Missions Theology and the 60s

The 1960s was an important decade for a number of reasons. Though down the list for many, the transformation of Missions Theology during this time was huge.

Sometimes, it seems like a lot of changes happened back in the 1920s and 1930s. During this time there was disillusionment with “Christendom,” and Christian missions as a (Western) Civilizing influence. Also W. E. Hocking’s influence and his work in developing “American Report of the Commission of Appraisal of the Laymen’s Foreign Mission Enquiry” that promoted a pluralistic agenda  away from evangelism and conversion, had an influence. Despite this, the dominant views of missions stayed in many ways in line with missions of the 19th and early 20th centuries. And this continued into the early 1960s.

For example, at the 1961 gathering ofjohn-stott-love-truth-themajestysmen the World Council of Churches in New Delhi, the purpose of the Commission of World Mission and Evangelism was “to further the proclamation to the whole world of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to the end that all men may believe in Him and be saved.” (“Christian Mission in the Modern World” by John Stott, p. 133). This view was in line with the mission perspective of previous decades. It is true that Evangelism was often seen in terms of a partnership of proclamation and social ministry, but that hardly is out of line with the practice of missions through the Great Century and before.

Dialogue was recognized in the early part of the 1960s as an important part of dealing with other religions. However, it was understood in a manner quite different than the relativistic form that was popularized years later:

“True dialogue with a man of another faith requires a concern both for the Gospel and for the other man. Without the first, dialogue becomes a pleasant conversation. Without the second it becomes irrelevant, unconvincing, or arrogant. Whatever the circumstances may be, our intention for every human dialogue should be to be involved in the dialogue of God with men, and to move our partner and oneself to listen to what God in Christ reveals to us, and to answer him.”

(Ronald K. Orchard, ed., “Witness in Six Continents: Records of the Meeting of the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism of the World Council of Churches Held in Mexico City, 8-19 December 1963”)

However, as the decade advanced, changes continued. There was a growth of seeing Mission in terms of “Christian Presence” which called for behavior that appeared to be every bit as vague as the term sounds. With “The Church for Others” published by the WCC in 1967, things had radically changed. Missions did not really involve a call to repentance. Proselytism is seen as “the opposite” of missions. Conversion is not seen so much as individual and personal, but more corporate in form. That is not to say there were no good points in the work… but rather that mission theology had radically changed… and much of those changes undermined the historical purposes of doing mission work.

“Presence” became a word that was used as a substitute for “witness,” “mission,” and “evangelism.” Charles de Foucauld described a missionary as a person who is in the place with a presence willed and determined as a witness to the love of God in Christ.’ (“Missions Theology” by Rodger C. Bassham, p. 73)  This definition is not so much wrong or bad, but so vague that it could entail doing almost anything or nothing. Panikkar during this same period, saw missionaries not so much as bringing Christ to other cultures, but helping other cultures “discover Christ” in their culture through the missionary’s service to the people.

Why would there be such a radical change during this time? I really don’t know. However, the IMC, International Missionary Council, formally joined the World Council of Churches in 1961. Perhaps the IMC, a thoroughly missions-oriented organization, provided a strong influence on the WCC gatherings in 1961 and 1963… but that influence waned later in the decade, being then driven more by churches that had a different perspective and agenda.

The 1960s also saw the growth of Conservative Evangelical Missions with competing gatherings of their own in the 1960s at Wheaton and Berlin. Sadly, some of the missions theology with the Evangelicals was little better than that of the WCC, especially in the early years of the decade. In Wheaton there was a tendency to broaden missions to including drawing people into Evangelical groups from non-Evangelical Christian groups. At the same time, there was an even stronger push to narrow missions. Missions was so narrowly defined by some as to reject education and social ministry. Some like members of MacGavran’s Church Growth movement, sought to view missions as only entailing churchplanting, and separating between discipling (a missionary role) and perfecting (something almost the same as discipling, but not viewed a missionary role). <Part of me appreciates the definition of missions as only churchplanting. It is simple… logical… elegant. However, it is also unscriptural, and establishes missions without a firm foundation.>

Thankfully, much of these views did not end up being approved in finalized statements. But the views in the 1960s have had a strong impact on Evangelical missions even until today.

