In Search of Critics– Part 2

In my previous post (cleverly titled, “In Search of Critics. Part 1“) I suggested that we should value the critiques from many sources. While in Blooms Taxonomy (cognitive side) the highest level is evaluation. Strangely, I have seen some lists that place Creation as above Evaluation, but never mind. A critic is an evaluator so one might suggest that the only critic one should value is one who has had massive training and practice (Remembering, Understanding, Applying, and Analyzing) a certain field. However, I don’t think this was what is being implied in this model. The model is for education, NOT for critiques. Two problems come up fairly obviously,

  • The Evaluator/Critic in Bloom’s Taxonomy is an Insider Critic. However, there may be value in Outsider perspectives as well (as noted in the previous post).
  • Even among Insiders, there are specializations that need to be recognized. For example, my wife and I like to watch the Australian TV show, “The Block.” Contestants take an old building or series of buildings/apartments and fix them up for sale. In that show, there are judges. However, these judges are not the only evaluators in the show. The judges primarily evaluate style/aesthetics and practicality. However, they are not the only ones. There are real estate agents who come in a look at the work, evaluating it in terms of marketability and value.  Additionally, there are inspectors, foremen, architect, and engineer, who evaluate in terms of safety, quality control, government regulations, and show standards. Further, there are people who evaluate the contestants in terms of their spending. Each have a role as insiders. However, at the end of the show are buyers who participate in an auction. They can, in fact, be thought of as outsiders— since they are not specialists within the field– not in style, not in practicality, not in safety, quality, regulation, or costing. And yet, as ones seeking to buy the places, they are the ultimate judges.

Often, the outsider perspective is valuable. I am from a rather conservative religious tradition, and so when someone I know hears something they don’t like they will say that it is “liberal.” Curiously, often the thing they label as liberal often doesn’t fit onto the spectrum of theology from liberal to conservative. These people just don’t like it and they don’t like “liberals” so they throw the sticker on it as a perjorative term.

But I would argue that this is a deep mistake. In fact, I would even argue that it is backwards. I am involved in two religious academic fields— Missiology and Pastoral Theology. Let me give an example from each.

Missiology.  Back in the early 1960s, with the joining together of the IMC and WCC, missions (particularly Protestant missions) took a sharp turn. While in 1961 there was still a strong formal commitment to proclamation of the message of God, within a short time, there was a rapid move away from proclamation and proselytization, and toward “presence” (doing good in a culture). Out of this was a reaction where Evangelicals formed their own interdenominational missions conferences. This was a much more conservative group. There was a strong focus on proclamation, with a demeaning of social ministry. The logic seemed to be (1) Christ is coming soon so any ministry work that is “good” but not strictly centered on moving people to respond to the gospel is actually “bad,” and (2) social ministry is not “real ministry” at least as far as what it means to carry out the Great Commission.

In my mind both groups were abysmally wrong. But I don’t get angry at the concilliar missions folks for deemphasis on proclamation. As people with a different theological perspective than my own, I would expect them to think and act different. What makes me more angry, actually, was the conservative side. As religious conservatives, I expect to believe them when they say that they seek to follow what the Bible teaches and have Christ as their example. The denigration of social ministry by many (or placing outside the sphere if valid missions) is horribly unbiblical and a clear rejection of following the example of Christ.  As one who is religiously fairly conservative, I consider those of similar theology to be insider critics. As such, I am very unhappy when they go against what they claim to be support (Bible and Christ). Those who are theologically liberal are an outsider perspective for me. Therefore, I don’t get mad at their viewpoint. Rather, I see if they have any validity to their perspective. Thankfully, in Evangelical missions, there was an adjustment and by the 1970s there was a (grudging?) recognition that social ministry is important and should NOT be separated from proclamation, discipleship, and churchplanting. This recognition came, in part, from the work of people like Stott and Newbigin, who maintained dialogue with both groups, rather than listening to only one.

