by Bradley A. Coon and Gina A. Bellofatto
This “moving conference” changed venues throughout its four days, allowing three hundred conference attendees to experience the hospitality of six major divinity schools in the Boston area.
Four major mission conferences were held in 2010, all marking the centenary of the Edinburgh 1910 World Missionary Conference. “2010Boston: The Changing Contours of World Mission & Christianity” was held November 4-7 as the last centennial celebration. This “moving conference” changed venues throughout its four days, allowing three hundred conference attendees to experience the hospitality of six major divinity schools in the Boston area.
Hosted by Boston Theological Institute and its member schools, and incorporating papers from leading Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox scholars, 2010Boston was distinctly ecumenical in its approach. Speakers emphasized important contributions of students and scholars to world missions, both past and present. Conference sessions explored the 100+ year tension between missions-as-evangelism and missions-as-social action. Christian relationships with the “other” was also a noticeable theme in many of the keynote sessions and small group discussions.
Students and Schools
The conference began at Boston’s historic Park Street Church (standing in for Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary), a nod to the church’s two hundred years of mission work and its evangelical contributions to ecumenical dialogue. Dana Robert (Boston University) emphasized the historical role of students and schools from the Boston area in mission efforts, weaving together the contributions of both male and female students in these endeavors.
In addition, she lauded schools’ past emphasis on teaching the word of God and their study of biblical languages. Her lecture was punctuated with a challenge for students and universities to actively follow these historic examples of passionate engagement in God’s global mission. On the third day of the conference, at Boston College, Angelyn Dries (St. Louis University) continued this theme of students in mission in her paper, “From Boston to the Whole World.” She highlighted activities of landmark Roman Catholic students who were instrumental in Boston becoming the great missionary-sending locale it was early in the twentieth century.
Student involvement was a major feature of 2010Boston, as over thirty students presented their own unique contributions to the eight major themes: changing contours of Christian unity, mission in context, disciples in mission, education for mission, mission post-colonialism, mission in a pluralist world, mission post-modernity, and salvation today.
The papers were varied in subject but focused largely on specific contemporary issues and their interactions with Christian missiology. The voices of these students in small group settings offered pragmatic insights and provided a balance to the sometimes heavily theoretical nature of the plenary sessions. In addition, students participated in the general assembly at Harvard Divinity School, dialoguing with scholars in small groups on the eight conference themes.
Evangelism and Social Action
At Boston University, keynote speaker Brian Stanley (University of Edinburgh) highlighted the visions and blind spots of the 1910 Edinburgh conference in light of its prominent place in the past one hundred years of church history. Drawing from the documents of the 1910 conference, Edinburgh attendees saw India and China as the great mission fields of the world, but understood Africa to be of marginal significance to the Christian enterprise. The reports also indicated a lack of regard for the influence of Islam in Africa, judging it as a fragmenting religion with no future on the continent.
Stanley’s historical analysis provided a sobering and necessary reminder that global mission strategy can easily become marred by prejudice or fixated on certain goals to the exclusion of others. He clearly demonstrated that concern for evangelism to the exclusion of the work of reconciliation is nothing more than shortsighted.
Perhaps the most powerful address on the matter of mission and social action was Ruth Padilla DeBorst’s (Latin American Theological Fraternity) plenary lecture at Boston College. Her continual refrain—“Father forgive us, for we know not what we do, or we know all too well but we find it too costly to change”—deeply impacted many in attendance. Padilla DeBorst explicated not only the ways that the colonizing Church failed to act justly throughout the twentieth century, but also in which the post-colonial Church of today has faltered.
She emphasized public confession as the heart of non-colonizing mission, and the unfaithfulness of the Church as the biggest stumbling block to God’s work in God’s world. Reconciliation was the recurring theme of this rather prophetic speech, inviting Christians to look more deeply into areas of injustice in their countries and communities.
Throughout the conference, an emphasis on mission-as-evangelism was as strong as mission-as-social justice. One of the most credentialed speakers at the conference, Daniel Jeyaraj (Liverpool Hope University), might well have been called “a pastor to the scholars.” His passionate exhortation was heavily evangelistic in nature, encouraging both the Church and the academy in the West toward biblical literacy and the establishment of role models as a way to reclaim the joy of salvation it once so strongly embodied.
