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Changing the face of mission

17 January 2014

Mission agencies have long sought to shed colonial baggage, but ideas about mission and missionaries are still evolving, Jemima Thackray reports


Reconstruction: cross on a mission building

Reconstruction: cross on a mission building

UNTIL the mid-1950s, many Christians would have subscribed to the definition of mission given by the late Lesslie Newbigin: "Mission is the Church's obedient participation in the action by which the confession of Jesus as Lord becomes the authentic confession of ever new peoples."

This is not to say that the missionaries of the past were concerned only with evangelism. The building of schools, hospitals, and other social-action projects has always been part of missionary activity.

The Rt Revd Patrick Harris, a former Bishop of Southwell, and his wife, Anne, were missionaries in South America during the 1960s, and remember that "Back then, mission was broader than just preaching the gospel. But the difference was in the mentality of a 'sending' country, and the one who simply received - there was little understanding of reciprocity."

But, as cultural attitudes evolved, alongside the dismantling of the British Empire, the idea of overseas mission became more problematic. The executive director of Churches in Mission at the Evangelical Alliance, Krish Kandiah, says: "I never use the word 'mission' when talking to the secular press - there are too many negative connotations and colonial baggage."

Indeed, it was not just the word itself, but also the thinking behind it which was challenged. The Rt Revd Zac Niringiye, a former assistant bishop in the diocese of Kampala, Uganda, says: "The problem is that some European cross-cultural mission was, and sometimes still is, informed by a colonial paradigm: one of power and economic dominance."

This awareness has been coupled with the Church's need to adapt to an increasingly secular, relativistic society. "Apologetics in a post-modern world needs to be about making Christ evident through the transparency of our discipleship," the executive leader of the Church Mission Society (CMS), Canon Philip Mounstephen, says. "The challenge for Christians is this: do our lives speak authentically about the presence of Christ within us?"

ALTHOUGH missionary activity had historically involved good works, the need to augment words with deeds has been brought into sharper focus. This was characterised by the "Five Marks of Mission" developed by the Anglican Consultative Council between 1984 and 1990. The first two speak of proclaiming, teaching, and baptising, thus reflecting a more traditional interpretation of mission. The final three emphasise the need to "respond to human need", "transform unjust structures", and to "safeguard the integrity of creation".

The communications manager at CMS, Jeremy Woodham, says that the mindset should be one of "holistic or integral mission - not separating physical need from spiritual, ministering to the whole person, motivated by love".

This thinking was behind the agency's decision to change its name in 1995 from the Church Missionary Society. The slightly shortened version, Canon Mounstephen says, is meant to speak of "the bigger task that is God's mission, and the understanding that every Christian is called to be a missionary - it's no longer just about sending professional missionaries abroad".

Similarly, in 2012, USPG (the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel) changed its name for the first time since 1965 (when the SPG merged with UMCA, the Universities' Mission to Central Africa), to Us. Formerly calling it the mission agency of the Anglican Church, its website now simply describes it as a "church-based charity": "The old 18th-century name was not connecting with people in the 21st century. We are all part of 'us', regardless of faith, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality."

The director for global networking at Us., the Revd Edgar Ruddock, explains how this has affected its understanding of mission: "The incarnational vision of 'Immanuel' is important. Mission is less polemical, and more about discovering how God is already with his creation, and in people's lives. It's not about pushing the gospel down people's throats.

"We don't have a dualistic mindset, whereby we're just trying to make individuals spiritually 'right' in terms of their personal salvation: the body of Christ is more than individuals, and transformation should be about the whole community."

THIS recalibration has led these organisations to work with a diverse range of mission partners abroad - not just those with gifts of evangelism. Ann-Marie Wilson, for example, has been supported by CMS in setting up her own charity, working to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM). For her, "mission is being the heart and hands of Jesus, not about forcing my faith on others. It's a justice issue: for me, the Church is a human-rights body."

The charity is called 28 Too Many, referring to the 28 African nations where FGM is still practised; but the organisation does not have a permanent presence in these countries. "We have a light-touch approach," Ms Wilson says. "It's about enabling local initiatives, and empowering local activists through training and exchanging skills - putting them in touch with other people doing the same thing."

