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.”



Quotes and Notes on Early Christian Missions

Emperor Julian the Apostate
Emperor Julian the Apostate. Image via Wikipedia

Some notes from Stephen Neill‘s book, “A History of Christian Missions,” regarding early missions:

A.  Neill speaks of three things that occurred in the first century that radically affected the expansion of the church.

1.  The first was the realization the Jesus was not going to return quickly. After a fairly frenzied attempt to evangelize in the early part of Acts, by the 13thchapter of acts, it was recognized that “a steady programme of expansion thoughout the world” was appropriate.

2. Second, there was clear evidence from both God and circumstances, that salvation was not for Jews alone. Rather, it was available to all peoples.

3.  Third, the destruction of Jerusalem (70AD) made Christianity a religion without a center. Despite the high regard given places such as Rome, Jerusalem, Constantinople, or Canterbury, Christianity is not burdened with a Mecca. Christianity has no single home nor a home culture. (20-21)

I think these lessons need to be remembered today. Effective Christian missions comes from recognizing that we don’t know when Christ will return so we need to plan both short-term and long-term strategies for mission. Christian missions is not Jewish missions, or Western missions. Contextualizing the message to all cultures and all people is needed. Christian missions and the Christian church has no center except Christ.

B.  Quote:

 “… owing to Luke’s predilection for Paul, we know a great deal more about Paul than we know about anyone else. He tends to dominate the scene, and we are inclined to think of him as the typical missionary. In point of fact the picture is far more complex than that. We have to think of a great many full-time missionaries moving rapidly in many directions, and also of that mass of unprofessional missionaries, already alluded to, through whose witness churches were coming into being all over the place, unorganized, independent, yet acutely aware of their status as the new Israel and of their fellowship with all other believers in the world.” (26)

C.  One reason for this growth was the perceived morality of the Christians. Many non-Christians desired that (ethical living was a goal of Stoics, and Romans extolled living a life of virtue), but few seemed to achieve it like the Christians did (understanding, of course, that Christians were human and often failed as well). Also, Christians were known for their charitable work. This was an area that impressed many non-Christians. Emperor Julian (the Apostate), certainly no friend of Christianity, wrote:

Atheism (I.E. Christian faith) has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galilaeans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well, while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.” (37-38)

A very loosely related article (but one I like) is on The Importance of Historical Theology