threats— but there seemed to be little progress in our common understanding or practice.”   
The underlying problem seemed to be the fact that members had no tradition of team work or joining together on missionary projects or issues. They were used to operating on their own and when changes were called for they waited for directions from their Superiors, the bishops or Rome. Something had to be done to get them to acknowledge the skills and experience of other members and develop a habit of collaborating with them. It was suggested that, before the next General Assembly, those interested in particular issues should get together to clarify their ideas and come up with concrete proposals.
At first only a few individuals responded to the urging and a number of proposals emerged. One in particular attracted interest. It drew on a concept in documents since Vatican ll that evangelization covers three stages: pioneering efforts to introduce the Christian message in a local language and culture; setting up communities and parishes where the people could learn, worship and be of service together; and finally a third stage of helping that Church to reach maturity as a ‘Local Church’.
The Vicar General explained, “Our members had some small involvement in the first stage. Looking back on it, we could have done more. We presumed that the people coming to the church had no serious spiritual background on which we could build. We just were not prepared to take their religious traditions seriously.
“Where we made our biggest contribution was in the second stage, by setting up new parish communities and getting Local Churches on their feet. That is what we felt we were sent to do and we had clear models to follow. It didn’t ask many questions about the sort of church we were helping to build.
“However we largely failed to initiate the final stage of convincing the local priests, sisters and laity that it was now their task to take the Western-style church we had given them and turn it into a genuine Local Church.”
The local-born leaders had also been warned in their formation against the superstitions in their culture and to stick closely to Roman practices. Before that mind-set hardened and became accepted as normal, the people needed to be reassured that God had always been present among them and it was now their task to build on that foundation. 
Since these ideas presented something new to think about they were debated at meetings before the next General Assembly and a degree of acceptance seemed to be growing. 

Finally a proposal was drawn up and, after some amendments were made, it was presented at the General Assembly as follows:
1. The majority of peoples in Asia, and other parts of the world, remain cut off from the Church because of its foreign or irrelevant image. We will focus our efforts on encouraging Local Churches to become more local.
 2. The local priests, sisters and laity will be the ones to decide the future shape of their church since they are closest to the people’s religious thinking, traditional ways of worship and sense of morality. Our role will be to encourage them to draw on this heritage and make the Christian message more accessible to the ordinary people. In post-Christian countries it could be a means of reviving the people’s relationship with God.
3. The renewed awareness of the presence of God’s Spirit in their lives and history will inspire the people in facing the challenges and opportunities of modern life. It will be the foundation from which their concern for others, the earth and society will develop.
4. The benefit gained from drawing on their religious heritage will not only enrich their own spirituality and practices but also those of the universal Church.
Of course there was some skepticism. It was suggested that while the task of making the church more local might apply to Asia, it was not so urgent in other continents. Also, would this mean that all the members are expected to become experts in religions and cultures? The lay missionaries wondered how they would be involved.
Supporters of the idea tried to meet these concerns by pointing out that is not just in the East that large segments of the population feel alienated from the church, the challenge of renewing churches by drawing energy from their traditional spiritualities was everywhere. Since the principal role of the members, clerical and lay, would be to encourage and facilitate the local people they would not have to be experts themselves, they only had to show and prepare the way.
            Most of the members seemed satisfied with these explanations and it was with confidence that the proposal was put to the General Assembly. However, to the disappointment of those who had worked hard on it, only 35% supported the motion, 41% were against and the remainder abstained. Once more, differences in backgrounds seemed insurmountable.

A Way Forward
            It was a crucial moment that could have set the process back ten years but fortunately the facilitator recognized what was happening. He pointed out that it was a fear of change that was holding the Assembly back. We are now in a different world from that for which the Society was founded, from which the members were ordained and for which they were trained. Ordinary people today were unfamiliar with the language of that church, they did not feel the needs it addressed or show interest in being part of it.
            The members too had changed individually with the dramatic shifts in theologies and each had adapted in his own way. But it was harder to change an institution. Altering the way an institution directs its energies or organizes itself can threaten the individual’s way of life. Transformation will come only when the need to change is fully understood and its effects are seen as acceptable.  
The fact that the Assembly rejected the proposal was not important. It was only one possible vision of how the Society could unite in making a significant contribution to world Christianity.  What would decide the effectiveness of the Assembly would be the degree to which it was willing to face change. It was not just the survival of the Society that was at stake but its ability to address the new needs of mission and attract new recruits to that vision. Once the need for change had been accepted, work could begin on clarifying a new direction or identity. First, a formal process of change had to be activated.
            The meeting took this to heart and elected a leadership team that was committed to change and a process that involved all the members. Obviously the Vicar General was one of those picked. The new leadership team immediately set up a communications office to ensure that the members were kept informed on up-coming decisions and their suggestions sought. The office makes good use of social media and deals with language and cultural differences. It helps bring the thinking of the Society to the wider Church and world.

