Missional… Missionaries?

This is post #2 in a series on developing a new missiology.

Over the course of about ten years, the church has seen a huge shift in thinking. As western culture moved away from identifying itself as “christian,” young(er) leaders started to explore new, more appropriate expressions of church in a post-everything context. Some questioned popular methodologies. Others questioned common theological language. Others still questioned everything– from the voracity of church history to the doctrines of atonement to the existence of hell. At the heart of this questioning was the desire for a Christianity that made sense in today’s world.

For the most part, this conversation took place without the benefit of input from experienced international missionaries, who were either too busy with their work on the mission field to participate or too tightly linked to traditional structures to have any credibility with those who were driving the discussion. Either way, church leaders were centering their lives and ministries around the missio dei. They developed their strategies by reverse-engineering what didn’t work with the attractional model of church (and didn’t do much in the way of studying the global missions movement). Much of this shift in thinking had to do with the relationship between the church (believers) and the unbelievers around it.

Our new missiology has the most to learn from the missional church in these three areas: evangelism, social action, and cultural engagement. Evangelism, long modeled after cold-call sales and interruption marketing strategies, was re-framed. The emphasis was taken off the dissemination of information and put on the influence of personal relationships. Social action, once seen as an avenue for (or distraction from) gospel proclamation, was valued as redemptive in deed and became valued as an expression of Christian love. Culture, previously seen as something the church needed to isolate and protect itself from, became the context for gospel incarnation.

In the traditional missions mindset, the missionary is seen as the bringer of the gospel to otherwise uninformed peoples. Evangelism is seen as the goal of all missionary activity, and, in the name of efficiency effectiveness, reduced to the simple proclamation of the gospel message. The missional church has pointed out that the means affects the message, and that the gospel out of context is no gospel at all. Redemptive relationships become the channel of gospel communication and demonstration. Missional approaches take advantage of existing social structures, transforming them into indigenous churches.

On the international mission field, social action is often seen as superfluous to the spreading of the gospel. Necessary for access to many closed countries, some missions organizations treat social ministries as distractions from real missionary activities like evangelism and church planting. Missional leaders see it otherwise. They understand that service to those outside the church is a vital part of our faith; an act of worship and obedience in which every believer must take part. People don’t come to faith without hearing the good news, but our stance against injustice is an indispensable part of being a disciple of Jesus whether or not we get a chance to lay out the “plan of salvation.”

Since the days of Hudson Taylor, missionaries have understood the importance of local culture to missionary activity. Yet most missionaries see their cultural obligation as limited to learning language and (maybe) eating local fare. Missional practitioners understand that every culture carries some memory of the Creator God, and therefore retain bridges to communication of the gospel. Cultural immersion, then, is required for incarnation of the gospel. Our role is to live in such a way that when people look at our lives and hear our words, they can truly see the implications of the gospel for their own lives. Missional missionaries don’t fight against culture, they use it to build raised beds of good soil for church planting.

Missionaries everywhere should read The Forgotten Ways, a textbook of sorts on missional living. As I’ll explore in future posts, a more missional approach to international missions would radically change the way we see God’s activity in the world and how we, the church, fit into it.

NEXT: What Are We Saying? A Look At Our Missions Vocabulary.

7 thoughts on “Missional… Missionaries?

  1. Earnest,

    I want to throw some thoughts out as I have been reading some recently about cultural transformation. These are some areas of engagement that were specific to transformative rise of the Roman empire as an environment for Christian expansion: institutional and philosophical engagement.

    By and large, cultural transformation in Western Culture, is not a grass roots movement. It is a result of top-down leadership. It is even considered that way in scripture. In the Old Testament, it was the leadership (priests, kings, and prophets) who led Israel down a pathway into idolatry and sin. Jesus attacked the institutions which had held such a grip on the culture. Obviously, making culture good is not the missionaries desire, as defining “good” will be difficult. However, engaging government, media, and education with something other than a christian parallel is incredibly important to missiology, I think. How are those areas specifically engaged in such a way that a network is developed that provides an environment for the release of missional missionaries and a re-moment of the message of Jesus.

    To do this, Christians in the West should rethink their anti-intellectual stance and learn how to think and do philosophy, something most Christian thinkers and Christians are sadly deficient in. I bring this up because in the 2-4th centuries, Christians were so able to engage the philosophical schools of their day that they themselves (Christian thinkers) were considered to be the most skilled philosophers of their day. If cultural transformation takes place at the top, it will require keep philosophical thinkers who are able to carry the argument. This allows them to gain access to the resources and networks of the institutions (political, educational, and cultural).

  2. David,
    Good points. I think we tend to look at the Jesus movement in the first century as a grassroots kind of thing- you know, uneducated fishermen and all. But you make a good point. In the Old Testament, transformation on a cultural level happened from positions of great influence (Daniel, Joseph, Esther, David). I think many pastors have an aversion to engaging in discussion with philosophers, scientists, and the like because they don’t feel prepared. Seminary-level studies are woefully narrow in scope, and academically shallow. We learn a sort of pseudo-philosophy (postmodernism=relativism), pseudo-science (creation museum, anyone?), and pseudo-psychology (thank you, Dr. Dobson). If our goal is only to be able to sound as though we know more than most of the people in our churches, mission accomplished. If we want to be able to interact in meaningful ways (as peers) with the thinkers of our society, we fail.

    You and I have talked about how great it would be to have a truly missional institution of higher learning. One where students are trained to engage culture at every level. As soon as we get an endowment/grant/donation/blank check, I say we move ahead with that!

    More realistically, what can a pastor (let’s say 40 years old, seminary grad, small church, no money) do to better equip himself for this kind of engagement? How can we enter the dialog when it feels like we’re so far behind?

