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.

Metaphors for Missions

I finished teaching an 8-week course in Theology of Missions at Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary. I wasn’t sure how best to do this, since this is the first time I have taught the course, and it is the first time it has been taught at our school.

So I decided to hit as much as I could in areas relating to Missions Theology that is not necessarily dealt with much elsewhere.  So I broke it up into three major topics, and several minor topics.

Section 1.  Missions Theology as Systematic Theology

  • Missio Dei
  • Missio Ecclesiae
  • Missions in terms of Eschatological History
  • Analysis of the Great Commission(s), Great Commandment, and Abrahamic Covenant
  • “Spiritual” versus Social versus Holistic ministry
  • Interfaith Dialogue and dealing with other faiths
  • Views on who is saved

Section 2.  Missions Theology as Contextual Theology

  • What is Contextualization and Contextual Theology
  • What are the models of contextualization of theology
  • What benchmarks are there for orthodoxy of contextual theologies
  • Roles of narrative and metaphors in contextual theology

Section 3.  Missions Theology as Reflective (“Pastoral”) Theology

  • Action/Reflection in developing personal missions theology
  • Case Studies and peer review
  • Personal metaphor for missions

We had an interesting term. With 10 in my class, we had a lot of good conversations. We had 10 metaphors given for missions. Some seemed a little strange at first, but made a lot of sense when explained. A couple of them may not meet the strict definition of metaphor… but I am not that strict. If it is useful, it works.  The ten metaphors were:

  1. Anchor
  2. Builder
  3. Water
  4. Walking by the Spirt
  5. Gathering Toys
  6. Mountain climbing
  7. Liberation
  8. Mountain biking
  9. Playing Chess
  10. Gardening

BDSC05324

 

Self-Reflection, Part II

Women's Missionary Union Pamphlet ND
Lottie Moon. Great, and sharp-tongued inspirer of churches to greater mission involvement and support. Image via Wikipedia

OKAY… CONFESSION TIME.

I have a job in a missions organization (administrator of a Christian Counseling and Training Center). I also have had a role as missions director in more than one local church. I found myself drifting away from doing good work as missions director. Why? Because the churches had relatively little interest in missions as a group (at least compared to missions organizations I have been involved in). Sure there were a few people, but they were a small missions core in a much larger congregation. I tended to feel the church was selfish because they focused on member care most, with some interest in church growth (increase numbers in OUR church), little in classic missions (growth of God’s Kingdom, with little to no direct effect on our church).

However, I had two major realizations:

1.  Maybe the churches were selfish… but so was I. A church that sends money, people, or resources to the other side of the world gets no real tangible return on their investment. Doing things “for the Kingdom of God” is pretty abstract for most church members. But as a missionary, I get credit for everything. I get credit for what I do in church… I get credit for what I do outside the church, on a local level… I get credit for what I do that creates change far away.  Maybe churches are selfish (they are made up of people, and people are selfish), but I can’t be so sure that I am not selfish either. Would I invest in things joyously that I could not, on some level, claim credit? Perhaps my lack of effort in the church demonstrated my own selfishness, not willing to invest time in something because in may not result in something good (something I can take credit in).

2.  Perhaps more than just being selfish, I was being lazy. A major role of the missionary is to reproduce himself. I believe the reason that so many churches in the Philippines (for example) have little to no cross-cultural missions interest is that they were trained up by missionaries. The missionaries did not instill in these churches an excitement for cross-cultural missions because this form of missions “is the missionary’s job”.  Often the greatest missionaries were those who could inspire people and churches to missions who, otherwise, would not have. Missionaries often like to work in missions groups, because the members of these groups are already motivated, already wanting to learn, and already desiring to do great things in the world. Missionaries don’t have to go through the difficult and unreliable task of motivating and training those who don’t share this burden and passion.

A good missionary does more than organize a coalition of the willing. He inspires churches and church members to join God in His mission (Missio Dei).

So I intend to make some changes. We will see how this goes.

Missions, Numbers, and Pointy-Haired Bosses

Pointy-haired Boss
http://www.dilbert.com   Image via Wikipedia

Numbers matter, on some level at least, but I believe we all know that numbers are highly limited in their ability measure what matters. I remember a Dilbert Cartoon (November 21, 1994) where Dogbert suggested that corporate health can best be measured by employee turnover rate. The “pointy-haired boss” (PHB) noted that their turnover rate was very low since they keep their employees poorly trained so no one else would want to hire them. PHB ends the comic with the victory cheer “NO METRIC HAS BEATEN ME YET!!” He was pointing out that as soon as you set a statistical standard for performance, one can find ways to “beat the system”. A couple of years ago, some milk product manufacturers in China were found putting melamine (bad stuff) into milk products because it would make a test give higher protein readings. Clearly evaluating by numbers alone is inadequate.

It is not surprising that today, in an age of technology, statistics, and analysis, numbers have grown in import. The Church Growth Movements often focus on numbers: biological growth, transfer growth, conversion growth, “back-door” losses, baptisms, and memberships. But by these standards, the Peoples Temple, led by Jim Jones, would be considered a very successful church, even after Jones declared himself God. From a numbers standpoint, the problems with the People’s Temple would not have really shown up until the church members did a mass suicide (huge back-door losses). The “spiritual disciplines” sometimes become metrics for holiness: how many verses memorized, how much of the Bible is read daily, how many times does one prayer or fast, or go to church, or join worship rallies, journal, or a host of other measurable behaviors.

Missions is often hugely statistical.

Missionaries are often judged by the:

          -Number of people “reached” with the Gospel.

          -Number of events held.

          -Number of people they have led to Christ.

          -Number of churches they have planted.

          -Number of people they are discipling.

          -Efficiency of work (“bang for the buck”)

Mission sites are often judged by:

          -Number of unreached people groups.

         -Percentage of “Evangelicals” in the region

          -Baptism rates

          -Church planting patterns and stats

          -Statistical viability for church-planting movement (CPM)

But is missions (Missio Dei) truly something that can be measured?

I believe that in missions organizations and missionaries, like the Pointy-Haired Boss in Dilbert, can use numbers in ways to enlighten or disquise. Let me give you an example:

I used to be involved with a lot of medical missions. I don’t have a problem with medical missions (my dissertation is on doing medical mission events in the Philipines), but some are done poorly… and that is never acceptable.

Let me give you some numbers of a typical evangelistic medical mission (partnered with a local church) here in the Philippines.

          -People treated: 500

    • (Medical treatment) 350

    • (Dental treatment) 100

    • (Minor surgical treatment) 50

    • Prayed to Receive Christ 300 (high rates of external response common in PI)

    • Desire Home Bible Study 80

    • Cost? About $1200 (pretty efficient!!)

These are pretty good numbers!! One could use these numbers to demonstrate that one is a pretty good missionary.

But suppose one wanted to show this mission was a failure, not a success?

  • People helped, physically, long-term?        Maybe 70-80 (and these only modestly)
  • How many people now involved in church?                  Maybe 15
  • How many trained for healthy and wise living?             0
  • How many are empowered (versus made dependent) by the event.        0

From this, one could argue that it is a big waste of time.

Which view is correct? Recall the quote: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” (probably first coined by Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke). The truth may not be so easy to measure. For example:

  • Did the medical mission express the love of God to the community in a way that people could understand and respond to?

  • Did the local church build bridges/healthy relationships with the broader community?

  • Did it inspire local and outside volunteers to greater faithfulness and service of God?

  • Did it engender dependency within the community or ill-will?

  • (Most importantly) Was the mission doing God’s work or one’s own work?

These are frustrating questions because they reject quantification… but these are the ones most important for us to answer.