“Justice, Peace, and Mission:
The Calling of the Korean Presbyterian Faith Community (Micah 6:8)”
Professor. Darrell L. Guder
Lecture One: The Missional Church: The Challenges
It is indeed a great honor to be invited to address this national caucus of Korean Presbyterian Churches in the PCUSA. You have set a large task before yourselves and before me with the thematic emphasis upon “Justice, Peace, and Mission: The Calling of the Korean Presbyterian Faith Community.” In the conversations with your leadership preparing for this meeting, I was encouraged to engage the theme of mission from the perspective of the missional church discussion which has rapidly expanded in the last years. I welcome that suggestion, and I trust that this approach will result in a lively and profitable discussion. In the first of my two lectures this morning, I will consider the challenges that are shaping the missional church discussion, and in the process try to clarify what this initiative is about and what it is not about. In the second lecture later this morning, we shall consider the opportunities which the missional church and its theological engagement present to us today.
Let me begin with a brief survey of the missional church discussion since the publication in North America of the book by that title in 1998. For those of you who might have read some of the books dealing with missional church themes, this may be a bit repetitive. The book Missional Church was a kind of research report proposed by a group of six missiologists. They came together under the auspices of the Gospel and Our Culture Network, which is an endeavor shaped by Lesslie Newbigin’s provocative question: “Since western Christendom is ending and we are entering into a post-Christendom reality, how can the churches of the west become missionary churches again? How can we respond to the challenges of the modern mission field represented by the cultures of western Christendom?” The response offered in the book was not a new theology, not a missional ecclesiology, but an appeal for serious theological work on the themes that must be seriously addressed if Christian witness is to be faithful in our rapidly secularizing western societies. That is the basic challenge that shapes the entire missional church discussion.
The term “missional” was new, and it was selected as a way to center the theological discussion of the church’s purpose, nature, and action. That discussion had become obviously necessary in light of the rapid and often disconcerting changes that were confronting the Christian movement, especially in the old cultures and regions we call “western Christendom.” We were very clear from the outset that our focus was the Christendom that still occupies the cultures on both sides of the north Atlantic. The sub-title of the 1998 volume was important: “A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America.” We made no claim to speak for any other cultures than those still comprehended under the large umbrella of “western Christendom.” It has been a surprise for us that this theme and the book have received international attention, and that the theological appeal we were making has been picked up and further developed in many areas outside western Christendom. For example, the book has been translated in Korean. It was very rewarding to participate in lively discussions with Korean missiologists about the missional challenge, when I was in Korea earlier this year.
What are the challenges we confront as we engage the missional church discussion? To clarify what they are, let me start by listing the major factors which, in our view, profoundly shape the missional church theological initiative. This summary of factors is not prioritized – they are all inter-active and mutually generative. And they are all involved in the missional church initiative.
Factor One: Western Christendom is ending. The hegemony of the Christian faith and the Christian Church is rapidly declining in western cultures. The reasons are complex. A major issue is the end of legally defined partnerships of church and state, the “establishment of religion” to use the famous phrase in the American Consitutition. But it is not only legal structures that are changing. The culturally formative role of the Christian movement is declining. The Christian church in the west no longer has the moral, social, and cultural authority that it held for centuries. How that has come to be is a very complicated historical process that we cannot explain here. But it is now clear that we are in the midst of this “paradigm shift,” with enormous consequences for the western churches’ “purpose, nature, and action.” We are, in fact, in a situation much closer to that of the early Christian movement before establishment under Constantine. It makes sense today to address ourselves as “strangers and aliens,” as does Peter in his first epistle. It links us in greater solidarity with countless Christian communities around the world today who function on the margins as members of a minority that is often discriminated against and even persecuted.
