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:

CAN KABUNIAN POINT TO CHRIST?

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.

In Support of an Incarnational Model of Missions

I have been reading the book by Ott, Strauss, and Tennent, Encountering Theology of Mission.

Chapter 4 has a fairly large section that speaks about Incarnational Missions. This is missions that is understood via the metaphor (or model) of the Incarnation of Christ. It seems like the authors look at this understanding of missions positively. Nevertheless, they have a short section that points out those who see it negatively.

Others reject the model altogether as theologically and exegetically inappropriate (e.g., Kostenberger, Schnabel, Hesselgrave). They argue that the point of comparison between Jesus’s sending and the sending of the church in John 17:18 and 20:21 is not the incarnation or identification, but rather the relationship between the sent and the sender. The incarnation of Jesus is entirely unique and cannot in any way be replicated or imitated by Christians. The focus of Jesus’s ministry in John’s Gospel is not “service to humankind” (as some incarnational mission models advocate) but rather the work of redemption and forgiveness. Andreas J. Kostenberger concludes, ‘Not the way in which Jesus came into the world (i.e., the incarnation), but the nature of Jesus’ relationship with his sender (i.e., one of obedience and utter dependence), is presented in the Fourth Gospel as the model for the disciple’s mission.’

Erhard Berneburg argues that the incarnational model of missions is a ‘functionalization’ of the biblical doctrine of the incarnation. the incarnation becomes a methodological model for evangelism and ethics and can thereby lose its unique redemptive meaning. David Hesselgrave and Christopher Little argue that while we can clearly learn from Jesus’s example, Paul’s ministry is the more appropriate model for missionary practice today.

Craig Ott, Stephen J. Strauss, Timothy Tennent Encountering Theology of Mission: Biblical Foundations, Historical Developments, and Contemporary Issues (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 103. <Note: inline references were not included here that is in the original text.>

The four arguments listed here are (1) The incarnation is so elevated above us and so unique that we cannot in anyway be replicated or imitated by us. (2) John’s recording of the Great Commission does not point us towards an incarnational model for missions— but rather towards obedience and dependence of Christ. (3) Using the incarnation as a model for missions causes people to lose recognizing its primary purpose in terms of redemption. (4) Paul is a better model for missions than Jesus.

Number One. The first of these points is the one that bothers me the most. Kostenberg seems against using the incarnation as a model for anything that has anything to do with us. I am, sadly, limited to the text here since I don’t have Kostenberg’s writing in front of me. Commonly, a writer’s words are summarized in a manner that is far from the total picture of their perspective. But, drawing from what I have, I believe the incarnation is a very useful metaphor or model for missions. The fact that the incarnation is in some ways completely removed from our own experience actually helps. A metaphor after all is a self-contradictory, providing meaning by relating an abstract concept with a tangible concept. While the incarnation of Christ may indeed be a mystery, it is still a tangible mystery. It allows us ‘to see his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.’ Missions is completely abstract. To understand an abstract concept we utilize analogies/metaphors.

Using the tangible, historical mystery of the incarnation to help us understand the intangible abstract mystery of our calling to serve seems perfectly reasonable— and it certainly does not, in any way, demean the Incarnation. As Ott, Strauss, and Tennent noted, Paul used the Incarnation of Christ in Philippians 2 to explain how we are to live as Christians. I would also argue that Paul’s description of the church as “the body of Christ” is using the incarnation as metaphor for the mystery of the spiritual unity that comes through Christ. I don’t believe that Paul was trivializing the incarnation when using it to help us understand the Church, or how we are supposed to behave. (Jesus suggested the metaphor of “Daddy” for understanding the first person of the Trinity. Is that belittling? Some would say so… but not Jesus.)

A possible point of agreement is that a metaphor can be pushed too far. Because of this, a metaphor helps us understand something, but it really cannot be used as part of an argument. To take a ridiculous case, the metaphor of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, and we as the Sheep, cannot be used as the basis for an argument that Christians must wear woolen clothes. Metaphors are powerful, but they are most decidedly limited.

