by Roger Hull, Jr.
The following article is based on a paper written by Mr. Hull while a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, (Fall, 1967) for a course given by Dr. Richard Shaull, professor of ecumenics.
The following article is based on a paper written by Mr. Hull while a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, (Fall, 1967) for a course given by Dr. Richard Shaull, professor of ecumenics. It is an evaluation of a training program for urban mission of the type widely-heralded in conciliar circles as the wave of the future. The significance and value of this article are two-fold: (1) It was written by a young man of known evangelical commitment. This article is not second-hand, hearsay evaluation couched in general terms, made by someone "over thirty." (2) Mr. Hull sought to appraise the ethos of this training program as objectively and as fairly as possible. That he should have written such a devastating critique reflects his personal courage and spiritual discernment. As you ponder its implications, you sense in a uniquely painful way what Dr. Donald McGavran has called the World Council of Churches’ "betrayar of the people in our great cities who need to hear the Gospel and believe in Jesus Christ." Mr. Hull is now pastor of Broadway Presbyterian Church, New York City.-Eds.
During the fall of 1967 I had the privilege of participating in a twelve-week Community Training Institute sponsored by Metropolitan Urban Service Training of New York (MUST), a three-year-old ecumenical training institute originally founded by the Methodist Board of Missions in 1964. Laymen and clergy from three Roman Catholic and four Protestant churches met for twelve two-hour sessions to discuss the general problems of our expanding metropolis, and the particular issues of human concern in our own community of the East Bronx. Specific training in intergroup relations, location of power within the community, analysis of community problems, and programs for action were provided by the staff of MUST in order that an ongoing church and community organization might be formed.
In light of its stated objectives the Community Training Institute was reasonably successful. It helped both clergy and laity to understand group dynamics, some of the issues and problems. of our own community, and basic procedures in establishing an ongoing ecumenical organization to meet certain identified needs. As a result of the Community Training Institute, a new ecumenical church and community organization has been formed to attack specific community problems all the way from better ambulance service to problems of delinquent youth and open housing.
My particular concern, however, is not with the apparent success, or failure, of the program, but rather with the deeper question of the basic theological presuppositions of MUST and how its program relates to them. For only then will it be possible to evaluate the true success, or failure, of MUST in the missionary task of the church.
The original Methodist proposal for MUST stated, "It is the mission of the Church to transform, convert, re-direct, and make manifest the destiny of the city as a rightful expression of God’s grace for the good of man. The need, then, is two-fold: a need for skills and the need of the city f or the fruits of these skills."1 The proposal went on to state, "This project is directed to the training of clergy and laity for improved skills in Christian mission in the various types of urban setting. New skills are required because the urban setting is new and imposes new obligations upon those who would engage in ministry."2
MUST spent most of its first program year in intensive study and planning as to what form its training should take to serve best the mission of the churches in New York City. By March, 1966, the MUST Board of Directors received a basic program proposal that has continued to serve as the basic policy statement for MUST Up to the present time. This document indicates that from its very beginning MUST ran head on into the present state of theological disagreement, frustration, and confusion over the nature and mission ofthe church. The revised proposal presented to joint Action for Mission, an ecumenical board of denominational executives formed by the New York City Missionary Society, stated, "Finally, we assume that we do not begin with answers to the problems of the city or any clearly defined body of information that will enable the church to do its job in an urban world …. In spite of assertions to the contrary, the Christian church has yet to come to any clear theological and sociological conclusions about its mission in an urbanized industrial society."3
Yet, in spite of this confusion and lack of theological consensus, it was felt that certain theological principles had to be formulated in order to judge and shape the program. For these principles, MUST relied heavily on the Missionary Structure Studies of the World Council of Churches and articulated four basic theological presuppositions:
1. God is fundamentally concerned about the world. The church exists as one instrument through which God’s concern for the world is expressed and his purposes for men are given form. The two fundamental realities are God and the world. The church functions as a servant of God’s mission and has no significance in its own life apart from its participation in concern for the world.
2. God is for man. He has made clear in the prophets and above all in Jesus Christ that he is calling all men to discover and express their full humanity. As a training facility, MUST is called to help Christians, through their involvement and reflection, express this humanizing concern. Full humanity requires expression through participation both in the private and the public realm.
3. Since the church exists for the world and must express its concern by an incarnational involvement and by relevant service, its life will always be lay oriented.
