Communication and Mission

by Carlos A. Valle

The Rev. Carlos A. Valle is General Secretary of the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC), 357 Kennington Lane, London SE11 5QY, England.

The following text was presented as part of a conference on World Mission and the Role of Korean Churches, held in Seoul, Korea.


In a post era – post-modern, post-industrial, post-ideological, post-confessional world, optimism arose among those involved in communication from the conviction that it was possible to reclaim the right people had to develop and sustain their own cultures. Today that optimism has disappeared.. In this new world, one of the most obvious facts is the growing concentration of media. Also many churches have taken paternalistic, critical and authoritarian positions. In contrast, the author discusses what is the New Testament concept of mission.

1 The notion that we are in a 'post' era - post-modern, post-industrial, post-ideological, post-confessional and many more - is one way of giving a name to the profound changes that have taken place in our world. The 1960s and 1970s were permeated by optimistic expectations that were soon frustrated. One could mention, for example, how the radical changes that were glimpsed in Latin America in that epoch were aborted by successive coups d'etat. The 'Alliance for Progress', put forward by the Kennedy Administration to help underdeveloped countries, brought as a result not so much the development of those countries as increased foreign trade for the USA and its greater interference in the continent. We have also to underline that it was the time when a large number of African countries obtained their independence. Between 1958 and 1963 the number increased from nine to 28. But, as Professor Adebayo Adedeji of the UN Economic Commission on Africa recalled: 'Three decades after independence our people continue to be excluded from critical and significant contribution to the ethics of the body politic. Basic rights, including freedom and participation by the masses are increasingly absent from Africa.' In the majority of cases, the dreams of self-realisation meant in practice greater dependency and growing poverty.

2. The optimism of those decades is also evident in the churches. In the Conference on Church and Society (Geneva, 1966), considered 'the first genuinely "world" conference on social issues' because of equal representation by all the continents, there were strong demands for the churches to take a more active role in 'promoting a world-wide revolutionary opposition to the capitalist political and economic system being imposed on the new nations by the Western industrial countries which was leading to new types of colonialism and oppression' (Albrecht, DEM 1991: 936). The revolutionary aspirations of that time were not supported, as had been hoped, on the shoulders of theological reflection. However, the following Assembly of the World Council of Churches (Uppsala, 1968) made way for a program that had new directions. Reflecting on subjects like economic development, the problem of racism, the situation of the underdeveloped countries, gave rise to the implementation of proposals for change. Winds of renewal also blew in the Roman Catholic Church after Vatican 11 (1961-69). The so-called aggiornamento (bringing up to date) of the Roman Catholic Church was expressed in ecumenical openness, biblical and liturgical renewal and greater consideration of the huge social problems facing the world. Today many of those expectations appear exhausted and the structures seem even more rigid and vertical

 3. In the communication world, optimism arose from the conviction that it was necessary and possible to reclaim the right people had to develop and sustain their own cultures. For this to happen, we had unquestionably to begin by democratising communications. Communication as a human right had to be put into practice by means of national and international policies. It was this search that led to UNESCO initiating, in the 1970s, a long process to find communication that was more free and more equitable.

 It was not by chance that the development of this process was related to the search for a new economic order, in which the countries of the Third World became involved. The search was based on the conviction that growth in itself was not the solution to the problems of those countries, nor for their most appropriate development, and that the free market is not the most effective mechanism for producing a more just distribution of resources. In 1980 UNESCO adopted the famous MacBride Report, Many Voices, One World. It laid the foundation for a debate of the situation facing communications, drew up lines for its democratic development and stimulated strengthening and self-development of local cultures. Like all reports that try to do justice to varied positions, it was ambiguous, contradictory and deficient. Its history is- well known: soon its implementation began to be resisted. the -USA, then Great Britain and Singapore withdrew from UNESCO for which they still have not returned despite the fact that the New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) has been watered down to the point of disappearing from its agenda.

