OF THE most pertinent questions concerning mission, few have been as compelling, consistent, and contested as those dealing with evangelism and witness — and more so in post-colonial and pluralistic contexts, with a growing awareness of the legacies of Christendom.
Alert to this legacy, this book — the second of three preparatory volumes for the Lambeth Conference (Books, 20 May) — explores evangelism and witness in ways that are attentive to the demographic shifts in world Christianity.
Authors from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and the Caribbean offer ten essays that constitute the main substance of the book (xi). The clear rationale for prioritising these “voices from the Global South” is to “help correct a historic imbalance” in which such voices “have not had the exposure that voices from the Global North have had at previous Lambeth Conferences”.
Each of these essays is complemented by a brief response from a scholar practitioner based in the UK and the United States, lending the volume a distinctive dialogical tone — which is of immense benefit. In a prismatic manner, evangelism and witness are refracted to draw attention to a rich array of themes — religious plurality, dialogue with culture, inclusion of young people and children, politics of identity and pastoral care — that characterise the changing landscape of evangelism and witness today.
While completely appreciative of both the style and substance of the book, I was struck by how the theological framework for discussing witness and evangelism is still very Eurocentric. The contexts from which many of these essays are written only serve as the background for evangelism and witness, without providing the theological and epistemological foundations for understanding witness and evangelism.
A very Eurocentric model of evangelism centred on the understanding of the good news as “something to be brought” (which aligned with the “civilising mission” model) is, unfortunately, not problematised vis-à-vis the core of much contextual theologising that has happened in Asia and Africa. For example, the Sri Lankan theologian D. T. Niles speaks of “the previousness of Jesus” in Asia, which affirms that God was present and at work in Asia before colonial missionaries arrived.
This volume testifies to the fact that not allowing the wealth of such theological thinking to shape understandings of witness and evangelism runs the risk of creating a theological imbalance that elbows out more Trinitarian and pneumatological bases which could decolonise inherited understandings of evangelism and witness.
The other striking feature of the book is the respondents’ almost complete lack of self-critical reflection on what the implications of the papers that they are responding to might be for their own theologies and mission contexts. The respondents’ engagements are largely at arm’s length, and remain firewalled behind a very conceptual engagement, which made me wonder whether the book itself tacitly reinforced the typical North-South divide of “concept v. context” in theological scholarship. I wonder whether the immense potential that the unique structure of the book offers for transformation and dialogue has been fulfilled.
Despite all this, the book is of immense value for the Anglican Communion. It is not without reason that the Archbishop of Canterbury in his foreword describes it as a “shining testimony to what the church can and should be in a broken world”.
The Revd Dr Peniel Rajkumar is a Global Theologian with USPG and an Hon. Canon of Worcester Cathedral.
Witnessing Together: Global Anglican perspectives on evangelism and witness
Muthuraj Swamy and Stephen Spencer, editors
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