This reflects how mission in general has changed, in order to acknowledge that indigenous people know their own contexts best, and should be the ones empowered to transform them. It is a model that Mr Ruddock insists on: "We don't do the work of God on behalf of others; instead, we accompany the local Church as they do it, through training and capacity-building. The Churches we work with say: 'Don't send us leaders, but help us to develop our own.'"

This is also seen in the CMS's decentralisation - it has created CMS Africa and CMS Asia, self-governing agencies with their own trustees. "We used to be an extension of CMS in the UK," the international director of CMS Africa, Dennis Tongoi, explains, "but now we are led by Africans who can identify African priorities."

CMS, however, still believes in the value of sending British Christians to other countries. "There's still a powerful role for the outsider coming in and offering a fresh perspective," Mr Woodham says. "And there are certain skills that someone can have by virtue of greater access to education which can still be used to bless others."

But Mr Tongoi argues for cultural sensitivity. "It's not if people go, but how people go." Ms Wilson is a prime example. Before founding her charity, she studied for a qualification in Islamic development, gender, and anthropology, which included a placement in a Somali refugee camp.

"I now work in many Muslim countries," she says. "I share my faith, but I also listen to theirs, and I can say I understand because I've read the Qur'an as well as the Bible."

The mission-education director at the CMS, Jonny Baker, believes that we should not be afraid of reciprocity within mission. "Dialogue is now a big part of it," he says. "In a post-modern world, we need to recognise that everyone has a story to tell; the only thing is, you're not meant to claim that yours is the only story. So we have to be humble and offer up our own - not from a pulpit, or with a megaphone, but round the table, in conversation. And because it's a captivating story, people will get it."

In the midst of this emerging narrative of cultural mutuality, however, CMS is keen to emphasise that proclaiming the gospel has not been forgotten. "Fundamentally, it's about sharing Jesus," Canon Mounstephen says. "Otherwise, the Church becomes a glorified development agency. We want the world to know Jesus, and this is at the centre of all that we do."

It is this concern - that the Church needs to take care not to sideline evangelism - that leads Mr Kandiah back to the Bible. "People will often use that Francis of Assisi quote, 'Preach the gospel at all times, and, if necessary, use words.' But this isn't the model we see in the New Testament. Mission, for Jesus, was definitely about deeds and words -and if it wasn't possible for the Son of God not to use words, then it's not possible for us."

OTHERS are more critical of how far the contemporary understanding of mission has expanded, leaving little room for proclamation. Crosslinks, for example, is another mission agency, formed as a result of a split from CMS in the 1920s. Its mission director, Canon Andy Lines, quotes Stephen Neill to sum up his views: "If everything is mission, nothing is mission."

Crosslinks still adheres to a constitutional statement, written in 1946, which states that verbal declaration of Jesus Christ is "the primary function of missionary enterprise, taking precedence over medical and other auxiliary ministries".

Canon Lines warns: "The danger is, if we only do good works, but not tell people the one thing that's needed about Christ, then we are condemning people to death, which is not truly loving."

This same sense of urgency was conveyed by the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, when, at the November 2013 General Synod, he talked about the need for "intentional evangelism". "Compared with evangelism, everything else is like rearranging furniture when the house is on fire," he said. "Tragically, too often this is what we're doing - arguing over words and phrases while the people of England are left floundering amid meaninglessness, anxiety, and despair."

The Synod motion called on mission organisations to help local churches engage in effective disciple-making. Indeed, many agencies are now as focused on equipping the UK Church as they are on sending people overseas. One of the ways in which CMS does this is by being willing to receive mission partners from other countries, in the spirit of a phrase coined by the former Bishop of Rochester Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, that mission should be "everywhere to everywhere".

The Revd Patrick Mukholi is a former CMS mission partner who moved from Kenya to live and work on the Blackbird Leys council estate in Oxford. He is now Pioneer Minister on the Penhill estate in Swindon. He vouches for the idea that being "sent" (the translation of the Latin word missio) from another culture can be useful. "People are curious that an African missionary should be here," he says. "They come to hear my story because they're intrigued. There's also the cultural difference, which challenges people. In the UK, people say faith is a private thing, but we Africans talk about our faith like it's our football team - we get excited about it."

