Conversion and Discipleship as Goals of the Church's Mission

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CONVERSION AND DISCIPLESHIP AS GOALS OF THE CHURCH’S MISSION *

 

I

 

n his Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Asia (1999) Pope John Paul II describes three paths leading to an encounter with Jesus Christ.1 The first path is conversion, the other two being communion and solidarity. Of course, these paths are not parallel roads to Christ; rather they are convergent paths, or to change the metaphor, they are three skeins woven into a single rope binding us to Christ.2

While conversion, communion and solidarity are all necessary for our union with Christ, it is highly significant that the Pope places these three attitudes in that precise order in his Exhortation, with conversion heading the list.  Clearly, conversion is treated first because it is the foundation and the condition of possibility for communion and solidarity. It is as it were the gate through which a person passes to meet Christ. Furthermore, it lends depth to communion and authenticity to solidarity.3 Without conversion, communion would be a mere feeling of empathy and sympathy, a sense of clubby fellowship of like‑minded individuals, praise-worthy indeed, but lacking the dimension of personal union, the total gift of self, which is the hallmark of true communion, as it has been exemplified by Jesus. Without conversion, solidarity risks being reduced to a simple sharing of common interests which binds together the members of a voluntary non‑profit association or a business corporation, necessary indeed for the well‑being of a society, but still falling far short of the commitment to suffer with and for the marginalized, the poor and the oppressed and to struggle with them to regain justice and human dignity.

As essential as it is for Christian life in general, conversion is even more central for mission. Indeed, for a long time, it was taken to be the very goal of mission, since it is only through conversion that “soul‑saving” and “church‑planting”—the two purposes of mission—can be realized.  The success of mission was often measured by the number of conversions it brings about. Of course, faith, hope and charity remain essential, but when it comes down to requesting funds for a particular missionary project, unless one can produce facts and figures of conversions likely to be achieved, there is little likelihood that a pragmatic and result‑oriented foundation will dole out grants on the hope that the project will increase the three theological virtues.

Nevertheless, in recent theologies of mission, the notion of conversion as the goal of mission, especially if it is understood as renouncing one religion or Christian denomination to join another, has been seriously questioned. In the last four decades, many if not most missiologists have rejected the long‑held view that the purpose of mission is “soul‑saving” and “church-planting.”4“Soul‑saving” tends to individualize salvation, belittling the other aspects of the church’s mission such as inculturation, interreligious dialogue, and liberation. “Church‑planting” tends to ecclesiasticize salvation, identifying the church with the Kingdom of God and fomenting rivalries among Christian denominations.

Instead of this church‑centered approach to mission, a kingdom‑of‑God‑centered view has been proposed in which the church is made subservient to, though not separate from, the reign of God.5 It is the reign of God that determines the church and its mission, and not the other way around In terms of priority and intrinsic importance, the reign of God stands at the top, followed by mission, proclamation, and church. This is the order in which these four realities of the Christian faith should be understood and related to each other.6 In this perspective, conversion in the sense of renouncing one religious tradition and joining the Christian church still is a desirable outcome of mission, but it is not its main goal, let alone its sole purpose.

In light of this radical revisioning of mission, it is necessary to re‑examine the concept of conversion and its place in mission. I will first briefly review the biblical concept of conversion. Next, I will place it in the wider context of the history of mission. Lastly, I will relate it to the future of mission in Asia as this can reasonably be prognosticated.

CONVERSION AS “TURNING” TO JESUS CHRIST AND TAKING UP HIS MISSION

That “conversion” occupied a prominent place in Jesus' preaching is beyond dispute. His message has been summarized in a terse sentence: “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is close at hand, repent and believe the Good News” (Mk 1: 15). This message is composed of two parts, the first being a statement of fact, and the second a command. Jesus informed his audience that God's promise that God would intervene on their behalf was being fulfilled; and he used the symbol of God's kingdom or rule to describe this intervention. In other words, Jesus declared that they were living in the apocalyptic or end time. The old age had passed, and the new age was dawning. As the result of this epochal change, Jesus commanded his hearers to “repent and believe” the good news he was telling them.  “Repent” and “believe” were presented as two distinct but not separate acts; indeed, they were linked by the preposition “and” to indicate that they form a single process in which “repent” leads to “believe.”  This complex process is later called “conversion.”

Conversion as “Turning” to Jesus

As is well known, the word “conversion” is associated with the Hebrew word for “turning”(tešuva) and the Greek word for “change of mind or direction” (metanoia).7 In neither Hebrew nor Greek is there a connotation of sorrow or regret or shame, much less a rejection of one religion in favor of another, often associated with conversion. In the case of Jesus' announcement, there might be some feelings of sorrow or regret provoked by turning from one thing to another, as usually happens when one moves from one era to another, or from one place to another. However, the dominant feelings conjured by Jesus' proclamation were joy and happiness; after all, he was speaking of “good news”! At any rate, there was no question of abjuring one religion and joining another. At no time was Jesus advocating renouncing Judaism and joining another religion such as Christianity, if there be such a thing then. Nor was Jesus seeking to establish a new religion in the way many religious founders did after him, laying out a constitution, by‑laws, organizational structures, rituals, and so forth. After all, he continued to be a pious Jew, and was even called a rabbi, observing most if not all of the Jewish laws, especially the Sabbath and the studying of the Torah.

On the other hand, for Jesus, it was not Judaism as usual. In and through his words and deeds, and above all through his own person, something utterly new had happened that burst the bounds of Judaism, like the new wine bursting the old wineskin. This unexpected and total novelty consists precisely in the coming of what Jesus called “the Kingdom of God” which he himself ushered in. By this symbol Jesus understood the definitive coming of God in power to rule in the near future, to bring the present state of things to an end and to establish God's full and victorious rule over the world in general and Israel in particular. This kingly reign of God would mean the reversal of all unjust oppression and suffering, the bestowal of the reward promised to faithful Israelites, and the joyful participation of believers ― and even of some Gentiles ― in the heavenly banquet with Israel's patriarchs.8

Because of this utterly new reality, Jesus taught with supreme authority, his own, unlike other rabbis and scribes who had to depend on the Torah; dealt with the Mosaic law with sovereign freedom, breaking even its most sacred rules and regulations, when necessary, to demonstrate that God's kingdom had indeed arrived; criticized, at times very harshly, religious authorities such as the Pharisees and the Sadducees, for failing to recognize the signs of the coming of God's reign; and performed miraculous deeds as signs of the coming of this kingdom.9 Most importantly, in the light of the coming of God's kingdom, Jesus related to God in a most unique and intimate way, calling God "Abba." No less importantly, because of the dawning of this kingdom, he included everyone into his circle, barring none, without any discrimination whatsoever.  Rabbi though he was, he was known to share table with tax collectors and prostitutes, thereby defiling himself, but by the same act, he was showing them that God forgave them unconditionally. Rabbi though he was, he transgressed the impurity laws and touched and let himself be touched by women, menstruating and sinful women to boost, to let them know that they too were to be treated with dignity because the Kingdom of God had arrived. And so, the sinners, the impure, the sick the poor, the women, the children (the so‑called “lost sheep of Israel,” even the pagans (goyim)—whose faith amazed him and was praised by him—flocked to him, and he accepted them all.

That was, I submit, their "conversion," that is, their “turning” to Jesus.10 He was as it were the home to which they returned, an image evoked by the Hebrew word (šûbh). They also changed their thinking about him, in the meaning of the Greek metanoia, because they believed that he was not just any other Jew, but the embodiment of what the Kingdom of God stood for, namely, the all‑inclusive, gracious, forgiving, healing, saving, tender, motherly, fatherly love of Yahweh.

Lest we think that such a conversion is just a warm and fuzzy feeling, a hand‑holding, body‑swinging, hallelujah‑shouting thing, Jesus' command to "repent and believe" was both urgent and radical. Urgent because there was no possibility of tergiversating and procrastinating. Not even the sacred duty of burying one's own father could serve as an excuse: “Let the dead bury the dead”: (Mt 8: 22). Radical, because conversion or turning to Jesus demands a total and absolute denial of self: “If anyone wishes to follow after me, let him deny himself, and take up the cross, and follow me” (Mk 8:34). This is so because conversion is not getting a membership into a club, or changing a religious preference, not even joining a religious organization; it is becoming a disciple of Jesus.

The first and abiding consequence of turning to Jesus is becoming his disciple.11 Accepting Jesus' call, and never on his or her own initiative, a disciple renounced possessions, abandoned familial and social ties, and literally followed Jesus in his wanderings. A disciple (mathētēs) is primarily one who “follows” or “walks behind” Jesus (akolouthein). She or he enters a lifelong relationship with him ("that they be with him" [Mark 3:141]), and therefore can never aspire to become a master in his or her turn. A disciple is not just a student receiving instruction from a teacher. A disciple of Jesus is primarily an apprentice, learning by close observation and personal imitation, by doing what Jesus the Master does and by sharing his life.12 As disciple of Jesus, a person will be persecuted, as Jesus was, precisely because he or she must perform what Jesus did, namely, service to the kingdom.

Conversion as Continuing Jesus’ Ministry

 

CONVERSION AND DISCIPLESHIP AS GOALS OF THE CHURCH’S MISSION *

 

I

 

n his Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Asia (1999) Pope John Paul II describes three paths leading to an encounter with Jesus Christ.1 The first path is conversion, the other two being communion and solidarity. Of course, these paths are not parallel roads to Christ; rather they are convergent paths, or to change the metaphor, they are three skeins woven into a single rope binding us to Christ.2

While conversion, communion and solidarity are all necessary for our union with Christ, it is highly significant that the Pope places these three attitudes in that precise order in his Exhortation, with conversion heading the list.  Clearly, conversion is treated first because it is the foundation and the condition of possibility for communion and solidarity. It is as it were the gate through which a person passes to meet Christ. Furthermore, it lends depth to communion and authenticity to solidarity.3 Without conversion, communion would be a mere feeling of empathy and sympathy, a sense of clubby fellowship of like‑minded individuals, praise-worthy indeed, but lacking the dimension of personal union, the total gift of self, which is the hallmark of true communion, as it has been exemplified by Jesus. Without conversion, solidarity risks being reduced to a simple sharing of common interests which binds together the members of a voluntary non‑profit association or a business corporation, necessary indeed for the well‑being of a society, but still falling far short of the commitment to suffer with and for the marginalized, the poor and the oppressed and to struggle with them to regain justice and human dignity.

As essential as it is for Christian life in general, conversion is even more central for mission. Indeed, for a long time, it was taken to be the very goal of mission, since it is only through conversion that “soul‑saving” and “church‑planting”—the two purposes of mission—can be realized.  The success of mission was often measured by the number of conversions it brings about. Of course, faith, hope and charity remain essential, but when it comes down to requesting funds for a particular missionary project, unless one can produce facts and figures of conversions likely to be achieved, there is little likelihood that a pragmatic and result‑oriented foundation will dole out grants on the hope that the project will increase the three theological virtues.

