Christian Missions is Not “If it Works, Do it.” (Quote)

“Jesus at the outset of his ministry was forced to contend with three of the most powerful temptations Satan could offer— expediency, popularity and power (Mt 4:1-11). It would have been expedient, logical and even strategic for Jesus to have ended his forty-day fast by turning stones into bread. He could have attracted the attention, interest and admiration of an entire nation had he leaped from the top of the temple and landed on his feet. Most of all, he could have ruled over all of the earth if he had just bowed down to Satan.

Think of it— Satan offered Jesus the opportunity to complete all he came to earth to accomplish— in one stroke he would rule the world. Would something like this be a temptation to Mission, Inc.? At long last the Great Commission could be fulfilled in our generation by our efforts and ingenuity. Jesus had a very different agenda, however. His was to be a spiritual kingdom based on unwavering obedience to all that he had learned from his Father. He engaged in no sloganeering to “complete the task,” no triumphalistic Great Commission countdowns, no strategic plan and timetable other than the certainty that he would be forsaken by his followers and left to experience a traumatic, lonely death.

We suggest that those of us on this missions pilgrimage reexamine our rhetoric and publicity. Let us join in the sober recognition that the spiritual kingdom of Jesus is distinctly and irreversibly countercultural. It is all about communities witnessing to Christ’s kingdom without the convictions of worldly expediency, glamour and power. Yet without fanfare it transforms the world.

-James F. Engel and William A Dyrness, “Changing the Mind of Missions” (InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 180.

 

The Great Commission: Changing the Starting Point

The Matthew 28 version of the Great Commission speaks of developing Disciples. There appear to be three basic steps: They are Evangelize, Baptize, and Teach/Train.

GC Three Cycle

The question is where does it start. Within the context of the various Great Commission versions, the start seems to be with Evangelize. That is because the key issue of the Acts 1 version is for the apostles (“sent out ones”) to serve as witnesses of Jesus and proclaimers of Jesus’s message to the world. And since the recipients are people who are not followers, it rather makes sense that Evangelism is the first step.

Of course, things did change. As Christianity, as a religion, became naturalized to families and communities, there was more of a move toward the initial step being baptism. Babies of Christian families would be baptized and brought formally into the church. the children would be trained within the church until they become confirmed in the Christian faith. So Baptism in this case would be the first step. As a Baptist myself, I don’t really prefer that particular starting point, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

But it could also be argued that Training can (or even should) be thought of as the starting point. This can be seen in a couple of ways.

Number 1.   There has been a growth of “try before you buy.” Many seekers will become involved in church before they decide to believe. They want to see Christianity lived out. That can be awkward, because they may not just sit in the back of the congregation. They may want to jam in the worship team. They may want to discuss uncomfortable topics in Bible study or Sunday School. They may want to get involved with social ministries. They may want to join a short-term mission trip.

This first one can be awkward. We don’t want to feel uncomfortable in church with uncomfortable questions. I remember a woman standing up during church service after a deacon had given an (overly strong, and perhaps manipulative) appeal to tithe, and she asks the question to the entire congretation, “Does God’s love need to be bought?” It was a good question, but the church response was to guide her out of the church. Not ideal. I have sat in an evangelistic bible study with a young man who was dressed in women’s clothes. The bible study leader does a fine job for quite awhile and then the dam burst as she started rattling off every verse she knew that spoke negatively of homosexuality.

In both of those cases, I feel that the guests were handled poorly by Christians. They showed up at the church for some reason. Maybe their reasons were sincere… maybe not. The result was that the church pushed them out. The woman never returned, and although the young man did not walk out of the Bible study, he did not continue with the weekly studies.

Number 2.  Engel and Dyrness in “Changing the Mind of Missions: Where Have We Gone Wrong?” (InterVarsity Press, 2000) on pages 65 and 66 note that it is not really Biblical to start with transmitting a message without giving people a “taste” of Christian compassion and holy living. I kind of think that this statement is taken a bit far. However, I do believe it is generally true. Charles Kraft speaks of Power Encounter always preceding Truth Encounter. Again, I think that this pushes a particular tradition rather than expressing a Biblical principle. However, Jesus almost always gave a taste of the Kingdom first. This may be miraculous signs, and healing. It may be violating cultural taboos, and upending social structures.

