The “Not-so-Great Man” Theory of Missions History

What makes history… history. One can look at it as repeating cycles of human drama. It can be seen as class struggle, social and/or technological progress, paradigm shifts, or clashes of civilizations or ideologies. But one popular one is the “Great Man” Theory. In the words of Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

I honestly don’t know the context of his quote so I can’t say whether I agree with his overall thesis. However, I know that there are many people, including a disturbingly large number of (commonly American) Christian leaders who have embraced the “Great Man” Theory of History, where history is essentially understood as driven by a few individuals that are rather… exceptional. It is hard not to see the ubermensch of Nietzsche or the “fountainhead” of Rand in this sort of thinking.  It can be seen, on the face of it at least, to support a certain individualistic, libertarian ideal. However, if the historical trajectory of mankind was driven by a few exceptional individuals, that puts remaining billions  as passive participants in the grand workings of a tiny tiny minority. In effect, the greatness of a few is predicated on huge flocks of sheeple.

And we see this in missions history. I have enjoyed using Ruth Tucker’s book in teaching Missions History (From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya) because it is so readable… and since we are designed to learn through narrative, life stories of a few often really help us learn faster. But I must admit that one negative aspect of a biographical approach to Missions History is that it gives a very false impression that the Church expanded through a very few.

When I was young, I came to believe that the great churchplanter of the first century was St. Paul. It made sense, since the book of Acts placed such a strong focus on him. But eventually, I started thinking:

  • Did Paul plant the church of Jerusalem?  No
  • Did Paul plant the church of Antioch?  No
  • Did Paul plant the church of Alexandria?  No
  • Did Paul plant the church of Rome?  No
  • Did Paul plant the churches of North Africa, Italy, Babylon, and numerous other places where they sprang up in the decades following the entry into the church age? Generally No.

In fact, Paul was involved in a relatively small percentage of churchplants during his lifetime. This doesn’t lessen his impact. Frankly, his impact was more in the words he wrote than what he actually did.  It took me awhile, but I eventually realized that Luke’s biographical approach to explaining early church history, while being ideal for the sake of memory, can mislead when read by people who are prone to idealize and idolize. This is true today as well. It is easy to place people like William Carey, Hudson Taylor, Cam Townsend, Lottie Moon, David Livingstone and many more on pedestals and see them as worldchangers, while the rest of us take up space.

In some ways, perhaps they were worldchangers. But I think in most cases, it wasn’t so much what they did but what they represented. People like William Carey and Lottie Moon (for example) did not radically transform the places they were. However, their words and actions inspired people to go, to send, and to support. In effect, it was in many ways the little people who changed things, by placing meaning to the activities of these two. If the many ignored these few, nothing of impact would have happened.

It is actually surprising, when looking at missions history how the most successful growth eras of the church happened at times when there were really no active (or at least famous) missionaries. One example would be in the first 3 centuries. Even though there were apostles (recognized churchplanters) active into the 2nd and even 3rd centuries, they rather quickly moved out of the limelight, and commonly did not appear to be prime movers in the growth of the church during this time. I will quote here Von Harnack here (I had used this long quote before… but it fits here quite well… you can read the longer version of this quote HERE.)

“The most numerous and successful missionaries of the Christian religion were not the regular teachers but Christians themselves, in virtue of their loyalty and courage. How little we hear of the former and their results! How much we hear of the effects produced by the latter! Above all, every confessor and martyr was a missionary; he not merely confirmed the faith of those who were already won, but also enlisted new members by his testimony and his death.

… Nevertheless, it was not merely the confessors and martyrs who were missionaries. It was characteristic of this religion that everyone who seriously confessed the faith proved of service to its propaganda. Christians are to “let their light shine, that pagans may see their good works and glorify the Father in heaven.” If this dominated all their life, and if they lived according to the precepts of their religion, they could not be hidden at all; by their very mode of living they could not fail to preach their faith plainly and audibly.

… We cannot hesitate to believe that the great mission of Christianity was in reality accomplished by means of informal missionaries. Justin says so quite explicitly. What won him over was the impression made by the moral life which he found among Christians in general. How this life stood apart from that of pagans even in the ordinary round of the day, how it had to be or ought to be a constant declaration of the gospel—….      We may safely assume, too, that women did play a leading role in the spread of this religion (see below, Book IV. Chap. II.). But it is impossible to see in any one class of people inside the church the chief agents of the Christian propaganda.”

“Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries” by Adolph von Harnack.  Volume 3, Chapter 1

The first few centuries was a time of huge growth of the church. That huge growth came from not-so-great men and women faithfully doing their little things that led to great things in the church. If one chooses to say that they acted on the inspiring behavior of a few… I am open to granting that this may have at least a small factor. However, again, it was the people who chose to be inspired rather than be disinterested. And really if one thinks about it, I really don’t think a slave in a house in Thessalonica (for example) lived an inspirational life of hope and love around others in the household because some pillar of the faith inspired emulation at some point in time. I believe this person did it first of all as an act of faithful reverence to the one who expressed love first giving true hope.

