Thursday, May 22, 2008

What is my mission?

As I am now having my summer break, I could afford the time and space to re-think about my mission in life. I shall pen down what comes to my mind during my moment of reflection.

I believe the American and British missionaries who were sent to Asia in the last two centuries also imported their views of what it meant to be a church or Christians. We have inherited what they had passed down to us in Asia. I shall identify the three/four phases of church development (I avoid the word "church growth" in case some identify it as numerical growth), and how I understand my mission to be related to these developments. You will understand why I am not sure whether it is three or four phases of church development.

During the 1st phase of church planting, I believe the emphasis is on evangelism, discipleship training, spiritual growth. This will probably take 2-3 generations for the church to develop a tradition deeply ingrained in these essential disciplines. I could identify Paul's and Peter's epistles to be written for these purposes. The basic elements of Christian faith would be elucidated and indoctrinated by then. Most missionaries sent to Asia imparted the model of church as understood in the 1st phase.

In the 2nd phase of church development, I am suggesting that there has to be engagement of Christianity with the culture and philosophy. I find traces of such attempt in Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen. There were attempts to explain Christian faith to the prevalent culture, as well as new origin way of interpreting the Christian faith as illustrated by Origen. One could almost see how the early apologists would identify Christianity as the true religion, and the true worship of God.

By the 3rd phase, there would be synthesizing of Christian thought with philosophy, proliferation of Christian literature, and initiation of new theological movement or representative of a school of thought, as evinced by Augustine of Hippo. Christian theology by then would be able to dialogue with other academic disciplines on the same platform. This was the approach of Cappadocian Fathers when they developed a mature form of the concept of Trinity. I would say that in this phase, theology would be the handmaiden of science and reason, and there are full engagement of theology and other academic disciplines. In this regard, the contemporary theologians, T.F. Torrance (who just passed away this year) and John Polkinghorne are exemplars of leading the engagement of Christian theology with contemporary science. There are many theologians in the US and Europe who could be identified in this phase, such as Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Alvin Plantinga, Hans Küng, Gustavo Gutiérrez, etc. You could identify the different models or system of thoughts that are developed specifically for dialogue and engagement. Those at the high end of 3rd phase spawn a totally new school of thought such that they represent a movement itself.

How about theologians like J.I.Packer, John Stott, and Alister McGrath? I am not sure whether they represent a league in the 3rd phase. I would rather say that they are more in the high end of the 2nd phase and lower end of 3rd phase. They have exposited cogent evangelical theology, and made it relevant to us by engaging in many critical issues. They have contributed so much to the evangelical cause that the evangelicals could proudly identify what it meant to be an evangelical because of them. But I would hesitate to say that they have generated a new system of thoughts that clearly distinguished itself as an innovation or remarkably different from the previous generations. They did distinguish themselves as radically different from the fundamentalists though.

I also identify Alister McGrath as making the transition into the middle range of the 3rd phase. He had been re-packaging theology to make it comprehensible to the current generation in the past two decades, and he is also making a clear attempt to engage the scientific enterprise. However, his most recent A Scientific Theology (2001-3) may represent a distinctive approach to science and theology. I think he is currently the most promising evangelical theologian who will leave a significant landmark in our time.

This phase could be identified in the development of the Western culture, so I am not sure whether it should be considered as the 4th phase of church development. The Christian faith is identical to the prevalent culture. This process was initiated by the Roman Emperor Constantine (A.D. 280-337) after he reunited the East and West Roman Empire. He tolerated Christianity officially. But it was Theodosius I (A.D.347- 379) who officiated the synthesizing of Christianity into the culture. In the medieval era, to be an European is to be a Christian. Religion and state started to be separated after the Thirty Years' war (1618-1648) in Europe, and in the face of increasing secularization. I think Max Weber's Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism and Peter Berger's The Sacred Canopy captured this secularization process well. Karl Barth reacted violently to identifying Christian faith with the culture (i.e. the 4th phase).

I believe the most mature form of Christian development is to be identified with the 3rd phase. I am not sure whether to identify the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 3rd or 4th phase. Perhaps my categories are too simplistic to place them neatly into my system.

The first church was set up in S'pore in the 19th century (the first Presbyterian church started in 1856). It has been almost 150 years. A number of English churches are in the 2nd phase, and most Chinese churches are still in the 1st phase (I am not sure whether it is because the Chinese church started half a century later than the English church) . Most of the theological studies in Boston University School of Theology assumed a theological setting in the 3rd phase. For e.g. "Theologies of Dialogue" by Prof John Berthrong takes up the challenge of engaging Christianity in dialogue with other world religions. "Christian Social Ethics" by Prof John Hart examines how we could possibly respond to complicating social issues from Christian perspectives.

I am trying to break into the 2nd phase, and I could identify some Christians or theologians in Asia who are now in the 2nd phase, like Rev Stephen Tong (唐崇荣牧师) and Rev Kang Lai Chang (康来昌牧师). Eventually, I hope to be equipped as a theologian-pastor, to train the laity, and hopefully theological students to take up challenges in the 2nd phase, and to transit into the 3rd phase. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that I want to be like Rev Stephen Tong or Rev Kang. I am saying that I recognize my mission to be educating the current and the next generations to take up the challenges in the 2nd phase and to transit into 3rd phase. But is that who God is calling me to be? I am not absolutely sure, and I am still praying about it.

I may not live long enough to witness the Christians in Asia moving on to the 3rd phase, but I am keen to explore how Christians could engage the Chinese culture, such as Confucian ethics, worship and rite, Buddhism, Taoism, Falungong, and if possible, how could one be an authentic Christian in a Communist country, etc. If you have similar insights, please do feel free to write in to me.

How about you? What's your mission in life?

May22, 2008

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