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The Modern Missionary

Worldwide conference begins at STH

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Reunion by Emmanuel Garibay of the Philippines, shows a non-Western take on Christian belief. Photo by Kate Flock

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 barlowr@bu.edu.

5 Comments

5 Comments on The Modern Missionary

  • Anonymous on 11.03.2010 at 10:01 am

    So much cultural knowledge has been lost due to missionaries tramping around africa turning people away from their own culture. I find it extremely arrogant of anyone to show up in a foreign society and assume that your global religion is superior to “native beliefs.” I have mixed feelings about the issue, I’ve met plenty of missionaries who believe in helping people, sweet catholic nuns running orphanages in extremely poor countries, and other positive people doing good. I just wish that they could help people without trying to make them feel that there culture is inferior and that they need to change their belief system.

  • Anonymous on 11.03.2010 at 10:32 am

    Who’s to say that cultural knowledge must be lost on missions? I agree that there is some culture lost in some parts of the world because of the approach some Christians are taking when it comes to being missional (spread not just love, but spreading the Jesus-is-the-only-way idea) but the Bible places a strong emphasis on cultural and ethnical identity as well.

    It’s not about superiority, but it’s about truth. Superiority means you place faiths in terms of rank. But when it comes down to it, there can only be one real truth (even pluralism in a sense can be one of the falsifiable truths out there). I don’t know if it’s because I’m an intellectual seeking truth that spurs me to take this stance, but I find that the idea of “everyone can be right” to be truly illogical and irrational, only fostering ignorance. The best way to acknowledge someone’s faith is to confront it, not just brush it aside or not even acknowledge it by saying “All religions are right, so you’re free to hold your religion” because at that point, spiritualism is reduced to just a mere opinion.

  • Anonymous on 11.03.2010 at 11:27 am

    But who’s to say that Christianity is right? There are thousands of different belief systems held by people, and it is impossible to determine which is the “true faith.” Imposing a foreign religion on people disrupts society and forces a culture to reconsider its identity. Any change in a community’s belief system should arise organically from within the society, not be handed down by foreigners who think they’ve got it all figured out.

  • Anonymous on 11.04.2010 at 10:13 am

    Relgious opinions

    Pluralism is not so much “All religions are right” as “All religions are talking about the same thing.” ………………….

    There is a pre-determined tension between proselytzing and being tolerant of other people’s beliefs. The tradional “Missionary” goal of selling your religion as right is in conflict with respecting and recognizing that other people have valid spiritual opinions. As such the goals of this conference make sense. ….. If religious leaders can convince themselves to stop selling, bribing, scaring and forcing people to adopt their religion, it will do a lot to promote world peace.

  • David on 09.08.2012 at 5:13 pm

    Religion has always been mans pursuit of the infinite god and subsequently accepting a belief of that god. Christians are those who have not only pursued god, but in whom God has revealed Himself in the person of Jesus Christ as outlined in scripture; both Old and New Testaments speak of Him, who is the exact image and representation of the True God. Unless those of us who have come to know, believe and follow His Word testify and live a life which witnesses of Him, others will follow another god, which is no god at all. It is the “sincere” heart and soul of an invividual which will lead him or her to the one and only eternal God, and Jesus Christ is Son.

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