The Outcome
            Within a year the effects could be seen. An up-dated vision statement was completed with which most of the members expressed satisfaction. 
            The priest members found new reasons for planning together. They realized that including the group’s priority in their current work did not detract from it but made it even more valuable. There was satisfaction in knowing that an enduring contribution was being made to the local church through their combined efforts.
            Those in vocation work and fund raising used the opportunities they had to explain the challenges and benefits of localization and report on the ways it was being done.
            Lay missionaries and associate priests wanted to join because they liked the idea of being part of  a new experience of church which they could bring back home with them.  
            Formation and on-going education programs now had clear goals for which to prepare new missionaries and up-date older ones. Courses on popular spiritualities, traditional religions and the role of local churches increased.
            Everyone involved in implementing the ‘Third Stage of Mission’ found that their own understanding of the Christian message was being deepened. Uncovering the spiritualities of ordinary people brought home in a concrete manner how the Spirit was active everywhere and in all of creation.
            What is the name of this rejuvenated missionary society? It could be any of the existing missionary societies who realize the need for a process of change, use it to articulate a fresh vision and implement it in their planning and ministries.    12/6/11

Monday, 19 March 2012

Rethinking Mission

              Thanks to restrictive cultures, such as those of China, India and the Islamic countries, we are reminded of how narrow our vision of mission has become. They do not permit what we had come to see as the normal means of mission (parish and welfare ministries run by foreigners) but that does not mean mission is impossible there.  Rather we are led to rediscover the original and precise task of frontline mission. This is fortunate because in the immediate future the number of missionaries is likely to be small and they have to be aware of where and how they can be most effective in the modern world.
Over the past forty years Catholic missionaries have known considerable success, the challenge of change and, finally, doubt about their very future.
            Most remain convinced that there will be mission as long as there is a Church but few new candidates are joining them and their energy is diminishing.    
            Instinctively they turn to the latest theologies for direction and reassurance but are slow to recognise that their own valuable experience on the front lines is more likely to provide the answers they are seeking. 
            My own involvement in the traumatic changes in mission was in Korea and, more recently, China.
By the end of the 1980s, the main missionary societies in Korea (the M.E.P., Maryknoll, Guadalupe and Columbans) could look back on a job well done. In the previous thirty years they had established hundreds of new parishes, seen the number of believers double, and then double again. In 1967 there were 707,000 Catholics in Korea, in 1989 there were 2, 613,000 and by 2002 they had risen to 4,348,000.
The missionaries had helped form a strong local clergy and both at home and abroad the Korean Church was respected for its courageous stand on human rights and social issues.
            This success posed a dilemma for the missionaries: had they worked themselves out of a job? Should they stay on in supporting roles or move on to where they were needed more?
            By then few other countries were seeking foreigners for key ministerial or evangelising roles. Indeed major non-Christian populations like China, India and the Islamic world prohibited direct  evangelisation by foreigners. Mission, as it has been known in recent centuries, was running out of options and had to be rethought if it was to continue.

A Cutting Edge of  the Local Church?
            At first it seemed that a future might lie in introducing a variety of new ministries to Korea.
            An example was the apostolate among the urban poor in Seoul which a number of Columbans undertook in the early 1990s. The team involved lived in a typical shack in a temporary settlement area and worked with the local Catholics and people for the wider community. Their goal was to develop a Catholic community centered on scripture, service and cultural sensitivity. It could have been ground-breaking missionary work but the agenda of the local people was different and soon questioned this assumption.   
Biblical Base
            To deepen the people’s scriptural awareness, bible reflection gatherings were organized each month for the 15 area groups into which the Catholic families were divided. The meetings were held in one of their homes. It soon became apparent that the real interest of the people was not in scripture but in their everyday health, family and economic concerns. Their preferred religion was one that would enable them to control good and bad fortune (and spirits) and help them forget their anxieties. Building scripture study around miracle stories or encouraging charismatic-style prayers and singing might have satisfied their felt religious needs but the gospels do not indicate that this is what Christ came to give them.

Service for Whom?
            With encouragement the community became involved in a number of  projects for the locality: a credit union, resettlement  issues, medical clinics, night schools and care for children, invalids and the aged. On the leadership level there was close cooperation with a local Protestant church and a Buddhist center.
            At the same time, the better-off Catholics were looking looked forward to the day when the community would have an imposing church, and a convent, kindergarten and doctrine halls they could be proud of. Eventually economic progress led to their being raised to the status of parish and a local priest took over. Despite his desire to continue the former tradition of service, a five-storey church had to be built and the emphases moved from involvement in the wider community to fund raising and maintaining the ecclesiastical structure. Collaboration with other religions became a formality.  
            The demands of Korean society brought about this transformation but is that what is meant when we speak of establishing a truly Korean Church?

How Local the Church?
            The final goal of the urban poor apostolate was to form a community that reflected Korean tradition and spirit. Again the local people showed a limited vision of what this called for. Most Catholics were content with their Church’s foreignness – they liked its progressive and Western image. The fact that the Western liturgy, publications and catechetical works had been translated into Korean seemed to satisfy them.
Only a few were aware that their church was a duplicate of a Western model which was rapidly declining in its lands of origin. In Korea itself the youth were already showing it did not meet their needs.  Its emphasis on externals overshadowed its spiritual message and its efforts to draw on Korean culture were largely decorative.  