 4. Today the disappearance of the optimism of those decades has become a constant at the global level. Utopia has turned into' disenchantment; solidarity into something unacceptable in a world in which everyone has to come to terms with them as best he or she can. The old Enlightenment ideas have been bolstered up and everything is seen as aimless, in terms of cause and effect; deeds replace values. Progress, expansion, modernisation have come to be most important. Recently, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Gulf War made clear that the changes of recent times have reaffirmed the hegemony of the West in a large part of the world. They have also revealed, in all their harshness, the new ideologies that wish to rule the world under the slogans of a 'new order' and a 'free market system', producing as a result a society in which 'its presuppositions and spin-offs include centralisation, bureaucratisation, ecological damage, manipulation and exploitation of human beings, relentless consumerism, and chronic unemployment (further aggravated, ironically, by the termination of the Cold War and the arms race!)' (Bosch, 1995: 3).

 5. This way of 'administrating' the world, because that's what it seems to be about, has left behind the old dreams of progress. The countries of the North offer themselves as an example to those following on behind. They show them how to be developed if they work harder, and they remind them that Paradise is always a bit further off, that it takes an enormous effort to get there. At the present time the make up of the earthly paradises is changing rapidly. The progress taking place in the major countries is being concentrated in certain strata of society. Those who benefit from paradise have been restricted to the chosen few. The most obvious result is that poverty is overflowing geographical frontiers and gradually finding a place in the bosom of affluent societies. We have reached, they announce as if it's good news, the end of the 'Welfare State'. Now, everyone must look to their own well-being and each will be responsible for their own success or failure. Paradise is no longer free, it now has a price. Salvation through work is the rule being imposed. Of course, the impoverishment of vast sectors is accelerating day by day in those same countries, even approaching those who a long time ago were very much below the tragic line of poverty. Everything indicates that, even though there is still- a long way to go, times are rapidly shortening. Eduardo Galeano said at the Mexico Congress: 'In the soulless world which we are forced to accept as the only one possible, there are no citizens, just consumers; there are no nations, just companies; there are no cities, just agglomerations; there are no human relationships, just commercial competitions' (Media Development, 1/1996: 22).

6. In this 'new' world, we know, communication plays a very important role. One of the most obvious facts is the growing concentration of media ownership. The already legendary merger of the Gannet chain of newspapers and a television company in 1979, for a little more than 350 million dollars, seems today a very modest transaction compared with what took place a few months ago when an unprecedented US 19 billion dollar merger between Disney Company and the ABC Network was quickly overtaken by an even more massive Times Warner-CNN link-up worth, all told, in excess of US 25 billion dollars. Even the finance minister of many of our countries would find the figures unimaginable' (Hopeton Dunn, Media Development 1/1 996: 1 0).

Today, as never before, in this unipolar world communications are an important unifying force in the dominant political and social system. Information, a vital element in the development of a society, is noticeably influenced on a daily basis by those who have the power to provide it. Ben H. Bagdikian has skillfully shown that this concentration of power receives special treatment from governments. The media giants enjoy two enormous advantages. One, they control the public image of national leaders who, as a result, fear them and, at the same time, smile on the media magnates. Two, they control information and entertainment which are the foundations for the establishment of the social, political and cultural conduct of a large part of the population (Bagdikian, 1989: 81 0).

7. Unceasing technological advances are bringing great potential to this development. Cees Hamelink pointed out that 'Globalisation of markets requires the kind of extended telecommunication infrastructures that the Information Superhighway is expected to provide. Globalisation also needs a vehicle through which the world can be "McDonaldised". McDonaldisation represents the global proliferation of the neo-liberal belief that the market should be the key regulator of all social relations. The Information Superhighway is expected to provide the means of transport for this international monetary fundamentalism' (Media The accelerated process of digitalisation and the provision of enormous possibilities for access, multiplying the potential of reception of television channels and much more besides. This is already a reality in many places and it will rapidly multiply. Paradoxically, these possibilities of access will be subject to greater control and the economic cost of their services will rapidly increase.

