Theology of Holistic Missions

<I was recently asked to create a Bachelor’s level course on Holistic Missions. I think it will be called, “Foundations of Holistic Missions.” Anyway, in my latest book, “Walking With: A Theological Reflection on Christian Missions,” I had written a chapter on holistic missions— or at least theological perspective that supports holistic missions. However, in the published version, the chapter was missing. Although it is a topic that I am very interested in, and one that is important in Theology of missions, in the end, my three part structure on my reflections, left this topic as the odd one out. I removed it. However, here it is. I don’t think it made it to a final edit, so please excuse any typos or other forms of awkwardness.>

Chapter 11

Nature of Ministry in Missions

As noted in a previous chapter, there is a great disagreement of what ministries should qualify as missions. Part of this is because of the reaction between conservative and liberal Christianity. Often the argument is centered on where social ministry fits into the overall ministry of missions. This conflict has not always been an issue. For example, consider the “Nestorian” mission work that extended across Asia during the first millennium.

As part of their missionary strategy, the Church of the East set up a number of schools in the Persian Empire where monks studied theology, medicine, music and other academic subjects before being sent out to evangelize. Whenever the Nestorians established a new episcopal see (the seat of a bishop), they also set up a school, a library and a hospital, thus combining educational and medical work with their preaching.”1

The monks served as the missionary arm of the Church of the East. For example, a mission team to the Haphthalite Huns in the sixth century included four missionary priests, one missionary bishop, and two merchants. They were to move to an unreached city on one of the major trade routes. The team would establish a church, library, and hospital— evangelizing, healing, and training. The merchants not only provide funding for the mission, they also provided a very acceptable reason for being there.2

This may be innovative in some ways, but is not without precedent. Paul and his partners evangelized, planted churches, trained leaders, healed the sick, and even collected moneys for the needy. They also made tents. This tentmaking certainly provided funding for their mission trip, but it also gave them a purpose to interact with people in the marketplace.

We see this same sort of multifaceted ministry work with William Carey. William Carey evangelized and sought to plant churches, but also was involved in legal reform, translation, publishing, teaching, and more. With such patterns from the Bible, early missions history, and early Protestant missions history, it seems like it should be obvious that mission work should be broad in scope. However, there were factors pushing towards a more narrow interpretation.

First, many see the Great Commandment as a calling for missionaries, rather than a calling for the church. Further, the Matthew version of the Great Commandment is seen as the guidance for what missionaries are supposed to do, and by inference, what they are not supposed to do. The Matthew version of the Great Commandment can be seen as describing a 3-part cycle.

  • Evangelize (proselytize them)
  • Baptize (bring them into the church)
  • Teach (train them to be multiplying Christians)

Looking at this, there seems to be no room for other forms of ministry. John Stott and Leslie Newbigin, among others, noted that this limited view of missions ministry is in no way supported by other Scripture. They would point out the John version of the Great Commission that notes that the apostles are commissioned to be sent out as Christ was. This suggests that Jesus is the model for the apostles. Jesus integrated social ministry (healing), signs, evangelizing, and teaching.

The Great Commandment and the Great Commission

The Great Commandment, not the Great Commission, should be seen as the key guide for Christians. The Great Commandment guides one’s relationship to God, others, and self. But how does one apply the Great Commandment? Jesus used the Parable of the Good Samaritan to not only explain who is one’s neighbor, but apparently also what obedience to the Great Commandment looks like lived out. Much of Sermon on the Mount is application of the Great Commandment. The same is the Great Commission. One of the ways that one lives out one’s love for God and for one’s neighbor, is to go into the world and act as witnesses and messengers of God’s love and message to all.

Why does this matter? It matters because this means that one cannot say one is accomplishing the Great Commission if the activity is inconsistent with the Great Commandment. For example, activities such as forced conversion (“Cross or Sword Evangelism”) is not obedient to the Great Commission. Some may not have trouble with such a method because it may be seen as an end that justifies the means. However, most I believe would say that forced conversion stands condemned by the Great Commandment.

What about social ministry? If one proclaims the message of God while refusing to meet evident physical, psycho-emotional, or social economic needs, can one justify this by the Great Commission, understood as an application of the Great Commandment? Good people can disagree, but the process of testing the methodology requires both the Commission and the Commandment. It needs to be “Doubly Great.”

20th Century Rejection of Social Ministry

The Liberal-Fundamentalist conflict of the early 20th century had its effect and how missions and ministry were viewed. As noted in a previous chapter, there was increased questions about missionaries going out and proselytizing those of other faiths and cultures. Religious Pluralism grew in the early decades, drawing into question of whether proselytizing was necessary, or even desirable. Tied to this was the growth of what became known as the Social Gospel. While proponents of this view have often been unjustly exaggerated in their views, the thought was that missionaries should focus on works of social ministry rather than proselytizing. As some mission work became lopsided toward social ministry, other missionaries and mission agencies moved in the opposite direction, rejecting social ministry.

The 1960s brought strange trends to missions. As noted before, there was a shift in concilliam missions (missions associated with the World Council of Churches) to see missions as incompatible with proselytization. In reaction to this, Evangelicals created their own alternative first with the World Congress on Evangelism, held in Berlin (1966). The group’s noble goals were driven by an attempt to restore evangelism to missions. However, there was a tendency to overreact, and pull away from Social ministry. Part of this was aided by supporters of Donald MacGavran. His work in missions and church growth, while ground-breaking in so many ways, did sometimes tend towards a pragmatic approach to missions and narrowing of the missions call to churchplanting. The pragmatism could also be seen in a tendency to take missions theology less seriously.3

Additionally, during this time there was a promotion of what I might call “Apocalypticism.” In this I mean that many believed that Jesus Christ was ‘returning any day.’ As such, Christians had to put all of their efforts into quick conversions. As such, medical ministries, community development, and work on human rights, could be seen as more of a distraction than part of real missionary work. This is hardly new. The Student Volunteer Movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries had a slogan, “Evangelization of the world in one generation.” This idea was repeated with the AD2000 movement, and others. While goals are not a bad idea, it is a bit troubling that the Great Commission is seen to have an expiration date built into it, rather than that Christians are to be faithful until the Lord comes. Further, quick methods for evangelization may seem more effective up-front. But 50 years later, one must wonder if development ministries would have proven more effective in time.