4. Our fundamental concern for the renewal of the church can only be accomplished as the church is called to missionary service in metropolis, and not by focusing our attention on the church as such.4
This theology is basically the "God-world-church" schema of the World Council of Churches’ Missionary Structure Studies in which it is stated that God’s primary relationship is to the world; that it is the world and not the church that is the basic focus of God’s plan. "God’s object of concern is the world, whether it is the world as creation, as history, or as new creation."5 While we may welcome this "God-world-church" schema as an improvement over the "God-church-world" pattern and the "naval theology" that has arisen from this way of thinking about the problem of church and world, at the same time is not this "God-world-church" pattern an equal oversimplification of God’s relationship to man, one equally fraught with deep pitfalls for the missionary responsibility of the church?
Unfortunately, in the Missionary Structure Studies, proof texts are irresponsibly used to support the "God-world-church" schema without giving adequate recognition to the need for individual faith and repentance, and the distinction between church and ‘world. Only the first half of John 3:16 is quoted, "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son," without mentioning the second half of the verse, "That whosoever believes in-him should not perish but have eternal life."6 The same distortion is evident when 2 Corinthians 5:18 is quoted with no mention of 5:20: "So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God." This kind of exegetical dishonesty is inexcusable for a study document of the World Council of Churches.
Possibly a much better schema would be, "God-Christ, world-church" in order to emphasize sufficiently that in the world there is no saving knowledge of God apart from God’s special revelation in Jesus Christ, and that theprimary function of the church in its life mission is always to bear witness to this normative event, precisely for the sake of God. and for the sake of the world. While the North American Working Group warns against the dangers of what it calls "sociological reductionism" (i.e., a reduction of theology to the categories of sociology),7 the ultimate impact of their discussion of the "Godworld-church" problem is to substitute a new twentieth century sociological naturalism for the old nineteenth century philosophical naturalism, which results in the same denial of any real need for special revelation and any real distinction between church and world, Christ and culture. The study states, "The events reported in the Bible are worldly events.
Where God is seen at work, as judge and redeemer, there is simultaneously implied in this recognition of God an affirmation of the world under his Lordship. When there was a celebration, worldly events were celebrated and this celebration was an appropriation of the world of one’s own. It was not something special, a "sacred" act, apart from the world."8 This is in fact nothing but the same old naturalism of the nineteenth century under a new "secular" garb.
This same tendency towards "secular" sociological reductionism was evident in the training program. While great emphasis was placed on modern sociological analysis, skills, and techniques, hardly any time was given to any serious theological reflection upon the particular mission of the church and the meaning of the Gospel in social change. Such theological analysis was evidently considered unimportant for our action training institute.
This attitude is a tendentious outworking Of MUST’s basic secular" theological position, which argues that one must start with the world and its "needs" rather than with the Gospel and the church. While again this may represent a welcomed shift from the traditional, academically oriented theology of the church which has little relationship to the concrete life of the world, it nonetheless represents a basically unbiblical approach to the world: It fails to acknowledge the reality of God’s judgment on all human culture and the failure of the world to recognize its true need before God. The methodological question for theological reflection is not whether one begins with a theological study of "church," "congregation," and "mission," and then turns to sociology to discover how to work these "givens" out in the world, as the Missionary Structure Studies would formulate the problem. It is rather whether one begins with the Gospel and God’s revelation in Christ, that all man’s efforts are corrupted by the power of human sin and have little, if any, facility for leading men to God’s truth in Christ. The biblical standard is that all of man’s works, including his efforts for social change and revolution, are infected with sin and with man’s continuing attempt to hide his true need before God for repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.
Since, however, in the North American Working Group the biblical witness is also completely secularized, it in fact has no special authority for the church, other than as a witness and resource for what the church’s own understanding of God’s agenda is in the world today. For the North American Working Group, the Word does not really judge either the world or the church, but simply illumines where God is working in the secular movements of our time according to the basically liberal political judgments of the North American Working Group. While I may personally hold these same liberal political views, my primary task as a Christian is not to identify God’s work in the world any more solidly with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) than with the Klu Klux Klan (KKK). This is not to say that the Christian must not run the ideological" risk,pointing to where and how God is at work in the world. But it is to say that both SNCC and the KKK (as well as the. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Office of Economic Opportunity) stand under God’s judgment in Christ. My special task as a Christian is to bear witness to that one all-important reality in order that I may fulfill my particular mission to the world, for the sake of the world and for the sake. of Christ. Otherwise, I forfeit my primary vocation as a Christian and offer no acceptable worship to God.
