Translation and Transliteration

In communication, there are two important concepts with implications for mission. Translation and transliteration.

Translation is the act of rendering a thought from one language into another. This is done in the delivery of a message from speakers of one language to speakers of another language.

I’ve often given my definition of the mission of God’s people as, “translating the universal, unchanging gospel of Christ into dynamic, fallen, culture.” I think it stands as a good definition and word picture of our efforts in mission.

mandela-gif-sign-language-editFor a translator to communicate a message across language barriers, he must be fluent in both the language from which the message originates and the language into which the message is being translated. Remember the sign language interpreter for the Nelson Mandela memorial who apparently didn’t know sign language? The deaf could not understand what was said during the service because the translator didn’t actually know sign language and therefore wasn’t able to, well, translate.

Translation requires more than just technical knowledge of both languages. It also requires that the translator be able to think in both languages well enough to communicate meaning in a way that is, um, meaningful. This is why Google Translate doesn’t make Bible translators obsolete– translators look beyond the words of ancient Greek to the meanings of the scriptures.

If the translator is not able to think in both languages, the best he can do is transliterate. Transliteration is the conversion of a word from the alphabet of one language into another. For example, if we were to transliterate the 5_i_love_you_largeRussian phrase in the image (written in Russian’s cyrillic alphabet), into English, it would become ”ya tebya lyublyu.” But this string  of letters from the English alphabet are nonsense unless we have some proficiency with the Russian language. We could then translate the phrase into the English language as, “I love you.”  (At least I think that’s what it means.)

We do this a lot in Christianity. Transliteration is why the word “angel” brings to mind naked babies with wings rather than royal emissaries. It’s why we call designated stewards in our churches “deacons,” and why no churches are called “First Immersion Church.” We’re left to differentiate between Apostles and apostles. Don’t even get me started on “amen” (the ancient word for “this prayer is over”).

Adopting these words from ancient Greek instead of translating them into English has created several problems for us. Firstly, we’re using words we don’t otherwise use in our everyday language. Secondly, it puts us in the position of having non-academics wrestle over the meaning of words from a language they don’t speak. Thirdly, because we never bothered to translate these words, we put off the burden of translation to those who come after us.  Ultimately, these words lose real meaning and become shorthand for a learned sentiment that we’re unable to communicate to outsiders.

If we continue with my definition of the church’s mission as cultural translation of the gospel, we can see that much of what happens in “mission” is actually transliteration of the gospel– technically, we’ve imported Christianity into local “languages and dialects” (or cultures and  subcultures), but all we’ve really done is take our words and put them in their alphabets.

Transliteration in mission means planting churches that aren’t connected to the everyday lives of those among whom we minister. Rather than think deeply about the gospel, we force them to depend on us for the meanings behind what we do. Sure we may make disciples in this way, but we only end up putting off the development of truly indigenous believers, instead making confused converts who then have a difficult time relating to their lost friends.

Translation of the gospel into culture is never “finished.” It’s the ongoing work of God’s people. This is the mission of the church. We must fight the temptation to simply transliterate the gospel because it’s more than a string of words; it’s Good News for all men of every tribe, tongue, and nation!

Overcoming the Distance

distance

Mission is overcoming distance.

Sin separates people from God. This is a spiritual distance that leaves men, women, and children without hope. The Father overcame this distance by living among us and defeating sin through His life, death, and resurrection. God’s people join His mission in overcoming the spiritual distance by proclaiming the Good News for the nations.

Mission also faces the problem of physical distance. It requires overcoming the geographical barriers that separate God’s people from the rest of the world. How can they call upon Him if they haven’t heard? How will they hear unless someone proclaims? Who will proclaim unless they are sent? In order to make disciples, we must go. Sometimes this means getting on a plane, but opportunities to close the physical distance are all around us. We cannot join God’s mission and stay at home.

Which brings us to another distance that must be overcome: cultural. Oftentimes, “the nations” are right next door. Yet because of values, language, and worldview, we face difficulty in relating to people who are different. Cultural distance keeps “Unreached People Groups” being names on a list instead of being our friends, coworkers, and neighbors. Our obedience requires that we move beyond “us” and “them” and into discipling relationships.

In Jesus’ time, social distance was the difference between the “woman at the well” and a Samaritan. Today, it’s the difference between seeing people as “Illegals” and recognizing them as “Lost Treasure.” Social distance is crossed when God’s people deliberately move out of the comfort of homogeneity to live among those who do not share our privilege, advantage, means, or perspective.

