Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Reappraising the Study of World Christianity

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.

Theology of Mission has an interesting overlapping cross-disciplinary engagement with the field of World/Global Christianity. As a scholar and student of missiology (from Asia), I would like to bring out some critical perspectives on the field of World Christianity from my global south point of view. It is my hope that my friends and partners in the study fields of World/Global Christianity and Missiology/Theology of Mission take my reflections as a friendly contribution in broadening the boundaries of these subject areas in leaning, teaching and praxis.

We live in a challenging time, both as the church/Christian community and the world. After centuries of mission and evangelization, Christianity is a global phenomenon today. Our world today is faced with rapid changes due to post-colonialism and post-modernism, technological enhancement, international politics, global migration, and economic transformation. Economic changes have caused both extreme poverty and created a wealthy minority. Therefore, Christian phenomena should be identified, analyzed, appraised, and understood in relation to other socioeconomic and religious-cultural phenomena in the world.

As Christianity’s focus is shifting to the global south in our changing globalized context, and as Christianity is also seeking new mission fields, such as North America, it is necessary to engage in a critical reading and application of Global Christianity as an expanding phenomenon today. Therefore, World Christianity as a field of study in Missology faces the challenge to develop new strategies to promote its learning-teaching paradigms.

I appreciate the substantial work available already on some specific areas of discussion such as the very concept of Misisio Dei that has attracted the attention of both progressive and evangelical theologians alike. Other such areas include the changing landscape of Global Christianity, globalization and Christian responses, empirical approaches in World Christianity, interfaith dialogue, religious fundamentalism, ecumenical approaches to global church, and the like. But I would like to suggest some core areas that need further work and reflection.

Strategic Rethinking and Furthering
World Christianity as a research field should develop new strategies to face the new challenges of the world today; therefore, I would like to identify five strategic areas of cross-disciplinary engagement in promoting World Christianity as a field of study. These areas of course are not new in the discourse, although I suggest the need of further work and research.

1. Mission from the margins: This will provide opportunities to engage in mission on the margins of global Christianity. This approach suggests engaging in interdisciplinary research with scholars and movements from the margins. Defining the margins here can take many shapes and could be multi-faceted. For example, we can think of categories from geo-political margins to ecclesiological margins, from economic margins to ecological margins, from cross-cultural margins to knowledge-based marginalization. This strategic area will use critical social analysis, ecclesiology, and missiology to design and conduct new innovative research projects and studies. The landscape of World Christianity has moved from a Northern-Western based paradigm to a global paradigm. We have to face the realities in the world church, world Christian movements, and global social movements.

2. Cross-cultural engagement: The current cross-cultural discussions of mission in missional education programmes are still very much US- or Euro-centric, as are anthropological studies and discussions in Christian theological schools. In recognizing the limits of these approaches – for example a significant amount of cross-cultural theories are still based on western anthropology, sociology of religion and cultural studies – a question could be raised: What are alternative approaches and methodologies to enhance cross-cultural discourses in missiology using World Christianity as a base? To put it in another way – are we ready for and open to totally different approaches and methodologies in both the theory and praxis of cross-cultural discourses from partners and friends from post-colonial nations?

3. Biblical hermeneutics and Global Christianity: The Bible is central to the Christian faith, but the way in which it is interpreted and read by diverse Christian communities varies. This is an interesting field of study both for biblical and mission scholars. Can these two groups engage in a fresh look at this critical concern and develop new research questions?

Are we ready to rethink some of the methodological considerations of the fourfold western theological approach of Bible, church history, theology and pastoral ministry to adopt totally different (wholistic) models developed in the emerging nations?

Some rethinking in this regard is already happening in the global south itself. I can personally speak of Asia. Wati Longchar, an eminent theological teacher and missiologist from India, presented the following critique of missional education in an unpublished paper presented at a recent FTESEA meeting in October 2018 under the theme of “Journey in Training Church Leaders: Looking Past, Challenges Ahead and Future Partnership”:

“We have curriculums on ecumenism, comparative study of religions, interfaith dialogue, feminist theology, minjung theology, dalit theology, indigenous theology, eco-theology, HIV & AIDS, Disability, etc. But they are not within the mainstream of theological studies. We try to integrate those emerging courses within the inherited traditional western fourfold curricula (Bible, theology, church history and practical ministry) patterns. Some colleges do not offer those courses. Many colleges offer as Elective or Optional courses which many students do not register because they are over loaded by required courses. This paradigm of “integration” or “addition” needs to be changed. Again, if we make further analysis of the whole pattern of theological education, one will discover an urban biased theological education. Theological education is still shaped by the Enlightenment paradigm – philosophical-cognitive development approach focusing on training denominational leaders. This is the crux of the problem in theological education particularly in Asia.”

4. Dialogue related to multiple expressions of Christianity and theologies in the world: We speak of the North-South dialogue in economics and politics, and the South-South Dialogue in global economic and cultural corporations. However, non-Euro and non-US-centric research on the dialogue about various Christian expressions and theologies remains underdeveloped. Yet I believe this is an extremely important field if we wish to develop a wholistic view of world theologies and missiologies. This requires investment in collaborative research with multiple scholars in many parts of the world and the church.

5. World Christianity and world peace: Our world is in dire need of healing, peace, and reconciliation. This strategic point requires study and research on such issues as Christian contributions to, and challenges in, world peace, global Christian scholars’ roles in promoting world peace and reconciliation, and the interdisciplinary research questions that can be developed to study issues in the dynamics of world Christianity and world peace.

Some Challenges
The world mission today takes place from “everywhere to everywhere.” I would like to identity five challenges we have to face to promote World Christianity as a subject. All world Christianity programmes, whether at the undergraduate, graduate, or professional levels, must respond to the main audiences (publics) of theological education: the church, academia, and society. This requires further discussion and practical application.

  • It is essential to extend beyond traditional disciplinary areas, such as church history, missiology, and evangelism (I prefer the term to ‘evangelization’), to develop new knowledge bases to address contemporary changes and secure the position World Christianity deserves as a university subject.

  • International collaborative research: the authenticity and future of World Christianity study programmes will depend on the degree to which our research is international and collaborative, in that our ability to integrate various perspectives, schools of thoughts, and methods, particularly from the global south, is critical to the field. However, this may pose challenges to some Western scientific approaches to the study of mission.

  • We must determine the extent to which scholars in World Christianity both in the global north and south are willing to engage with professional sociologists and social analysts in their critical appraisals of the global church and Christianity’s presence in the world.

  • Church leadership everywhere should be encouraged to educate their seminarians, theological institutions, young pastors, and the laity to study Christianity from a global perspective at the same time that they study their own church history or growth.

  • The last (but not least) challenge I think of is the affordability and accessibility of World Christianity studies and research and the fruits they offer to the wider community. World Christianity as a subject should be available to all students of mission. This will make it simpler to promote World Christianity within academia as well as at the public level better and thereby to take World Christianity to the common people.

I hope these insights will offer fresh perspectives as we progress in appraising the status of World Christianity as an innovative area of study and research and missional application.

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