Pastoral Theology. In pastoral care and counseling, in the 1950s and 1960s there developed a strong influence from the social sciences (psychology, sociology, and anthropology). This led to some forms of care and counseling that were seen as not taking issues of morality, sin, and repentance seriously. It was seen as a “liberal” (there is that word again) agenda. Pastors commonly would throw around more psychological lingo, than Biblical principles. In the 1970s there was a conservative reaction in terms of the so-called Biblical Counseling movement. At its best it was a welcome adjustment to the past decades. At its worst, it was judgmental (nuothetic), reductionistic, and behavioralistic. And worst of all— it was labeled as “Biblical” even though its methods were so cherry-picked from Scripture, that commonly it would have to be described as sub-biblical.   Truthfully, today we are still struggling in this area. I am part of a denomination that has fallen in love with the term “Biblical Counseling” and commonly promotes some pretty sketchy stuff because someone placed the “Biblical” or “Conservative” label on it.

In truth, pastoral counseling and pastoral theology is an area where there is much room for improvement. Far too many embrace one sub-biblical view or another equally sub-biblical, and then ignore concerns from the other camp by the use of perjorative labels.

Ultimately, we need to learn from others and often we should listen most intently from outsider perspectives because they are the ones most likely to have seen things that we haven’t and thought of things we haven’t because… well, because they are outsiders.

Pulling the fisherman parable back in from the past post… the argument of who to listen to more, active fishermen or theoreticians, breaks down under scrutiny a bit. We would need to listen to all sides— and most importantly, the fish.

 

In Search of Critics– Part One

Rethinking the Fisherman parable. It points out the risk of becoming a theorist in ministry, particularly evangelism. I had referenced the story before, HERE.

Fishing generic.png

What got me thinking was a bit of FB dialogue I was somewhat in.   The discussion started out simply enough:  Do we in missions (and perhaps Evangelical Christianity as a whole) focus too much on marketing strategies and not enough on the gospel?  <Spoiler alert:  Yes>

But a couple of people decided to answer a different question from the one that was posed. Not sure why. The question a couple of them decided to answer was:

Who should we listen to— people who are theoreticians or the boots-in-the-ground folk that actually do ministry?

The direction of the answer was that they would listen to people who actually do ministry and not armchair theoreticians. One of them did a reference to the parable noted above when he said that he would listen to the fishermen, not the ones who sit around and talk about fishing. The context of the story is that it is about Evangelizers— those who encourage people to follow Christ.

This got me thinking because I do talk about, and commonly critique, evangelism and evangelistic methods. Three major critiques I make are:

  • Most evangelistic methodologies already presume a Christian worldview and belief in key assumptions of the Christian Faith. As such, most don’t actually work for those of other worldviews, and many are little more than getting (already redeemed) Christians to say the Sinner’s Prayer.
  • Most do not work with the cultural context of the responder, but rather try to get people to “itch where it doesn’t scratch.”
  • Few encourage honest dialogue. If dialogue is part of the program, it is strongly orchestrated to drive certain responses and/or is carefully flow-charted.

I think these are quite valid concerns. I remember learning the Dunamis method that essentially (in the Philippine context at least) “tricks” Roman Catholic Christians into saying the Sinner’s Prayer. I listen to a presentation of the Gospel to a devout Asian Buddhist where the presenter uses the blood atonement metaphor to address sin, liberally sprinkled with Bible references (a metaphor that the culture doesn’t recognize to address a problem the person isn’t focused on, quoting a book the person doesn’t value). I listen to an American college student screaming at a Filipino on the street here in my city— “YOU GOT TO BE SAVED!!!   YOU GOT TO BE SAVED!!”

But maybe it is true that I am a theoretician— not a practitioner. While I have shared my faith to groups, and in written form, I have only shared it one-in-one to strangers perhaps 20 or 25 times in my life. That is not a lot. Frankly, I see my ministerial calling more in training up future Christian leaders.