Factor Two: While western Christendom is declining, the Christian movement beyond the North Atlantic is rapidly expanding. The dominance of western Christian cultures is fading as Christian communities around the world tackle the issues of contextualization and cross-cultural translation. As the Bible becomes available in more and more languages, the cultural diversity of the Christian movement emerges as a glorious testimony to the fact that all authority has been given to the risen Lord Jesus Christ in all the earth. Thus, we are empowered to “disciple the ethnicities.,” as Matthew’s Great Commission admonishes us. With this globalization of the Christian movement comes also growing scrutiny of the Christendom legacy, so that post-colonial critiques of the modern missionary movement are part of the missional challenge we face.
Mission activity today does not primarily emerge from the old churches of Christendom but is dominated by the relatively young churches of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The history of Korean Presbyterianism as an international reality is perhaps the most compelling example of this rapid expansion. But we could also refer to the rapid and highly diverse spread of Pentecostalism as a further evidence of the ways in which Christian witness is penetrating to the ends of the earth. Or we could turn our attention to the extremely diverse ranks of innovative and experimental churches that are proliferating around the world. If the modern missionaries went out into all the world from the North Atlantic societies, the flow is now reversed as Christians migrate to western cultures and discover that they are now in very difficult mission fields.
Factor Three: Both the definition and the activity of Christian mission have become a matter of passionate debate amongst Christians. A number of themes come together around this debate. Biblical and historical scholarship have renewed and broadened our understanding of the Christian mission as it emerged in the apostolic period. It is progressively clearer that the purpose of the apostolic mission was not merely the saving of individual souls, but rather the formation of witnessing communities. God’s salvation centers on the healing of the nations, and the Christian community emerges, empowered by the Holy Spirit since Pentecost, to be the witness in the world that this good news is true and available to all. The purpose of God’s mission is not that there be a church, but rather, there is a church because there is God’s mission for the world. Going back to Abraham, God has called, set apart, equipped, and sent his people as a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.“ But, as Peter makes clear in his first epistle, this distinctive community is not created by God as an end in itself, as the purpose of the Gospel, but rather for this very clear commission: “so that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet . 2-9). This is the biblical framework of mission: You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). You are Christ’s letter to the world (2. Cor. 3:2-3). You are Christ’s ambassadors of reconciliation (2. Cor. 5:17ff). The apostolic scriptures are all focused upon the continuing formation of Christian communities to be instruments of God’s mission in the world.
As this apostolic understanding of mission has resonated, it has become clear that mission has a problematic history in Christendom. Grappling with this critique of the theological legacy of Christendom is one of the most urgent concerns arising out of the missional church discussion. To put it concisely, western Christendom continued to practice mission throughout its long history. But its theological work, especially its engagement with the doctrine of the church, totally neglected mission as a theme, from the middle ages on. Neither the Reformation nor emerging modern Christian thought engaged mission as a theological theme. As many commentators have pointed out, Matthew’s Great Commission in chapter 28 was never discussed as relevant to the church’s nature or task over the centuries of Christendom. The apostolic mission was regarded as effectively accomplished with the establishing of Christianity as the official religion of the western world, the Holy Roman Empire of Europe. As Wilbur Shenk has said, “Christendom is Christianity without mission.” Mission re-enters the debate when William Carey raises the question in his notable “Inquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens” in 1792. The modern missionary movement forces mission back onto the theological agenda, with a growing sense in the 20th century discussion that mission defines the purpose and the action of the church.
The exploration of the missional church, as it has found expression in the last twenty years, is based upon the conviction that mission is not merely one of the programs of the church but defines the purpose and action of the church. Nor is mission adequately defined as what happens when Christians cross a cultural boundary and go into an unevangelized field to proclaim the Gospel – although that is certainly a major expression of mission. Towards the end of the 20th century, there was a growing consensus that mission is to be defined and understood in terms of God’s mission – the missio Dei – and that it is a way of talking about the purposefulness of God’s self-disclosure as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God’s actions reveal God’s purposes, and those purposes are healing and reconciling and forgiving. Mission is, as we all know, “sending,” and the primary movement of such sending is God’s self-sending in the Son, and the Spirit’s sending by the Father and the Son. It is the triune God who calls, equips, and sends his people into the world as witnesses to the inbreaking reign of God in Christ. The motif of sending then is focused on the called community, the ecclesia, which, as have said and constantly emphasize, is gathered by God’s Spirit in order to be equipped and sent. Karl Barth insists that the calling of the church and of every Christian is witness. That is why mission defines the very nature of the church and cannot be relegated to the position of one program among many. Mission is not what happens when congregations spend money on somebody besides themselves. The missional church exists for God’s mission and is equipped by God’s Spirit to carry out that calling.