This same basic tendency is evident in MUST, where in its action training programs the biblical witness is often viewed simply as another resource among many other sociological tools, to discern and illumine the present activity of God in the world. The MUST proposal to joint Action for Mission states:
We understand the mission of the church, both corporate y and through its laity in their individual commitments to include the following elements: (1) Knowledge of the world and its struggles to fulfill human life for all men. Here all the resources of the social sciences as well as a biblical perspective is essential. (2) Service in the world. The Christian exists to follow the pattern of his Lord in relevant service to the needs of men. In this involvement, he is grateful for the partnership of all men of good will. It requires not only a compassionate heart, but often political wisdom and much technical knowledge. (3) Witness in the world to the Gospel. The Christian seeks to testify to his faith and to point to the God of history who provides for men the purpose, and goal of their existence.9
Yet, MUST never goes on in any of its literature to define what the nature and content of this Gospel are, or what, in fact, the real "needs" of men are in light of the biblical perspective. At the same time, and for what seem to be the same reasons, MUST programs often tend toward a basically nonbiblical approach to human culture which assumes that the world is essentially moving toward God, "struggling to fulfill human life for all men," rather than living in actual rebellion against Him as so powerfully described in Romans 1. The basic danger in MUST’S program is the basic danger of all "culture-protestantism," the error of over–accomodating Christ to culture, of picking and choosing in contemporary culture that which seems to conform most readily with God’s will and identifying it with Christ, without reckoning fully with the pervasive power of sin and death in all human institutions and efforts. Instead of identifying Christ with what men conceive to be their finest ideals, noblest institutions, and their best philosophies, as did the old social gospelers, the leaders Of MUST now wish to identify Christ with man"s noblest struggles for human justice. As H. Richard Neibuhr writes in Christ and Culture, "One is tempted to formulate this notion theologically, saying that the Spirit procedes not only from the Son but from the Father also, and that with the aid of the knowledge of Christ it is possible to discriminate between the spirits of the times and the Spirit which is from God."10 Niebuhr concludes, "As in the case of exclusive believers, cultural Christianity encounters theological problems that indicate how much theories of sin and grace and the Trinity are involved in what seem to be only practical problems."11
Many of the leaders of MUST have recognized this danger from the very outset and have set up a theological task force to guard against it. For as they have stated in their own words, "Without some common understanding of the relation between creation and redemption, and of the relation between church and world (or at least a clear definition of alternatives), the project would be in constant danger of confusion over objectives."12 Yet this task force only meets once or twice a year, and MUST has failed in fact toimplement these theological concerns in many of its training programs. As a consequence, great confusion over objectives and goals was evident in our training institute last fall. No one, especially the laity, who are supposed to be MUST’S primary concern, were quite sure why or what they were there for, or where we were trying to move in our witness as Christians.
My own feeling is that this failure is due to MUST’S continuing preoccupation with skills, strategy, and tactics to the exclusion of adequate systematic theological formulation. Not only does the actual staff of MUST infrequently engage in it, but some by their own admission really consider such traditional theological formulation irrelevant to the contemporary missionary imperative of the church. Frustrated with the failure of Barthian neo-orthodoxy to give concrete guidance for the day to day mission of the church in the world, many MUST leaders have despaired of "systematic" theological formulation.
Contrary to MUST’S claim, however, such traditional theological formulation is not irrelevant to the missionary task of the church, even though it may be very difficult with the present lack of any real theological consensus and categories for discourse. MUST,s attitude is rather due to a false understanding of the nature of theological orthodoxy. As William Stringfellow, the lay theologian, writes, "Some will complain that the days are too urgent to afford inquiry into the authority in Christian orthodoxy for action in society. I have considered sympathy for such impatience. So much needs to be done if the nation is merely to survive the racial crisis that one must be grateful for those few people who are seriously working for the integration of American society, whether they call themselves Christians or not and however mixed their motivations. Nevertheless, the complaints of the impatient are based on a misconception of orthodoxy, as if it were a pedantic reduction of the Gospel to a propositional scheme which could furnish a basis for application and involvement. Christian orthodoxy, however, is both historic and existential. It is not to be confused with doctrinal formulations -though these have a certain use, and, in a given instance, may be literally true. The substance of Christian orthodoxy, in other words, is no less and none other than the very event of Christ."13
This failure to reflect adequately on the theological and biblical meaning of the Christ event for the faith and witness of the church in social change and the struggle for human justice is the greatest weakness Of MUST to date. This is not to say, however, that MUST is without many significant contributions to the missionary life of the church. It has already been helpful in sensitizing many Christians, both lay and clergy. to the problems of our metropolis and imparting to them certain basic skills for making contact with the real, everydayworld of the city. Yet, even here in its very program, MUST must constantly guard against the danger of somehow assuming that we as Christians have some special ethical solutions for the problems of modern society which we must seek to impose on the world by various skills and techniques, even though we are still very uncertain what these solutions might be. We as Christians cannot build a bridge to the Kingdom of God through ethical solutions. For they fail to deal with the basic reality of the pervasive power of sin and death in all human life.