But who should be listened to more— a seasoned practitioner or an academic? Let’s consider the points for or against the seasoned practitioner— the expert evangelist. One positive is that such a person “knows what works.” That is, he may have tried out different things and now knows what people respond to better. One negative is exactly the same thing, however. Talking to expert evangelists one can learn the “marketing secrets” to evangelism. Going to the practitioners leads to the problem suggested in the first question (the red-letter question at the top). A second positive is their specialization. No one is good at everything— so the best people to talk about the specialty of evangelism is someone who specializes in it. A second negative is also this issue of specialization.

A broader view can help. Is evangelism effective if it doesn’t dovetail into discipleship and faith community? I recall an evangelizer “practicing” on me. Once I responded positively as I was supposed to, the person gave me a teeny-tiny Gospel of John (I think Mark or Luke would have been better) and told I should pray and find a church. And that was that. There was no follow-up because that person only shares the gospel. That person claimed to lead at least three people to Christ day after day, every day. However, the method was manipulative, and the follow-up was completing lacking. Perhaps an outside critique could be helpful. Evangelizers can feel the temptation toward “What is the least I can share and the least the responder can do so that I can slap a “Christian” sticker (figuratively-speaking) on her forehead.”

What about an academic “arm-chair” evangelism critic? The most positive aspect is the advantage of an outsider perspective. Insiders can get together and “pool ignorance” every bit as well as well as ivory tower theologians. But reflection without action commonly becomes skewed. We learn iteratively by bringing together action and theological reflection.

This seems to me an improvement over deciding one group is not helpful to learn from. Maybe we might try listening to everyone.

  • Talk to evangelists
  • Talk to theologians
  • Talk to missiologists
  • Talk to those who have responded positively to the gospel message and have grown in the faith
  • Talk to those who have rejected the gospel message
  • Talk to those who have not yet heard.

 

 

Paradoxical Missions

Image result for two ducks

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

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

  1.  From Great to Good. With due respect to the book by James Collins,  Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t, I would like to promote a move in missions from Great to Good rather than Good to Great. I am not the first to suggest this. Way back in 2003, Eric Swanson wrote an article in Christianity Today, “Great to Good Churches.” I really enjoyed that article. Of course, the idea is that the two terms  (great and good) are on two different scales. Great is on a scale of Success. Good is on a scale of Righteousness. Of course, one can try to combine the two. One book tries to merge the scales a bit– Good to Great to Godly by Mike Bonem and another book, Good to Great in God’s Eyes by Chip Ingram, seeks to move the term Great into the Righteousness scale. I have read neither of these books, and have no issue with either one to the extent that I am familiar with the books. However, for me, the term “Great” is a problematic word. Much like the term “Prosperity,” even though it has good potential meanings, it commonly becomes a toxic lure. To me, Christian missions should avoid anything that tempts one towards greatness. There are  enough people and organizations striving for greatness. Let them get the accolades, and we should strive for goodness instead. https://munsonmissions.org/2012/03/03/great-to-good-christians/
  2. Strong to Weak.  Missionaries have commonly, and traditionally, come into a new culture from a position of strength. Early on, many missionaries considered mission lands as places that are under colonial rule, and often, although not always, served with support of the colonial authorities. Missionaries often would come in and be in a position to get their way because of funding from outside sources that locals lacked. In recent years, this strategy has been questioned. It may not be good for missionaries to be linked to colonialism/imperialism. It may not be good for missionaries to be seen as sources of economic blessings (leading to odd constructs such as prosperity gospel or cargo cults). It may not be good to promote dependency in developing churches in developing countries. It may not be good to keep a faith “foreign” by keeping it under economic hegemony of a foreign church or agency. Out of this has come the growth of Vulnerable Missions. While I don’t really care for the term “vulnerable” I don’t have a better one. I do personally prefer “Weak Missions” but I know that is just to prone to misinterpretation. But in weakness, a missionary enters a culture as a lamb, not a lion. He or she has a more catalytic role than authoritarian role. Reliance on God takes precedence over reliance on State, Denomination, or Financial supporters.   (In Christian missions, I do have a lot of respect for the Honor-Shame Movement, that gives greater respect to “patronage.” I have not reconciled these— the support for dependency in the patronage system and the rejection of dependency in Vulnerable Missions. Maybe someday I will figure it out.)  https://munsonmissions.org/2013/07/12/weak-and-vulnerable-missions-its-about-time-part-1/
  3. Big to Small.  I suppose this is implied by the other two, but I still feel it is worth emphasizing.  For many, Great implies Big, as does the word Strong. In missions, we talk about churchplanting movements, saturation strategies, and “discipling a whole nation.” They sound Great, they sound Strong, they sound Big. However, having been raised in the “Burned Out District” of Western New York– a region of big revivalism and saturation strategies in the 19th century, I feel justified in being a bit cynical about the long-term repercussions of such Big strategies. While AD2000 (the most well-known such activity) and other mission programs have pushed Big toals with poorly justified deadlines, change is commonly occurring in the mustard seed activities around the world. As I have noted before, some like to modify the “Dream Big!!” mantra with the more realistic “Dream Big, Start Small.” For me, however, it doesn’t honor small. Small doesn’t have to be apologized for. We are all small, and it is entirely possible that a God-size vision is often a small vision.  https://munsonmissions.org/2017/06/01/dream-small/