Dashed Hopes
The Columban apostolate among the urban poor in Seoul came to an end when the Catholic community with which they worked became a parish. However, the difficulties encountered in trying to make it scripture based, service centered and inculturated had shown the limitation to missionary work in a church already firmly developed on traditional Western lines and under local leadership.
There was still hope that a role remained for missionaries in the young but vigorous Korean church by raising mission awareness.  But if frontline mission had reached its limits in Korea where were new missionaries to be sent? The old forms of mission were no longer needed so what was the next generation of missionaries being called to do?
This missionary stalemate raised questions which few understood at that time.  Later, in the context of China, I could get a better view of where the problem lay.

China: Faced with the Basics
            Today mission to China is viewed as impossible by many missionary societies because there are no openings for parochial ministry, or directing social and educational projects. This shows how narrow our thinking has become.  In modern China the foreign missionary contribution is made through quiet presence and personal service. This is not a second-class way of doing mission, rather it is a reminder of how mission began and how it is best achieved.
The original role of frontline missionaries was to sow the gospel seed, form local leaders and hand over to them the responsibility for the growing Church. Then they moved on.  It was only later that they saw their task as that of establishing churches on the Roman model and taking on the responsibility for running those churches till, soon or later, a local clergy could share that responsibility with them.  Often that took many generations and there was a reluctance to leave at all. Mission became “ministry in another culture”.
       It took the challenge of entering “closed” cultures like those of China, India and the Islamic countries to renew modern mission and return it to its basics. That in itself might not have been sufficient to make mission societies change their thinking but the contemporary shortage of missionary vocations forces them to consider how they can  make the best use of their reduced membership. The fulltime missionaries that do exist should not be hidden away in minor roles but be placed where they can make most impact.
Before expanding on the three primary goals of mission (sowing, forming and handing over) a prior question must be addressed: is mission still necessary at all today?

Motivation for Frontline Mission
            The old inspiration for going on mission –to save souls—has lost its value and the need to spread the Kingdom by defending human rights and creating sufficiency has been taken on by professional and dedicated NGOs.
What Christianity offers is at the most basic level. People are not going to adjust their lifestyle—even if they know it make others poorer and destroys the environment – unless they have a radical transformation of heart and this is the area in which Christianity specialises.
Reflection on the life and death of Christ, and his/her own experience, has led the missionary to find God as the living and moulding force in their own life. Because this means much to them they wish to share the discovery with others, encouraging them to change their lives if necessary. This liberating challenge of Christianity has to be asserted in all cultures but frontline missionaries see their task as that of focusing on those who historically have had little or no opportunity to hear it.
 Now we can return to the manner in which this is done.

Sowing the Seed
            In order to influence others one must be present among them and the most appropriate form of Christian presence is personal service. Those who are attracted by its unselfish example will want to know the reasoning behind it and its simplicity will not distract them by seeming to offer any institutional benefit  -- social, educational or economic.  
            To answer initial enquiries the bearer of the message must be able to articulate his/her convictions in simple terms. Young people, in China and elsewhere, recognise propaganda in any form and are impressed only by a sustained life style that challenges the superficial values around them. When they seek written materials to deepen their understanding of Christianity it should be primary sources such as the gospels, and not doctrinal works, that are offered to them. It is the Holy Spirit that guides the seed to fruition and missionaries should be in no hurry to assume that role.  
            While missionaries need to be clear on what they have to offer, familiarity with the local language and culture is also essential so that local concepts and symbols are used to deepen communication and draw the seeker into dialogue.

Finding Leaders
            The timing of the urban poor project in Seoul in the 90s was too late to succeed in forming communities on personal, scripture-based spirituality. The people had already found a certain attraction in a Catholicism based on church fellowship and a set of  practical religious regulations. It provided continuity with the formality and hierarchy of their Confucian background.
At the same time, a number of people were looking for a closer relationship with God and sought Bible study and meditation groups to help deepen their spirituality. Earlier missionaries should have sought out and concentrated on such candidates.  However, the theological context of the age and the widely accepted drive for rapid Church expansion encouraged missionaries to opt for large numbers. They used catechetics and public devotions to cope with the crowds and this also solved the problem for them as foreigners to share on a serious level.        
Entrusting the Church
            The missionary ideal would be to gather in communities those who showed an awareness of what Christianity is about so that they could support each other and enable  group witness and worship. In due time such communities -- in communion with the universal Church -- would be the ones to develop the institutions, sacraments and theologies of a truly local Church. They would be the ones to take evangelisation on to it later stages.
However in many countries, including China, the church already exists in some form and even those who have found Christianity outside it will eventually come in contact with its present day reality. They may be disappointed by what they find so the missionary will have to help them cope with the situation and show them how they can contribute to the renewal of their church.
Foreigners can also broaden the formation of local clergy, Religious and lay leaders by providing them with opportunities to experience alternative forms of church.