Perhaps the most odd of these reasons for minimizing social ministry is the view of some missiologists that they can “speed up” Christ’s return. They point to the prophecy of Jesus in Matthew 24:14, “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.” Some have taken this verse to mean that if the gospel message is preached effectively to every people group on earth, Jesus will suddenly return. This perspective reminds me of the short story by Arthur C. Clarke entitled, “The Nine Billion Names of God.”4 This story is about a fictitious group in Central Asia who believed that if they could write down all 9,000,000,000 names of God, the Universe would come to an end. Considering that to be their noble quest, they buy a supercomputer (back in the day when such a task would require a supercomputer) to speed up their slow, pain-staking work. As an outsider to this group, one may wonder why this group would want the Universe to end, but one could also question why some missionaries wanted to speed up the return of Christ. If one has compassion for the lost, lessening the opportunity for them to respond seems out of sorts with such compassion. Thankfully, there seems no good reason to see this verse as saying that God is timing the return of Christ on our mission work. And if, by some chance He is, it is really uncertain what criteria would qualify as the gospel being preached “in all the world for a witness unto all nations.”

The 1960s and 1970s were challenging times for Social Ministry in Evangelical Missions. John Stott as a conservative Anglican, bridged the gap between Conciliar and Evangelical missions. He worked very hard to change the minds of several Evangelical leaders, such as Billy Graham and C. Peter Wagner, who sought to define missions in more “Spiritualistic” terms. It seems as if Stott was not really able to change their minds. However, he was able to change the wording of some the early pronouncements of the Evangelical Missions movement that formed in the 60s.5

While I know this is still a touchy subject in Evangelical circles, I am thankful for the work done to prevent a view that undermined the value of Social Ministry. If Jesus embraced both social ministry and proclamation ministry, why would we seek to do less?

Views Regarding Social and Spiritual Ministry

Jerry Ballard in his article “Missions and Holistic Ministry”6 describes several major perspectives regarding how social ministry is viewed by Christian missionaries or ministers. This section will use his work as a starting point. Spiritual Ministries would include things that are, right or wrong, seen as more spiritual than other ministries. This is not very informative, but such ministries may include: evangelism, churchplanting, discipleship, prayer, worship, and so forth. These may be (perhaps) seen as having eternal value. Social Ministries would include pretty much everything else— those ministries that are primarily addressing, physical, social, psycho-emotional, economic, and ecological concerns. These (again perhaps) may be seen as having temporal value.

Figure 14. Spiritual versus Temporal/Social Ministry7

If Spiritual Ministry is seen as the vertical axis and Social Ministry is seen as the horizontal axis, then one has created a plane of ministry. Figure 14 shows this plane. A rectangle of Spiritual Ministry covers any ministry that is highly “spiritualistic,” while a different rectangle shows ministry that is highly “social.”

A Spiritualist perspective may be seen as the view that Christian ministers should only be doing spiritual ministry. Other ministries are essentially a distraction, drawing one away from what God has called to be done.

The extreme opposite of this view could be described as the Social Gospel perspective. If the Spiritualist perspective is drawn from the Great Commission as described in Matthew 28, the Social Gospel perspective could be seen as drawn from Matthew 25. In Matthew 25: 31-45, obedience to God is seen in doing social ministry. In the extreme of this perspective, if one is doing social ministry, one is doing the whole calling of God.

The Convenience perspective is somewhat similar to the Spiritualist perspective. However, one who embraces the Convenience perspective would accept the premise that “It is nice to be nice.” As such, this person may not really think their calling is to do social ministry. However, this person would not see social ministry as a distraction. If there is a need, and helping out would not undermine doing their “real work,” the missionary will try to be a blessing.

The Ulterior Motive perspective sees Social ministry as an important part of Christian ministry. However, one who accepts this perspective doesn’t see social ministry as inherently important but as valuable to open doors for spiritual ministry. This person may see spiritual ministry as “the real ministry” but recognize that social ministry is still an important part of the process. I used to be involved in medical missions. In these medical missions activities, we would provide free medical, dental, and surgical services, along with free medicines and vitamins. Normally, we would also evangelize. Many of the people I worked with in this activity would say that their real ministry is to evangelize and get people to be part of a home Bible study and a church family. They saw the medical and dental services as the way to draw them in and get them to respond positively to the “spiritual ministry.”

The Holistic perspective sees Social Ministry and Spiritual Ministry as both being part of God’s call to Christian service. As such, a person with this viewpoint would value both and seek, when possible, to integrate both in their ministry work. This view may be seen as being more in line with John Stott’s imagery of ministry being like a pair of scissors, or wings on an airplane or bird. Some may see one as having priority over the other… but in for those who have the Holistic perspective, priority doesn’t mean choosing one over the other. (An emergency room team may prioritize certain forms of care in rapid response, but that does not mean that they don’t provide all forms of care.) In the medical mission work I was involved in, there were also many team members that saw spiritual ministry and the medical and dental care as important and working together. As such, they saw no value in separating them and prioritizing one over the other.