Nevertheless, in recent theologies of mission, the notion of conversion as the goal of mission, especially if it is understood as renouncing one religion or Christian denomination to join another, has been seriously questioned. In the last four decades, many if not most missiologists have rejected the long‑held view that the purpose of mission is “soul‑saving” and “church-planting.”4“Soul‑saving” tends to individualize salvation, belittling the other aspects of the church’s mission such as inculturation, interreligious dialogue, and liberation. “Church‑planting” tends to ecclesiasticize salvation, identifying the church with the Kingdom of God and fomenting rivalries among Christian denominations.

Instead of this church‑centered approach to mission, a kingdom‑of‑God‑centered view has been proposed in which the church is made subservient to, though not separate from, the reign of God.5 It is the reign of God that determines the church and its mission, and not the other way around In terms of priority and intrinsic importance, the reign of God stands at the top, followed by mission, proclamation, and church. This is the order in which these four realities of the Christian faith should be understood and related to each other.6 In this perspective, conversion in the sense of renouncing one religious tradition and joining the Christian church still is a desirable outcome of mission, but it is not its main goal, let alone its sole purpose.

In light of this radical revisioning of mission, it is necessary to re‑examine the concept of conversion and its place in mission. I will first briefly review the biblical concept of conversion. Next, I will place it in the wider context of the history of mission. Lastly, I will relate it to the future of mission in Asia as this can reasonably be prognosticated.

CONVERSION AS “TURNING” TO JESUS CHRIST AND TAKING UP HIS MISSION

That “conversion” occupied a prominent place in Jesus' preaching is beyond dispute. His message has been summarized in a terse sentence: “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is close at hand, repent and believe the Good News” (Mk 1: 15). This message is composed of two parts, the first being a statement of fact, and the second a command. Jesus informed his audience that God's promise that God would intervene on their behalf was being fulfilled; and he used the symbol of God's kingdom or rule to describe this intervention. In other words, Jesus declared that they were living in the apocalyptic or end time. The old age had passed, and the new age was dawning. As the result of this epochal change, Jesus commanded his hearers to “repent and believe” the good news he was telling them.  “Repent” and “believe” were presented as two distinct but not separate acts; indeed, they were linked by the preposition “and” to indicate that they form a single process in which “repent” leads to “believe.”  This complex process is later called “conversion.”

Conversion as “Turning” to Jesus

As is well known, the word “conversion” is associated with the Hebrew word for “turning”(tešuva) and the Greek word for “change of mind or direction” (metanoia).7 In neither Hebrew nor Greek is there a connotation of sorrow or regret or shame, much less a rejection of one religion in favor of another, often associated with conversion. In the case of Jesus' announcement, there might be some feelings of sorrow or regret provoked by turning from one thing to another, as usually happens when one moves from one era to another, or from one place to another. However, the dominant feelings conjured by Jesus' proclamation were joy and happiness; after all, he was speaking of “good news”! At any rate, there was no question of abjuring one religion and joining another. At no time was Jesus advocating renouncing Judaism and joining another religion such as Christianity, if there be such a thing then. Nor was Jesus seeking to establish a new religion in the way many religious founders did after him, laying out a constitution, by‑laws, organizational structures, rituals, and so forth. After all, he continued to be a pious Jew, and was even called a rabbi, observing most if not all of the Jewish laws, especially the Sabbath and the studying of the Torah.

On the other hand, for Jesus, it was not Judaism as usual. In and through his words and deeds, and above all through his own person, something utterly new had happened that burst the bounds of Judaism, like the new wine bursting the old wineskin. This unexpected and total novelty consists precisely in the coming of what Jesus called “the Kingdom of God” which he himself ushered in. By this symbol Jesus understood the definitive coming of God in power to rule in the near future, to bring the present state of things to an end and to establish God's full and victorious rule over the world in general and Israel in particular. This kingly reign of God would mean the reversal of all unjust oppression and suffering, the bestowal of the reward promised to faithful Israelites, and the joyful participation of believers ― and even of some Gentiles ― in the heavenly banquet with Israel's patriarchs.8

Because of this utterly new reality, Jesus taught with supreme authority, his own, unlike other rabbis and scribes who had to depend on the Torah; dealt with the Mosaic law with sovereign freedom, breaking even its most sacred rules and regulations, when necessary, to demonstrate that God's kingdom had indeed arrived; criticized, at times very harshly, religious authorities such as the Pharisees and the Sadducees, for failing to recognize the signs of the coming of God's reign; and performed miraculous deeds as signs of the coming of this kingdom.9 Most importantly, in the light of the coming of God's kingdom, Jesus related to God in a most unique and intimate way, calling God "Abba." No less importantly, because of the dawning of this kingdom, he included everyone into his circle, barring none, without any discrimination whatsoever.  Rabbi though he was, he was known to share table with tax collectors and prostitutes, thereby defiling himself, but by the same act, he was showing them that God forgave them unconditionally. Rabbi though he was, he transgressed the impurity laws and touched and let himself be touched by women, menstruating and sinful women to boost, to let them know that they too were to be treated with dignity because the Kingdom of God had arrived. And so, the sinners, the impure, the sick the poor, the women, the children (the so‑called “lost sheep of Israel,” even the pagans (goyim)—whose faith amazed him and was praised by him—flocked to him, and he accepted them all.

That was, I submit, their "conversion," that is, their “turning” to Jesus.10 He was as it were the home to which they returned, an image evoked by the Hebrew word (šûbh). They also changed their thinking about him, in the meaning of the Greek metanoia, because they believed that he was not just any other Jew, but the embodiment of what the Kingdom of God stood for, namely, the all‑inclusive, gracious, forgiving, healing, saving, tender, motherly, fatherly love of Yahweh.

Lest we think that such a conversion is just a warm and fuzzy feeling, a hand‑holding, body‑swinging, hallelujah‑shouting thing, Jesus' command to "repent and believe" was both urgent and radical. Urgent because there was no possibility of tergiversating and procrastinating. Not even the sacred duty of burying one's own father could serve as an excuse: “Let the dead bury the dead”: (Mt 8: 22). Radical, because conversion or turning to Jesus demands a total and absolute denial of self: “If anyone wishes to follow after me, let him deny himself, and take up the cross, and follow me” (Mk 8:34). This is so because conversion is not getting a membership into a club, or changing a religious preference, not even joining a religious organization; it is becoming a disciple of Jesus.

The first and abiding consequence of turning to Jesus is becoming his disciple.11 Accepting Jesus' call, and never on his or her own initiative, a disciple renounced possessions, abandoned familial and social ties, and literally followed Jesus in his wanderings. A disciple (mathētēs) is primarily one who “follows” or “walks behind” Jesus (akolouthein). She or he enters a lifelong relationship with him ("that they be with him" [Mark 3:141]), and therefore can never aspire to become a master in his or her turn. A disciple is not just a student receiving instruction from a teacher. A disciple of Jesus is primarily an apprentice, learning by close observation and personal imitation, by doing what Jesus the Master does and by sharing his life.12 As disciple of Jesus, a person will be persecuted, as Jesus was, precisely because he or she must perform what Jesus did, namely, service to the kingdom.

Conversion as Continuing Jesus’ Ministry

This brings me to the second aspect of conversion, namely, continuing the ministry of Jesus. When Jesus called disciples to himself, he did not just want them to keep him company, to hang around with him as it were. On the contrary, the call to discipleship is simultaneously a sending to the people of Israel for the sole purpose of proclaiming the approaching Kingdom of God. Consequently, he sent them out on mission, to preach that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” and to heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, and cast out devils" (Mt 10: 7­-8). And, after his resurrection, on account of which all power in heaven and on earth was given to him, Jesus commanded them to go forth, teach all nations, and preach the gospel to all creatures, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Mt 28: 19; Mk 16: 15). Clearly, conversion is for the, sake of mission.

This intrinsic orientation of discipleship to mission is particularly true in the case of the “Twelve, who were the standing exemplars of what discipleship meant. The number twelve itself was symbolic: it stands for the twelve tribes of Israel. Furthermore, by sending the Twelve out on a prophetic mission to Israel during his lifetime, Jesus connected their mission with his own, which was to gather and reconstitute the tribes of Israel in the Kingdom, of God. As John Meier puts it concisely: “The creation of the Twelve thus coheres perfectly with Jesus’ eschatological, people‑centered message and mission: God is coming in power to gather and rule over all Israel in the end time” (Meier, 154). In the particular case of the two brothers Peter and Andrew, Jesus promised to make them into “fishers of human beings” (halieis anthrōpōn).

I would like to suggest that even the command of Jesus at the Last Supper to his disciples to take up the bread and eat it, and the cup and drink from it was also a command to take up his mission. I do not want to deny that at the Last Supper Jesus established a new ritual that would later be called the sacrament of the Eucharist, in which Jesus was really, truly, and as the Council of Trent was to say, substantially present. Unfortunately, the “real presence” of Jesus in the eucharistic species has often been understood in a static and thing‑like way. What I am suggesting is that the two expressions “body” and “blood” here mean more than the “body” and “blood” of Jesus in the physical sense. We know that for the Hebrews "body" means the entire reality of the person, what we call today "body and soul" or the self, similarly, "blood" refers to the same entire reality of the person, and not something different from the body, but the same "body and soul" as living, the self as a historical, evolving, living reality, since blood is the symbol of life.  But the person of Jesus was more than his "body and soul." What and who Jesus was, was determined by his relationship to his Father and what his Father assigned him to do.  Jesus' self‑identity cannot be restricted to his ontology or his two "natures." In other words, the "body and soul" of Jesus cannot be separated from the Kingdom of God and his mission within it.

Recall further that the Last Supper was called “last” because it was a farewell dinner. Jesus knew he was going to be killed because of his message about and work for the Kingdom of God. He also knew that he had not completed the mission entrusted to him by his Father because his life was cut short by those whose interests were threatened by his Kingdom‑of‑God‑oriented behavior. That was why he wanted to have a farewell dinner with his disciples. Now, in a farewell dinner, the one who is going away usually hands on something, perhaps the most precious and enduring thing of herself or himself to those who remain behind. If a teacher, maybe a few words of wisdom; if a parent a testament or will; if a friend, a token of abiding love. What was most important for Jesus was his mission; it had consumed his energies, it had been his passion and obsession; it had made him who he was. So when he commanded his disciples to eat his body and drink his blood, he was effectively saying to his disciples:

You, who are my followers, take over my mission and complete it for me, since I am prevented from completing it. By eating my body and drinking my blood, you are taking on my mission for the Kingdom of God. The Eucharist is therefore the sacrament of mission par excellence.

In sum, conversion means first of all turning to Jesus in a radical way, in a personal and absolute commitment to him, because he embodied the Kingdom of God.  Secondly, it also means taking over and continuing his mission for that kingdom.

