Sodalities and Modalities in Missions

This is part (early rough draft) of a chapter I am doing in my Missions and Theology book. Understand it as a very preliminary text. Thanks.

Christian Missions is done by people who come together as part of the Kingdom of God, as members of the Body of Christ, as those joined in the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Such coming together can exist in more than one way.

Ralph Winter speaks of Modalities and Sodalities. Modality Structures as it pertains to Christianity are social entintities that exist based on biology, geography (generally) and shared faith. The local church in its many diverse manifestations is such a structure. It draws from the synagogue, which is also a modality structure. A sodality structure is one that is driven primarily by common purpose. Such purpose is not simply shared by the members but is the actual reason for its existence. As much as churches have embraced the idea of having mission and vision statements, if these statements were changed, or not even written down, the church would not cease to be, and even may not even change markedly. And members of the church may affirm their church’s covenant, as well as vision and mission statements, but few actually kick people out who do not fully embrace, enforce, and execute these statements. (I have seen a few churches try to do this… it gets ugly.)

Sodality structures include mission bands, seminaries, and pretty much any other structure within Christianity in which joining absolutely requires acceptance of and adherence to a very specialized mission. This mission is much more narrow, and is generally inadequate to the overall needs of the individual Christian. Because of this, it is generally understood that all Chrsitians should be part of a church, regardless of whether they are part of a specialized structure.

It is the narrow specialization of sodality structures that give them some specific advantages in doing missions. Since all members can selected based on their shared vision, common desire to be trained to work cross-culturally, and willingness to limit one’s resources to focus on that vision over others.

It is pretty clear that sodality structures, such as mission societies, are important. Comparing the Roman Catholic Church to the Protestant Church(es) reveals some of the challenges. The Catholic Church had a universal leader— one who was seen as responsible for every person on earth (“Vicar of Christ”). It also had the monastic system that served as a sodality structure for a number of roles— especially missions. In early Protestantism, the church often meant the national church, or the local church, with no role for identifying responsibility beyond local or national boarders. And in focusing on the church, the monastic system was uprooted, without a replacement., In effect, it literally took centuries for the Protestant church to embrace missions in any beyond fits and starts.

The Danish-Halle Mission was a joint venture between the King of Denmark and the University of Halle. A university can be thought of as a sodality structure since it exists as a group driven by purpose. As such, the university served as a replacement for a monastic order, and the King of Denmark, as sovereign over his land and colonies, served as a replacement fot the pope.

For both the Roman Catholic setting and the Danish setting, the church, as a modality structure, had little role in missions. Their primary role is to produce Christians to feed the machinery of missions being handled outside of the church.

This was not the only option, however. The Moravian movement followed a model more akin to the idea of the missional church. The church as a whole seemed to act in many ways as a sodality structure. The Unitas Fratrum (as they are formally known) did not replace the Pope with another entity, but with theology. Since the church was not tied to a national or regional government, they saw their “parish” as worldwide. And with a leadership that was, for centuries, quite missional, the church embraced a strong missionary vigor without having a distinctly separate structure. History seems to support the idea that a Pope (or equivalent) is not really needed, as long as a church/denomination doesn’t define itself by its locality or state. However, over time, is seems like the church, as a modality structure, rarely holds onto a strongly missional stance over a few generations. The calling of the church is broader than that of a mission organization and so eventually, there is a tendency to shift focus or broaden focus. While from a missions standpoint this seems bad, I must admit that I have seen churches that are so focused on task that they lose sight of caring for their own people. This can create a toxic condition in a church.

Justinian von Welz proposed the establishment of a mission society in the 17th century. His Jesus Loving Society was ahead of its time, seemingly. It provided a structure that allowed churches to support missionaries with resources and prayers and receive reports back from missionaries. The attempt failed, but it did inspire others later. By the end of the 18th century and into the 19th century, there was a huge number of mission societies that sprang up. This led to a golden age of Protestant missions. As time when on, some mission agencies were swallowed up as mere arms of denominational church structures. Others went the opposite and became more independent of, and sometimes even competitive to churches.

With the growth of the missional church movement as well as short-term missions missions seems to be taking a direction more akin to the Moravians presently. Time will tell whether missions works best driven by the church, as a pawn of the church, or as a competitor of the church (or something else entirely).

Other things to read:

Ralph Winter on Modalities and Sodalities

Robert Munson “Lack of Early Protestant Missions”

Local Churches and Parachurch Ministries

Local Churches and Parachurch ministries have a long history of struggle. One can even broaden this to other Modality (community-based) versus Sodality (purpose-based) structures. Jesus and his ministry band was often in conflict with the temple and synagogue system. One might be quick to side with the ministry band, and be against the temple and synagogue. but that is not really the point. The early church ministered at and even through the temple and synagogue, and the church is modeled after the synagogue. Neither structure was problematic— the relationship was the problem. boxing_6_lg

There are several ways the church and parachurch can relate:

