Mission in Unity and Contextual Theology

Mission and witness belong to the very being of the Church. Mission of God cares and loves all God’s creation. God’s invitation is to all in the community to become God’s co-workers (1 Cor. 3:9) and participate in God’s continuing act of recreating and uniting the whole of creation. The churches and its members are called to be engaged in God’s mission and witness in unity according to the gospel’s principles. The unity of the church is the essential factor in carrying out God’s mission in all contexts. Unity brings to the world the power of the gospel to do what humans cannot do alone. The demonstration of unity empowers mission and enables effective Christian witness as divided Church is incompetent for its mission. It is in this context that mission in unity is relevant and both need to be inseparably linked to the relevant theological convictions too. If mission has to be the mission of God, then the meaning of Christ in life has to be clearly formulated to present it to the world. The faith and our responses to the problems we encounter related to various aspects in our day-to-day lives will have to be meaningfully stated. The theological tasks in relation to mission also necessitate a thorough re-examination in every context for effective witness. The Church is a pilgrim people and it lives and witnesses in constant readiness to move on in unity with a new vision for mission. Whatever be the confessional identity or whatever be the missiological interpretation, the Church should remain mindful of the fact that God is continually leading the Church to fulfill God’s mission in the world. So, the theological convictions of the Church should lead us to live in readiness to be led out beyond our present encampment.

Mission in unity remains a goal to which the church aspires. Visible expressions of commitment to attain the goal of mission and unity will then be demonstrated in various ways through collaboration, cooperation and working together with and among churches and all others who are engaged in God’s mission across their cultural, ethnic, confessional and denominational boundaries. Churches need each other whether it be locally, nationally, regionally or globally.  However, more holistic approaches and coordinated efforts are needed among all those who are engaged in God’s mission. Mission in unity remains a goal to which the church should aspire. Christian belief is that God is present and active in each context; in the face of neighbor and stranger, and in the life we seek to build together. That is why, for Christians, theology is necessarily contextual as it binds the churches together. Theology is not just a matter of academic analysis. Rather, it emerges from a life of prayer and practice – in a community that meets with God in Word and Sacrament, and that seeks to discern and respond to God’s presence and action in the world. The theological basis of mission emphasizes the nature of unity that warrants a deeper level of understanding and allows for an underlying unity.  The unity Jesus and Paul spoke of was based not on externals but on a foundational love for God and a deep commitment to mission and witness. As new issues and questions will arise in every context of human history, new ways of addressing the issues with theological undergirding for churches’ witness also need to be identified and manifested. For example, as we interact with and learn to understand and respect people of different cultures without a spirit of superiority and judgment, we build bridges of tolerance and acceptance. A new missiological understanding is needed in such contexts in order to be responsible to the call for mission and witness.  Participating in God’s mission in every situation is an imperative for all Christians and all Churches which need relevant theological understanding and conceptual clarity on its mission.  This is the reason that relevant theological undergirding should be applied and articulated when engaged in mission and witness.

The central calling of the ecumenical movement is to respond to the quest for mission and witness in unity. The ecumenical movement is more than a movement for One Church, but it is a movement providing impetus for the Church to proclaim and live out the message of the gospel of Christ in the entire world and participate in God’s mission.  The insights and motivations that should sustain the ecumenical movement is not only based on addressing ecclesiastical divisions, but it should be focused on sustaining the spirit of overcoming the obstacles to unity of  the whole inhabited world of all God’s creation. We come to realize that the things that unite us are greater than those that divide us.

The call to be engaged in mission is not a specially assigned task of any individuals or specific groups, but it is the responsibility of all those who believe in God’s salvific role in history. God’s call to be engaged in God’s mission is based on the profound demands of Christ’s love to invite all God’s people to share the joy of the fullness of life (John 10:10). A holistic understanding of mission including evangelism, witness and service in different ways leads the church to affirm its faithfulness to God’s continuing act in Jesus Christ. In this way, mission is a challenge for churches to take the gospel to the entire world. When the church takes mission towards this direction, such mission is engaged in by and for persons of all social strata, women and men, young and old, lay and ordained, poor and rich and persons with different abilities.

