Paradoxical Missions

Image result for two ducks

I am teaching Contemporary Missions at our seminary, and as I am doing so, I am realizing there are many things changing rapidly that means I probably need to (finally) move on from Stan Guthrie’s book “Missions in the Third Millenium” as required reading. Good book, but the class is CONTEMPORARY issues rather than TWENTY YEARS AGO issues.

Looking over my notes, I would like to promote a vision for future missions that I would like to call “Paradoxical Missions.” It is called that because it suggests values that are traditionally not encouraged in missions.

  1.  From Great to Good. With due respect to the book by James Collins,  Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t, I would like to promote a move in missions from Great to Good rather than Good to Great. I am not the first to suggest this. Way back in 2003, Eric Swanson wrote an article in Christianity Today, “Great to Good Churches.” I really enjoyed that article. Of course, the idea is that the two terms  (great and good) are on two different scales. Great is on a scale of Success. Good is on a scale of Righteousness. Of course, one can try to combine the two. One book tries to merge the scales a bit– Good to Great to Godly by Mike Bonem and another book, Good to Great in God’s Eyes by Chip Ingram, seeks to move the term Great into the Righteousness scale. I have read neither of these books, and have no issue with either one to the extent that I am familiar with the books. However, for me, the term “Great” is a problematic word. Much like the term “Prosperity,” even though it has good potential meanings, it commonly becomes a toxic lure. To me, Christian missions should avoid anything that tempts one towards greatness. There are  enough people and organizations striving for greatness. Let them get the accolades, and we should strive for goodness instead.
  2. Strong to Weak.  Missionaries have commonly, and traditionally, come into a new culture from a position of strength. Early on, many missionaries considered mission lands as places that are under colonial rule, and often, although not always, served with support of the colonial authorities. Missionaries often would come in and be in a position to get their way because of funding from outside sources that locals lacked. In recent years, this strategy has been questioned. It may not be good for missionaries to be linked to colonialism/imperialism. It may not be good for missionaries to be seen as sources of economic blessings (leading to odd constructs such as prosperity gospel or cargo cults). It may not be good to promote dependency in developing churches in developing countries. It may not be good to keep a faith “foreign” by keeping it under economic hegemony of a foreign church or agency. Out of this has come the growth of Vulnerable Missions. While I don’t really care for the term “vulnerable” I don’t have a better one. I do personally prefer “Weak Missions” but I know that is just to prone to misinterpretation. But in weakness, a missionary enters a culture as a lamb, not a lion. He or she has a more catalytic role than authoritarian role. Reliance on God takes precedence over reliance on State, Denomination, or Financial supporters.   (In Christian missions, I do have a lot of respect for the Honor-Shame Movement, that gives greater respect to “patronage.” I have not reconciled these— the support for dependency in the patronage system and the rejection of dependency in Vulnerable Missions. Maybe someday I will figure it out.)
  3. Big to Small.  I suppose this is implied by the other two, but I still feel it is worth emphasizing.  For many, Great implies Big, as does the word Strong. In missions, we talk about churchplanting movements, saturation strategies, and “discipling a whole nation.” They sound Great, they sound Strong, they sound Big. However, having been raised in the “Burned Out District” of Western New York– a region of big revivalism and saturation strategies in the 19th century, I feel justified in being a bit cynical about the long-term repercussions of such Big strategies. While AD2000 (the most well-known such activity) and other mission programs have pushed Big toals with poorly justified deadlines, change is commonly occurring in the mustard seed activities around the world. As I have noted before, some like to modify the “Dream Big!!” mantra with the more realistic “Dream Big, Start Small.” For me, however, it doesn’t honor small. Small doesn’t have to be apologized for. We are all small, and it is entirely possible that a God-size vision is often a small vision.

If one looks at some of the most effective times in Church History, one must note the growth during the 1st three centuries of the church in the Roman Empire and neighboring lands. One must also consider the growth of the Chinese Church in the 20th century. Both grew without superstars or superprograms or super-anything. They were good people, faithfully doing small activities, reaching out from a position of weakness.

I know that there can be a case made for Great, Big, Strong Missions. However, I tend to think that in this post-modern, post-colonial, and (in some places) post-Christian world, success will typically not be to the swift and the strong. The swift and the strong will have their successes in many arenas, but I think success in missions will be to the Good, the Weak, and the Small. Paradoxical Missions.

<Okay, I will admit that I used the picture at the top of this post because “Paradox” sounds a wee bit like “Pair of Ducks.” However, Ducks are also one of my favorite illustrations of missions. Ducks symbolize a bi-cultural bridge. They are comfortable on land, in trees, in the air, on the water, and (for diving ducks) under the water. And, I don’t know, but seeing this picture of two animals clearly designed to swim and fly, competently walking on snow seems to say something as well. Missions needs more ducks.>

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s