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Visions of mission for new millennium

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

What if the Holy Spirit was at the center of Christian missionary theology and activity? What if churches of the North and South were to sit at the same table as equal partners? What if the mission of the future was to seek first the Kingdom of God?

Mission theologians from Africa, Asia, and North and South America met here April 27-29 to debate these and other visions of what mission could be like in the third millennium. Presentations at the World Mission Institute 2000’s conference, “What hope for people? The point of mission,” critiqued the Christian missionary theology and practice of the past and put forth alternatives for the future. The conference was sponsored by the Chicago Center for Global Ministries, a consortium of mission groups from different denominations, and by the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, a Catholic mission society. It was held at the Lutheran School of Theology.

Speakers agreed that the church’s most important role in mission is to bring the gospel and hope to people, especially those who are marginalized, poor and suffering. “Gospel values transform people from within,” Musimbi Kanyoro, general secretary of the Geneva-based World Young Women’s Christian Association and one of three major speakers, told the gathering. “Gospel values shake the values we hold dear and call us to repentance. Gospel values look beyond the outward images into the intentions of the heart.”

But many times, the gospel is buried or lost in layers of church structures and politics that may end up alienating the poor, argued liberation theologian Fr. José Comblin. The “formalist, ritual-minded, intellectual” nature of “official Catholicism” is far removed from peoples’ realities and is aligned to elites in Latin America, said Comblin, a Belgian-born theologian who has worked for nearly 40 years in Brazil and Chile.

And the gospels have to be presented in ways that people can understand, said Jose de Mesa, a Catholic theologian based in Manila. He described how Christianity had been “transported” to Asia without being “transplanted.”

Early evangelization efforts imposed a foreign, Western idea of Jesus onto the population with little regard for the peoples’ culture, ways of understanding and the injustices of colonialism, said de Mesa. “A message of salvation that is not rooted to the context of the people will sound fake and not to be lived out,” agreed Kanyoro.

Speakers shared their experiences and ideas of how the church can change and is changing to become more effective in the lives of those to whom it ministers.

De Mesa described how he uses the Asian Integrated Pastoral Approach, adapted from South Africa, to help people in Asian countries reflect on scripture. By using their own cultural resources and experiences, communities define what they think of as “salvation.” They then think of a meaningful title or name for Jesus. After discussion, scripture reading and reflection, communities “re-gauge” their original image of Jesus.

“It is when people themselves appropriate the significance and relevance of Jesus and express this in their own way that Jesus becomes more real to them,” said de Mesa. Kanyoro urged foreign church groups to look beyond problem-solving and fulfilling Africans’ needs. A wider perspective will help foreigners to recognize and draw upon Africans’ resilience, resourcefulness and ways of doing things. “It’s not our poverty that should define us,” she said.

A “partnership” between foreign and local churches would see a “dialogue of equals” between the two groups and encourage African missionaries to minister to people in the West, said Kanyoro. The church should also provide a “safe place” where people can talk to each other and examine themselves, she said. This dialogue must “challenge people into new action, new policies, new ways of thinking.”

Foreign missionaries must work “in the context of the rest of the church. They are part of the African church,” she said.

The church should return to its “preceding phase -- that of a church committed to the liberation of the poor,” said Comblin. He called for “invention, creativity and boldness” in using scripture to bring about social change and challenge the existing repressive power structures.

“My hope is the Holy Spirit. I think the third millennium will be the era of the Spirit,” said Comblin. “The Holy Spirit is very active presently. But there is increasing conflict between the churches as institutions and the presence of the Holy Spirit in the people.”

A return to an earlier church would also mean making families a priority in mission planning and activity, said de Mesa. The gospel was originally received and transmitted in houses and households, which became the structure of the early church, he said. As the nature of mission changes, new people and groups that do not fall within official mission structures may emerge. Maria Burke, co-director of the Catholic Missions Office of the Chicago archdiocese, spoke of what she called “rogue groups” in the Catholic church.

These include lay missionaries who are inspired by the founder of a religious congregation, individuals who are not affiliated with a particular congregation but who go as a lay missionary to a specific mission, and local parishes that wish to “partner” with another parish somewhere else, she said.

Anthony Gittins, missiology professor at Catholic Theological Union, said he preferred to think of these “rogue movements” as new life. New life tends to form “at the edges and on the margins,” he said. In mission, this appears as “a new life in the Spirit which is cracking out or cracking up, old structures.”

National Catholic Reporter, May 12, 2000