Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Mission and Missionaries

Few aspects are more central to traditional Christianity than the call to bring every person on earth into the fold. It is a call which is so unambiguous as to be one of the very few aspects of the faith about which almost all Christians agree.

Unlike much else which came to be part of Christian doctrine, the call to mission was not inherited from the Hebrew religion. In fact, Jewish people over the ages have tended to keep their faith to themselves, regarding non-Hebrews (Gentiles) as beyond the pale. This is not to say that the Hebrew religion has not been admired. In the time of Jesus, some hovered on the fringes of the Hebrew community without being completely absorbed into it. Perhaps the requirement that men be circumcised before becoming Jewish had something to do with that.

The long-standing drive to bring others into the Christian faith derives in part from the belief that Jesus himself urged his followers to evangelise the world:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28.19-20)

As with all such passages, it's now normal to wonder if the other gospels back this command up. If they all do, then it's much more likely that this is a genuine report of "what Jesus actually said". As it turns out, there is nothing like it in the gospels of either Mark or John. Only the person who wrote both Luke and Acts attributes anything like this to Jesus:

Thus it is written that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24.46-47)

You will receive power when the Holy Sprit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts1.8)

Luke envisages the Christian faith moving from Jerusalem on into the rest of the world. Indeed, he takes care to emphasise that this is the correct progression. But we know from the letters of Paul and other sources that by the time Luke's Gospel and his Acts of the Apostles were written, Christians had already penetrated far into the rest of the Roman Empire. The Lukan passages smack of a distinctly party line, written to put across the position of a particular group within the fast-growing Church of the Roman Empire.

Whatever the case, a large majority of Christian scholars today recognise that these are almost certainly not the words of Jesus. They are attributed to him by the gospel authors, as a way of reinforcing the Christian teaching of a particular time and place. The two commissions have little in common

... which indicates that they have been created by the individual evangelists to express their conception of the future of the Jesus movement. As a consequence, they cannot be traced back to Jesus. [1]

By the end of the first millennium, Christianity had penetrated many lands and cultures. British and Irish missionaries took part in converting parts of Europe, Scandinavia and the Baltic to the faith. It's a little known fact that other Christians went as far afield as China and Indonesia in the 7th and 8th centuries.

By then the Roman Empire and therefore Christendom had divided into Eastern and Western power blocks, each ruled by an Emperor and Pope or Patriarch. The Eastern Church spread its influence into what is now the Russian Federation and into Eastern Europe, bringing with it the Cyrillic alphabet amongst other cultural influences.

In the West, conversion of savage tribes was promoted by Charles the Great (Charlemagne) as he extended his rule southwards into Spain and eastwards into Bavaria and beyond in the 8th and 9th centuries. This tended to be conversion by force - the tribes were given no option but to be baptised in the footsteps of their conquered chieftains. 

In contrast, a softer line was taken by Pope Gregory I, who in 601 told Augustine not to destroy pagan shrines in England but to convert them into churches. The difference between these two approaches has been maintained ever since. Some missionaries have paid little attention to the indigenous culture of those they were converting. Others have attempted to transpose Christianity gently, using elements of the host culture to convey the Christian message, as in the early missions to China and Japan.

The former line was generally taken by missionaries of the 19th century who spread into Asia, Africa and South America in the path of European colonial conquests. With some exceptions, missionaries tended to assume that cultural norms such as polygamy (particularly in Africa) were to be stamped out. Their mission was to bring barbarian cultures to "civilisation" - by which they meant the European version of that term. Witness the outlook of John Philip, a missionary in Southern Africa:

While our missionaries ... are everywhere scattering the seeds of civilisation, social order, happiness, they are ... extending British interests, British influence, and the British Empire. Wherever the missionary places his standard among a savage tribe, their prejudices against the colonial government give way. [2]

By the 20th century, the Church's missionary effort, helped immensely by the spread of Western culture, had resulted in the Christian message penetrating every part of the globe. It has been so successful that all nation states have now institutionalised the original missionary priorities of health and education. (It should not be forgotten that both these were also pioneered by the Church in European countries, long before they became the normal responsibility of governments.)

More basic to mission and missionaries over the centuries than scriptural authority, has been the strong conviction of absolute certainty. Evangelist Christians have taken with them the belief that they have their authority direct from God via the Bible and Church leaders. This conviction has often proved an extremely powerful force, capable of motivating missionaries to undertake great dangers and endure extreme deprivation and suffering.

In modern times the belief that an all-powerful God supports Christian mission has been bolstered by other factors:

  • People now tend to perceive themselves as to some degree in charge of the world, able to influence and in some ways form it through the power of reason. When God is the battery of the torch of reason, the light shines with inexhaustible power. There are no limits to its reach.

  • When the intervening power of God retreats in the face of reason into the realm of miracle and spirituality, humanity is left in charge of the planet. Science sees the world as an intricate system of cause and effect. Similarly, people have increasingly seen themselves as able to cause the world to be Christian through their missionary actions.

  • Whereas early Christians perceived the world as a given state of affairs, ordered by the grace of God, their progeny have steadily switched to the idea of eternal change. In its earliest form, this idea took the crude shape of mere "progress" - an inevitable, linear process of improvement through humanity's own efforts. Just as we must develop ourselves and our societies, so also must Christians promote the Kingdom of God - or, to use a more appropriate expression, the way God does things on earth.