CONVERSION IN THE WIDER CONTEXT OF MISSION

If this is the essential meaning of conversion, when and why did it take on the further connotation of joining another religious organization, of becoming a member of the church? In a sense, this new meaning is not something totally alien to the original meaning of turning to Jesus and taking on his mission. Jesus did not call individuals qua individuals to conversion. While personal commitment to Jesus and his cause was required, his call to repent and believe in the good news was addressed to the people of Israel as a whole. As we have seen above, the number twelve of the special disciples whom he gathered with him is symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel. It was the people of Israel, and not just individual Jews, that Jesus wanted to gather into the Kingdom of God.

There was no evidence, however, that Jesus himself wanted to found a religious society ― “religion” in the modern sense ―apart from, much less opposed to Israel. Nor was he perceived to have done so by his contemporaries and even his followers. He and they continued to be and to behave as pious Jews, even though in several practices they did diverge from the official rules and norms. Rather, Jesus was seen as a new prophet who, as other prophets before him, attempted to give a new interpretation to the Torah and to purify contemporary Judaism of errors and abuses and bring it back to its authentic ideals. In other words, Jesus was perceived as starting a reform movement within Judaism itself.13

Jesus was not however a religious "lone ranger." As we have seen above, he called others to join him as a group in his mission for the Kingdom of God, and taught and trained them for this purpose. In this sense, whoever wanted to follow Jesus, to "convert" to him, necessarily had to join a new movement, a new group, a new community, albeit as yet not separate from and opposed to Israel. Conversion to Jesus was not simply an internal, spiritual experience, a response to his call, but required following him, physically, and joining the community of his disciples.

In this connection, it may be useful to reflect briefly on the nature of Saul's (later known as Paul) so‑called "conversion." He was certainly one of the most celebrated converts to Jesus' movement and certainly the most influential one. Without his missionary labors and his many letters, Christianity as we know it would not have taken place. Yet we must be careful not to talk about his conversion as a rejection of his former religion, namely, Judaism and joining a new religion called Christianity, as the word “conversion” is popularly used today, when we say that so‑and‑so is a "convert" from Judaism or from a Christian denomination to the Catholic Church. Paul was and continued to be a religious Jew until the end, and extremely proud of his religious heritage, even though he was deeply pained to see that some of his fellow Jews did not accept Jesus. Paul's so‑called conversion was not joining a new “religion” but rather a change of brands of Judaism switching from Pharisaic to Christian Judaism. It was an acceptance of a “call” from Jesus to proclaim that the Kingdom of God, which had been addressed to the Jews, was now extended to the Gentiles as well. In other words, in his conversion Paul was not called to join a new religion but commissioned to proclaim that the “God of the Jews” is also the “God of the Gentiles.”14

However, as the absolute novelty of Jesus' message about the Kingdom of God dawned more fully on his disciples, and as the opposition to the new reform group on the part of some officials of Judaism gathered force and became more intense (Paul's persecution of the Christians was part of this opposition), the identity of Jesus' community as a separate social and religious entity grew more distinct. Indeed, at Antioch in Syria, the followers of Jesus were given the name of "Christians" (Acts 11: 26). This process of sociological and theological self‑definition was accelerated by the fact that Jesus' followers were expelled out of the synagogue, that certain practices functioned for them as entrance requirements and initiation rites (e.g., baptism in the name of Jesus, or in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit), that some essential requirements of Judaism were abandoned (e.g., circumcision).

Above all, the political events surrounding the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and the subsequent dispersion of the Jews from Palestine contributed mightily to the emergence of the Jesus movement a separate "Way" (Acts 9: 2) and eventually a "religion." This process of separation from the Jewish matrix and emergence into a distinct religion reached its apogee when Christianity was first accepted as a religio licita under Constantine and subsequently as the official religion of the Roman empire under Theodosius. From then on, the story of Christianity's extremely rapid, massive, and nothing short of miraculous expansion throughout the Roman empire, not least by means of "mission," is too well known to need retelling here. Henceforward, conversion meant abandoning one religion and joining Christianity as another religion.15

To gain a better understanding of conversion I will place it in the wider context of past missionary endeavors. I will make use of the works of two noted missiologists, a Catholic and a Protestant, Anthony Gittins and Wilbert Shenk.

Anthony Gittins, in his brief but illuminating study on conversion, speaks of it as a “complex and multifaceted” process. In a sense, it may be described as a “religious experience” (1997: 87-89).” But as Gittins points out, for many peoples, especially the less technologically advanced ones, "religion is inextricable from life, embedded within its fabric. ‘Religious’ experiences are thus not entirely or always separable from what is conventionally labeled 'economic' or 'political' or 'social' activity (1997: 87).” Therefore, conversion must be seen in the total context of the people to be converted. In this way, it is seen less as a sudden, dramatic event that happens to an individual, a breaking off from the past, though it is certainly that. It is much more, as Gittins notes, "a process rather than an event, part of life's unfolding (88)."

But being a process does not mean that conversion is not or must not be radical. However, Gittins again notes, "radical is not necessarily dramatic; conversion occurs through continuity as well as by discontinuity with earlier life. Radical disjunction certainly marks the lives of some individuals, particularly men, but does not necessarily characterize all communities, or many women .... many women's experience is that lives may be lived authentically through commitment to daily routine, rather than by blazing new trails like explorers or pioneers (88-89).

Finally, because conversion takes place within the total context of a person's life, it is necessarily related to the community or the culture to which she or he belongs. Consequently, “mass conversion” should not be belittled or dismissed out of hand because of the contemporary emphasis on individual choice as the only truly free choice: “People in social groups frequently act precisely as a group, and the exercise of individual choice is subsumed into the group choice, as discerned or decided by appropriate authority”(88). Again, Gittins’ points out, “the conversion process represents the ultimate transformation of the community (and its members) in Christ. Missioners, especially, must discern the 'seeds of the Word' or 'gospel values,' or simply the presence of God, among people long before the arrival of Christian ministers” (89). Hence, the converts should not be detached from the community, both the old community from which they come, and the new community to which they are now joined, because “the support of a community can legitimately endorse an individual's conversion and offer positive and negative sanctions to help it Continue over time” (89).

Several points made by Gittins about conversion are confirmed by the history of mission. First of all, Gittins' warning against separating religious conversion from its social, economic and political contexts is well taken. Only a very small number of the total of conversions that have taken place in mission fields took the form of a dramatic volte‑face, à la Paul or Augustine, or of an intellectual discovery à la Newman or Dulles. Rather, the majority of them occurred because of tribal membership (e.g., in Taiwan, the highlands of Vietnam, and many other countries in Africa and Asia, where mass baptisms by legendary missionaries are still recalled with admiration and nostalgia); or familial connections (e.g., getting married to a Christian); or educational contacts (e.g., going to a Christian school); and of course, through infant baptism (which forms the overwhelming majority of cases). These modes of conversion do not differ substantially from those that were operative in the first five centuries of Christianity, both before and after the so‑called Edict of Milan in 313.16 These conversions, though not purely religious at first and dramatic, are not necessarily less radical, especially as times go on and the individual is assisted in his or her faith growth in and by the community.

Secondly, Gittins' remark about group conversion is also to the point. One of the ironies of mission history is that whereas Western missionaries, especially of the evangelical tradition, emphasized the necessity of a “change of heart” and “rebirth” of each individual in the process of conversion, the great majority of conversions occurred in group, e.g., as the result of the conversion of the head of the tribe (who might have found conversion a politically and economically expedient act). As Wilbert Shenk notes, “converts were drawn almost entirely from cultures in which the decision‑making is communal. Personhood is defined in relation to one's group: ‘I belong, therefore I am’.... The evangelical missionary message was directed to the individual, but that message was received through the eyes and ears that responded corporately, by a community that felt itself besieged” (1999: 87).

Wilbert Shenk provides an additional perspective on conversion in the wider context of mission. Canvassing the recent history of mission in Africa and Asia, he describes the context in which conversions occurred. He begins by noting that the world has become a world system, that is, "it has become increasingly interdependent through a series of subsystems: communications, financial, educational, political, religious, technological. At the heart of this system is a world economy held together by technology, which enables it to react to stimuli with great speed (1999: 87). Religion, too, is now understood as a system, that is, as Clifford Geertz describes it, a “(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long‑lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (1999: 87; quote comes from Geertz 1973: 90).

In light of this view of the world and religion as complex and interlocking systems, and from the history of mission, Shenk derives five postulates with regard to conversion. They may be summarized as follows: (1) As long as a group's world system and religions provide satisfactory answers to its various problems, there is little chance for large‑scale conversion; conversely, large‑scale conversion will likely occur only if the group's world system and religions suffer a crisis. (2) The extent to which a world system and religions control the group determines the degree of success of a religion brought in from the outside in converting the members of the group, (3) In countries that have been colonized, there has been a coercive dimension in conversion, often overt, but real nonetheless, in so far as becoming a Christian in a colony was perceived as ensuring one's social and economic well‑being; conversely, refusing to become a Christian could be seen as a patriotic act against colonialism. (4) Modernization and Westernization that missionaries brought with them were perceived as threats by traditional cultures. Hence, the Christian message, which could not be and was not separated from modernization and Westernization, was perceived to create social fragmentation. Consequently, conversion was increasingly confined to the "spiritual" realm. (5) Conversion occurs for a multiplicity of reasons and motives, some of which are reprehensible, while others can be used as bridges to build a more mature faith (1999: 87-91).

As confirmation of these postulates Shenk highlights two significant facts of mission history: the vast majority of all conversions to Christianity have taken place (1) among small‑scale ethnic, usually agrarian/subsistence societies, where there is no differentiation between religion and culture, not from the adherents of other world religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam and (2) from the poor, those who are marginalized and oppressed by a powerful majority society, such as the Harijans in India.

The foregoing observations are not intended to belittle the importance of Christian conversion as a personal “turning” to Jesus and taking up his mission. Rather they remind us that conversion is much more than renouncing one's former religion and joining another religion. Furthermore, the history of mission offers us useful insights into the nature and dynamics of conversion which, though a profoundly personal act in its intention, must be placed in the larger socio‑political, economic and cultural context to be fully understood, especially in the work of evangelization. Let us now examine how these insights into conversion will play out in the future of mission, especially in Asia.

CONVERSION AND THE FUTURE OF MISSION

In concluding his monumental study on mission David Bosch reflects on “Whither Mission?” and ends with these words: “... Mission is, quite simply, the participation of Christians in the liberating mission of Jesus .... wagering on a future that verifiable experience seems to belie. It is the good news of God's love, incarnated in the witness of a community, for the sake of the world” (Bosch, 519). On his part, Wilbert Shenk, speaking of “the Future of Mission,” suggests that any prognostication must use a twofold approach: “reflection on God's action in history, and reading with discrimination the signs of the times” (Schenk, 186).