The fourth factor that must obviously surface now is the ongoing theological debate about the church’s nature and purpose. The discussion of mission has brought us into the heart of this theme. If mission, over time, no longer defined what it meant to be the church and to be a member of the church, then the Gospel inevitably was reduced to a message about the individual sinner’s salvation. The driving concern was where one would spend eternity, rather than how might one faithfully carry out the mandate to be Christ’s witness. The church’s purpose is then inwardly oriented, focused on the salvation of its members, and how to ensure it. As the Germans say it, the church becomes a Heilanstalt, a salvation institution. And the doctrinal impact of that reduction of the gospel to the individual’s salvation is sweeping: the church becomes the institution that primarily manages and tends the salvation of its members. The entire medieval sacramental system is, in effect, a salvation-management system. I have called this kind of theology “reductionistic” because, although its concerns are certainly valid, the Gospel is so much more than the question of my individual salvation, and the church’s calling is so much greater than simply tending to that savedness.
In a process that is profoundly shaped by the end of Christendom, the global shifts in the shape of the Christian movement, and the strong debates about mission and the church, the missional church discussion claims that the church’s nature, purpose, and action are defined by God’s mission which it is called and equipped to serve. That calling and service happen in the vocation to be Christ’s witnesses. So, when we add the letters “al” to the word “mission,” we are trying to correct a theological vacuum, an absence of divine missional purpose in our understanding and practice as the church. We are seeking to rescue mission from its reduction to one of several programs of the church, offered to those who might find it interesting.. We are underlining that Jesus Christ has all authority in heaven and earth, and therefore we are sent and empowered by him to be light and salt, and yeast, and witness, and ambassador, and letter, wherever we are. We are sent Sunday by Sunday as Christ’s witnesses to a world already under his healing reign. The purpose of our gathering is our sending. We have no choice about that. Our only concern has to be whether or not we are credible witnesses, evidence that God can use to bring about his healing purposes.
The discussion has been going on long enough now for us to recognize new challenges when we seek to translate the theology of the missional church into the practice of the gathered community. These challenges are linked to the firmly embedded patterns produced by Christendom for more than a thousand years. When we begin to engage the missional vocation of the church, we can encounter resistance of various kinds. Those factors that shape our current passage can be experienced as threatening. Change is often a problem for some and calls for sensitive interactions and patience. Very quickly, the “default mode” of the inwardly focused church kicks in. We hear various versions of that ancient reductionism represented by the refrain, “I am just looking for a church that meets my needs.” The danger is real that a so-called “seeker friendly church” is diluting the Gospel in order to make it palatable to those seekers. The temptations to compromise our vocation, to adapt to the pressures of our social context and to allow reductionist tendencies to infiltrate our community’s pilgimage. must be courageously confronted. These temptations afflict the church as a gathered community, and they are a reality for the individual Christian seeing to follow Christ. We might find ourselves submitting to definitions of success that are alien to the Gospel. We might be tempted to make moral compromises in order to fit into our cultures more compatibly. We might blunt the two-edged sword of the truth for the sake of social acceptance. We find many ways to accommodate this resistance to the missional faithfulness.
In my interactions with colleagues and graduates seeking to introduce missional theology and practice to their congregations, I see these challenges looming up. They should certainly not be discounted nor ignored. There are no easy methods to bring about needed missional change. It cannot be imposed. I have addressed some dimensions of this challenge in a book entitled The Continuing Conversion of the Church. Conversions are works of God’s Spirit that we cannot organize or manipulate. We cannot orchestrate or program them. We can pray for them. We can pray for the Spirit’s enlightening our eyes to recognize the obstacles we are placing in the way of conversion. We can ask God to open our hearts and minds to the new thing that he wants us to embrace.
