Missiospeak

This is post #4 in a series on developing a new missiology.

In my last post, I summarized the origins of the current popular understanding of missions. People group thinking, as I call it, hasn’t been all bad. But neither has it been all good. This, I suspect, is due in large part to the fact that is isn’t entirely biblical.

For starters, the concept of “people groups” is easily read into scripture, but may not be explicitly found there. Sure, one can make a case that when Jesus told His disciples to go to “all nations,” He really meant “all ethno-linguistic people groups.” But did Luke mean the same when he wrote about Pentecost in Acts 2:5, saying that there were “God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven” present? Surely not.

When Paul and Barnabas were sent out by their church, (First Baptist, Antioch, naturally) Acts 13 says that they were sent by the Holy Spirit “for the special work” to which He had called them. There was no mention of people groups or um, reaching anyone. Their strategy was to follow the Spirit’s leadership. As they were led, they proclaimed the good news. Even after they shifted their focus from Jews to gentiles (again, per the Spirit’s direction), their strategy never resembled the “adopt an unreached people group” approach so common today.

My point is that “all nations” is not necessarily a firm foundation on which to base our missiology. Other than Greeks and Jews, there is little evidence that Paul and the other apostles used the concept to organize their missionary endeavors. Furthermore, if people group thinking is based on a “new” understanding of the ancient Greek, (and far be it from me to disagree with John Piper… but), it’s one that ignores the reality of a dynamic, changing social structures. The reality is that people groups die out, merge, and emerge all the time. More and more, formerly “reached” groups are falling back into the “unreached” category. Unfortunately, people group thinking doesn’t have room for anything but a static world.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that people groups are a great way for us to organize our missionary efforts. I agree that different peoples need different kids of ministry and communication. The concept certainly isn’t anti-biblical, but it isn’t explicitly biblical. We put people groups into categories of “reached” and “unreached”– categories not found in scripture. Furthermore, the professionalization of missions has led to the development of complex taxonomies that measure “reachedess,” “receptivity,” and “degrees of evangelization.” Jesus concluded the Commission with the promise to be with us always, but we really don’t need Him because we’ve got it all figured out.

So the missions community is busy trying to convince people that no, God isn’t calling them to South America or to Western Europe, and are they sure God didn’t mean Indonesia? We talk about “engaging” people groups as though they were squares on a chess board just waiting to be occupied by the missionaries we move about like pawns. We allocate resources to the “hard places” because we expect God to work there, nevermind where He may, actually be leading us to go.

Perhaps the most damaging aspect of people group missiology is that it replaces the Great Commission mandate to “make disciples” of the nations with “reaching” them. This subtle difference has has widespread ramifications. Now, we talk about missions as though the goal was to “reach” people or to “finish” the Great Commission. The mission is not to “reach unreached people groups,” it’s to “make disciples of all nations.”

The truth is that our responsibility to go does not end. Not when the last people group is “reached.” Not when every city has “enough” believers to take responsibility for their own. Not when everyone has had a “chance” to hear. No, our calling is to nothing less that ongoing, radical obedience to the Holy Spirit. Thankfully, it’s not our job to determine what course of action will bring God “the most glory.” God has lets us know what He want from us, and it’s not measurable, finishable, or easily managed. He wants us to obey Him. When His leadership contradicts our strategies, I say we should go with God.

To be clear– I appreciate the work of the missiologists and practitioners who have gone before. I don’t in any way claim to know more than they. But the Unreached People Group philosophy held by groups like the Joshua Project and others isn’t the only way to understand missions. In fact, I think there is a better and more biblical way.

NEXT: If not Unreached People Groups, then how should we go about doing missions? What is the mission, and how might we organize ourselves for obedience? My solution? Callsourcing.

What Are We Saying?

This is post #3 in a series on developing a new missiology.

My previous post was about “what missions can learn from the missional movement.” In this post, I’d like to tackle the vocabulary of missions. What are we saying?

It used to be the number salvations. Fifty years ago, missions was all about the harvest. Who could argue the validity of a ministry that was producing fruit? This, unfortunately, led to a “whatever works” pragmatism that . Missionaries and evangelists the world over took to circus-tent preachertainment in attempts to draw the largest crowds and get the greatest number of “conversions.” Thank you. Yes, I see that hand.

In the 1970s, a new crop of missio-sociologists sprang up. Ralph Winter, Donald McGavran, and his successor at Fuller Seminary, C. Peter Wagner. looked no only at the practical aspects of getting people to say a prayer, but also the social implications of evangelization. These were practitioners, each had spent significant time on the mission field, and knew first-hand that numbers didn’t tell the whole story. They knew that people around the world organized themselves into ethnolinguistic people groups that often disregarded geopolitical borders. It didn’t make sense, Winter said at the historic Lausanne Conference on World Mission (1974), to send missionaries to a country. There may be hundreds, even thousands of unique people groups within the borders of any given country, and focusing all our resources on the few responsive people groups was done at the expense of work among others. Not all conversion numbers, then, were equal. Missions needed to focus on unreached people groups.