8. What I have tried to show up to this point is, of course, a fragmentary, partial and limited description of our present world. I have deliberately not mentioned the various positive signs that continue' to light the way for many. I have underlined only the most obvious political, economic and social trends, those that are having global repercussions, determining the life and future of millions, threatening nature and placing our planet at risk. This is the framework in which it is imperative to reflect and to ask, like the communicators in Mexico: 'How can people of faith promote human dignity for all in a world where power structures, including the media, so often undermine it?' To answer this question we have to think about the importance of considering the relationship between communication and mission. This task presupposes that a close relationship exists whose qualities need to be stressed.

9. But before doing so, it is important to recall that there are certain theological presuppositions that set bounds on our thinking and practice, both in communication and mission, which should be made explicit. We must highlight at least two.

First, the fact that, for many years, the churches and societies of the West understood mission as the work they had to carry out overseas. Bosch says that the word mission, in its modern sense, was first used in the sixteenth century by Jesuits in Northern Germany to refer to their work of reconverting Protestants to Catholicism.' (Bosch, 1995: 29). The idea of living in Christendom in many Western countries led to the conviction that it was a matter of nations in which church and society lived in full symbiosis. This concept is one that set limits on the understanding of mission and its place in the society in which that mission had to be carded out.

Second, to speak theologically about communication - and much more, if one intends to relate it to the concept of mission - comes up against a strict theoretical framework.

 The study of theology in the West is planned, in many places, according to the system introduced in his time by F. D. E. Schleiermacher. He established the fourfold pattern in theological education: Bible, church history, systematic theology and practical or pastoral theology. This scheme can be found in many seminaries and faculties of theology, in which the first three disciplines represent theory and the fourth practice. It is interesting to point out how this fourth discipline was reduced to providing tools for what Karl Rahner called 'the normative discipline of the self-realisation of the church in all its dimensions' (Bosch, 1995: 28-29). Here it could easily be thought that the Interest of 'practice' is concentrated exclusively on its instrumental character at the service of the church. In preparation for a missionary conference in Willingen (1 952), the Dutch missiologist J. C. Hoekendijk criticised the church-centred orientation of missionary groups which led them to define 'the whole surrounding world in ecclesiological categories... The world has almost ceased to be the world and is now conceived as a sort of ecclesiastical training-ground' (Stransky, DEM 1991:688).The understanding that there exists a 'practical theology' at the service of church activities has coloured what the church and theological education understands by communication. Practical theology has come to contain a good dose of theory of practice with very few theological ingredients. All this has provoked two very characteristic attitudes towards communication, especially following the' rapid development of mass media technology.

 In the first place, communication has come to be considered only from the point of view of its instrumental character. In the 1950s the development of communication centres had as its aim the use of the new technology that at that time became more accessible, like the tape recorder and slides. As Paulo Friere continually reminds us, it was limited to replace blackboard and chalk with a projector, but no thought was given to the meaning, value and place of communication. The press, radio and television offered multiple possibilities. The mass media were presented as the alternative to reach more people in less time. An opportunity that some think the Apostle Paul would not have turned down, nor of course John R. Mott.

This practical attraction stimulated the efforts of many and was present in many missionary enterprises. The churches themselves embarked on the organisation of communication commissions, the preparation of radio programmes, the installation of printing presses, trying to gain access to the media. Great initiatives that awoke little theological thinking.

In the second place, many churches took up paternalistic, critical and authoritarian positions. The Second Vatican Council produced the document Inter Mirifica (1 965) which tended to follow this line. It was not very well received and the Vatican tried to amend it with the pastoral instruction Communio et Progressio (1 97 1). The World Council of Churches (WCC) produced its best document at the World Assembly in Uppsala (1 968), where thinking turned on the social function of the media and where the centre of gravity ceased to be the church. 'The church has neither the first nor the last word, but speaks as one voice among many' (Goodall, 1968: 393). At the following Assembly (Vancouver, 1983), communication was one of the eight 'questions' around which reflection turned. The document that resulted, Communicating credibly, touches on the crucial communication problems in today's world, but the main concern was for communication in and among the churches and for them to benefit from effective use of the media.