God's action in history, I have argued above, is the establishment of his kingly rule on Israel and the world, which is referred to as the Kingdom of God. God did this supremely through the incarnation, the cross, the resurrection, the ascension, the Pentecost, and the Parousia [Bosch refers to these six salvific events as the “faces of the church-in-mission” (1991:512)]. While these divine actions remain the theological constants, the "signs of the times" are by their very nature changeable and ever shifting. However difficult the reading of such signs is, it is essential for the future of mission. In the 1960s, the signs were the shout "Missionary, go home!" from Asia and the call for a moratorium on Western missionary movement in Africa. Perhaps those signs of the times should be heeded since the church's missionary activities were at the time too enmeshed with Western colonialism and too preoccupied with self‑preservation and self‑aggrandizement. Some thirty years later mission and missiology have experienced a significant revival, though in ways not anticipated or perhaps even desired by most missionaries of the past.17 For one thing, the church has been decentered; in its stead the Kingdom of God is given pride of place as the goal of mission, because the mission of the church is nothing more than the continuation of the missio Dei in Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Mission is, in the words of David Bosch quoted above, "quite simply, the participation of Christians in the liberating mission of Jesus." Instead of being defined by the church, mission now determines the identity and tasks of the church. Instead of viewing mission as something done by the "sending church" for the "receiving church," the church now is understood as missionary by its very nature, and therefore mission is incumbent upon every Christian. Furthermore, it is now maintained that mission is not only something that Christians carry out for the benefit of the so‑called "pagans," but also something that the followers of other religions do for the benefit of the Christians, so that the evangelizers become the evangelized and the evangelized become the evangelizers. The missio ad gentes becomes a missio inter gentes. This is so because the Divine Spirit is present and active in these cultures and religions and infuses them with the "values of the Kingdoin."18 Finally, the proclamation of the Good News, which was considered as the foremost activity of the church's mission, is now placed within a whole gamut of other, equally indispensable activities of the multi‑faceted ministry of the church: witness, worship, liberation, interreligious dialogue, inculturation, etc.

In this new theology of mission, what place does conversion occupy? Certainly, not the place of supreme honor assigned to it by the old theology of mission, namely, as the very goal of mission. As everything else, conversion is now made to serve the Kingdom of God. Mission is not undertaken in the anxious fear that without baptism and incorporation into the church, pagans would be condemned to hell (mission as “soul‑saving”). The possibility of salvation outside the visible confines of the church is no longer in doubt .19 Nor is "church‑planting" rejected; rather it is seen only as a part of the church's mission and is undertaken not in order to promote church extension but for the sake of the Kingdom of God.20

Here it may be useful to take note of Pope John Paul II's rejection of some missionaries' practice of remaining silent about the call to conversion and of their separation of conversion from baptism. With regard to the first, the Pope says: “Nowadays the call to conversion which missionaries address to non‑Christians is put into question or passed over in silence. It is seen as an act of 'proselytizing'; it is claimed that it is enough to help people to become more human or more faithful to justice, freedom, peace and solidarity” (RM, 46). There is no doubt that conversion in the sense of turning toward Christ is the irreplaceable goal of Christian mission, and silence about it is not only unfaithful to the Christian message but also disingenuous. In this sense, works for justice and peace do not exhaust the mission of the church.

Not every silence about the call to conversion, however, is reprehensible, and to understand the Pope's statement correctly, the following distinctions seem to be necessary. (1) If the call to conversion takes the form of “proselytizing” understood as any kind of manipulation of non‑Christians to convert, by inducement  or by threat (the so‑called "rice Christians"), then the Pope himself would condemn such an evangelizing strategy, since it infringes upon the convert's freedom of choice. (2) If the silence about the call to conversion is motivated by the concern that conversion has often been, especially in colonized countries, connected with psychological, most often covert but nonetheless real, coercion (see Wilbert Schenk's third postulate), then it is more than justified. (3) If it is claimed that “promoting and witnessing to the values of the reign of God may not be treated as though it were merely a means to achieve the end of building up the church; this work can be just as authentically missionary as building a church or preparing people for the sacraments” (Dorr, 198), then such a claim is theologically valid.

If certain missionaries have been reticent about the call to conversion, it is perhaps because they see that conversion, which often is understood as renouncing one religion and joining the Christian Church, has been made the be‑all and end‑all of mission. This brings us to the Pope's second rejection, namely, that of the separation between conversion and baptism: “... not a few people, precisely in those areas involved in the mission ad gentes, tend to separate conversion to Christ from Baptism, regarding Baptism as unnecessary” (RM, 47). Again, it must be acknowledged that Christian Tradition has consistently affirmed an intimate link between conversion and baptism. However, if the separation of conversion from baptism is motivated by the concern that the number of conversions has been used as the yardstick to measure the success of mission, and that baptism has been administered without adequate spiritual preparation, then it is a salutary warning to missionaries that the temptation to make the church the center of mission is hard to resist.

Moreover, there is another reason why the call to conversion as the invitation to join the Church has not been sounded in recent times, and that is, as far as Asia is concerned, the prospect of mass conversion to Christianity is extremely unlikely. The reason lies in Wilbert Schenk's first postulate mentioned above and is borne out by the fact that there have been few converts to Christianity from Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. The same point has also been made by Aloysius Pieris who argues that Asian religions, which have penetrated deeply into the Asian soil, cannot be dislodged and replaced by Christianity. In other words, for most Asians, their religions do provide satisfactory answers to their existential problems, answers that Christianity cannot hope to improve upon, at least by theoretical arguments.21 Missionaries in Asia must calmly and soberly, face the fact that Christianity will remain forever a minority religion, despite Pope John Paul II's urgent appeal to direct the mission ad gentes to Asia in particular.22Moreover, this fact is not limited to Asia; rather, as Wilbert Schenk has noted, “the church of the future will be a minority church in most parts of the world” (Schenk, 188).

This minority status of the church is not however something to be lamented over, nor should it be cause for missionary pessimism. Again, as Schenk suggests, "The prospect of a church stripped of the accouterments of privileges and power and committed to servanthood ‘in the power of the Spirit’ promises a real gain" (Schenk, 189). But such a promise can be fulfilled only if conversion is taken seriously in its twofold aspect of “turning” to Jesus as Lord and taking up his mission for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Conversion as joining the Christian Church is still a desirable outcome of mission, but it is made secondary to the turning to Jesus and taking up his mission.23

To better understand the role of conversion in mission, it would be helpful at this point to consider conversion in its psychological and anthropological aspects. Such a detailed study is of course beyond the purview of this essay.24 For our purpose suffice it to point out that if we only consider conversion in the strict sense, namely, the change of an individual from one religion to another, which mission ad gentes seeks,25 and if we take into account the six stages of conversion as outlined by developmental psychology, namely, crisis, quest, encounter, interaction, commitment, and growth,26 it would seem proper, within the new theology of mission centered on the Kingdom of God, to focus more on these six elements of conversion than on the individual's eventual act of joining the church through baptism or lack of it. Another way of explaining the role of conversion is to say that of the three components of religious conversion, namely, “1) a change in denominational affiliation or status; 2) a movement back or to God through personal introspection or outward encounter; 3) a sense in which a person solves or resolves” (Gillespie, 63), a religious identity crisis which integrates the personality and informs one's purpose, the focus should be placed on the last two components rather than on the first.

The reason for this shift of emphasis is that given the little likelihood of many conversions to Christianity in Asia in the future in terms of receiving baptism and joining the church, the church's mission must focus on witnessing to the "kingdom values" by helping others cope with their personal crisis. This crisis may be caused by factors other than religious, such as material poverty, physical illness, psychological loneliness, political oppression, loss of loved ones, break‑up of relationships, etc. The purpose is not to exploit these vulnerable moments in a person's life and manipulate them into opportunities for evangelism and conversion. Rather, this work is part of the church's larger task of dialoguing with the local cultures (inculturation), with the poor (liberation) and the indigenous religions (interreligious dialogue).27 Through this triple dialogue not only individuals but also (and more importantly for Asia, since individual conversions will not be numerous) the cultural, political, social, and economic structures will be converted (Pope Paul VI's concept of "evangelization of culture"), that is, suffused with the gospel values of justice, peace, solidarity, reconciliation, harmony, forgiveness, sharing, and love.

Furthermore, in this triple dialogue, not only the so‑called pagans and the cultures are converted but the "converters" as well.  The evangelizers become the evangelized. Mission is never a monologue by the missionaries proclaiming the good news to those who have to listen to it; rather, it is a two‑way movement in which, as in any effective communication, the sender becomes the receiver and the receiver becomes the sender in alternation. In this way, conversion is no longer exclusively leaving one religion to join another, but learning whatever is good from another religion so as to be a better follower of one's own religion. Conversion does not always take the form of tradition transition (leaving one religion for another) but also that of "institutional transition," "affiliation," and "intensification," as explained above.

Conversion then can mean, in its Latin etymology, "turning with" rather than simply towardsomething else. Christians and non‑Christians can turn together, with one another, toward not a particular religious organization or church but toward the Kingdom of God, and they can and must help each other in doing so. Just as in ecumenism, the model of “returning” of the so‑called “separated brethren” to the Catholic Church is no longer adopted as the goal of church unity, so in mission in the future, especially in Asia where religious pluralism is the fact of life, conversion is not sought as the joining of the Christian Church by, e.g., ex‑Buddhists or ex‑Hindus or ex-­Muslims (though that may happen from time to time, just as the other way round is also possible) but as the “turning” of all humans, together and with reciprocal assistance and encouragement, toward Christ that is, to the way of life and the values that he embodied in his own person, and the "taking up of his mission" in the service of the Kingdom of God.

 
NOTES
 

1.     For an English translation of Ecclesia in America, see John Paul II 1999.

2.     Ecclesia in America begins with the theme of encountering Christ in general (Chapter I) and in America in particular (Chapter II). It then discusses “the path of conversion” (Chapter III), “the path to communion” (Chapter IV), and “the path to solidarity” (Chapter V). Note the change of prepositions from “of” to “to” in the second and third paths. The Exhortation ends with a discussion of the church's mission of new evangelization in America.

3.     This order is made clear by the Pope: “Conversion leads to fraternal communion, because it enables us to understand Christ is the head of the Church, his Mystical Body; it urges solidarity, because it makes us aware that whatever we do for others, especially the poorest, we do for Christ himself” (no. 26).

4.     These two aspects of the church's mission form what David Bosch calls the "medieval Roman Catholic missionary paradigm." See Bosch 1991: 214. He refers to them as the "individualization" and"ecclesiasticization" of salvation, the former as the result of Augustine's doctrine of the total corruption of humanity in his debate with Pelagius, and the second as the result of his doctrine of the centrality of the institutional church in his debate with the Donatists.

