Next week faculty and students from Central will return once again to Myanmar on a missional pilgrimage. This wonderful opportunity to visit with Christian sisters and brothers in a historic and beleaguered land calls us to reflection on how to think about the practice of mission in our day. The world has changed dramatically since the Judsons arrived in Burma in 1813, and we must consider new factors in our desire to live the Gospel mandate.
M. Thomas Thangaraj, who grew up in South India, offers insight on how a theology of Christian mission must adapt to new realities in his book The Common Task. He sketches five developments in the hundred years since the World Missionary Conference that met in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1910, a dramatic overture in the Protestant missionary movement. The robust enthusiasm of this gathering about the promise of global evangelization is challenged by the following:
1) Loss of optimism about human progress and possibility of transformation resulted from World Wars I and II. In his words, “confidence in the efforts of humans to evangelize the whole world was chastened by a realistic understanding of the human predicament.”
2)The dismantling of the colonial framework means that many pathways for traditional “expansion” forms of mission are closed. For instance, our friends at Myanmar Institute of Theology are quick to say: “we are not a mission field; we are global mission partners.” Their statement reflects a new self-understanding as the military regime ceased allowing missionary presence in 1966.
3)The resurgence and renaissance of religions other than Christianity call into question any form of triumphalism about the “superiority” of Christian faith. These religions are not flourishing only in the lands of their origin, however; the religious landscape is shifting in major US cities. The Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and Buddhist faiths have vibrant communities here in Kansas City.
4) We live with a new consciousness of the reality of religious pluralism. As the global marketplace draws all the world more closely together, we learn of the imbedded traditions of others. The Luce Foundation invites us to practice “respect for the lived religions of others,” which means that we not only acknowledge this pluralism, but find ways to live creatively together.
5) The last development is the rise of postmodern thought. This perspective denies that there is one overarching narrative that interprets reality for the whole world. Christian theology has traditionally interpreted the salvific hopes of the world through the biblical narrative. Postmodern thinking challenges this position.
We simply cannot ignore this analysis when we consider how the song of mission can be transposed for our time. I will continue this reflection in my next blog, for mission remains at the heart of Christian identity.
Molly T. Marshall
For more information about Central—the seminary of Kansas—visit www.cbts.edu