In Search of Missions’ Flexible Boundaries

So what constitutes “missions”? This is a continuing argument between me and myself. I am working on a book on Mission Theology. One of the many aspects of Mission Theology has to do with what are the boundary lines of what we call “missions.”

Some might see this as an irrelevant concern… or perhaps just an academic one, but it can hit home in important ways. I have had missionary friends who run an orphanage in a developing country be completely defunded because their supporting church determined that caring for orphans in a cross-cultural setting was not missions. I have seen a major mission orga12a848591ed70253f18d2ee6a1389562nization “gut” its education arm because it determined that valid missions was evangelism and churchplanting by foreigners in UPGs. I struggle to see falling back on the, in my mind, debunked slogan “evangelize not educate” is a positive step. (Curiously, in recent years that same mission organization has reversed direction again… but is it too late?)

Personally, I like a broad definition, but must acknowledge that calling EVERYTHING missions in Christian ministry can have negative impact. So I had recently done a couple of posts that suggest a more narrow definition. My last one on this subject even suggested that it might be best to separate between “missionary” and associated mission work, and “cross-cultural minister” and its related ministry work.

But NOW, I would to flip-flop again and make the counter-argument, suggesting a broader definition again. And I would like to do so in terms of a story:

Some time ago, I was serving as a dissertation supervisor for a student here in the Philippines. I am a professor of Christian missions, and the topic of this student was the use of some principles from the Missional Church movement for cross-cultural outreach in a specific locale. As the prospectus was being reviewed by some of the professors, two expressed considerable concern about the topic, suggesting that utilizing “missional church” principles is not “missions.” Truthfully, such feelings have some merit. In fact, some aspects of the missional church movement can be quite Anti-Missions (as strange as that may seem). Additionally, since the missional church movement is more often focused on E-1 and E-2 outreach (rather than the more undeniably “missions-ish” category of E-3 outreach) one could make the point that such a topic should not be seen as valid for a missions dissertation at all.

At the defense of the prospectus, these concerns were reiterated. I acknowledged them but noted reasons I felt it was appropriate for a missions dissertation, even if it may not be smack dab in the center of what we think of as missions research. I won’t go over my reasons here. But I noted that my dissertation was accepted at the same school years before, and was on doing medical mission events in the Philippines. Based on the criteria suggested for what constitutes missions at this present board, my dissertation would not be a missions dissertation either. The response that came back from one of the professors was that the understanding of missions has changed so maybe my dissertation would (should?) be refused today. Interesting response. That got me thinking a bit. That would be the implication of accepting a “newer” understanding of what constitutes missions.  I, however, struggle with the idea that medical mission ministry that is international and cross-cultural should be researched and taught within a missions department of a seminary while medical mission ministry that is local but in every other way the same as its international counterpart should be researched and taught in an entirely different department. But one does have to have boundaries around what would be considered missions— at least in academia.

In the end, the prospectus was accepted with only minor changes. Part of that was that the dissertation clearly did not fit into any of the other accepted categories at the seminary. As such, if it is a valid research, it has to be under Missions. We did not continue the discussion of what should constitute missions and what should not, but acknowledged that it should be reviewed at a future date.

But… if I was going to make my case for a wider definition of missions as a counterpoint to the “newer and narrower” definition(s) for missions, this is what I would offer:

The definition of missions has not only changed in recent years, it has been changing for decades, and even centuries. The 1932 “Hocking Report” was one of the early (modern) attempts to aggresively redefine missions, but there have been many changes and attempted changes through the IMC, WCC, the Lausanne movement, and more.

So think about it this way. If the newer definitions are better than the older definitions, they have come to be through flexibility (old cannot change to new unless there is flexibility to allow such change). So if the new is good, so is the flexibility that allowed the new to be developed. And,  if flexibility is good, then the boundaries of what constitutes missions should constantly be challenged. Without challenging boundaries, boundaries become rigid… inflexible… unchanging.