Many of the major missions movements and major times of church growth were not driven by towering characters. Few can name any Nestorian missionaries from the first millenium. Fewer still can name monks who shared their faith during the great movement eastward of the Russian Orthodox expansion a few centuries ago. Such ignorance may be because of our own prejudices, but then the fact that we have certain “superheroes” of the faith may just as clearly demonstrate prejudice. The growth of the church in China during the Maoist regime reminds us how mission professionals are not really needed for God to do great things.

Missions History does not need superstar Christians. In fact, it seems like sometimes the decline in the Christian church (such as in North Africa in the first Millenium, and Central Asia in the early part of the second) are, in part, a failure of the gospel message to truly bridge the gap of the professional to the common (or the elite to the illiterate).

I can’t speak to History in general, but I think it is pretty clear that in Missions History, we need less “Great Men.” Our bookstores and conferences are littered with them. We need far less of them and more “Not-so-great” men and women. They are the ones who will turn the world upside-down.


This is part of my haranguing in support of “Small” or “Weak.” It must be a weird thing with me.  For some other posts in that line, you can look at:

                              Dream SMALL!!

                             Praying for Weak Christian Missions

                              The Power of Weakness — Part 1        (Parts 2 and 3 follow Part 1)


“Chick Tracts” and Fan Service

This is a long post so here is the short version. It is my contention that Chick Tracts (for those familiar with them) are not actually evangelistic tracts. Rather they are fan service created for consumption of and support by their real target– Conservative Evangelical Christians.

One channel I like to watch on the Web is “Comic Tropes.” I used to collect comic books. Even though I stopped years ago, I have fond memories of my collecting and reading days, and film studios turning comic books into motion pictures has kept a lot of those fond memories current.

A Comic Tropes broadcast I recently watched was on “Chick Tracts.”  For those who don’t know, Jack Chick (1924-2016) founded a tract publishing house that still produces mini black and white comic books as evangelistic tracts. The work is very revivalistic and fundamentalist in tone. I was raised in a church that would describe itself as Fundamentalist and Separatist. Chick Tracts were not used in that church, however. But when I went to Cedarville College (now Cedarville University) I attended a church that had a large display of Chick Tracts that one could pick up and share with friends (or enemies I suppose).

At the time I found them interesting, at least as a concept. They were essentially little morality plays in comic form– a bit like the radio plays, “Unshackled.” Unlike “Unshackled,” that tended to be grounded in real stories of people at the Pacific Garden Mission, the Chick Tracts tended to be rather “over-the-top” with stories that were often over-simplified, over-dramatized and unrealistic. However, as one who collected comics, I was well-aware that unrealistic over-dramatization is a pretty common feature in this form of media, and so I did not really let that bother me. I would put a few of them, with some other tracts, in my Bible when I would go over to Ohio Veterans Children’s Home. The kids would rummage through my stuff to read or collect… and some would take the Chick Tracts. Fine.

But I was having some problems with these tracts. One of the ones I had trouble with was the one on Evolution. Reading it, I realized that the primary message to those who believe in Evolution is— insult. <Evolutionists are insane or stupid. You should stop being an insane or stupid evolutionist.> I could not see how the message could possibly be effective to anyone. While I am solidly in the “Design Theory” side of the Cosmogeny spectrum, I could not see any transformative value to insulting people of a different view. I did not see how anyone could possibly read that tract and say, “Wow. I never knew that my beliefs were so messed up. I need to follow God, and stop thinking that my ancestors were monkeys!”  If anything, I suspected that people who were evolutionists would be thoroughly turned off not only by the lack of good argument to change beliefs, but also be turned off by the tone of the comics.

Another one that I had trouble with was one on Catholicism. The tract was essentially the comic adaptation of the teachings of Alberto Rivera (1935-1997). These teachings were quite controversial and polemic in nature. Essentially, according to the tract, pretty much all of evils of the 20th century were directly the result of the intentional machinations of the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church (with an added little sideslap at the Orthodox faiths as well). Back then, my experience with Catholicism was pretty limited. Presently living in a country that is over 80% Catholic has increased my education immensely. But as I was reading the tract I quickly noted a trend. The tract would make a lot of outlandish claims that I had not heard before, and then would add a more mundane fact that I knew was actually true. When I started checking the footnotes on the tract— what do you think I found? I suspect you guessed it— the fairly mundane and ambivalent facts were properly footnoted to show veracity to the claims while NO footnotes were given to the more outrageous (and “damning”) claims. Again, I could hardly see who would be swayed by such a comic. I just can’t imagine any thoughtful Catholic thinking, “Oh wow! I have been part of the Whore of Babylon! I must leave it and start attending the church of the fine people who are printing these tracts.” In fact, it had a bit of an opposite effect on me. The poor documentation and deceptive footnoting made me wonder if the Catholic Church might not be so bad of a group after all. In this sense, it is kind of the same as my reaction to the anti-Masonic literature of the 19th century, and the Illuminati conspiracy-mongers of the 20th century. In effect, if a person screams loudly about evil “over there” without justifying the claims, one must wonder if the evil is in the one screaming.