            Frontline mission will be by small groups of well motivated and specially trained missionaries. Rather than getting involved in long-term “hands-on” ministries they will concentrate on finding committed Christians to take on those tasks.
Their witness will be personal rather than institutional and articulated in scriptural and spiritual language rather than theological.
Their efforts will be addressed, not to large numbers, but to potential servant-leaders who are attracted by the spiritual basis of Christianity.
Their goal will be to encourage communities of reflecting Christians to take on the responsibility, in communion with the wider Church, of developing a local church that evolves its own theologies, liturgies and Christian identity.   
If they succeed, their model of mission will have much to offer their home churches in their efforts to recreate the Church in the modern world. 
                Hugh MacMahon      10/22/03

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.

Examples of Church Localization in China: Part 2


         There are thought-provoking insights to be gained from a study of why Protestant Churches entered the Communist ‘New China’ era in 1949 with only one million followers but emerged at the 1978 ‘reopening’ with 15 million. In the same period, the Catholic Church only increased from 3 million believers to 5 million.
Of course the persecution of the Catholic Church during that time, due to its close relationship with the ‘foreign’ Vatican, was more intensive but that is only part of the answer. To understand why Protestants were more effective in preserving and spreading their message, it is necessary to look at their history and methods in China.

In comparison with the Catholic Church, which entered ‘modern China’ in 1580, the first Protestant missionary did not arrive until 1807 and the Protestant effort only grew with the opening of the Treaty Ports, following the ‘Unequal Treaties’ from 1842.
Their approach was influenced by the secretaries of two of the major sending groups, Henry Vann and Rufus Anderson. They agreed that a) it was more important to preach the gospel than to educate or heal people and b) native converts should be put in charge of new churches as soon as possible. The first principle soon gave way to the undeniable effectiveness of running schools and hospitals but the second, under the influence of Anderson, gave rise to the ‘three-self’ principle of self-support, self-government and self-propagation, which the Communist  government was later to adopt as its own. The Catholic approach, meanwhile, continued to depend on foreign leadership and support.
Between 1860 and 1902 the growth of Protestant churches was slow and mostly in the cities as a result of  educational and medical services. The association of all Christians, but especially Protestants, with the ‘Unequal Treaties’, made many suspicious of their activities. This anti-Western mood  found expression during the Boxer uprising of 1900 but, ironically, the many martyred at that time proved to be an inspiration for renewed foreign missionary efforts.

After the May Fourth Movement
Since  Protestants were more involved in schools than Catholics were, they suffered more in the anti-foreign backlash of the May Fourth Movement (1919). In the early 1920s both the Guomindang and the Chinese Communist parties demonized the Western presence and called for Chinese control of mission schools. Many missionaries left China at that time.
To quote Daniel Bays, “In the first half of the 20th century, the foreign missionary movement in China matured, flourished, declined and died.”
The Protestant Churches matured and increased by putting on Chinese dress and letting Chinese leadership emerge. However, when the Communists liberated the county in 1949 there were only one million Protestants in China compared with the three million, mainly rural, Catholics. It is difficult to trace what happened during the Cultural Revolution but it was probably in the 1970s that the number of Protestants began to equal that of Catholics and by 1978 there were three times more Protestants than Catholics. How did this happen?

Urban and Educated
The fact that the Protestant Churches were heavily into education meant they actively contributed to the formation of a new Chinese middle class. After Chiang Kai-shek became a Christian in 1930, their influence increased and they inspired a number of efforts towards social reform. The YMCA and YWCA in Shanghai and elsewhere, through their night schools, helped in raising awareness of social issues. However, because of the conservatism of the rural Chinese elite and the business and  industrial power structures in the cities, the over-all impact was limited. Yet these initiatives gave urban Protestant churches a positive and modern image and began a tradition of Christian involvement in intellectual and national affairs.
Protestant down-playing of the clerical role also empowered lay people to act with personal initiative and take up leadership roles. This encouraged the growth of small independent churches in the ‘hidden years’ of 1949 to 1978.

Jonathan Goforth, a Canadian Presbyterian in Henan, was impressed by the ‘great Wales revival' of 1903 and on hearing of the success of revival meetings in Korea, went there to participate in 1907. Stopping off in Manchuria on his way back to Henan, he shared his enthusiasm with the Presbyterians there and was invited to hold  meetings which led to the ‘Manchurian revival’ of 1908.
Big-name Western evangelists like John R. Mott and Sherwood Eddy came to China and helped organize the movement up to the 1930s. Protestants in China were already divided between fundamentalist conservatives and liberal elements who accepted the higher criticism approach to the Bible and the primacy of social action over preaching. However in the 1920s, new and small groups of missionaries began to arrive that had little institutional support and focused on regenerating themselves and Chinese Christian converts in a context of pre-millennialist expectations. Revivalism as a mission strategy soon became more popular among conservative evangelical groups.
Pentecostalism, with its egalitarianism and direct revelation from God, proved to be attractive to 20th century Chinese. It opened the way further for independent churches.

