This is the last in a series of blogs on the Global Connections conference in May 2016, From Where I’m Sitting, where we sought to explore mission from different perspectives. You can listen to the talks on the Global Connections events page. I had the privilege to seek feedback on what was heard on the last morning and made a wide range of points.
The three young missionaries met again in their favourite noodle bar.
The Young American: It was great to hear about the growth of the church in China this morning. If the church keeps growing at the current rate, we in the US of A are going to have to look out for our status as the largest Christian nation. Who would have thought it?
The Singaporean: Well you know the saying. God must love the Chinese, he made so many of us. And now he is bringing us into his kingdom. You had better start learning Mandarin for heaven. And at least with so many Chinese cooks there we will get everlasting noodles for eternity.
The Englishman: Doesn’t the growth of the church in China now get us back to the question we had yesterday? After all, the recent growth is not the first time Christianity has had a presence and influence in China. I was reading a book recently that argued cogently for St Thomas having got to China as well as India. Certainly the Syrian Christians got there during the Tang Dynasty and their message seems to have been accepted. The Great Church of the East once spread across China and into other East Asian countries, but nothing survives from that work today. Do we have any guarantee that the church in China today will continue to grow?
What can history teach us about the relationship between trade and the transmission of faith? Quite a lot it would seem. The answers to two further questions will help unpack some key lessons for missional business in 21st Asia.
Q 1: How did Islam arrive in East Asia? Answer: Muslim Traders.
Exactly how Islam came to East Asian communities is not known but scholars agree that a “direct relationship between trade and the spread of Islam is undeniable.” The maritime history of the Indian Ocean suggests that there were Muslim sailors working on ships plying the trade routes around the archipelago as early as the eighth century. As trade increased and connections with ports and peoples were strengthened, so the Muslim presence grew. In their book, Spice Journeys: Taste and Trade in the Islamic World, de Guise and Sutarwala write that “Islam and hospitality go together like coffee and cardamon. Islam and trade have also been inextricably bound since the time of the Prophet Muhammad.” Islam spread to the region, not to begin with by the intentional efforts of Islamic missionaries, but through merchants.
Are we on the The Cusp of Destiny in the 21st Century? How do UK mission agencies and the UK church respond to the changing needs of East Asia?
The 20th century was an age of unprecedented barbarism, yet also amazing globalisation of the gospel. Over the past 100 or so years Christianity has experienced an incredible transformation in its ethnic and linguistic make-up. The biggest phenomenon in the history of the church during the 20th century was the growth of non-Western churches. Today Christianity is a global faith, and you and I are privileged to live at a time of tremendous church growth.
This reality must not obscure the fact that there are still many peoples in many contexts who have yet to hear the gospel. But in the years since many of our UK mission agencies were founded, many of the national churches in Asia, Africa and Latin America have been growing and maturing and are engaging in cross-cultural mission themselves.
In many places across Asia the church is a marginalised minority, with restrictions aimed at curtailing its witness. But it can still have an effective voice if it pays attention to its identity, vision and character.
Recovering the forgotten heritage of Asian Christian IDENTITY
It’s difficult to have an effective voice if you’re perceived to be speaking with a foreign accent.
Unfortunately the idea that Christianity is a Western religion is so pervasive that many East Asian Christians seem to believe it, with most unaware of their Asian Christian heritage. The development of a Christian identity that celebrates the gospel’s deep roots in Asia’s rich soil is a discipleship imperative. Across East Asia, minority churches can strengthen their witness by recovering their forgotten heritage. The Princeton historian, Samuel Hugh Moffett, reminds us of Christianity’s Asian roots:
It is too often forgotten that the faith moved east across Asia as early as it moved west into Europe… Asia produced the first known church building, the first New Testament translation, perhaps the first Christian king, the first Christian poets, and even arguably the first Christian state. [A History of Christianity in Asia, Maryknoll: Orbis]