On Comics Tropes, a Chick Tract was presented that I don’t recall reading. Apparently, it is one of only a few that they no longer publish. I can understand why they stopped publishing it. While it was again the typical over-the-top morality play, the underlying plot was absolutely horrible on pretty much every level. The title of the tract is “Lisa.” Lisa is actual the daughter of a man who sexually molests her. Somehow, the secret of this man’s behavior becomes known to people in the neighborhood. A neighbor (a medical doctor I think) says to the man that he knows what the man is doing to his daughter. The doctor goes on to give words of wisdom. The man should seek forgiveness from God and stop behaving this way. The man prays to God and asks forgiveness, and goes home to happily tell his wife and his daughter that he will never be a pedophilic, incestuous rapist ever again.

I hope I don’t need to tell you what is wrong with this story. It is actually what has been wrong with, oh so many, churches in the 20th century. Someone does something horrible in church (or out of church and then comes into the church with a story of God’s forgiveness). The church then asks the person to confess, ask forgiveness from God, and then covers things up. In this tract, the doctor:

  • Did not call the police
  • Did not help the man get counseling or even group support (or even get accountability structures in place).
  • Did not ensure that the daughter is protected from the man’s relapse
  • Did not (as far as the story shows at least) indicate that there was any follow-up and ensuring of honest remorse and determination to change.

Maybe 50 years ago someone could read that tract and see a positive message. Maybe. but I know that I saw problems with a number of the Chick Tracts 35 years ago, and I was an insider (semi-Fundamentalist Evangelical Christian). Today, I am not sure that anyone could read “Lisa” without picking up the message of the church as a place to cover-up evil under the cloud of false repentance and remorse. When I think of this story, I am reminded of so many preachers, priests, and missionaries, who knew how to play the game so as to continue doing evil away from police scrutiny. I am reminded of a few years back when Pat Robertson was trying to build support to get a woman on deathrow for murder to have her sentence commuted because she had prayed to receive Christ (as if, again, seeking forgiveness from God should remove one from punishment from civil authorities). Sheer madness.

Anyway, maybe you can see the video from Comic Tropes.

The host describes himself as a person who is “basically good” without being religious. Before one starts quoting Romans 3, note that he is not saying that he is sinless. He is just saying that he has many qualities that religious and secular ethicists would describe as commendable. I don’t have any reason to dispute this claim. As such, he would appear to be exactly the type of person that the tract “Lisa” was written for. That is because the tract doesn’t actually focus on the pedophilia, the incest, and the rape. The doctor makes it clear that the type of sin is not the key, but just that each person has some sort of sin. And the man in the tract emphasizes that he has been “basically a good person” at least until stressors in his life led to him falling to temptation in one specific area. So the host on this Youtube Channel is a great person to test the tract out… to see if the message resonates with a “basically good but imperfect” person.

The reaction was pretty much the opposite of what the tracts purport to seek— repentance and revival. But I think that this is not really the purpose of the tract. I think it is fan service:

“Fan service, fanservice, or service cut is material in a work of fiction or in a fictional series which is intentionally added to please the audience.”

Think about it for a moment. The audience are conservative Protestant Christians. They are the ones that actually gets the tracts from the publisher and the ones that actually provide funding to keep the presses rolling.

  • Insulting Evolutionists would normally do little to change the mind of evolutionists, but it provides a certain comfort to Creationist Christians who have felt marginalized in schools and academia.
  • Throwing around poorly justified accusations at Catholics is unlikely to be very persuasive to Catholics, but helps non-Catholic Christians fell good that their denominations broke away from one of the major ancient branches of Christianity.

Getting back to the tract “Lisa,” this seems to me to be very much about fan service. After all, the pedophilia and such was pretty tangential to the story. The man’s doctor friend could have said, “I am aware that you misrepresent your income in your federal tax report” or “I see that you fail to keep your lawn trimmed according to local zoning laws.” But by having a non-Christian who rapes his own daughter allows the primary audience (Conservative Evangelical Protestants) to say, “Well it is so good that we are Christians unlike those perverts— those non-Christian incestuous pedophiles.” Unfortunately however, since the writer did not take into account that the seriousness of the sin necessitates a change to the overall plot (it can no longer simply be a simplified story of conversion), the message becomes extremely confused.

There is a place for fan service I suppose. But Chick Tracts are promoted as evangelistic tools… and I have personally seen no evidence that they serve that purpose. I expect that there have been a few people who may have responded positively to their message, but I believe that many have also been turned off to that message. One can’t simply say, “Oh, we just give the message, it is the Holy Spirit who changes the heart.” While salvation is a work of God and not man, our role is not simply neutral, or neutral and positive. We can give the message of God in a way that makes Christianity seem odious to outsiders.

Fan service has its place, but not so much for evangelism to those who are not fans. So if you, as a Christian, want to see “God’s Not Dead,” based on a Christian urban legend I recall hearing back over 35 years ago, that is fine. But don’t bring any non-Christian who has taken an actual philosophy class and knows what philosophy professors really claim and not claim.

