2023.03.7-27 OCMS Research Visit

In front of the Radcliffe Camera, main building of Oxford University’s Bodleian library.

Report on Research Visit to

Oxford Centre for Mission Studies and other European Theological Institutions 

7-27 March 2023 

Introduction

A couple of years ago Kobe Reformed Theological Seminary (KRTS) requested me to teach the subject of Missiology from April 2023, as part of its theological students’ training for church ministry. Mission Japan, my main employer in collaboration with KRTS, approved a research opportunity to help me prepare for this new responsibility. This opportunity is part of the Guided Research Programme (GRP) at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies (OCMS), for which I was accepted. The GRP is a self-directed research programme, in which the research process is guided and supported by a tutor who can co-reflect on the acquired information and its interpretation.

My research via OCMS started in April 2022 and will continue until the end of March 2025. During this period, I am guided by an experienced mentor, Dr. Nelson Jennings, whom I meet monthly online. Dr. Jennings is a teacher of Mission Studies and has also previously worked in Japan as a missionary teacher for twelve years. Furthermore, I am required to visit OCMS at least twice (in person) during the three-year period. The first visit took place from 7-27 March 2023, about which I report here below.

One overall aim of the research I am involved in, is to better understand how missional theology is relevant in the context of Japan, where spirituality and culture are so intertwined that it poses unique challenges to Christianity. The Japanese context is part of the global reality of interreligious communication and intercultural encounters and needs to be understood in the wider scope of World Christianity. 

More than twenty years ago, as part of my basic theological training over the period of seven years at Stellenbosch University’s Faculty of Theology, I completed several modules in Missiology. Thereafter I also worked as project manager of the Southern African Partnership for Missional Churches. Furthermore, through ‘participatory observation’ as a missionary pastor within the Japanese context for the past 14 years, I have often thought and written about missiological church ministries here. However, there have been major shifts in the field of Missiology in the last two or three decades, and therefore it is necessary to thoroughly familiarize myself with such shifts, before/while attempting to teach students about such topics.

Background and Motivation 

Being a missionary in Japan, I have developed a sensitivity for intercultural communication and interaction. I am called to a bridge building role and identity between two radically different cultures and countries. South Africa is deemed as a post-Christendom context, whilst Japan has never experienced a Christendom era. I constantly feel the need to deepen my understanding of the historical dimensions of both contexts as well as the underlying theologies of mission that operate in both churches I am mainly involved in, i.e., the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa (DRC) and the Reformed Church in Japan (RCJ).

Since I started as full-time lecturer at KRTS in April 2016, my research, writing and teaching have been focused mainly on Pastoral Theology and Care as subfield/s of Practical Theology, from a Reformed perspective. The focus has been on the training of church leaders for pastoral ministries within the Japanese context, specifically within the Reformed Church in Japan. However, because of the 99% non-Christian context and the size of Japanese churches (among other factors), pastoral ministries inevitably imply a definitive and evident missional orientation. Consequently, my core field of research interest is now focusing on the nexus between pastoral theology and missiology. In line with this focus, I published an article in an academic journal – as a first output of this OCMS research – on the topic of spiritual maturity and how it relates to pastoral care practices of mission-minded pastoral caregivers.

Nature and Content of Visit to OCMS

Although the focus of this visit was the discussions and interactions, as well as the presentation of a seminar at OCMS, it also included visits to other seminaries. Eventually, the personal meeting of and fellowship with colleagues – planned and unforeseen – stimulated a lot of conversation and fresh insights on topics related to the field of mission studies. 

OCMS is situated in the city of Oxford, home of the 44 independent colleges of the University of Oxford, with students from more than 160 countries. There is a lot to learn in a place with such a profound history (922 years old). OCMS uses a historic church building as its base. OCMS’s specific mission – as an evangelical inter-church institution over the past 40 years – has been to equip and facilitate research from missionaries and researchers who come from different church backgrounds in the Global South (mainly South America, Africa, and large parts of Asia).

During this short visit I stayed mainly in two different lodgings in Oxford. One is called Commonwealth House and the other one Wycliffe Hall (Church of England Theological College), where alumni like N.T. Wright and Alister McGrath also taught. The experience of enjoying breakfast with scholars from 15-20 different countries (including Japan, Turkey, China, Brazil, Mexico, Germany, Poland) was stimulating. 

The director of the GRP at OCMS, Mark Oxbrow, visited almost 70 countries in his work with different mission organizations. It was a privilege to learn from him and from other diverse and experienced faculty members. The first week also included discussions with a Canadian missionary/researcher who lives in Japan and is completing his doctoral thesis about churches in the Tohoku region and their views and practices concerning evangelism in balance with social involvement. 

