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Mission Theology


Mission theology is "that part of missiology that links systematic theology (dogmatics, ethics, ascetics) with practical theology (canon law, catechetics, liturgics, homiletics, pastoral care, service and apologetics). It outlines and interprets mission systematically and practically from the perspective of God's mission, Christ's mission, the mission of the Holy Spirit and the mission of the Church" (see J. A. B. Jongeneel [1999]: 29).

Mission theology developed rapidly during the latter half of the twentieth century. Informed and influenced by postcolonial critique and significant shifts in religious, political, and cultural consciousness, developments in mission theology have included renewed interest in the biblical foundations for mission, heightened consciousness of the missiological challenges posed by contextual theologies and historical studies of Christian mission, the integrative use of social scientific insights in theological reflection on missionary activity, the promotion of spiritualities of mission, theological investigation of the inter-active dynamics of gospel and culture, and finally, fostering confidence in an ecumenical vision worthy of trust.

In the effort to make theologies of mission intelligible for a world church, ecclesiastical leaders, theologians, and missionaries, along with representatives of local churches and faith communities, have attempted to put these theologies at the service of others in meaningful and productive ways. Mediated in and through ecclesial documents, ecumenical declarations, scholarly publications, pastoral communications, and Christian media productions, mission theologies have been instrumental and consequential in both setting the agenda and implementing the decisions of councils, synods, assemblies, and congresses. Mission theology is foundational to the processes of promoting, integrating, and contextualizing the elements of Christian mission through encounter, proclamation, communion, dialogue, and social transformation. It is a theology characterized by fidelity as well as creativity.

Biblical Foundations for Mission Theology. Mission theology is distinctive for its appeal to and reliance upon biblical foundations. Books and articles have taken up the theme in direct and indirect ways. Major contributions in this area include surveys of general mission themes in the Old and New Testaments as well as specific mission themes that are identified with a particular biblical book or character. Methodological developments in biblical studies have enabled scripture scholars to employ a number of critical and constructive strategies for reading and interpreting texts. Inasmuch as scholars come from many different backgrounds and contexts, they frequently bring to their respective interpretations of texts important insights that have gone unexplored in the past. The hermeneutical circle (pretext-text-context) has provided a framework for understanding the relationship between biblical narratives, the demands of Christian mission, and the experiences of people in particular circumstances. This framework for interpretation has made possible the application of biblical insights to missionary practice in ways that correct, challenge, and transform. The foundational significance of biblical themes for mission theology is more than evident given the prominence of topics such as vocation, salvation, discipleship, prophetic action, witness, solidarity with the poor, table fellowship, community, justice, conversion, hospitality, liberation, reconciliation, compassion, the Reign of God, and the mission of Jesus.

Contextual Theologies and Historical Studies. One of the dramatic shifts taking place in the last decades of the twentieth century was the worldwide emergence of contextual theologies. Contextual theologies include, among others, theologies that are local, constructive, indigenous, liberationist, and feminist. Set in juxtaposition with longstanding theological positions that have shaped ecclesiastical histories and ecclesial identities, these contemporary theological positions often represent efforts to communicate the Christian Gospel more effectively in situations where peoples and cultures have been misunderstood, threatened, and devalued by past missionary mediation of Christian beliefs and practices. In an effort to understand more fully the meaning of the Christian Gospel amidst diverse peoples, cultures, and contexts, contextual theologies give rise to tensions as well as opportunities for growth within and beyond Christian churches and faith communities. The direct implications of these collisions and convergences for mission theology are numerous. Inasmuch as centuries of contributions to the study of theology have been formulated in accord with Western categories of thought and embedded in Western European cultures, the contemporary challenge that theologians face is one of effectively demonstrating and communicating that the Church's participation in the missio Dei requires attentiveness to tradition and revelation as well as attentiveness to contextual experience and historical consciousness. In this regard, mission theology is also indebted to the findings and insights of numerous historical-critical studies of Christian missionary activity. In effect, mission theology is a crucible for theological investigation as it endeavors to affirm both that which is essential to the universal kerygma and that which is particular to the effective proclamation of the Gospel in a given context. This specific theological task is critical and complex inasmuch as there is a wide diversity of methods in contextual theologies (see S. Bevans [1992]).

Social Scientific Insights. The social sciences, particularly cultural anthropology, sociology, psychology, linguistics, semiotics, social psychology, political science, and economics, have had a significant influence on mission theology. First, the social sciences have allowed missionaries and mission-sending societies to gather data, evaluate findings, and interpret information about various aspects of missionary practice. Second, they have provided theologians with additional conceptual tools for understanding the social processes through which individuals, communities, and societies make meaning of the realities in which they find themselves. Insights from the social sciences have enabled theologians to explore the relationship between key theological concepts from the Christian tradition and fundamental human experiences that are shaped by social interactions, cultural values, and worldviews. One example is the grounding of mission theology in a Eucharistic theology that is informed by the Christian tradition as well as by an understanding of rituals and symbols associated with food, feeding, and nurturing. Another example includes the incorporation of concepts such as stewardship and jubilee into a mission theology that is also attuned to questions of justice and the sociopolitical implications of a global market economy and the international debt crisis. Finally, to the extent that communication is critical to the process of evangelization, mission theology is enhanced by the use of more effective images, metaphors, and symbols or a more perceptive understanding of human development, gender differences, and ethnic identity.