No Pictures Please…

Pictures are important… sort of. In missions, pictures are valuable because they inform in a manner that words just don’t. With digital media and cellphones with high quality digital cameras and GBs of memory, it is easy to litter the world with photos.

Blacked out

But sometimes… just don’t take pictures. Or, perhaps don’t post pictures. I would like to offer a few stories where pictures were a bad idea… and a few where the became okay.

  1.  My classic story for “Don’t take pictures” was in my second year in missions. We were having a medical mission in the city, targeting children who work in the public market. This was a fairly needy group. We were partnering with two local churches who I was well familiar with and a mission team that I was unfamiliar with. One of the things being done at the medical missions was circumcision (“pagtuli”). In the Philippines, circumcision is considered important but not done when the boy was young. Rather it was done closer to puberty and is seen as a bit of a rite of passage. For a family to be too poor to have their boys circumcised leaves them in a bit of a state of moderate disgrace— failing to cross this transition to manhood. (This is not about whether you think circumcision is medically necessary or not, or whether you think it is religiously mandated or not. It is a cultural value here.) We had lots of circumcisions that day. We actually ended up putting together a bunch of tables and had a cadre of circumcisers to carry out this work. Several were being worked on simultaneously. I noticed that some of the volunteers from the other mission team were taking lots of pictures of this. In fact, a couple of them were standing up by the table with their cameras high over their head so they could take pictures of these boys being circumcised.    …. Do I have to tell you how inappropriate that is? First of all it is disrespectful. How many of us really want to have strangers taking pictures of us with our pants and underwear down— those pictures to be seen by who knows and for what?  Second, it is exploitative. I will get to this more in some other stories. But I am pretty sure none of these boys gave permission for those shots to be used. They were taken (most likely) to show that money for medical missions is a good thing, and, since the photographers were foreign, perhaps they wanted to “wow” their audiences, to show how weird things are in the Philippines.  Third, it is arguably illegal. Pictures of unclad boys being sent to foreign countries for non-research, non-medical purposes could be viewed as illegal. This could be identified as trafficking in child pornography. Of course, perhaps some of the pictures were blurred for privacy sake… but the ones I saw were definitely not.
  2. A friend of mine pastors a church here and was telling a story of something that happened at his church. A young lady of a Muslim family became involved in the church youth group, and decided to convert to Christianity. Her family lived far away while she was at school and this gave her the freedom and confidence to make some important decisions on her own. The very next day, pictures and stories were put up on Facebook of this young lady leaving Islam to become a Christian. … Again, do I have to tell you why this is inappropriate? Sure enough, the pictures and messages got back to her family who were most unhappy. The family members were not the only ones unhappy. The young lady felt that she was used by her Christian friends… just another notch on their Evangelism gun. “Hey! We got ourselves another Muslim!!” She, dropped out of the church, the youth group, and all things Christian. Hardly surprising.
  3. A group of women and youth my wife worked with were asked to leave the city and go to a remote community to hold Vacation Bible School. These women and youth were very good at working with children. On the way there, the host, a foreign missionary, suggested that they stop near a rice paddy to eat. After eating, the missionary suggested that some of the ladies go down into the muddy rice paddy and look like they were tending the rice plants. He took some pictures. Later, the women talked to my wife, and they felt exploited. Were they? Well, they live and work in the city, but they were being encouraged to get dirty and look like they work in the fields. They also did not know what the photos would be used for. Were they exploited? Exploitation is primarily a perception… so I suppose they were. If the reason for the photos was clear and and the women were given full input into the picture-taking they might have agreed and even found the experience fun. Or maybe they would refuse. Either would be better than the uncertainty.
  4. For many activities we may say that taking photographs is okay, but sharing publicly is not. A restoration service of a pastor was publicly shared online, and some people reacted negatively and then shared it with still others, this time with words that greatly mislabeled both the pictures and the activity. Restoration services after a disciplinary period are rather controversial in the Philippines. (Most seem to prefer the traditional process of a pastor sneaking away to a new area and starting, over hiding the past problems.) Knowing this problem I told people to not share photos… but some shared the photos anyway. Sometimes one simply has to know human nature. When we were working with “Drug Surrenderers” here in the Philippines, I made a point of telling people not to take pictures at these meetings. There certainly is a stigma with being on the barangay drug watchlist. Occasionally we would take some pictures to show others what is happening. However, we would take pictures of the volunteers working with only the backs of the surrenderers. Human nature is often to blame someone for being in a drug recovery program rather than to congratulate them for doing the right thing. However, towards the end, the surrenderers wanted to be photographed. For example, they decided to do a treeplanting project to emphasize that they want to have a positive role in society rather than negative. They wanted to be photographed to show how things have changed. We honored that. It was their choice.
  5. We don’t take pictures in jail ministry. In fact, the correction officers take all cameras and phones away when we go there. But even if they didn’t, we would not take pictures. Many have considerable shame for being in prison. We don’t want to add to that shame. Correction officers take pictures in jail, including the counseling we do… but that is their choice. We can’t control that. We also don’t take pictures of patients we do counseling with in the hospital. On rare occasions, in non-hospital settings, I have taken pictures of counseling where I take the picture of the counselor and the back of the client. Again, it is about not exploiting. Additionally, hospitals don’t want groups going into their facility for photo ops. In fact, many institutions really don’t want that to happen.
  6. Exploitation is hard to identify sometimes. Two humorous stories that sort of relate to exploitation. The first is one that I heard about, but hadn’t seen personally. The story could be apocryphal, but since I have seen things that mimic this in a somewhat less extreme way, I suspect that it has basis. A missionary went to a church and asks “Who loves to eat chicken?” Hands went up all over the place. The picture of all of these people with smiling faces and hands raised was put on the missionary’s newsletter with the implied message that these were excited people responding to the message of the missionary. And speaking of newsletters, the second story is one I have more direct connection with although I wasn’t actually at the event. A baptism at a church plant was held in a large swimming pool. A lot of pictures were taken. No problem. However, then one missionary (Missionary “A”) began complaining that another missionary (Missionary “B”)  at the event had used a picture of the baptism service in his newsletter giving the implicit message that it was his ministry. The Missionary “A” thought that “B” was taking credit and thus exploiting the event for personal gain— and told an awful LOT of people his sentiments. The problem was that “A” was also using these photos for support-raising work, so his complaints about “B” seemed more self-serving. But that is part of the problem isn’t it? Pictures often serve the missionary rather than the people the missionary is supposed to serve.

