MANY PEOPLE in the contemporary church are under the misapprehension that overseas missionaries are a disappearing group of people who belong to a vanished colonial age. Before I left England to serve in Papua New Guinea (PNG), I shared this point of view and even refused to be commissioned as a missionary since I regarded such a term as outdated.

In fact there are more missionaries in the world-wide church today than ever before in Christian history. In his 1995 annual compilation of statistics about Christianity, David Barrett put the total at 300,000. He estimates this will rise to 500,000 by the year 2025.

Many of the missionaries serving the church today come from the Two Thirds World. Mission is no longer an activity directed from the North to the South. In PNG I used to help conduct an orientation course for new missionaries run by the Melanesian Institute. But by the time I left at the end of 1994 the number of new missionaries coming from India, South Korea, the Philippines and Indonesia far outnumbered those from Europe the US or Australia.

In Australia a Catholic missionary order, the Columban Fathers, has started bringing church workers from overseas to serve in parishes in Sydney with the aim of increasing awareness in this country of issues that are important in developing nations.

Missionary interchange is an important means of renewing the church. We quickly assimilate the gospel in terms of our own culture so that its message ceases to challenge us. We need to encounter believers who confess Christ in terms of a different world-view so that their preaching can stimulate us to come to a new understanding of the gospel. As Christianity becomes incarnate in different cultures, it discloses fresh aspects of its meaning. Cross-cultural missionaries have the task of enabling one part of the church to learn from the ways faith has been expressed elsewhere.

This is why Lesslie Newbigin sees the foreign missionary as “an enduring necessity in the life of the church”, adding the important qualification that missionary journeys have to be multi-directional and not, as in the past, from only one part of the church to the rest of the world.

In the light of this, we can see the continuing need for long-term missionaries, people who are ready to live in another country and do their best to learn the language and understand the culture. The majority of people recruited for missionary service in Australia or Britain are those offering specific skills for a short period of time but the probably benefit from working alongside those who have made a more long-term commitment.

Important trends are taking place that make it more urgent than ever before for the local church to be open to the wider world. We live at a time when capital, information, technology and people flow across national boundaries with unprecedented ease. Whether we welcome globalisation or worry about its consequences, we cannot deny its importance in our lives. Politics is assuming a global, transnational character. Nation states can no longer act by themselves to control all the forces that shape the lives of their people.

Environmentalists in Germany or Australia have to be ready to campaign on behalf of the victims of the multi-national mining companies in PNG or Irian Jaya. People in Britain have to weigh the consequences to East Timor of selling arms to Indonesia against the need to protect jobs at home.

Unless the church can think and act globally it will not rise to the challenges of the new era. Far from being relics from the past, missionaries and mission societies can play a valuable role in helping the church respond to globalisation.

I write these reflections as I prepare to return to my own country after 22 years spent serving the church overseas. Most of this time has been spent in Papua New Guinea, a complex and fascinating country that, as the Sandline fiasco demonstrated, is little understood in Britain. Plenty of travel books are written about PNG but not much is known overseas about the politics of the separatist struggle on Bougainville. The churches in PNG have made major progress in inculturation and, for the most part, have set a fine example of ecumenism.

In the just under three years I have spent in Australia, I have had the opportunity to observe an Anglican Church that is struggling to preserve a degree of unity and to throw off a deadly weight of cultural and social conservatism. In many ways Australia is even more secular than Britain. As a distinguished Uniting Church leader, Dr Davis MaCaughey, recently pointed out, Anglicans have suffered from their failure to devote enough resources to the study of theology. There are too few Christian thinkers in this country able to enter the public arena and talk about the truth of the gospel as opposed to arguing about gambling or economic rationalism.

At the parish level, however, it is impossible not to admire the determination of ordinary congregations to keep churches open despite the rise in costs, shrinking numbers and the problems posed by enormous distances.

Like every other missionary I know, I return to my own country convinced that I have received far more from those among whom I have worked than I have been able to give. The church in the West should stop being so defensive about mission. Young Christians should still be encouraged to offer themselves for missionary service. Liberal Christians will probably be surprised, as I was, to discover just how big a proportion of their beliefs is made up of the values and attitudes of their own Western culture. In an age when just about every secular company has its mission statement, we should not be embarrassed to formulate our conviction that the gospel impels us to reach beyond our own ranks to the world beyond.

Paul Richardson is Bishop of Wangarratta in the Province of Victoria.

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