House Churches
When the churches reemerged in public after 1978, most of the Protestant congregations were salvational and revivalist with an emphasis on tongues, prophecies and healing. The largest drew on the foundations of  popular movements such as The True Jesus Church, The Jesus Family and Watchman Ni’s ‘Local Church’ (Difang Jiaohui). These churches were founded  in the early 1900s and had spread gradually. By the mid-40s, The True Jesus Church was the second largest in China, behind the Church of Christ in China (CCC). The founders of the three groups had been imprisoned on various charges in the early days of Communist rule and died before they were released. However, their communities survived persecution and continue to flourish today.

At the time of the regime change in 1949, a number of Protestant intellectuals were openly sympathetic to Communism and some urban believers were hopeful of good relations with the new government. Y T Wu, a national secretary of the YMCA, in 1948 wrote a scathing criticism of the Protestant establishment in Marxist terms and in the Spring of 1950 went with a small group of Christian ‘progressives’ to meet the new leaders, including Zhou Enlai. This encounter eventually led to the establishment of the government-promoted Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM). Efforts to unite all the Protestant churches under this banner seemed to have succeed when the leaders of The True Jesus Church and  The Jesus Family as well as Watchman Ni disappeared from the scene.
However, around the mid-50s, ‘house churches’ began to appear as believers started to leave the politically correct TSPM.  With few ordained clergy, church elders and laymen took the opportunity to preach, teach children, evangelize and perform marriages and funerals.
The Cultural Revolution brought a temporary suspension of the TSPM and closed all churches but, instead of quenching religion, it gave small churches a chance to grow on their own. The only congregations that could meet were house churches. Talented leader emerged and within the 12 years from 1966 to 1978, Protestants increased by a factor of five or six.
When churches were allowed to reopen during Christmas, 1978, Protestants began to enthusiastically build new houses of worship. By the early 21st century there were over 20,000 churches registered with the resurrected TSPM.  However, hundreds of thousands of ‘house churches’ continue. They are not approved by the government but to a large degree they are tolerated unless they are labeled as ‘evil cults’ for being too extreme.

From Rural to Urban
During the 80s and 90s,  the revival of both Protestantism and Catholicism was rural rather than urban. As the situation of farmers improved under Deng Xiaoping, evangelization increased.  In the ‘new modern age’ ordinary people could find equivalents to traditional beliefs and practices in the Christian churches such as a  millennial vision in the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ and a savior figure like the Buddhist Guanyin.
Ways of petitioning the divine for healing and material blessing became available that seemed more modern and socially acceptable. Christianity was often judged for its effectiveness rather than its truths. Pentecostalism, in its Chinese version, tended to dominate in the countryside with its belief in miracles, divine intervention in people’s lives for healing, direct communications from God, speaking in tongues, dreams and visions. Gradually those practices spread to the cities.
Early in the 1990s, church growth slowed in the countryside and began to grow in the cities. This was partly due to the migration from farms to urban industries and the accompanying need for community in the new environment. However, congregations in central city churches soon began to take on a more polished image with professionals and white collar workers evident. This resulted in a move away from the forms of popular religiosity that were common in the countryside as membership became more educated and sophisticated. Today, most of the new city believers are more inclined to go to the registered churches as the intellectual level of the underground churches is lower.
By the 1990s, Christianity was becoming the subject of serious study in top universities and research institutes in China. Originally this was due to the government’s desire to understand better the increasing popularity of religion and the role of Christianity in Western culture. In particular there was academic curiosity in Weber’s thesis that the growth of capitalism was closely linked to reformed Christianity. Could the Protestant message assist China in developing a successful form of capitalism and dealing with new moral issues?  At present there are at least 20 university-based centers for religious studies.

The Outlook
The spectacular growth of the Protestant churches in China has attracted world-wide attention. It is due in large part to the freedom the churches had, during a period of persecution, to adapt to the local situation.
Lay people were able to take over unfettered leadership in the absence of trained clergy and during the Cultural Revolution even the government-controlled TSPM was disbanded and unable to supervise their activities.
At present the Protestant churches are the most dynamic religious groups in China. Their main concern must be that too much freedom and individual initiative can lead to what the government would call ‘evil cults’and mainstream Christians regard as heretical sects. In the future, the main challenge will come from Buddhism as Chinese culture settles down and nationalistic considerations reemerge as a prime motivator.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Completing the Missionary Task