In the 1960s (as I noted in a previous article) there were attempts to redefine missions in terms of “Christian Presence” and (relativistic) dialogue, on the WCC side of missions. During this same period, on the Conservative Evangelical side, there were attempts to narrowly define missions in terms of proclamation-style evangelism and cross-cultural churchplanting. In my mind, it is good that none of these completely won out the day.

Missions, as understood in academic circles as well as in mission organizations and denominational groups,  is strongest with a flexible boundary– one that allows new ideas and old ideas to be challenged and evaluated.

Sometimes we need ministry and research where people ask “Is this missions?” The answer often should be “We will find out.”

 

 

The Problem with Prophets… a Missiological Look

Prophet Elijah, Russian Orthodox icon from fir...
The Prophet Elijah  Image via Wikipedia

The term prophet is used in different ways by different people. Technically, a prophet is simply someone who gives the message of God… outside of the local church hierarchy. But it is commonly used by people as someone who “gives new and authoritative revelation to the people.” While I don’t care for this definition (neither do I like the present use of the term “apostle” that has to do more with 3rd century than first century usage) but we have to accept the reality that a word means how it is used by the people.  Humpty Dumpty said (according to Lewis Carroll)  “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” But for shared conversation, we have to agree on meaning on some level.

Self-described prophets cause problems in missions. Here is why.  A prophecy is supposed to be the revelation (message) of God. So is the Bible.

Which one takes the place of supremacy? When I was in the military, documents there have a section on supercession. That is, where there is conflict in military documents or regulations, which one is to be followed. Most Christians would say that the Bible is the standard by which prophecies must be judged (there seems adequate Biblical support for this both in the Old and New Testament). But consider what happens in practice.

A message has several components. Among these are:

-Content-

-Source Context-

-Recipient Context-

-Feedback (clarification, interpretation)-

-Transmission (medium)-

Suppose the content of the message in the Bible is radically different from the message of a self-described prophet?

For both, the recipient context is the same (the culture of the hearer) for a given situation. However, the source context is radically different. For the “prophet,” the context is local and contemporary. For the Bible, the  context is distant both in locale/culture and in time.

Likewise, the transmission is radically different. The transmission is short for the “prophet”. It might be as short as from mouth of one to the ear of another. For the Bible, the transmission is through many centuries of copyists. Further, the feedback is greatly different. The “prophet” can provide immediate and authoritative feedback/clarification/interpretation of his own “prophecies”.  The Bible was written millenia ago so clarification and interpretation is through others living today, and no reputable Biblical scholar would describe his own interpretation as absolutely authoritative.

What is the result? In practice, to accept a “prophet” as being authoritative today means to replace the Bible’s authority with that of this “prophet”. When content differs, it can argue that we don’t understand the source context of the Bible. Or one can argue that the transmission of the Bible was flawed. Or one can argue that interpretation of the Bible is in error. On the other hand, since the “prophet” lives in the now, and can provide his own interpretation, he provides his closed loop of authority and reliability.

Of course, one might argue that the advantages that the prophet today has over the Bible should make one question why we rely on the Bible.

Ultimately, it boils down to ultimate authority and reliability. From an authority, standpoint, the Bible is not authoritative because it claims to be the Word of God. Many books make similar claims, and many prophets (of many flavors) claim to serve as God’s voice. I would argue, that it rests on the resurrection of Christ. Jesus made very bold claims about his own authority, and even his divinity (I think even those who would argue about divinity would agree that many of his statements would be so interpreted by the listeners at that time). He was then crucified… arguably an appropriate divine judgment for one who was guilty of false prophecy and blasphemy. However, the resurrection demonstrates that he wasn’t under divine judgment, but in fact had divine approval. So we take Jesus’ message seriously as having divine authority. That would include the Hebrew Bible (that Jesus declared as authoritative), his words in the Gospels, and the words of his immediate followers (in the New Testament). More subjectively, the Holy Bible has been found reliable by millions over 2000 years. Not a bad track record.