Spiritualities of Mission. Spiritualities of mission are intrinsic to many mission theologies inasmuch as they function as sources of inspiration and integration. Within the Roman Catholic Church, historical research on the missionary charism of religious orders and missionary societies has led to a resurgence in spiritual formation for mission. Grounded in the Good News of Jesus Christ, these spiritualities of mission give expression to the diverse forms of missionary witness present in the lives of men and women at different periods in the Church's history. Spiritualities of mission continue to provide orientations for mission that guide the Church as a whole and missionary movements in particular. For this reason, spiritualities of mission are inextricably related to mission theologies. Spiritualities of mission that deal directly with the subject of giving one's life for the sake of the Gospel continue to be among the most compelling. Frequently, it is in and through spiritualities of mission that a meaningful synthesis of the Great Commandment (Jn 13:34) and the Great Commission (Mt 28:1920) is clearly articulated and advanced.

Gospel and Culture. An important dimension of mission theology involves coming to terms with the inter-active dynamics of gospel and culture. Among other things, this theological task includes critical reflection on the lessons to be learned from the history of Christian missionary activity. This is where the moral dimension of mission theology frequently finds its focus. It is in this arena of discourse that the challenges, possibilities, and polemics of Christianity's encounter with the world are identified, interpreted, and addressed. Faced with the important questions raised by this encounter, mission theology endeavors to provide adequate theological resources for understanding and responding to the ethical imperatives of Christian mission. Important concerns include interreligious dialogue, comparative theology, the integrity of creation, cultural survival, secularization, globalization, migration, systemic forms of human oppression, human rights, and mass communications. At issue in all of these areas is the relationship between the evangelization of culture and the inculturation of the Gospel message in a pluralistic world.

An Ecumenical Vision of Christian Unity. Mission theology, at its best, is reflective of a common theological commitment to articulate theologies that will support, encourage, and sustain an ecumenical vision that is worthy of trust. To the extent that the existing separations and divisions among Christians continue to be a source of scandal, hostility, and ambivalence, efforts at encounter, proclamation, dialogue, communion, solidarity, and transformation are easily weakened and undermined. In the light of this reality, it is incumbent upon Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Conciliar Protestant, and Evangelical theologians of mission to provide credible visions of Christian unity that are firmly rooted in the prayer of Jesus "that all may be one" (Jn 17:21).

See Also: mission and evangelization; mission and evangelization in canon law; mission and evangelization, papal writings on; evangelii nuntiandi; redemptoris missio.

Bibliography: Introductory surveys of mission theology: k. muller, Mission Theology: An Introduction (Nettetal 1987). l. newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids, Mich. 1995). Biblical foundations of mission theology: m. arias and a. johnson, The Great Commission: Biblical Models of Evangelism (Nashville 1992). w. j. larkin and j. f. williams, Mission in the New Testament: An Evangelical Approach (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1998). d. senior and c. stuhlmueller, Biblical Foundations for Mission (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1983). Methodologies of mission theology: s. bevans, Models of Contextual Theology (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1992). d. bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, N.Y.1991). j. a. b. jongeneel, Philosophy, Science, and Theology of Mission in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: A Missiological Encyclopedia, 2 v. (New York 1995, 1997), see same-titled review in Missiology 27:1 (1999) 2730. j. sherer and s. bevans, New Directions in Mission and Evangelism, v. 13 (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1992, 1994, 1999). Mission theology and culture: m. amaladoss, Beyond Inculturation: Can the Many Be One (New Delhi 1998). j. dupuis, Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1997). f. gioia, ed., Interreligious Dialogue: The Official Teaching of the Catholic Church (19631995) (Boston 1997). g. hunsberger and c. van gelder, eds., The Church between Gospel and Culture: The Emerging Mission in North America (Grand Rapids, Mich. 1996). a. shorter, Toward a Theology of Inculturation (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1988), and Evangelization and Culture (London 1994). Orthodox perspectives of mission theology: i. bria, The Liturgy after Liturgy: Mission and Witness from an Orthodox Perspective (Geneva 1996). j. stamoolis, Eastern Orthodox Mission Theology (Maryknoll, N.Y.1986). Protestant perspectives of mission theology: t. thangaraj, The Common Task: A Theology of Christian Mission (Nashville 1999). w. shenk, Changing Frontiers of Mission (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1999). Roman Catholic perspectives of mission theology: Vatican II, Decree on Missionary Activity (Ad gentes), Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium), Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes). Pope Paul VI, Evangelii nuntiandi (Evangelization in the Modern World, 1975). Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris missio (On the Permanent Validity of the Church's Missionary Mandate, 1990). a. gittins, Bread for the Journey: The Mission of Transformation and the Transformation of Mission (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1993). r. schreiter, Constructing Local Theologies (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1985), and The New Catholicity: Theology between Global and Local (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1997).

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