  3. Ernest, I think you raise great questions.

    I know what I really wanted to do in the early part of 2001: I wanted to get into a phd program in something other than a religion-oriented institution. I ran across this book: Love Your God with All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul by JP Moreland and he asked the question: Where are all the experts in business or philosophy or communication or anything else for that matter? That struck me. I had a conversation with my major seminary prof a few months earlier about coming back and getting a phd in preaching and he told me something that shook me to the core re: education. He said, “David don’t. Go to a state university and get a phd in communications. We teach people to put together sermons but not to communicate.” He was taking classes at the master’s level in communication for that reason.

    I got into a phd program in communications at the Univ. of Alabama, despite having only 1 communication in my bachelor’s program. And I was doing well in that program, and then God moved us to Delaware. I so wish I could have gotten that phd in communications. I tried to get into a phd program in sociology at the univ of Delaware, despite not having any classes in sociology. Unfortunately I got wait-listed. I have sat across from that campus (UofD) so often and dreamed of being able to teach there, even just as an adjunct. If you can teach grad students, you can influence those who will influence the world.

    I would love it if all those preacher-boy types who get their seminary degree and then leave the pastorate after 5 years would see that being a professor of economics or business or art or education is a huge missional injection into the transformative recreative process of God. Or get into the acting vocation – not some christian alternative, but hollywood or broadway. Get into politics, or media, not on the visible level necessarily but as a staffer or producer.

    We are so scared of culture in the West that we think if we get into something other than a christian alternative that we will lose our religion and get sucked into a seedy and corrupt world. One thing I noted in some of my reading. It was in having to defend their beliefs that Christians became the master of philosophy in Greek culture. Instead of engaging in those conversations and learning philosophical arguments, we run from them.

    Finally, as a 33 yr old, I was in graduate classes at the university. I had just come out of the IT industry. When we had discussions that moved to the practical, I gained respect because I had actually DONE something with my life, and that respect came as much from the profs as the other students. I had a libertarian atheist show me great respect as a non-degree student because I demonstrated that I was something other than a pastor, that I could think with a business sense, and that I could critic the church. He offered to help me get into the doctoral program, be my adviser, write me letters of recommendations, whatever he could do to help advance that. We moved at the end of the semester to Alabama for my wife to serve as children’s minister and he offered to contact people at Univ. of Alabama for me. Obviously each prof will be different, but should we run? I think we need to get back into the education system.

    I read a book by Laura Vanderkam called 168 Hours (reviewed it on my blog). She opened her book talking about a church bulletin. I did an interview with her that will appear soon and she is open about her faith and loves Is. and the Psalms. Why not write in the “non-christian” realm than the christian? A hundred thoughts I have on this.

  4. I’m loving this series. As the wife of a new seminary student, I can already say I’ve met few men who seem to be able to relate to normal, everyday people (all who live outside of this bubble on campus.) I feel like the seminary men here (those who are going to be pastors that is) fall into 2 categories:

    #1) I’ve always wanted to be a Pastor:
    These guys look at pastoring the way I used to look at teaching. All my life, I wanted to be a teacher. I couldn’t wait to have my own classroom to decorate, my own lesson planner, my own bulletin boards to decorate etc. I also really loved kids. When I got my degree and landed my first teaching job, I was surprised to find that I didn’t really care all that much about the main point of teaching: education! I was more interested in the relationships with the kids in my class than if they were passing. Sounds horrible isn’t it? But I tell you all that to describe how I think some future pastor’s are. They can’t wait to have their own church, their own committees, their own staff to run. Sure they love people and they (probably)love God. But they love the idea of being The Guy who knows it all and is in charge of the people. Unchurched people often can through these kinds of guys for a loop. They don’t want someone to take charge of their life, like this stereotype of a pastor would like to do. So (not so much) in short, this is one category of men I see here in campus. Those that have been dreaming of “being a pastor” all their lives. They come to seminary to get the “basics” and learn how to preach a point A, B, C message.

    #2)Theology, Black and White nuts
    These are the guys that think through things in black and white terms. And let’s be honest . . . black and white guys are usually Calvanists too. (I have nothing against Calvinists. I have no idea where I fall on the issues. I’m just stating trends I’ve noticed.) Therefore these guys love talking about theology, getting worked up about issues, etc etc. Often times these guys aren’t really into “pastoring” people, but they sure do love to talk about what people should believe.

    I forgot the 3rd category of men. Men like my husband. :) He’s not even here for an MDiv. He’s getting a counseling degree. And honestly . . . the biggest reason we are here at a seminary to get that degree is because he had a scholarship. His goal is to one day work within in the secular counseling world where the unchurched are more likely to come see him for well . . . counsel. Which hopefully, as he learns what their heart issues are, he can point them to Christ.

    Again, I’m loving this series. And to encourage you . . . I know of 4 guys from my college ministry who just spent a year in England doing some massive philosophy type study, simply because they are men who love philosophy, love Jesus, and want to be able to dialogue with people about it. Some of us are blessed to come from great churches that produce men like that.

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  6. Ernest, great stuff. Keep it coming.

    David, when I read, “We are so scared of culture in the West that we think if we get into something other than a christian alternative that we will lose our religion and get sucked into a seedy and corrupt world.” it reminded me of when I chose to study Advertising at a secular university. All my Christian high school friends and teachers thought I’d gone nuts. Of course, just the other day one in my church said, “You’re so brave to get out there in the culture to interact with people.” You could see the fear in her eyes, as if going outside the Christian sphere was only for brave ministry-types.

    Seminary Wife, I went to church with two guys that were in Number 1 category. Thankfully, neither pursued their mangled dream.

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