Based on the book “Landmark Essays in Mission and World Christianity” (Orbis Books 2009) this is the first in a series of reflections on key writings that have shaped mission thinking over the last seventy years.
Peter Phan is a Vietnamese-American Catholic with a wealth of insights into the way the church is Asia will develop in the coming decades. In his contribution to “Landmark Essays” (A New Christianity, but What Kind? first published in 2005) he argues that the phenomenon we know as Christendom was and is an aberration of what God wants the church to be. Rather than a church shaped by the life and ministry of Jesus, what emerged is a model of Christianity that is “papal, roman, legalistic, political and military, in short, Christendom.” Evidently, this is a distinctively Catholic interpretation but the power dynamics inherent in the world Church today, and which influence all of us to some degree, have their roots in Catholic history, which is our history too.
Phan argues that this Christendom reached its peak in the middle ages where the authority of the pope formally superseded all earthly powers, but in the centuries that followed it emerged again and again, not least in the conquests of the so-called new world. According to Phan, Christendom was ultimately halted by a realisation that “Christendom is not Christianity and has nothing to do with Jesus and his Gospel’. This realisation was brought about in large measure by printing press and Reformation.
Phan does not believe we will see a new Christendom emerge in the Global South, but strongly believes the Global North should not crave after that which has been lost and is being lost. In that respect he suggests that Philip Jenkins’ “The New Christendom” is flawed – for Jenkins uses Christendom models of interpretation that Phan says are simply not going to be repeated in the south. Jenkins argues that the rise of Christian consciousness in Africa and Latin America particularly, and with it the ‘declining autonomy for nation-states’ in these regions means that Christians will seek alliances across continental boundaries. “Once that axis is established, we really would be speaking of a new Christendom, based on the Southern Hemisphere.” He speaks of the ‘not unlikely’ possibility of this new Christendom coming into conflict with Islam, bringing about a new age of Christian Crusades and Muslim Jihads, only this time with nuclear warheads and anthrax. Apocalyptic stuff, but deeply flawed, says Phan.
Drawing on documents issued by the Asian Catholic Bishops Conference and others, Phan suggests that the trajectory of Asian Christianity is not towards a powerful Church-centred Kingdom but a more authentic Kingdom-centred Church. And by implication, this is what Christianity should be if it remains faithful to Jesus. This analysis is striking in its implications!
A church that is Kingdom-centred (regnocentric) and not church-centred (ecclesiocentric) is one that seeks and promotes Kingdom values. And to answer the question ‘what are Kingdom values?’ Phan points to the parables and miracles of Jesus, and to the cross and resurrection. “The reign of God is nothing less than God’s saving presence in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, a presence that brings about gratuitous forgiveness and reconciliation, and restores universal justice and peace between God and humanity, among humans themselves and between humanity and the cosmos.”
Phan argues that these gifts of forgiveness, reconciliation, justice and peace are extended to all but preferentially to the poor. An authentic church he says, will put the poor first and not “its membership expansion, prosperity, its survival, its good reputation, or what has been euphemistically called ‘church growth’.”
Phan’s analysis is not without its flaws. For instance, in his reaction against the power of the church he pleads for a ‘fundamental equality among all the members” yet states that this equality “annuls neither the existence of the hierarchy in the church or the papal primacy”. This is somewhat over-generous in my view, and seems to betray a fear of the very powers that he wishes to challenge!
But the main issue here is the focus on what it means to be a Kingdom-centred Church, or a Kingdom-centred people. For British Baptists, I don’t think this is necessarily a new, or a revolutionary concept. But is there a gap between theory and practice? Let me offer just two questions that might be pertinent for Baptist life and mission, in and beyond the UK.
1. In the run up to the millennium, mission agencies were challenged to consider how much of our work was in parts of the world that already had a considerable Christian presence, and how much was in parts of the world less-reached? Within BMS, this certainly was part of the reason why the decision was taken to wind down our work in Brazil and refocus into the Muslim-majority world. Does a similar question need to be asked by our churches – how much of the life of the church is truly ‘kingdom building’ rather than simply supporting the felt needs of the already Christian congregation.
2. Within BMS, the sharper question for us must be ‘and how do we measure the kingdom impact we feel we are achieving?’ We have rejected crude measures like ‘how many baptisms happen in a year’ as these deny the holistic nature of God's Kingdom and in any case would give a zero value to our work in countries where there is still no visible community of believers. But the question remains, how are we to be sure we are having a Kingdom impact? Can grace, forgiveness and justice be measured? And if so, how?