Thanasis N. Papathanasiou

Published in  the journal “Synaxi” 126 (2013) pg 81-85.

What do we mean when we say that the 21st Century is curious? It can be characterised thus for many reasons, and primarily for all those that startle and deconstruct the societies (dominance of the markets, the eclipse of politics, the revival of bigotry) in contrast to the optimism and euphoria with which the 20th century came to a close. As such, the 21st century is especially strange with regards to a special field, the Christian presence in the world, a field in which a change is taking place that is perhaps of greater intensity than those aforementioned.

At the start of the 20th century, 80% of Christians in the whole world lived in Europe and North America. However, already at the end of the century, 60% were found in Africa, Asia and Latin America, while large portions of the Western population (especially of Western Europe) moved on to anti-Christianity. This balance continues to tilt in this manner in the century we are living in. With the poignant exception of the historical Christian communities that are being crushed by fanatical Islam at points in the Near and Middle East, the Christian presence outside the Western world exhibits a dynamism , that makes certain people speculate that by around 2025, unless something changes dramatically and unexpectedly, European Christians will find themselves in third place in terms of population, while Africa and Latin America will be competing for the title of the most Christian (in terms of population) continent, with China remaining approximately an incalculable factor. The picture becomes more complex if one takes into account the continuing worldwide population transfer which brought not only Islam (something that monopolises attention) into the bowels of Western societies, but also forms of Christianity that have been formed in the Third World. Thus today one encounters the phenomenon in the de-Christianised Western world of Christian mission being undertaken by immigrants[i].

The whole matter is of timely importance, because it concerns the realistic awareness of existing reality. The Christian sphere, with all its divergences, differences and short circuits, is a dynamic sphere, many of whose currents are in flux. Many Christian identities are being recreated, in a mood of reflection and reciprocation with the anxieties of the world, sometimes with lucid evangelical criteria and other times obscured ones. Thus the study of Christian witness acquires especial timelessness and immediacy.

In 1993, seven years before the dawn of the new millennium, a collective tome was published. Its basic question was the future of Christian mission in the new century that was approaching. Alan Neely, a professor of Missiology at the Theological Seminary of Princeton University, started the text with the following finding: Approximately fifty years ago the disciple of Missiology was in direct dispute. The chairs of Missiology were empty and the course was eliminated, in the hands of a generation that agonisingly wanted to distance itself from imperialism and colonialism. And yet, before the 20th century had expired, the meaning of witness and mission moved into a phase of recovery, critical reorientation, broadening and rekindling on a worldwide scale. Neely concluded that the question was no longer whether missiology would continue to be taught in the 20th century, but which would be its features and content.[ii]

According to a recent tally[iii], there are thirty academic associations of specialists in Missiology worldwide, which study, discuss, organise conferences and publish journals. The oldest active association is the “German Mission Society” (“Deutsche GesellschaftfürMissionswissenschaft”) that was founded in 1918, and the youngest is the Japanese Mission Society” that was formed in 2005. Seven of the thirty associations were founded from 2000 and after.

At the same time, there are university institutes or departments, such as the Swedish Institute for Mission Studies (SvenskaInstitutetförMissionsforskning) at the University of Upsala, the Centre of Intercultural Theology, Intereligious Dialogue, Mission and Ecumenism at the University of Utrecht, the Centre for the Study of World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh and others. The work of these institutes is very important, if one takes into account that certain university environments remain recalcitrant towards the meaning of mission, either because they are ignorant of the fact that the perceptions of mission have changed radically since the time of colonialism, or because they prefer general religious studies, without the dynamic of witness and meeting with the world. On the other hand, however, it is extremely interesting to find that mission studies are being developed not only in the aforementioned specialised areas, but they often constitute  a parameter of other research efforts such as  history, anthropology and political science. Finally there are also broader networks – forums – that bring associations and persons into contact and dialogue. It is indicative that many such networks were created after 2000 in the Third World (such as the Mission Forum of Bangkok in 2004 and the Korean Mission forum in 2005[iv].

