Christian Daily International interviewed Dr. Jay Mātenga, Māori theologian of missions practice and head of the World Evangelical Alliance’s Mission Commission, about his recently published annual “Leader’s Forecast: Reflections on the State of Global Missions.” The interview has been edited for length and clarity, and arranged into a three-part series touching on different topics.
The following is part one that speaks about the centrality of relationships in global missions, the influence of polarization and the emergence of a “plurality of theologies” - and what that means for the global Church today.
CDI: Dr. Mātenga, already during your studies, you focused on the importance of relationships and relational dynamics in missions. In ministry, you continued to highlight relationships and now in your latest Leader’s Forecast, the issue of relationships comes up repeatedly. Would you say this awareness of and focus on the centrality of relationships have something to do with your own cultural upbringing?
Jay Mātenga: Absolutely. I see along with my cultural background, my father's heritage of multiculture and indigenous culture in the South Pacific, that relationships are everything. Relationships define reality for us. Everything is interrelated. The interconnectivity of all things, physical and spiritual, are held together by relationships. So much so, that I believe in and started to develop a relational hermeneutic of Scripture that can better help us understand the purposes of God in the world today.
Relationships are everything. Relationships define reality for us. Everything is interrelated.
So many of my peers and even my teachers have discussed a missional hermeneutic of the Bible. We go to the Bible to read it missionally, and that's become very popular at All Nations Christian College. Christopher J. H. Wright was the principal when I was there, so I was thoroughly enveloped in his emerging ideas of the mission of God's people: a missional hermeneutic.
But for me coming from a different cultural background, I sit uncomfortably with that terminology because it evokes a certain industrial type of thinking. When we think mission, we think task, we think project, we think harnessing resources towards a given end, and that's not wrong. But it's just not the full picture. I think it is a rather western picture.
From the majority world, however, we see everything relationally. Almost the entire majority world would see themselves as collectivist peoples. And Scripture itself, in fact, is from that majority world background.
The industrial and individualist western frameworks of understanding reality are only some five hundred years old. So, we don't have to go back far in history to see the understanding of reality as inter-relational in all cultures. The individualist industrial type of framing is relatively recent.
Looking at Jeremiah 6:16, we could say that we should look where the ancient paths are to find our way forward in today’s very confusing and complex reality full of pluralities, which some describe as a poly-crisis. There's a saying amongst Māori, “ka mua, ka muri,” which means walking backwards into the future. We look to the past to understand how to move forward. And I think that's where that is coming from. The ancient way of discerning connections, discerning relationships between things and people, and finding a way to harmonize that.
Harmony isn't the absence of tension or the absence of opposition or the absence of what some would call conflict. Instead, harmony is the tuning of those things and holding them together in tension
We need to consider, however, that harmony isn't the absence of tension or the absence of opposition or the absence of what some would call conflict. Instead, harmony is the tuning of those things and holding them together in tension.
We realize that as we interact with each other, for example in marriage or when raising children, we shape one another and transform one another in the process. And I believe that principle can be scaled up to global relationships as well.
CDI: Speaking of relationships and tensions, you refer to the “liberal globalization project that failed to achieve peace through economic prosperity” and then you also refer to polarization and tribalism as a challenge. How has this influenced global missions?
Jay Mātenga: I think it has significantly affected the Christian realm as well. We don't exist outside of being influenced by what's happening around us. Every religious movement, every doctrinal response has always been a response to the wider cultural pressures. Denominations have been shaped by context; theology is shaped by context. Our current wrestling and the ripples of the changes that are happening within the wider evangelical world, albeit very diverse, is being affected by our context.
I will call it a Zeitgeist, a global spirit of the age we're in, that is wrestling and struggling for either retaining an identity or wanting to put forth and validate a new type of identity.
I will call it a Zeitgeist, a global spirit of the age we're in, that is wrestling and struggling for either retaining an identity or wanting to put forth and validate a new type of identity. We could frame it as identity politics, even within the Church.
I believe the Spirit of God is doing something in the world today that is just shaking things up. We no longer have that sense of stability, which we've had most of our lifetime in the absence of major global conflicts over the previous few decades.
But there is also tension rising in the Church. For probably the first time, the pluralities of theologies within the global Church have grown and matured to such a point that they're starting to express their independence from what could be dubbed the past decades’ euro-centric consensus: the western theological consensus out of Europe and North America.
Now we've got a lot of this emerging of identities. I believe we'll come through that to a place of harmony and acceptance. There will probably be new denominations, new expressions of the faith that emerge.
But I'm trying to warn people, particularly from the missional edge of church growth, not to be too worried about the way that the faith is expressed, so long as it remains biblically faithful and in conversation with the global Church, including the historic Church.
But I'm trying to warn people, particularly from the missional edge of church growth, not to be too worried about the way that the faith is expressed, so long as it remains biblically faithful and in conversation with the global Church, including the historic Church. Rather than disrupting or disassociating from what has been traditional orthodoxy, we're adding to it and we're expanding our understanding of who God is in Christ from our different cultural lenses.
Until we accept that we can coexist with differences and cease to simply reinforce our own dearly loved identities that are traditional to us, I believe irreconcilable conflict will continue to divide the Church. Therefore, we need to look ahead to a day when we can go beyond these tensions, where they are reintegrated. Then we will be able to see the unity of the body of Christ with fresh eyes.
Also read part 2 of the interview: Shifting paradigms: the Great Commission as a promise God will fulfill, not a task we need to achieve
Dr Jay Matenga is a Maori theologian of missions practice. He leads Missions Interlink NZ, the missionary alliance of Aotearoa New Zealand, from which he is seconded for half his time to lead the World Evangelical Alliance’s Mission Commission. Prior to his 2015 appointment with Missions Interlink, Jay served for 15 years as the Director of Pioneers and 5 years before that with WEC International, sending and caring for missionaries from New Zealand. His MA studies (All Nations Christian College) investigated relationships of power within missions structures and his doctoral research (Fuller Seminary) led to his development of an Industrial and Indigenous values spectrum as a way of understanding intercultural interactions, which can provide a pathway to maturity through transformative tensions.