Postmodernity and Christian Missions in Asia: An Essay
One time a friend of mine from the USA came to Kaohsiung, Taiwan and visited my family. She went to church with us one Sunday morning. After the service, she remarked: “Except for the Chinese language, everything is just like our churches at home.” My friend was brought up in small-town America, very similar to my wife’s upbringing. Her comment about our Sunday visit to a Christian church in Kaohsiung was meant to be a compliment. However, her observation about our church service in Kaohsiung made me think of a few things. Do our local Christian churches in Taiwan look like the Christian churches in North America? Are they drawing in people to their activities because of their spiritual vitality? What challenges do these local Taiwan churches have for our contemporary world today, the world populated by postmodernist people?
Postmodern thinking is fairly new. It is mainly a reaction to and rejection of modern mind-set. We cannot give a full study of postmodernism here in this short essay. Stanley J. Grenz’s A Primer on Postmodernism (1996) is a good introduction to postmodern thought and history from a Christian perspective. Our focus in this essay is to answer the question “What challenges do postmodernist people have for our Christian churches in Asia?” My thesis is that a Christological understanding of community will help us discover new ways of including postmodernist people in our Christian gatherings. This would have great implication for how we prepare our local church activities and Christian missionary work in general. My hope is that this Christological approach will encourage Asian Christians to include postmodernist persons in their religious meetings and welcome them to come closer to God.
In the Western world, most especially in the USA, postmodern thinking is posing great challenges to missiology, church studies, and Christian theology. American church leaders are experiencing a declining growth in their local churches (Gibbs and Bolger 2005:19-21). Pastors are discovering that more and more young Americans are avoiding Christian activities and Sunday morning services. Neil Cole describes the problem as “a lack of life in the core” (2010:113). Every day, we are realizing our “old school theology” from our modernist churches that has worked for many centuries are becoming irrelevant to this new generation. As Grenz has concluded: “The shift from the familiar territory of modernity to the unchartered terrain of postmodernity has grave implications for those who seek to live as Christ’s disciples in the new context” (1996:162). Whether in Asia or in the Western world, the challenges are real. We need to face these challenges that postmodernist people have for Christianity.
In the city of Kaohsiung, Taiwan, we see a lot of Western young people visiting the island for a few years to teach English to many Taiwanese children and families. They come mostly from the USA, Canada, England, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, and Germany. If my friend’s comment above is true, then we would expect most of these English teachers to be flocking towards our Christian churches in Taiwan. But, sadly, there are no Western people coming to our churches. I am afraid my friend’s comment refers to the obsolete, old-school, and irrelevant modernist churches in the USA. We do not want to blindly copy churches from another country and transplant them to Asia. We need to be a local church ministry that is relevant to its own people and meeting the challenges of the world at large, mainly the challenges of postmodernity.
Postmodernity is primarily a rejection of modern thinking. The biggest problem is that most postmodernist person rejects the Christian church not because of their beliefs in Jesus Christ, but because of the church’s modernist stance. A local church set in the doctrine of modern thought sets its standards of community in a very scientific modern way. This modernistic way states, for example, that only those who adhere to a set of doctrines or have receive the rite of baptism are included in the church community. Everyone else is second-class Christian. This second-class status will not allow them to participate in the Lord’s Supper, to hold any leadership roles in the church, or to let them give significant contribution to the life of the church. Simply said, involvement in community is clear-cut and precise. We can give more examples but the bottom line is that modernist thinking is limited to neat packages and quantifiable categories. There is no place for surprises. Church life is measured in scientific terms. Modern-thinking churches are very exclusive in their practice of Christian community.
But the Bible says that Christian community should include everyone. Jesus always included all kinds of people in his ministry. At one time, Jesus rebuked his disciples because of their exclusivist attitude. He reminded them that “anyone who is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:49-50). It did not matter what their race was or their religious background. They were all included. Experienced Jewish teachers or struggling tax-collectors, they both felt included in Jesus. They participated in Jesus’ life and mission to the world. There are two virtues I want to share in this essay that helps us understand Jesus’ concept of inclusion. One is the virtue of hospitality. People around Jesus always felt welcomed by him. Two is the virtue of humility. They see humility in Jesus and are compelled to participate in this spirit of humility. Below, I will explain these two virtues through the motif of pilgrimage in Jesus’ life and how they are relevant to missionary work among postmodernist people.
First, we see the virtue of hospitality as ever present in Jesus’ life and ministry. Whenever he came to a place, the local people felt welcomed and included in Jesus’ activities in the area. They would come from far and wide to witness his deeds and hear his words (Matthew 4:23-25). Of course, there were a few, mainly the Jewish leaders, who felt threatened and ostracized by Jesus’ actions (John 7:40-52). But overall, the local people wanted to see him and look what he can do with their problems. Jesus’ very presence in the area meant hospitality, a spirit of inclusion and welcoming everyone who would like to come.
In the present time, our local churches need to practice this virtue of hospitality among the local people in their areas. Non-Christians, including postmodernist people, need to experience the welcoming spirit of the Christians among them. Most persons with postmodern thinking are very eager to work with anyone who includes them in their agenda. One of the strengths of postmodernist people is their great abilities to collaborate with people of different backgrounds and beliefs. They are creative people. They love to find new ways of doing stuff and being challenged by different persuasions from different individuals. If the Christian churches can tap on this postmodernist strength and mind-set, then our local churches would be an inviting presence to postmodernist people. They would come and flock to our Christian gatherings.