5.     Fuellenbach 2000: 217 puts it tersely: "The mission of the Church must be seen and understood from this perspective: totally in the service of God's Kingdom designed for the transformation of the whole of creation." He also makes it clear that the church is not identical with the Kingdom of God; rather it is the sign of and instrument for the Kingdom. He describes well one of the temptations of the church: "One of the temptations for the Church in history is to claim the Kingdom for herself, to take Over the management of the Kingdom, and even go so far as to present as the realized Kingdom of God vis‑a‑vis the world" (ibid., 79).

6.     This view of mission is elaborated in detail in Phan 2002, forthcoming.

7.     For the biblical notion of “conversion,” see Gaventa 1992: 1131‑1133; idem., 1986;  and Holiday 1958.

8.   See Meier 1994: 452: “... the kingdom of God is not primarily a state or place but rather the entire dynamic event of God coming in power to rule his people Israel in the end time. It is a tensive symbol, a multi-faceted reality, a whole mythic Story in miniature that cannot be adequately grasped in a single formula or definition. This is why Jesus can speak of kingdom as both imminent and yet present.”

9.     For a historical reconstruction of Jesus, see the work of John Meier already cited above, in addition to volume 1: The Roots of the Problem and the Person (1991), volume 3: Companions and Competitors (2001), and the projected fourth volume: The Enigmas Jesus Posed and Was.

10.  Interestingly, one of the important contemporary studies on religious conversion is entitled "Turning." See Griffin: 1980. She sees "turning" as a process composed of four stages: desire or longing, dialectic or argumentative, struggle or crisis, and surrender. For helpful studies on conversion, see Stephen Happel and James J. Walter 1986 and Conn 1986; and 1983.

11.  For studies on discipleship see Weder 1992: 207‑10, and the helpful bibliography cited therein. John Meier summarizes discipleship as (1) the result of Jesus' initiative in calling; (2) leaving one's home and following‑Jesus physically; (3) risking danger and hostility (i.e., losing one's life, denying oneself and taking up one's cross and facing hostility from one's family). See Meier, 47‑73.

12.  For a theology of the church as a community of disciples, see Dulles 1982.

13.  As is well known, the relationship between Judaism and Christianity has been the subject of much controversy, and the literature is immense. A very helpful introduction is Boys 2000.

14.  On Paul and his conversion, see the helpful essay by Betz 1992: 186-201, with an extensive bibliography. It is to be noted that even Paul, after his "conversion," had to join a community of Christians through baptism namely, that of the Gentile Church in Damascus. Indeed, it was from this community that he learned that righteousness came not from the Torah (as he had believed) but from faith in Jesus, whom he now confessed as “Lord” and “Son of God.”

15.  For a history of the spread of Christianity in the first centuries, see Frend 1984 and McMullen 1984. For a brief presentation of the evolution front the Jesus movement to the institutional church, see Kee 1993: 47-63.

16.  As Ramsay McMullen points out in his study of Christian conversions in A.D. 100‑400, there were "nonreligious factors" in these conversions, of which church leaders were quite well aware. See hisChristianizing the Roman Empire A.D. 100‑400, chapter VI "Nonreligious Factors in Conversion," 52‑58. McMullen summarizes: “Emperors or ecclesiastical officers controlling the material benefits waved them in front of non‑Christians obviously in the hope of changing their allegiance, or they handed out money and food (and advertised the fact) at the instant of change, or threatened to take money or food away from the already converted if they would not abide by their allegiance” (pp. 114‑15). Of course, McMullen does not ignore cases of conversion through intellectual demonstration (pp. 68‑73).                        

17.  Donal Dorr describes the older theology of mission, which was pre-dominant from 1850 to1960, as "the crusader model" or "the commando model" of mission. Its main image of mission is “sending out” missionaries. The alternative model of mission uses two comple-mentary images of "gathering in" and "solidarity." See Dorr 2000: 186-92.

18. See Paul John Paul II's exceedingly important statement on the presence of the Holy Spirit not only in individuals but also in religions and cultures as such in his 1990 encyclical on mission Redemptoris Missio [RA41, 28: "The Spirit's presence and activity affect not only individuals but also society and history, peoples, cultures and religions. Indeed, the Spirit is at the origin of the noble ideals and undertakings which benefit humanity on its journey through history." For an English translation ofRM, see Redemption and Dialogue: Reading Redemptoris Missio and Proclamation, ed. William Burrows (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993) 5‑55.

19. On Vatican II's teaching on the possibility of salvation outside the visible confines of the church, though not without some connection with it see Lumen Gentium, 16.

20. Donal Dorr makes helpful distinctions between two kinds of missionaries, those engaged primarily in the building up of the church both as a community and in its institutional aspects and those primarily engaged in the promotion of "kingdom values" such as health care, education, human rights, ecology, and so on. The second kind of activities is no less mission than the first. See Dorr,193‑20.

21.  Pieris 1988a: 54-5. He distinguishes between "cosmic" [formerly called "animist"] and "metacosmic" religiousness. Cosmic religiousness is an open‑ended spirituality which is oriented toward its expression in metacosmic religiousness. The metacosmic religiousness is embodied in world religions, and takes two forms: "agapeic" (such as Christianity) and "gnostic" such as Hinduism and Buddhism). Pieris acknowledges that Christianity still does have a chance of mass conversion in areas where cosmic religiousness remains intact such as some tribal societies of India and Southeast Asia (as it had in the Philippines). See also Pieris 1898b and 1996.

22.  See RM, 37 (a): “Particularly in Asia, toward which the Church's mission ad gentes ought to be chiefly directed, Christians are a small minority…”  The Pope also says that he is seeing a “new and promising horizon” evangelization being fulfilled in Asia in his Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Asia, 9.For an English translation of Ecclesia in Asia, see Origins 29/23 (1999) 3 58‑84.                           

23.  For a very helpful study of the role of conversion in Roman Catholic theology of mission up to Vatican II, see Hoffman 1968: 1‑20, he recommends dialogue as the way of mission and writes: "But if at the end of the dialogue, non‑Christians wish to retain their religion, Catholics must not only give in gracefully but even, further, let them know that they would sincerely like them to be better followers of their chosen religion and leave all matters to Almighty God" (ibid., 19).

24.  For a brief study, see Rambo 1990: 228-30 with a useful bibliography and Tippett 1977: 203-21.

25.  This type of conversion is called "tradition transition" (leaving one religion for another, e.g., Buddhism for Christianity) as distinct from “institutional transition” (leaving one community for another within the same religious system, e.g., Roman Catholicism for Lutheranism); “affiliation” (movement from no commitment to a nominal or strong commitment); and “intensification” (revitalization of the commitment to a religious body). See  Rambo, 228 and Gillespie 1991: 14‑15.

26.  See Rambo, 229‑30. I am modifying somewhat Rambo's categories. Persons undergoing conversion generally go through the following six stages: (1) In the stage of crisis they experience dissatisfaction with their lives which they see as inauthentic and feel that change is demanded; (2) In the stage of quest they seek new ways of thinking, feeling, and acting; (3) In the stage ofencounter they meet a person or group whose message seems to answer their needs; (4) Ininteraction they see that their needs are met by this person or group: needs for an intellectual system of meaning, for an emotional sense of belonging, for new modes of acting, and for a leader; (5) In commitment they decide to break with their past and accept the new way of life, often through some ritual; (6) In growth they consider their new life as a pilgrimage and is supported by the community which they have joined.

27.  On this triple dialogue, see the documents issued by the plenary assemblies and various offices of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences. See Rosales and C. G. Arevalo
1992 and Eilers 1997.
 

REFERENCES
 
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Bosch, David
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Boys, Mary C.
2000 Has God Only One Blessing? Judaism as a Source of Christian Self-Understanding (New York: Paulist Press).
Conn, Walter
1986 Christian Conversion (New York: Paulist Press).
1983 The Christian Experience, ed. Hugh T. Kerr and John M. Mulders (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans).
Dorr, Donal
2000 Mission in Today’s World (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000).
Dulles, Avery
1982 A Church to Believe In: Discipleship and Dynamics of Freedom (New York, Crossroad).
Eilers, Frans-Josef
1997 For All the Peoples Of Asia: Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences. Documents from 1992 to 1996 (Quezon City, Philippines: Claretian Publications.
Frend, W.H.C.
1984 The Rise of Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press).
Fuellenbach, John
2000 Church: Community for Kingdom (Manila: Logos Publications).
Gaventa, Beverly Robers
1992 "Conversion," in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Freedman, vol. I (New York: Doubleday).
1986 From Darkness to Light: Aspects of Conversion in the New Testament (Philadelphia).
Geertz, Clifford
1973 The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books).
Gillespie, V. Bailey
1991 The Dynamics of Religious Conversion (Birmingharn, Alabama: Religious Education Press).
Gittins, Anthony J.
1997 "Conversion," in Dictionary of Mission: Theology, History, Perspectives, ed Karl Mfiller et al. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997) 87‑89.
Griffin, Emilie
1980 Turning: Reflections on the Experience of Conversion (New York: Doubleday).
 
Hoffman, Ronan
1968 "Conversion and the Mission of the Church," Journal of Ecumenical Studies 5.
Holiday, W.L.
1958 The Root šûbh in the Old Testament (Leiden).
John Paul II
1999 Post-Synodal Exhortation Ecclesia in America of the Holy Father John Paul II (Washington, D.C.: NCCB/USCC Publication).
Kee, Howard Clark
1993 "From the Jesus Movement toward Institutional Church," in Conversion to Christianity: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives on a Great Transformation, ed. Robert W. Hefner (Berkeley: Uni-versity of California Press).
McMullen, Ramsay
1984 Christianizing the Roman Empire A.D. 100‑400 (New Haven: Uni-versity Press).
Meier, John
1994 A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Vol. 2: Mentor, Message, and Miracles (New York: Doubleday).
Phan, Peter C.
2000 “Proclamation of the Reign of God as Mission of the Church: What For, To Whom, By Whom, With Whom, and How?” SEDOS (Rome).
Pieris, Aloysius
1988a An Asian Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books).
1988b Love Meets Wisdom: A Christian Experience of Buddhism (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books).
1996 Fire & Water: Basic Issues in Asian Buddhism and Christianity (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books).
Rambo, Lewis
1977 "Conversion" in Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling, ed. Rodney Hunter (Nashville: Abingdon Press).
Rosales, Gaudencio and C.G. Arevalo
1992 For All the Peoples of Asia: Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences. Documents from 1970 to 1991 (Quezon City, Philippines: Claretian Publications).
Stephen Happel & James J. Walter
1986 Conversion and Discipleship: A Christian Foundation for Ethics and Doctrine (Philadelphia: Fortress Press).
Tippett, Alan R.
1977 "Conversion as a Dynamic Process in Christian Mission," Missiology.
 
Weder, Hans
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Wilbert Shenk, Wilbert
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Talk given at the East Asian Pastoral Institute, Manila, November 2001.