Returning to Figure 14, the perspective is likely to have affect behavior. A missionary who embraces a Spiritualistic perspective is going to invest time, energy, and other resources into spiritual ministry, and little into social ministry. One who embraces a Social Gospel perspective is likely to be the opposite, putting most resources into social ministries, with little into spiritual ministries. Figure 14 shows Convenience and Ulterior Motive perspectives as sharing the same space on the diagram. Both do not highly value social ministry. One does it because the missionary wants to be nice when possible. The other sees it a means to the end of doing “real ministry.” As such both are likely to be invest more seriously in spiritual ministry, and much less diligence in social ministry. Finally, one who embraces Holism will seek the overlap of the two ministries— high quality and resource investment both in spiritual and social ministries.


Missionaries should, as part of developing their own theology, address the issue of what truly entails mission work. How narrow or broad is one’s calling. The answer is not simple since our chief example, Jesus Christ, did not make it simple. He embraced a broad understanding of what it means to serve God, guided by the Great Commandment. At the same time, God does empower people differently and places them in unique situations. As such, even if one a Holistic Perspective in theory (for example), one’s circumstances and giftings may place one in a position of doing ministry that leans towards one extreme or another.

In my case, I presently teach missions in a seminary as my primary ministry role. That role is not overtly holistic. Some may see it as more Spiritualistic since it involves training people to do Christian ministry. Others may see it as more Social ministry since its focus is on education and research rather than evangelism, discipleship, and church planting and growth. I spend very little time worried about the bounds of Spiritual Ministry and Social Ministry. In fact, it is entirely possible that dividing Christian ministry into two categories is a human construct rather than one that God would recognize as valid.

Chapter Eleven Endnotes

1 Mark Dickens, “Nestorian Christianity in Central Asia”. 2000. in AV-STM Leadership Development Program 2006. [CD-ROM] Baguio City, 2006, 2-3. Article is available online at

2 More on this with article, Robert H. Munson, “The Role of Trade Routes in the Spread of Christianity in Asia During the First Millennium.”

3 We are back to Rodger Bassham’s book, Mission Theology.

4 Arthur C. Clarke, “The Nine Billion Names of God.” Originally published in Star Science Fiction Stories, Frederick Pohl, ed. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1953).

5 A couple of interesting articles on John Stott’s work are: Just Distraction: What does the Bible say about social justice? By Katherine Ladd (2019)

When John Stott Confronted Billy Graham by Trevin Wax (2013)

6 Jerry Ballard, “Missions and Holistic Ministry.” In World Missions: The Asian Challenge: A Compendium of the Asia Mission Congress ’90, Held in Seoul, Korea August 27-31, 1990. 342-344.

7 Much of this is expanded on in Robert H. Munson, Christian Medical Missions:: Principles and Practices in the Church’s Role for Effective Community Outreach in the Philippines and Beyond, Rev. A (Baguio City, Philippines, MM-Musings, 2013). Also video on this available, “Social Ministry as Part of an Integrated Mission Strategy, Parts 1 and 2.” These can be found at

Quote on “The Kiljoy Objection”

Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson describe the Kiljoy Objection to Professional theology in terms of a question: “Why examine everything? Why not just have simple faith? Aren’t we supposed to be like little children and not question everything?”

Their answer is excellent in my view:

Too many people confuse “simple, childlike faith” with “simplistic and childish faith.” Theology— enven professional theology– does not deny the necessity of humbe acceptance of God’s message to humankind in Jesus Christ and the scriptural narrative bout him. It does, however, push beyond blind and unquestioning acceptance of any and every interpretation of that message that happens to sound spiritual or comforting.

Emil Brunner, a great twentieth-century Swiss theologian, offered a marvelous illustration in answer to the Killjoy Objection in its various forms. He compared the gospel to fresh produce in a market. The frutis and vegetables are there to be enjoyed by the palate and to nourish people’s bodies, not to be cut up and examined by instruments in a laboratory. Yet no one objects to the fact that some of the fruit is so examined in modern laboratories! It must be examined to assure that the produce is safe and wholesome. The health department sends inspectors around to the markets to take samples back to their laboratories to analyze them for poisons, nutritional value, freshness and so on. In the process of being broken down and examined, they are necessarily destroyed— but all for the sake of the consumers’ health.

Likewise, theology may look as if it is destroying belief, but in reilty it is examining and testing Christian beliefs and teachings to find out if htey are conistent with good spiritual health. The ltimus test is Jesus Christ and the biblical message that centers around him. Just as engaging in laboratory analysis of food is no substitute for eating, so theological examination of beliefs is no substitute for a full-orbed Christian faith. The theologian— like the food expert— should be a connoisseur and not merely a critic. …

–Stanley J. Grenz, Roger E. Olson, Who Needs Theology: An Invitation to the Study of God (Downers Grove, IL:IVP Academic, 1996). ch.4.

Thoughts on Reverse Missions

I have been doing a bit of thought on ‘Reverse Missions”— this is missionaries who depart from New Sending Countries (countries that traditionally received missionaries), and serve in Old Sending countries 9countries that traditionally sent missionaries). These reflections are pretty off-the-cuff. I will hopefully be able to fill out these ideas later.

#1. Reverse Missions is perfectly valid. Early on after I arrived in the Philippines, Christians I knew thought it humorous the idea of Filipinos departing from the Philippines to go to places like the United States or South Korea to do missions. Some would accept the idea, but see it only in terms of Diaspora Missions— doing ministry work with Filipinos living in those countries. But unless you are one who sees missions as only applying to pioneering work among people who have not had the gospel presented in a manner that they can realistically respond to, reverse missions is just as valid as any other type of missions.

