The Modern Missionary
Worldwide conference begins at STH
Say the words “Christian missionary” and certain images are likely to come to mind: Jesuit priests attempting to convert South Americans in Roland Joffe’s film The Mission, Pearl Buck’s Western missionaries working in China in her novel The Good Earth, or Audrey Hepburn as a missionary in the Congo in The Nun’s Story—in short, white, Western men and women proselytizing to indigenous peoples with the hope of converting them to Christianity. But in the 21st century, when religious believers seem split between those who believe theirs is the only true faith and those who think that all faiths are valid, what role can missionaries play? Do the old stereotypes still hold or has the whole concept of “missionary” changed?
That is the question posed at a four-day conference starting tomorrow, November 4, titled 2010 Boston: The Changing Contours of World Mission and Christianity. The event is sponsored by the nine-member Boston Theological Institute, an association of university divinity schools, schools of theology, and seminaries in the greater Boston area. BU’s School of Theology, in concert with BTI peer schools, is hosting several of the conference events. Dana Robert, Truman Collins Professor of World Christianity and History of Mission, is one of the keynote speakers at the conference. A preconference lecture tonight by Georgetown Professor Peter C. Phan, a conference participant, honors the centennial of STH’s Truman Collins Chair. The conference is the fourth and final event worldwide commemorating the 100th anniversary of a 1910 Edinburgh gathering that spawned several mission movements and the beginnings of ecumenism, the drive for unity among different Christian denominations.
Robert codirects STH’s Center for Global Christianity and Mission and has taught at the University since 1984. BU Today spoke with her about the conference and the changing role of missions.
BU Today: What’s the one message you hope people come away with from the conference?
Robert: Christianity is now a global, non-Western religion. The fastest growing parts of the church are in Africa and Latin America. I was born in the mid-1950s; in my lifetime, the average Christian has gone from being a European to being an African or Latin American.
How is Christianity changing as a result of this?
There’s a Pentecostalization of world Christianity: intense relationship with the Holy Spirit, focus on healing, well-being, abundant life, prosperity.
Most people associate Pentecostalism with theological conservatism Does that mean pluralism and acceptance of folks in different churches is dying?
No, it means that becomes more important. That’s why we’re having these meetings. Ecumenism is more important than it was 50 years ago, because Christianity is such a multiethnic movement. Another discussion is the relationship between Christianity and other religions. The growth of Christianity is in places where there are non-Christians. What is “mission” in a pluralistic context?
Given modern pluralist attitudes and suspicions of any religion’s claim to absolute truth, why should we have missionaries?
This is not about missionaries so much as discipleship, about what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ. It does not mean proselytization. What it does mean is witnessing to what God has done in your life. When you define a missionary as someone you’re paying to send out, that’s a narrow definition of how Christianity spreads. Missionaries tend to be from their own area. India has between 40,000 and 80,000 Indians as Christian missionaries in India. China has its own internal missionaries.
It’s not so much anymore that a Westerner must go to some other part of the world. The United States is both the biggest sender and the biggest receiver of missionaries of any country in the world.
Does religious conflict around the world make you pessimistic about the future of religious understanding?
This is why we need to meet now. One way to avoid religions spiraling downward to the lowest common denominator or becoming a cover for violence is for people of faith to continue meeting together and talking. I’m optimistic. Faith is, above all things, idealistic optimism. The very idea of the unity of humankind is a basic religious commitment.
What makes a person want to be a missionary?
Sociologists are telling us at least a million and a half North American adults are going on short-term mission trips every year, whether they’re religious or not, to somewhere like Haiti, to do good. You get all of these amateur missionaries out of our churches and temples, all religions. You want to help others, and that is part of witnessing to Jesus Christ.
The School of Theology Lowell Lecture, Mission of the Triune God, Mission of the Church, Mission of the World, to be delivered by Georgetown Professor Peter C. Phan, is at 7:30 tonight, November 3, at the Photonics Center, 8 St. Mary’s St. The lecture, preceded by a reception at 6:30 p.m., is free and open to the public. There are preconference events being held at STH Thursday, November 4, before the conference officially opens at 7 p.m. at Boston’s Park Street Church, with keynote speaker Dana Robert. Registration and schedule information for the conference is available here.
Rich Barlow can be reached at email@example.com Comments