Mission World - January/February 2024

A new age of mission - how do we view the past?

In reflecting upon world mission today, I would like to return to the issue of what it means to live through the present age of transition regarding the meaning of mission. (This reminds me that the document title that emerged from our last Columban General Assembly in 2018 was "Transitioning for Columban Mission".)

The variety of approaches to mission reflect the uncertainty of what Christian mission entails or involves. In other words, it is one thing to agree that there is a future for Christian mission, but it is another to decide what the shape of that future might be. One problem is found in the ambiguities surrounding the language used in speaking of mission. These ambiguities arise from the history of past colonial missions, the plurality of contemporary approaches to mission, and the present efforts to avoid the ruts of dogmatism.

The diverse approaches to mission can be seen from at least five perspectives: the historical, contextual, cultural, evangelical and biblical perspectives. Let us begin with the historical perspective. There are at least three broad approaches to studying the history of mission. The chronological approach views this history in terms of a sequence of events. These events are usually divided into several periods of history, and they move from one to the next. Secondly, there is the interpretative approach whereby the history of mission is viewed through the eyes of a particular class or group of people, such as those who attempt to write from what they would call "the underside of history". Thirdly, there are transformative approaches to the history of mission. A classic in this approach is David Bosch's book Transforming Mission (1991). In rereading the history of Christian mission, Bosch analyses the philosophical and theological assumptions that underly what he calls the foremost missionary "paradigms" throughout the history of Christianity.

How these different approaches view the past colours their perceptions of the future. Despite the Eurocentric bias behind his chronological approach, in the last section of his book A History of Christian Mission (revised second edition, 1986), Stephen Neill detected several new directions, including local churches' independence and the ecumenical movement's growth.

While Church historians like Neill record the efforts of past missionaries to translate and teach the Bible, the interpretative approaches study how readers or hearers responded to the biblical texts, especially within mission contexts where people may be susceptible to any scent of lingering colonialism or ideological domination.

To use the words of David Bosch, the transformative approach goes further and calls for "an interaction between the self-definition of early Christian authors and actors and the self-definition of today's believers who wish to be inspired and guided by those early witnesses." (Bosch, 1991, p. 23.) Let us ensure, then, that our readings of the past will inspire us to be bold in expressing the emerging paradigms of mission.

Columban Fr Tom Rouse lives and works in New Zealand.

Mission Intentions

January -  For the gift of diversity in the Church: Let us pray that the Spirit help us recognise the gift of different charisms within the Christian community, and to discover the richness of different ritual traditions in the heart of the Catholic Church.

February - For the terminally ill: Let us pray that the sick who are in the final stages of life, and their families, receive the necessary medical and human care and accompaniment.

Listen to "Mission World - January/February 2024"

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