#2. Reverse Missions is rapidly becoming an anachronistic term. Perhpas it is already anachronistic. More Protestant missionaries (I am not sure about Catholic or Orthodox missions) come from New Sending Countries than Old Sending Countries. For decades, missions has been from all places to all places. Why should a Ghanian missionary serving in England be seen as “reverse” missions. Does it need an adjective of any sort? Arguably, it is missions.

#3. Reverse Missions still requires theological contextualization. The argument could be made that since Christianity is well-established in the recipient country, it is already well-contextualized in that country. It is possible, but culture is transient. It is not only possible that the faith has fallen out of relevance and resonance with the culture, it may be likely. We talk about some countries and cultures as being post-Christian. What that commonly means that the broader culture has changed, while the Christian culture either hasn’t changed, or has changed adjusted to be well-contextualized with a certain sub-culture that is diverging from the broader culture. In some cases, it may take an outsider from both the broad culture and the insular sub-culture to help the church.

#4. Reverse Missions perhaps is even more at risk of “sheep stealing” over “real missions” than regular missions. Sheep stealing is pulling people from existing churches and trying to get them to join one’s own church. This can happen in many places (this happens A LOT here in the Philippines), but perhaps even more common when a large part of the population are part of a post-Christian culture, while still holding, at least nominally, to a Christian denomination. It is tempting to assume the problem is the church they are part of. Is that true? Perhaps, but it can also be rather self-serving for a missionary to assume what is good for him/herself (growing the missionary’s ministry) is also what is best for the people being served.

#5. Reverse Missions makes it even harder to define what missions is (and is not). I feel that missions is best defined in relation to one’s own church. But I understand that culture or types of ministry seems to make more sense to others. Rather than trying to answer this question, I will just note that this challenge exists.

If I Try to Get You to Leave Your Church to Go to My Church, Is That Missions?

I was reading “Encountering the History of Missions” by John Mark Terry and Robert Gallagher. In the Reformers, particularly Martin Luther and John Calvin, they try to make the (what I consider to be) controversial argument that they were quite missional. Their argument, however, seems to boil down to, “See how much they tried to get people to leave other churches and join their own?”

In most cases, this church piracy involved trying to get people to leave the Roman Catholic church to join their own group. This is a big question for me since I serve in a missions role in the Philippines. Philippines is over 80% Roman Catholic, and over 90% Christian. Many Evangelical missionaries in the Philippines focus very intentionally on getting Catholics to “be born again.” However, since the Bible is pretty clear that only God knows the heart and we are only competent to examine our own selves not others, in practice it tends to devolve into getting people to switch churches.

Is that valid? As a ministry, I suppose it is. While I don’t really have a high opinion of those who try to harvest out of other people’s gardens, I don’t necessarily believe that all churches are equal and their membership roles sacrosanct. However, I feel like church fathers would not see see this as missions. If the Hellenistic house church groups in house church network in Antioch tried to draw away members from the Hebraic or Latin house church groups, I don’t think Paul or Barnabas would be seeing it as missions. In the case of Terry and Gallagher, they were at least consistent. In a later chapter on Jesuit missions, they saw Jesuit attempts to get Protestants to rejoin the Catholic church as a mission strategy. Again, however, I am not sure I would.

Arguments for seeking Roman Catholics to become Evangelicals as mission work seem to be either because of (1) “nominality” of RC believers, (2) dubious theological views of the Catholic church, or (3) rejecting them altogether as Christian.

The weakest of these is #3. I have seen websites describe Philippines as about 10% Christian. To come up with that number, one has to assume that (a) 0% of Catholics are Christian, and (b) 100% of everyone who calls themselves Christian who is not Catholic is indeed a Christian. I have, however, met many very devout Catholics who (as far as I can judge) devout in their behavior, and true in their faith. I have also met a large share of Evangelical Christians who are immoral and seemingly faithless. For me argument #3 is insulting at best to non-Evangelicals, and at worst, playing God.

In the middle is #2. is in the middle for me. Yes, there are a lot of problems (in my view) with Roman Catholic beliefs and practices. Some of the more egregious ones were fixed in Vatican II, but others still very much remain. One may make the argument then that these views are so bad that it is better for Christians to grow in their faith outside of the Catholic church. I think that argument can be made. My problem is that almost always, ministry work to Roman Catholics starts with trying to get them to say “The Sinner’s Prayer.” The first part reinforces the assumption that all Catholics are non-Christian, and supports the most dubious assumption that the Sinner’s Prayer is the same as salvation experience. Further, there seems to be the assumption that evanglizing fails if one is not able to get the person to leave the Catholic congregation for one’s own.

I have experienced a version of this second issue. I have had Evangelical Christians (or more commonly Pentecostals) attempt to share the gospel with me. Once, I tell them that I share a common faith with them, they immediately continue into the second part of their presentation which is why I need to leave my faith tradition and my church and join their faith tradition and their church. I find this rather insulting and built on a very shaky understanding of Christ’s church. I feel like we can do better in training our memberships to recognize and appreciated the Unity and Diversity of the Body of Christ.

The best argument is #1. There is a LOT of nominality in the Roman Catholic church. This tends to happen when culture and faith tend to mix. With the prominence of the RC in Philippines, it is not surprising that their are many many cultural Catholics who have little to know discernible faith. However, the same could be said in many other settings. I am a Southern Baptist missionary serving in Asia. However, in the Southern United States, there are many places where community culture is very Southern Baptist. Not surprisingly, there can be an awful lot of nominality in the memberships of SB churches. BUT… then I ask myself a question— If a Christian denomination began targeting nominal SB members for evangelism and as part of that process intentionally seek to pull them out of the SB churches and into their own, would I consider that to be Missions?