My hunch, however, is this. The challenge is to overcome the lethargy and constraints of Christendom mindsets that militate against missional faithfulness now. God’s way of doing that is, I am persuaded, through disciplined, rigorous, risk-taking grappling with the biblical word. One of the major emphases of the missional church initiative that has developed a lot of momentum has to do with missional biblical formation. The approach has come to be called, “Missional hermeneutics.” It arises out of the conviction already alluded to that the ancient apostolic mission strategy was the founding of faithfully witnessing communities of believers. The process of evangelization moved quickly into missional formation so that converts would become witnesses to the Gospel. In the history of early Christianity the discipline of adult catechesis emerged as the church’s way of going about personal missional formation. The New Testament epistles were a kind of continuing catechesis in which the apostolic authors dealt with the challenges those early witnessing communities were facing and guided them toward missional faithfulness. The four gospels were the resource that enabled new Christians and seasoned congregations to “go to school with Jesus” in order to prepared by him for the outcome of all discipleship: apostolic sending.
Paul’s concern for his congregations was that they should lead their corporate, public life in ways that were worthy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – see Phil. 1:27! That worthiness was expressed in the congruence between the message they were sharing and the way that this message shaped their conduct. Across the New Testament there is a constant emphasis upon the distinctive love which characterizes the community formed in response to the gospel of the cross and the empty tomb. The imperatives in the New Testament are, taken together, a comprehensive process of formation for faithful, obedient Christian witness. And the challenge for us today is to encounter Scripture in the same way. The resistance to missional faithfulness needs to be tested by the biblical word.
The challenges that have shaped the emergence of the missional church initiative are not lessening but intensifying. What was once defined as Christendom is becoming both religiously secularized and religiously pluralistic. Our neighbors are likely to attend a mosque or a shrine or a temple rather than a traditional Christian church – if they do anything with religion at all. The percentage of those who don’t have anything to do with religion is growing rapidly, as we have recently heard from the demographers. There is little privilege left for the church in the public market place. Zoning boards have become obstacles for congregations because our towns and cities would prefer not to have institutions within their borders which don’t pay property taxes. Churches were once looked upon as an enhancement of a neighborhood; today they are disliked because of the traffic problems they cause. Christian communities will find themselves more and more in situations where conduct that the state validates as legal is highly problematic. Here again, we will find ourselves consigned to the margins.
Compounding the difficulties we face in the post-Christendom mission fields are the problems of our own making, over the centuries. John Mackay, president of Princeton Seminary in the mid-20th century, discussed the evangelistic task of the churches back in 1928 at the Jerusalem meeting of the International Missionary Council. There, he appealed to the missionary leadership of his day to “earn the right to be heard." He was thinking especially of the Christian witness in the secularizing west. That is all the more urgent now, as we seek to discern how God would have us join his mission as his witnesses in this world he loves. To refine that discernment, we shall continue in my second lecture with some thinking about the opportunities afforded us by the missional church initiative.
Lecture Two: The Missional Church: The Opportunities
A Christian who takes the good news seriously cannot be a pessimist. The disciples experiencing the storm at sea while Jesus slept in the bottom of the boat could not grasp the simple truth that the boat could not sink: the Lord was in it. In the ship of the church Jesus Christ is present as he promised. The ship’s safe arrival at the peaceful harbor is not in jeopardy. The voyage may be rough but the outcome is assured: He who has begun a good work in you will complete it at the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:5). The review of the challenges that inform the missional church discussion could leave one with a major case of despair. But that is not the response of faith, not a witness to the living hope to which we have been born anew through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Peter 1:3). So, without diminishing the challenges we face, we turn to the opportunities that are presented to us because and as Christendom is ending, the global demography of the Christian movement is radically shifting, and we are engaged in profound debates about both mission and the church. Engaging with those challenges will be the way that we discover, or better, that God’s Spirit shows us how we are to move forward in our pilgrimage. The church may be in exile or wandering through the wilderness, but she is God’s called and cherished people, and both his healing purposes and his covenant call are unchanging.