Engel and Dyrness in the same book (see page 64) described Evangelism as it has become popular in the Market Evangelism of the late 1900s Evangelicalism. They noted the Great Commission became tied to two Omissions:

  • Evangelism became disconnected from Social Transformation. Many believed that social transformation would follow Evangelism. Engel and Dyrness noted that at least since the mid-1800s this has not happened. Social Transformation should work hand-in-hand with (or even precede) Spiritual Transformation. Focusing on cognitive change (without an understanding of how such a cognitive change is supposed to connect to a life lived for God) commonly leads to anemic Christianity.
  • When Evangelism drifts into Marketing a product to as many people as possible to get the most people to make some sort of identifying indication of response, discipleship as a total process tends to wilt.

Perhaps a better idea is to start in a better place:

  1.  Welcome people into the church, bible studies, ministry activities and more as seekers and skeptics to experience the Christian faith lived out, and where they can ask uncomfortable questions and get honest (unpracticed thoughtful) answers. In this way they can experience an aspect of the Kingdom that is tied to the message. Of course, this requires Christians to live out their faith socially, as well as doctrinally. This can result in 4th century Christianity where churches moved from small groups of the faithful to being large groups of the immature. But I don’t think this is a necessary result. A church can be a holy gathering of the faithful while maintaining it as a safe space for inquiry and doubt.
  2. Welcome these people to place their faith in Christ to become what they have been experiencing.
  3. Welcome believers into the mystical church— the body of Christ— through baptism.
  4. The people would were trained as believers become trainers of new seekers and skeptics, living out their faith with humility, and demonstrating holy brokenness and social concern to all. (And the cycle continues.)

I don’t think it is controversial to say that we teach unbelievers. It may sound controversial to say that we disciple unbelievers, but if discipleship is the entire process, of course one must disciple unbelievers. What probably IS controversial is to suggest that Proclamation/Evangelization is most commonly the wrong place to start.

And Evangelism that is built around marketing schemes does tend to lack the Biblical base and Spiritual foundation of regeneration.

I think we need to wrestle with this.

 

 

 

 

The Cheshire Church

The following is a quote from the book by James F. Engle and William A. Dyrness, “Changing the Mind of Missions: Where Have We Gone Wrong?” (InterVarsity Press, 2000).

Who can fault legendary evangelist Dwight L. Footnotes: The Cheshire CatMoody, who captured the mood of evangelicals at the end of the nineteenth century in his declaration, “I look upon the world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, ‘Moody, save all you can.'” In other words, all hopes of transforming society with the gospel were dashed, in his eyes, until Christ’s return in glory, leaving only one option, the lifeboat— a single-minded focus on evangelism as the mission of the church.

While few would echo the words of Moody and his contemporaries today, we still hear a distinct but largely unrecognized carryover. Ever since the late 1800s, dominant evangelical voices have called for accelerated church planting to evangelize the maximum number of unreached in the shortest possible period of time. The return of Christ became the dominant motivation for missions— only this return would bring about the transformation that the gospel required. The only human effort required was an announcement of the message. ….

There never has been a dispute that evangelism is indispensable as the first step in making disciples in all nations, but now voices were heard calling for the first time for completion of world evangelization in this generation. It would almost seem as if the future world and the ultimate victory of Christ had become dependent on human initiative. Little wonder that evangelicals were quick to embrace the wonders of a technological age and to mobilize Christian resources in an unprecedented way. In the process, it became tempting to disregard the essence  of the Great Commission …. where it is abundantly obvious that human efforts are futile, or at least inadequate,without the convicting, regenerating and sanctifying role of the Holy Spirit.

Furthermore, among those who referred to themselves as evangelicals, there was almost total silence in response to God’s call for social justice to alleviate the burdens of ignorance, poverty and hunger, racism, the loss of cultural identity, and other forms of oppression (Amos 5:21-24, Luke 3:10-14; 4:18-21). Oss Guinness prophetically observed that the outcome of this silence is a church that has lost its impact by becoming “privately engaging, socially irrelevant.”

Guinness uses the analogy of the Cheshire Cat in the famous story Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. In this fable, the cat gradually loses its identity until all that remains is its famous lingering grin. So it is with the church, which by and large now has only the ‘lingering grin, ‘ a surface indicator of a privatized faith without moral and social impact. In so doing, the church has dug its own grave, while the smile lingers on.

(Pages 64-65.  Os Guinness quote is from “The Gravedigger File”)