I had access to research materials in the OCMS library, which includes a special collection of missiology resources. Furthermore, I was able make use of any of the 26 Bodleian Libraries across Oxford, which holds more than 13 million library items. Interestingly, books cannot be borrowed, but must be read in the libraries. One of these libraries, very close to the OCMS building, was a Japanese library with English and Japanese resources, which was very helpful.  

The first Sunday I attended the worship service of an Afrikaans speaking church in central London. This is one of four congregations that was started by South African pastors from the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa many years ago. Rev. Rian Steyn baptized a child, which reminded me of my own baptism, administered by his (Rian’s) father in the small town of Humansdorp in South Africa, where we both grew up. The road to the church included passing by some famous sights in London, including Westminster Abbey, Metropolitan Tabernacle (a Baptist Church founded under Charles Spurgeon’s influence) and a statue of William Tyndale (English Protestant Reformer and Bible translator). 

The daily rhythm at OCMS included chapel worship services and prayer meetings, as well as community lunches every Wednesday, led by faculty members and staff. The prayer time focused on the work done by researchers and missionaries across the globe. Academic lectures – while I was in residence – included seminars of doctoral and post-doctoral students about Ethopian churches, Hinduism in Asia, as well as presentations from India and Puerto Rico. 

Considering my church-based experience within the RCJ, which included multiple involvements after natural disasters (since 2011), I have also become more interested in the topic of diaconal work. Thus, the research field between Diaconal and Mission Studies is also of particular interest to me and directed the content of my presentation at OCMS titled, Diaconal Church Initiatives and Social/Public Welfare in Postwar Japan: a Descriptive Overview. I published a separate academic article about this topic.

Another meaningful event which took place while I was at OCMS, was a book launch of a book titled Humble Confidence: A Model for Interfaith Apologetics, written by a Dutch missiologist (Benno van den Toren) and a Chinese missionary teacher (Kang-San Tan). Discussions included issues like Christianity as a foreign, white man’s religion and the colonial history of oppression. The presenters emphasized that apologetics should be dialogical, contextual, holistic, and embodied. Holistic apologetics through diaconial service (e.g., showing solidarity with refugees of other faiths) was also focused upon. In Europe, one of the biggest challenges churches faces, is not (only) people’s atheism but also their apathy towards religion. Church in Japan face similar challenges, albeit in a radically different context. 

Visit to Edinburgh

The second weekend during this research period included a short visit to Edinburgh, basically for discussions with three people from two different theological institutions. First, I visited New College, which is part of the Church of Scotland’s theological education. New College hosts the Edinburgh University’s Centre for the Study of World Christianity. There I met with its co-Director Alexander Chow. He shared about his work at the Centre, as well as from his own experiences in China and now in the UK as a Chinese Christian. New College also hosted the significant World Missionary Conference in 1910, which is viewed as the formal beginning of the modern Protestant Christian ecumenical movement (John Knox’s statue).

The second person I had discussions with, works at Edinburgh Theological Seminary (ETS). ETS is the hub for theological education of the Free Church of Scotland and it also has a Centre for Mission Studies. I met with the Centre’s director, Alistair Wilson, who himself worked as missionary teacher in South Africa (King William’s Town) for many years. We had fruitful discussions on the content of ETC’s syllabus for mission studies. In addition, I attended a Saturday theological course at ETS, aimed at general Christian believers. 

Another aspect that I became aware of afresh during my visit to Edinburgh, is the expressiveness of individuals and how strikingly this differs from places like Japan. While walking along the famous Royal Mile, I passed a man with poster in his hand that read ‘Jesus sucks, today, yesterday, tomorrow.’ Just around the corner from there I passed another man beside a church building (not far from John Knox’s statue), explaining the gospel story out loud to whoever has ears to hear amid the stream of thousands of people passing by. This simple example depicts the diverse, pluralistic Scottish context within which some churches are struggling to survive while others tell success stories about church planting in a so-called post-Christian society. 

For the second Sunday’s worship service, I was invited to Cornerstone Free Church (part of St Columbus church). This was a bilingual (Spanish and English) service with an impactful Biblical message, a strong liturgy in informal style, a warm and open atmosphere hosting a vibrant children’s ministry. The church was planted in 2014, soon ran out of seats, and its members are now planting two new other churches in Edinburgh. One Spanish-speaking elder from Chili is playing a vital role in terms of the Latino ministry to migrants (there is more than 30,000 Spanish speaking people in Edinburgh). This experience was a vivid reminder of the well-known slogan: ‘mission from anywhere to everywhere’, where God uses people from people from radically different culture groups to share their gifts to enrich each other as part of one Body of Christ.