Rather than bemoaning the end of Christendom, it is entirely appropriate to welcome this passage. It calls for a distinctive kind of discernment to do that. We have to learn how to affirm and to reject aspects of our legacy that are totally intertwined. Barth’s definition of the course of human cultures as the interaction of “the providence of God and human confusion” is instructive. How can we help each other recognize in the problematic history of Christendom resources for faithful witness today? Or, even more importantly, how do we perceive God’s redeeming presence in this ambiguous history as he calls unlikely people to become his witnesses? We know ourselves to be unlikely candidates for God’s grace, and yet we praise God for that grace that was not meted out in proportion to our merits. So we can be bold and trusting as we seek out the opportunities that are revealed in the pursuit of the vision of the missional church. And as we address these opportunities, we can learn from the history that precedes us and find resources that will inform and encourage our missional faithfulness.
The paradigm shift we are in allows us to “return to the beginning.” That is the well-known counsel of Karl Barth with regard to our theological disciplines. It makes eminent missional sense to do so: The apostolic mission whose first generations are chronicled in the biblical scriptures is the beginning of the history of Christian witness. From Pentecost onward, the church has been translating into practice the agenda laid out by Jesus Christ when he told the disciples gathered on the Mount of the Ascension that they were to carry out their commission as witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Jerusalem, and to the ends of the earth. That apostolic witness both contains the message to be spread across the world and also models how that communication is to take place. Every community of Christians gathered around the presence of Christ in their midst is a continuation of that original apostolic mission. Every one of them exists because God’s Holy Spirit has enabled them to hear, to respond to, and to obey the mandate of the Gospel. Christian assemblies that are not centered in and focused upon God’s mission in Christ are not authentic churches.
The opportunity before us opens up when we are willing to ask some hard but cleansing questions: Is the message we make known and adhere to the fullness of the biblical gospel? Is our understanding and practice of the vocation to be Christ’s witnesses compromised by our concessions to the pressures of our cultures? Is the sole lordship of Jesus Christ compromised by other systemic commitments that we have made? Is our public practice of our vocation as witnesses “worthy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?” Are we willing to face the claim that our gospel reductionisms and captivities prevent our faithful witness, and that we need to repent and be converted to our fundamental missional vocation?
Let’s explore a little more deeply the opportunity to acknowledge and repent of our many ways to reduce and hold the gospel captive.
I defined as a major challenge our western reductions of the gospel to individual salvation and of the church to an inward-oriented salvation management system. To recognize that reductionism at work and to reject it, to repent of it, to seek God’s liberation from its thrall, is an opportunity to be “transformed by the renewing of our minds” to use Paul’s words in Romans 12:2. We need to reclaim the biblical emphasis upon the world which God loves and for which he sent his Son. We need, in particular, to confront the centrality of the Kingdom of God in the earthly ministry of Jesus and the unfolding apostolic mission. The gospel is good news about God’s healing purposes for all of creation. Mark’s Gospel begins with the glad announcement: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14). In the synoptics, God’s inbreaking reign in Christ is the constant theme. For the disciples to be prepared for the imminent apostolic mission, they must grasp that Jesus Christ truly has all authority in heaven and in earth, is truly the Lord over all, is in fact the “image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation” (Col. 1:15). Where the synoptics emphasize the Kingdom of God, the Epistles stress the lordship of Christ. They are essential and complementary dimensions of the gospel that we dare not dilute when we engage in witness from one context to the next.
