January 8, 2009
Vol. 28 No. 7

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    Conference to examine the place of mission in a changing world

    By Josh Schonwald
    News Office


    While there are more than 160 million Christians today in the United States, Christianity is growing much faster in Latin America and Asia, but particularly in Africa.

    A projection cited in the World Christian Encyclopedia estimates that the Christian population of Africa will soar to more than 600 million by 2025.

    A Divinity School conference, scheduled for Friday, Jan. 23 and titled “Resisting Mission: Redefining Engagement,” will examine the place of mission in this changing world, and what the demographic shift means for scholars of religion, clergy and missionaries.

    The implications for mission of globalization are many, said Daniel Sack, Administrator of the Divinity School’s Border Crossing Project, which is sponsoring the conference.

    “Instead of ‘us’ sending missionaries to ‘them,’” said Sack, “in some cases they are now sending missionaries to us. This changes power relationships and how Christianity is understood.” This power shift, especially in light of liberationist and post-colonial critiques, has led some to resist “mission” entirely.

    The conference will provide a forum for Divinity School scholars and students, whose interest in globalization has grown. It also will aim to challenge not only clergy and seminary students, but also religious scholars, to rethink mission in a global context.

    “Resisting Mission: Redefining Engagement” will begin at 10 a.m. in Swift Hall with a keynote address by the pioneering religious historian Lamin Sanneh, whose scholarship has helped guide Western Christians toward thinking about how their faith relates to those practicing Christianity in the rest of the world.

    Sanneh, the D. Willis James professor of missions and world Christianity and professor of history at Yale Divinity School, and the author of Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West, has written extensively for more than two decades about Christianity as a global phenomenon.

    Sanneh advocates a new conception of Christianity, which he calls “post-Western Christianity,” and he has predicted that African Christianity will no longer be regarded as “an exotic, curious phenomenon. African Christianity,” Sanneh has said, “might be the shape of things to come.”

    A native of Gambia, a majority Muslim culture, Sanneh brings a valuable perspective of Christianity’s relationship with African cultures and traditions, said Sack.

    Two panel discussions will follow the keynote address.

    The first, “Mission in a Globalizing World,” will feature three panelists who are currently examining the implications of the globalized world in their research. Malika Zeghal, Associate Professor of the Anthropology and Sociology of Religion and Islamic Studies at the Divinity School, will talk about transnational Islam.

    Susan Gzesh, Director of the University’s Human Rights Program and a Senior Lecturer in the Center for International Studies, will discuss the role of human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, as secular mission groups. Peter Vethanayagamony, associate professor of modern church history at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, will discuss theology for global Christianity.

    The second panel discussion, “Mission in Particular Places,” will focus on how globalization is shaping approaches to Christian mission. Stacy Edwards Dunn from Trinity United Church of Christ will describe her congregation’s involvement with mission work, particularly in Africa. Matthew Garr, a doctoral student at the Catholic Theological Union, will discuss his work in Latin America, and Kim Lamberty will describe the work of Christian Peacemaker Teams, a group of unarmed anti-war activists operating in the Middle East.

    The conference is part of the second year of programs in the Divinity School’s “Border Crossing: Collaborative Theological Reflection for Ministry” series. Funded by a grant from the Lilly Endowment, “Border Crossing” offers a three-year cycle of conferences, consultations, teaching partnerships and reflection groups, all exploring the relationship between the professions of teaching and ministry.

    The project aims to bring together practicing ministers, seminary faculty members, and Divinity School faculty and students in a variety of venues to enhance the well-informed and deeply engaged practice of teachers and pastors alike. For more information on the “Border Crossing” series or to register for the conference, visit: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/programs/.