Academic journal article International Review of Mission

Crucial Issues for Christian Mission - a Missiological Analysis of Contemporary South Africa

Academic journal article International Review of Mission

Crucial Issues for Christian Mission - a Missiological Analysis of Contemporary South Africa

Article excerpt

Who do people say that I am? But who do you say that I am? (Mark 8:27, 29)

Apart from all the other implications of these two questions, one thing is clear: Jesus did not want followers who were ignorant of the world around them. They could only adequately confess his name if they were continously listening to people, analyzing their context and reading the signs of the times. It is this "earthed" nature of discipleship that makes the Christian movement "missionary by its very nature" and that justifies the inclusion of this article on missiological context analysis.

We understand Christian mission to be a wide and inclusive complex of activities aimed at the realization of the reign of God in history. It includes evangelism but is at the same time much wider than that.(1) Perhaps one could say that mission is the "cutting edge" of the Christian movement -- that activist streak in the church's life that refuses to accept the world as it is and keeps on trying to change it, prodding it on towards God's final reign of justice and peace.

To avoid the traps of either merely listing problem issues or repeating issues discussed in the other articles in this issue, we decided to explore a limited number of questions in some depth, rather than try to be exhaustive and end up being superficial. To honour the occasion of the World Council of Churches' (WCC) Central Committee's first meeting in South Africa, we decided to use as our main principle of selection the "interventions" of the WCC in South Africa over the past thirty years. In this way we try to establish a connection with existing ecumenical concerns over the situation in South Africa as well as a handy framework within which to discuss crucial issues facing mission today. The focal points of WCC involvement in South Africa that we use are the Cottesloe Consultation (1960), the Programme to Combat Racism (since 1969), and the Rustenburg Conference (1990).(2) We use these as "entry points" into a number of key areas for mission in South Africa today.


The first major and direct intervention of the WCC in South Africa dates back to the 1960 Cottesloe Consultation. The Sharpeville massacre (21 March 1960), in which sixty-nine black non-violent protestors were killed, plunged the Christian community into a crisis of conscience. In April 1960 Dr Robert F. Bilheimer was delegated to South Africa by the WCC to gauge whether the South African member churches felt a need for a "mission of fellowship." The response was positive and in December 1960 the Cottesloe Consultation was held with delegates of the eight member churches and a delegation from the WCC. The consultation constituted a major boost for the emerging ecumenical model in South Africa. The intervention of the WCC compelled the South African churches to reflect seriously on the quest for Christian unity across the colour line. Cottesloe understood very clearly that race problems(3) found their focal point in the mission of the church. Put differently, there was no way that Cottesloe could avoid the dialectic between the unity of the church and the unity (or division) of all South Africans.

The overarching theme of the agenda consequently was the socio-political responsibility of the Christian churches in an apartheid society. Or, in terms of Cottesloe's self-understanding, it was a consultation "about the social and racial situation in South Africa" (Hewson 1961:i). Unfortunately, and perhaps mainly because of a lack of rigorous social analysis, Cottesloe did not move beyond a non-contextual, universalizing definition of mission. On the contrary, the very general definition current in the ecumenical movement at the time was applied to the South African situation: Proclamation of the lordship of Jesus Christ and social service. It is therefore not at all surprising that a reductionist view of mission as the evangelization of the "black unreached" by white missionaries was still prevailing at Cottesloe. …

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