There were some, like John Stott, who managed to be relevant/influential with both sides. I don’t really believe that unity for the sake of unity is a virtue. Spiritual unity can occur with organizational diversity (but spiritual unity probably does not exist when we focus on stealing people from other Christian churches, and define such activity as “the Lord’s Work.”)

I feel like some of the greater eccentricities of missions theology that grew in the 1960s may have been hammered out better with greater dialogue between both sides. The focus on missions as expressing God’s love through personal presence in the world is nice but wholly inadequate. But so was missions that embraced proclamation of the Word without Christian service. Maybe the two sides could have learned and grown from each other.

But I could be wrong.

Quote on “Christian Faith”

Okay, I have to admit it… I have developed a really negative attitude about how people use the term “Faith,” at least in Evangelical circles (not saying that other groups are better at it). Some seem to think that faith is the absence (or negation) of doubt (ridiculous and unbiblical idea). Others seem to think almost that it is a substance that has quantity (yes, I am aware of the words of Jesus such as having faith the size of a mustard seed… but please don’t get lost in the metaphor). The focus shifts from what or who your faith is based on with the “quantity” of your faith. Others seem to look at faith as an emotional element only, or cognitive only. Many seem to want to divorce faith from faithfulness. Faith becomes something you have contained within yourself rather than something you live out. I am comfortable, generally, in describing myself as an Evangelical. Evangelicals like to say that their beliefs are built on Scripture (and Biblical Theology) but the biggest area that Evangelical churches drift into tradition and sloppy hermeneutics appears, to me at least, to be in the area of faith.  So I am hoping to bring up some things in the area of faith in some upcoming posts. These are not, strictly speaking, attempts to “sway the public,” but rather to learn and grow as I work through this complicated theme. Okay, maybe it isn’t complicated, but it sure seems to be as we deal with theses and antitheses on the topic through over 2000 years of history.

So, I am going to start with a quote from Michael Wakely, an OM missionary, from his book, “Can it be true? A personal pilgrimage through faith and doubt”. Quote is from chapter 2 (“Cerebral Faith”)

The Bible has a lot to say about using our minds. Jesus commanded his disciples to “love the Lord your God with all your… mind,” and then “opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.” It is stating the obvious to say that the mind is useful, but there are Christians who advise that it is only when we shut down our minds that God will be able to take over. That’s just what the critics of Christianity have been saying for years: Faith is intellectual suicide

John Stott states in his helpful booklet “Your Mind Matters.” “If we do not use the mind which God has given us, we condemn ourselves to spiritual superficiality and cut ourselves off from many of the riches of God’s grace.” I like that. God has given us a mind, and expects us to submit it to Him and then use it. Our minds are there to search for good answers to the hard questions… and if those answers are still not satisfactory, to have the wisdom to submit in faith to the certainty that there is a superior wisdom above.

… The popular conception is that the Christian faith requires closed eyes and closed minds, followed by a surge of comfortable feeling. As long as the feel-good factor is there, the irrational leap is justified. That is a travesty of a faith that is rooted in space, time, and history. I have lived long enough with other great world religions to know that there are other ways of looking at faith, which do not invite close intellectual examination. But it is not so with Christianity.  … The plain fact is that few world religions invite examination under the microscope and prefer, or even claim, to be regarded either as a mythology, because they deal with abstract concepts rather than concrete realities, or as above inspection, because examination is viewed as an insult to the divine.

It is unfortunate when Christianity is judged in the same light and the impression is given that one needs to turn off the mind in order to believe– “Choose faith or brains, you can’t use both together.” Or “Close your eyes, submit yourself to your emotions. God is an experience to make your feelings tingle. Switch off your brain before it gets in the way. ” Sadly, a lot of Christian teaching– and even more Christian experience– would agree with these popular travesties.