Do we take pictures? Yes… a lot of pictures in fact. Probably more than we should. We don’t always get the ethics right. But we try, at least, to ask a few questions:

  • Is it legal? In some situations (jail being the most obvious example) taking photos is illegal.
  • Is it exploitative? Do the pictures help the missionary while exploiting those who are being photographed.
  • Is it kind?  Is it honoring? Showing people in a miserable state may get more support money… but many food and child organizations learned decades ago that there is a danger in this. (I remember a young child in the US telling his mother that “I don’t want to be brown” after watching one too many of these child feeding organizations showing well-dressed people providing food for starving and unkempt “brown children.”  The Philippines is full of beauty and joy. Yes there are miseries as well. But unbalanced photos deceive and such deception is not a victimless crime.
  • Is it true? Pictures can mislead… often even moreso than words.
  • Is it private? Some things should not be photographed. Often the public does NOT have the right to know.
  • Is it voluntary? Are people supportive of being photographed for missionary (or fund-raising) purposes?
  • Is it safe? (Not a Millenium Man reference. I have worked with people who go to places where Christian ministry is actively opposed (an odd thing indeed… but the world is indeed an odd place). They ask specifically not to have their picture put online… or alternatively, pictures shared should not be labelled with their names.

An old media trope is of a person going to a a remote technologically backward village and taking pictures with a camera (Polaroid perhaps). The people are deeply bothered because of the belief that in taking their picture, the photographer is stealing their souls. I don’t know if there is/was a belief of some cultures or not… but often in taking pictures there is indeed a theft involved. We need to be careful in this area.


Missionary Presence and the Missio Dei

Two or three years ago, I was reading Rodger Bassham’s book on Mission Theology. The full name of the book is

Mission Theology: 1948-1975 Years of Worldwide Creative Tension: Ecumenical, Evangelical and Roman Catholic

It speaks of the development of Ecumenical or Conciliar missions during this time especially and how Evangelical missions broke away in the 1960s. In the 1960s, a strange thing occurred that I could not really understand. Actually several things I could not understand. Among the Evangelicals there was a MacGavran-driven push to very narrowly drive missions to be seen through the lens of evangelism and church growth alone. I think that view was flawed on a number of fronts. However, far more flawed was what was happening on the Conciliar side of missions.

In the Conciliar Missions there was the growth of viewing missions as not involving proselytization/conversion. Some would even say that Christian missions was the “antithesis” of proselytization. Rather, Christian missions should be understood in terms of “Christian presence” in non-Christian setting.

As much as I may be against the Church-growth movement’s attempted hijacking of Evangelical missions in the 1960s, at least I understand what they believed in and why. But I really struggled with how one could view Christian missions, driven as it were by the Great Commissions of the Bible, as being opposed to seeking for non-Christians to become followers of Christ.

Eventually I realized that it had to do much with the concept of Missio Dei. In this, I am not original. I was just slow in seeing it— perhaps because of my denominational background. As I looked more, I began to understand why some Evangelicals have problems with “Missio Dei,” a missiological concept that seems pretty self-evident.

Missio Dei, “The Sending God”  as a modern Protestant concept goes back to Karl Barth in terms of the Father sending the Son, and the Father and Son sending the Spirit. Karl Hartenstein in 1934 took this idea and tied it more closely to Missions, “The Mission of God.” Since Missio relates to Sending etymologically and conceptually, this is hardly difficult. God is Trinity and is working in the full Godhead over the full earth. Reading David Bosch in Transforming Missions, we see the Missio Dei formally described separately from Missiones Ecclesiae, “The Mission of the Church.” The Mission of God is bigger than the Mission of the Church.

