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Church—What is Your Mission Today? - Johannes Aagaard

Table of Contents

The Latin Term Mission is a Loaded Western Concept

The Latin Concepts "Religion" and "Nation" as Parallels

Differentiation within the General Latin term Foreign Mission and Home-mission and World-mission

Mission as the Expansion of Christianity

Secularized Versions of Mission

Attempts to Reform the Western Concept of Mission

6.a. The Mission of the Church—Theory and Reality?

6.b. The Three Selves

6.c. Mission as Inter-church Aid

6.d. Mission in Six Continents

6.e. Mission as Two-way Traffic—Sharing of Personnel

From Mission to Missio

The Latin Term "Mission" Tested
1. The Latin Term Mission is a Loaded Western Concept

The concept mission as related to what we now understand as "missionary work" is late, from the 16th century, and has its origin in the Jesuit "missiones" to what we now call Latin-America, which not least became Latin because of those "missiones".1

This Latin concept of mission is loaded, and it is very difficult to unload it. It implies that the missions go from the Christian West to the non-Christian world, to the "gentiles", the barbarians, whom we are to reach with our propaganda, i. e. by propagating our Christian Gospel from "the haves" to "the have-nots".

Mission through the centuries were Western realities and were all the time loaded with Western connotations.

We can get an idea of the nature of this westernization by comparing the Latin concept of missions with the parallel Latin concepts of religions and nations.
2. The Latin Concepts "Religions" and "Nations" as Parallels

Westernized Christianity came into the oikumene as the religion of the Western powers, and when Christianity appeared (cujus regio ejus religio) the Western colonizers and their clerical counterparts themselves experienced the faiths and cults of the subjugated people as their "religions".

The whole idea of a religion is Western and was superimposed upon the rest of the world. In fact there are no religions apart from our concepts of religions. That is why it seems so difficult to explain the nature of "African religion". Such a thing never existed but it may come into existence because of the hard work of the Western scholars. The same of course can be said about Hinduism. Hindu just means Indian, and Hinduism really only should mean the religiousity which is in India. But it has come to mean something different.

This is a parallel phenomenon to the concept of a nation. Nation is a Western idea, and this idea was superimposed upon other people in the non-Western world. They were quick to learn and were soon able to turn the concept against the West. Hendrik Kraemer once told me about a conversation he had with a young political leader in Java. His name was Sukarno! Kraemer asked him how on earth he could operate with the concept "the Indonesian Nation", since he knew so well that such a thing had never existed. Sukarno's answer was: "In Europe you have a fellow called Hitler. He has taught me that you can tell a lie so often that it becomes true. That is why I speak about the Indonesian nation."

That was not why the colonizers and missionaries spoke about the Hindu religion and the Buddhist religion and the African religion. They believed that such concepts were real, but that made their "lies" even more effective. So today we have got all these religions and today we consequently can discuss the relations between such religions.

And our discussions sometime become so heated that we forget that what we discuss is not the relation between the religions but the relation between our concepts of the religions.
3. Differentiations Within the General Latin Concept

The term "missions" predominantly meant the expeditions from the western corpus christianum into the heathen world.

But in the 19th century the term "Innere Mission" in German and "home-mission" in English came into existence.

These terms are important in so far as they reveal an understanding according to which the Christian world is not considered that Christian any more. A specific attempt is considered necessary in order to reach the secularized Christians. Behind this understanding one normally finds revivalist movements.

Having developed the general term mission by adding "innere Mission" and "home-mission" one by necessity had to take the next step and create the terms "aussere Mission" and "foreign mission". These qualifications do not seem to have added anything to the concept of mission and have to be understood as synonyms for the traditional Latin meaning of mission.

The term "world-mission" or "Welt-Mission" in a similar way just seem to be a variation without any new connotation.

