Mission – Who Really Has the Problem? 

Picture of perspective (featuring lens) from Nadine Shaabana (Unsplash)

Marina Behera

This article was first published as a blog in Mission.de – a german website for mission information run by The Evangelical Mission Worldwide (EMW). German version here or attached as PDF. More information on EMW below.

Marina Behera picture

Marina Behera, Research Tutor, MPhil Stage Leader, Editor: Transformation

Mission is a difficult term in the Western world. Some want to abolish it, others want to reclaim and re-imbue it thematically. But those who only perceive the Western perspective perceive only a distortion. For what about the perspective of those who are considered victims of a colonial missionary mentality and yet cling to their faith? Who really has the problem with using the term “mission”? And how does one want to critically engage with something when one no longer has a term for it? This is what Marina Behera questions in her blog post.

Last year I was able to spend some time at the Mission Academy in Hamburg and was reminded again of how the term mission is understood differently in various contexts. As a scholar at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies (OCMS), I teach, supervise, and mentor doctoral students who engage with mission in today’s world in the broadest sense. One, for example, examines the potential missionary contribution of Christian artists in secular U.S. society. Another explores the loss of ancestral lands as a factor in the changing lives of indigenous communities in Cambodia who have lost their traditions along with their land. She researches how their power for self-liberation can be strengthened and how faith can offer new paths for those who have become Christians. It’s unsurprising that the women among the OCMS candidates, given the patriarchal character of mission, critique the term “mission.” But they continue to use the term in order to do just that. So how is it that those who could be seen as colonial victims under the earlier mission paradigm can still envision reclaiming the term “mission” and continue to use it?

There is more than just the Western perspective on mission. I come from Mizoram, a state in northeast India, and the history of the church there dates back to mission in a colonial setting. Over the past 40 years, theologians have developed what they call tribal theology – a critical reconstruction, especially of how the pre-Christian past is read and represented from a Christian perspective. It is also about reflecting on the complex relationships that the authors of such attempts to formulate a tribal theology try to establish between the Christian faith as it was received and as it is currently lived and practiced, and the need for a more contextualized future that they are working towards. This requires a different methodology than reproducing what has been handed down from the past. One needs a guiding principle or perspective to shape this process. Tribal theologians see such a perspective in the liberating power of the gospel, from the standpoint of justice, and from a theological and spiritual perspective.

In India, Christians are accused of not being able to help but try to convert others, with Hindu nationalists insisting that Christians have a different land of origin, referring to Western missionary enterprises. Hence their presence in India, and in particular their mission, is declared an assault on the national character of India, which for them can only be Hindu. Reflection on mission here takes place within a discursive triangle:

We people from Mizoram have to come to terms with the history of mission in our region, critically question the kind of mission promoted and practiced by the churches in the Northeast that can fuel such accusations, and avoid becoming the object of a politicized and culturalized mission activity aimed at making tribal people compliant and dissolving them into an Indian nationality alien to them. I believe this dual challenge for indigenous Christians in India – overcoming a colonially shaped Christianity on the one hand and resisting a colonial ideology that comes under the guise of helping backward tribes develop and fully enter modernity on the other – helps their theology forge critical tools to distinguish between civilizing mission and Christian mission.

When we look around the world today, we see the diversity of mission forms around the globe – small house fellowships, mission agencies many now based in the Global South, and migrant or international congregations doing mission in many regions. We see local churches, especially in the Global South, whose existence and mission predate Western mission efforts. We see new independent mission endeavors in many parts of World Christianity. Then there are countless accounts of people coming to faith in Jesus Christ, experiencing healings and miracles of all kinds, visions, dreams, and prophecies that we can attribute to the work of the Holy Spirit, not the intentional mission efforts of missionaries. This shows that mission today is happening everywhere in many forms and moreover involves movements from everywhere to everywhere, overcoming the colonial pattern of a supposedly Christian and non-Christian world. Theologically speaking, I don’t agree with everything that happens worldwide under the rubric of mission. But all this is occurring in a postcolonial world in very different constellations, and to view all this solely from the Western perspective of a colonial missionary past would be to deny agency to a large group of people.

After considering the different forms in which mission takes place, let us briefly engage with critical reflections on mission from a postcolonial perspective. Postcolonial approaches are valuable and have opened new avenues for the history and representation of mission against the diverse background outlined. A postcolonial approach, however, can fall into the temptation of replacing the earlier colonial separation between a Christian and non-Christian world with the binarity of powerful and powerless. This seems to imply that those considered marginalized have only the options of mimicry, subversive strategies, or accommodation in response. I would add that many postcolonial approaches tend to view religion and faith as a function of culture.

This can result in local theologies being reduced to expressions of underlying power struggles. Consequently, voices and actors are evaluated according to their proximity or distance from the assumed dominant position, whether as imitating, co-opting, or rebelling and resisting. The danger, then, is that the significance of any voice depends on how far it has succeeded in distancing itself from a Western dominance. Local cultures are reduced to a dependent variant of the dominant culture. Local church, theology, and mission are reduced to being a variant of the Western model. This can ultimately prevent their voices from being heard.

Mission critique is an important and indispensable task. Yet I believe the inner resources of mission theologies are robust enough to propel us in our attempts to decolonize our theologies, faith practices, and ultimately, a self-critical reflection on mission.

Ultimately, the key question for me seems to be whether the critique of the term mission should go beyond a particular historical constellation of the doing and thinking of the transmission of the Christian faith and its fallouts. In any case, I find it worthwhile to listen to the voices of those considered victims of a colonial missionary mentality yet holding on to their faith, as well as their theoretical reflections on mission.
Let me conclude with a provocative question: Whose question and whose problem is the use of the term mission? One could wonder whether the endeavors to abolish the term can be seen, in a certain way, as a perpetuation of the disempowerment that mission is alleged to have inflicted on communities that are more vulnerable and have less bargaining power.

About EMW:
The Evangelical Mission Worldwide (EMW) is a community of Protestant churches, organizations and associations in mission and ecumenism. Nine mission agencies, five free churches, five associations and the Evangelical Church in Germany form the umbrella organization of the Protestant mission agencies. At the same time, EMW acts as the professional association for ecumenical world mission and mission theology for members and associated organizations. The headquarters office is located in Hamburg. German website.