by W. Dayton Roberts
Having moved into Christianity’s third millennium, we can assume that Christ’s mission for the Church on this planet, as well as we are able to understand it from the Scriptures, is nearing completion.
Having moved into Christianity’s third millennium, we can assume that Christ’s mission for the Church on this planet, as well as we are able to understand it from the Scriptures, is nearing completion. When it is finally finished, Jesus will return to a renewed earth and the "already-but-not-yet" Kingdom of God will be fully established.
If these assumptions are correct, missiology (the study of the Church’s task between Christ’s ascension and his second coming) is obviously the most important part of Christian theology for us today.
During my lifetime I have seen the term missiology come into common use, and mission studies move into virtually every seminary and ministerial training institution. The Student Volunteer Movement ran its course and the Student Missionary Fellowship with its massive Urbana gatherings took its place. We have witnessed the founding of the World Council of Churches, the National Association of Evangelicals, the World Evangelical Fellowship and the Lausanne Movement. The IFMA, the EFMA and other inter-mission agencies have spread their wings. In the United States, Korea and elsewhere, national centers of mission study have been established, and missiological publications have multiplied.
A recent issue of IBMR (International Bulletin of Missionary Research) recounts considerable advance during its half-century of publication. The founding of the Missionary Research Library in 1914 was an important milestone. So was the inauguration of the Mission Handbook (now published by EMIS). Andrew Walls quotes Kenneth Scott Latourette as saying that the 19th century was the "great century of missions," but he himself finds the 20th century to be the most remarkable because it has witnessed Christianity’s transformation into a non-Western global religion. What will the 21st century reveal?
We are certainly living in a great missionary age. Unreached peoples are being reached. Non-Western missionary vision is being awakened. We are seeing beyond the 10/40 window. Evangelism is the order of the day.
And yet, there are still holes in our holistic programs. The mission boat in which we carry the gospel message to other shores has its evident leaks, and things are not moving as they should. What are some of the gaps in our missionary posture and proclamation which are slowing us down? Two of them come to mind rather quickly.
1. Healthcare. Medicine today has been largely secularized. Government and community structures have taken over our hospitals. Except in charismatic circles, church and healing are farther apart than church and state. Much of the healing in the world today is ministered through agencies like WHO (World Health Organization). Quite possibly the unbelieving world does not need our evangelical healthcare nearly so much as we need to be its healers. The problem is not so much a lack of medical attention available for the sick, although in many places the unmet need is still terribly urgent, it is a lack of medical concern on the part of Christians. We need ways of sensing the world’s need, feeling moved to compassion by it and responding with love.
Dr. Anthony Allen, a Jamaican psychiatrist, suggests that Western Christianity has been misled by Greek dualism to think of soma (body) and psyche (immaterial soul or mind) as being separate rather than integrated in the human person (Roberts and Pretiz 2000, 99). Evangelism and disciple-ship thus tend to focus on the "eternal" or non-physical part of man’s person to the neglect of the physical side, or healthcare. We seem to be out to save souls rather than people. Because we appear to be interested only in spiritual needs, ignoring physical privation and suffering, our evangelistic efforts lack credibility and authority.
Unless we recover the "good Samaritan" model and stretch ourselves to meet need wherever it is found, we will fall short of Christ’s expectations and fail to carry out his saving purpose. If we do not patch this "hole," our mission boat may very well sink before we complete our journey.
It seems very strange that in Scripture passages like Luke 5, even though healing stands out as a major part of Christ’s own ministry and of the charge which he committed to his disciples, healing today is not in the curriculum of most missiological institutions.
2. Creation-care. Seen from outer space, the earth is a beautiful blue planet. Even from much closer, it offers countless breathtaking views and many spectacular vistas. But these often blind us to a less evident and more sinister reality. Examined closely and scientifically, the earth’s state can be summed up in three words: overload, depletion and contamination.
They are ugly words, but not so ugly as the scenes they represent, from tropical mountains denuded of forests to Alaskan oil spills, from muddied streams to desert wastes, from shabby shanty towns around vast, disorderly cities to endless expanses of heaped trash and garbage. The earth today, despite its natural beauty, is a sick and scarred globe of vanishing species and exhausted resources.
The most obvious cause of this malaise is the fact that the planet is already carrying more inhabitants with careless life-styles than it can bear without devastation. And they are multiplying in geometric progression. A century ago there were only two billion people in the world. By the year 2010 there will be more than seven billion. But the problem is not just the sheer numbers, it is the consumer life-styles-especially of the rich. The earth is a ship with far too many first-class passengers.
Too many passengers not only consume too many resources, they also produce too much garbage, trash and waste. Our cities in particular are hard-pressed to dispose of it in ways that will not contaminate. The problem of waste is exacerbated by the presence of large quantities of plastic which is essentially non-biodegradable. Personal waste is only part of the problem. Agricultural runoffs of fertilizer and pesticides and the toxic discharges of many industries are polluting our lakes, rivers and ocean shorelines to an alarming degree. Where fresh water is already scarce, these factors can become life-threatening.
Demography is too complicated a science for us to attempt a full discussion of population overload. There are some facts, however, which should be kept in mind as we seek solutions. Economic development and the education of women have been shown to reduce birth rates dramatically. These factors offer hope to development workers in underdeveloped nations. Without such hopeful goals, the earth’s future, humanly speaking, is bleak. It will become the scene of conflict between those who are wealthy and those who are poor, characterized by persistent famines and increasing mortality with each aberration of the climate or of other natural disasters.