Mission cannot be done remotely. There is much distance to be overcome. But as God’s sent-out-ones, we must cross spiritual, physical, cultural, and social barriers with the gospel. This is the mission of the church, and if you’re not involved, you’re not a true disciple of Jesus.

H. Bavinck on Missiology

Missiology in the first instance is not preoccupied with the question of what the truth is, but with the secondary question of how we are to present that truth about Christ. How are we to speak the truth about Christ in such a way that the gospel is comprehensible to its hearers? I might indicate in this connection that evangelization struggles with the same complexities. For, in the western world today, unchristian opinions and tendencies are certainly beginning to be seen in more audacious and flagrant forms, with the result that the difference between missions and evangelism is shriveling. In both terms, at issue is the demand to preach Christ relevantly and compellingly to people who do not know the one who is the Light of our light and the Life in our lives. The way of posing the issue in missiology is not the same as it is for dogmatic theology. For missiology, it is not about summarizing synthetically the truth of Scripture as that is mirrored in the church’s confession. Nor is it about apologetics, although missiology must often sharply and clearly expose the errors of false religion and ward off all the attacks concentrated against the gospel. But all of this is simply provisional and not yet its actual task. The essential task of missiology is missional. As soon as the church moves from a defensive posture concerning unbelief and superstition and assumes the offensive position of positively proclaiming the gospel, it unavoidably faces the weighty issue of the form in which the gospel must be rendered.”

Bolt, John (2013-06-03). The J. H. Bavinck Reader (p. 116). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Go We Therefore

I often hear well-intentioned people equate The Great Commission with the Church’s role in God’s global mission. That is to say, they see “go and make disciples of all nations” as defining the mission of the church today. This view of mission, however, is incomplete. Jesus’ instructions to the 150 or so disciples who were present to watch Him ascend into heaven certainly apply to the church today, but it isn’t the entirety of our mission on this earth.

Let me explain:

Throughout the scriptures, God interacts with humans by sending them to accomplish His purposes. He rarely just pops into human history simply to say hello. He sends His people.

  • “Go to the land I will show you” (Genesis 12:1)
  • “Go and speak to the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 3:1)
  • “Who shall I send? And who will go for us?” (Isaiah 6:9).
  • “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you” (Jonah 1:2; 3:1)
  • “Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves” (Luke 10:3)

The problem is that God send so often, we have to determine when He was sending all Christians for all times in all places, and when He was simply talking to an individual person. At times, God sent individuals (and sometimes groups) to do specific things in His name. In Luke 10, He sent 72 of His followers ahead of Him. In Luke 19, He commanded a couple disciples to borrow a colt for His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. While we recognize the broader application and meaning of these “commissions,” we don’t necessarily interpret these commands as being universal. The question is this: was Jesus speaking to the universal church when He commanded His disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations?” The answer, of course, is yes. And no.

As Christopher Write points out in “The Mission of God’s People,” there’s little evidence that the Great Commission served as the primary motivator of the early church’s missionary expansion. In fact Jesus’ words in Matthew 28 aren’t referred to again in the New Testament.

So there must have been something else that compelled (and propelled) God’s people to deliberately cross cultures with the gospel. They certainly went out boldly proclaiming Christ– most of the apostles were killed for talking about Jesus.

Wright asserts that the “something else” was the early church’s understanding of who they were as God’s people. The disciples knew God’s story, and the Great Commission was their place in it. We find ourselves in that same story. Our sentness doesn’t just lie in Christ’s commands to go, but in our identity as His body and bride. He sent his disciples, (and sends us) just as the Father had sent Him.

In Christ, we are God’s called-out people who are then sent back into the world. Sent to do what? Yes, to make disciples. But also to be salt and light. To love our neighbors. To make peace. To care for widows and orphans. To build up the church. To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

We are a people on mission, but we have not only been sent once.

The Art of the Dive

_IGP4773Any fan of sports  will no doubt be familiar with the concept of “the dive.” In basketball, it’s referred to as “flopping.” In hockey, they call it “embellishment.” No matter what you call it, “feigning injury to appear as if a foul has been committed” is overacting to try to gain an advantage.

The dive isn’t just the norm in professional sports, it’s common in politics (remember all the theater that surrounded last summer’s government shutdown?), media sound-bites, and, of course, the culture war.

