Self Understandings Of Missionary Work

nathanielkiddnathanielkidd on 05 Jan 2009 03:51

I’ve come across a beautiful treasure in the contemplation of one of our sticky issues—the meaning of missionary work. Theologian Raimon Panikka identifies five distinct self-understandings of the Christian mission, each particularly suited to its cultural and historical context.

1. Christian Mission as Martyrdom

In the early church, being a Christian meant faithfully interpreting and joyfully witnessing to truth of the founding message and experiences of the faith. It spread geographically through the work of wandering monks and missionary bishops, but won most of its converts through the fervor of everyday believers, many of whom suffered heroically for their persistence under the persecutions.

Despite vicious challenges, the Christian message was both unstoppable and wildly contagious. It was a universal, egalitarian, and revolutionary message that resonated clearly within the cultural constructs of the empires of the ancient world.

This situation, however, changed permanently as Christianity ascended to the status of official imperial religion in the fourth century. Christianity now had an official brand and political pedigree: with this, it enjoyed new privileges, but also had strong cultural and historical connections that would eventually cause it to become perceived as an entirely “Western” religion.

2. Christian Mission as Metanoia

As Christianity became an accepted creed, it faced new challenges. In the age of persecution, any profession of Christian faith was dangerous and required a fierce and deep commitment. Under a Christian empire, it suddenly became fashionable and profitable to call oneself a Christian. Passionate Christians had to find new ways to heroically dedicate their lives to Christ.

In this period, monasticism flourished as a rebellion against the worldliness and shallowness of so-called Christians who had converted to align with the latest fashions of the Empire. The primary mission of the Church became one of calling Christians to a deeper spiritual life, conformed to the spiritual image of Christ rather than seeking the wealth and success of the world.

This was described as metanoia, the word translated “repentance” in the New Testament.

3. Christian Mission as Crusade

The rise of Islam in the seventh century presented a huge challenge to Christendom. In a very short span of time the Christian nations of the East and Africa were tidily swept under the rule of an Islamic empire, and a Christian Europe felt extraordinarily threatened by the attackers pressing on both its eastern and western borders.

In this climate of fear, European Christianity recast its mission as Crusade: holy wars instigated to drive back the Saracen hordes and save Christendom. Church and State grew more interdependent as their interests converged in the presence of a common enemy, and huge amounts of wealth entered the Church as ecclesiastical policies aligned with political expediencies.

The idea of Crusade as mission ultimately backfired, as the Crusade precedent was expanded and used to enforce uniformity within the Christian fold. Crusades were declared against Orthodox Christians and heretical sects, ultimately precipitating the sectarian conflict between Protestants and Catholics ravaged late medieval Europe. The Christian faith has never fully recovered from this deep tear in the Church, and indeed, the savage violence of the Crusades and their aftermath catalyzed the rise of rationalism and secular statecraft.

4. Christian Mission as Civilizing Influence

Europe rose out the Middle Ages as a global power, and promptly used this power to increase its wealth and influence. International trade and interactions increased substantially, largely at the instigation of the West. Along with this increase in contact came the evolution of new infrastructure and models of cultural interaction. These structures existed primarily in service of European interests and concerns, and were not always equitable in their understanding and treatment of the other party.

At home, Christians imbibed stories of the savages and heathens of far-away lands. Inspired by a mixture of compassion and the Great Commission, missionaries took to the seas armed with their European-Christian faith and a vision for bettering the lots of these strange and distant people.

5. Christian Mission as Dialogue

The variety of voices in the post-colonial world has opened up a new respect for different cultures and religious traditions, and brought into sharp focus the fact that memories of crusade and colonialism are still painful for non-Western nations. In this context, the Christian mission needs to be reconsidered, not as a crusade or civilizing mission, but as a discussion grounded in true love and respect for the other party.

As Christians, it is imperative that we identify how we interpret our commission, and interpret our critically through the eyes of Jesus Christ. Christians through the ages have worked out their calling in a variety of ways depending on their circumstances. How did Jesus approach his mission, and how would he in turn encourage us to approach our mission in the world today?

The Great Commission as an Invitation to Pilgrimage
For us, the Great Commission has become centrally a command to go in faith. All other concerns have been absorbed into that one pressing vocation.

We live, after all, in a transitional and ambiguous age. The methods and theories of the past have come into question, but the ways of the future are still underdeveloped and in flux. Since we are unable to whole-heartedly embrace either of these, what remains for us is a commitment to Christ and a compulsion to enact that commitment in a broader context.

There are, of course, other details to the Great Commission that we have not yet addressed. But perhaps this is a question of pneumatology: our love for and commitment to Christ is being tried and enhanced through this pilgrimage. Now we must wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit.

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