The authority and reliability of self-styled prophets is often lacking… often circular at best. I am thinking of one here in Asia. He makes a lot of generally vague open-ended cries of judgment on people unless they repent. When something bad happens that can be loosely linked to one of his statements… it is used to suggest authority and reliability. When even these vague statements cannot be linked to any calamity, it is not seen as questioning authority and reliability, but evidence that the potential victims repented.

Is this a problem in missions?  You bet! Consider some history. If one goes back to the founding prophet of Islam, one sees the same problem. The Bible/Injil is revered, but is not used as an authoritative text. That is because the content of the Bible disagrees on many points with the two authoritative documents of Islam. Mormonism has a similar situation. Its prophets created their own three authoritative texts to add to the Bible. However, these three are placed  over the Bible in authority… once again because of clashing content. Islamic and Mormon scholars study and use the Bible, but for interfaith dialogue and apologetics, not for seeking an authoritative message from God (Allah/Elohim).

Of course, the Quran and Book of Mormon (and more) have aged considerably and are now also prime targets themselves. But “new prophets” are today a great challenge on the mission field. In the Philippines many of these self-styled prophets have arisen. A common theme for many of them here, strangely, is the focus on the New Israel or the New Jerusalem. Perhaps, since the Philippines is described as the only “Christian” nation in Asia (ignoring Georgia, Armenia, Cyprus, and Timor L’este as well large regions in Indonesia, India, Myanmar, and South Korea)  the idea of the Philippines either being the New Israel, or being the site of the New Jerusalem, is oddly alluring. A similar belief swept through Great Britain and the US in the past… but its appeal appears to be on the decline.

Is this a big problem or a harmless novelty? In some cases, it is clearly a problem. One of these prophets has set himself up as the new Christ. Another has done the opposite… lowered Christ to his own level. Others have very strange beliefs but time will tell whether they are damaging, harmless, or even helpful in God’s mission. When I arrived in the Philippines, Christian churches were sharing a “prophecy” given by an American “prophet” that spoke as to how the Philippines would be a great nation of Christians spreading His Word throughout the world (I have long since forgotten the wording). Is this prophecy? motivational affirmations? shameless pandering? I don’t know.

Are there prophets today? Sure, there are people that give God’s message to the people. Are there people who give new and authoritative revelations from God to the people today. I have my doubts. And even if there are… I think doubt is a very good thing. A healthy reliance on the Bible and a healthy skepticism of self-described prophets is needed both at home and in the mission field.

An ‘Introduction to Missions’ Book… hopefully.

Been trying to write an Introductory book for Christian missions. I suppose I should be working on it right now. I have written some short books before. I did one on medical missions (based on my dissertation)… pretty good, but short. I did one on the use of narrative in missions (a bit rough and speculative but I like it generally). I did a very rough one on wholism in missions (more of a thought notebook than a book). But this one is meant to be a bit more official… hopeful for Seminary Extension students in Southeast Asia. Hopefully, it will go okay. bohol

I am seeking for this Introduction of Missions to be a bit less American in its logic. Missions in the US tends to focus on culture in its taxonomy (E-scale and P-scale designators for what is or is not missions). In the US where mission organizations dominate, not only Christian missions but determining what is Christian missions is built around culture. I really enjoy teaching Cultural Anthropology, but I consider a theological and ministerial tool, rather than a guide for determine what is Missions.

But things are a bit looser in Asia… even more so with Diaspora missions, Bivocational missions, and Short-term missions. Add to that cybermissions, part-time missions, and such and the culture isn’t the best tool for separating missions from other ministries.

With this in mind, I am trying to develop a book on missions that is Church-centered. Church-centered does not mean Church only. I am a Baptist and in Baptist history there has been the tendency to consider the local church as God’s only vehicle for His work. As such, mission organizations and other organizations are considered to be without divine authorization. That is absolutely NOT what I believe.

Rather, I see missions in terms of its relationship to the local church. When the local church sends out a person, family, or team for God’s kingdom outside of itself (for God’s kingdom, not itself), that is Christian missions. Mission agencies may assist local churches in empowering, training, providing logistic support, member care, and accountability… but that role doesn’t change who is the sender.