This church’s Chilian elder is busy with doctoral studies under James Eglinton, which was the third person I met in Edinburgh and who invited me to the Sunday worship service, and to lunch with his family afterwards. James serves as elder at Cornerstone Free Church and works at New College, which trains ordinands for ministry in the Church of Scotland. He is specifically requested to give students exposure to Reformed theology. James is doing very impressive research on the well-known Dutch Calvinist theologian Herman Bavinck, and his less famous cousin, Johann H. Bavinck, who specialized in Missiology and Psychology and who worked for many years as a theological educator in Java.

Visit to Czech Republic and Germany

I was invited to do a guest lecture – during the last few days of this research period – at the Protestant Faculty of Theology at Charles University. The university is in Prague in Czech Republic, which has a Christian population of about 10 percent. The university was established in 1348 and has three separate but co-operating entities, namely, Protestant, Roman Catholic and Hussite. I received the invitation from a colleague who teaches World Christianity and who is part of the Evangelical church of the Czech Bretheren (Reformed and Lutheran). The topic of my lecture was Missional Diakonia: A Comparative Perspective between Christianity in South Africa and Japan

Lastly, I visited Prof. Johannes Eurich at Heidelberg University (1386) in Germany. Johannes is the director of the University’s Institute for Diaconal Studies. He is also chairperson of the International Society for the Research and Study of Diaconia and Christian Social Practice (ReDi), of which I am a member. It was very meaningful to learn from his work and experience and to reflect on diaconal work in Japan within a wider perspective.

Conclusion

During this visit to OCMS and other European institutions I learned about various dimensions of mission studies and from the practice of missional churches in multiple contexts. This opportunity widened the horizon of my research and teaching, to include more ecumenical insights, not limited to Reformed perspectives. It included discussion about themes like mission theology; missiological hermeneutics; multicultural ministries; fresh trends in Global Christianity; the church and community development; diaconal theology and practices etc. The experience stimulated me to discern missiological perspectives in all aspects of church ministry. 

The questions I am currently asking include the following:

•            Can pastoral theology be shaped by a missionary understanding of the church, so that pastoral care does not stop at building up believers, but also serves the emission of our missional calling? 

•            How can church leaders meaningfully integrate missional pastoral work, i.e. doing mission through pastoral care in a balanced way in Japan?

•            Can the context of Japan’s churches and the mission-minded pastoral theology developed in Japan, be fruitfully linked to, and inform other contexts (i.e., in the West)?

•            How can the connections between Pastoral Theology and Missiology be formulated constructively, while considering developments within wider theological disciplines such as Diakonia?

This visit, and the three-year long research program is primarily made financially possible by a generous scholarship from KRTS, as well as by my own research funds that I have built up (through publications). It is also supplemented by financial aid from Partners in Witness (DRC Free State) and a supportive friend. I am deeply grateful for everyone’s support. 

The content of this research and interactions will now find its way into the missiology curriculum at KRTS over the next few years. 

Psalm 117

Praise the Lord, all you nations;

extol him, all you peoples.

For great is his love toward us,

and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.

Praise the Lord.


FROM TOP LEFT TO BOTTOM RIGHT

  1. Students in the Bodleian library in the Radcliffe Camera building on Oxford University’s campus.
  2. Sunrise close to Christ Church (in Oxford).
  3. Commonwealth House breakfast.
  4. Worship service at Cornerstone Free Church.
  5. Edinburgh Theological Seminary and New College.
  6. Dr. James Eglinton and his family.
  7. With Dr. Alistair Wilson at Edinburgh Theological Seminary.
  8. With Prof. Johannes Eurich in Heidelberg.
  9. Book launch (Humble Confidence) at Oxford Centre for Mission Studies (OCMS).
  10. Venue of Edinburgh 1910 World Missionary Conference.
  11. OCMS church building.
  12. Discussions at OCMS with Dr. Mark Oxbrow and colleagues.
  13. Morning worship at OCMS.
  14. One of Oxford University’s 44 colleges.
  15. Japanese library on Oxford University campus.
  16. Cherry blossoms at Oxford University.
  17. With Dr. Pavol Bargar and some students at Charles University in Prague.
  18. City of Prague.
  19. Charles Bridge Crucifix in Prague.
  20. With Dr. Rian Steyn at SA Gemeente in London.

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