Reflective Theology in Missions: Part #1


The Problem

My family and I had recently come to the Philippines to do mission work. We became a part of a church for practical training. The theology of that church was considerably different that what I was raised in, but that was okay.

I would go to Wednesday Night prayer meeting. There, someone’s uncle had  heart disease and was not expected much longer to live. And then the prayer leader would get up and pray.

“Oh Lord! We know you are the great HEALER! And you PROMISED in your WORD, that WHATEVER is asked in YOUR name, you WILL do. We CLAIM this promise, and thank you as we KNOW that you are already DOING it. In Jesus Mighty and Holy Name…. AMEN!”

A couple of weeks later I would come to prayer meeting and learn that that “someone’s uncle” is now dead. I was ready for a thoughtful, and perhaps prayerful, discussion of why this man was not healed even though it had been confidently forecasted that not only was God  going to heal, but that He had allegedly promised to do so. It seemed like a good thing to discuss at a prayer meeting. Instead, after the death of the uncle was announced, another sorrow was raised. Another person’s cousin has 4th stage cancer. And then it was time to pray. And the words would be very similar…

“Oh Lord! We know you that you are all POWERFUL, all KNOWING, and all MERCIFUL! You said in your Word that WHATEVER is asked in YOUR name, you will do. And so we claim this promise and already Thank you for doing as you promised. In Jesus Most Mighty and Holy Name, we ask…. AMEN!”

Not long after, not too shocking, the “another’s cousin” had died, but again no reflection. The same morbid cycle of death and unacknowledged disappointment… of telling God what to do, and God not doing it. Long after I stopped attending there, I wondered why that was. I wasn’t wondering why God did not heal. For every verse that people throw around about God answering prayers, there is an equally strong verse challenging people regarding the hubris of trying to control God. No, what left me in wonder was why they never reflected on how their beliefs appeared to be out of line with reality. I theorized that they did actually reflect but chose not to question their own beliefs. Rather, they questioned the intensity of their faith. Perhaps they thought that God’s failure to do what He “promised” was because their own faith was a wee bit less than a mustard seed. If they laid claim over God’s will with a bit more intensity, expressing less doubt, prayed a little more intensely (like the priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel, perhaps) God would do it… affirming their own theological perspective.

I found this sad cycle of action without theological reflection to be truly bizarre… UNTIL I realized that I was also non-reflective.

I had been raised up in a faith tradition that was more focused on obedience to God than trying to get God to obey me. The theology I tended to have was closer to the well known dictum that “Prayer does not change God. Prayer changes us.”

Yet I had never reflected theologically on this either. The idea that prayer does not change God did not appear to be in line with either Scripture or reality. I may have been right to be concerned about my former church’s lack of theological reflection, but I wasn’t doing such a great job in this area either.

It wasn’t until about four years after that I started to meditate on this issue, and that led to reflection and study as it pertains to the idea of what it means to pray “In Jesus Name.” It is common in Evangelical circles, to think of “in Jesus Name” as an incantation… magic words that bind God to do our bidding. This misunderstanding has led to a lot of disconnection between theology and practice. Reflection for me led to growth. That is not to say that I have everything all correct now…. reflection is an iterative process since we never reach perfection.

An Answer from Pastoral Care

In Pastoral Care, we would do Case Studies, and in those studies we would have theological reflection and small group interaction. I found it quite useful. It wasn’t until later that I found out that their practice is a form of Praxis Theological Reflection, or Action-Reflection.

There appears to be negative aspects to Action-Reflection, especially when those who practice it are unaware or unsuspicious of their own presuppositions. There is a need for “hermeneutics of suspicion.” However, it does seem like Missions Theology would be improved with a Case Study tied to Action-Reflection and small group interaction.

In Part 2, I will suggest how that might look in Missions Theological Reflection.

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