Second, we see Jesus’ humility and people are drawn to him in his tenderness and quiet disposition. Nicodemus and other Jewish leaders came to see him. Many sinful tax-collectors followed him. Immoral prostitutes and murderers wanted his words of wisdom. Children played by his side. Of course, there were violent reactions to Jesus. Some people wanted to lash out at Jesus because of his controversial teachings. But these were person who had selfish agenda. In general, people who were hungry for truth and seeking spiritual meaning came to Jesus for counsel and healing. They knew he would accept them as they are (John 6:68-69). The humility Jesus showed them was a humility that allowed the people to stand side by side with him and together find their identity in God. In the words of Henri J. M. Nouwen: “Paradoxically, by withdrawing into ourselves, not out of self-pity but out of humility, we create the space for another to be himself and come to us on his own terms” (1979:91). Jesus “emptied himself” for our sake (Philippians 2:5-11). He humbled himself so that others will have the opportunity to give glory to God Almighty. Like Jesus, our humble acts should focus on people who are around us. When the postmodernist person sees this kind of outward-focused humility among our Christian fellowships, then they will be drawn to Jesus and find the opportunity to receive God’s salvation.
In our present missionary endeavors, we need to practice these two virtues of hospitality and humility. I am suggesting the motif of pilgrimage as the platform for practicing these two virtues. The motif of pilgrimage is replete in Christian history and popular among practical theologians. (See the different essays from Explorations in a Christian Theology of Pilgrimage, 2004). There are many merits to the motif of Christian pilgrimage. One great merit, however, that I would like to highlight is the principle of inclusion. Anyone who witnesses any kind of pilgrimage will experience a sense of inclusion and will feel the compulsion to participate in its activities. A pilgrimage is a communal activity. Some scholars equate it to religious rites of passage. (See chapter 7 of Symbols and Ceremonies: Making Disciples Across Cultures, 1997). Some describe it as a time for bonding to deep spiritual meaning. Still others, such as Martin Robinson, directly links pilgrimage to mission. The experiences of the pilgrim becomes the moment for introducing cultural changes and opportunities for missions (Robinson 2004:181). Whatever its academic significance, a pilgrimage teaches us the inclusive nature of community and human fellowship.
In the Bible, the Christian life is portrayed as a pilgrimage, a time of traveling through this temporary world and unto the glorious presence of our Creator God. (Compare, 1 Peter 2:11-12 and Hebrews 11:13-16). We are encouraged to stay focus on our destination. We are not there yet, but we are together in seeking for and going to a place of sanctuary and peace—which is the very presence of God. For a pilgrim he or she is always talking about the journey. Every day is an experience that is not complete, and yet there is fulfillment because there is a glorious destination. Each new day brings with it new discoveries. A pilgrim’s life is full of surprises. The encounter of life’s mysteries is always a welcome adventure.
Any postmodernist person is naturally drawn to a pilgrimage. One dominant characteristic of postmodernity is its revulsion to authority. A postmodernist person abhors the concept of authority because figures of authority represent finality and the end of creativity. However, in a pilgrimage, there is no sense of finality and every day is a constant discovery of new creative ways to live life. What if we present Christianity through the motif of pilgrimage? What if we share our life in Jesus that is full of adventures and incomplete journeys, and yet filled with hope of our glorious destination? What if our local churches constantly portray the mysteries of the Christian gospel and the creative expressions of the Holy Spirit in their fellowship and church gatherings? If we do these things, and our lives are full of the virtues of hospitality and humility, then many postmodernist persons will highly consider the Christian gospel. They will be drawn to Jesus and feel the inclusion that the followers of Jesus give them.
A Christian pilgrim says “I am not there yet” but there is hope in Jesus who is our Great Shepherd leading us in our journey here on earth. This is the virtue of humility. The Christian pilgrim also says “Come everyone and join us!” We tell every postmodernist person that there is a space in our lives for them to enter and we will accept them as they are. This is the virtue of hospitality. Once they are included in our Christian community, then they will comprehend what the name of Jesus means and confess him “to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:11).
In Taiwan, most of our Free Methodist churches hold a baptism service during their morning services of Easter Sunday. It is a glorious sight to see. It is a time to witness an 80-year old grandfather and a 14-year old teenager stand side by side together to declare their faith to everyone present. The ceremony itself is a confession that they are not there yet. We all are not there yet. Our Christian lives are not yet complete and final, and yet we are continuing in our faith, setting our sights for a city prepared for us, and rejoicing in the hope that it is Jesus himself who will bring us there (Hebrews 11:16 and 12:2). I am sure, if a postmodernist person is present in these morning services, they will sense the inclusion. “They will become aware at these sensitive times of the Lord’s desire to be their intimate companion” (Zahniser 1997:98). They will see that God himself is calling him or her to participate in this Christian pilgrimage and religious meeting.
Cole, Neil. 2010. Church 3.0: Upgrades For the Future of the Church. CA: Josey-Bass.
Gibbs, Eddie and Ryan K. Bolger. 2005. Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
Grenz, Stanley J. 1996. A Primer on Postmodernism. MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.
Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1979. The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society. NY: Random House.
Robinson, Martin. 2004. “Pilgrimage and Mission.” In Explorations in a Christian Theology of Pilgrimage. Edited by Craig Bartholomew and Fred Hughes. England: Ashgate Publishing Co. Pp. 170-183.
Zahniser, A. H. Mathias. 1997. Symbol and Ceremony: Making Disciples Across Cultures. CA: MARC.