            Like many of East Asia’s metropolises, the city in which I live is unashamedly attracted to the profit motive. There is a standing joke that the temples to which people go to worship on a regular basis are the banks. Indeed, both rich and poor share an interest in the stock market and each day anxiously examine the rise and fall in prices.
             However, impressions are deceiving. Having lived here for ten years, I find the people remarkably religiously-minded. On a daily basis I see indications they are deeply sensitive to the spiritual and non-material world, more so than most urban dwellers in the West.
            In this city there is scarcely a home or shop that does not have a well-tended family shrine. During the ‘Month of Lost Souls’ people burn incense and place fruit outside their door for passing ‘hungry souls’. The festivals of local deities are major community occasions and thousands queue up at temples to seek a blessing at the lunar New Year. The police (and the Triads) offer annual service to Kwan Ti, the deity of courage and loyalty. No building or new enterprise is launched without a religious ritual.
            I have found the ordinary people to be friendly, family oriented, law-abiding and hard working. While they have their human weaknesses, their efforts to live a moral and conscientious life are at least as sincere as those of any other nation.  
            With so much in common, and with freedom of religion and no dominant non-Christian creed restricting it, you would expect the church to be flourishing here at all levels of society.   
            However, in this city of some eight million people it is estimated that there are just 250,000 Catholics and that the total number of Christians of all denominations is about 10%. The Catholic Church has been firmly established here for many years and is the envy of other Asian churches for it range of educational, medical and social services. Many of the government officials are graduates of Catholic schools and many ordinary citizens have availed of its institutions. The bishop is well known and popular, in 2002 he was voted the city’s ‘Person of the Year’ for his stand on social issues. The vast majority of the clergy, religious and lay leaders are local, many of them highly talented and experienced. There must be no one in the city who has not heard of the Church yet only 3% are Catholic and this percentage is unlikely to grow unless there is a major change in the Church’s image.
            One undoubted element in this image, which it has in common with other Catholic churches in Asia and which is responsible for their limited growth, it is its foreignness – its distance from the religious thinking, experiences and approaches of the ordinary people. 
            This development is understandable, though regrettable. For most of the past hundred years the goal of mission, in Asia and elsewhere, was to establish vibrant and self-sufficient local churches. The original intention was that those churches would then take on the task of spreading the message among the local people in ways which would be more familiar to them and closer to their heart and situation. Eventually large numbers of individuals, families and communities would be finding it natural to turn to these churches in moments of need, truth- seeking or thanksgiving. In few cases has this dream been fulfilled and today many young churches are no closer to localization than when the missionaries left or took a back seat.
            Why did this happen? There are a number of reasons or, rather, a chain of reasons.
            The emerging local leadership had been formed according to the universal guidelines laid down by the responsible Vatican authorities in order to ensure that their training would be both comprehensive and uniform. Once in charge, the indigenous leadership felt its duty was to continue and stabilized the system they had inherited. It had not been made clear to them that they were expected to move out of their foreign shell and bridge the gap with the wider population by developing a church more suited to the local situation.
            The blame for this lapse can be put on the missionary societies which had focused too narrowly on establishing self-sufficient local churches. They had failed to remember that this was only a first step and a second one remained: for the newly established local churches to take responsibility for reaching out to all levels of society in ways that would be more intelligible and fruitful among the ordinary people. Setting up of local churches was meant to be a means and not an end.
            Undoubtedly there were also some missionaries who deliberately encouraged the young churches not to drift too far from the universal model of the Latin church. They feared that inexperience might lead them to be influenced by some of the less acceptable elements in their local culture. There were concerns that any tinkering with the existing system could lead to disagreements and divisions, based on a failure to understand fully the reasoning and justification behind existing practices and the need for unity. Others believed that, theologically, the church was never intended for all people anyhow but would always to be a ‘little flock’ or ‘tiny flame’ that would inspire and enlighten those in the surrounding darkness. It was more important for it to be ‘orthodox’ than to be ‘accessible’.
            These considerations may have some validity but they should not become obstacles in making the gospel available to all people, no matter what their educational level or cultural background.
            The challenge, then, is for the missionary societies to recall that their achievement in helping to set up local churches was a step in the road to proclaiming the gospel but not the end of the process, nor of their responsibility. They may now need to consider what they can do to encourage and facilitate the young churches in making discipleship possible for a larger percentage of the population.
Simultaneously, they need to use their experience and cross-cultural credibility to draw the attention of the authorities in the Vatican to the compelling case for inculturation. They might wish to use SEDOS to combine their resources and expertise in order to do the necessary research and help church authorities find ways of dealing with legitimate concerns about localization. Then the responsible decasteries could begin to encourage churches to open themselves to new approaches that will make them accessible to all levels within their culture.  
This would call for a five year plan to initiate the process and, then, a further twenty year plan to see it through its early stages. After that, the missionary societies might be in a position to claim that their primary missionary task has been completed.
 Hugh MacMahon    SEDOS Bulletin:   Nov/Dec 2006

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Why the Lack of Excitement?

