Mission World - January/February 2023

Clarifications and challenges

Did you know that, at the latest count, the World Christian Database estimates that there are 46,400 Christian denominations in the world who send out 435,000 foreign missionaries?1 How these people view mission is anyone’s guess. A concern is that many see their task as merely converting people to Christianity without any interest in creating space for genuine dialogue in an effort to promote solidarity, including friendship, love and hospitality.

This concern is expressed in the article “World Christianity and Religions 2022: A Complicated Relationship” by Gina A. Zurlo, Todd M. Johnson and Peter F. Crossing.2 In their study of the latest data from the World Christian Database, they make three key observations.

First, “the world is becoming more religious” (p. 72). This appears to contradict many predictions and presumptions. Key factors were “the collapse of Communism … and the opening of China to the rest of the world” (p. 72).

Second, “the world has become more religiously diverse” (p.73).

Third, “Christians have inadequate personal contact with people in other religions” (p. 73). Regarding this last conclusion, the authors state that “an estimated 87 percent of Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims do not personally know a Christian.” While I would question this figure and ask how many Christians, in turn, would know a Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim, there does appear to be a real concern that inter-religious dialogue is a major challenge facing the world today.

Zurlo, Johnson and Crossing draw three conclusions or challenges from their study of the latest data about worldwide missionary activity. The first is what they call the “ecumenical challenge”. This challenges Christian churches to work more in communion with one another. This is not easy for at least a couple of reasons. One is because of historical experience of Christians harbouring intense feelings of distrust and even hatred towards one another, often based on misinformation or religious wars or discrimination of the past. The other, of course, is the growing number of Christian denominations. The second challenge is that of inter-faith dialogue. Among other things, there is the lack of encounter between peoples of different religions and secondly, the belief that there is nothing to talk about because these people cannot be saved unless they become Christians. The third is the “common humanity” challenge, which brings us back to the effort spoken of above about the need for solidarity. Current experience of wars, racism, and intense political divides indicate that we are badly failing in this regard.

Friendships and experience has helped Columbans move beyond the ‘conversionist’ approach to mission. While we still believe in the fundamental call to witness to the Gospel, we also see mission as witnessing to the ideals of justice and peace and care for creation. We have long been committed to the principles of inculturation whereby we enter into the lives and cultures of the people among whom we work and live, and we also believe we are called to enter into dialogue with indigenous peoples and peoples of diverse traditions and faith. In a sense, we have long met the three challenges of ecumenism, interfaith dialogue, and commitment to what we all share: our common humanity.

Columban Fr Tom Rouse lives and works in New Zealand.

1 Todd M. Johnson and Gina A. Zurlo, eds., Leiden/Boston: Brill, accessed January 2022.
2 International Bulletin of Mission Research, 2022, Vol. 46 (1), 71–80.

Mission Intentions

January - For educators: We pray that educators may be credible witnesses, teaching fraternity rather than competition and helping the youngest and most vulnerable above all.

February - For parishes: We pray that parishes, placing communion at the centre, may increasingly become communities of faith, fraternity and welcome towards those most in need.

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