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

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

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

What Does Your Front Door Look Like?

Most people see the front door of your church. They don’t see your church’s interior. They don’t see people of your church. They see what you present to the world. This is obvious… a truism in fact.

So why do we do such a poor job on how we present ourselves to the world around? My suspicion is that the dominant reason is that even though we may SAY that we want strangers in our community to come to our church… the fact is that we typically market for people who are already like us… and probably already are tied to a church.

Let me give you a couple of examples… one from Christianity and one from Islam.

AG1

The one above is from a church near where I live. Actually, I have friends who are part of this church. so I am not speaking ill of the church. But the presentation to the community is horrible. What are some problems?

A. The term “World Conquest” is really problematic. Using the war metaphor to the community has no positive message. If you are a Christian and don’t see it that way, consider the next example, the one for Islam. What if it said, instead of “Discover Islam,” the banner said “Islam World Conquest.” Would that be an enticing message? Certainly not for outsiders. (2) The terms “win souls” and “make disciples” are Evangelical jargon that is not informative to non-Christans. The first of those terms is especially problematic. (3) All of the expressions are targeted only to Evangelical Christians. The ones listed above only are meaningful only to Evangelicals, and the AG symbol is only valued by people already in that denomination.

Islam 2

Islam

B. The two above are from Discover Islam… a group that is located less than a half kilometer from the above church. The upper image is not much better… But is a modest improvement. The image is not meant to encourage people to visit their center, but rather to visit their website (their electronic front door). Negatively, the top script is in Arabic, since the only people who can read Arabic are Muslims and those that have left Islam, it is odd to put it in the banner— it just emphasizes that it is a foreign, non-Filipino faith. Why do that? The picture of the earth could make people think that Islam is a universal faith or ideology, It could be interpreted by some in terms of world conquest. Of course others see simply the tie-in to the Discovery Channel design aesthetic. The uncertainty of the imagery is not very helpful. On the positive side, the message “Discover Islam” is clearly a positive message unambiguously targeting those outside of their religion. The lower banner is much better. It got rid of the foreign message of the Arabic Script, and the positive, even if hard to read, message that everyone is welcome.

Nothing is perfect. I remember visiting the educational center associated with the Grand Mosque, I saw a plaque prominently placed expressing support from the Muslim Brotherhood. This group has often be known for expressing their faith in a way that non-Muslims would not see enticing. But you will note that this message was inside their center not in a big banner over their front door.

We aren’t perfect either. I like the banner for our church… having an image combining a heart, a cross, and a tree. I find it relevant… But I can’t help but wonder if those outside of the church may find the image confusing.

I guess I better find out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——————————————-

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

                              Dream SMALL!!

                             Praying for Weak Christian Missions

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

 

Missionary Presence and the Missio Dei

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missio Dei 1

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

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

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

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

Missio Dei 3

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

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

Missio Dei 2

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