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“Hope And Humility” Shape Approaches To Contemporary Mission

“The priority in Christian mission is to witness to the love of Jesus Christ for all the world,” Prof. Dana L. Robert of Boston University told a Friday press briefing at the Edinburgh 2010 Conference. “The mystery of salvation is not ours to know,” she added, yet Christians feel compelled to bear witness to the gospel with an urgency “as inevitable as breathing”. This proclamation happens locally and in broader contexts, whenever believers “inhale the gospel” through worship and biblical meditation and then “exhale mission”. It is borne in hospitality to others and through more elaborately organised evangelistic strategies, but the most effective means for 21st-century mission will be found in attitudes of “hope and humility”.

Prof. Robert, who delivered Thursday’s keynote address at the event marking the centenary of the 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, spoke to the press on Friday 4 June as part of a five-member panel on Christian mission today. Having concentrated on the mission history of the past century in her lecture, she reminded the media that world Christianity today is a vibrant, grassroots movement made up primarily of the laity. In Africa, she reminded the gathering, about 80 percent of the people in Christian churches are women. “The church is the people,” she said, “not just academics or conference-goers.”

Tinyiko Sam Maluleke, a theologian from the University of South Africa and president of the South African Council of Churches, warned that Christian “mission” must never again be understood as “what the rich do to the poor, what men do to women, what people from the North do to people of the South: this model has become obsolete”. Maluleke conceded that Africa benefitted from mission and missionary institutions, but Africa also is to some extent “a victim of mission” and must learn to “undo” the assumptions of dominance and superiority remaining in churches. Mission must be seen as an exchange among equals, an encounter of one human being with another.

Viorel Ionita, a priest of the Romanian Orthodox Church and acting general secretary of the Conference of European Churches, cited the Apostle Paul who spoke of coming to know one another “face to face”. It is essential, he said, to meet one another in a personal context, to listen to one another, to learn of the other’s needs and longings. At the same time, it is the Christian’s duty to bear authentic witness to the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. This is not encouraged when churches and mission agencies are seen to be in competition with each other, so spaces must be identified where Christians themselves can engage in dialogue and seek means of cooperation. Such “faith and order” conversations are as much the heritage of Edinburgh 1910 as are instruments of mission and evangelisation.

Dr Anthony Gittins of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago agreed that mission is meant to be carried out through one-on-one encounters, not primarily in international convocations or academic publications. It must also be remembered that “the purpose of our proclamation is not primarily to extend the church, but to announce the reign of God”. He added that “Catholics need to understand better that mission is a feature of their baptism”, an obligation to share the gospel with others. Each believer is meant to “love their neighbour – and this applies both to the neighbours we already know and to the neighbours whom we have not yet come to know.”

The Rev. Dr Young-Hoon Lee of the Yoido Full Gospel Church, a Pentecostal pastor and author from South Korea, underlined the responsibility of all Christians to heed the Great Commission of Jesus at the end of Matthew 28. While cultural presuppositions have sometimes dominated in missionary teaching, and “we must not make the same mistakes again”, our overriding concern must be in humbly submitting to the power and work of the Holy Spirit. Questions may arise about appropriate missionary methods, historical understandings or the use of new technologies, but the making of disciples “remains our calling until the second coming of Christ”.

Edinburgh 2010 is an inter-denominational study project set up to commemorate the centenary of the 1910 World Missionary Conference; to provide new perspectives on Christian mission today; and to inspire mission for the 21st century. From 2-6 June 2010, the study project peaks in an international conference and celebration. 300 delegates from over 60 countries and over 50 denominations have been invited to come to Edinburgh to WITNESS TO CHRIST TODAY.