As Jacques Ellul, the French sociologist and lawyer, writes in his book, The Presence of the Kingdom, the basic task of the Christian is not to tinker with futile attempts at technical and moral solutions which further delude the world in its mistaken belief that its real need is for more skills and techniques, rather than for a new hearing of the Word of God. His main job is not to look around at the various movements which men consider "good" and then support them. Ellulwrites, "Above all, the Christian must have a different attitude. It is not his primary task to think out plans, programs, methods of action and of achievement. When Christians do this (and there is an epidemic of this behavior at the present time in the church) it is simply an invitation of the world which is doomed to defeat. What we can do is of no importance unless we can offer it with a good conscience toward God."14
The Christian must rather seek to discover the real spiritual realities that grip every economic and social structure and expose them in the light of the Word of God made flesh in Jesus Christ. While the Christian, and groups of Christians, must immerse themselves in many kinds of struggles for human justice, unless in every concrete experience they bear witness to the fact that man’s only hope for the solution of his ills lies finally in God’s forgiveness and coming victory in Jesus Christ, they fail to perform the Christian’s primary service to the world, for the world, on behalf of Christ. Failure to give such "Christian" training was the basic failure of our Community Training Institute this past fall.
This is not to imply that the Christian is not to be concerned for the transformation of human structures and institutions that greatly influence the quality of human life, but only that in the search for institutional and structural reforms, his search must be a pure expression of the temporary and conditional nature of all human reform, always pointing to man’s final hope in the parousia of Jesus Christ. As Jacques Ellul concludes, "The central problem which today confronts the Christian is not to know how to. act, it is not to choose one method out of innumerable forms of action which the world suggests to us, it is not to act with or against, or in another way …. What matters is to live, and not act. In this world this is a revolutionary attitude, for the world only desires (ultilitarian) action, and has no desire for life at all."15
While we may wonder how one can seriously live for Christ in the world without also acting for him, and while Ellul represents a basically Barthian viewpoint that has, in fact, broken down in today’s world, such a warning is still a much needed emphasis for our perennially activist-minded American churchmanship. For in our continual search for more sociological skills, we often sell out to the world and its methods, forfeiting our primary witness to the presence of the revolutionary power of the Word of God in our midst which transcends all human techniques. Only as MUST is able to incorporate valid biblical insights more fully into the very foundation of its actual training program will it in fact become a great missionary thrust in our time. Otherwise, future church historians may judge it as nothing more than another social gospel bust.
I. Metropolitan Urban Service Training (MUST). A Project for the Training of Clergy and Laity in the Urban Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ our Lord. The National Division of the Board of Missions of the Methodist Church, p. 3.
2. Ibid. p. 6.
3. New York Metropolitan Mission Training Facility. A proposal submitted to the members of Joint Action for Mission and the Board Of MUST. July, 1965, p. 3.
4. Program Pattern for MUST. Document A. Metropolitan Urban Service Training, 235 E. 49th Street, New York, New York., March 30, 1966, p. 2.
5. The Church for Others: Two Reports on the Missionary Structure of the Congregation. Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1967, p. 69.
6. Ibid., p. 17.
7. Ibid., p. 65.
8. Ibid., p. 69.
9. New York City Metropolitan Mission Training Facility, op. cit., p. 2.
10. H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture. New York: Harper, 1951, p. 2.
11. Ibid., p. 10.
12. New York City Metropolitan Mission Training Facility, op. cit., p. 7.
13. William Stringfellow, Dissenter in a Great Society. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966, pp. 128, 129.
14. Jacques Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1951, p. 80.
15. Ibid. pp. 92, 93.
Copyright © 1968 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.