The answer is NO. So although I still struggle with coming up with a satisfying definition of “Christian Mission,” I think that a good definition would NOT include intentional targeting of respondents from other Christian denominations with the intention of drawing them into one’s own denomination. <That being said, I don’t want to judge people in this matter. I teach missions classes overseas, and oversee a counseling center. Neither of these things hit the bullseye on traditional Christian missions either.>

An Evangelical Theology of Other Religions?

I will be teaching “Dialogue with Asian Faiths” in a couple of weeks. It is one of my favorite classes. I don’t just talk about the beliefs and practices, I also speak of the background associated with holding dialogue with people of other faiths. In this class I do talk considerably on various theological implications of living with those of other faiths. But I think I can do more.

I was reading Evangelical Mission Quarterly (Jan-Mar 2019, Vol. 55, #1). One article was titled, “Outlining a Biblical Theology of Islam: Practical Implications for Disciple Makers and Church Planting.” The article is written by Warrick Farah. It is an interesting article. I will admit that I think Farah was using the term “Biblical Theology” wrong, but that is hardly worth complaining about. Farah does a good job addressing several theological questions when it comes to Islam. He notes when dealing with the “Final Prophet of Islam” that in our theological reflection, we cannot simply embrace a traditional Christian attitude about him. We also would be remiss to simply react against “modern” Islamic views of their founder. We need to look at who he was, not just how he has been interpreted by his followers and enemies.

In line with that, we need a solid Theology of Other Faiths. Since I teach at a Southern Baptist seminary, this theology would be somewhat narrowed to be (mostly) Evangelical in terms of the lens used in the theological reflection. Some of the topics for such a theology could include:

  1. What do we say about revelations from other religions. This would include the revelations, how these revelations are handled, and the prophets/shamans behind the revelations. A lot of this has been handled before by Sir Norman Anderson. Anderson notes that broad views include (a) other revelations come from God, (b) other revelations come from the devil, (c) other revelations come from the hopes and aspirations of man, or (d) a nuanced combination of the above.
  2. What do we say about “other gods.” Are they devilish snares (or even ‘literal devils’), or can some descriptions (“god of the heavens” or “God above the gods”) point to the God who is, or even be said to be the same as. (This is especially relevant when it comes to the Abrahamic faiths. Is the God of Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and Sikhism the same? Or similar?)
  3. How should we, as Christians, relate to other religions, houses of worship, idols, religious leaders, and religious adherents. The Bible shows a lot of different ways that range from destroy all idols to respectful coexistence. Where are we supposed to fit into this spectrum?
  4. How does salvation relate to other faiths? This goes back to the common spectrum that utilizes three terms defined broadly— Exclusivism, Inclusivism, and Pluralism. One could add at the extremes, two more categories— Particularism and Universalism. Can other religions be a path to salvation? Are other religions a path to destruction? Is there a middle ground where (some) religions may help prepare people for the gospel? For example, some describe Sikhism as a gateway to Christianity. Some forms of Animism also seem to do this as well.

These seem like good topics to consider under the umbrella of Theology of Other Faiths.

Wicked Missions

I first heard the terms “Wicked Learning Environment” versus “Kind Learning Environment” in an interesting little Youtube video a few days ago on a channel called “Curious Tangents.” Then only a yesterday it came up again when talking to a cousin of mine in the context of the work of Daniel Kahneman (in his book, Thinking Fast as Slow). I decided to look into it a bit more. As far as I can see, the terms were developed by Emre Soyer and Hogarth.

Conceptually, it is quite simple. A “Kind Learning Environment” (KLE) is one in which one’s experience (one could also say training in all of its flavors) can be considered reliable in preparing one for future activity in that environment. A “Wicked Learning Environment” (WLE) is one in which one’ experience must be recognized as unreliable in preparing one for future activity in that environment.

Generally, Kind environments (or domains) are ones where the rules don’t change or the object of study does not change. Chess rules don’t change (as most sports don’t change, or change very slowly), so training and experience in chess in the past will be informative in the future. Human anatomy doesn’t change so training in human anatomy will remain helpful for those fields of work that have to deal with that domain.

This is not to say that there is no need for continuing education in Kind domains. Things still change, but even then, the changes can be understood as specific “tweaks” to the foundation of learning rather than the need to throw things out.

Wicked domains are those where the rules keep changing (software design) or the object studied is constantly changing (like business). Ones past competence is not only necessarily a good indicator of future performance. And further, it is possible that the experiences and lessons one has gained from the past may be an impediment for success in the future.

With this in mind, Christian Missions is VERY WICKED. First, Christian Missions is heavily contextual in terms of ministry setting and time. Things change over time. What is needed in missions in 2020 is not what was needed in 1820 or 620. Settings vary geographically and culturally with varying needs. Based on this alone, if a person had 20 years of experience in Setting A as a missionary, there is no certainty that this experience will be helpful in Setting B.

Second, Christian Missions has different goals. While some (like McGavran or Winter) saw this in terms of evangelism and churchplanting, other goals are almost always realistic, whether it is community development, relief ministry, leadership development and more. And even if one believed that evangelism and churchplanting were the only goals, the specific, strategies to do this may vary greatly in terms of time and place.

Third, the factors that make experience unreliable as a predictor of success is even more true of formal education in missions. Much of missions education is limited to only certain goals, utilizing only certain systems of missions (like 4F — foreign, full-time, fully-financed, forever— missions), that is applicable in only certain places. Add to that, the missions training was probably developed by older missionaries that had developed their knowledge base from their experiences from decades before, and you have a real problem.

Does this mean that formal education and experience has no value? NO. However, one must more consciously enter every mission situation as a learner. At the point where one concludes that one has it all figured out, we are starting down the wrong road. As Daniel Kahneman notes in the book I referenced above, we tend to use our own experiences as reality— that is just the way it is. It it may be that that WAS just the way it was at that point, in that place, under those circumstances.