 Reducing communication to being an instrument at the service of the advancement of the churches has blurred the very meaning of communication and its relationship with mission, and has allowed the development of a mistaken theological concept about its place in the life of the church and the world. Thus, many theologians have systematically refused to speak about communication, arguing that for them this is not just unknown but alien territory. At most, some have mentioned that it is a question of a world of potential dangers, especially in regard to everything associated with the mass media.

 For example, theologians, especially reformed theologians, place strong emphasis on the importance of the Word and, therefore, they are suspicious of the place of the image - the opposite of orthodox theologians for whom, in the words of Gennadios Limouris, '(they) are instruments of prayer and, as such, as important as the preaching of the Word of God' (Limouris, 1990: ix). Speaking on this subject, the reformed theologian Alain Blancy says that the world offers a revolution in communication, that '(it) tends to replace the privileged language of the word, i.e. of discourse, by the image, the picture, that is, of representation.' He is convinced that 'the power of the image is so totalitarian. It subjects and subjugates the subject." (Limouris, 1990: 44).This one example shows that dialogue between theology and communication is essential. Because there are some questions which, inevitably, must be formulated. Does theology only identify the Word with rationality, with the intellect? How can theological reflection on communication be done without wondering if communication has something to ask of theology? What authority does theology have to decide what communicates and what does not? Why is theology so dominated by reason and so fearful of the feelings, the emotions, of the real world? I do not intend to answer these questions, but only to draw attention to the importance of considering them in the search for more adequate understanding of communication and mission.

10. Now, reductionist aims are also to be seen in the understanding of what mission itself means. What is understood by mission is intimately related to the geographical expansion of the church. Its aim is to reach those parts where the 'non-church' is. This is the territory over which the church wants to extend its 'influence: to reach the 'pagan world'. Philip Potter, in an important article on mission and its ecumenical dimension, tries to show that the value of the universal 'unto all the nations' characterised, from the beginning of this century, the various international conferences on this theme. At the same time, it must be said that this ecumenical (to all the inhabited world) sense of the missionary aim was given new impetus by what John R. Mott (Edinburgh, 1910) defined as 'the decisive hour of Christian Mission' which called for' the evangelisation of the world in this generation'. This urgent call meant, basically, taking mission beyond Europe and North America, that is to say into non-Christian countries (DEM 1991: 690-696). One suspects, with some degree of certainty, that the dream of Christendom was present in that project.

 This spirit is clearly reflected in the history of the missionary movements, although it must be recognised that continual changes can be seen with regard to understanding what mission is but these did not always become changes in missionary work. Even today, for many churches, it is customary to call 'missionaries' only those who go overseas. 'This meant that they continue to perceive mission in terms of its addresses, not of its very nature, and suggested that mission was accomplished once the gospel had been (re)introduced to a group of people' (Bosch, 1995: 31).This is clearly seen in the most important documents that have come out this century, beginning with the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh (1 91 0) right up to the most recent conference organised by the WCC (San Antonio, 1989). From the 1960s onwards, when the churches in the Third World played a more active role in this kind of conference, changes in understanding mission began to be evidenced, and their documents came to be more inclusive. Thus, the document 'Mission and Evangelism - An Ecumenical Affirmation' (WCC, 1982) contains a section called 'Mission in and to Six Continents' in which it is recognised that 'everywhere the churches are in missionary situations'. The sphere of missionary action has moved from geographical parameters to social parameters (e.g. migrants, political refugees) although the structure of society itself is never brought into question. Here, as in other documents, distinct trends can be discerned. It can be supposed that a particular way has been chosen to define the contents of those documents: to maintain a certain balance, to give room to different positions, not to close off the options. It is obvious that this runs the risk of making them eclectic and, as has happened, of omitting very basic questions. For example, the word 'church' dominates many of the documents. The church appears as the executor of missionary work, the centre from which all else radiates. But the ecclesiology that supports it largely remains a question to be clarified. In a discussion process that seeks rapprochement, perhaps such vagueness can be justified. It avoids reaching affirmations that cannot be shared and definitions are left a little bit on one side until a better opportunity arises. Maybe we have to ask ourselves if it is not more convenient, especially in relation to mission, to begin by making clear the disparities. Accepting that one is faced with an unfinished task, not interrupting the dialogue and being open to new questions posed by that very dialogue. In this line of thought it is worth pointing out that Discussion about mission has raised a question about the very nature of the church.