But that dilution of the kingdom-centeredness of the Gospel is an ancient and still virulent reductionism with which we must contend. The Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A. continues to struggle with this reductionism. In the 1980’s, the old northern and southern streams of our church finally re-united, after a century of division arising out of the Civil War of the 19th century. As part of the process of reunion, the denomination conducted an exercise in which we were to discern together what were the priorities that should be the focus of the newly formed united denomination. Over months, the process was discussed and explored and many drafts of documents were prepared, starting with congregations and ultimately becoming a national consensus-building task. When all the findings were brought together, the surprising outcome was that the vast majority of Presbyterians affirmed that evangelism should be the new church’s priority. There is a lot of background to this discussion that I can’t explore here, but the national leadership was profoundly concerned that the commitment to social justice would be compromised if evangelism were the declared priority of this church. So, in a drafting process behind closed doors, they came up with the finding that the denomination had two priorities: evangelism and social justice. That dichotomy has its historical roots on western Christendom, and there is much to debate here. But, from the perspective of the missional church discussion, the division is highly problematic. It is yet another example of gospel reductionism that severely impairs the church’s capacity to be a faithful witness to Christ.
Coming from the comprehensive commitment to God’s mission defining the church’s nature, purpose, and action, this false dichotomy makes no sense. It is, I think, an example of the impact of our neglect of the reign of God as the heart of the gospel, which is so deeply rooted in western Christendom. Viewed from a missional perspective, we have to ask: What is the understanding of the gospel that permits a definition of evangelism which is antithetical to the righteousness of God’s reign in Christ? What is the understanding of God’s righteousness and justice that can be separated from the gospel of grace? How do we become agents and witnesses of God’s justice in human history if we are not transformed and liberated by the work of justification on the cross? The salvation we receive, which we gratefully celebrate, and to which we are witnesses, is this act of cosmic healing, this restoration to wholeness, which God completed on the cross and at the empty tomb. It is the divine salvific act that truly reveals the justice of God which can not be separated from the love of God. Jesus makes very clear to Pilate in his trial that “his kingdom is not of this world,” but its unique power is sufficient to bring about the healing of this world. All Christ’s witnesses are called to serve as evidence that this healing is taking place.
Overcoming this false dichotomy is an urgent opportunity that must command the attention of the missional church. Closely linked to it is the parallel reclamation of the radical character of the “community Jesus intended.” We are the debtors of the Roman Catholic New Testament scholar, Gerhard Lohfink, who has researched this provocative theme. He has made it very clear that Jesus was preparing his disciples to be a missionary community in which healing was happening because of the Gospel. It was to be a community in which human systems of power were to be turned upside down. It was to be a community that lived out the obedience intended by the many imperatives in the New Testament, centering around John’s admonition: “Love one another, as I have loved you” (John 15:12). The community that Jesus intended was to be the continuation of the original disciples’ fellowship, taking this radically different way of living and acting into the world as evidence God would use to draw people to himself. That was the kind of community that Paul was forming with his constant emphasize on “leading your life worthy of the calling with which you have been called “ (Eph. 4:1).
I have been reviewing various opportunities confronting the church today from the perspective of the missional vision of the church’s nature, purpose, and action. We have discussed the importance of going back to the beginning and re-claiming the church’s vocation rooted in the apostolic mission. In that process, we will be challenged by the biblical emphasis upon the radical community that Jesus intended. We have stressed the reclamation of Christ’s message of the inbreaking reign of God, as a missional vision that ultimately must overcome false dichotomies like that between evangelism and social justice. All reductionisms of the gospel, no matter how much we cherish them, must give way to the cleansing and re-creating power of Easter faith.
Although I would never claim to be an expert interpreter of Korean or Korean-American culture, it seems obvious to me that our gathering today as the national caucus of the Korean Presbyterians in the PCUSA is an opportunity to ask about dimensions of the missional church initiative that are distinctively relevant to your life and calling. Are there opportunities for the Korean and Korean-American communities in our church to energize and direct the missional church discussion in productive and provocative directions? Let me propose at least a few themes that might merit further attention.