In some cases, depletion is not a strong enough word to describe the state of the planet. But it can be applied accurately to any number of environmental factors-depletion of forests, of ozone, of animal, bird and aquatic species, of coral reefs, of topsoil and wetlands, offish breeding grounds, of water tables, of petroleum and minerals-in fact, of almost everything, except people. Remaining reserves in every category are dangerously low.
Of the estimated 30 million species in the world, only a small fraction are well known or have been described to date. The UNEP (UN Environmental Programme) in Nairobi says that 99 percent of the species which once existed on the earth are now extinct and they are disappearing today at a rate faster than ever. The loss of tropical forests destroys about 100 different species each day. The UNEP blames the current massive loss of biodiversity on the growth of human population and of economic activity (UNEP, 1992). These disparate data should be enough to convince us that our Creator God is a lover of diversity and that its disappearance somehow dishonors him and threatens our own best interests. Only one-half of one percent of the plant species, for example, has been investigated so far for medicinal potential.
While depletion can find illustration in many areas, perhaps the most acute as well as the most easily understood area of shortage is that of water supply. As we enter a new age of water scarcity, Sandra Postel (1997) has written a timely book called the Last Oasis. In it she paints a sharp picture of the status quo. Already, 26 countries have more people than their water supplies can sustainedly support. Competition and misunderstandings are rife.
Although technologies already exist that may promise adequate solutions, what the world’s water resources most need is a Christian ethic. Only a fraction of the planet’s water that must be shared by everyone on earth is not salty, frozen or locked in deep aquifers. The most important truth is that everyone "lives downstream," and proper water management demands good neighborliness.
We are vulnerable to contamination primarily in the air we breathe, in the water we drink and in the chain of food we eat. But there are other dangerous forms of pollution. An oil spill in the ocean off Alaska can kill all life along an extensive coastline. Excess or untreated sewage can contaminate a public beach in Puerto Rico or California or a coral reef along the coast of Central America. Agricultural run-off can pollute a vast wetland or the waters where fish breed in a mangle grove at the water’s edge.
Excessive air pollution is greatest in developed nations and in urban areas. Mexico City, Tokyo, Sao Paulo and Los Angeles must contend with it constantly. Air quality is by measurement unacceptable in 23 major cities of the world and marginal in many others. In the US, about 164 million Americans are at risk of respiratory and other problems, according to the American Lung Association (Pasadena Star News, 1993).
Where does the pollution come from? It can be from a failure of a nuclear power plant in Chernobyl or it can come from heavy metal discharges from a small factory upriver. Contamination is found, generally, where there is the greatest concentration of people with inadequate processes for handling waste, sewage and manufacturing by-products. Cities are the most vulnerable.
In many rural areas, especially in Africa, people and cattle take their water from the same sources they use to wash their clothes and bathe. Pollution is often the plight of the poor. It is a part of the curse of sin afflicting our human context.
Very much more could be written about the current sad state of Planet Earth—as a matter of fact, it already has been, and is available in many good books published by Christian agencies such as the AuSable Institute and the Evangelical Environmental Network. But here we need to relate this devastation to the missionary mandate under which the Church is evangelizing today.
Where does the "cosmos" fit in our theology of mission? In almost eight decades of church attendance I do not remember having ever heard a sermon on Romans 8:19-25. So I quote a part of it here to start us thinking about what the future holds for our cosmos and why healthcare and creation care are integral parts of our missionary responsibility.
The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we are saved . . .We wait for it patiently. (NIV)
This passage makes several important points.
1. The creation, or cosmos, at present is "in bondage to decay." Environmental science confirms this fact. It is what we have been trying to say. The created world is in a process of degradation which, humanly speaking, appears to be irreversible.
2. The same thing can be said of our human bodies-"we ourselves . . . groan inwardly … as we wait. . . for the redemption of our bodies." There is a resurrection ahead for us as also for the creation. Meanwhile, we are obliged to care for our context (the cosmos) as well as for ourselves.
3. The salvation of God’s sons (humankind) is still in process. The adoption papers are not yet signed, so to speak. We remain in our mortal state still, but wait patiently for the "redemption of our bodies." The creation is in a similar state. If we, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly to be liberated, how much more reason does the creation not have for groaning, as in the pains of childbirth, for its glorious freedom?
4. The creation’s state of "frustration" is the result of human sin. Nature did not choose it, it was imposed by God because of our sin, as a part of the punishment. This reveals the close relationship of humanity to our physical environment, and the commonality of their fate and experience.
5. Salvation for human beings is thus seen as essentially death, resurrection and eternal life. For our human context it is basically the same.
6. God’s plan of salvation, therefore, at least in some aspects, embraces all his creation, not just the human race. This should be part of our message.
Paul states it beautifully in Colossians 1:19 and 20: "God was pleased….through him [Jesus] to reconcile to himself all things, whether things in earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross," "All things [in Greek, panta] in earth and in heaven," clearly includes the whole creation (also see the Noahic Covenant). The "world" so loved by God in John 3:16 in the Greek is cosmos, the created world.
These reflections show that we need to pay more attention to the shape and content of our missionary message, as well as to its history and development. The missionary task remains our greatest challenge and God has promised it will be crowned with success. So let’s patch the boat and get on with our journey.
Postal, Sandra. 1997. Last Oasis. New York: Norton.
Roberts, W. Dayton and Paul Pretiz. 2000. Down-to-Earth Christianity. Wynnewood, Pa.: AERDO/EEN.
UNEP. 1992. "The State of the Environment (1972-1992)." Saving Our Planet: Challenges and Hopes.
"164 Million Americans Suffer from Polluted Air." Pasadena Star News, 30 April 1993.
W. Dayton Roberts is the founding editoral director of World Visions’ journal Together. He was educated at Wheaton College and Princeton Theological Seminary and is now retired in Costa Rica.
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