In Search of Missions’ Flexible Boundaries

So what constitutes “missions”? This is a continuing argument between me and myself. I am working on a book on Mission Theology. One of the many aspects of Mission Theology has to do with what are the boundary lines of what we call “missions.”

Some might see this as an irrelevant concern… or perhaps just an academic one, but it can hit home in important ways. I have had missionary friends who run an orphanage in a developing country be completely defunded because their supporting church determined that caring for orphans in a cross-cultural setting was not missions. I have seen a major mission orga12a848591ed70253f18d2ee6a1389562nization “gut” its education arm because it determined that valid missions was evangelism and churchplanting by foreigners in UPGs. I struggle to see falling back on the, in my mind, debunked slogan “evangelize not educate” is a positive step. (Curiously, in recent years that same mission organization has reversed direction again… but is it too late?)

Personally, I like a broad definition, but must acknowledge that calling EVERYTHING missions in Christian ministry can have negative impact. So I had recently done a couple of posts that suggest a more narrow definition. My last one on this subject even suggested that it might be best to separate between “missionary” and associated mission work, and “cross-cultural minister” and its related ministry work.

But NOW, I would to flip-flop again and make the counter-argument, suggesting a broader definition again. And I would like to do so in terms of a story:

Some time ago, I was serving as a dissertation supervisor for a student here in the Philippines. I am a professor of Christian missions, and the topic of this student was the use of some principles from the Missional Church movement for cross-cultural outreach in a specific locale. As the prospectus was being reviewed by some of the professors, two expressed considerable concern about the topic, suggesting that utilizing “missional church” principles is not “missions.” Truthfully, such feelings have some merit. In fact, some aspects of the missional church movement can be quite Anti-Missions (as strange as that may seem). Additionally, since the missional church movement is more often focused on E-1 and E-2 outreach (rather than the more undeniably “missions-ish” category of E-3 outreach) one could make the point that such a topic should not be seen as valid for a missions dissertation at all.

At the defense of the prospectus, these concerns were reiterated. I acknowledged them but noted reasons I felt it was appropriate for a missions dissertation, even if it may not be smack dab in the center of what we think of as missions research. I won’t go over my reasons here. But I noted that my dissertation was accepted at the same school years before, and was on doing medical mission events in the Philippines. Based on the criteria suggested for what constitutes missions at this present board, my dissertation would not be a missions dissertation either. The response that came back from one of the professors was that the understanding of missions has changed so maybe my dissertation would (should?) be refused today. Interesting response. That got me thinking a bit. That would be the implication of accepting a “newer” understanding of what constitutes missions.  I, however, struggle with the idea that medical mission ministry that is international and cross-cultural should be researched and taught within a missions department of a seminary while medical mission ministry that is local but in every other way the same as its international counterpart should be researched and taught in an entirely different department. But one does have to have boundaries around what would be considered missions— at least in academia.

In the end, the prospectus was accepted with only minor changes. Part of that was that the dissertation clearly did not fit into any of the other accepted categories at the seminary. As such, if it is a valid research, it has to be under Missions. We did not continue the discussion of what should constitute missions and what should not, but acknowledged that it should be reviewed at a future date.

But… if I was going to make my case for a wider definition of missions as a counterpoint to the “newer and narrower” definition(s) for missions, this is what I would offer:

The definition of missions has not only changed in recent years, it has been changing for decades, and even centuries. The 1932 “Hocking Report” was one of the early (modern) attempts to aggresively redefine missions, but there have been many changes and attempted changes through the IMC, WCC, the Lausanne movement, and more.

So think about it this way. If the newer definitions are better than the older definitions, they have come to be through flexibility (old cannot change to new unless there is flexibility to allow such change). So if the new is good, so is the flexibility that allowed the new to be developed. And,  if flexibility is good, then the boundaries of what constitutes missions should constantly be challenged. Without challenging boundaries, boundaries become rigid… inflexible… unchanging.

In the 1960s (as I noted in a previous article) there were attempts to redefine missions in terms of “Christian Presence” and (relativistic) dialogue, on the WCC side of missions. During this same period, on the Conservative Evangelical side, there were attempts to narrowly define missions in terms of proclamation-style evangelism and cross-cultural churchplanting. In my mind, it is good that none of these completely won out the day.

Missions, as understood in academic circles as well as in mission organizations and denominational groups,  is strongest with a flexible boundary– one that allows new ideas and old ideas to be challenged and evaluated.

Sometimes we need ministry and research where people ask “Is this missions?” The answer often should be “We will find out.”




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