by Jim Reapsome
If there’s anything we want to be sure about in missions, it’s the biblical validity of our work. Yet as one surveys the scene, it is apparent that the biblical underpinnings are not all that solid.
If there’s anything we want to be sure about in missions, it’s the biblical validity of our work. Yet as one surveys the scene, it is apparent that the biblical underpinnings are not all that solid. It has not escaped our readers’ attention that even the precise meaning of the great commission, some 2000 years after the Lord Jesus gave it, is still the subject of debate among equally devoted, biblically rooted missions scholars. From there, one might pick any number of issues on which there is division. Church growth, homogeneous units, marriage laws on the field – these are just a few items that find missions thinkers and strategists arrayed on opposite sides. Impressive biblical data supports them.
And what might be the most elusive concept of all – contextualization – arouses fears that even the so-called simple message of the gospel itself somehow has to be tailored to fit different settings. John 3:16, once thought to be firmly nailed down, might be coming loose. Not only because of contextualization, but also because some theologians claim John 3:16 isn’t enough: the evil structures of society must be revolutionized as part of the outreach of God’s kingdom on earth. Proponents of such views claim to be biblical, too.
In such theological and biblical turmoil, one might be tempted to abandon the faith, which supposedly was "once for all delivered to the saints." More than a few times people have been so revolted by biblical bickering that they have turned aside. This is a persistent danger. Many people chide Christian missionaries simply because there are so many "Christian" doctrines and movements competing for followers world-wide.
Another temptation is to abandon the intellectual battleground altogether, plead ignorance, or shout, "Irrelevant!" and immerse oneself in the "simple gospel." Not to think is a live option. Some missionaries have neglected the stewardship of their minds, because they felt they had boiled down the whole biblical revelation to a few outlines of the gospel story. They think they are the most biblical of all; they see no need to change or revise anything.
A third temptation is to intellectualize everything, to make the simple complicated, to make a science of every new theory, to give pseudo academic stature to every new fad. To hear some who have succumbed to this danger, the missionaries of a century ago didn’t know anything and accomplished little, if anything at all. In fact, some of those churches apparently have thrived in spite of, rather than because of Western attempts to scrutinize every jot and tittle of Christian mission under the microscopes of theology, anthropology, and communications research. No generation of missionaries has had so many opportunities to study. Every year or so another academic institution announces a new graduate program in missions. There are some indications that this American pattern is likely to be exported. Third World churches, only recently starting their own sending agencies, may start their own missiological faculties.
One cannot be ungrateful for what has been discovered, published, taught and debated. It is perhaps a bit depressing for the field missionary to attempt to digest and apply the results of continuing research. But field missionaries cannot afford to do business as usual. They must acknowledge and face up to new ideas.
Some home and field administrators may try to keep the lid on, but the suspicion is that on the field a lot of new material is being discussed. There is no reason to fear pushing back the curtains and looking for new ways to confront the world and build the church.
Perhaps our missionary public relations unintentionally gives the impression that missions is a static academic discipline, that all we have to do is go into the world and preach the gospel, and consequently investigation of the Bible itself, culture, psychology and communications methods is unnecessary. A lot of good church people believe that. Those who support missionaries need honest up-dating, not only with numbers of converts and new churches but also with frank discussions about change. They want to be sure "their" missionaries are unreservedly committed to Scripture, and to the proclamation of repentance and forgiveness through faith in Christ. But the prise of their confidence must not be hiding change that comes from responsible study by missionary scholars, social scientists and theologians of integrity. If what missionaries say among themselves is valid, it must be said in the churches, in the U.S. and overseas. We cannot pretend to be building a worldwide partnership of strong churches if we think the people in them are too simple-minded to understand.
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