Balance in Missions

I have been teaching Missions History this term… one of my favorite

English: People of the Silk Road, Dunhuang, 9t...
People of the Silk Road, Dunhuang, 9th century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

subjects, although I am not sure whether I do a good job with it.   It is hard to make history “come alive.” But had a couple of interesting insights that came from the class… particularly from comments made by the students. There are only 6 in the class. Three are from the Philippines, one is from Myanmar, one is from South Korea, and one is from Papua New Guinea.

Insight #1.  Balance in Missions Ministry.

We spent the first 3 weeks covering the first millenium of Christian Missions history. That is not a huge amount of time.  But frankly, most Protestant Missions History books don’t spend that much time during the first millenium. If I remember right (not having the book in front of me at the moment), Stephen Neill‘s book only devotes something like 50 pages to the first 1500 years of Christian missions. So not sure I did that bad.

Anyway, after covering the first millenium, I asked the class to come up with all (or as many as possible) of the missions methods, missions strategies, and missions principles that were utilized in the first 1000 years of Christian missions. They came up with a pretty nice list. Here is a list that we came up with. They are all jumbled up topically, chronologically, and structurally… but that is okay.

  • Accommodation/Contextualization
  • Care/Social Ministry
  • Church-planting
  • Translation work (Scripture, liturgy, hymns)
  • Cross-cultural ministry
  • “Poverty” missions
  • Monastic missions
  • Tentmaking
  • Power Encounter
  • Mission teams (sodality structures)
  • Cross and Sword
  • Women in missions
  • Government-sponsored missions
  • Education
  • Apologetics
  • Martyrdom
  • Targeting community leaders
  • School building work
  • Visitation
  • Mission centers (metropolitans, monasteries, etc.)
  • Business in missions
  • Giving gifts
  • Miracle missions
  • Faith-based missions

Then I asked to critique some of these… after all some are better than or worse than others. The “cross and sword” (or use of violence to expand the church) was recognized as a poor missions method (questionable in effectiveness, but highly problematic Biblically). Government-sponsored missions was also a concern because of the differing goals of government and church. Gift-giving was also seen as often not such a great idea because of a poor track record of bribing for spiritual change.

But one of my students brought up a really good point. He said,I think one bad method is too much reliance on any one single method of missions.” Wow! I think that is a great point. Missions needs balance and broadness. A very narrow and unbalanced form of missions is probably not such a great idea. There should be balance in ministry.

Insight #2.  Balance in Critique.

I was talking about missions in the time of Charlemagne (where missions through violence became popularized), and the Crusades (where missions through violence reached its pinnacle in Christian circles at least). Another student brought up an interest concern. She said, “When I hear all of these stories, it is difficult. I always think of Christians as good people.” Her concern was that there were an awful lot of bad people not only in the church, but even doing missions.

I said something like this. Probably not so well…

“One thing we really need when we study missions history is to find balance. Some people think the early church was only full of good people. That wasn’t true… check out the Bible for yourself. On the other hand, some people look at the ‘Dark Ages’ and think that the church was essentially dead… nothing good. That is also not true. At all points in history, there were bad people who describe themselves as Christians, and there were very good people who were Christians. Sometimes the common people seemed to be better than the leaders… the leaders perhaps become victims to the temptations of wealth and power. When we study Missions history we will see the good, the bad, and the really ugly… commonly existing and serving at the same time. We can learn from all of these. We can learn from their successes and their mistakes.

As we study them we need to remember that they are part of our family. We often think of Christians who are alive today as being brothers and sisters— family members— because of Christ. But those who have served before us… Celtic missionaries planting churches in Germany. Nestorian missionaries travelling through Central Asia on the Silk Road reaching the farthest points of Asia with the Gospel of Christ. Nuns serving with St. Boniface reaching Saxons and Frisians. They are our brothers and sisters in the same way as people today. The Church is not just about ‘the now’ but the past and future.