Number Two. The second point MAY have some merit. It is possible that John’s version of the Great Commission is a call to obedience and dependence on Christ rather than a call to utilize Jesus as a model for missions. The argument in support of this is that John’s focus of Jesus’s ministry was really about His role as redeemer. Therefore, Jesus must not be calling on His disciples to emulate Himself ministerially. I don’t know. I know that Harmonization of the Gospels is looked down upon right now, but assuming that the messages (“Great Commissions”) in Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20 all come from the same event, and if one assumes that Jesus literally said the words in John 20:21, then those words have to be understood not only in terms of the Gospel of John, but the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke as well. The disciples were not living the gospel of John. As such, they would not be interpreting it through the lens of that gospel. Further, if Jesus’s real purpose for telling His disciples that He is sending them as He was sent refers to their call to obeying Him, then obedience means adhering to His words and to His deeds. I cannot see how John’s version of the Great Commission can be seen in anything other than calling on Jesus’s disciples to have Himself as their example. We are back to the sending of Christ being a guide for our ministry.

Now, on this particular point, you may be about to say, “Wait! We were talking about the incarnational model of missions and now we are talking about interpretation of John 20:21 that has nothing directly to do with the incarnation.” I have to agree. From the context, all I can do is suggest a certain logic here. Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, many Evangelical missiologists (MacGavran, Winter, Wagner, et al.) were arguing for missions to be all about evangelization, churchplanting, and discipleship. John Stott (and a few others) spoke strenuously in support of a more holistic understanding of missions. Ultimately in Lausanne (1974) and in other places, a view that was more in line with Stott was expressed, even though it was clear that many Evangelical missiologists would prefer a more one-sided, spiritualistic, view of missions. Stott used John 20:21 as a major part of his argument that missions should be holistic. I would argue, actually, that Stott did not even have to do this. The Great Commandment, and its (in part) interpretation in the Good Samaritan compels a holistic understanding of following Christ— and so does Christ’s call to obey and the New Testament’s overall call for Christ to be our example (including in John 20:21). So why make a big deal about interpreting John 20:21 that supports holistic ministry indirectly rather than directly? One theory might be that many missionaries see the Great Commission as both their justification for missions, and their guide for missions. If none of the Great Commandments seem to point to a holistic view of ministry, then such missionaries may embrace a spiritualistic (-only) view of missions. However, it doesn’t really matter how one interprets that verse… the thrust of the Gospels presents ministry and Christlike living in terms of both proclamation and compassionate works. The problem is the poor training of missionaries, who see their “reason for missions” as the Great Commission (a guidance that is simply a more specific guidance of the overall thrust of Christ’s teaching)

Number Three. The third point just seems foolish. Would the use of the Incarnation as a model for missions lead one’s away from a high understanding of the Incarnation in terms of Trinitarian theology? I suppose I can imagine that happening. But I suppose that can happen whenever we use metaphors. Describing the church as the temple of the Holy Spirit or the Body of Christ certainly could be seen as demeaning the Trinity. Comparing Jesus to Adam perhaps undermines a high Christology. To say that a metaphor can be abused hardly justifies removing metaphors. This point just doesn’t seem to have any weight to it. (Maybe I am missing something.)

Number Four. Is Paul (or Barnabas, since the model used by Paul appears to have originally come from Barnabas) a better model for missions than Jesus? In a sense, Yes. The context of Paul’s work is post-Pentecost, while the work of Jesus was pre-Pentecost. Jesus’s ministry was “first” to the lost sheep of Israel (although Jesus was as inconsistent in His focus on Jews as Paul was inconsistent in his focus on Gentiles) seems more narrow than His command to His disciples (in Acts 1:8 and elsewhere) to go to every nation. Still, the apostles do appear to have seen it important to be guided ministerially by Jesus. Barnabas and Paul worked in a missionary band that is healing and declaring the good news of Christ while embracing a dependence on God for sustenance. This is very much guided by Christ, not only in terms of ethics, but in terms of methodology. During the first three centuries, those who embraced an apostolic calling took vows of poverty and served very much in line with Christ. So is Paul a better model for us than Jesus when it comes to missions? Probably… but it is not that simple. Christ may be the the ultimate model of minister, but Paul’s context is closer to our own. As such, Paul’s ministry could be seen as a contextualization of the ministry of Christ that we would benefit from.

This got way too long. My short point is that the Incarnational Model of Missions I find to be useful (functional). The arguments against it really seem weak. That being said, since it is a model (broad-based metaphor) it is useful only as long as it is useful. At the point it loses its edge to help us understand missions, it ceases to have value and can be tossed aside. That is how metaphors are supposed to be used. They are not supposed to be reified, or held onto as a treasured relic. They are not supposed to be used to justify an activity or a belief, but rather to help in understanding and addressing something creatively. Maybe in the not too distant future the Incarnational Model will not be helpful.