Turning the concept this way or that, the result always was that mission was a specific arrangement to expand the influence of Christianity in the non-Christian world. The ideology behind it was and remained the ideology of the Christian West, the Christian world, the Christian nations from which the missions were sent out in order to "conquer" the nations and include them under the lordship of Christ and Christianity.
4. Mission as the Expansion of Christianity

Mission and missions have been and are part and parcel of the Western expansion and dominance. This expansion and dominance had its spiritual counterpart in "the expansion of Christianity".2

The history of Western dominance is also the history of the missionary movements. They went over-seas together with the Western political powers and their culture. Everywhere therefore the Christian churches, created by the missions are Western colonies. We try to forget this hard fact, but it is revealed by thousands of small and large facts.3

Mission—however differentiated—was nearly always taken to mean "besondere Veranstaltungen" as even the great German missiologist Warneck understood mission when it came to factual missiology. On the one hand Warneck could most certainly use his dogmatic system in a way which was relevant for a missionary understanding of the church, but as soon as it came to factual missiological activities he could only understand mission as identical with the work performed by missionary societies.

Already in the diskussions about Luther and mission this conflict between the theological and the sociological nature of mission was spelt out.

Werner Elert, who continued Karl Holl's positive interpretation of Luther's missionary theology,4 turned agressively against G. Warneck and his Luther-interpretation. It is worth while remembering Elerts sarcastic sentences:

"Luther ist allerdings, wie G. Warneck festgestellte, kein Missionsmann in unserm Sinne gewesen. Der arme Mann! Statt eine Missionsgeselschaft zu grunden oder mit Cortez nach Mexico zu gehen oder sich doch wenigstens ein Professur fur Missionswissenschaft zu sichern, verlegte er sich ausgerechnet auf die Kirchenreformation!"5

And then comes the interesting observation: "Was der moderne Missionstheoretiker dabei vermisst, sind Fragen der Soziologie, die mit dem "Missionsgedanken" unmittelbar nichts mehr zu tun haben. Das gilt insbesondere von dem immer wiederholten Vorwurf, dass Luther keine "besonderen Veranstaltungen zur Mission" gefordert oder unternommen habe. Dieser Vorwurf gehört so, wie er meistens gemeint ist, an die Technischen Hochschulen, wo Betriehswissenschaft gelehrt wird".6

The conclusion must be that it is a serious mistake to identify our Western concept of mission, our Latin idea of missiones with the Biblical reality of God's sending of his Son and of His Spirit.

Judging from general experiences from the work performed by missionary societes and missionaries in general, this somewhat differentiated understanding of mission is still predominating. Mission is understood as that work which is done by missionary organisations and their personel. Anything they do is mission, either home-mission or foreign mission or overseas mission or world mission.

And the general understanding of the scope of such activity is the task of strengthening the general situation of Christianity at home and abroad. The terminology may not any longer evolve around expansion. The concept of growth will often function as the substitute for expansion.
5. Secularized Versions of Mission

The Latin concept of mission has spread in a double way. The idea of having a misson has become integrated into many Western languages. A James Bond film was advertized under the heading: "Mission: Murder".

And we speak about mission as a parallel to an aim. In the same way you can speak about "a missionary spirit" both as a positive concept, meaning dedication to a cause, and in a negative way, indicating an agressive attitude. But also being on a mission has become part of our languages. The United Nations sends out missions, peace-missions, diplomatic missions etc.

It is characteristic for such usages that they are all formal. They don't have a given content. They can be used for very many different purposes. This is most clearly seen from the fact that non-Christian "religions" from non-Western "nations" are now also sending their "missions" to the Western hemisphere with "missionaries" who have "a missionary spirit" and who do "missionary work"

This is a sort of mirror in which we see the West coming to the West. It is not—definitely not—a Christian reality which is operative in these phenomena. It is a Western reality at work in a sort of sef-contradiction. We Westerners have created a world in our own image, and we tend to respect our own image so much that when it comes to us as a reflection, we do not take it for what it is but for what it seems to be.

It seems to be missions, missionaries, missionary dedication, for it takes that form, but in reality it is something very specific and very far away from the Christian reality.
6. Attempts to Reform the Latin Concept of Mission

In the last two generations energetic attempts have been made to reform and renew the concept of mission. Missiologists of all sorts—but mainly ecumenical minded missiologists—have worked hard to unload mission of its imperialist, colonialist Western connotations.
6.a. The Mission of the Church—Theory and Reality?

The first attempts were characterized by the attempts to integrate mission and church and understand mission history as the mission of the church. This attempt has had a long history already in the last century.

