World Christianity and Christian Mission: Are They Compatible? Insights from the Asian Churches

Article excerpt

Two terms in the title of this essay seem to cancel each other out and therefore prompt questions about their theological and pastoral compatibility. If Christianity is already a world religion, is there still a need for mission and evangelism? If there is, how should Christian mission be carried out in the context of world Christianity? These two questions are made all the more complex by the fact that both "world Christianity" and "Christian mission" are today highly contested concepts. To shed some light on these issues I begin with a discussion of what is meant by "world Christianity" and "Christian mission." Next, I highlight some of the ways in which they seem to be mutually conflicting and then attempt to answer, on the basis of the experiences and teachings of the Asian Catholic churches, the questions of whether Christian mission is still mandatory today and, if so, how it should be done.

"World Christianity": What's So New About It?

In a sense, from its very birth Christianity has always been portrayed as a world movement with a divine commission to bring the Good News to all peoples, at all times, and in all places. This globality of Christianity is rooted in the universal mission of the Trinitarian God. The Christian God is professed to be the creator of the whole universe, and God's providence and rule are said to extend beyond Israel to the entire human race and across the whole of human history. The risen Christ, despite his embeddedness in a particular moment of Jewish history and in a specific geography, is confessed to be the universal Lord, at whose name "every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth" (Phil. 2:10), and is proclaimed the savior of all, Jews and Gentiles alike. The Holy Spirit, who is the gift of the risen Christ, is poured out "upon all flesh" (Acts 2:17) so that "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved" (Acts 2:21). While Jesus' mission itself was limited to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt. 15:24) and while, during Jesus' lifetime, the apostles were told not to visit pagan territory or to enter a Samaritan town but to go instead to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt. 10:5-6), after Jesus' resurrection, when full authority had been given to him "in heaven and on earth," the apostles were commissioned to "make disciples of all nations" and were assured of Jesus' presence "always, to the end of the age" (Matt. 28:18-20). As a result of the universal destination and dynamism of God's action in Christ and the Spirit, Jesus' disciples will be witnesses to him "in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). Clearly, then, Christianity is by nature a universal or global religion, and in the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, catholicity is professed to be one of the four marks of the church. (1) What, then, makes the notion of "world Christianity" new or even controversial today? Of the many contributing factors, I will mention three.

A different history of Christianity--the myth of Christianity as a Western religion. A new way has recently been emerging of interpreting the history of Christianity. (2) In popular church historiography, partly as a result of a jaundiced reading of Acts, Christianity has been portrayed as a religious movement that, though born in (southwest) Asia or the Middle East, from its very beginnings moved to the eastern part of the Roman Empire through Asia Minor and ended in Rome as its final destination, where Paul and Peter completed their apostolic careers. From Rome as its epicenter, the Catholic Church sent missionaries first to the other parts of Europe, then to Latin America and Asia in the sixteenth century, and later still to Africa, with the Protestants joining the missionary enterprise in the nineteenth century and beyond. (3) In this narrative, the role of the papacy within the church, as well as papal entanglements with secular authorities and the vicissitudes of the Reformation, receives the lion's share of attention from church historians. …