But until then, let’s use it cautiously and creatively.

Convert versus Proselytize?

One of my students read an article “Conversion or Proselytization? Being Maasai, Becoming Christian” by Joshua Robert Barron. The article takes a very positive view of conversion and a negative view of proselytization. Since a lot of people (including myself) use the terms generally interchangeably, I was curious at what his point was. Conversion seems to be bringing people to the Jesus who is already among them. Proselytization is bringing people out of their culture into an outsider faith and culture.

My first question was why was he using these terms in these ways. A challenge I have for myself is reading into these descriptions. After all, bringing people to the Jesus/God who is already among them can be a reworking of the “Ministry of Presence”— where the focus is not on bringing people to Christ at all, but rather on identifying God’s work that already exists among them. At its most extreme, one is not seeking to lead people to declare Jesus as Lord, or repent before God, but rather “Be the best you can be within the moral principles and beliefs of your culture.”

But that does not appear to be what Barron is talking about. Clearly, Barron is speaking of leading people to Christ (particularly in this case the Maasai) without losing their own cultural identity. That is a noble task, but it still got me thinking about whether emphasizing the difference between “convert” and “proselyte” is useful.

Both proselyte and convert are old terms. The former is a Greek term in origin, and the latter is Latin in origin. The term “proselytos” is used in the Old Testament (Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible), and the New Testament. In the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, proselytos is used as the translation of the Hebrew term “ger.” Etymologically, “proselytos” comes from two parts that come together to mean “come towards.” However, ‘ger’ probably translates best as “resident alien.” That is ‘ger’ means, from the Israelite perspective, those people who are not Israelite and yet live among the Israelites.

Over time, ‘ger’ began to develop into three different meanings.

  1. ‘Ger’ in itself does not necessarily mean conversion. They could be loyal resident aliens… living among Jews, and obeying the rules of the land, but not identifying with the Jewish faith.
  2. ‘Ger zedek’ or ‘Ger emet’ is a true and full convert to the Jewish faith. A person in this category sets aside his or her faith and unique cultural identity, and embraces not only the Jewish faith, but also its community and culture.
  3. ‘Ger shaar’ is proselyte “of the gate” or “Son of Noah.” This person can be thought of as a “semi-proselyte.” This person has identified with the Jewish faith more than simply a loyal resident alien (‘ger’) but not as completely as a true and full proselyte (‘ger zedek’).

In the New Testament, the term Proselyte is used for a complete convert to Judaism where their non-Jewish character is left behind (‘Ger zedek’). Another group is the “God-fearers.” These were Gentiles who embraced some aspects of Judaism (nature of God, worship, and general ethics) without fully identifying with cultural and ceremonial Judaism. God-fearers then align with ‘Ger shaar.’

In the church, the question of who was truly a Christian came up. Must all Christians share a common culture? The question of whether Gentiles must become Jews to become Christians, or in a more general sense, “Must all people who wish to become Christians lose their unique cultural identifiers?” As they come to Christ, do they come as ‘Ger zedek’ or ‘Ger shaar’?

Truthfully, none of the three categories of proselyte really work in Christianity. Becoming a Christian involves embracing a deeper commitment than simply being a ‘God-fearer.’ And it does involve some level of commitment and common identity as part of the Body of Christ. At the same time, the Body of Christ is to exist in Unity, NOT Uniformity.

Conversion has its roots in the Latin that essentially means “to reverse direction.” The term is broad. As such, it is hard to say that “Conversion” and “Proselytization” are clearly at odds. However, the term “proselyte” as it is used in the New Testament does suggest losing one’s own unique culture during conversion to the Jewish faith. Christians are not called upon to lose their own culture in becoming Christian. However, it is accurate to say that to follow Christ is absolutely a “reversing of direction” since no one follows Christ by accident or natural inclination.

Looked at this way, I would have to agree with Barron that we are called upon by Christ to develop converts NOT proselytes. And if one accepts this language, then we should not identify ourselves as proselytizers.

References:

Jochanan H. A. Wijnhoven, “Convert and Conversion” in Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought. Original Essays on Critical Concepts, Movements, and Beliefs, Arthur A. Cohen/Paul Mendes-Flohr ,eds. (New York: Scribner, 1987) 101-3. Online Available HERE.

Joshua Robert Barron, “Conversion or Proselytization? Being Maasai, Becoming Christian,” Global Missiology, Vol. 18 No. 2 (2021), April. Online Available Here.