But this orientation most certainly did not diminish the Western nature of the mission—rather the opposite. The most integrated German and British societies were also the most patriotic and colonialistic.

During this process of integration—of which I have been an active partner myself—we quite often were misled to believe that a new theology of integration also meant a factual integration. And I dare say that I find some of this in the lecture in Dar Es Salaam by Helmut Class: "The Mission of the Church and its Obligation to Evangelism".7

"In the past years much has heen said about the integration of church and mission. This was not thought of in the first instance as a matter of organisation. The commission to mission which – especially in the last century—was taken to heart only by individual members and groups, seldom by the whole church, is now often accepted as the responsibility of the whole church. Only then does the church—whether as a minority church or as a national church—become an instrument of the mission of God in its own surroundings, as well as in the neigbouring countries and overseas..."

Is the commission to mission really accepted as the responsiblity of the whole church today? Or is this just a matter af words? A number of resolutions have been adopted in the last generation about the commission to mission, but that surely does not mean that our churches—minority or national churches—have become instruments for the mission of God... Let us be sober and vigilant.. and realistically consider the factual situation.

The factual situation is that the "mission-oriented" church has not changed much. It is the same old chuch, caring for its own members—i.e. the respectable members of course, not the lost sheep and the leftists and the longhaired and the lazy ones. We still have the same old parishes with the same activities and as a whole the same sort of message. New names – yes, new words—to a certain degree, yes, but in substance the same—forever and ever.

The factual situation is that in the period in which—according to Helmut Class—our churches have accepted the commission to mission as the responsbility of the whole church, millions of people have left the churches and gone elsewhere or nowhere. And very few have entered the churches in the Western world, at least only a number counting thousands.

I am afraid that we have been using our vocabulary about mission and missionary to conceal the real situation, which is a situation of internal and external disaster. "The church is reproducing not by virtue of evangelization or mission work but by virtue of nature and biology, just as ancient Israel did."8
6.b. The Three Selves

The attempts to understand mission apart from the Western churches is older than we normally believe, but it had no real success until after the second world war. It was, however a part of the three self formula to promote churches who were to be self-propagating or self-expanding, missionary in their own setting.

Obviously this was a step forward, but the problem remained, for what was the content-matter of the propagation and expansion? If we use the modern center-periphery model for understanding neo-colonialism we can also use it to understand the attempt to create Western colonies in the third world, colonies of the Western churches—who in their self-propagation and self-expansion function perfectly as the local representatives of the dominating Western central firm in Europe and North-America.
6.c. Mission as Inter-church Aid

In this situation it is not only a temptation but also a necessity that mission becomes inter-church aid. Mission develops into the mutual assistance, by which the main firms assist the junior companies in the 3rd world with investments and personel.

Mission as transfer of money and personel—in this succession—has become the predominant model of modern mission, in this period of neo-colonialist, subtle Western dominance. The centers in the periphery are functioning well and are accepted as junior partners in so far as they produce the right and wanted products. If so the money and the personel come easily.

But attempts in the direction of nationalisation and self-reliance quickly stops the good relations. Each of the bi confessional companies have their type of schiboleth. So long as they are accepted a wide tolerance is shown, but within the given limits.

This is our own present situation. Mission in this Western meaning first and last means transfer af money. And in the second place also transfer of personel.

This system is not least necessary for the Western partners of the exchange-system. We are in the funny situation that the threat to introduce a moratorium is first of all a threat for the Western donors. They therefore react so bluntly against this proposal.
6.d. Mission in Six Continents

We have to mention that the attempts to revise the Latin term mission also includes such catchwords as "mission in six continents".

Here and there experiments have been made to give these ideas practicable forms, hut as a whole we must admit that these ideas have remained lofty and still have got practically no realities in the daily life. Even if the factual Christian activity in the Bukoba diocese is higher than the same in any Danish diocese, the investments in form of money and personel are from Denmark to the Bukoba diocese. We made an atempt a few years ago, having a Tanzanian pastor on the staff of a local congregation in Denmark. It created quite a stir in the Danish population and was also accepted as a token action in Bukoba, but it did not continue and no two-way traffic is found in our area worth speaking of.
6.e. Mission as Two-way Traffic—Sharing of Personnel

The history of the agency for sharing of personel within the World Council of Churches is—as far as I know—not very happy. It has proved very difficult to find a pattern which can operate in such a way that the all-continent approach becomes realistic.