Hopefully, the book will turn out okay. Shifting missions from being culturally-based to church-based really has a lot of ramifications including:

  • Definition of Christian missions
  • Definition of missionary
  • Understanding of what it means to be “called” or “sent”

And more… Frankly, changing the above three really changes the whole field of study. We will see where it goes.

 

Some thoughts on culture and communication, Part 4

Taking the ideas of Part 1 through 3 further (see links below), I would like to extend it to Incarnational Missions.  See the figure below (Figure 6)

Adjusted Model Figure 6.  Incarnational Missions Modification

In this case N, S, and C stay the same (natural world, society, and culture respectively). P again is the people group in that particularly moment. M is the missionary.

Incarnational Missions involves integrating into people group so as to impact them. This happens on three levels.

1.  Relocation. The missionary must relocate into the natural world of the people group he is working in.

2.  Societal Role.   The missionary must find a role in that society that will be accepted. This may be a learner, a teacher, a businessman, or something else. Failure to find a role that is understood and appreciated will greatly harm impact since it is likely that the society will find a different role for the missionary (foreigner, stranger, troublemaker).

Up to this point, the missionary does not have much impact because there is no change to the natural world nor the society of the people group. But this changes when we get to the third area.

3.  Counter-cultural Contextualization. The message of God is communicated in such a way that it is understandable to the people group and inspires change. I like the idea of counter-cultural since it is not anti-cultural (rejecting the culture). A message that rejects the culture is likely to be rejected by the culture. However, the message does not parrot the culture. The message accepts much of the culture but challenges it in certain areas. The message then would go towards “C Prime” rather than “C”.

In case this is confusing, lets go back to the game analogy.

1.  The individual must join the team (people group). This includes relocating physically to the team.

2.  The individual must abide by the rules set for the game… finding a role that is needed and appreciated on the team.

3.  The individual agrees with aspects of the objectives of the team (after all, he is now on that team), but may now challenge aspects of the objectives.

Of course, changing culture will ultimately affect society and the natural world (there is a fluidity to all of these things after all), but I would suggest that the message starts from culture and values of a people group.

Some Thoughts on Culture and Communication, Part 1

Some Thoughts on Culture and Communication, Part 2

Some Thoughts on Culture and Communication, Part 3

Counter-Cultural Contextualization

The Power of Weakness: Part 3

In the previous posts I have developed four categories of missions based on relation

Two priests demand a heretic to repent as he i...
Two priests demand a heretic to repent as he is tortured. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

to violence and power. Of course the categories are dependent on how the terms are defined.

For the purpose of the categories, violence has to do with acts that may be violent in a classic sense, but may also include methods that are harassing or abusive as well.

Power within this context is based on utilizing the position of governmental, legal, economic or social power or authority.

Some missions methods that fall into these categories:

Violent and Power: Crusades, Inquisition (at times), “Gunboat evangelism” and other forms of govermentally-mandated conversions.

Non-violent and Power: Inquisition (at other times), Colonial regulation of faith and conduct, Blue laws, “Rice Christian”  and other dependency ministries. Desecration power encounter. I called this “Duragraha” from Mohatma Gandhi… though I don’t promise to be using the term exactly like he did.

Violent without power: “abortion clinic bombings” and other forms of religious terrorism, Desecration of other’s faith artifacts, religious harassment

Non-violent without power: empowering (rather than dependency-generating) social ministry, training, missions encounters (power, truth, allegiance, and love) when done respectfully and without coersion, dialogue. I called this “Satyagraha” from Mahatma Gandhi… again, not promising to be using the term exactly like he did.

I believe, in general, Christian missions is non-violent and acting without human power or authority. There are exceptions.

For example, I believe that Christian Community Development or Social Ministry is acceptable, however, a primary goal is to go from a position of power to empowering others towards a position of interdependence. The same is true in the case of training. Training begins, in a sense, from a position of authority of one over another, but should be empowering, rather than maintaining that position of power, of one over another.