It’s not a new tactic. Your opponent in a debate makes a somewhat valid point. Rather than concede this point, you proceed by taking his logic, tone, or argument to absurd extremes. “You think men should open the door for women? I suppose you also advocate for mandatory luggage-handling as well? What next? Cut up their food into bite-sized pieces?”

The dialog starts with simple statements, escalates to accusations, and then races to hyperbole. In online discussion where anonymity and lack of accountability are the norm, conversational flopping follows “Godwin’s Law:”

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.

I must admit, I often feel the temptation to dive.

If I make my opponent sound stupid or crazy, I may not have to consider his perspective. If I critique his grammar, I might be able to avoid the substance of his argument. If I ridicule his style, I may possibly win favor with my audience without addressing the opposing view. Flopping is childish, rude, and counter-productive, but it’s a cheap way to win “amens” from those who already agree with you.

I’ve recognized this tendency in myself, but I’m repenting from deliberately taking a dive. Here are some signs I’ve come to recognize that I’ve given in to the temptation to “embellish:”

  • I deliberately overstate the other side’s argument. “Egalitarians want nothing less than to revise the historical Jesus into a woman!”
  • I jump to extreme conclusions. “If the reformed camp had their way, we’d never send a single missionary!”
  • I allow my feelings to be hurt. “This just makes me very sad for you.”
  • I compare my opponent to Hitler. “You are worse than Hitler!”

Deliberately misconstruing someone else’s opinion in an attempt to make my case is the conversational equivalent to taking a dive. I’m sorry I’ve done it in the past, and I’ll take care not to do it in the future.

On Critiquing Methodologies

I would imagine that few of us, upon arrival in a foreign country that we know nothing about, would presume to critique the efforts of a missionary who has been faithfully ministering among the people there for years. He knows the language, we do not. He spends time with nationals. He has studied local customs and listens to local news.

So when said missionary determines that the best way to make disciples among his particular people group is to launch gospel tracts out of a cannon fashioned out of bamboo, we defer to his expertise. When he insists on wearing nothing but a loincloth yet looking no one in the eye, we bashfully accept. His no-ministry-after-3:30pm policy might raise our eyebrows, but we trust that he knows hat he’s doing. After all, the missionary knows best.

Back home, however, we aren’t so demure.

We criticize ministers who give away iPads to get people to come to church. We mock churches who print coloring books that instruct children to follow their pastor without question. We judge Jumping for the King as mere spectacle. Why do we feel so free to criticize? We see ourselves as experts in American culture.

But are we experts in every American population segment? How well do we really know the redemptive power of the iPad among middle-class white people in small Southern towns? Are we all experts in cult-building among upper-middle-class materialists? Just how many of us are willing to live among the tribe of patriotic motorcycle jumpers from the 1970s?

Forgive my sarcasm. I’m really not trying to be mean.

I’m trying to make 2 points here:

  1. Different people groups and population segments require different approaches to ministry. The missionary principles of contextualization and indignity call for us to meet people where they are and promote discipleship in their culture.
  2. Point #1 does not excuse every ridiculous thing someone wants to do in the name of ministry.

If all of God’s people thought and behaved like good missionaries and if we all got the gospel, we would rightly trust that every approach was wise, prudent, and obedient. Unfortunately, the gospel is often lost translation, and we are often very bad missionaries indeed.

The way to build one another up in the Lord, I’m convinced, is to ask questions. “Is this pointing people to Jesus?” “How are our means affecting our message?” “What’s with the coloring book, dude?” These are the questions that we need to be asking.

Once I was “confronted” by a well-intentioned American pastor who wanted to know why I would waste time getting to know any nationals in our work in Europe. “You really just oughta preach the gospel to these people once. If they don’t want to listen, that’s on them,” I remember him saying. Was he wrong to ask us why we did things the way we did? No. Was he reacting to our methods in an unhelpful and way? I certainly thought so.

As God’s people on God’s mission, we need one another. We need others to encourage us in our work and to ask us the hard questions that make us think (and rethink) through our methodologies. Who are you to question a missionary’s approach? A co-laborer in Christ’s mission, that’s who. But when we question, we need to do so in love.

——————

By the way, be sure to click over to Trinity Bible Church’s site, where Pastor Bolt has responded to my response to his response to an old post of mine.

Ernest Goodman Is Confused, Pt. 3

This is the third part of my response to Jason Bolt, who wrote that I am confused about cessationism and mission. For previous posts, see: Ernest Goodman Is Confused, Pt. 1Part 2.

