In 1910 here in Edinburgh there was the biggest ever gathering, up to that point in history, of protestant missionaries to think about the future of world mission. The so called Edinburgh Missionary Conference happened just before the bloodbath of World War 1 and shared the general optimistic outlook on life of that era, especially the idea of unstoppable progress. It was a pretty paternalistic get together, the overwhelmingly white missionaries came from the the strongholds of Christianity, Europe and North America which sent out missionaries not many “natives” were invited. The whole conference is well summed up in a slogan which was popular at the conference from a book by missionary leader John Mott, “The Evangelisation of the World in This Generation.”
The Church being secure in its Western strongholds these missionaries thought they would see the Great Commission essentially completed in their generation by their generation. In 2010 Edinburgh once more hosted a large missionary conference to mark 100 years since the first landmark gathering. I wonder what the original conference goers would have made of what has changed? Christianity is growing in the areas they regarded as “mission fields” in that sense their prayers and expectations have come to fruition. However I doubt they could have guessed the way Christianity has declined and almost collapsed in Europe. When it comes to mission those of us who live in Europe can no longer do what our fore bearers did here in Edinburgh in 1910 and neatly divide the world into “sending nations” (us here) and “receiving nations” (those people somewhere else). One of the key insights of the “missional movement” which has developed in the last 20 years or so is that the West is just as much a “mission field” as anywhere else in the world. So as a Christ follower here in Edinburgh I am as much called to be a missionary as any Christ follower living in Hindu dominated rural India or postmodern in outlook urban Paris.
One of the key figures behind this change of perspective, and indeed in the development of missional theology itself, was missionary and missiologist Lesslie Newbigin. Newbigin was a career missionary who returned to the UK from India in the 1970s to be confronted by an unexpected reality. He found that the UK, and the West in general, was as much a mission field as India had been. In fact, Newbigin went on to argue that Western society is in reality more resistant to the Christian Gospel than any other culture in the world or indeed in history. Newbigin contended that the reason that Western culture is uniquely impervious to the Gospel is because it is the only culture which has been created by a perceived rejection of Christianity. Many contemporary writers have described this reality, of European society rejecting and replacing Christianity and its privileged and defining place in culture, as “postchristendom.” Gerad Kelly recently puts the reality of PostChristendom like this “For millions of people across Europe the Christian churches have been archived in memory and history: they form part of our past but not of our future and have no power to fuel our dreams today. No culture on earth has been post-Christian in quite the way Europe is. We have gone through the years of Christendom and come out the other side. Contemporary Christians are minoritized and marginalised, small in numbers and forced to the edges of culture.”
So far so good. However, as someone who, has as a result of what I have just described, been convinced of the need for mission in Scotland and committed to being part of that mission I have been feeling slightly uneasy recently about some attitudes to and ways of thinking about mission in PostChristendom I am encountering. I am wondering whether many people have accepted the reality of Scotland being a mission field but have drawn the wrong implications from that conclusion? I suspect that while the Church’s acceptance of the reality of PostChristendom has been positive some of its thinking on mission in a PostChristian setting has been too simplistic. I am reading and encountering a growing number of people who are saying that mission in the West, and by extension Scotland, simply puts us back in the position that the Celtic Church was in during the so called “dark ages.” This has led to among other things in a boom of books and seminars about the Celtic Church and Celtic mission. I want to say up front that I have found a great deal of this material personally inspiring and helpful. There is no doubt that we can learn much from the Celtic missionaries and their encounter with preChristian cultures, but, the reality is that in 21st century Scotland we are not facing a “PREchristian” but a “POSTchristian” culture. Newbigin needs to be taken more seriously by those who want to be involved in mission in Scotland.
The mission field we face here is far more challenging, at least culturally, spiritually and intellectually, for the Church than the Celtic Tribes, Columba, Cuthbert and Aidan faced or that the church faces in previously unreached people groups across the globe. No previous generation of the church or no other contemporary missionaries has faced as challenging a cultural context as we who seek to join God in reaching out in PostChristendom Europe. Its no accident that its our culture which has spawned Dawkins and Hitchen’s militant and confrontational atheism, David Icke and his like’s nebulous, anti-intellectual, morality free mysticism and the collective yawn, the swear words or rapid reaching for the remote control reaction whenever the Archbishop of Canterbury or anything vaguely connected to church appears on tv! My worry is that we are avoiding the hard work of missionally engaging with this unique culture by being too simplistic in characterising it as being “prechristian.” When we do that we diminish the magnitude of the challenge we face. Over 20 years ago Newbigin realised the unique difficulties of mission in PostChristemdom Europe saying, “We are in a radically new situation and cannot dream either of a Constantinian authority or of a pre-Constantinian innocence.” In other words we have none of the advantages which either a largely Christian culture or mainly nonChristian culture usually offers to those involved in Christian mission.
