Messed Up Missiology

“No one has the right to hear the gospel twice, while there remains someone who has not heard it once.” - Oswald J. Smith

I ran across this quote on a colleague’s website. I’m not sure who Oswald J. Smith is/was, and I’m not particularly interested. His sort of guilt-inspired, task-oriented, logic-based, marketing-ploy, pop missiology is exactly the sort of thing I was referring to in my last post. It has infected our understanding of what missions is, who God is, and how He works.

Let me be clear: My concern is not necessarily with current missions strategy, it’s with our missiology. What, you might ask, is the difference? It has to do with motivation; both ours- in what guides us in service, and God’s- in what He’s doing globally and why. Just as the practice of our faith is determined by our theology, our mission strategies are derived from our missiology. So I’m not talking here about whether we use tracts or Jesus Films or relational approaches to church planting. I’m not even talking about whether we should even be trying to plant churches. My contention is this: We have bad missiology.

For starters, we make an unnecessary distinction between “missions,” and, well, everything else. Why do we apply Luke 10:2 (“the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few”) to missions, but not Luke 10:27 (“love your neighbor as yourself”)? Where does our understanding of missions come from?

Take the quote above, for example: “No one has the right…”? What does that mean? Is hearing the gospel a right? Is it a privilege? I guess Mr. Smith would say that the first time is a right, and the second a privilege. What biblical support do we have for either?

Is the goal of missions that people hear? What about incarnation? Discipleship? Is missions nothing more than proclaiming the gospel, giving people “a chance to hear” it? Many missionaries approach their work as though missions was about spreading information. Surely we need proclaimers, and it is a vital part of missions, but I believe it is only a part.

(Another part, one that we rarely focus on, is worship as missions. John 12:32 -”I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” I get that He’s alluding to the cross, but I think that worship is underrated as a missional activity. Maybe that’s another post…)

Back to the quote: is it really ours to decide who should hear and who should not? Even after years of proclamation, are we ever in a position to say whether a person (or people group) has heard the good news in a way that they can understand and respond to? I believe that the Spirit should guide all of our evangelistic efforts, and that He should be the one to lead us in when to share, and with whom (and when to keep quiet!)

I cannot accept a missiology that essentially puts us on “auto-pilot” in terms of to whom we should go. The second we assume where and in whom God is going to work, we get ahead of Him and disqualify ourselves from full participation in what He’s doing. This missiology is essentially either/or; missions is either relating to those people that God leads us to, or it is targeting the next “lostest” people group according to our statistics and research. It cannot be both, because the second assumes a monopoly on the first. How else can we explain so many of our workers feeling called to work among “reached” peoples?

God is at work redeeming humankind to Himself. I believe that missions is crossing cultural barriers to be part of that. Until we seriously rethink our missiology, we will continue to build our strategies on a broken foundation.

About E. Goodman

Ernest Goodman is a missiologist, writer, teacher, and communications strategist.