Conversion was the theme for about 180 scholars of Christian mission from around the world as they gathered in Seoul, South Korea, for the 14th Assembly of the International Association for Mission Studies (IAMS), August 11-17.
It was the first time that the association had focused on the theme, the full title of the conference being ‘Conversions and Transformations: Missiological Approaches to Religious Change.’ This was striking, given that it was through conversion that Christianity grew to be the world’s most populous religion, a development catalyzed by mission initiatives from the Jesus movement’s earliest days to the present.
In introducing the conference theme, IAMS President Mika Vahakangas of Lund University in Sweden declared that the call to conversion is inherent in Christian mission, that conversion is both individual and social, and that spiritual, social and political conversion and transformation go hand in hand.
Plenary presentations addressed conversion from diverse standpoints. Christine Lienemann-Perrin, retired from the University of Basel in Switzerland, offered a historical review in her address, ‘Configurations and Prefigurations of Conversion in the History of World Christianity.’ She noted the permutations of conversion in the Christian movement’s parting from Judaism, the medieval church’s encounter with Islam, the rise of denominationalism in Western Christianity, and the interplay of change and continuity in the reception of Christianity in China and Africa.
On the basis of his fieldwork among a remote group in Papua New Guinea that converted to Christianity without any external stimulus of colonialism or modernity, anthropologist Joel Robbins of Cambridge University suggested that the answer his title question, ‘Can there be conversion without cultural change?’ is both that conversion inevitably prompts cultural change and that changes often reflect significant continuities as well. ‘People experience their Christian life as requiring a dialogue with culture,’ Robbins said.
Hyung Keun Paul Choi of Seoul Theological University discussed the decline of Christianity after explosive growth in South Korea and the strengths and weaknesses of Korea’s megachurches, which include the largest churches in the world, such as Yoida Full Gospel Church, which claims a membership of 800,000. He suggested that Lesslie Newbigen’s classic question, ‘Can the West be converted?’ should be applied to Korea as well. He called for an end to a mentality of Christendom in Korea and for the replacement of an ethos of ‘leaderdom’ with an ethos of servanthood.
Using the Letter of James in the New Testament as a lens with which to view mission amid today’s globalization, Elsa Tamez of the Latin American Biblical University in Costa Rica discussed James’s message with reference to three questions: ‘Can a poor, discriminated community be missionary in a dominating and imperial society? Can a discriminating community be missionary? Can a community that shares society’s values be missionary?’ She called the churches and Christian mission to radical discipleship.
As in most such conferences, much of the gathering’s five days was occupied by the presentation of papers, in this case about 130, by participants in a number of study groups: Biblical Studies and Mission; Children, Youth and Mission; Documentation, Archives, Bibliography and Oral History; Healing and Pneumatology; Interreligious Studies and Mission; Religious Freedom, Persecution and Mission; and Theology of Mission. At the end of the conference the group conveners shared in plenary various observations from the papers presented in their groups.
The two papers I presented two papers were: ‘Engaging Difference: A Crucial Criterion in Mission and Conversion,’ in the Theology of Mission group; and ‘Fools for Christ’s Sake: A Missional Theology of Persecution from a Perspective in Pakistan’ in the Religious Freedom group. I also convened an interest group to discuss a project to convene Muslim and Christian scholars to consult together about the relationship between Muslim da’wah and Christian mission.
Exposure trips alongside worship were the highlight of the Sunday, Aug. 14, of the conference, as conferees divided up in groups for various destinations: Megachurches in Seoul, in which I participated, quite amazed at the scale and mission outreachof Onnuri Community Church, Yoida Full Gospel Church, and SaRong Community Church; Small Communities for Special Ministries; the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea; Early Korean Christian Monuments; and Gyungbok Palace and the Ethnological Museum.
Founded in 1972, IAMS is the only international organization for mission scholarship. After initially meeting every two or three years, the association has settled into a pattern of meeting every four years. The 2012 assembly was held in Toronto, Canada, with the theme, ‘Migration, Human Dislocation and the Good News: Margins as the Center in Christian Mission.’ This year’s assembly was hosted by Presbyterian University and Theological Seminary in Seoul.
IAMS’ membership includes over 400 scholars and over 50 corporate members (universities, institutes and mission societies), though not all are active. It publishes the international journal Mission Studies through Brill, the Dutch publisher. The IAMS president for the 2016-20 quadrennium is Paul Kollman of the University of Notre Dame.
The attendance profile at the Seoul assembly was interesting. Europe was the most represented continent, with 62 attendees. The largest single group came from Britain, at 11, followed by Finland at 8, Netherlands at 6, then Germany and Sweden at 5 each. Other European countries represented were Croatia, Norway, Italy, Romania, France, Denmark, Switzerland, Poland, Czech Republic, and Vatican City.
North America had the next largest representation with one Canadian and 42 from the USA, making it the single largest national group, though a number of those from the USA were foreign-born. Thus 105 out of the approximately 180 attendees were from either Europe or North America.
Asia was the next largest grouping, at 36, with host South Korea having 15 attendees, followed by India at 7. Other Asian countries with attendees were Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Thailand, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Hong Kong.
Oceania had 15 attendees, including 9 from Australia, 3 from New Zealand, 2 from Fiji, and 1 from Papua New Guinea. Most surprising was the fact that there were only 5 attendees from Latin America – Argentina, Brazil and Colombia – making it the most under-represented continent in view of the long tradition of missiology in the region. The Middle East had 3 attendees, from Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey.
Given that the Anglican Communion is the world third largest Christian grouping, it was surprising how few Anglicans attended. Graham Kings of the Mission Theology in the Anglican Communion project attended, as did several British Anglicans, including Cathy Ross, outgoing general secretary of IAMS. There was an African Anglican, and I was the one missiologist from the Episcopal Church USA. We North American missiologists have a regional association, the American Society of Missiology (ASM), a very active group that meets annually in June.