I was interviewed yesterday for a possible documentary on Mission in the Twenty-First Century by a ministry in Asia. Here are their questions followed by my initial tries at an answer:
What is a major theme of what you see God doing in your particular area of the world?
We see the first efforts at intentional mission within Western Culture. When Lesslie Newbigin labeled the West a mission field after returning to a secularized England from a very spiritual India in the early 1980s, his words rang alarm bells in Christendom. Why would a 'Christian' nation need mission? It is still controversial, even today. For example, missional churches raise great concern in the US, the Gospel in our Culture Network and Emergent in the United States serving as prime examples.
How is "missions" changing?
Missions are becoming more urban, more spiritual, more holistic, and more understanding of culture (both inside and outside the church). Mission organizations are looking less like the large company and more like mobile monastic communities.
In your area of the world, what major trend characterized missions in the 20th century?
In my part of the world, mission did not exist until very, very late in the century. Mission in the sense of a church looking to embody all of its practices within the host culture is still quite the exception.
From your vantage point, what trend(s) do you see developing for the future of missions during this 21st century?
Just as some of the best missionaries served and facilitated the development of local theologies overseas, 21st century missionaries in the West need to facilitate self-theologizing communities rather than impose 16th century responses to current questions. I see less a focus on the church service and more on the mission. These will be 'activist' communities -- no spectators allowed. Churches will become more like highly committed monastic communities. The producer/consumer dualism of clergy/laity will become less obvious. Churches will not adhere to the sacred/secular split -- they will all areas of reality as spiritual -- even social justice work.
How do you feel about these changes/developments?
I'm excited. It represents a sea change for the western church. It is also a huge challenge, because many evangelicals are unaware of the deep cultural indebtedness of their particular traditions -- they see their particular cultural answers as absolutely and ahistorically true. Thus, their mission takes the form of converting outsiders to a particular historical interpretation of the faith rather than a dynamic, incarnational interchange. On the other hand, missionaries must hold their particular theologies lightly, knowing that their theological answers and questions might change in the interplay.
What do you see is the role of the Church in the West in missions? In your opinion, how can the Western Church most effectively contribute to the missions enterprise and make long-term impact? In what way(s), do you see "partnership in mission" as a developing trend?
The West must leave its Christendom assumptions of mission behind. The West must serve as advocates, as facilitators, as servants of other local expressions of Christ-following communities. They must be willing to let go of power. Partnership is the only way that the West can give voice to the other -- to give space to the less powerful at the table. But it will be a big challenge for Americans who are used to calling the shots.
How can the Western Church be impacted by the Church in other areas of the world? What lesson(s) does the Western Church need to learn?
Western churches need to learn how to be a faithful church without constant access to political power. How to live at the margins as salt and light. We need to stop fighting the culture wars and look to where God is at work within the culture. We need to become 24-7 spiritual/secular communities. We need to serve our neighbors in meaningful ways. We need to live the gospel and not simply adopt the metanarratives of our culture or our faith traditions.