This brings me to the second aspect of conversion, namely, continuing the ministry of Jesus. When Jesus called disciples to himself, he did not just want them to keep him company, to hang around with him as it were. On the contrary, the call to discipleship is simultaneously a sending to the people of Israel for the sole purpose of proclaiming the approaching Kingdom of God. Consequently, he sent them out on mission, to preach that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” and to heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, and cast out devils" (Mt 10: 7­-8). And, after his resurrection, on account of which all power in heaven and on earth was given to him, Jesus commanded them to go forth, teach all nations, and preach the gospel to all creatures, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Mt 28: 19; Mk 16: 15). Clearly, conversion is for the, sake of mission.

This intrinsic orientation of discipleship to mission is particularly true in the case of the “Twelve, who were the standing exemplars of what discipleship meant. The number twelve itself was symbolic: it stands for the twelve tribes of Israel. Furthermore, by sending the Twelve out on a prophetic mission to Israel during his lifetime, Jesus connected their mission with his own, which was to gather and reconstitute the tribes of Israel in the Kingdom, of God. As John Meier puts it concisely: “The creation of the Twelve thus coheres perfectly with Jesus’ eschatological, people‑centered message and mission: God is coming in power to gather and rule over all Israel in the end time” (Meier, 154). In the particular case of the two brothers Peter and Andrew, Jesus promised to make them into “fishers of human beings” (halieis anthrōpōn).

I would like to suggest that even the command of Jesus at the Last Supper to his disciples to take up the bread and eat it, and the cup and drink from it was also a command to take up his mission. I do not want to deny that at the Last Supper Jesus established a new ritual that would later be called the sacrament of the Eucharist, in which Jesus was really, truly, and as the Council of Trent was to say, substantially present. Unfortunately, the “real presence” of Jesus in the eucharistic species has often been understood in a static and thing‑like way. What I am suggesting is that the two expressions “body” and “blood” here mean more than the “body” and “blood” of Jesus in the physical sense. We know that for the Hebrews "body" means the entire reality of the person, what we call today "body and soul" or the self, similarly, "blood" refers to the same entire reality of the person, and not something different from the body, but the same "body and soul" as living, the self as a historical, evolving, living reality, since blood is the symbol of life.  But the person of Jesus was more than his "body and soul." What and who Jesus was, was determined by his relationship to his Father and what his Father assigned him to do.  Jesus' self‑identity cannot be restricted to his ontology or his two "natures." In other words, the "body and soul" of Jesus cannot be separated from the Kingdom of God and his mission within it.

Recall further that the Last Supper was called “last” because it was a farewell dinner. Jesus knew he was going to be killed because of his message about and work for the Kingdom of God. He also knew that he had not completed the mission entrusted to him by his Father because his life was cut short by those whose interests were threatened by his Kingdom‑of‑God‑oriented behavior. That was why he wanted to have a farewell dinner with his disciples. Now, in a farewell dinner, the one who is going away usually hands on something, perhaps the most precious and enduring thing of herself or himself to those who remain behind. If a teacher, maybe a few words of wisdom; if a parent a testament or will; if a friend, a token of abiding love. What was most important for Jesus was his mission; it had consumed his energies, it had been his passion and obsession; it had made him who he was. So when he commanded his disciples to eat his body and drink his blood, he was effectively saying to his disciples:

You, who are my followers, take over my mission and complete it for me, since I am prevented from completing it. By eating my body and drinking my blood, you are taking on my mission for the Kingdom of God. The Eucharist is therefore the sacrament of mission par excellence.

In sum, conversion means first of all turning to Jesus in a radical way, in a personal and absolute commitment to him, because he embodied the Kingdom of God.  Secondly, it also means taking over and continuing his mission for that kingdom.

CONVERSION IN THE WIDER CONTEXT OF MISSION

If this is the essential meaning of conversion, when and why did it take on the further connotation of joining another religious organization, of becoming a member of the church? In a sense, this new meaning is not something totally alien to the original meaning of turning to Jesus and taking on his mission. Jesus did not call individuals qua individuals to conversion. While personal commitment to Jesus and his cause was required, his call to repent and believe in the good news was addressed to the people of Israel as a whole. As we have seen above, the number twelve of the special disciples whom he gathered with him is symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel. It was the people of Israel, and not just individual Jews, that Jesus wanted to gather into the Kingdom of God.

There was no evidence, however, that Jesus himself wanted to found a religious society ― “religion” in the modern sense ―apart from, much less opposed to Israel. Nor was he perceived to have done so by his contemporaries and even his followers. He and they continued to be and to behave as pious Jews, even though in several practices they did diverge from the official rules and norms. Rather, Jesus was seen as a new prophet who, as other prophets before him, attempted to give a new interpretation to the Torah and to purify contemporary Judaism of errors and abuses and bring it back to its authentic ideals. In other words, Jesus was perceived as starting a reform movement within Judaism itself.13

Jesus was not however a religious "lone ranger." As we have seen above, he called others to join him as a group in his mission for the Kingdom of God, and taught and trained them for this purpose. In this sense, whoever wanted to follow Jesus, to "convert" to him, necessarily had to join a new movement, a new group, a new community, albeit as yet not separate from and opposed to Israel. Conversion to Jesus was not simply an internal, spiritual experience, a response to his call, but required following him, physically, and joining the community of his disciples.

In this connection, it may be useful to reflect briefly on the nature of Saul's (later known as Paul) so‑called "conversion." He was certainly one of the most celebrated converts to Jesus' movement and certainly the most influential one. Without his missionary labors and his many letters, Christianity as we know it would not have taken place. Yet we must be careful not to talk about his conversion as a rejection of his former religion, namely, Judaism and joining a new religion called Christianity, as the word “conversion” is popularly used today, when we say that so‑and‑so is a "convert" from Judaism or from a Christian denomination to the Catholic Church. Paul was and continued to be a religious Jew until the end, and extremely proud of his religious heritage, even though he was deeply pained to see that some of his fellow Jews did not accept Jesus. Paul's so‑called conversion was not joining a new “religion” but rather a change of brands of Judaism switching from Pharisaic to Christian Judaism. It was an acceptance of a “call” from Jesus to proclaim that the Kingdom of God, which had been addressed to the Jews, was now extended to the Gentiles as well. In other words, in his conversion Paul was not called to join a new religion but commissioned to proclaim that the “God of the Jews” is also the “God of the Gentiles.”14

However, as the absolute novelty of Jesus' message about the Kingdom of God dawned more fully on his disciples, and as the opposition to the new reform group on the part of some officials of Judaism gathered force and became more intense (Paul's persecution of the Christians was part of this opposition), the identity of Jesus' community as a separate social and religious entity grew more distinct. Indeed, at Antioch in Syria, the followers of Jesus were given the name of "Christians" (Acts 11: 26). This process of sociological and theological self‑definition was accelerated by the fact that Jesus' followers were expelled out of the synagogue, that certain practices functioned for them as entrance requirements and initiation rites (e.g., baptism in the name of Jesus, or in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit), that some essential requirements of Judaism were abandoned (e.g., circumcision).

Above all, the political events surrounding the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and the subsequent dispersion of the Jews from Palestine contributed mightily to the emergence of the Jesus movement a separate "Way" (Acts 9: 2) and eventually a "religion." This process of separation from the Jewish matrix and emergence into a distinct religion reached its apogee when Christianity was first accepted as a religio licita under Constantine and subsequently as the official religion of the Roman empire under Theodosius. From then on, the story of Christianity's extremely rapid, massive, and nothing short of miraculous expansion throughout the Roman empire, not least by means of "mission," is too well known to need retelling here. Henceforward, conversion meant abandoning one religion and joining Christianity as another religion.15

To gain a better understanding of conversion I will place it in the wider context of past missionary endeavors. I will make use of the works of two noted missiologists, a Catholic and a Protestant, Anthony Gittins and Wilbert Shenk.

Anthony Gittins, in his brief but illuminating study on conversion, speaks of it as a “complex and multifaceted” process. In a sense, it may be described as a “religious experience” (1997: 87-89).” But as Gittins points out, for many peoples, especially the less technologically advanced ones, "religion is inextricable from life, embedded within its fabric. ‘Religious’ experiences are thus not entirely or always separable from what is conventionally labeled 'economic' or 'political' or 'social' activity (1997: 87).” Therefore, conversion must be seen in the total context of the people to be converted. In this way, it is seen less as a sudden, dramatic event that happens to an individual, a breaking off from the past, though it is certainly that. It is much more, as Gittins notes, "a process rather than an event, part of life's unfolding (88)."

But being a process does not mean that conversion is not or must not be radical. However, Gittins again notes, "radical is not necessarily dramatic; conversion occurs through continuity as well as by discontinuity with earlier life. Radical disjunction certainly marks the lives of some individuals, particularly men, but does not necessarily characterize all communities, or many women .... many women's experience is that lives may be lived authentically through commitment to daily routine, rather than by blazing new trails like explorers or pioneers (88-89).

Finally, because conversion takes place within the total context of a person's life, it is necessarily related to the community or the culture to which she or he belongs. Consequently, “mass conversion” should not be belittled or dismissed out of hand because of the contemporary emphasis on individual choice as the only truly free choice: “People in social groups frequently act precisely as a group, and the exercise of individual choice is subsumed into the group choice, as discerned or decided by appropriate authority”(88). Again, Gittins’ points out, “the conversion process represents the ultimate transformation of the community (and its members) in Christ. Missioners, especially, must discern the 'seeds of the Word' or 'gospel values,' or simply the presence of God, among people long before the arrival of Christian ministers” (89). Hence, the converts should not be detached from the community, both the old community from which they come, and the new community to which they are now joined, because “the support of a community can legitimately endorse an individual's conversion and offer positive and negative sanctions to help it Continue over time” (89).

Several points made by Gittins about conversion are confirmed by the history of mission. First of all, Gittins' warning against separating religious conversion from its social, economic and political contexts is well taken. Only a very small number of the total of conversions that have taken place in mission fields took the form of a dramatic volte‑face, à la Paul or Augustine, or of an intellectual discovery à la Newman or Dulles. Rather, the majority of them occurred because of tribal membership (e.g., in Taiwan, the highlands of Vietnam, and many other countries in Africa and Asia, where mass baptisms by legendary missionaries are still recalled with admiration and nostalgia); or familial connections (e.g., getting married to a Christian); or educational contacts (e.g., going to a Christian school); and of course, through infant baptism (which forms the overwhelming majority of cases). These modes of conversion do not differ substantially from those that were operative in the first five centuries of Christianity, both before and after the so‑called Edict of Milan in 313.16 These conversions, though not purely religious at first and dramatic, are not necessarily less radical, especially as times go on and the individual is assisted in his or her faith growth in and by the community.