His powerful personal testimony of conversion sealed his argument on the essential role of conversion in mission and caused many to perceive his talk as a compelling sermon rather than a lecture. Jeyaraj and Christopher Gilbert also unveiled the trailer of their documentary film, Beyond Empires, which tells the story of Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg, the first Protestant missionary to India. For Ziegenbalg, evangelism and social action met in the practice of incarnational living, leaving an enduring legacy in South India and an example for Christians throughout the world today.
At St. Ignatius Church at Boston College, Brian McLaren (author of Everything Must Change) confronted his audience regarding the relationship between Christian mission and peacemaking. Adopting a different approach from other speakers, he outlined a paradigm of stories: six of the “clenched fist” (that is, domination, revolution, purification, victimization, accumulation, and isolation) and one of the “open hand” (that being Jesus’ “alternative story” of the coming of the Kingdom of God).
McLaren challenged Christians to stop baptizing individuals into stories of oppression and start embracing what he called the “story space” of the biblical narrative—creation, reconciliation, liberation. His paradigm of stories left the audience buzzing about what he deemed the key element of twenty-first–century mission: building communities of faith and action.
Roman Catholic theologian Peter Phan (Georgetown University) focused his missiological inquiry through the lens of interreligious dialogue. Tracing the roots of dialogue through both the Edinburgh 1910 and Vatican II documents, he illustrated the deliberate way in which interreligious dialogue has been subordinated to evangelism and conversion within both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.
Phan did not dismiss the need for evangelistic conversation, but his provocative suggestion was to see interreligious dialogue first in its own right on the level of shared humanity, rather than as a mere tool for conversion. Although his conclusions raised some eyebrows among more than just the evangelicals in the room, his assessment challenged listeners to examine whether their love for their neighbors is genuine or is fraught with preconditions.
As with Phan, Christian relationship with the “other” was also the focus of Greek Orthodox theologian Athanasios Papathanasiou (Hellenic Open University), who spoke of mission as a journey toward the goal of love. Utilizing the story of the call of Abram, he presented “journey” as something that requires change. Individuals are called to move away from the self and into the “other,” exhibiting incarnational love.
Papathanasiou spoke of the perfect love of the Trinity as the foundation of this goal. He criticized pluralism, stating that it often destroys the foundation of the Trinity by confining the work of Christ to a particular culture, or by overemphasizing the role of the Holy Spirit’s universality apart from Christ. This view, he argues, is ultimately a hindrance to the fullest realization of this journey toward love (defined as “mission”). Papathanasiou’s lecture was greeted warmly, although the question was raised as to how the culturally-based liturgy of the Orthodox community could fully participate in the inculturation process.
The general assembly of 2010Boston occurred at Harvard Memorial Church on the last day, following the final plenary by Anglican Archbishop John Sentamu. Susan Abraham (Harvard Divinity School) posed the question, “What is the role of Christianity today, a Christianity that is caught between colonialism and post-colonialism?”
As each of the keynote speakers addressed this query, some spoke highly of the need for conversion in twenty-first–century mission, while others seriously questioned its value and critiques of other world religions. Again in this session, many of the conference themes were evident: mission-as-evangelism vs. mission-as-social action, dialogue across complex space and time, Christianity in relation to colonialism, and issues of identity.
What are evangelicals to take away from such a diverse mission conference? Although participants at Lausanne III extensively discussed similar themes just two weeks earlier, 2010Boston offered the reminder that evangelicals are not alone in their heart for the world—or in their struggles with contemporary global issues. There is a critical need to listen carefully to the opinions of others who are involved in mission, while at the same time not neglecting the vital importance of evangelical contributions at the ecumenical table.
Bradley A. Coon is a research associate at the Center for the Study of Global Christianity and information designer for the Atlas of Global Christianity (Edinburgh University Press, 2009). He is currently pursuing an MA in religion at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
Gina A. Bellofatto has an MA in religion from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Her interests include mission, world religions, and interfaith dialogue. She works at the Center for the Study of Global Christianity and is senior editorial assistant on the Atlas of Global Christianity (Edinburgh University Press, 2009).
EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 2, pp. 214-217. Copyright © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.