What we observe Asia today is that many churches and agencies still follow the old and traditional pattern of the mission. Mission is generally perceived and understood by Asian churches as an activity embarked outside their own borders. Others have understood mission as primarily focused on their own contexts, especially the mission mainly focused on religious conversion or proselytization. This warrants a situation that the understanding of mission based on this concept needs to be reinterpreted in order to be moved away from a theological misconception of a proselytizing mission. Instead, the rediscovery of the authentic theological treasures of contemporary relevance should be initiated to permeate a more meaningful missiology in Asia. The centrality of a relevant theological foundation of Asian churches’ mission has to be emphasized rather than anchoring the missiological concepts in orbits of an old style missionary era concept of theology. A profound sense of solidarity and fellowship are to be demonstrated in our common journey of developing renewed ecumenical impetus in Asia, for which an authentic Asian theological undergirding needs to be nurtured.  Asian churches in many contexts are becoming aware of the need for inter-contextual engagements and inter-weaving of emerging contextual theologies. However, such initiatives should underscore the values of wider vision for mission and witness with ecumenical commitment which embraces the whole of God’s creation.

Today, the major challenges Asian churches and their mission face are due to “aggressive missionary evangelism”.  Several Asian churches are now engaged in aggressive and freelance missionary evangelism with the emphasis given to the individualistic and anthropocentric understanding of “making disciples”, which is considered as their exclusive responsibility. This is adding more scandalous divisions and denominational antagonism, which is in turn leading to proselytizing tendencies resulting in transplanting old fashioned theological debates and practices. As a result, in Asia today, the mission activities of various churches are fragmented. Often global partnerships with regional and national coalitions or denominational identities are hindrances to ecumenical partnership in mission. Bilateral denominational mission relationships based on old mission field connections sometimes distract churches from fostering local ecumenical relationships which ignore the local ecumenical instruments already in place or engaged in the same tasks. This calls the attention of all those who are engaged in churches’ mission including local, regional and global mission partners  to collaborate and strengthen mission and witness of Asian churches at all levels. At the same time ecumenical networks and instruments should also be challenged and encouraged to place mission and evangelism among their priorities. Joint action in mission and witness of churches may be helped to avoid repeating mistakes of the past centuries.

The Christian Conference of Asia will be engaged with the main objectives of strengthening Church’s mission and witness in a multi-religious context; revitalizing and nurturing the ecumenical movement through a united witness in Asia; developing contextual theological undergirding for mission and witness while addressing emerging issues in Asia; and strengthening collaboration and cooperation among ecumenical actors in mission and witness in unity.

The activities that are planned to be conducted over the next five year period to achieve these objectives will broadly include:

1. Mission and witness in a multi-religious Asian context

Asians live in a multicultural and multi-religious context. Although Christianity was born in Asia (today’s West Asia) and several Asian Christians trace their history and tradition from the first century onwards, Christianity in Asia, by and large, has been the outcome of Western missionary activities. As such, the witnessing of Christ in Asia has been often branded or labelled as a Western agenda linked with colonialism. The leadership of churches and the mission of the churches for a long time remained in the hands of missionaries and had the colonial ethos built into it. The Asian world during the missionary era was primarily a mission field and arena for Christian service and humanitarian mission. In the post-Western missionary era, the biggest struggle for the churches in Asia was to rediscover the identity of Asian Christianity and Christian mission. Over the decades Asian churches tried to establish their own identities, but still in many contexts ecclesiastical traditions and mission agenda of the churches are very much influenced by the historical past. Mission and witness of the churches in Asia have still not been integrated in its local, cultural and indigenous roots. This is hindering meaningful and relevant Christian mission and witness in Asia’s multi-religious situation.

This activity will focus on issues related to mission and witness in a multi-religious context in Asia with an emphasis on how to address the concerns of the unity of the church, which is the essential factor in carrying out God’s mission and provide an ecumenical platform to articulate relevant missiology in Asia. The CCA will seek the collaboration of various ecclesial and confessional bodies like the FABC, EFA, and Pentecostal Churches, as well as CCA member churches and councils in Asia to identify the issues, facilitate and coordinate the programs and activities to address the concerns of mission and witness in Asia’s pluralistic context in the coming years. These activities will help to rediscover the identity of Asian Christianity and Christian Mission in Asia’s pluralistic context; address the concerns of the unity of the churches; and provide an ecumenical platform to articulate relevant missiology in Asia.