Much of missions has tended toward the teleological. I am not against the teleological… if something truly doesn’t work, why use it? But we should start from a deontological (and contextual) view. If Christ is our example in missions (and I believe He is), we have a good starting point, as well as healthy limits, on how to do missions. It seems like one should start from a position of non-violence since this appears to be a primary limitation on His methodology. The overturning of the tables in the Court of the Gentiles might be an exception, but I am not convinced that this was a missions method on the part of Christ. Additionally, Jesus did not position Himself utilizing governmental or societal authority. Rather, He came in poverty as a servant. As a teacher, He took on some level of authority, and yet did so in a transitional form… giving His disciples authority to serve and train others in His place.

On the Theme “Walking With” : A Missions Theology. Part 6

Do You See Yonder Wicket-Gate The Pilgrim's Pr...
Do You See Yonder Wicket-Gate The Pilgrim’s Progress Macgregor PubJack 1907 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This last section looks at Missions from the standpoint of Missions practice. As such, it is not, strictly speaking, drawn from the theme “Walking With.” Rather it is dialogue between practice and principle. I believe that the basic principles flow from the Biblical understanding of “walking with.”

Reviewing:

God (as drawn from the OT) relates to His own in terms of walking with. In this we are to be close to Him relationally, guided by Him, based on humility and love. Failure to walk with God in this sense is what we call “sin.”

Christ relates to us in line with God’s relationship with us as described in the Old Testament. The addition is that Jesus modeled this abstract concept with the incarnation. The call of Christ is to follow Him. We have the obligation to choose to follow Christ or follow the path of the world.

The Church is called upon to love the world… but rejecting the path that the world is on. Rather, the church is to follow the path of truth, righteousness, and peace while in the world. Our call is to proclaim the message of God, and prepare the way for Christ. 

How can we relate this to missions?

1.  God leads. This may be obvious. But God leads us in the paths of righteousness and the way we should go. God is on mission (refer to Blackaby and Willis in “On Mission with God.”).

2.  We follow. As a disciple, we follow Christ. In joining God on His mission, we are sent out by Him… still being led by Him. 

3.  We go. We live led by God in the ways of righteousness, but in the world. As such, we follow the model of Christ in dwelling and interacting with those who are on the wrong path. We prepare the way for Christ in this world by inviting people to join us in following God… the straight path. As John Perkins notes with regards to Christian Community Development, relocation (as in moving into the community in which transformation is sought). It seems like this principle should be applied beyond the narrow bounds of community development.

4.  We model. Invitation is not enough. The path of God is characterized by Righteousness, Love, Peace, and Truth. As we share truth, promote peace, practice love, and seek righteousness, we decorate the Gospel.

5.  They choose. Regardless of one’s opinion about freewill and God’s election, from a human perspective… people choose. They choose the path that they desire. Ideally, as they see the path, process, and life Christians are on, they desire it, and follow you as you follow Christ. Hopefully soon they will understand that they are following Christ and you are only assisting them in that path.

Okay… this is pretty simple set of items… some might describe them as self-evident. But in missions nothing seems to be self-evident. I would like to suggest there are some aspects of missions that don’t fit into this set of principles.

A.  Distance missions. Just send money is not missions. I am in missions so I certainly don’t mind if people send money.  But missions is incarnational. It involves face-to-face and heart-to-heart experiences.

B.  Propositional evangelism. It is okay to memorize the Romans Road or Evangelism Explosion or the Wordless Book. But truth is not enough. Christian missions is based on living out God’s path in a process. Propositional evangelism is of value only within the context of godly living in interactive relationships with others.

C.  Futurist focus. Christianity is a hear and now religion. The path we were given is in this world. We can, rightly, be comforted in a confident future. But that in no way means we should minimize the importance of where we are, who we are, and what we are doing… here. Faithfully walking the path God has placed for us is more important than setting dates for His imminent (or perhaps delayed) return.