The first image below I may describe as the “Orthodox Understanding” of Missio Dei. God is at work, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the whole earth and in and through the church. The church is also called to join in God’s mission as witnesses and as members of God’s Reign on earth. Thus the Mission of God includes the Church, but is bigger than the Church. Where the church isn’t God still is, and He is at work. One can see it in terms of Preparatio Evangelium (or the preparing of people for the Gospel message). However there are some things God chooses to leave for the church to do. Key among these is actually serving as witnesses to the truth of the Gospel, and the establishment of communities of faith.

The most obvious example of this in the Bible, I think, is the story of Cornelius and Peter. God sends an angel to Cornelius and tells him to get Peter. God also  sends a vision to Peter preparing him to the uncomfortable truth that God is not just the God of the Jews, but the Gentiles as well. When invited by Cornelius, Peter comes and shares the Gospel message. Cornelius and his household respond and the Holy Spirit demonstrates powerfully that God is, indeed, the God of both Jew and Gentile. In the story, God’s Mission was both to the Church (vision to Peter) and to the World (angel to Cornelius). The Mission of the Church is seen in Peter sharing the Gospel message (noting it would have been much simpler for the angel to do this… but this is clearly not God’s desire… He wants this to be the activity of the Church). When Cornelius and household respond, we see the third sending of God— sending of the Holy Spirit after the sending of an angel and sending of a vision. I believe the story of Peter and Cornelius well-demonstrates Missio Dei and Missiones Ecclesiae.

Missio Dei 1

I believe that the second image, the next one below, sees Mission Dei, the Mission of God in a way that became popular in the ecumenical missions of the 1960s. In this view the Missio Dei is given a dominant place. <In the orthodox view, God’s Mission is given a dominant place as well, but importance is also given to the Great Commission. In the orthodox view, one sees that God has given a unique role for the church that God will not do Himself, but calls upon the church to do.> Emphasis can be placed on the Mission of God, both in the world and in the church, that there is a question of what the role of the church in mission actually is. After all, if God is at work in all parts of the world, in all cultures, and all peoples, is it possible that a Christian missionary coming into a non-Christian culture is actually undoing what God is doing? If God is working in culture A, doing what He chooses to do there, and a Christian missionary comes into culture A, and begins telling them that they have to be less like culture A and more like the missionary, is it possible that that is not God’s will? In the 1960s that became a serious question.

And there are certainly reasons for this concern. Before the arrival of the Spanish, an Incan Emperor had the realization that the prior understanding of the Sun as the Great God was wrong. The Sun is constrained to a single path and limited in its domain. Clearly there must be a greater being than the Sun. There must be a God who is the creator of all things and this God is the one who is deserving of worship, not the Sun or other created things. When the Spanish came some decades later, they essentially judged most everything going on in Incan culture as pagan and bad, and replaced as much as they could with a Christian faith dominated by Spanish cultural aspects. It seems like the Spanish, who saw themselves, in part, as carriers of the Gospel to the heathen, were actually undermining what God was doing among the Incan people.

In the 1960s, there developed a growth of the belief in Religious Pluralism and the concept of Missionary as Christian Presence. If the Mission of God includes work in the non-Christian lands, then maybe God’s message is also in the religions of those lands. So perhaps the best in Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and other faiths are the works and words of God, and perhaps those who follow the best in these faiths are saved by God within those faiths. But if that is the case, what should a Christian missionary do? Should they seek to proselytize members of those other faiths? Within this mindset the answer is No. One is actually opposing what God is doing in that culture. So then what should the role of a missionary be? One should be in that culture, not directly trying to change it but demonstrating God’s love lived out among them. This is the idea of Christian Presence. With this perspective there still is a missional role for the Church… but that role is small (as the image shows).

I don’t agree with this view at all… but I can at least see how it makes a certain amount of sense from a specific perspective of Missio Dei.

Missio Dei 3

A third option is shown in the image below. With that view, the mission of God is seen as only happening through the church. As such, the church is the sole institution and sole active working of God on earth. If that is the case, then whatever is happening on earth outside the touch of the Church has nothing to do, practically speaking, with God. Thus all cultures with no Christian influence are free from the touch of God’s ministering. The Anti-Missions movement of the 1800s would be an extreme example of this where even Christians doing ministry through institutions (such as missions societies) that seem not to fit the historical image of “church” would have to be seen as serving without divine blessing. God only works through the church and nothing and nowhere else.