2. Inter-religious Cooperation amidst growing Religious Intolerance

The interconnectedness of the missionary movement and its established mission of evangelism have been part and parcel of the modern ecumenical movement. The founding of the Christian Conference of Asia itself was based on the principle to unite the Asian churches for common evangelistic tasks. However, in the past few decades the ecumenical movement at the global and at the Asian regional level, the role of ecumenical movement in evangelism has not been addressed adequately. Meanwhile, new generation churches and para-church groups have gone far ahead with their personalized agenda of evangelism mainly to promote church growth or establish new generation churches. As result, evangelism is interpreted as a synonym for proselytism. Often Christians and their mission and evangelism are considered reasons for vehicles of religious conversions and threat to majority religions in Asia.

As this worldview continues to gain strength, the diversity and tolerance of religions that were once the strength and pride of Asia, have been threatened today by growing religious intolerance in several parts of Asia. The birth place of all major religions in the world is now affected by conflicts that have been abetted in the name of religion, especially by politicization of religion. There is an increasing and alarming trend of political parties using religion to gain power; while religious leaders use politics as a means to establish their authority and influence in a political system. These tendencies often lead to more communal and social polarization, and create a majority-minority religious divide that increases religious intolerance and hatred in society.

The CCA will be engaged in activities that promote inter-religious cooperation and fellowship with people of other faiths to live in harmony beyond the traditional boundaries of religions;

seek churches’ role and responsibility in propagating  freedom of religion and practice  missiological tasks in a midst of rising religious extremism in Asia and address the concerns of emerging trends of politicization of religion and religionization of politics in Asia from  theological and missiological perspectives.

3. Asia Mission Conference (AMC)

The churches in Asia witness mission in a diverse context. Asian churches and the ecumenical movement have articulated their vision of new evangelistic tasks. However, the emerging Asian contexts, especially Asia’s pluralistic religious contexts, warrant new thinking in the areas of witness and mission in a multi-religious Asian context.  Christian witness and mission in a pluralistic world should include engaging in dialogue with people of different religions and cultures. The Church in Asia needs to rediscover its mission in order to be fully involved in concentrating on the manifestation of the kingdom of God in its fullness.

It is against this background that the CCA will focus on issues related to the emerging missiological trends in Asia and identify areas of possible co-operation among Asian churches beyond ecclesial boundaries, for their united witness and mission in Asia.  CCA will be organizing an Asia Mission Conference at the regional level, bringing together theologians, church leaders and lay leaders from all CCA member churches and the wider ecumenical community, to rediscover the emerging missiological trends in Asia and identify areas of possible co-operation among Asian churches for their united witness and mission in Asia; and to articulate a new vision of ecumenical mission and vision in Asia’s pluralistic religious contexts, engaging in dialogue with people of other faiths. This program will also address the concerns of politicization of religion and religionisation of politics in Asia from theological and missiological perspectives.

4. Contextualization of theology in Asia and ecumenical theological education

The development of Asian theology has been closely linked to the thinking of indigenization in the early 19th century and subsequently to the concept of contextualization in missions, as indigenization focuses only on the cultural dimension, while the concept of contextualization includes social, political, and economic questions.  Since the 19th century onwards, Asian theologians have made efforts to understand distinctions between Western and Asian theology and by the end of World War II, they have been seeking liberation from Western theologies in order to make the gospel more relevant to their own local and national life situations. Although there is a general agreement among the missiologists that hermeneutics is most central to the task of contextualizing the gospel, there exists a lack of noticeable progress in this area.   In recent times, Asians are becoming aware of the need for inter-contextual engagements and inter-weaving of emerging contextual theologies with wider ecumenical vision and ecumenical commitment which transcends church or Christian unity and humanity, and embraces all  God’s creation.