D.  Militant focus. We may be justified in singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” and I was in the military and believe that there is good in the military and in militaristic symbols. However, our relationship with the world should be more characterized by love, peace, and righteousness, than by militaristic (both offensive and defensive) metaphors.

E.  Signs and Wonders, and Power Encounter. Christian missions is described best in day by day faithful living that relates to the world around us with truth, love, peace, and righteousness. This sort of living provides a considerable challenge to others when they compare it to the lies, selfishness, conflict, and sinfulness that surrounds them. Miracles certainly may have their place… but there “non-ordinariness” suggests that they are not part of the normal Christian ministry. In fact, sadly, sometimes miracles are done (whether actual works of God or works of chicanery) in place of  truth, truth, peace, and righteousness.

F.  Narrow definition of missions. Missions is following Christ and living out the path He has given. In certain circumstances it may be useful to define missions in terms of profession, in terms of cultural bridging, in terms of finance, or in terms of calling. But ultimately, we indeed are meant to be on missions and as long as we are alive on earth we are in the mission field.

This ends my 6 part (it was going to be 5 part) series seeking to look at missions theology through the theme of “walking with.” I hope it has some value to some.

“What is the Impact of Globalism on Contemporary Christian Mission?”

Self shot with Jesus, Rio de Janeiro
Jesus, Rio de Janeiro (Photo credit: kaysha)

Occasionally, I contribute to Answers.com. When I do, it is because I am really bored. This is one of my better answers I guess (although reading it, I probably should clean up the grammar sometime. Link and answer below:

Question:  What is the Impact of Globalization on the Contemporary Christian Mission?

A. The “Southern Shift” of Christianity. Even into the early 1900s, Christianity could justifiably be described as a “European/American” religion (particularly when speaking in terms of Protestantism). But things have changed. There are still some of other faiths who seek to label Christianity in terms of European or North American cultures, but that has long become meaningless. This is seen in several ways.

  1. The church. There has been a great growth of the church in places such as Sub-saharan Africa, and China (among other places). Some denominations that were very Eurocentric (The Anglican church is a good example) is now centered in adherents in countries that used to be described as “3rd World” and now “2/3 Word”.
  2. Theology. Christian Theology does not necessarily have a “Made in Germany” stamp on it anymore. Liberation Theology, 3rd Eye, various theologies within the African Independent Churches, Dalit theology, and more are becoming valid voices within Christian thought.
  3. Missions. Regarding Protestant Missions, the 1700s was dominated by Germany. The 1800s was dominated by England. The 1900s was dominated by the United States. But this new century is completely different. South Korea, Brazil, Nigeria, Ghana, the Philippines, and more are sending out missionaries all over the world. The same can be said within Catholic missions.
  4. Missions Strategy. The 1915 Edinburgh Conference on Missions was dominated by European and American missionaries, missiologists, and mission organizations/ societies. But times have changed. Not only have more and more missionaries come from 2/3 world countries, but mission organizations and mission strategies are also coming from these countries. The B2J (Back to Jerusalem) movement is a mission strategy born from the young Chinese church. OFW (overseas foreign workers) missionary strategy is being developed by the Philippine church. The Barefooting strategies of many of these organizations and churches vary greatly from those of more traditional churches and agencies.

B. Global Communication and Transportation. Global ease in transportation has produced the Short-term mission movement. This was nearly impossible before transoceanic flights. Ease in communication has created virtual missionaries. Those who minister in the virtual world that many around the world share. Since we are discussing Christian missions within a medium that can be read, analyzed, and edited almost anywhere in the world, this point seems pretty self-evident.

C. Pluralism. The ease of interaction and transportation leads to the interaction of people of different cultures and faiths. This leads to a number of new aspects in missions. First is that cross-cultural missions can happen without leaving one’s neighborhood. The growth of ethnic churches or congregations alongside (and sometimes within) traditional churches is one result. Additionally, missions often focused on unidirectional communication (preaching and teaching) but pluralistic societies lend themselves to more 2-way communication. This can include both apologetics and dialogue. The growth of dialogue (particularly) requires new training and strategies.