Reconstructing Mission: Towards Healing and Reconciling Communities

The Revd Dr Carlos Emilio Ham was born in Cuba. He has been a pastor of the Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Cuba for more than 25 years and was its General Secretary for eight years (1993-2001). He is currently serving as the World Council of Churches’ executive for Spirituality, Latin America and the Caribbean.

This is a shortened version of his keynote address.

What do we mean by God’s mission?

Our context is of decreasing attendances and church buildings for sale in the Global North, and full, lively churches in the South and East. Big shopping malls are the new cathedrals where people go to worship Mammon.

We should not of course equate God’s mission with filling our churches. Roman Catholic priest Alfred Loisy said, ‘Jesus came preaching the Kingdom and what arrived was the church!’ The Swedish church has said that, ‘The church does not exist for its own sake, but as a community sent by God into the world with the mission of proclaiming by word and deed the gospel of God’s liberating love in Jesus Christ’.

We are at risk of separating words and deeds. The World Council of Churches’ Study Document in 2000 defined mission as ‘…sharing the good news of the gospel by word, deed, prayer and worship, everyday witness of Christian life, teaching, and communion with God, other people and creation’. They added that evangelism is part of this.

Mission in solidarity with the poor and oppressed

People in Latin America and many other places are ‘poor and believing’. We need to explain the faith in terms of joy, faithfulness, justice and solidarity. Desmond Tutu said, ‘When life is rough, you really understand the meaning of the gospel.’

Dom Helder Camara of Brazil noted, ‘When I feed the poor I am called a saint, but when I ask why the poor are poor they call me a communist’. We need to deconstruct the present mission, which is complicit with ‘neo-liberal globalisation’, poverty and degradation of the environment, in order to reconstruct God’s mission, asking why people are poor, and other tough questions.

Reconstructing mission

‘Transforming’ or ‘reconstructing’ mission can be understood in two senses – a mission which transforms/ reconstructs the world, or a mission that is itself being transformed/reconstructed. We need to develop an alternative world which is a new Creation in Christ where all will live in peace.

The World Council of Churches at Harare in 1998 and Porto Alegre in 2006 developed the idea of AGAPE – Alternative Globalisation Addressing Peoples and Earth. They published a booklet in 2006 called ‘An Economy of Life’. God’s gracious economy offers and sustains abundance for the whole earth community, provided we promote sharing, solidarity, dignity of persons, and love and care for creation. The marks of God’s economy are God’s justice and preferential option for the poor.

Reconstructing Mission as ‘common witness’

Denominationalism and fundamentalism are increasing; we need to announce the gospel in collaboration and not competition. We are creating a false division between ecumenical churches and evangelical churches, and should remember that the ecumenical movement started off in the missionary movement, in the 1910 Edinburgh Conference on World Mission and Evangelism. We are preparing to celebrate the centenary of this in 2010.

Reconstructing Mission in Secular and Post-modern contexts

Our world is no longer driven by Christian spirituality, but by materialism and consumerism. How can we share the good news with the rich? Many of them are not happy and feel that their lives have lost meaning. In UK there is a 20% decrease in church attendance, but a 60% increase in spirituality. How do we respond to this challenge and what are the core gospel values we need to share, such as community sharing, solidarity, love, hope, reconciliation and healing?

Despite the rise of ‘new religious movements’ and even ‘Satanic’ groups, church buildings in USA and Europe were packed after 9/11, and many pilgrims went to the Vatican at the time of Pope John Paul’s death. The gospel of Jesus Christ is for comforting but at the same time confronting. Simply accusing our culture of being ‘gospel-unfriendly’ will not do. What is new in modernity/post-modernity is that everything is up for negotiation.

In present European culture private lives are sacredly ‘respected’, but we need to ask whether Christian faith is a private affair –if so what is the point in proclaiming it publicly.

Reconstructing Mission in increasingly multi-cultural and multi-religious contexts.

We are called to accept the challenges of living in a mixture of different cultures and to proclaim the gospel in dialogue with people of other faiths. In Western Europe we are challenged and inspired by immigrant churches with their fresh style of being church and of pursuing mission and evangelism, often in hostile circumstances. We need to create partnership and dialogue with them and consider immigrants not as beggars but as victims of an unjust world order.

We proclaim ‘good news’ in a situation of ‘bad news’ – militarism, exclusion, injustice, terrorism, violence and neo-liberal globalisation that threaten the web of life.

According to Moltmann, the first stage of mission was the creation of an empire, the second was the spread of churches and now we are in a stage of evangelism through dialogue and action. He reminds us, ‘Christ came to bring life, not Christianity.’

Statements from the Mission Conferences in Texas in 1989 and Brazil in 1996 said ‘We cannot point to any other way of salvation than Jesus Christ; at the same time we cannot set limits to the saving power of God’. We have not yet resolved the tension between these two statements. Encounter is witness and we should approach people of other faiths with the same spirit of love, sharing and communication which Jesus showed. Our attitude should be one of respect and acceptance.

The Oikotree movement is an ecumenical project which tries to identify and live out spiritualities which put justice at the heart of faith. A workshop inspired by this and sponsored by the World Council of Churches and others in Cuba last May said that ‘justice movements require a new solidarity among religious groups and all people of conscience (secular and religious) and thus we affirm and honour the full multiplicity of spiritualities that enliven such movements’.

Reconstructing Mission towards Reconciling and Healing Communities.

We live in a worldwide culture of violence. That is why the World Council of Churches launched the Decade to Overcome Violence and chose the theme of healing and reconciliation for the 2005 Athens mission conference. We need to promote a culture of peace and non-violence with a strong prophetic voice. We are preparing for the ‘Harvest Festival’ of the ‘Decade to Overcome Violence’ at an International Ecumenical Peace Convocation at Kingston Jamaica in May 2011 with the theme ‘Glory to God and Peace on Earth’.

In 2 Corinthians 5: 19-20, St Paul speaks of a new creation in Christ – God reconciling the world to himself and appealing through us for people to be reconciled to God. This is the goal of our missionary endeavour. As Josjva Raja has written recently, ‘As new creation in Christ, people are invited to practise and implement their lives in a new relationship, a new covenant and a new way of life that will bring humanity together, close to God and to each other.’


Reconstructing mission provides the occasion to build ‘healing and reconciling communities’ in increasingly multi-religious and multicultural settings, to celebrate and share experiences of healing, compassion, forgiveness, hope, solidarity and reconciliation which are also happening in our world and are not always portrayed by the media. The media considers that ‘good news’ is ‘no news’, but as disciples of Christ we should be making good news relevant in transforming the lives of people today.

As Archbishop Tutu said, ‘Evil, injustice, oppression, all of those awful things are not going to have the last word. Goodness, laughter, joy, caring, compassion, the things that you do and you help others to do, those are going to prevail’. We don’t know what the future holds, but we do know Who holds the future.

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