The opportunity to clarify what one has already said is precious indeed. If you’ve ever played back a conversation in your mind, thinking of all that you should have said, you understand what I mean. My hope here is to clarify so that we may have a productive conversation.

In my original post, I never intended to delve deeply into a discussion of cessationism; my point was that for those who don’t believe God “speaks” today, it makes sense that they would adopt a pragmatic anthropological approach to mission. It seemed to Pastor Bolt that I was confused about the doctrine of cessationism. This very well may be the case; as much as I’ve studied these things, I still have a lot to learn.

Goodman disagrees with himself. All along, he has been arguing that we have to receive special and specific revelation from the Holy Spirit. Now, he has changed his tune and says that we need to conduct our ministry according to Scripture.

This reminds me of one of Charles Spurgeon’s sermons. I’m guessing Pastor Bolt may not be a fan of Spurgeon, but I love the way he approached the topic of the Holy Spirit:

“Many persons have been converted by some striking saying of the preacher. But why was it the preacher uttered that saying? Simply because he was led thereunto by the Holy Spirit. Rest assured, beloved, that when any part of the sermon is blessed to your heart, the minister said it because he was ordered to say it by his Master. I might preach to-day a sermon which I preached on Friday, and which was useful then, and there might be no good whatever come from it now, because it might not be the sermon which the Holy Ghost would have delivered to-day.”  –C. Spurgeon

Are the “Spirit-led” words Spurgeon referred to here “extra biblical revelation?” How can the translation of human speech into soul-piercing conviction to repentance be considered anything other than work of the Holy Spirit (mystical, secret, or otherwise)?

I’m fascinated with this line of thinking. If, for the cessationist, seeking the Spirit’s guidance in mission amounts to a seance, what else also falls into this category? Should we ask for wisdom, or is that “secret knowledge?” What about conviction? If the Spirit convicts me of spending too much time with my campanology club, is that “extra-biblical revelation?” Of course we need to conduct our ministry according to Scripture. But according to whose understanding and interpretation of Scripture?

Throughout the article, Goodman answers the question of whether or not God has a secret will for believers with a resounding “yes.” Yet, in the end, he specifically answers this question by saying, “I don’t know.” If he really does not know, then why did he write the article?

The term “specific will” is a theological one that I’m not sure I support; that God has mapped out every step of our lives, and that one wrong step makes every subsequent step sin. Yet every example of a missionary we have in the scriptures was guided by the Spirit. So what seems like a contradiction here is really just me trying to be clear: the Spirit illuminates scriptural commissions to us, and we respond accordingly. We don’t blindly float from feeling to feeling, but neither do we lean entirely on our own understanding. God hasn’t left us alone in His mission; why would we act as though He had?

In this series of posts, I’ve deliberately avoided pointing out how few cessationists you’ll find on the international mission field. I’ve been careful not to refer to anecdotal evidence of the Spirit’s guidance in mission. I’ve intentionally ignored the many stories of those missionaries who were providentially given specific words, led into a particular village, or out of harm’s way. I will point out, however, that God’s direct, personal involvement in His mission is consistent with what we read in scripture. It is God who sends His church on His mission, and he uses His Spirit to stir the hearts of his servants to action. 

Ernest Goodman Is Confused, Pt. 2

This is the second part of my response to Jason Bolt, who wrote that I am confused about cessationism and mission. For Part 1, see: Ernest Goodman Is Confused, Pt. 1

However, he immediately contradicts himself by saying, “Even if someone meets all the criteria for service, we cannot assume it is good to send him out.” Let me get this strait. The calling is secretly and mystically received by an individual, and then the calling is affirmed by the local church. However, the local church does not send the person based upon whether or not he meets all the criteria. Exactly what, then, is the role of the local church? Goodman does not say. What is clear is that Goodman believes the local church should send missionaries based upon something other than what is written in the pages of the Bible.

That’s me, a walking contradiction.

My point here is that our criteria for sending is not only some checklist of qualities and qualifications, but also a spiritual unity of the sending church. This is reached through prayer (and sometimes fasting), as the Spirit of God brings the opinions of the pastors in line with Christ (who is the head of the church). Paul and Barnabas weren’t sent out simply because they were good missionary candidates, they were sent because the Spirit “set them apart” and showed that to the church as they worshipped.

If a person meets all the criteria and wants to go, the local church should send him. It’s that simple. We don’t need mystic revelation to reach these wise and good conclusions.