The fact remains that the ecumenical movement has not been in a position to address these issues in the Asian context, especially in stimulating theological thinking with an Asian perspective. This has affected Asian contributions to develop contextual theology which could have been an impetus for ecumenical formation of the younger generation of Asian ecumenists.  Against this background, CCA will encourage churches to develop contextual hermeneutics and theologies with an Asian perspective and to look for new paradigms and models of ecumenical engagement in developing living theologies that address the emerging social, economic, political and ecological issues and religious freedom in Asia.

5. Congress of Asian Theologians (CATS):

Doing Theologies in the Context of Wider Ecumenism in Asia

The Congress of Asian Theologians (CATS) initiated by CCA in 1997 has been able to create certain ripples over the years in stimulating innovative theological thinking among younger Asian theologians as well as trying to seek and create a theological community that would bring together various theological movements and associations of theological education, as well as individual theologians.  Over the years through this significant work through CATS, the CCA has been able to promote and enhance a cooperative process of theological studies and reflection among committed Asian theologians who are prepared to deal with critical Asian issues as part of the Asian theological agenda. While each CATS has helped to vitalize, facilitate and foster a cross-fertilization of theological insights and studies among Asian theologians from various Asian contexts, it has also served and assisted Asian Christian communities and people in witnessing the Gospel among intellectual and religious communities through academic studies and existential reflection of theological issues in the Asian context. Further, it has been assisting in deepening the theological foundations of the ecumenical movement in Asia and in developing a new Asian ecumenical vision.

CATS has been recognized as an instrument facilitated and coordinated by CCA helping to assist in locating present and future ecumenically committed leaders for Asian Churches and in providing ways and means to equip and nurture them. It was also instrumental in providing avenues for participating in the ongoing studies and discussions of the wider international ecumenical theological community and make a distinctive Asian contribution to them. With a keen need to articulate Asian theologies more clearly and sharply, to cultivate new methodologies of doing theology in the Asian context, and to polish the academic and professional training for developing Asian theological scholarship, the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) has initiated a prominent role in developing and promoting the Asian theological agenda in the Asian ecumenical movement through the Congress of Asian Theologians.

Following CATS I held in Suwon, Korea in 1997, CATS II was held in Bangalore, India in 1999; CATS III in Yogyakarta, Indonesia in 2001, CATS IV in Chiang Mai, Thailand in 2003 and CATS V in Hong Kong in 2006. CATS VI was held in Iloilo City, Philippines in February 2009. CATS VII in Seoul, Korea in June 2012. The next, CATS VIII, will be held under the theme of “Doing Asian Theologies in the Context of God’s Oikos”.

CATS VIII: Doing Theologies in the Context of Wider Ecumenism in Asia

Asia with its ancient cultures, heritage, diversity and richness, seems to have lost its soul, as modernization and technological development reject traditional values. Poverty, human rights violations, terrorism, religious fundamentalism, discrimination against minorities with women and children as primary victims; authoritarian regimes and domination of nations over others;  environmental challenges; information and technological change and transformation in almost all aspects of societal life in Asia, continue to polarize and divide Asian people and countries. Churches and ecumenical movements are challenged by these events that traumatize people causing severe mental and physical stress, leading to a gradual alienation from spirituality. These situations in Asia warrant ecumenical responses and churches’ participation in responding to such crucial issues as part of the prophetic witness and mission. It is indeed a fact that, the ecumenical movement in Asia is in a state of general decline in many ways due to factors such as leadership crisis, increasing denominationalism, lack of ecumenical formation in the younger generation in churches, lack of vision and theological thinking.

It is in this background that the churches are encouraged to look for new paradigms and models of wider ecumenical engagements through 3 CATS programs, over the next five years, that aims to

  • provide ecumenical space for Asian theologians to meet in fellowship, to deliberate on the theological vision, mission and priorities that CCA should be engaged in the next five-year period;
  • promote a cooperative process of study, analysis and reflection among committed Asia theologians in order to deal with critical Asian issues;
  • foster collaboration in articulating and promoting relevant Asian contextual theologizing among theologians, theological movements and institutions of theological education; and
  • provide a platform for professional update, sharing of experience, reflection on current issues, and networking among seasoned and younger Asian theologians.

