by Jim Reapsome
Are the thinkers at home addressing themselves to the real problems of missionaries?
Last spring the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School’s School of World Mission and Evangelism sponsored a consultation on theology and mission. The planners chose six subjects; two papers were devoted to each subject, as follows:
"Implications for Contextualization From the New Testament" and "Contextualization: Theory, Tradition and Method."
"Charismatic Renewal: Threat or Promise?" and "Charismatic Theology and Neo-Pentecostalism: The Baptism in the Holy Spirit."
"Some Philosophical Perspectives on Missionary Dialogue" and Inter-Religious Dialogue– A Biblical Perspective.
"Theology of Church Growth" and "Church Growth Theology and World Evangelization."
"Strategy of Mission and Changing Political Situations" and "Theology of Mission and Changing Political Situations.
"Contemporary Dialogues With Traditional Catholicism" and "Contemporary Evangelism and Neo-Catholicism."
There you have a very exciting menu. But if you had to choose only one of those six subjects, which would be most important to you right now in terms of your work on the field?
Are the thinkers at home addressing themselves to the real problems of missionaries? Are they really scratching where the missionaries are itching? If you had to limit yourself to six subjects for a consultation between theologians and missionaries, which would you choose?
Interestingly enough, the hottest issue is still church growth. Participants were asked to rank the six subjects in order of importance, and church growth grabbed the top spot by a comfortable margin. Not too far behind, however, in second place was contextualization, followed by changing political situations and the charismatic renewal.
Far behind were neo-Catholicism and inter-religious dialogue.
In fact, nearly half of the participants said church growth is of greatest importance; about one-fourth said contextualization is.
Assuming that church growth is the issue today, what does that really say? Does it mean that churches and missions are awaking to a new dimension of strategy and effort? Does it mean that churches and missions have been asleep for decades? Does it mean that by and large churches are not growing and they should be?
Does it mean that today’s younger missionaries are open to using the investigative tools of the social sciences to further world evangelism? Does it mean, on the other hand, that there is significant debate and even resistance to the theories propounded by church growth advocates?
It is easier to raise questions than to answer them. But many observers have long wondered what it is about church growth that seemed to make it such a target, compared to the more traditional approaches to missionary work in the past. Why has it been suspect on the one hand, and why has it been defended almost as an ideology on the other?
Others have resented the implication that churches never grew in the past, or that the old evangelistic campaigns and previous methods did not result in the establishment of new and growing churches. Of course, in any business or profession, the status quo is ripe for attack. The most difficult practical question is how to conserve the fruit of the past, while at the same time improving one’s efforts to harvest more fruit in the future.
The farmers where I live now harvest a fantastic amount of corn per acre, much more than my father ever did. And there are debates among today’s farmers about how to do even better. But neither the previous nor the present generation of farmers is suspect. In fact, this generation is grateful for the lessons from the past.
If church growth is the hottest issue in missions, I hope it is because missionaries want to learn all they can to do a more effective job for God, and not because they want to engage in intermural warfare over theories and models.
Copyright © 1976 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.