Before the modern missions movement, missionaries would first teach the people of a tribe or village to speak and read the missionary’s language in order to communicate the gospel. The Moravians, William Carey, and Hudson Taylor changed that. These missionaries devoted their lives to learning indigenous languages and translating the scriptures. But this was done to “win more converts,” not out of any belief that God was somehow brought more glory by worship in a diversity of languages and cultural expressions. Winter, McGavran, and Wagner developed a people group missiology that saw culture not as a tool for the effective conversion of the heathen, but as a thing to be converted as people came to Christ.

An entire missiology of people groups was developed. This perspective traced the mission mandate back to Creation, God’s covenant with Abraham, and later with Moses. It focused on the redemption of people in their indigenous cultures, seeing value in different perspectives and styles of worship. People group missiology interpreted the ancient Greek words, “all nations” in Matthew 28:19 as meaning “all people groups.” The missionary task was therefore defined as, “To reach all unreached people groups.

If all of this doesn’t sound all that radical to you, it’s probably because the missiology of Winter, et. al has becomes so prevalent. For two-hundred years (since William Carey) By the mid nineties, every major missions sending organization had adopted people group thinking and reorganized their missions strategies around it. Instead of relying on high numbers of conversions to justify their work and solicit support, missions agencies talked about the number of people groups that had yet to hear the gospel, and how they were gaining on the completion of the task of “reaching” them all.

The influence of people group thinking didn’t end with missiology. A compatible eschatology was developed around Matthew 24:14, (“And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”) holding that Jesus will not return until we “reach” the last unreached people group. Ecclesiology was reorganized around people groups; it wasn’t enough to have a vital church nearby, each people group needed its own worship gathering. Church planters now focus on specific target ethnic/affinity/subculture groups rather than planting a church per town or neighborhood. Youth ministry, evangelism, Christian education, and research have all be heavily influenced by this perspective. In short, people group thinking has revolutionized Christianity.

All this to set the stage for my next post, Missiospeak. I’ll take a look at specific words we use to talk about missions, and the impact of those words on how we understand and do missions. Tell a friend. Stay tuned.

Missional Missiology

I’m calling for a new missiology. The current popular one is neither biblical nor helpful. So let’s work through a new one. Of course, by “new” here I mean “old” in the sense of directly founded in scripture, but “new” in that it makes sense for today’s globalized experience. To that end, I’m starting a series of posts in which I hope to identify those places where our current missiology might come up short and suggest some new ways to think and talk about mission that might be more helpful to everyone involved in the conversation.

Firstly, we need to take into account the tremendous impact of the missional church conversation. Churches around the world have begun to see themselves as intentionally-placed examples of the gospel in context. The shift in thinking away from programmatic evangelism and outreach to incarnational approaches to ministry needs to inform our understanding of global missions.

Secondly, our vocabulary must change. The words we use have meaning, but we don’t always get to determine those meanings. We must, therefore, find new ways to talk about some of the same things: people who know Jesus moving across barriers of culture and distance to proclaim the gospel in word and deed. In upcoming posts, I’ll review come of the current missions vocabulary and propose some new ways to talk about mission that communicate better and leave out some of the baggage of modernistic taxonomy.

Thirdly, we need to adjust our perspective. So often, the conversation centers around things that seem incredibly important to us, but trivial to God. Statistics and percentages. Resources and need. Categories and strategy. Opportunities and chance. A few years ago I wrote a post on the idea that no one should hear the gospel twice while some have yet to hear it even once. Quite simply, this is not a biblical idea, and it has ruinous implications for our understanding of our part in God’s global mission. Soon, I’ll post further about this and other problems with our perspective on global mission.

Finally, we need to develop our scriptural literacy when it comes to missions. What does the Bible say about our role in the world and our part in His redemptive activity among its peoples? Have we extrapolated, inferred, deduced, and applied ourselves into bad missiology?

Finally, I want to make one thing clear: I am not so proud (or stupid) to think that I know better than prominent theologians or missiologists. I understand that some people are threatened and offended by questions and disagreements. I believe questions will only help us find better ways to talk about mission. I don’t have any special insight that everyone heretofore has missed. I’m just a practitioner who loves the church and has a strong desire to her obedient on God’s global mission. Any ideas posted here are probably not original to me and likely better said elsewhere. I value the discussion and appreciate the opportunity to think through what God work among humanity.

NEXT: Missional… Missionaries?

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.