More recently, I recall reading a missions writer noting with deep skepticism the story that the “Lost Book” story of the Karen and some other groups in Southeast Asia. The writer was certain that it must have come from missionaries or Christian traders long before Adoniram Judson. The Lost Book story sounds like a Preparatio Evangelium or Redemptive Analogy. But the writer seemed quite certain that it must have come from a Christian (or perhaps Jew) at some point in time. While the writer could be correct, the question is “Why would the writer be so certain that it must have come from outside of the Karen culture?” I guess the logic is that if cultures have no Divine ministry, and if God only works through Christians, then presumably cultures would be unable to have characteristics that point people to God. Of course, there seems to be genuine challenges to this. Paul used Greek beliefs to point people to God. It is also POSSIBLE that in his utilization of the Legend of the Unknown God, Paul was intimating that the god in the story was in fact the God of the Bible. (hard to be dogmatic on that point). I also recall talking to one of my students from the Kachin tribe. The beliefs of the tribe historically included the acceptance of one creator god of all the heavens and the earth, a belief in disconnection from that god due to sinful behavior, and the need for blood sacrifices for atonement. There was more similarities to the Judeo-Christian faith as well. As such, when missionaries arrived, the people were quite quick to respond. This student of mine suggested that Christianity did not actually replace their old religion, but fulfilled it. In Christ, their old religion had the missing piece— the way to have permanent peace with God without the need of continued fear and blood sacrifices. For those who do not see God working in the world outside of the church, this story sounds a bit challenging (I would guess at least), but with an orthodox understanding of Missio Dei, it makes perfect sense. God was working among the Kachin to identify God, their need for God and their ultimate unworthiness. But God left it to the church to share that piece that they needed (Christ as the peacemaker).

Missio Dei 2

I believe that an “orthodox” understanding of Missio Dei leads to a healthy understanding of the role of the church and of the mission of the church in the world. God is on mission, everywhere, and invites us, calls us, to join Him in that mission.

Or How About Christian AND Pagan?

<Background:  A friend of mine was visiting people in the neighborhood here in Baguio. He met a man who is part of a religious group here in the Philippines known as Iglesia ni Cristo (INC). This group was founded over here. Theologically, it is basically Arian. Soteriologically, it is Particularist (meaning salvation is mediated through their organization on only through their organization). Not talking about INC today. The man gave my friend a magazine from their group. It had a bit of that “Friendly-Confrontative” thing going as Jehovah’s Witness magazine-style materials.>

The title of the main article on the magazine listed above was “Lent:  Christian or Pagan.” Of course, one can call almost everything from the Christian church as pagan. Very little trappings of institutional Christianity are in the primitive church. In fact, there are no real holidays recorded. One might argue that there are some holidays that may be implied from the Bible. These are:

  • Jewish holidays. Although they are not directly indicated in the NT text, the predominance of the Jewish believers in the early church, and the fact that the church was recognized as being founded on a Jewish holiday probably meant that many Christians celebrated these holidays regardless of whether the assembly as a whole did.  (Some Christians today are starting to practice the Jewish holidays as the only legitimate Christian holidays. Although this seems flawed, if one accepts an either/or attitude about holidays, one can see where it comes from.)
  • Birth of Christ. Although we don’t really know whether the early church celebrated “Christmas” we know that two of the four gospels shared considerable details about the Birth of Christ, and both emphasize the celebratory nature of this event. Based on this, it is hard to see how Christmas cannot be seen as deeply rooted in Christianity— regardless of pagan influences.
  • Resurrection of Christ. The early church celebrated weekly the Lord’s Day– the resurrection of Christ. Did they practice the celebration yearly? I don’t know, but pilgrimages to the open tomb went way back in church history so clearly celebration on some level wasn’t limited to a weekly event.
  • Additional period celebrations included Eucharist and Love Feast, although these were weekly, not yearly.
  • Pentecost. It is certainly a Jewish holiday, but did the church recognize it as a Christian holiday in the primitive church? Again, the emphasis on it in Acts 2 suggests that the church recognized its importance. Tertullian (160-220) recognized Pentecost as a Christian holiday.

Some like to quote Tertullian (chapter 2 in “To the Martyrs”) to point out the strong divide between pagan and Christian in terms of holiday.

You have no occasion to look on strange gods, you do not run against their images; you have no part in heathen holidays, even by mere bodily mingling in them; you are not annoyed by the foul fumes of idolatrous solemnities; you are not pained by the noise of the public shows, nor by the atrocity or madness or immodesty of their celebrants; your eyes do not fall on stews and brothels; you are free from causes of offense, from temptations, from unholy reminiscences; you are free now from persecution too.

Those that bring up this passage miss the point, in one reads the broader context. Tertullian is providing comfort to those Christians who are in prison. Tertullian is letting them know that prison isn’t so bad for a Christian. He later compares prison for a Christian to desert for a prophet— a place of asceticism to grow in faith. As such, Tertullian isn’t saying that prison is an inherent good, but that prison does have some advantages. Likewise, it does as if he is saying that pagan celebrations are bad in and of themselves, but are bad in so much as sinful activities are done during them.

Tertullian, in  “On Idolatry, Chapter XIV” gives further warning about Christian involvement in pagan hoidays. The wording is again a bit open to interpretation. It seems to say that we are to have positive relationships with pagans, not negative. It seems to be assumed that pagan holidays would involve a lot of sinful behavior. Reading a part of this passage you see a bit of the nuance that sounds a bit like Chapter 5 of the Epistle to Diognetus,

“To live with heathens is lawful, to die with them is not. Let us live with all; let us be glad with them, out of community of nature, not of superstition. We are peers in soul, not in discipline; fellow-possessors of the world, not of error. But if we have no right of communion in matters of this kind with strangers, how far more wicked to celebrate them among brethren!”

