Recasting Theology of Mission: Impulses from the Non-Western World

By Shenk, Wilbert R. | International Bulletin of Mission Research, July 2001 | Go to article overview

Recasting Theology of Mission: Impulses from the Non-Western World


Shenk, Wilbert R., International Bulletin of Mission Research


David J. Bosch completed writing his magisterial Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in the Theology of Mission in 1990. [1] Although Bosch intimated in articles in 1983 and 1984 that new, non-Western patterns and paradigms were emerging, [2] in Transforming Mission he worked out his analysis within the framework of the missionary movement from the Western Christian tradition. The last third of Transforming Mission is a study of the way the logic of "mission in the wake of the Enlightenment" has been played out as an essentially Western initiative.

The past decade has proved to be pivotal in geopolitical terms. Along with the end of the cold war and the globalization of the world economy, a sea change in the locus of Christian initiative has taken place. Churches in Asia, Africa, and Latin America are now sending thousands of missionaries to other regions and countries, while the decline and disorientation of the churches in the West is a matter of mounting concern. Today the West presents a particularly demanding missiological challenge.

Recent surveys of mission theology reveal the continued domination of Western voices, with no discernible shift during the 1990s. [3] Western theology of mission has continued on an essentially unchanged trajectory. Even recent initiatives to develop a theology that engages contemporary Western culture as a missionary frontier--an urgent priority--have been significantly stymied by the historical burden of the Western theological tradition.

Since the Christian majority is now to be found outside the West and missionary initiatives from the churches of Asia, Africa, and Latin America are at the cutting edge of the Christian world mission, we must ask: What kind of theology of mission will best serve the global Christian mission in the future? What fresh theological resources can be brought to bear on this new phase of the Christian mission? It is time to listen to voices from the non-Western world that can help construct a theology capable of empowering the global church for participation in the missio Dei.

My thesis is that (1) a dynamic theology of mission develops where there is vigorous engagement of culture by the Gospel, accompanied by critical reflection on that process; that (2) this process is decisive for shaping Christian identity; and that therefore (3) we must look to the evolving Christian movement in Asia, Africa, and Latin America to discern defining themes. Although various scholars have argued for the term "missionary theology" (on the grounds that all theology ought to be missionary in character, a position with which I sympathize), to minimize confusion I will retain the conventional terminology "theology mission."

Rooted in Cultural Engagement

Vital theology of mission flows from missionary engagement. As Bosch emphasized, the New Testament provides us with the example par excellence of theology animated by mission. In the New Testament theological concerns are grounded in the missio Dei. The New Testament writings reflect the historical, social, religious, and political context in which the missionary encounter of the Christian Gospel with Middle Eastern culture took place. These documents show how the disciples of Jesus Christ responded to the existential questions they faced as the movement spread through the Mediterranean world. Christian identity was forged as the evangelization process progressed.

The contrast with Western academic theology could not be sharper. From as early as the fourth century Western theology has pursued an inward-focused, intellectual, and pastoral agenda rather than an outward-looking evangelistic and missional agenda. With the coming of the Enlightenment in the late seventeenth century, the West became convinced that its culture, through the process of modernization and growing scientific knowledge, was destined to be the universal culture. As Western theology moved into the university and was professionalized, it became increasingly detached from ecclesial reality and cultural context. …

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