            I wonder how many members of Western missionary societies would be shocked at the idea of my asking them if all their fellow missionaries were still convinced of the need for ‘Ad Gentes’ mission?  And by ‘Ad Gentes’ I mean going to countries where the culture and thinking of the people is still untouched by the message of the gospel?
It is not so long ago that missionaries from the West were journeying eagerly to the East, confident they had something valuable to share. In the early days, when they went by sailing ship, half of those who set out never arrived because of shipwreck or disease. Those who got there had no expectations of ever returning home. Yet their commitment never faltered.
Today it is different. The excitement of mission is gone from the West. Faith is less important in people=s lives. Young people are willing to travel abroad to offer their services in humanitarian causes but do not regard any one faith as better than another.
There are a number of reasons for this. One is disillusionment with the sad state of the Church in the West which seems to have little to offer the modern life. Another is the defense that every generation needs to be re-evangelized so the task in the West is just as urgent as that in the East or elsewhere. A third comes from the observation that religious practices have a great similarity throughout the world and that thinking the Christian version is better is just the relic of a Western superiority complex.
The third objection may points to the key issue. There is no doubt that religious similarities and parallels do exist around the world when people, for economic or social reasons, depend on, or hope for, divine intervention to solve their more urgent financial, health and personal needs. I have seen this in the religious practices of places as disparate as Taoist and Buddhist temples in Korea and China, a cathedral in Cebu and a shrine to a Holy Man in Lahore. In each holy site the scene or ritual was similar: the devotees humbly approaching a sacred image, often on their knees, carrying candles or incense and presenting their requests with great respect. Usually they repeated a prayer.
In their private lives those believers were probably aware of precepts, similar to the Ten Commandments, which they knew they should be observing and felt guilty about if they fail to keep them. They were good people, trying to do their best as their traditions taught them. Only the identity of the deity differed. If comparisons were to be made between such religious practices, it would be in terms of which of the deities concerned was the more powerful or successful in providing help.  
But today in many parts of the world most material needs can now be solved by human resources. In the 1980s and 90s when tens of thousand of young Koreans were drawn to the Church it was not in the hope of economic or other immediate benefits but in a search to satisfy their deeper and inner yearnings. The Church’s stand for democracy and human rights on the national level gave grounds for thinking it might have the answers.
What they were looking for was inspiration in their lives, a source of encouragement and strength, a guide for moral conduct and a sense of their individual and personal worth. Today young people in China are showing the same needs.
Here I do not want to make too strong a distinction between people with a ‘favor seeking’ faith and a ‘spiritual search’ faith. The reality is that the two are intermixed though, in individuals and in certain cultures, one can dominate the other.
However, I believe Christianity, and no other religion today, has the answers to the questions emerging in both east and west. This is not ignoring the role of other faiths and the importance contribution they have made to thee wellbeing of the human family. I have spent many years immersed in, and studying, the tradition of the east and benefited from the experience. It was that involvement which led me to question my own religion and seek to uncover what was unique and of universal value in Christianity.  
What I found was the human figure of Christ with his message of a compassionate God, of the Spirit alive in the individual, the call to be part of a new creation, an explanation for evil in the world and a spirituality that seeks the transcendent in ordinary life, a reaffirmation of the individual while challenging him or her whether living in the west or in the east.
Unfortunately, many of the young Koreans in the 1980s and 90s did not find what they were expecting. The Church in Korea at that time, despite it public stances, proved on closer encounter to be less democratic, individual-orientated, positive, supportive and Korean than they expected. Many of them soon left unsatisfied. But that does not prove that Christianity is deficient, it just shows that in many Churches practice still has to catch up on teachings. There are enough credible mainstream theologians in the Church today to reassure missionaries that what people in other cultures are seeking can indeed be found in the heart of the scriptures.
If the mainstream Western missionary movement is to recover, it may be time for missionaries who have worked in a predominantly non-Christian environment, and faced up to comparisons with other religions, to bring back what they have gained from the experience. In their efforts to communicate the heart of the Christian message to people of different religious backgrounds they had to peel off the layers of later cultural additions and try to uncover its core message.         
 If they have survived this far as missionaries it is because they have glimpsed the value, even the urgency, of Christianity for themselves and others today and this has motivated them to want to share it cross-culturally. Now that same clarity of vision and ability to apply the Word to the questions of modern life is also needed in their home countries to revitalize the missionary spirit there.
For over four hundred year missionaries took a confident faith from the west to the east, knowing they were providing the greatest service by doing so. Now it may be the time for modern missionaries to take that faith, refined and renewed, back to their home Churches and rekindle enthusiasm there.  
                                                                             Hugh MacMahon   SEDOS 2/6/08

Friday, 16 March 2012

Refocusing for the Future

            In recent years, the number of seminars organized by missionary groups on topics such as the environment, immigrants and reconciliation has been impressive. Concern for nature and human rights is an integral part of the Christian message and, as such, should rank high on the agenda of communities engaged in spreading Christianity.
            However, the primary contribution that Christians, as a Church, can offer the world today is not a special competence in economics, the environmental sciences or social affairs but the gospel message with its call for radical change based on a deeper bond with God, creation and others. We cannot presume that, without this commitment,  the majority of people are prepared to look beyond their own self-interest to seek a better world and only need to be told what they have to do.   
Since missionaries have the extra challenge of bringing the Christian message across cultural barriers, it might be expected that the first question at any conference on world concerns, organized by missionaries, should be: how successful are we in the specialized role entrusted to us? Are we making the Christian message intelligible enough, for example in Asia and Africa, to encourage people there to want to make the changes in their lives that alone can solve personal and world problems?
            Of course, that would draw attention to our own precarious situation: our confusion about missionary goals, the lack of skills demanded by the new challenges and concern whether there will be a next generation to continue our work.
            With forty years of mission in Asia, I am daily reminded of this reality and a number of the questions that require urgent attention at missionary meetings on local or international level.