One of the major themes of the missiological discussion in the last decades has been the focus upon contextualization. In terms of missional theology one of the primary issues that arises in the contextualization discussion is that of cross-cultural translation. A missional reading of the apostolic mission recognizes that, from the outset, the intent of Christian mission was the founding of witnessing communities. This entailed crossing cultural borders and translating the gospel into a new cultures and languages. Lamin Sanneh emphasizes the infinite translatability of the gospel as one of the most distinctive claims of Christianity. The Gospel history can be carried over cultural and linguistic boundaries and find its authentic continuation in a very different context from that of the evangelizing missionary. In fact that is how the Christian mission is carried out in the New Testament. As we have just celebrated on Pentecost Sunday a few weeks ago, everyone gathered in Jerusalem heard the message in his own language. The New Testament then focuses upon the mission to the Gentiles as the pressing example of the risks and demands of cross-cultural evangelistic translation. The context of the evangelist differs from that of the recipients of his or her witness. But the Spirit empowers that new context to become a setting in which the apostolic mission can continue its journey with integrity and responses. The mission of the New Testament missionaries is continuing translation and contextualization until the gospel reaches the “ends of the earth.”
The focus of the missional church initiative in this process will be upon the ways in which the resulting new witnessing community receives the Gospel and continues its witness both within its culture and beyond it. Newbigin emphatically stated that it was never the province of the evangelizing cross-cultural missionary to define the shape of the believing community that resulted from his or her missionary work. But he also lamented that many western missionaries carried out their evangelistic work with a very deficient ecclesiology. The result was new Christian communities that primarily functioned as “receptacles for saved souls,” with a less than fully developed understanding of the missional vocation of the new community. Today, we observe major mission endeavors all across the two-thirds world, indicating that missional vocation is recognized and translated into practice. But there are also reasons for concern today about some forms of cultural insensitivity in cross-cultural mission that result in problematic processes of contextualization. The theological question that missional theology addresses to the contextualization debate deals with the missional purpose of all planted communities. How does their translation of the gospel into their context contribute to their equipping for their sentness? How does the gospel relate prophetically to aspects of cultures which result in forms of conduct that are not “worthy of the Gospel.” Examples are numerous: cultural systems of sexism, ageism, and classism are often adapted to rather than challenged. There are, of course, many examples of such contextual aberrations in the societies shaped by Christendom. The common task of the ecumenical church is to engage in probing examinations of our “living worthy of the Gospel” for the sake of mutual reproof and upbuilding. Korean Christians in North American could be an especially important instrument of missional challenge and change by serving as catalysts for that much needed examination and transformation.
An alternative and parallel approach to the issues of contextualization is the concern for the missional catholicity of the church ecumenical. The discussion is based on a re-casting of the ancient criterion of catholicity to make it an especially important agent of doctrinal formation. We commonly translate the term “catholic” with the term “universal.” If we parse the Greek term, we discover that there is a theological dynamic there which calls for our attention. The root concept is kat’holon, in accordance with the whole, or the center, or the essential content The relationship between the preposition ‘kata’ and the noun ‘holon’ is missionally intriguing. As it applies to the apostolic church and the ancient mission movement it developed, the church’s catholicity had to do with the infinite translatability of the holon, the apostolic mission, the content of the gospel as the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and reign of Christ. That holon is surrounded by innumerable “kata’s” – border crossing translations of the gospel with the resulting formation of new witnessing communities. Their integrity and faithfulness is a matter of their relatioship to the holon. There is only one holon, one salvific history that all Christians proclaim and witness to, but there are innumerable incarnations of that message in diverse cultures and languages, in which the “kata” process has been empowered by the Spirit to happen in such a way that faithfully witnessing communities emerge that are sent to new places and generate new witnesses serving God’s mission.
I want to thank you for your patient listening. I hope that this communication in two languages has met everyone’s needs, and I look forward to whatever discussion may arise from my comments. I deeply value the presence and dynamic missional commitment of our Korean Presbyterian colleagues and urge you to consider yourselves as “sent ones,” sent by God to North America to join with western Christians seeking to be faithful witnesses in a difficult time of change and challenge.
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