 12. Having reached this point, we must come back to the question of what is the New Testament concept of mission in order, starting there, to work out its close relationship with communication. ,

 (a) Mission is a fundamental concept in the New Testament. Understanding what the church is lies in understanding what mission is. Mission 'is the movement of God towards us and us towards God. It is not part of humanity but humanity in its totality' (Comblin, 1978: 51).

This movement of God towards us is centred on the person of Jesus. The person and mission of Jesus becomes central to understanding the meaning of mission.

 (b) The mission of Jesus is closely related to the central theme of his preaching about the Kingdom of God. This expression is very seldom used in Judaism before Christ. It has to do with 'a dynamic concept' (Jeromias, 1974: 121) which indicates a divine sovereignty that does not consist in handing down impartial verdicts but in the protection that the king ensures is given to the weak and the poor, to widows and orphans, and not so much with a particular place or abstract idea. In this sense, later Judaism recognised God as the king who is Lord of Israel but who at the end of time will be recognised by all nations.

 (c) Jesus speaks of the Kingdom in its eschatological sense, the time of salvation, the end of the world, the restoration of communion between God and human beings. Jesus gives this idea a sense of urgency, because the Kingdom is near, is already here. This idea was not new since it was part of the apocalyptic nature of the age. What is- significant in Jesus is his stressing the fact that the end of the world has already begun. There is a sense of joy in his proclamation, he speaks of a wedding, of new wine, the fig tree that comes back to life. The time of salvation is here.

 (d) The essential characteristic of this time of salvation is clearly seen in Matthew 11:5 and Luke 7:22, where the signs of that time are listed, with expressions common in that epoch but which are remarkable for their powerful novelty: 'the poor are brought good news'. It is the later that will come to be a reason for 'outrage'.

(e) Now, why does bringing the good news to the poor constitute an outrage? In the Gospels many of Jesus's followers are people who have a bad reputation in society - they are uncouth, of low morals. They are those called 'tax-collectors and sinners' (Mark 2:16ff and Matthew 11:19ff) or 'tax-collectors and prostitutes' (Matthew 21:32). These were expressions of disdain for those who were considered beyond salvation. But Jesus called them 'the poor, those 'who are weary and whose load is heavy' (Matthew 1 1:28), looks on them with infinite compassion and tells them that they can take part in God's Kingdom. 'God makes a gift of revelation, not to the erudite theologians but to the uncouth, to the children, to those who, with filial spirit, are able to say Abba opens the Kingdom' (Jeremias, 1974:142).The sinners are invited to God's banquet, they are offered forgiveness and a new life (Luke 15:2, Mark 2:15ff). An invitation to the table in the East is a mark of respect and, here, an offer of peace, fraternity and forgiveness. Jesus's message, that God wants to be in relationship with sinners and directs his love towards them, has no parallel in its time.

 13. It is striking that mention of the 'Kingdom of God'- so central to Jesus's preaching according to the Gospels - has practically disappeared from the rest of the New Testament. There the accent is on witnessing to the death and resurrection of Jesus. This was the essence of the preaching of the first Christians, according to the book of Acts and the letters of Paul. What produced this change? It is not my intention to answer this question, but it is important to redeem the notion that the emphasis placed on the death and resurrection is closely linked to the announcement of the Kingdom of God.

 On the one hand, Jesus's preaching about the new time of God, in which God looks with infinite compassion on the excluded from society, is not easily accepted and Jesus has to carry his challenging message to its final consequences.- His death on the cross is confirmation of his commitment to the poor of this world.