Faced with this reality as the church we can, should and must learn from mission to preChristian cultures, including our own in the past, but our main focus must be on understanding our contemporary PostChristendom culture and learning what it means to a missional/incarnational expression of the People of God here and now. Another hugely important missionary thinker, David Bosch, puts our challenge in this way : “Is a secularised and dechristianised European . . . a not-yet-Christian or a no-more Christian?” He concludes: “Such a person is a post-Christian rather than a pre-Christian. This calls for a special approach in communicating the gospel.” Bosch reminds us that we face what I have described as a unique missional context and there are no short cuts, no silver bullets or photocopiable plans for how be an effective missional expression of church in our contemporary culture.
So what? Now what? .… Well I think we need to avoid simply photocopying the missionary methods of other cultures and times. Its too simplistic to say we just need to recreate the Celtic church (funny how its usually recreated in the image of those doing the recreating) or import unquestionably what is working elsewhere. I must confess a certain amount of trepidation about a major American mega-church opening a franchise in London. It seems to me if it simply uses its “seeker sensitive” style of evangelism it will become a kind of “super trawler” fishing among the declining “stock” of people on the fringe of the church in the UK rather than a serious contribution to mission here.
We face a unique missionary challenge here in Europe and so we need to be bold enough to take risks in creating fresh expressions of church. Denominational leaders need to realise that the church shaped to function pastorally in Christendom will not be best suited to mission in PostChristendom. Old patterns of being church will need to be changed or abandoned if the church is to rise the missional challenge here in Scotland. Can that be done in existing congregations? I have to be honest in saying I don’t know but I am pessimistic about the prospects. I think authentic missional expressions of the Body of Christ for our culture will come about more through revolutionary new congregations than evolutionary change in existing congregations.
As I said earlier we need to abandon the idea we are “sending nation” when it comes to mission. We need missionaries from all around the world to come and join us here in Scotland in rising to our contemporary challenge. We need to turn our back on the arrogance that says we can do this on our own and don’t need to help from those outside our culture. However those who come need to make sure that they don’t make the mistake that many of missionaries at the Edinburgh 1910 conference made when they returned to Asia and African and built church buildings in a gothic style with pipe organs, choirs and robed clergy. We don’t need equally incongruous recreations of Hillsongs, Saddleback or Mosaic LA. We need people who are willing to come and are willing to do the work of being a cross cultural missionary through following Jesus example of incarnational mission.
I also feel in view of everything I have just described that we also need to count ourselves as privileged. If we really are facing a uniquely difficult culture for the Kingdom of God here in 21st century Scotland. If the problems of becoming a missional church here are as challenging as I have suggested in our generation. Then that must surely imply that our God has raised us up for this task and has confidence in us to meet that challenge. Thankfully I am not God but if I was I probably wouldn’t have chosen myself and my contemporaries for this missionary task we have been describing. But then again I probably wouldn’t have chosen Abram to kick off God’s people, I probably wouldn’t have chosen Moses to lead God’s people to freedom, David would have been on my reject list as a forerunner of the Messiah. I might have chosen a mixed group of rich entrepreneurs, biblical scholars, and respected religious officials to use as the foundation to re-express God’s People in the 1st century AD but bent tax collectors, despised women, rather dim at times working class men, roman collaborators and violent terrorists wouldn’t have made it onto my radar for that task. Reflecting on that I thank God that when it comes to His work He doesn’t use my logic.
Reading these words about the first generation of Christ followers facing the enormous and seemingly impossible task of impacting the Roman Empire with the Gospel I pray that my generation of Christ followers facing mission in PostChristendom Scotland would become a living embodiment and expression of what Paul is talking about. 1 Cor 26-31 “Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don’t see many of “the brightest and the best” among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families. Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these “nobodies” to expose the hollow pretensions of the “somebodies”? That makes it quite clear that none of you can get by with blowing your own horn before God. Everything that we have—right thinking and right living, a clean slate and a fresh start—comes from God by way of Jesus Christ.”