Missions In a Matrix of Movement

So we have, I think, the well-fed, well-educated people who have access to doctors can downplay their institutions, but the reality is the gospel needs to lead to well-being for people.

Many of your stories are about missionaries who empower people from the bottom up, as, for example, with the education of women. Tell us about that.

There are a lot of anthropological studies of the roles of women in Pentecostalism. Some scholars are arguing that Pentecostalism is a women's empowerment movement; often women become Christians first and then they bring their husbands into the faith, so the church is a strategic women's movement.

The church becomes a base for improvement of families. Women are deeply concerned for the well-being of their children, and if their husband is off drinking and meeting prostitutes and spending the family income, then women who might be powerless in other realms need to be part of an association that affirms their self-worth, tells them they're children of God, and also helps provide some kind of check on the undiluted power of the wage-earning husband. You see women's groups organized in new churches around the world.

What are the tensions in mission settings between enculturation and putting the gospel in the clothing of the people you're with?

Andrew Walls talks about how the church must be a home for you, but if it's too much like yourself, other people are not at home with you. The tension is to create homes but to be able to welcome others to our home, and that's an ongoing tension between the catholicity of the church, its universal intent to share the gospel, and the fact that it's got to be clothed in the particular cultures.

Much of the dissension in the world church today is over where do we draw the line? Is affirmation of homosexuals an acceptable part of the gospel? These debates are often culturally driven as to the appropriate way to read the Bible. What's the appropriate place to draw the line between what's essential to be a Christian and what's not so important? The existence of a worldwide church does create more stakeholders whose opinions matter. The days when the Westerner could go to some other part of the world and dictate the terms of engagement are gone.

Is there more attention to mission now than in the recent past?

There has been an upsurge in interest in mission. What has changed is that there is a world church out there. We're not just stuck in the post-colonial period of the 1960s and ‘70s, when the major role of the Westerner was to berate him- or herself for being imperialistic.

As soon as you realize that the bearer of the gospel is someone from a land that you used to think of as colonized, you realize, "Wait a minute -- what does that mean?" That means that mission is part of this bigger picture of what it means to be a Christian, no matter where we are from. Globalization has given people a recognition that the church is a worldwide, interconnected network.

Another thing I think that's going on is that young people are intensely interested in relationships with people from other parts of the world, other religions, and other worldviews. This differs from what was the phrase of the 1960s and ‘70s, "partnership." Partnership was an effort to have some kind of deliberate structure for equality, but that's not the same thing as actually having to like people or to be friends with them. Young people in the United States often see their interest in mission through this lens of cross-cultural friendship.

In the age of emails and Facebook friendships, is it strange that young people have this interest in face-to-face, relational missions?

Yeah. Postmodern sensibility is interested in face-to-face relationship not mediated through the written word. One of the differences, perhaps, in mission today and mission yesterday is the question of what's the end result. I hear people talking about the relationship as the end result. People want to share the gospel, but they want to do it in what they see as a nonimperialistic way and to truly listen to another person -- walking in their shoes, learning their language, living as they live. Relationships require long-term commitment.

Is there a need for bishops or other clergy leaders to see themselves as missionaries-in-chief?

One of the interesting things about the growing world church is the great rise of charismatic leadership where people are either being appointed as or appointing themselves as apostles, based on their mastery of spiritual gifts. If you're in a period of chaos or great complexity, the leader becomes a symbol of unity in a way that isn't necessary when you have a well-ordered bureaucracy.

A lot of the new churches that are founded around the world -- Pentecostal churches and others -- as they grow and start clumping together in denominational-like associations, their figurehead starts calling himself bishop. It's really interesting that in an age of greater, in some sense, common democracy and widespread literacy, people are seeking powerful persons as leaders.

9/30/2010 4:00:00 AM
  • Mainline Protestant
  • Globalization
  • Mission
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