 On the other hand, the emphasis on the resurrection confirms that new life is not a promise for the future, it is not for the 'beyond', it is for here and now. It is this life and this creation that are confirmed as being important and valuable. The resurrection is an expression of new creation, all things are new and we have to live in this newness. For this reason mission is not restricted to private life, nor is it worn out when every human being has heard the good news.

 14. Mission is the essence of the church's being, its very nature. But when one speaks of the missio Dei, one implies that the church's mission reveals it but does not restrict it. The people of God walk with and give witness to the missio Dei, and this is what judges and recreates the missionary action of the whole church.

 The fact has been criticised that religion, in some places, has been relegated to the sphere of private life, thus hindering the churches from giving public witness. But it is equally important to point out how in various countries, who consider themselves part of the Christian tradition, a clear distinction has been established between what is the responsibility of society and that of the church. The process of symbiosis, which I referred to earlier, has established strict rules which they have to conform to. The church is given a 'spiritual' mission; any excursion into the social sphere that goes beyond charitable action is looked upon as interference.

 15. The document 'Mission and Evangelism - An Ecumenical Affirmation 'defines the vocation of the churches as having been called to announce, denounce, console and celebrate, assuming responsibility for the consequences that this might have. This vocation cannot be understood if its scope is limited to private life or to the 'religious' dimensions of human life, leaving all else to the different powers of this world. This is a pressure that those powers have tried to bring to bear on the churches, but we must also recognise that, many times, it is something that Christians have imposed on themselves. The history of the church is marked by interminable hours of silence, while the clamour of the persecuted, the imprisoned and marginalised was silenced, and the churches preferred to stick to the conventions, maintain good relations with the powers, not lose their social standing.

 16. Proclamation of the Kingdom of God, which tells of a new life beginning with care for the weakest in our world, which in its resurrection message gives new value to the importance of this earth and our life on it, defines the meaning of mission, communication and the close relationship between the two.



Firstly, mission is a task of social commitment in which the unjust structures of our modern societies are denounced. This is a society in which money and power are more important than people, health is a negotiable commodity, old-age a curse, worker slavery a new form of more profitable production, the poor are disposable, and the earth's destruction an increasing reality. Therefore, communication must take place on the frontiers. Because the information and entertainment industries serve to consolidate those same structures, in which the voice of the people is not listened to and is often silenced, in which we have to demystify media power, and in which it is necessary to work with the whole community to create structures that allow the right to communication to be expressed in all its fullness.

Secondly, mission is a task of proclamation, in which hope lives again in the new possibilities that God gives us to live in solidarity, because he calls us to care for this earth and to share the fruits of work as one single family. Therefore, communication must be expressed as '...God's unique gift to humankind, through which individuals and societies can become more truly human' (Manila Declaration, 1980) and be constructed as a forum for dialogue with all those who are working to build that community in solidarity.

Thirdly, mission is a task of consolation, because every human pain is our pain, every human life is important and the church is there to commit itself in the name of God to suffer with those who suffer and to weep with those who weep. Therefore, communication must be with all those who in the different media suffer discrimination for reasons of sex, religion, race or political ideas; to champion the right to communication of those who live in situations of oppression and censorship and be together with all those who are seeking the path of reconciliation and reconstruction of community.

Fourthly, mission is a task of celebration of life, without sectarianism, without exclusions, affirming and sharing its richness. Therefore, communication must be expressed in openness and respect, opening minds and hearts to the abundance of wisdom of the poor of this earth, joining hands with all those who are kindling flames of hope for a world of justice and solidarity, and 'to support the empowerment of women and men in all regions 6f the world who struggle for their dignity which is often denied by contemporary media' (Mexico Declaration, 1995).

Mission is sharing in words and deeds the fact that God wants to restore humanity. For Him this begins by looking with infinite compassion on the most unprotected and marginalised of this earth and he offers them forgiveness and new life. This is the central point from which to understand, face up to and judge mission and its relationship with communication. This is the guiding principle with which to think about Christian communication, the place of the media, old and new technologies, and the work of WACC as a community of communicators.

June 1996



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