What are the criteria for “missionary?” Where do these come from? What is the candidate is qualified, yet doesn’t want to go? What if he’s both qualified and willing to be sent, but he is needed in his local church? Why should we “pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:38) if God has nothing to do with the calling and sending of his people?

Scripture very clearly tells us that the mission of the Church is to teach all the nations to obey what Christ has commanded.

It sounds like Pastor Bolt is equating “the mission of the church” to the “Great Commission.” I’d encourage him to read more of the Bible (and not just the classic “sending” passages) in light of the Sending. In his book, The Mission Of God’s People, C. Wright points out that if the Great Commission is the totality of the church’s motivation for mission, why isn’t it mentioned again in the New Testament? I’m not saying that it isn’t a very succinct and central commissioning of God’s people on His mission, but the mission of the church is founded on more than one passage of scripture. We know from the whole counsel of Scripture that we serve a God who has always sent His people. With that in mind, the mission of God’s people is to obey Him in His mission to glorify Himself through the redemption of His creation.

Using statistics and ethnography to figure out where those nations are located is wise and good. Why do we need the Holy Spirit to secretly tell us to minister among a certain people when God has already told us to minister among all people?

I’m a little less trustful of human wisdom than the Pastor seems to be. Human wisdom was reflected in the number of men Gideon brought to battle before God reduced their numbers from 32,000 to 300 (Judges 7). Human wisdom values efficiency and effectiveness, neither of which are necessarily Kingdom values. We’ve all seen as much damage done by “It just makes sense” as by “God told me to.”

God has indeed told us to make disciples of all nations. Not to nitpick, but a single ministry to “all people” is not possible. You can’t reach out in every direction at once. With which tribe, language, or nation will you begin? How does a church determine where to allocate resources and where to pass up perfectly good opportunities? When is the work in a particular place finished? Like Paul, we rely on the Spirit to show us where to engage.

As I’ve explained here on the blog before, equating the biblical terminology “nations” to the modernistic concept of “ethnolinguistic people groups” is a relatively new thing. It makes perfect sense to define mission from this anthropological perspective if you believe that God no longer interacts with His people in real-time.

Evangelism: Goodman argues that the evangelist is supposed to say different things to different people and that the only way he can know what to say to specific people is for the Holy Spirit to mystically and secretly tell him what to say to specific people.

The great thing about the gospel is that you can communicate it in any number of ways. When He was questioned, Jesus would sometimes answer plainly, sometimes with a story or a question. Paul did the same, quoting local poets and citing cultural traditions in his presentations of the gospel. Some preach it from a pulpit, others share it one-on-one. Some start with our hope in Christ, others begin with “all have sinned.” How you present the gospel is a huge factor in how it’s received. The work of the missionary is to translate the universal, unchanging Good News into dynamic, ever-changing, sinful culture. This work is never finished (this side of heaven), and it takes a certain amount of skill to do well.

Fortunately, the eternal destiny of the nations does not depend on my speaking ability. I’m sure Pastor Bolt is pretty skilled at interpersonal communication, but I sometimes struggle. I depend on God to speak through me– to use the inadequate words of an inadequate man to communicate a universal, divine Truth.

However, orthodox Christianity teaches that the evangelist is to proclaim the gospel. He is to proclaim the gospel to man, woman, Jew, Greek, slave, and freeman alike. The Bible very clearly reveals what the gospel is, so there is no reason for the evangelist to seek extra-biblical guidance as to what to say to any specific person.

Which clear biblical presentation is Pastor Bolt referring to here? 1 Corinthians 15:1-8? John 3:16? Romans 3:23? There isn’t one single way to communicate that God sent His Son to die in place of sinful, undeserving people and rose again to the glory of the Father. This is why we ask God to give us the words (mystically or otherwise) that will clearly communicate the message to our audience.

Hopefully, all of this is beneficial to our readers.

Next: Ernest Goodman Is Confused, Pt. 3

Ernest Goodman Is Confused, Pt. 1

spotlightI recently mentioned a blogger who has called me “confused” about cessationism and missiology. Jason Bolt, elder at Truth Reformed Bible Church in Golden, Colorado, is the author of that post, and he’s graciously offered to engage with me in a bit of dialog about the matter. Here is the first part of my response:

Goodman argues that Reformed missionaries take some “theological leaps” in order to arrive at their view of the sufficiency of Scripture.