This way of perceiving mission has persisted well into the 20th century. But in recent decades, it has suffered a profound change of paradigm. 

New paradigms in science usually completely replace old ones, definitely and irreversibly. Once biologists recognise living things as part of a total system, it becomes increasingly difficult for physicists not to do the same in relation to their sphere of knowledge. When Copernicus and Galileo redrew the map of the solar system, their new paradigm ousted the earth as an object at the centre of the universe. Darwin's theory of evolution combined with our knowledge of genetics has irreversibly replaced the biblical story of creation and the Fall.

Christianity is not like this. Ancient paradigms can survive alongside new ones indefinitely. The older paradigms seldom disappear completely. David Bosch [2] reminds us that

... in virtually all denominations today we find, side by side, fundamentalist, conservative, moderate, liberal and radical believers ... further complicated by the fact that people are often committed to more than one paradigm at the same time 

even though those paradigms may contradict each other.

The same multiplication of paradigms has affected the whole concept of mission. There are today many competing ways of thinking about it. These range from a traditional understanding of mission as preaching on the street corner, to perceiving mission as a symbol of Western imperialism ravaging the innocent in developing nations. Some missionaries still journey into the jungles of Brazil and the Congo, while others focus on programs of social justice in city slums from New York to Delhi.

Just as paradigms of religion have multiplied, so also has the world begun changing from a collection of relatively closed societies into a world-wide, open grouping of cultures. For the first time ever, Christians are faced with the possibility that their faith can validly be seen as only one of many possible faiths.

The Lutheran theologian Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923) led the way in understanding the impact of globalisation on Christian tradition. He suggested that humanity's horizons have expanded both backward into the past and laterally across the entire breadth of the present. As as result, it is no longer valid to regard any particular cultural paradigm as absolute. Christianity is now relative to the flow of events and circumstances in our world, says Lloyd Geering:

The claims of Christianity ... like those of the other great religious movements, [have] been caught up in this maelstrom of historical relativism ... the Christian [is] required to rethink the Christian position and its relation to other religions in the light of the new historical consciousness. [3]

In other words, it is becoming increasingly difficult for some Christians to think in terms of a triumphalist Church, which inevitably (given time) subsumes all other modes of faith into itself. It may be that the idea of mission as a foundational part of the Christian calling has to be given up. This is not to say, however, that a minority of Christians will not continue along the old missionary path. Those, sometimes classified as evangelical or fundamentalist, retain a conviction of doctrinal certainty which drives them to proclaim their version of Jesus as the only way to redemptive certainty.

If the Christian faith can no longer be defined as that which is superior to all others, then the traditional emphasis on complete conversion must go out of the window. In its place would have to be a paradigm which allows other faiths a completely equal footing in the eyes of the God and the Church. Preaching would have to be replaced with open dialogue, aimed not at changing anyone's mind, but aimed at the deepest possible understanding of truth a seen in part through the other's viewpoint.

This is only one of the many competing paradigms which focus on Jesus as in some sense "the light of the world". But it is one which is rapidly forcing itself to the surface of Christian consciousness. Many ordinary Christians increasingly feel reluctance to "preach the Gospel" in the traditional sense of attempting to convince others that Jesus is the only true answer to life's problems and dilemmas. The more this consciousness quickens, the less will mission be a driving force in the Christian endeavour.

In Western Europe and increasingly elsewhere, Christianity is becoming less and less appealing to a broad spectrum of people. At the same time in Africa, more people are becoming Christian than ever before. So the picture is a mixed one. Yet many Christians fail to recognise an important fact - that in Asian countries, where there is a long and solid cultural history, the missionary effort has largely failed. It has converted only a tiny minority of the populations of India, China and Japan, for example.

Bishop John Spong is more sweeping in his conclusion that

... the data make in very clear that the Christian goal of converting the world to Christ has been a significant failure everywhere ... the world has a smaller percentage of Christians in it today than it did earlier in its history. [4]

He goes on to suggest that missionary effort is merely a disguised power-play which derives from inherent human self-centredness. Missionaries, in his view, are by definition bound to work from a life-position which sees themselves as acceptable to God and everyone else as unacceptable. This is directly contrary to the kernel of the Good News as lived out by Jesus of Nazareth. He goes on:

... despite the fact that some beautiful and sensitive people with the best of intentions have ... given themselves to missionary enterprises ... We must now see those activities as base-born, rejecting, negative, and yes, I would say even evil.

What Spong fails to see is that in defining a past paradigm as he does, he is condemning that which was once perfectly legitimate in terms of the culture which gave birth to it. We are all born to a particular world-view, much of which is by definition largely beyond our immediate awareness. The tides of social change are relatively slow, and it is easy to look back and condemn past generations from the vantage point of our own social norms.

Having said that, however, it is equally easy for Christians to look down on other faiths, which have grown from entirely different social currents, as less valuable that theirs. If I were to prophesy about Christianity over the next century, I would say that its followers will become increasingly aware of their ideological bias, and as a result increasingly unable to be militantly evangelistic.
[1] The Five Gospels, R W Funk & R W Hoover, Polebridge Press, 1996
[2] Quoted in Transforming Mission, D J Bosch, Orbis, 1996
[3] Christian Faith at the Crossroads, Polebridge Press, 2001
[4] A New Christianity for a New World, HarperSanFrancisco, 2002

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