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Polycentric mission: Whose centres? Whose mission?

Mission will be polycentric when the power structures shift and African, Asian, and Latin American Christians can participate in their own ways, with their own resources.

VISTA JOURNAL AUTOR 333/Harvey_Kwiyani 15 DE NOVIEMBRE DE 2023 10:00 h
Photo: [link]Random Person[/link], Unsplash CC0.

Polycentric Mission—usually understood to mean “mission happening from many centres around the world”—has become a key theme in contemporary missiological discourse, especially since the turn of the century. [1]



As a term, “polycentric mission” is plausible because it speaks of the possibility of the work of mission involving Christians from all continents, with each of the continents being a centre for mission.



As such, it represents a radical shift from how mission has been done before and how it happens today. A great deal of mission history suggests that mission in the 19th and 20th centuries has been from the West to the rest.



Subsequently, the West, (and, by this, I mean Western Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) [2] has been the centre of mission. In reality though, non-Western nations have engaged in mission before.



Indeed much of the missionary work in the world has been done by local evangelists and missionaries, even where Europeans and North Americans have been involved. In many African countries for example, Westerners started the spark, but it was local evangelists who fanned it into a flame and carried it to the rest of their communities.



In addition, even among Western countries, there have been many centres; the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, France, Australia, New Zealand, and many others. Therefore, to some extent, mission has been polycentric for centuries.



At the centre of the argument for polycentric mission is the suggestion that mission is no longer something that only Western Christians get to do in other parts of the world. Mission in the 21st century must involve all Christians worldwide.



Western countries can no longer be the only centres from which missionaries are sent to other parts of the world. The rising African, Asian, and Latin American missionary movements must also mean we will increasingly see these continents, or at least, some of their cities, emerge as centres of mission.



All this makes sense. It is appropriate for us to anticipate that mission today will reflect the worldwide spread of Christianity itself.



We ought to shift our understanding of mission—and our association of mission with Western Christianity—to appreciate that God has called all followers of Christ to God’s mission and they can serve wherever in the world God wills them to minister.



[destacate]It is appropriate for us to anticipate that mission today will reflect the worldwide spread of Christianity itself [/destacate] Such a shift is critical because of the racialised foundations of a great deal of the mission strategies of the past five centuries, viz-a-viz, white supremacy, manifest destiny and the belief that it was the white man’s burden to civilise and Christianise the world.[3]



Consequently, there are quite a few issues that we need to wrestle with as we think of polycentric mission. I will discuss only a few of those with full awareness that this is just a start of a conversation.



 



Whose centres?



First, I wonder about the language of “multiple centres” itself. Whose centres are these? What makes them centres? What happens at those centres? And, if there are centres, there must be margins.



So, again, who is at those margins? Why are they at the margins? What happens at those margins?



By talking about new centres of mission, it seems likely to me that we are expecting the emerging non-Western mission movements to be “centred” just like the Western movement was. I hope that they will be decentred (and decentralised).



[destacate]By talking about new centres of mission, it seems likely to me that we are expecting the emerging non-Western mission movements to be “centred” just like the Western movement was [/destacate] Their strength will be in their democratised approach to mission. We have seen it in Africa where Christianity has exploded, to a great extent, due to the democratic nature of the ministry of evangelism.[4]



If anything, going by the story of mission in the last two centuries, mission done from centres of societal power can easily collude with human empires and seek to dominate and assimilate those who convert while marginalising those who do not.



We cannot effectively talk about mission in a postcolonial world while replicating colonial structures in other parts of the world.



 



Whose mission?



Of course, the realities of mission today are such that the West is still the centre, both in finances and theological/missiological leadership. Non-Western missionary movements are indeed emerging, but mission today is still Western.



Yes, South Korea and Brazil are among the leading mission-sending countries and millions of Nigerian Christians have been scattered to all continents, bringing their faith with them.



Yet, Western institutions still define mission for the world. Most of what we read in mission is written by English-speaking Westerners for other Westerners, for their service somewhere in the world, outside the West.



