Saturday, 15 May 2010

Mission, evangelism and Christendom

I'm kicking off a series of posts on missional church.

Missional church involves the application of missiology to eccelsiology.

Missiology is the art of systematic reflection upon the propagation of the Christian faith. It has traditionally been applied to theological and practical reflection upon spreading the Christian faith beyond Western Christendom.

Christendom refers to countries where the prevailing culture has been deeply impacted by the gospel, viz: Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. These countries have a shared Christian history of the Constantinian settlement of the church, medieval Catholicism, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment and Modernism. Two millennia of shared Christian heritage have given these nations churches, denominations and theological traditions which are relatively stable and mature.

The task of spreading the Christian faith in this context has traditionally been called “evangelism”. The theology and practice of evangelism has traditionally assumed a social context of Christendom – the existence of mature, reliable churches, and cultural assumptions, shared by Christians and non-Christians alike, that have been deeply impacted by the gospel – although most people so not realise their theological, evangelical underpinnings.

Missiology has traditionally been applied to the rest of the world, beyond the boundaries of Christendom, where Christianity does not have a long history; where churches, denominations and theological traditions are relatively young and immature; and where the gospel has not made a major impact upon the culture.

Missiology has traditionally involved theological and practical reflection upon spreading the Christian faith in such contexts, where Christianity is alien, marginalised, novel, and probably unwelcome. It assumes that the cultural assumptions of the people trying to be reached by the missionaries are very different from Christian cultural assumptions, and that missionaries must work hard to understand the target culture, and find points of contact between it and the gospel, so that the gospel can be communicated in a manner comprehensible to the indigenous community. This includes, but goes beyond, the issue of translation – expressing biblical and theological terms in the target culture’s language. It embraces the art of contextualisation – the art of expressing the gospel, and other biblical teaching, in a manner that engages with the recipient culture’s deep assumptions, convictions, dreams, fears and longings, so that the recipients engage, with their whole person, the claims that the gospel makes upon their lives.

Missiology does not assume that indigenous churches, denominations and theological traditions are mature and self-sufficient. It has tried to walk that fine line between assisting relatively young churches without patronising them, and giving them independent authority and responsibility without risking heresy or burnout.

Missiology also assumes that indigenous churches need to express their Christian faith in ways that are appropriate to their culture. So again, missiology warily treads the line between patronisation – where the expression of Christianity is so alien, so ‘foreign’, as to be inauthentic and incomprehensible to the target culture – and syncretism – where so much indigenous, non-Christian thought-forms are taken on board that the gospel is fundamentally compromised. This balancing act is an important aspect of contextualisation.

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