 

6. Theological education and leadership development in new churches in Asia

In recent years CCA’s membership has been expanded with new members from former closed door countries as well as communist countries. Churches and ecumenical councils from these countries are new to the ecumenical movement and to CCA. These churches and councils lack ecumenical leadership and ecumenical theological education as many of the church leaders are providing pastoral care and assistance without formal theological education as they do not have access to the theological education. This makes them vulnerable to be targets of “aggressive evangelism” promoted by freelance missionary evangelists from outside their countries with emphasis given to them with individualistic and anthropocentric understanding of “making disciples”, which is considered as their exclusive responsibility.

In this background CCA needs to play a proactive role in developing an ecumenical leadership in these countries and equip the pastors, church leaders, women and youth with a holistic sense of ministry with the perspective of ecumenism and with Asian contextual theologizing.  In this context CCA will be implementing several activities in coming years with the partnership and collaboration of its member churches and council and regional ecumenical bodies, to accompany new and developing churches in Laos, Nepal, Bhutan, Cambodia, East Timor and where there is a need, in theological education and ecumenical formation. Activities will include national level ecumenical formation leadership development programs for youth and women; non-formal theological education programs for pastors and church leaders  facilitated through other ecumenical theological training centers and Scholarships, internships and exchange programs to be arranged and facilitated through other ecumenical learning centers.

 

7. Young Asian Women Doing Theology

Asian churches have been slow to recognize and accept violence against women as a crucial issue in churches, families and society. Although we see that in certain areas of life women are already welcomed into major professions and other position of authority, the situation in Asian society and churches still needs lots to do for women. Growing sexual and physical violence against young women, sexual slavery of women and children, economic injustice, less political representation and participation, violation of human rights such as right to life, education and freedom of expression in many Asian countries calls for attention of Asian churches. It is indeed a time where young women theologians need to play a crucial role in nurturing the prophetic voices and in doing theology that empowers and liberates women from oppression in churches and society.

In the pluralistic background of Asia it is very important for Christians, particularly women and youth, to engage with contextualizing the Bible and their faith with Asia’s socio-economic and political realities. Young women theologians need to study and interpret the Bible within the Asian context in order to live out prophetic lives as God’s People. CCA will play a prominent role by providing a platform for young women theologian to reflect and theologize on emerging trends with a gender perspective. In the coming five years CCA, in partnership with its constituencies and theological colleges and seminaries, will conduct biennially the “Young Women Theologians Conference,” which will provide opportunities for young female theologians to share their concerns and develop biblical and theological perspectives that can empower young women in Asian churches and societies.

9. Ecumenical Theological Educators’ Network and Database in Asia (ETENDA)

Asian soil has brought up by many theologians who have given revolutionary direction to the ecumenical movement in Asia. Many countries in Asia like India, Philippines, and Indonesia, have theological colleges and seminaries that are promoting the ecumenical movement and spirit in Asia. CCA needs to bring these theological educators to one platform in order to build a strong network and also develop a database of theologians and educators for exchanging information and resources.

This program plans biennial meetings of ecumenical theological educators on emerging issues and to strengthen and broaden networks which will be instrumental in assisting younger churches in Asia.

Conclusion

It will be the earnest and serious endeavor of the CCA to implement the activities presented, in order to achieve the results that would address and overcome the issues that are explained above.

It is expected that, member churches and councils will

  • articulate a relevant and contextual missiology and theology which affirms the ecumenical spirit and unity of churches in Asia,
  • actively engage in inter -religious cooperation on the issues of social justice and affirming the right of freedom of religion and religious harmony;
  • equip new and ecumenically younger member churches to be competent to nurture the ecumenical movement in their respective countries and assist them to contribute to the regional and global ecumenical movement;
  • empower Youth and Women in CCA constituencies through theological education and leadership development initiatives; and
  • form active and strong network of ecumenical theologians and theological educators in Asia.

Impact

CCA believes that these activities over the five year period will help the Churches in Asia towards more visible unity in performing God’s mission, which is ‘living together in a common obedience of witness to the mission of God in the world’, and that CCA will continue to be a forum of continuing co-operation among the churches and national Christian bodies in Asia within the framework of the wider ecumenical movement.
It is also expected that there will be strong collaboration and cooperation among churches and other religious groups in promoting and advocating inter- religious cooperation and harmony at all levels.

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