We need to study with balance… ready to applaud successes, but also acknowledge and learn from failures.”



The Cross and the Sword? Part II

“… all who were not baptized must receive the rite within a month, that those who declined to comply should be banished from the company of Christians, that any who relapsed into paganism should be reduced to slavery, that pagan worship was to cease, that such Christian practices as monogamy were to be adopted, that churches were to be built, that the neophytes must attend church on Sundays and feast days, that provision must be made for the support of the clergy, and that the converts must observe the Lenten fast, make their confessions to a priest at least once a year, and partake of the Communion at Easter.”  A description of a treaty between Teutonic Knights in the 12th Century and conquered pagan Prussians. Quote of K.S. Latourette. ( in A History of Christian Missions by Stephen Neill, London: Penguin Books, 1990), pg 95

The above quote seems strange today. Most of us, I assume, are uncomfortable with the idea of forced conversion.  Probably a majority of us would be uncomfortable with the idea that adjusting rules and lifestyles counts as genuine conversion anyway. But into the late 1700s (and later in some other places) many “Christian” countries felt that faith could be legislated and tied to territory. Even today, places like Saudi Arabia and the Maldives still hold this viewpoint.

However, in the 12th century, this was not such a strange thing. The heads of the Holy Roman Empire and   Roman Catholic church had granted the Teutonic Knights (The Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem) rights to conquer Prussia and later Lithuania. The goals were territorial, political, and religious. We see in these wars the problem of combining religious and monetary motivations, without religious ethics. It creates a desire, all too much based on power, glory, and wealth, to kill and destroy in the name of God.

Missiologically, the missions were highly successful. Prussia and Lithuania were effectively “Christianized” and Christianity (Prostestantism in Prussia/Germany and Roman Catholicism in Lithuania) remain the dominant religions in these countries to this day (if one ignores the religious aspects of Secularism). A similar tactic failed (missiologically, at least) in the Holy Land Crusades. There are fairly obvious reasons why. The European campaigns were against nearby tribes lacking cohesion. The Holy Land Crusades were far more distant, and, while the leaders in the Middle East had long since ceased to be highly united, they were less fragmented than the tribes in Northern Europe.  Additionally, Animism (unless one considers Hinduism as a highly diverse and structured form of Animism) has not fared very well intellectually against Christianity. Islam, on the other hand, while still retaining some Arabian tribal animistic thought, is made more intellectually cohesive utilizing certain Jewish and Christian elements in its teachings. As such it was more resilient than most animistic belief structures. The Inquisition was used effectively to root out more durable faith systems in places like Spain, but it took longer.

Okay… why am I talking about this. Am I suggesting that we should return to this form of missions (“cross and sword” or gunboat missions)? Absolutely not. THE POINT IS THAT NUMERICAL SUCCESS IS NOT NOT NOT A GOOD JUDGE OF MISSION METHODS.

I have come across too many methods and missionaries who do mission work, where justification for what is done is “It Works.” Doing evil CAN be missiologically effective. Doing long-term harm CAN be short-term successful. Creating a group of people financially dependent on the church or missions group will create numerical success (as long as the money flow remains) but is that good missions?

My goal is not to have all missionaries doing the same thing. I believe that Christian missions is (and should be) methodologically broad. But I recall a story from 20+ years ago of a church that rented a gymnasium and invited people there for Friday night fun. When everyone was in the room, they chained the doors shut and began intense evangelism.  I never spoke to the church. I am sure they saw things differently. But the community saw it as tantamount to kidnapping and imprisonment. Some people say, “If only one person comes to Christ, this,” whatever this may be, “was worth it.” But you know… that’s not true. If you have created hate in a community and have driven people away from Christ, the cost is too great.

Christian missions (and the Christian church) really needs to evaluate what we do and how we do it, to ensure we are in line with the will and character of God. Quantitative success is no success at all without this.