  1.  Competition. Competition is the most natural relationship, but who is to say that what is natural is always the best. To put things in the most brutally unkind way, churches are greedy and parachurches are parasitic. Parachurches need human resources as well as financial resources. Human resources for parachurches come from churches, but churches don’t always want their people serving in these parachurch organizations rather than in the church. Parachurches get a considerable amount of their finances from church members; and church members often give more to such organizations by giving less to their own churches. Of course, it works the other way as well. Many churches strongly discourage their members from working with other churches or parachurches. And many churches like to make the argument that “bringing ones’ treasure to the storehouse” can be interpreted as “give all your gifts to God to and through your local church.”
  2. Negation. I don’t know of any parachurches who have tried to negate or invalidate churches, although some have at times been quite critical. There have been churches that invalidate parachurches. the Anti-Missions movement of the 1800s was not simply against mission organizations, but other sodality structures, suggesting that the local church is the only valid religious institution.
  3. Control. Some relate from a position of control. A church can run a parachurch. In some cases a parachurch have even established a church. Salvation Army would be one example of that, but I have a friend who was part of a parachurch organizaiton that decided to establish its own church. In that case, it appeared to have been done for control… of the volunteers in the ministry. There is nothing inherently wrong with one controlling the other. However, churches are driven by different priorities than parachurches. That difference can be difficult. I have also seen where a parachurch group being within the church structure can lead to a “church within the church” or an elitist sub-group.
  4. Cooperation. History has shown that churches and parachurches can work together, each working to their own strength– Parish and Monastery, Church and Mission Society. A positive collaboration is ideal… but is challenging.

Much of the problem is that Christians often struggle with the Unity and Diversity of the church, and the Universality and Locality of the church. The conflict between churches and parachurches come from this confusion. Denominationalism and competition between churches comes from a similar place.

A Burst of Light and a Gentle Fading Away

I have been teaching Missions History this term in Seminary. Since I live and teach in Asia, I like to focus on missions history in Asia. Frankly, there is a lot more missions history in the East than the West anyway. In the first millennium, the churches of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Edessa spread the faith throughout Mesopotamia, Arabia, India and Persia. Later the “Nestorians” spread it through Central Asia to China, Korea, and beyond. The second millennium has the Russian Orthodox sweep across northern Asia, and the Protestant and Roman Catholic moves into Southern and Eastern Asia. Finally, with the dawn of the third millenium is the incredible reversal with 2/3 world (global) missions going into Asia and coming from Asia. But a good question came up as I was talking about the “Nestorian” (or Church of the East) missions in the first millennium.

Why did the greatest missionary effort (prior to the 1800s perhaps) result in so little long-term gain?

Of course, it is popular to blame Islam, or xenophobic Chinese emperors. But neither truly answer the question. The Coptic church in Egypt has survived (and often thrived) with persecution (of varying degrees). The church has even grown miraculously under persecution (such as in 20th century Maoist China, and in the 3rd century Roman Empire). Some argue that the outreach never really went beyond the Trading centers (perhaps a valid point). Some argue that there was a lack of contextualization and indiginization of the faith regionally (perhaps true in some locations… but not in others). I don’t have a good answer… but always willing to suggest a good theory. I would like to think that there may be a wee bit of truth tucked away in it. Nestorian missions at its height, such as from 628-643 under Patriarchate of Yeshuyab II, was quite organized with a wholistic outreach at cities along the overland route of the silk road. Among the structures that would be set up include:

  • Monastery     (meet sociospiritual needs)
  • Church          (meet sociospiritual needs)
  • Trading post  (meet economic needs)
  • Hospital   (meet physical needs)
  • School (meet educational needs)

The Nestorian missions points were, so I am led to understand, centered on the monastery: Nestorian 2The Nestorians were not the only ones to do this. The Celtic missions movement of the first millenium was also centered on the monastery. But of course, they did not have to do it this way. They could have had the church as the center point. Nestorian 1If one looks at these diamonds, one sees a nice wholistic support system… educational, economic, physical, and sociospiritual. But one might wonder at the apparent redundancy of having two entities that were sociospiritual… the church and the monastery. But the two are very different. Some would describe the church as a modality structure and a monastery as a sodality structure. I guess, to avoid more fancy words, one could say that:

            Church   is centered on       People
            Monastery      is centered on     Purpose

A church exists as an assembly (and assembling) of local Christians. It exists for believers to worship, fellowship, support each other. A monastery is a handpicked group of Christians who have joined together for a specific purpose. For Nestorian missions… the monastery was a missional structure. What do we see when a missional sodality (or purpose centered) structure is the key? Very rapid growth of missions… a nice thing. We saw it in Nestorian missions and in Celtic missions. In fact, most missional movements were driven by sodality (purpose-centered) structures… at least at first. What do we see long-term when sodality structures remain the center? With the Nestorian movement, it eventually lost its missional vigor… and the movement faded (not disappeared… but faded). With the Celtic movement, it was swallowed up by the Roman structure (which was centered, ultimately, on the church, not the monastery).

So if this observation has any merit, what would that suggest?

Missions is driven (at least on the frontier) by sodality (missional purpose-centered) structures. However, to endure, the center should transfer to the church. The people (local people) are the key to longevity.