I believe in the sufficiency of Scripture. I believe that it is the complete revelation of God for mankind. I also believe, however, that God does not leave us to our own devices in the interpretation of Scripture. Rather, He has given us the Holy Spirit, who illuminates the scriptures to us.

He then goes on to explain how the Holy Spirit orchestrates mission efforts by secretly and mystically communicating to individual missionaries.

Of course, I didn’t actually write “secretly” or “mystically,” that’s Pastor Bolt’s commentary on my position. God’s will is plain for all to read (where the scripture is available to them). It’s the understanding and application of that will that requires the intervention of the Spirit. As I mentioned in my post, this doesn’t happen “secretly,” but in the context of the local church. The church is the context for interpreting God’s Word and discerning how to respond in obedience.

Revelation is information about God. Illumination is about us; God shows us how to respond to His truth. It is why we pray for wisdom (which is also not ”extra-biblical revelation”). Pastor Bolt may find this to be “mystical,” but the Bible refers to it as spiritual (Romans 8:2-6).

“No one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.” (1 Corinthians 2:11b-13)

The Spirit doesn’t give us some new, secret revelation. He guides us in our understanding of what God has already said. “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he heard he will speak.” (John 16:13)

Left to our ourselves, our sinful minds misunderstand and misinterpret the Scriptures. We twist and distort the truth at our convenience and we naturally “exchange the truth about God for a lie.” This is why Paul greets the Ephesian church by praying that ”the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints.” (Ephesians 1:17-18)

With Goodman’s insistence on seeking the revelation of God’s secret will outside of the Bible, he rejects the sufficiency of Scripture in practice. If he believed the Scripture to be sufficient, there would be no need for him to seek God’s secret will outside of the Bible.

And so we come to the question of mission. If we conclude that the Spirit of God is silent today, how would one ever come to interpret Matthew 28:19-20 as motivation to move to Northern India? Based solely on a human reading of scripture, how does a church determine where to focus their efforts in mission? How does a church come to prioritize one need over another unless God helps them interpret “as the Father has sent me, even so I send you”? This is why Paul reminds the Roman church that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are Sons of God.” (Romans 8:14)

The point of my original post was to explore why some of my favorite reformed theologians continue to promote an anthropological view of mission. If they believe that the Spirit does not communicate to His people today, it makes sense that they would approach mission as a list of names to be checked off of a list. The problem is that this approach to mission is not demonstrated anywhere in Scripture.

Perhaps Pastor Bolt may be able to help me understand. But in the meantime, I can’t help but think that it’s due to a certain amount of Modernism that they’ve adopted; one that values human logic, effort, and scholarship over the the Lord’s leadership.

Next: Ernest Goodman Is Confused, Pt. 2

If Everything Is Mission

Drawing A Narrow Definition

“If everything is mission,” Stephen Neill famously said, “then nothing is mission.”

Except, for God’s people, everything really is mission.

I understand the sentiment. There are too many churches who repave their parking lots out of their “Missions” budgets and too few international missionaries making disciples among those who have not heard the gospel. But the answer to the problem of a huge number of Christians acting like bad missionaries is not to draw a more narrow definition.

The problem is one of discipleship. For too long now, churches have been content to make Almost Disciples. These are churched people who have responded in some way to the gospel, joined a church, and are now being fed information about God. An Almost Disciple is considered to be spiritually mature when his sin is less obvious and he’s taken on more responsibly at church. He tries to manage his family and his money well. He supports missions, ministries, and certain political issues. For many, this is Christianity in America.

“Real missionaries”– the ones who’ve left their homes and their families to join foreign cultures in order to be and make disciples of Jesus– resent “Almost Disciples” claims to be “missionaries.” Surely playing a round of golf with guys from work shouldn’t fall into the same category as sneaking into a hotel to teach persecuted new believers Jesus’ teaching about taking up one’s cross. Should it?

Mission isn’t defined by difficulty. It’s not determined by our sacrifice. Mission is God’s redemptive work among humanity, which brings glory to Him. As His called-out people, we are sent into all the world to be His ambassadors. This is our part on God’s mission. The specifics– the timing, the location, the position– these are up to God. He organizes His church on His mission.

It is unwise to try to draw a more narrow definition of mission, because, for God’s people, everything is mission. When we tell the church otherwise– that the “front lines” are over there and not here– we only encourage the sort of behavior we oppose. If you tell people they aren’t missionaries, don’t be surprised if they don’t act like missionaries.