Friday, March 2, 2018

Some missiological readings into the Arusha World Mission Conference

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Jerome Sahabandhu, Mission Theologian in Residence at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Rev. Dr. Sahabandhu's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

The Conference on World Mission and Evangelism, which is once each decade, is part of the long tradition of the International Mission Council and the World Council of Churches’ (WCC) Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME). The next Mission Conference will be meeting March 8-13, 2018 in Arusha, Tanzania. The Conference’s theme will be “Moving in the Spirit: Called to Transforming Discipleship.”

CWME’s last fully-fledged meeting was held in 2005 in Athens, Greece, followed by a common participation in Edinburgh 2010, which celebrated a century of world mission ecumenically. The African mission conferences began in 1958, when the International Missionary Council (IMC) met in Africa at Achimota (near Accra), Ghana, where they debated and accepted the proposal to unite with the World Council of Churches.

One can quickly observe in the Arusha theme several theologies intersecting and dialoging into a theology of moving (movement), a theology of Spirit, a theology of calling, a theology of discipleship, and finally a theology of transforming (transformation). There is also a theology of “moving in the Spirit” and a “theology of transforming discipleship.” If creatively related, these theologies offer rich and diverse possibilities for missional reflections and missional praxis in the world and in the creation. Missiologists are now tasked to analyze, engage, and missionally apply the themes in their respective contexts and bring insights to global discussions.

Significance of Tanzania and Ujamaa Spirituality
When theological reflection occurs, space matters, place matters, context matters, and people matter. Tanzania is an East African country situated just south of the equator with its resilient population now reaching nearly 58 million ( In 1964, Tanzania became a sovereign state with the union of the separate states of Tanganyika and Zanzibar. From independence in 1964 to 1984, Tanzania became popular around the world because of Julius Nyerere, the country’s great national leader. As President, Nyerere popularized the Swahili concept of Ujamaa, a Tanzanian expression of “familyhood,” which emphasizes equality, freedom, and justice (loosely translated as African socialism).

I think the missiological choice of Tanzania is well-considered and well-deserved, and in the historical context of a new mission conference. Tanzania was in the missiological limelight when the Ecumenical Association of the Third World Theologians (EATWOT) was founded in Dar es Salaam in 1976. EATWOT has, since its inception, generated voices from the new and developing nations (once margins of the imperialisms) and developing countries to the missiological dialogue. Also worth noting is the world famous Brazilian educationist Paulo Freire, who pioneered a liberation pedagogical movement into ecumenical mission discourses though his work in the World Council of Churches; this movement had an influence on Nyerere’s work in the 1970s. Freire developed strong connections with Dar es Salaam and eventually Nyerere hosted an international conference on adult education and development in 1976.

Should the Spirit move to listen to more of the emerging theologies from global margins?

Should the Sprit move to listen and engage with young new theological voices during and after Arusha?

Did Tanzanian Christians develop a Theology of Ujamaa? Partly I think yes, they did, but not without its critics. The questions for Arusha will be, therefore:  Can Arusha facilitate and generate fresh discussions on a new Ujamaa theology of mission? Can we think of Ujamaa discipleship in which a “familyhood” understanding of community is developed? Can Ujamaa discipleship transform our narrow understanding of individualistic alienated Christianity into more of a sisterhood- and brotherhood-type community-orientated Christianity? Can we think and apply Ujamaa spirit as a universe, as humanity, as animals, and as living beings – as a dynamic and energetic Ujamaa cosmic movement? Can this be a Passover/transitional exodus from isolation and competition to Ujamaa communities? Can the Ujamaa spirit help humanity to engage dynamically and creatively to move from hatred to reconciliation, guilt to costly forgiveness, historical amnesia to restorative justice, violence to Shalom?

Interfaith Friendships
It is missiologically relevant to mention that Tanzania has been under the colonial powers of the Portuguese (the first European to reach Tanzania was a Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama, who arrived in 1498), and then the German and British from the fifteenth century into the twentieth century. So, Arusha offers a strong post-colonial context for missional reflection and debate. As for religion, roughly one-third of the population is Muslim, most of whom are Sunni. The Shiite population of Tanzania includes an Ismāʿīlī community under the spiritual leadership of the Aga Khan. An additional one-third of Tanzanians profess Christianity, which in Tanzania includes Roman Catholic, Lutheran (that is taking a leading role in hosting Arusha), Methodist, and Baptist denominations. The remainder of the population holds traditional beliefs.

The Arusha conference is taking place amidst rapid changes in the global religious landscape. Certainly, serious tensions between Islam and Christianity in Africa and other parts of the world remain. But, mindful of the theme “Moving in Sprit,” we should understand that Spirit is the Spirit of peace, dialogue, and familyhood. Therefore, can Arusha bring new challenges and new insights for ‘interfaith friendships’ in mission? Can Arusha inculcate a positive approach by “faith in relation to my neighbor’s faith” into our discipleship? These are important questions with which to wrestle within cross-cultural insights and wisdom.

Ethics of Mission
I personally think that it is high time that global missiological discourses bring ethics in mission into the new missional debate, dialogue, and praxis. Arusha is a fresh ‘genesis moment’ for it because “Moving in Spirit” certainly renounces the competitive evangelization (or evangelism) and unethical proselytism and pronounces a genuine and honest approach for reaching consensus for ethics in the global Christian mission. This idea should be extended to the missiologists of other faiths as well. Are we ready for the same? This would be a Sprit moving missiological question.

I appreciate Arusha for moving us spiritually into the story of divine movement in creation of the cosmic Ujamaa:

“And the earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters” (Genesis 1: 2).

Towards a new Ujamaa -Moving in the Spirit!

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