CANON MOUNSTEPHEN was formerly chaplain of St Michael's, a large multicultural church in Paris, where one of his tasks was working with a congregation of Tamil refugees. He now believes that the migrant communities in the UK could be crucial to the "re-evangelisation of the nation".

"It's about releasing the gifts of the global Church in this country - gifts that are already here," he says. "Parts of London are some of the most ethnically diverse places on the planet. We need to ask: 'What is God doing in this, and how can we unlock its potential?'"

Indeed, it is the experience that mission agencies have in cross-cultural work which UK churches are now being encouraged to tap into. Mr Baker explains that there are lessons to be learned from those who engage with people overseas, because "stepping outside a church building is crossing a cultural boundary, as people don't 'get' the Church any more."

The Church of England's national adviser for mission, Rachel Jordan, is another person who advocates drawing on cross-cultural wisdom. "The English Church has had a 'Come to us' mentality. Now we're learning that we need to get out there, but first we need to understand the 'tribes' of the UK, and realise it can't be a one-size-fits-all approach. Only then will the Church start to look different."

This message that the UK is the new mission field is taking a whileto get through to some churches. There is still a widely held view that mission is overseas. Consequently, finding the funding to support home efforts can be a huge challenge.

"The UK Church still wants to send people to Uganda, even though it's one of the most evangelised countries in the world," Canon Mounstephen says. "Our challenge is to help the Church to see that there's a really significant need right here on its own doorstep."


THE Revd Patrick Mukholi is a licensed pioneer minister. Originally from Kenya, where he was working as the diocesan youth adviser in Mombasa, he was asked by CMS to come to the UK as a cross-cultural mission partner.

Mr Mukholi started off doing youth work on the Blackbird Leys estate, in Oxford, but he has recently moved to continue his mission work at Penhill council estate, in Swindon, supported by the parish church, St Peter's. "At the moment, I am mostly just getting to know the community, trying to build up some social capital with the locals."

Although he is getting to know as many people as possible, he still feels a particular calling towards youth culture. "The so-called GenerationY are not very good at what I call 'stickability', even at keeping relationships. So I want to be someone that really gets alongside them on this estate."

So far, he has experienced a mainly positive reception. "People on the estate feel marginalised and not part of society; so they identify with someone from a place like Africa because they associate it with poverty. I am non-threatening: they don't feel looked down on. People are also curious that an African missionary should be here: they come to hear my story because they're intrigued."

Yet, he believes, it is also the dissimilarity between him and his neighbours that enables him to have an effect. "There's also the cultural difference, which challenges people. In the UK, people say faith is a private thing, but we Africans talk about our faith like it's our football team - we get excited about it.

"But I believe that, as Christians, we should all be 'different'. Mission is always cross-cultural, whoever you are, because Christians are of a different culture to the world. I don't mean that we should be removed, like spectators: we are meant to be salt and light by making a difference. And this means actions as well as words. We have a saying in Africa: 'It is difficult to talk to a hungry person about God's love.'"


KATHARINE CROWSLEY is currently on the CMS pioneer mission-leadership programme, a course for both lay people and ordinands of the Church of England. Its aim is to equip people "to initiate and grow sustainable mission projects and Christian communities that have a transforming impact on Church and society in contexts that are currently challenging to our faith, and to existing patterns of Christian community."

Like others on the course, Ms Crowsley feels called to experiment with alternative creative expressions of what church could be, with the aim of reaching out to those who cannot identify with traditional models of church.

She has set has set up Cook@Chapel, a gathering for young people in the rural Buckinghamshire village where she lives. The group comes together every week to cook, and then share the fruits of their labour.

She believes that this constitutes "church". "There are so many references in the Bible to when Jesus shares food with people," she says. "It's the best way to build community and fellowship." The meeting also incorporates a relaxed time of prayer and discussion about the issues that affect young people, and how they relate to faith. "We use language that's understandable, not churchy; and nothing is overt."

As a secondary-school teacher, she has plenty of experience in how to relate to young people. "We're all at different stages on the journey, and people can develop their faith over time." 

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