[destacate]Most of what we read in mission is written by English-speaking Westerners for other Westerners, for their service somewhere outside the West [/destacate] Even books written by non-Western scholars tend to be shaped, to a great extent, by Western theological thought. They fail to use their own cultural resources to help us think about the mission of God in new and exciting ways.



Without making space for and encouraging authentic indigenous missiologies, whatever centres emerge in other parts of the world will only be extensions of their parent centres in the West. Andrew Walls once remarked, “Western theological leadership of a predominantly non-Western church is an incongruity.”[5]



 



We need new languages



Furthermore, the promise of a true polycentric mission will not happen until we agree that all mission is equal. This means that the mission of God is the same, whether it involves Europeans working in Africa or Africans working in Europe.



Our language must reflect an awareness that the same God who sends Westerners also sends Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans. Our current language that qualifies non-Western mission as “diaspora mission” or “reverse mission” is not justifiable.



We end up with mission as something that Westerners (mostly white people) do in other parts of the world while when black and brown people (from Africa, Asia, and Latin America) engage in in mission in the West, it is not really mission but “diaspora mission” or “reverse mission” which, generally speaking, only involves black and brown people reaching other black and brown people.



[destacate]Our current language that qualifies non-Western mission as “diaspora mission” or “reverse mission” is not justifiable [/destacate] If mission were, indeed, polycentric, Western Christians would be ready to work with missionaries from the rest of the world in their cities.



Otherwise, in this polycentric mission discourse, it would appear that Global South missionaries are only welcome on other Global South continents.



Polycentric mission cannot happen when Western Christians believe they are superior or higher than the rest of us. In this century of world Christianity, there should be no second-class missionary.



Any segregation in our missionary movements renders the whole idea of polycentric mission unattainable. How can it be polycentric when it is divided?



 



Conclusion



In conclusion, I am not opposed to polycentric mission. I am just a bit cautious it is too good to be true. Its promises, as far as I see in mission today, are unattainable. We still have a strong Western hegemony in mission that will not be decentred soon.



This hegemony has the financial power to determine much of what happens in mission in other parts of the world.



Mission will be polycentric when the power structures shift and African, Asian, and Latin American Christians can participate in mission in their own ways, using their own resources.



 



Bibliography





  • Haddis, Mekdes A. A Just Mission: Laying Down Power and Embracing Mutuality. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2022.




  • Kwiyani, Harvey C. Sent Forth: African Missionary Work in the West. American Society of Missiology Series. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2014.




  • Olofinjana, Israel O. Turning the Tables on Mission: Stories of Christians from the Global South in the Uk. London: Instant Apostle, 2013.




  • Walls, Andrew F. "Christian Scholarship in Africa in the Twenty-First Century." Transformation 19, no. 4 (2002): 217-28.




  • Yeh, Allen L. Polycentric Missiology: Twenty-First Century Mission from Everyone to Everywhere. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.





Harvey Kwiyani is CEO of Global Connections, and co-editor of Vista.



Vista is an online journal offering research-based information about mission in Europe. Founded in 2010, each themed edition covers a variety of perspectives on crucial issues for mission. Download the latest edition or read individual articles here. This article first appeared in the november 2023 edition of Vista Journal.



 



Endnotes



[1] For a fuller discussion on this, see Allen L. Yeh, Polycentric Missiology: Twenty-first Century Mission from Everyone to Everywhere (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016).



[2] I use “the West” in a rather generalised manner, understanding that now all Western countries are part of this story. However, speaking as an African here, there has been little difference in the mission praxis whether it was North American, British, French, German, or Australian missionaries. They often identified with one another and worked together. If I were to separate individualise Western countries, focus on one country after another, this essay would not be possible in its current format.



[3] For more on the racist and colonial history of mission, see Mekdes A. Haddis, A Just Mission: Laying Down Power and Embracing Mutuality (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2022).



[4] Harvey C. Kwiyani, Sent Forth: African Missionary Work in the West, American Society of Missiology Series, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2014), 58. In most African churches, evangelists and missionaries are the same. Thus, in African Christianity, we have witnessed what it looks like when all believers have a sense of being called to God’s mission.



[5] Andrew F. Walls, "Christian Scholarship in Africa in the Twenty-first Century," Transformation 19, no. 4 (2002): 221.


 

 


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