Personally, I think this is why it is better to learn Theology of Missions to provide a centering for missions. It is also good to study History of Missions, not to learn exactly what to do and who to copy, but rather to understand missions in its variety, its changing quality, and the harshness of lessons. It is also good to learn the principles of Cultural Anthropology, not to understand a culture, but to learn the process for tentatively understanding cultures. It is further important to learn how to do research (especially qualitative research) and how to interpret and utilize findings.

Church and Missions Relationship

How one sees the relationship between the church and missions has ramifications on how one sees missions. Consider three perspectives as shown above.

First let’s consider OPTION A. With this perspective, the church consists of local churches only. Missions occurs only to the extent that local churches directly carry out missions. There are two groups who embrace this perspective as far as I can see.

  • Churches that embrace a “Primitivist” perspective can see things this way. In this view, The local church is the only institution that is God-ordained to carry out His mission on this earth. Such groups are normally very limited in mission work. For some such groups this is exacerbated by a hyper-Calvinist theology that sees God’s predestination as negating the need for mission outreach by the church. But even for those who don’t embrace this, the rejection of specialized structures outside of the local church does hurt their competency for outreach.
  • Churches that embrace the Missional Church movement can move TOWARDS this perspective at least. The local church is missional at its core and so focus is placed on the church organizing and doing missions more than partnering with outside mission organizations. This can be quite commendable. My wife and I were sent out by a local church not a mission organization. However, the lack of specialized structures to deal with the unique challenges of cross-cultural work can be a challenge. In the case of my wife and I, we established ministries not directly tied to a local church, and also work with and through a seminary (which is a sodality structure, much like mission organizations).

Let’s jump ahead to OPTION C. In this case, mission organizations are outside of the church in some way. There is a strong separation. Those who embrace OPTION A sometimes start here. They see the universal church as from God and missions (mission organizations) as not part of the church. Thus they reject mission organizations (and other sodality structures) entirely. However, others can do a similar thing. One might argue that the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodox Churches, and Anglican Church works this way with two separated groups— Diocesan or Secular priests and Religious Priests. The first group is tied to a bishop and normally linked to a parish/church. The second group is tied to a religious order— many of which serve as the missionary arm of the denomination.

In the latter case, it could be argued that there is a strong connection between religious orders and parishes in the Catholic Church (for example). In fact, in 1978 there was a push state that religious orders existed within the local church— autonomous but not independent. Be that as it may, history has at times (including in Protestant circles) where a denomination has a missionary arm that is funded and overseen by the denominational leadership, but whose link to and influence on the local church is very indirect. As the link becomes more tenuous, the missional vitality of the local church wanes.

In between is OPTION B. To understand this, I like to draw on different views of God. One view of God is Unitarian (Unitarian Christian groups, along with Muslim and Jewish groups). In this view. God exists as unity and there is no discernible structure within God’s unity. This is rather like Option A. Another view is Tritheism. This is where God is not a unity but exists as multiple beings (gods rather than God). These gods may have some form of relationship between them, but far from existing in terms of unity. The Hindu “Trinity” or the “Trinity” of Mormonism. This is rather like Option C. In between is historic Trinitarianism (or Binitarianism as well, I suppose). With this view, God is seen as Unity (not gods) but there is discernible structure within that unity. This is somewhat like Option B. The universal church exists as the assembly of the faithful, but there are discernible structures within that unity. Some are people-structured (local churches and bible studies, for example), while some are task-structured (mission organizations, training organizations, helps ministries, etc.).

To me, Option B has the best POTENTIAL. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have problems. But seeing the work of God done by the church as existing not only in terms of work down by modalities, but sodalities, best fits the calling of God in the Gospels and Acts, as far as I can see.

Still, these three Options are still VERY GENERAL. Each has a wide range of minor variations that need to be considered.

Ultimately, we need to find a way to honor and empower the specialization needed often to carry out specialized work, without pushing such specialization completely outside of the church.

Is Kabunian Jesus? Part 2

I really think you will need to read Part 1 to make any sense of this post. You can CLICK HERE.

I suppose I might summarize the first post in saying that one should reject naivety in presuming that a simple YES or NO suffices. Kabunian (a central mythological figure in Cordilleran traditional religion) is NOT Jesus (the central historical figure of the Christian faith). However, there are enough similarities to wonder whether one can use Kabunian as a bridge to the Christian faith, especially since it is quite possible that Kabunian changed through interaction with Christianity such that the deity has taken on a some characteristics we would associate with Christ. I have written before on the Longhouse Religion of the Iroquois as a faith that bridges the polytheistic older faith of the people with the Christian faith. For some people the Longhouse Religion has kept people from converting to Christianity. For others, I believe it has served as a bridge to Christ.

I have talked to a number of Christians over the years who are Cordilleran. Generally the view is that one cannot use Kabunian in any way in the Christian faith. Kabunian is seen as too interwoven into the traditional religion so that it is seen as mixing bad with good, or syncretistic. One cannot separate the name from its associated worldview and beliefs. Myths have power. Sometimes such power is beneficial. Paul used the myth of Epimenides and the Unknown God and its powerful place in Athenian thought to express key aspects of the Christian faith. I doubt however that Paul kept using that myth during the discipleship phase of those who converted to following Christ. I could be wrong of course. On the other side, the powerful role of Olympian gods in Hellenistic regions could also undermine Christian ministry. In Lystra, Barnabas and Paul did miracles— presumably not only as acts of compassion, but also as signs of the veracity of their message. However, the firm belief of the locals in the Greek myths led them to interpret these acts as evidence that Barnabas and Paul were Greek gods walking among them. Myths have power to enlighten as well as to confuse.