1. Updating Terminology
            The first challenge in reviving a missionary spirit is to find a new and simple language to express the urgency and goals of mission. Once, when working with the Irish Missionary Union, I spent two years trying to find a satisfactory replacement for the old slogan, “Missionaries save souls”, an expression that had already lost its meaning. At that time we could not find a suitable substitute, but that was twenty years ago.
Today we need an answer to the question, “What to missionaries do?” that will not only restore the interest and support of lay people, but will help missionaries find focus and energy in their efforts and enable potential recruits to see the relevance and attraction of mission. It calls for discipline in peeling away the non-essentials of mission and re-expressing the original objectives in terms of today’s context.
            One of the key terms that need to be broken down and reformulated is ‘salvation’. How do missionaries ‘save’ souls today?  Missionary goals and methods will be determined by the answer given. One understanding of salvation can lead to an emphasis on church over message, with a focus on catechetics and adherence to a fixed set of beliefs and laws. A different interpretation of salvation might put more emphasis on a scriptural and spiritual search, seeking to help individuals develop a personal comprehension and commitment. In Asia, while the previous generation could accept the former, the more worldly-wise present generation look for the latter.
            Why is there a need for missionaries today? Finding a simple but compelling answer should provide material for more than one seminar and remove many of the distractions that are sapping missionary energy. If it cannot be done, the future of international mission is not too bright.

2.  Extending the Opportunities for Inculturation
            While much has been written and said about the need for inculturation, little has been done. When missionaries do discuss the topic they tend to focus on how to use the limited opportunities permitted at present (for example, in liturgy) rather than on how those opportunities can be expanded. There are other wider issues such as the need to revalue the role of  analytical theology in Asian and African cultures where ideas are transmitted through narrative and example. Grasping the message comes first, theological distinctions emerge later.
The Holy See has a responsibility to guard unity and uniformity in the Church but missionary societies have the complementary vocation to be pro-active in seeking diversity by lobbying for greater cultural latitude. The future of the Church in Asia and Africa depends on how active the missionary lobby is.

3.  Taking Lay Mission Seriously
            With the dramatic decrease in clerical and religious missionary vocations, the challenge of preparing lay missionaries to take a leading role in mission is an obvious concern that has yet to be faced.  
            While a number of lay missionary organizations do exist, most of them are engaged in auxiliary roles. Few possibilities exist for lay missionaries to engage in key ministries, there is  little encouragement or opportunity for them to prepare for the demands of transmitting the faith cross-culturally, and steps have yet to be taken to secure sustainable ways of financing them and their families.
            In recent centuries mission has been entrusted to priests, brothers and sisters, and the goals and methods of mission have been fashioned around them. The Church must now find new ‘workers for the vineyard’ and change the system to suit them. While the future of clerical ministry is a pressing one for the whole Church, the task of finding new full-time personnel for mission is even more compelling.

4.  Revitalizing Western Spirituality
            For many years, Church leaders have given lip-service to the role that the Churches in Africa and Asia can play in enriching Christian spirituality. At a time when Christianity in the West is losing its credibility as a spiritual and moral guide, any enrichment it can get from other traditions is not only desirable but necessary.
            This is more than a pious platitude. People in the West are being attracted to aspects of Eastern or African religions but the Church offers them little guidance or encouragement in discerning what is helpful. 
            Missionaries who have experienced the sacred in other cultures are those best placed to be a bridge and guide in promoting the exchange. Since their appreciation of non-Christian traditions comes from direct experience, they are the most credible witnesses of what other spiritualities have to offer and best positioned to share them with their home Churches.
            While a few individuals are already attempting to do this, it will take a more organized effort for the mutual enrichment to have any wide effect. Missionary gatherings would seem to be the most natural place to discuss and initiate practical steps.

            A final question can be asked: why have the above topics, which seem so obvious to those in the field, been neglected or ignored until now?
            Perhaps for too long, missionary societies have followed a pattern of parish-based mission that demanded little innovation or reflection. The system itself calls for unquestioning adherence and missionaries, as loyal ‘champions of the faith’, are inclined to be conservative. As a result, they tend to be ‘doers’ rather than thinkers, more comfortable in overcoming practical difficulties than giving time to speculation or speculators
            It is not surprising, then, that missionary societies till have to deal with the consequences of Vatican II. Since the Council, Papal documents have done their best to clarify the distinction between the evangelizing duty of Christians everywhere and the special role of Ad Gentes missionaries among those not yet touched by the Christian message. Yet, confusion continues and a vocal number of missionaries have come to see the ‘missio dei’, or activity of God that operates also outside the Church, as making the preaching of the gospel or spreading of the Church a less urgent demand. Their interest has turned to the cutting-edge social issues of the day, even in their home countries. This has become a sensitive issue among missionaries, one they are reluctant to debate in public.  
            Now is an opportune time for missionary gatherings to face the issues that will decide whether the Catholic Church becomes a slowly shrinking European/North American religious movement or grows as a world religion. At this turning point, missionaries, with their cross-Church and cross-cultural experience, can play a valuable role. Maybe this is one of the life-giving things that “missionaries do today”.
                                           Hugh MacMahon   SEDOS  2/6/08