Secondly, Gittins' remark about group conversion is also to the point. One of the ironies of mission history is that whereas Western missionaries, especially of the evangelical tradition, emphasized the necessity of a “change of heart” and “rebirth” of each individual in the process of conversion, the great majority of conversions occurred in group, e.g., as the result of the conversion of the head of the tribe (who might have found conversion a politically and economically expedient act). As Wilbert Shenk notes, “converts were drawn almost entirely from cultures in which the decision‑making is communal. Personhood is defined in relation to one's group: ‘I belong, therefore I am’.... The evangelical missionary message was directed to the individual, but that message was received through the eyes and ears that responded corporately, by a community that felt itself besieged” (1999: 87).

Wilbert Shenk provides an additional perspective on conversion in the wider context of mission. Canvassing the recent history of mission in Africa and Asia, he describes the context in which conversions occurred. He begins by noting that the world has become a world system, that is, "it has become increasingly interdependent through a series of subsystems: communications, financial, educational, political, religious, technological. At the heart of this system is a world economy held together by technology, which enables it to react to stimuli with great speed (1999: 87). Religion, too, is now understood as a system, that is, as Clifford Geertz describes it, a “(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long‑lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (1999: 87; quote comes from Geertz 1973: 90).

In light of this view of the world and religion as complex and interlocking systems, and from the history of mission, Shenk derives five postulates with regard to conversion. They may be summarized as follows: (1) As long as a group's world system and religions provide satisfactory answers to its various problems, there is little chance for large‑scale conversion; conversely, large‑scale conversion will likely occur only if the group's world system and religions suffer a crisis. (2) The extent to which a world system and religions control the group determines the degree of success of a religion brought in from the outside in converting the members of the group, (3) In countries that have been colonized, there has been a coercive dimension in conversion, often overt, but real nonetheless, in so far as becoming a Christian in a colony was perceived as ensuring one's social and economic well‑being; conversely, refusing to become a Christian could be seen as a patriotic act against colonialism. (4) Modernization and Westernization that missionaries brought with them were perceived as threats by traditional cultures. Hence, the Christian message, which could not be and was not separated from modernization and Westernization, was perceived to create social fragmentation. Consequently, conversion was increasingly confined to the "spiritual" realm. (5) Conversion occurs for a multiplicity of reasons and motives, some of which are reprehensible, while others can be used as bridges to build a more mature faith (1999: 87-91).

As confirmation of these postulates Shenk highlights two significant facts of mission history: the vast majority of all conversions to Christianity have taken place (1) among small‑scale ethnic, usually agrarian/subsistence societies, where there is no differentiation between religion and culture, not from the adherents of other world religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam and (2) from the poor, those who are marginalized and oppressed by a powerful majority society, such as the Harijans in India.

The foregoing observations are not intended to belittle the importance of Christian conversion as a personal “turning” to Jesus and taking up his mission. Rather they remind us that conversion is much more than renouncing one's former religion and joining another religion. Furthermore, the history of mission offers us useful insights into the nature and dynamics of conversion which, though a profoundly personal act in its intention, must be placed in the larger socio‑political, economic and cultural context to be fully understood, especially in the work of evangelization. Let us now examine how these insights into conversion will play out in the future of mission, especially in Asia.

CONVERSION AND THE FUTURE OF MISSION

In concluding his monumental study on mission David Bosch reflects on “Whither Mission?” and ends with these words: “... Mission is, quite simply, the participation of Christians in the liberating mission of Jesus .... wagering on a future that verifiable experience seems to belie. It is the good news of God's love, incarnated in the witness of a community, for the sake of the world” (Bosch, 519). On his part, Wilbert Shenk, speaking of “the Future of Mission,” suggests that any prognostication must use a twofold approach: “reflection on God's action in history, and reading with discrimination the signs of the times” (Schenk, 186).

God's action in history, I have argued above, is the establishment of his kingly rule on Israel and the world, which is referred to as the Kingdom of God. God did this supremely through the incarnation, the cross, the resurrection, the ascension, the Pentecost, and the Parousia [Bosch refers to these six salvific events as the “faces of the church-in-mission” (1991:512)]. While these divine actions remain the theological constants, the "signs of the times" are by their very nature changeable and ever shifting. However difficult the reading of such signs is, it is essential for the future of mission. In the 1960s, the signs were the shout "Missionary, go home!" from Asia and the call for a moratorium on Western missionary movement in Africa. Perhaps those signs of the times should be heeded since the church's missionary activities were at the time too enmeshed with Western colonialism and too preoccupied with self‑preservation and self‑aggrandizement. Some thirty years later mission and missiology have experienced a significant revival, though in ways not anticipated or perhaps even desired by most missionaries of the past.17 For one thing, the church has been decentered; in its stead the Kingdom of God is given pride of place as the goal of mission, because the mission of the church is nothing more than the continuation of the missio Dei in Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Mission is, in the words of David Bosch quoted above, "quite simply, the participation of Christians in the liberating mission of Jesus." Instead of being defined by the church, mission now determines the identity and tasks of the church. Instead of viewing mission as something done by the "sending church" for the "receiving church," the church now is understood as missionary by its very nature, and therefore mission is incumbent upon every Christian. Furthermore, it is now maintained that mission is not only something that Christians carry out for the benefit of the so‑called "pagans," but also something that the followers of other religions do for the benefit of the Christians, so that the evangelizers become the evangelized and the evangelized become the evangelizers. The missio ad gentes becomes a missio inter gentes. This is so because the Divine Spirit is present and active in these cultures and religions and infuses them with the "values of the Kingdoin."18 Finally, the proclamation of the Good News, which was considered as the foremost activity of the church's mission, is now placed within a whole gamut of other, equally indispensable activities of the multi‑faceted ministry of the church: witness, worship, liberation, interreligious dialogue, inculturation, etc.

In this new theology of mission, what place does conversion occupy? Certainly, not the place of supreme honor assigned to it by the old theology of mission, namely, as the very goal of mission. As everything else, conversion is now made to serve the Kingdom of God. Mission is not undertaken in the anxious fear that without baptism and incorporation into the church, pagans would be condemned to hell (mission as “soul‑saving”). The possibility of salvation outside the visible confines of the church is no longer in doubt .19 Nor is "church‑planting" rejected; rather it is seen only as a part of the church's mission and is undertaken not in order to promote church extension but for the sake of the Kingdom of God.20

Here it may be useful to take note of Pope John Paul II's rejection of some missionaries' practice of remaining silent about the call to conversion and of their separation of conversion from baptism. With regard to the first, the Pope says: “Nowadays the call to conversion which missionaries address to non‑Christians is put into question or passed over in silence. It is seen as an act of 'proselytizing'; it is claimed that it is enough to help people to become more human or more faithful to justice, freedom, peace and solidarity” (RM, 46). There is no doubt that conversion in the sense of turning toward Christ is the irreplaceable goal of Christian mission, and silence about it is not only unfaithful to the Christian message but also disingenuous. In this sense, works for justice and peace do not exhaust the mission of the church.

Not every silence about the call to conversion, however, is reprehensible, and to understand the Pope's statement correctly, the following distinctions seem to be necessary. (1) If the call to conversion takes the form of “proselytizing” understood as any kind of manipulation of non‑Christians to convert, by inducement  or by threat (the so‑called "rice Christians"), then the Pope himself would condemn such an evangelizing strategy, since it infringes upon the convert's freedom of choice. (2) If the silence about the call to conversion is motivated by the concern that conversion has often been, especially in colonized countries, connected with psychological, most often covert but nonetheless real, coercion (see Wilbert Schenk's third postulate), then it is more than justified. (3) If it is claimed that “promoting and witnessing to the values of the reign of God may not be treated as though it were merely a means to achieve the end of building up the church; this work can be just as authentically missionary as building a church or preparing people for the sacraments” (Dorr, 198), then such a claim is theologically valid.

If certain missionaries have been reticent about the call to conversion, it is perhaps because they see that conversion, which often is understood as renouncing one religion and joining the Christian Church, has been made the be‑all and end‑all of mission. This brings us to the Pope's second rejection, namely, that of the separation between conversion and baptism: “... not a few people, precisely in those areas involved in the mission ad gentes, tend to separate conversion to Christ from Baptism, regarding Baptism as unnecessary” (RM, 47). Again, it must be acknowledged that Christian Tradition has consistently affirmed an intimate link between conversion and baptism. However, if the separation of conversion from baptism is motivated by the concern that the number of conversions has been used as the yardstick to measure the success of mission, and that baptism has been administered without adequate spiritual preparation, then it is a salutary warning to missionaries that the temptation to make the church the center of mission is hard to resist.

Moreover, there is another reason why the call to conversion as the invitation to join the Church has not been sounded in recent times, and that is, as far as Asia is concerned, the prospect of mass conversion to Christianity is extremely unlikely. The reason lies in Wilbert Schenk's first postulate mentioned above and is borne out by the fact that there have been few converts to Christianity from Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. The same point has also been made by Aloysius Pieris who argues that Asian religions, which have penetrated deeply into the Asian soil, cannot be dislodged and replaced by Christianity. In other words, for most Asians, their religions do provide satisfactory answers to their existential problems, answers that Christianity cannot hope to improve upon, at least by theoretical arguments.21 Missionaries in Asia must calmly and soberly, face the fact that Christianity will remain forever a minority religion, despite Pope John Paul II's urgent appeal to direct the mission ad gentes to Asia in particular.22Moreover, this fact is not limited to Asia; rather, as Wilbert Schenk has noted, “the church of the future will be a minority church in most parts of the world” (Schenk, 188).

This minority status of the church is not however something to be lamented over, nor should it be cause for missionary pessimism. Again, as Schenk suggests, "The prospect of a church stripped of the accouterments of privileges and power and committed to servanthood ‘in the power of the Spirit’ promises a real gain" (Schenk, 189). But such a promise can be fulfilled only if conversion is taken seriously in its twofold aspect of “turning” to Jesus as Lord and taking up his mission for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Conversion as joining the Christian Church is still a desirable outcome of mission, but it is made secondary to the turning to Jesus and taking up his mission.23

To better understand the role of conversion in mission, it would be helpful at this point to consider conversion in its psychological and anthropological aspects. Such a detailed study is of course beyond the purview of this essay.24 For our purpose suffice it to point out that if we only consider conversion in the strict sense, namely, the change of an individual from one religion to another, which mission ad gentes seeks,25 and if we take into account the six stages of conversion as outlined by developmental psychology, namely, crisis, quest, encounter, interaction, commitment, and growth,26 it would seem proper, within the new theology of mission centered on the Kingdom of God, to focus more on these six elements of conversion than on the individual's eventual act of joining the church through baptism or lack of it. Another way of explaining the role of conversion is to say that of the three components of religious conversion, namely, “1) a change in denominational affiliation or status; 2) a movement back or to God through personal introspection or outward encounter; 3) a sense in which a person solves or resolves” (Gillespie, 63), a religious identity crisis which integrates the personality and informs one's purpose, the focus should be placed on the last two components rather than on the first.