Perhaps there is a better question that can be asked:


In this view, we start asking the question of whether God is at work in other faiths and cultures, utilizing the hopes and fears to slowly draw them to Himself. If one takes this view, Kabunian is NOT NECESSARILY a snare of Satan. He could be a human construct that informs us of what people in the culture value most. Or it could be a divine work that can serve as a redemptive analogy, a preparation for the gospel.

Or maybe it is all three. Regardless, it is not a healthy endpoint. In the most positive expression, Jesus Christ FULFILLS Kabunian. Kabunian points in some sense to Christ. The qualities of Kabunian that meet the genuine spiritual need of the people point to Christ, who can ultimately meet those needs. And those aspects of Kabunian that fail to meet those needs point ultimately to Christ because of that lack.

As I said in my last post, I am in no way and expert of Cordilleran Traditional Religion. As such, when I talk to my students and friends who take a very negative stance regarding this faith and theology, I am simply not in a position to tell them they are wrong. In fact, I really am compelled to trust them in this. I have read a paper that takes the ethical system of the culture (‘Lawa at Inayan’) in a very positive light. But it appears to be an exception to the rule— at least among Evangelicals.

However, I would add a small caveat. This caveat is that when one meets a Cordilleran who embraces the traditional religion… or (often more commonly) expresses their faith with a syncretistic mix of that religion and Christianity… don’t react with repulsion. See how their genuine hopes and fears are expressed through their faith, and how their faith can serve as a bridge to the One who can, ultimately, satisfy these hopes and relieve these fears.

I do believe that Christ may not be expressible in terms of Kabunian, but that Christ ultimately can be expressed in ways that honor the best of Cordilleran culture (rather undermining and replacing). Jesus challenged much of Jewish culture while ultimately be a fully inculturated Jew.

What would Jesus look like as a fully inculturated Cordilleran? I saw a picture of Jesus, with His disciples, as a Cordilleran. The image, of course, is far from adequate to answer that question. Still, I think the image points towards a better expression of Christ than we often see where I live. At least it opens the door to questions that need to talked about in community. I will share that picture here again. (The picture is in a Cordilleran restaurant, Ay Wada Casa Lomi House, outside of Baguio City, Philippines. Sorry for the poor quality of my photography skills.)

Is Kabunian Jesus? Part 1

We had an interesting, even if short, discussion in class on whether it is okay to say/believe that Jesus is Kabunian. For those not from a very specific part of the world, this question is meaningless or at least confusing. However, similar questions have come up in many settings. For example, “Must one use the term ‘Jehovah’ or ‘Yahweh’ as the God of the Bible?” as some Jehovah’s Witnesses and some Messianic groups suggest? Is it okay to say that the God of the Bible is Allah, or that the God of the Bible can be called Allah?” Perhaps it is easier to discuss this with less emotional baggage (for many Christians at least) with the case study of Kabunian.

Kabunian is the traditional deity (or prime deity) of the peoples of the Cordillera mountains of northern Luzon Island (Philippines). While a majority of Cordillerans would identify themselves as Christian, Kabunian still has a strong role in this region. Some argue that early Cordilleran religion was built around spirits and ancestors, and the focus on Kabunian is a fairly late evolution of the faith that post-dates contact with Christianity. As such, Kabunian did not have a strong role in the religion until he was needed as an alternative to the God of Christianity. Truthfully, I am not an expert on Kabunian or of Cordilleran traditional religion. Because of this, I truly don’t know if this is actually true, or is a false reinterpretation of that faith.

<Aside here… sometimes there is a strong temptation to reinterpret a religion through a preferred lens of an outsider rather than through its adherents’ own self-understanding. For example, those who embrace the History of Religions school of thought, believe that traditional faiths are polytheistic (and animistic, and shamanistic) and so a traditional faith that has a strong central deity must have gotten that way through interaction with a ‘more mature faith.’ Additionally, within Evangelical Christian circles, there is the belief of some that God only reveals Himself through Christians. Other religions are traps of Satan, and therefore any other belief system that embraces something that is seen as ‘true’ must have gotten that truth through interaction with Christians. Note here, I am just bringing up two possible reasons for falsely believing that Kabunian as primary deity is a recent innovation. I have not studied the issue enough to know the truth. But one must always be cautious of people who are too quick to say that a group believed “A” centuries ago, when the tradition of that group is that they believed “B.”>

But this gives one POSSIBLE reason for saying that Kabunian can be said to be Jesus. PERHAPS KABUNIAN IS A LOCAL CONTEXTUALIZATION OF JESUS. After all, if Kabunian developed in response to Christianity, couldn’t it be seen as a local expression of Christ? I have issues with this idea. A contextualization is more than simply grabbing a term and linking it to another. The name Kabunian means, essentially, “The one to be prayed to” (in the Kankana-ey language). Kabunian as chief god and the one to be prayed to certainly aligns with Christ. However, the stories of Jesus and the stories of Kabunian don’t really line up. The teachings of Kabunian and Jesus don’t really line up (sometimes). That is also a major issue with linking the God of the Holy Bible and Allah from Al-Qur’an. Although there are historically common roots, and Arab and Aramaic Christians called the God of the Bible Allah before the time of the founding of Islam, many of the characteristics of each do not align. Because of this, lazy conflation can lead to confusion. Confusion can be a problem and lead to syncretism. However, to simply reject everything local and simply bring in an outside term can lead to its own form of syncretism— unhealthy mixing of the Christian faith with an outside, rather than local, culture. So let’s consider further.