This is a bit open to interpretation, but it is pretty clear that interaction between Christians and Pagans are to be positive and friendly, but we are not to take in pagan beliefs or sinful behaviors into the church. Because Saturnalia is brought up specifically (a celebration of considerable lewdness commonly), some writers have tried to say that Christmas cannot be celebrated. However, there seems to be little connection between Christmas as Saturnalia behaviorally, belief-wise, and even chronologically. It seems to be a made up controversy.

But one might take it further. What if Saturnalia WAS brought into the church. Suppose it was modified when it came into the church. I am making up something just for the point of example. The modifications might include:

  • Changing the name. Saturnalia is tied to the Roman god Saturn. So it could have a new name. Suppose the church called it. Winterfast (not Winterfest).
  • Changing the meaning.  Unlike the original meaning, Winterfast can represent a time of self-denial. In the Northern Hemisphere, at least, this time of year is a time of death and little sunlight and warmth. (I hope it is clear that the Winter Solstice is not a pagan event or a Christian event. It is a solar event.)
  • Changing the behavior. Saturnalia was a time of feasting, so maybe Winterfast would be one of fasting.
  • Creating new symbols.  Winterfast could create whole new symbols that express the event in a meaningful way to the celebrants.
  • Redefining old symbols. Use some symbols that are part of Saturnalia but given them entirely new contexts and meanings.

So in this case, if Saturnalia came into the church with a new name, new meaning, new behaviors, new symbols, and redefined symbols, to what extent is it still Saturnalia. Maybe it is something new. And if it is on a different day, finding a connection between the two  has become silly and argumentative.

We can take the meandering above to consider three views of holidays:

  • Full incorporation of Pagan holidays into the church. This probably doesn’t really exist per se. Coming into the church the meaning, practice, and symbols have pretty much always changed considerably. Halloween looks a lot like this one… although the history of Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve) is much more complex than some would suggest.
  • Christian holidays with absolutely no pagan roots. This is probably an impossibility as well. The Lord’s Day celebration (a weekly celebration) might have no pagan roots. Perhaps the only yearly holiday that the early church practiced without pagan roots was Pentecost. And even Pentecost (Feast of Weeks) is a festival tied to the wheat harvest. Since harvest festivals are very much pagan in origin, it almost certainly fell in line with other pagan harvest festivals at one time or another. So perhaps this doesn’t count either.
  • A third option is to do what was done above with “Winterfast.” Take a celebration, pagan or otherwise, and change it in so many ways that it has no real similarity to its “pagan origins.” Based on articles scattered all over the Web, it is pretty clear that this won’t satisfy some people.
  • Below is a fourth option. This option is from Pope Gregory the Great as instructions for what has been called the Gregorian Mission to Great Britain:

“The heathen temples of these people need not be destroyed, only the idols which are to be found in them… If the temples are well built, it s a good idea to detach them from the service of the devil, and to adapt them for the worship of the true God… And since the people are accustomed, when they assemble for sacrifice, to kill many oxen in sacrifice to the devils, it seems reasonable to appoint a festival for the people by way of exchange. The people must learn to slay their cattle not in honour of the devil, but in honour of God and for their own food; when they have eaten and are full, then they must render thanks to the giver of all good things. If we allow them these outward joys, they are more likely to find their way to the true inner joy… It is doubtless impossible to cut off all abuses at once from rough hearts, just as the man who sets out to climb a high mountain does not advance by leaps and bounds, but goes upward step by step and pace by pace.”

Letter by Pope Gregory (18 July 601) to Mellitus. (A History of Christian Missions by Stephen Neill, London: Penguin Books, 1990), pg 58

This is classic accommodation. Accepts the celebration as something that is not bad. But the meanings are to be changed so that it is directed to God rather than somewhere else— and that which is sinful is removed or gradually cut off. One might argue that this is quite in line even with what Tertullian was talking about– living in the world but not of it.

So let’s bring back that original question. Is Lent Christian or Pagan? The INC is also against Christmas because they see it as pagan. (Curiously, I have seen them have an “End of the Year” celebration— something with more pagan and less Christian basis than Christmas. However, this issue has usually be used to try to demonstrate denominational superiority rather than embrace virtue.)  Truth is, that entirely pagan and entirely Christian are not really options. If the meanings and symbols of a celebration are Christian, calling it Pagan makes no sense. And since it is pretty much impossible to find a celebration that Christians celebrate (or even could celebrate) that doesn’t line up in some manner or other with pagan celebrations at some point in history, totally Christian is not really an option.

If one does not want to celebrate anything (some Christian groups do sort of go this route) that is fine. Otherwise, the realistic choice is

Christian AND Pagan

I don’t celebrate Lent myself, because I am not from that tradition. However, I can see it as a positive part of the liturgical calendar (as long as the revelries of Fat Tuesday don’t spoil it).

I feel that it is time to get past the silliness that hits us every year— especially about Christmas. The connections between Christmas and pagan feasts are actually much weaker than some people suggest. But of course the connections are there. That is not a bad thing. The same can be said of Easter, Lent, Thanksgiving (if one chooses to look at it as a Christian holiday), Epiphany, or pretty much any other day you would choose. How can we redeem cultural symbols and days?