The Death of Missions: An EMQ Symposium

by Colin E. Andrews

Increasingly in the West, younger Christians eschew the word “missions.” Colin Andrews challenges us to drop the word altogether. We decided to publish his proposal with responses from four Christian leaders. We invite you to join the continuing discussion online.

The line has gone flat. There’s no pulse. Somebody needs to pull the plug. We knew this day would come. Physicians like David Bosch warned us of this impending death. Missions is dead. Let me state it again. Missions is dead.

So, let’s stop all this talk about missionaries, mission agencies, mission conferences, missiology, and the missional church. Those terms simply don’t work for us anymore. They describe a world and a paradigm of the past that fit like an over-dried wool sweater.    

You might be asking, “What in the world are you talking about?” Does this mean that God’s covenant to bless the nations has been canceled? That the call to make disciples of all nations is no longer the mandate of the Body of Christ? Absolutely not! If we confess the authority of scripture, we must also confess that God’s ultimate plan for this world involves blessing the nations, redeeming all of creation, and gathering men and women from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation around his throne in the New Creation.

But, these terms that we insist on using (missions, missionary, etc.) just do not describe the biblical vision. They are awkward and embarrassing when we use them anywhere outside our church buildings and conference halls. They stir up anger and resentment when we use them with the very people we hope to serve. Why?     

David Bosch explains in his monumental work, Transforming Mission, that it is because this

…word “mission” is historically linked indissolubly with the colonial era and with the idea of a magisterial commissioning…The “missionary” was irrevocably tied to an institution in Europe, from which he or she derived the mandate and power to confer salvation on those who accept certain tenets of the faith. (Bosch 1991, 228)

“Missions” terminology was created during the colonial period to describe colonial activities that for the most part we no longer engage in and are horrified when accused of. We don’t like being associated with much of what colonialism did and represented because we find that it detracts from what we are really about, namely announcing and pronouncing God’s blessing on the nations through our lives, work, and words.

Rick Love has recently pointed out that our insistence on using such archaic vocabulary has created an identity crisis because the world is no longer ordered the way it was in colonial times.  He explains, “In the past, the world was neatly divided into sending countries and mission fields” (Love 2008, 32). Muslims, for example, were people who live in those “mission fields.” But, Love continues, “We now have Muslim neighbors in both our sending countries and mission fields” (2008, 32).    

Using our outdated vocabulary, according to Love, also forces us to have at least three identities. People in mission circles can understand our mission language, so we continue to use that terminology with them. But, when speaking to people in our “mission field,” we change our language because we know that it will immediately create negativity toward us and may even end up getting us deported. Love reveals that our “once-cherished terms like ‘Christian’, ‘missions’, ‘missionary’, and ‘church-planting’ have become stumbling blocks…Negative meanings have accrued to these terms” (2008, 33). In the same token, we rarely mention the names of the organizations that employ us because they usually contain some form of the word “mission” in them. And when speaking with secular people in our home country, we avoid the “missionary” language because we are afraid that they will associate us with people who destroy other cultures and force Western religion upon them.    

Ralph Winter, in response to Love’s suggestion that we stop using our mission terminology, said, “It is like suggesting that we stop referring to the Bible as the Bible” (Winter 2008, 40). Although it feels a bit like disagreeing with Moses, I find it necessary to kindly disagree with the late Dr. Winter because the term “missionary” no longer describes us. We are not missionaries.  

It shouldn’t, however, be a problem to retire this vocabulary, since other terminology existed throughout the centuries to describe more accurately our biblical mandate. Again, Bosch reminds us, “For fifteen centuries the church used other terms to refer to what we subsequently came to call ‘mission’” (Bosch 1991, 228). Our vocabulary may be comfortable (to us), but it is neither necessary nor helpful.

Unfortunately, although Bosch recognized and perhaps predicted the death of this terminology, he didn’t finish the task by refusing to use the term himself.  He was pioneering a series of significant paradigm shifts in the understanding of cross-cultural work among followers of Christ. Perhaps tackling terminology was too much to add to his already monumental work. Perhaps he felt the need to continue using the “missions” terminology for the sake of clarity with his audience. Whatever his reasons, let us now put an end to the colonial mission era by retiring our colonial vocabulary. These words are inaccurate at best and offensive at worst.

This feels difficult, because doing so will require a massive change of vocabulary in many areas. In addition, we currently lack a suitable replacement vocabulary. Let us look at these two issues separately.

First, what changes will be required? Shifting our vocabulary will have major implications. We will need to change our names (e.g., Youth with a Mission, International Mission Board, Grace Brethren International Missions). We will need to change the names of our publications (e.g., Missiology, International Journal of Frontier Missiology, and of course Evangelical Missions Quarterly). We will need to rename short-term missions, mission committees, and mission conferences. And, we will need to change what we call ourselves—missionaries.

Second, if get rid of our vocabulary, we’ll need to replace it. What will we call our organizations, publications, teams, committees, conferences, and ourselves? There are several options. We can attempt to reapply biblical terms. For example, the New Testament employs the term “apostle” to refer to people who lay the foundations for new communities of believers. However, since we are far removed from the first-century culture of the New Testament, we might find it difficult to locate biblical terms that well describe some of the things we are doing in the twenty-first century.

What do we call our Bible translators? What do we call our medical professionals using their skill to bring the love of Christ and physical healing? What do we call entrepreneurs using their business savvy to provide not just jobs, but also companies with a spiritual bottom line? Perhaps we should simply use terms others use to describe these people (i.e., linguist, doctor, and business person).    

A final reason why giving up the m-words feels so hard is that it might force us to redefine our organizations, publications, teams, committees, conferences, and ourselves. Perhaps our affection for the m-words comes from the fact that there are still elements of colonialism in our blood that we haven’t confronted. Perhaps we still believe that we are the experts in medicine, education, and democracy and come to enlighten those in other parts of the world. Perhaps we still like our Messiah complex playing the role of Savior by snatching people from the flames of hell. There are many possible reasons. Perhaps, though, it is the fear of having to admit that we too are broken, fallen, and in need of salvation, which will require us to relinquish our role as teachers and once again become students.

RESPONSES TO THIS ARTICLE:

Response 1: Winsome Witness is Our Priority, Miriam Adeney
Response 2: Acknowledging our Past while Prioritizing Our Calling, Jonathan Bonk
Response 3: Stirring the Hive with Perhaps Needed Redefinitions, Bill Taylor
Response 4: We Need to First Ask Questions, Alex Araujo

References
Bosch, David J. 1991. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.

Love, Rick. 2008. “How Do We Deal with the Baggage of the Past? Blessing the Nations in the 21st Century: A 3D Approach to Apostolic Ministry.” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 25(1): 31-37.

Winter, Ralph D. 2008. “How Do We Deal with the Baggage of the Past? Living with Ill-defined Words: A Response to Herbert Hoefer and Rick Love.” International Journal of Frontier Missiology. 25(1): 38-41.   

….

Colin E. Andrews (pseudonym) is a cross-cultural worker in Southeast Asia, where he leads a multicultural team seeking to establish a transformational model of business. Previously, he lived in Central Asia for ten years working with a team that experimented with combining church planting and economic development.

EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 2, pp. 230-233. Copyright  © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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