On the other hand one could make the argument that Kabunian CANNOT be equated with Jesus because the two names are different. Relatedly, some would say that Kabunian is pagan and so can have no part of Christian theology or terminology. On this I think we have to be a bit cautious. While YHWH appears to be a Hebrew-only term, Elohim appears to have been connected with the Phoenican god El. Does that mean that the two are being equated? Well, Yes and No. Let’s take it further, in the New Testament, the dominant term used is Theos. This term has roots in the Greek culture and religion. The term Theos seems to have a link to the term Zeus, the chief Olympian god of the Greeks. Supposedly, the English term ‘God’ has a similar connection to Odin or Wotan, through the proto-Germanic term “Godan.” Does this mean that we have to throw away all terms for God in Christianity with pagan roots. I would argue that the answer is decidedly NO. If one takes the individual cases above, in the case of Elohim, the term may be linked to El, but is transformed in both its written form, but in its meaning as well. Elohim is above all creation and “gods” much as is the Phoenician god El, but differs as God is NOT the father of Baal and Ashtoreth (among other differences). The choice of term draws people to think of the God of Israel as the god of the heavens but its transformation helps avoid too close of a link. The same could be said in the New Testament. The Bible used the Greek term Theos for god, but did not use Zeus. One could argue that there is too much baggage associated with the character Zeus, but there is value in the more abstract Theos. Likewise, in English, the term Odin has too much pagan baggage, but the more generic/abstract term “God” is open for utilization. In places in Asia, for example, missionaries have often sought to equate the God of the Bible with the local expression of the god of the heavens. Is there problems with this? Sometimes there can be. There can be problematic baggage to deal with in the term. For this reason, sometimes the local term is not used, or it is used but changed somewhat. There is, however, considerable value in helping people understand that the God of the Bible is their God as well. In the Philippines it is more common to use the term “Diyos” which is a Spanish term that ultimately traces back to the Greek Theos. At other times, the term Panginoon is used, which is seen more as a descripter of God rather than a name for God.

I think perhaps a better goal in language is that of “Fulfillment” rather than EQUATE OR EQUIVOCATE. We can talk about this in Part II. To go there direction, you can CLICK HERE.

Book Review: “Encountering Theology of Mission” (Ott, Strauss, Tennent)

The book, Encountering Theology of Mission: Biblical Foundations, Historical Developments, and Contemporary Issues by Craig Ott, Stephen J. Strauss, with Timothy C. Tennent, is the best Missiology book I have read in quite some time. I just finished reading it about 2 hours ago, so I don’t think this will be a carefully crafted review… but I hope that is okay.

ENCOUNTERING THEOLOGY OF MISSIONS: BIBLICAL FOUNDATIONS, HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENTS, AND CONTEMPORARY ISSUES. Craig Ott, Stephen J. Strauss, with Timothy C. Tennent (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010). Part of the Encountering Mission series.

When I first began reading the book I was a bit down on it in that it did not seem to have a theme or framework. But clearly, the goal of the book is not to give a single clear theological vision for mission (or missions), but to review the landscape and range of perspectives in the Theology of Mission. This certainly not only adds to its strength as a textbook, but also helps those involved in missions to come up with our own perspectives. As the sub-title suggests, it addresses Biblical Foundations for missions- but it is more than most such Biblical foundations which (at their worst) is little more than quoting a lot of Scripture verses. It deals with Historical Developments of missions and does do honor not only to Evangelical Protestant missions, but Catholic, Conciliar, and Orthodox missions as well. And it deals with many of the Contemporary issues that are bandied about today.

While the perspective of the writers is clearly Evangelical, the book does not try particularly hard to be a defense of Evangelical perspectives. It criticizes some perspectives within the Evangelical world with regards to missions, often shows respect (even if respective disagreement) with perspectives from others, and is cautious in generally avoiding strong dogmatic statements.

I will add two negative comments here.

First, there are some topics that I feel were glossed over a bit. The Honor/Shame Theology versus Guilt/Innocence (to say nothing about other models of connecting Christian theology to worldview categories) was not addressed more than off-hand. I understand that the book came out in 2010, but I do feel like these issues were around enough at that time to be seen as a real contemporary issue worth dealing with more. Additionally, the section of contextualization did not do much in the area of tests for good localized theology versus bad. In this particular case, the book did speak to this issue more than just off-hand. To me, however, it could have benefited from an in-depth review.

Second, I felt that it was a great book that was really let down by the final chapter. That chapter “The Necessity of Missions” did not really need to be there. It dealt with three “uncomfortable questions.” that are related to the justice and fairness of God. These are good questions, but are starting to move away from Theology of Mission into Soteriology and Theology Proper. It does feel like the authors simply weren’t that strong in those topics. The issue of Hell was especially weak in my mind. It did not deal with the wide range of perspectives regarding the nature of Hell…. limiting to three perspectives, and even then only covered one in-depth (the one they supported). It went into a fairly unconvincing Biblical justification for the ECT (eternal conscious torment) perspective. That seems pretty out of line with the rest of the book that tried to be multi-perspectival and sought to avoid verse-bombing. Personally, I am in the undecided category regarding much about the nature of Hell because the Bible is shockingly vague in this area. I can’t really complain that the authors have a perspective on it— that is fair and reasonable. I, however, feel like this chapter was added as a bit of an afterthought and was not well developed. I would say that I do find it curious that there seems to be a presumption in the last chapter generally that Christians should find it more motivational to do missions if non-believers experience eternal conscious torment then if they are consumed and perish. (Frankly, why would missionaries feel greater motivation to faithfully serve a God who appears to be less fair and merciful, humanly speaking, than one who appears to be more fair and merciful.) I am not trying to make a big point about Hell and about the Justice of God, but, again, I feel that the final chapter was added in a rushed manner based on editorial comments. I could be wrong.

I spent way too long on these two negative comments. If I ever get a chance to teach Theology of Mission again, I will definitely use it as a key textbook (unless something more updated comes along). I must commend the high quality of the book, and recommend it to all interested in this topic.