The reason for this shift of emphasis is that given the little likelihood of many conversions to Christianity in Asia in the future in terms of receiving baptism and joining the church, the church's mission must focus on witnessing to the "kingdom values" by helping others cope with their personal crisis. This crisis may be caused by factors other than religious, such as material poverty, physical illness, psychological loneliness, political oppression, loss of loved ones, break‑up of relationships, etc. The purpose is not to exploit these vulnerable moments in a person's life and manipulate them into opportunities for evangelism and conversion. Rather, this work is part of the church's larger task of dialoguing with the local cultures (inculturation), with the poor (liberation) and the indigenous religions (interreligious dialogue).27 Through this triple dialogue not only individuals but also (and more importantly for Asia, since individual conversions will not be numerous) the cultural, political, social, and economic structures will be converted (Pope Paul VI's concept of "evangelization of culture"), that is, suffused with the gospel values of justice, peace, solidarity, reconciliation, harmony, forgiveness, sharing, and love.

Furthermore, in this triple dialogue, not only the so‑called pagans and the cultures are converted but the "converters" as well.  The evangelizers become the evangelized. Mission is never a monologue by the missionaries proclaiming the good news to those who have to listen to it; rather, it is a two‑way movement in which, as in any effective communication, the sender becomes the receiver and the receiver becomes the sender in alternation. In this way, conversion is no longer exclusively leaving one religion to join another, but learning whatever is good from another religion so as to be a better follower of one's own religion. Conversion does not always take the form of tradition transition (leaving one religion for another) but also that of "institutional transition," "affiliation," and "intensification," as explained above.

Conversion then can mean, in its Latin etymology, "turning with" rather than simply towardsomething else. Christians and non‑Christians can turn together, with one another, toward not a particular religious organization or church but toward the Kingdom of God, and they can and must help each other in doing so. Just as in ecumenism, the model of “returning” of the so‑called “separated brethren” to the Catholic Church is no longer adopted as the goal of church unity, so in mission in the future, especially in Asia where religious pluralism is the fact of life, conversion is not sought as the joining of the Christian Church by, e.g., ex‑Buddhists or ex‑Hindus or ex-­Muslims (though that may happen from time to time, just as the other way round is also possible) but as the “turning” of all humans, together and with reciprocal assistance and encouragement, toward Christ that is, to the way of life and the values that he embodied in his own person, and the "taking up of his mission" in the service of the Kingdom of God.

 

NOTES

1. For an English translation of Ecclesia in America, see John Paul II 1999.

2. Ecclesia in America begins with the theme of encountering Christ in general (Chapter I) and in America in particular (Chapter II). It then discusses “the path of conversion” (Chapter III), “the path to communion” (Chapter IV), and “the path to solidarity” (Chapter V). Note the change of prepositions from “of” to “to” in the second and third paths. The Exhortation ends with a discussion of the church's mission of new evangelization in America.

3. This order is made clear by the Pope: “Conversion leads to fraternal communion, because it enables us to understand Christ is the head of the Church, his Mystical Body; it urges solidarity, because it makes us aware that whatever we do for others, especially the poorest, we do for Christ himself” (no. 26).

4. These two aspects of the church's mission form what David Bosch calls the "medieval Roman Catholic missionary paradigm." See Bosch 1991: 214. He refers to them as the "individualization" and"ecclesiasticization" of salvation, the former as the result of Augustine's doctrine of the total corruption of humanity in his debate with Pelagius, and the second as the result of his doctrine of the centrality of the institutional church in his debate with the Donatists.

5. Fuellenbach 2000: 217 puts it tersely: "The mission of the Church must be seen and understood from this perspective: totally in the service of God's Kingdom designed for the transformation of the whole of creation." He also makes it clear that the church is not identical with the Kingdom of God; rather it is the sign of and instrument for the Kingdom. He describes well one of the temptations of the church: "One of the temptations for the Church in history is to claim the Kingdom for herself, to take Over the management of the Kingdom, and even go so far as to present as the realized Kingdom of God vis‑a‑vis the world" (ibid., 79).

6. This view of mission is elaborated in detail in Phan 2002, forthcoming.

7. For the biblical notion of “conversion,” see Gaventa 1992: 1131‑1133; idem., 1986; and Holiday 1958.

8. See Meier 1994: 452: “... the kingdom of God is not primarily a state or place but rather the entire dynamic event of God coming in power to rule his people Israel in the end time. It is a tensive symbol, a multi-faceted reality, a whole mythic Story in miniature that cannot be adequately grasped in a single formula or definition. This is why Jesus can speak of kingdom as both imminent and yet present.”

9. For a historical reconstruction of Jesus, see the work of John Meier already cited above, in addition to volume 1: The Roots of the Problem and the Person (1991), volume 3: Companions and Competitors (2001), and the projected fourth volume: The Enigmas Jesus Posed and Was.

10. Interestingly, one of the important contemporary studies on religious conversion is entitled "Turning." See Griffin: 1980. She sees "turning" as a process composed of four stages: desire or longing, dialectic or argumentative, struggle or crisis, and surrender. For helpful studies on conversion, see Stephen Happel and James J. Walter 1986 and Conn 1986; and 1983.

11. For studies on discipleship see Weder 1992: 207‑10, and the helpful bibliography cited therein. John Meier summarizes discipleship as (1) the result of Jesus' initiative in calling; (2) leaving one's home and following‑Jesus physically; (3) risking danger and hostility (i.e., losing one's life, denying oneself and taking up one's cross and facing hostility from one's family). See Meier, 47‑73.

12. For a theology of the church as a community of disciples, see Dulles 1982.

13. As is well known, the relationship between Judaism and Christianity has been the subject of much controversy, and the literature is immense. A very helpful introduction is Boys 2000.

14. On Paul and his conversion, see the helpful essay by Betz 1992: 186-201, with an extensive bibliography. It is to be noted that even Paul, after his "conversion," had to join a community of Christians through baptism namely, that of the Gentile Church in Damascus. Indeed, it was from this community that he learned that righteousness came not from the Torah (as he had believed) but from faith in Jesus, whom he now confessed as “Lord” and “Son of God.”

15. For a history of the spread of Christianity in the first centuries, see Frend 1984 and McMullen 1984. For a brief presentation of the evolution front the Jesus movement to the institutional church, see Kee 1993: 47-63.

16. As Ramsay McMullen points out in his study of Christian conversions in A.D. 100‑400, there were "nonreligious factors" in these conversions, of which church leaders were quite well aware. See hisChristianizing the Roman Empire A.D. 100‑400, chapter VI "Nonreligious Factors in Conversion," 52‑58. McMullen summarizes: “Emperors or ecclesiastical officers controlling the material benefits waved them in front of non‑Christians obviously in the hope of changing their allegiance, or they handed out money and food (and advertised the fact) at the instant of change, or threatened to take money or food away from the already converted if they would not abide by their allegiance” (pp. 114‑15). Of course, McMullen does not ignore cases of conversion through intellectual demonstration (pp. 68‑73).

17. Donal Dorr describes the older theology of mission, which was pre-dominant from 1850 to1960, as "the crusader model" or "the commando model" of mission. Its main image of mission is “sending out” missionaries. The alternative model of mission uses two comple-mentary images of "gathering in" and "solidarity." See Dorr 2000: 186-92.

18. See Paul John Paul II's exceedingly important statement on the presence of the Holy Spirit not only in individuals but also in religions and cultures as such in his 1990 encyclical on mission Redemptoris Missio [RA41, 28: "The Spirit's presence and activity affect not only individuals but also society and history, peoples, cultures and religions. Indeed, the Spirit is at the origin of the noble ideals and undertakings which benefit humanity on its journey through history." For an English translation ofRM, see Redemption and Dialogue: Reading Redemptoris Missio and Proclamation, ed. William Burrows (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993) 5‑55.

19. On Vatican II's teaching on the possibility of salvation outside the visible confines of the church, though not without some connection with it see Lumen Gentium, 16.

20. Donal Dorr makes helpful distinctions between two kinds of missionaries, those engaged primarily in the building up of the church both as a community and in its institutional aspects and those primarily engaged in the promotion of "kingdom values" such as health care, education, human rights, ecology, and so on. The second kind of activities is no less mission than the first. See Dorr,193‑20.

21. Pieris 1988a: 54-5. He distinguishes between "cosmic" [formerly called "animist"] and "metacosmic" religiousness. Cosmic religiousness is an open‑ended spirituality which is oriented toward its expression in metacosmic religiousness. The metacosmic religiousness is embodied in world religions, and takes two forms: "agapeic" (such as Christianity) and "gnostic" such as Hinduism and Buddhism). Pieris acknowledges that Christianity still does have a chance of mass conversion in areas where cosmic religiousness remains intact such as some tribal societies of India and Southeast Asia (as it had in the Philippines). See also Pieris 1898b and 1996.

22. See RM, 37 (a): “Particularly in Asia, toward which the Church's mission ad gentes ought to be chiefly directed, Christians are a small minority…” The Pope also says that he is seeing a “new and promising horizon” evangelization being fulfilled in Asia in his Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Asia, 9.For an English translation of Ecclesia in Asia, see Origins 29/23 (1999) 3 58‑84.

23. For a very helpful study of the role of conversion in Roman Catholic theology of mission up to Vatican II, see Hoffman 1968: 1‑20, he recommends dialogue as the way of mission and writes: "But if at the end of the dialogue, non‑Christians wish to retain their religion, Catholics must not only give in gracefully but even, further, let them know that they would sincerely like them to be better followers of their chosen religion and leave all matters to Almighty God" (ibid., 19).

24. For a brief study, see Rambo 1990: 228-30 with a useful bibliography and Tippett 1977: 203-21.

25. This type of conversion is called "tradition transition" (leaving one religion for another, e.g., Buddhism for Christianity) as distinct from “institutional transition” (leaving one community for another within the same religious system, e.g., Roman Catholicism for Lutheranism); “affiliation” (movement from no commitment to a nominal or strong commitment); and “intensification” (revitalization of the commitment to a religious body). See Rambo, 228 and Gillespie 1991: 14‑15.

26. See Rambo, 229‑30. I am modifying somewhat Rambo's categories. Persons undergoing conversion generally go through the following six stages: (1) In the stage of crisis they experience dissatisfaction with their lives which they see as inauthentic and feel that change is demanded; (2) In the stage of quest they seek new ways of thinking, feeling, and acting; (3) In the stage ofencounter they meet a person or group whose message seems to answer their needs; (4) Ininteraction they see that their needs are met by this person or group: needs for an intellectual system of meaning, for an emotional sense of belonging, for new modes of acting, and for a leader; (5) In commitment they decide to break with their past and accept the new way of life, often through some ritual; (6) In growth they consider their new life as a pilgrimage and is supported by the community which they have joined.

27. On this triple dialogue, see the documents issued by the plenary assemblies and various offices of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences. See Rosales and C. G. Arevalo 1992 and Eilers 1997.
 

REFERENCES

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* Talk given at the East Asian Pastoral Institute, Manila, November 2001.
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