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Missions in a matrix of movement

Missions is no longer only about sending a missionary to another place, Dana Robert says. With globalization, it’s a flowing set of networked relationships, linking Christians around the world.

September 28, 2010

After the collapse of European colonialism in the last century, Christian missions has gone from a focus on partnership in the 1960s and ’70s to a present-day desire for authentic relationships among Christians from differing cultures worldwide, said Dana Robert, a historian of world Christianity and missions.

“People want to share the gospel,” Robert said. “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.”

Robert is the Truman Collins Professor of World Christianity and History of Mission at Boston University School of Theology and co-director of the school’s Center for Global Christianity and Mission. She has written several books, including her two most recent, “Joy to the World! Mission in the Age of Global Christianity” and “Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion.” Robert earned her bachelor’s degree at Louisiana State University and her doctorate from Yale University.

Robert spoke with Faith & Leadership about the impact of globalization on church missions. The video clip is an excerpt from the following edited transcript.

Q: How has Christian mission changed over the last few generations?

We’re in a completely different mission context than we were in the mid-20th century. Three-quarters of the world’s Christians are from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Starting in the mid-20th century, there was a feeling, after European colonialism, that missions should be multidirectional, from everywhere to everywhere, the whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world.

With globalization, we’ve now got a matrix of movement in which mission is taking place. Mission is taking place through migration, for example, of people from Africa moving to Europe or to the United States, people from Latin America moving to the United States, people from the United States moving to Asia.

The emphasis is not as much on the professional missionary who is sent from one place to another for a lifetime. It’s a much more free-flowing set of networked relationships. In addition to migration as a major factor in mission, globalization has allowed the local church to become its own mission-sending agency. Anybody who’s got an Internet connection can now arrange a two-week mission trip for the youth in the church.

Christianity is a worldwide religion made up of people who used to be seen as the receivers of mission. They now see themselves as missionaries.

Q: How will this impact the way institutions think in terms of mission?

Interest in mission is now bubbling up from the grass roots. The creativity that’s flowing upward creates a state of chaos. It’s much harder for a leader to stay on top of all of this, and the question is, should a leader try to control it? Our structures need to move from controlling structures to enabling structures. The issue for pastoral leaders today is to be listening and discerning where the movement is among your own people who are interested in mission, and then helping to shape that in productive directions.

Q: Can you give us an example of an organization that is moving from a top-down structure to an enabling structure?

The United Methodist Church is what I know best. In the 1970s and ’80s, the Board of Global Ministries was seen as and saw itself as in control of mission. Now, the Board of Global Ministries has redefined its role to be a place you can go for information. It still does resourcing for the full-time missionaries in the church. It also is trying to enable annual conferences that are doing their own volunteer mission training.

Q: Building institutions like hospitals and schools was once a key part of missions, but today we seem to have lost a theology of why institutions are important. What does that history of institution building have to teach us?

There is a whole anti-institutional movement in missions, and if you were to take, say, the Perspectives course, which is a popular lay training course in a lot of churches, there was an analysis saying that, in effect, the mission-station approach was wrong; schools and hospitals are too top-heavy, and they’re not helpful. And a lot of people in the evangelical world have been formed with that bias against institutions. The reality is, though, that they’ve had their educational and medical institutions that they could take for granted. And what we’re seeing now is, after and during a huge period of church growth in Africa, for example, African Christians are calling for those institutions. So what you often see after the Christian movement grows, the next step is to grow in depth. And people want education. They want medical care. They want the kind of -- whether you want to call it institutions or talk about the functions of it -- they want the things that make life better, because the gospel is to share abundant life, to bring people to abundant life through Jesus Christ. So becoming a Christian must make a material difference in your life. That self-improvement becomes a fruit of the gospel. And I think in the West we have taken that for granted often. ...

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.

Q: 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.

Q: 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.

Q: 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.

Q: In the age of e-mails 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.

Q: 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.

Q: What does this say to heads of denominations?

We need to readopt the language of apostolic leadership, then define it in ways that are authentic to our conviction that democracy and equality are basic human rights. This language of apostolic leadership has been seized upon by theologically conservative and authoritarian definitions. We need to go back to the Apostle Paul, who talked about the limitations of his own leadership and that God was making him a leader, and had a real humility about him.

There are ways to have the apostolic function of leadership, a missionary function, without being authoritarians. If you think about when John Wesley set aside overseers for the United States around the time of the American Revolution -- he broke with the Anglican Church structure, and it was over apostolicity. There was a mission need that could not be met unless there were leaders designated for that. So he broke with apostolic succession in order to be apostolic. For Protestants, our definition of apostolicity should come from faithfulness to being missionaries, to being boundary crossers and those who seek to witness to the gospel in new situations.

Q: What sparks your interest in mission trends?

My first interest was in the relationship between American politics, worldviews and people in other parts of the world. That’s one of the sets of questions that drew me into being a historian of Christianity. Then within that I was, as a Christian, engaged in the relationship between faith and action. Through that I found myself drawn to missions as a place in which people did amazing things against their own best interests, often because of their faith. They were cultural boundary crossers. They were the living bridges between one culture and another. The combination of those intellectual questions with my own Christian faith and wanting to study what was of the deepest importance to what it means to be a Christian led me into the study of missions.

Q: Is there a contemporary Christian story that you come back to again and again?

There are so many great Christians around the world who have done amazing things. You know the movie “Chariots of Fire.” It’s about Eric Liddell. He goes back to China as a missionary from Scotland. He then stays there even though the Japanese take over the area. He spends years in a prison camp serving the prisoners, and he was so important to the Chinese that recently Chinese Christians erected a monument to him, because he died in a Japanese prison camp.

Now, when we study mission history, at what point do we study it? Do we study the colonial history of 1920? Do we stop at 1943, when Eric Liddell is in the prison, or do we judge him from how Chinese people see him today, as a great hero who loved them? That’s the paradox of mission history. It’s so human, and we don’t know what God is going to do in the future with a flawed story of human weakness. Sometimes things come out of it that we simply cannot predict, and who is to say what the ultimate meaning is?