The topics that are scheduled to be discussed at the annual meetings and conferences of the mission associations and university institutes for the current year are characteristic. At the time of writing this article, the Association of Professors of Mission prepared a meeting with the topic “Social Engagement:The Challenge of the “Social issue” in Missiological Education” (20-21 June), while the American Society of Missiology’s meeting was on the topic of “ The future of the subject of Missiology” (21-23 June, both at Wheaton College, Illinois). The Andrew Walls Centre for the Study of African and Asian Christianity[v]   is having a conference on the topic of “Pietism – Methodism – Worldwide Christianity (21-23 June, at the Liverpool Hope University in Britain). The Yale – Edinburgh Group on the History of the Missionary Movement and World Christianity, which is supported by the Centre for the Study of World Christianity of the University of Edinburgh and the Theology Faculty of Yale University, is organising a conference on the topic of “Health, therapy and medicine in the history of Christian missions and of world Christianity” (27-29 June at the Yale Theology Faculty). The Alliance for Vulnerable Mission is organising two meetings relating to the meaning of “vulnerable mission”, which in general terms means activity outside the Western World on the basis of local languages and local means (24 September in California and 14-16 November in Norwich, Britian). Finally, the United States Catholic Mission Association is meeting to discuss the subject of “Social Networks. A new language for mission” (25-27 October in Saint Louis, Missouri)[vi].

A similar mobility can be observed with regard to the journals of mission studies and concern. A recent tally[vii] raises the number to 76. Many are simultaneously published in print and electronic form, some others only in electronic form and others only in print[viii]. They are located in various parts of the world; some have confessional and other ecumenical features, others concentrate on matters of geopolitical unity, others accommodate broader concerns. In terms of language, English dominates, followed by French, German. Other languages such as Spanish, Norwegian, Dutch, Korean, Japanese, Indonesian (sometimes with a parallel English version, sometimes not) are also present. There is no Orthodox presence either in Greek or any other language.

Also in the tally of mission associations and institutes, that we mentioned above, one suspects that the only institutional Orthodox presence (in other words, not simply the occasional presence of individuals) is the instance of the Central and Eastern European Association for Mission Studies, which was founded in 2002 and consists of bodies of various confessions, amongst which is  the Orthodox Research Institute of Mission, Ecumenism and New Religious Movements of St Petersburg, which however constitutes a sui genesis Russian presence and works inter-confessionally[ix]. Moreover, however, bodies such as the Missions Institute of Orthodox Christianity that operates in Boston since 2010 in connection with Hellenic College and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Theological School, are completely absent from the said tally.

A study and tally of the existence or non-existence of mission studies and research of contemporary world Christianity (a study that goes beyond the examination of the ecumenical movement) in the Orthodox theological and ecclesiastical sphere is, admittedly, an undertaking that the author has begun. Whether the rough terrain allows for the completion of this course remains an open question.

[i]See Peter Vethanayagamony, “Mission from the Rest to the West”, Mission after Christendom. Emergent Themes in Contemporary Mission (ed. Ogbu U. Kalu, Peter  Vethanayagamony, Edmund Kee-Fook Chia), publ. Westminter John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky 2010, pg 59-61. See Thanassis N. Papathanasiou, «Αποτύπωσητηςχριστιανικήςπραγματικότηταςανάτηνυφήλιο», ΝέαΕστία 1849 (2011), pg. 779-782.

[ii]Alan Neely, “The Teaching of Mission”, Toward the 21st Century in Christian Mission (Ed. James M. Phillips & Robert T. Coote), publ. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan 1993, pg. 269-270.

[iii]Gerald H. Anderson, “Professional Academic Associations for Mission Studies”, International Bulletin of Missionary Research 37.1 (1013), pg. 13-16.

[iv]Anderson, pg. 16.

[v]Andrew F. Walls (1928 – ) is a distinguished  specialist in Missiology and researcher of African Christianity, who amongst others, served as director of the renowned Centre for the Study of World Christianity in Edinburgh. His book The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History.Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith, publ.  Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2002, is characteristic.

[vi]See International Bulletin of Missionary Research 37.2 (1013), pg. 110.

[vii]See my previous reference«(Ιερ)αποστολ(ικ)ή: Μια υπόθεση με πάρα πολλές παρενθέσεις. Ζητήματα σπουδής, από την Ευρώπη μέχρι τον Τρίτο Κόσμο σήμερα», Σύναξη 103 (2007), pg. 67 -and reworked in my book: Η Εκκλησία γίνεται όταν ανοίγεται. Η ιεραποστολή ως ελπίδα και ως εφιάλτης, publ. Εν Πλω, Athens22009, pg. 307-324.

[viii]Jonathan J. Bonk, Erica Stalcup, Wendy Jennings, Dwight P. Baker, “Missiological Journals. A Checklist”, International Bulletin of Missionary Research 37.1 (1013), σσ. 42-49. The cataloguing gives the necessary details of each journal: director, year of establishing, theological orientation, frequency of publication (conventional and electronic.)

[ix]See Wil Van Den Bercken, “Theological Education for Laypeople in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine: a Survey of Orthodox and Catholic Institutions”, Religion, State & Society 32.3 (2004), pg. 305.  Also

Foto: from the Metropolis of Mexico