Somehow all attempts ends up as modifications af the Western system.
7. From Mission to Missio

As an attempt to get away from this western sociological understanding of mission an attempt has been made to create a hypostasis of mission: the Missio Dei. This hypostatical missiology came out of the Barthian thinking in which this way of arguing was a dominant trend. Instead of churches the dialectical theologians spoke about "The Church"—and similarly the idea of The Mission came into being.

What is the mechanics of such a way of arguing? The general consequence is that one ends up with empty concepts, ideas, generalization without roots. It may be a help in theologizing but it does not help much in practice.

One can possibly get some help to understand this process looking at the similiar development which has taken place in relation to the concept of "responsibility".

This term is not found in the Bible, but it has its origin in the theology of The day of Judgement. At that day we have to give response—Antwort—when we are asked.

Such answers are by the nature of the situation very concrete! They have to do with specific actions or non-actions. Have you done this or have you not? Did you visit the emprisoned ones, did you feed the hungry ones, did you ally with the poor, or did you forget about the misery of your neighbour?"

But out of this very concrete way of speaking about responsbility came the modern theological concept of responsbility. Theologians have been able to argue about the nature of responsiblity—of Verantwortlichkeit—forgetting everything about the nature of action implied thereby. The content-matter was left behind. Responsibility was turned into an independant concept, a category of its own.

In the same way the content-matter of Mission was often left behind in the theologizing about the Missio Dei. Or—which is the same—everything was included under this heading of Mission thereby just substituting church with mission... For instance the seminar l. report from Dar es Salaam para 87 runs like this:

"Mission is sharing the new life in Christ. When we are baptized with Christ we are incorporated into his death for the sins of the world" and a serious of classical ecclesiological sentences follow, whereby the mission is defined as the church and vice versa.9

It seems to be a reasonable hypothesis that also the Missio Dei theology is part of the Latin concept of mission, whereby the sociological element of the missiones is left behind, but whereby the Latin orientation is maintained.

The headline of chapter 4 in Yoshiro Ishidas lecture is also indicative: "Together" in Participation in God's Mission through the "Law and the Gospel"... This masterpiece of synthetic theology integrates Missio Dei theology and Classical Lutheran Orthodoxy in a beautiful way. The problem only is this: What is then the mission, when everything is Mission?10
The Latin Term "Mission" Tested

One decisive test proves that concepts concerning mission are not relevant. This test is the attitude of the churches and the missions to new religious movements in the Western world, Europe, and North-America. Let us at last concentrate on this.

The new religious movements seem to be no one's business. They are not a job for the churches, for they care for the Christians. They are not a job for the inner-mission organizations, for they care for the secularized Christians or the Post-Christians. They are definitely not the task of the societies engaged in foreign mission. For they opeate only beyond the seas—overseas. The NRMs are just no one's job.

This test is to my mind revealing and killing. It reveals a total failure in our missionary thinking and praxis, and it calls us to revolt against the wrong theory and praxis in order to develop a new theory and a new praxis which makes a difference.

1 See A. Seumois

2 Kenneth Scott Latourette: A history of the Expansion of Christianity. 1937.

3 K.M. Panikkar: Asian and Western Dominance, a Survey of the Vasco da Gamo Epoch of Asian History 1498-1945. London 1959.
Julius Richter: Das deutsche Kolonialreich und die Mission. Basel 1914.
Carl Mirbt: Mission und Kolonialpolitik in den deutschen Schutzgebiet. Tübingen 1910.
Max Warm: The Missionary Movement from Britain in Modern History. London 1956.
Helder Lamara: Church and Colonialism. London 1969.

4 Ges. Aufs. III p.234f and AMZ 1924 p.3nf.

5 Morphologie des Luthertums I, 1952 p. 336f.

6 Idem p. 340.

7 In Christ a New Community, 1977 p. 22 para 19.

8 José Comblin: The Meaning of Mission, 1977 p. 10.

9 In Christ—a new community 1977 p. 82.

10 Idem p. 72.