by Christopher R. Little
Although Christian mission may seem easily definable, there is a growing divide among evangelicals today regarding the fundamental meaning, role and purpose of this mission.
Although Christian mission may seem easily definable, there is a growing divide among evangelicals today regarding the fundamental meaning, role and purpose of this mission.
One should not be surprised by this divide since the present debate is the inevitable consequence of powerful human forces at play over the past few centuries. Our present era has been fashioned by the Enlightenment, a movement which was successful at dislodging God and placing human dignity, aspirations, values and needs at the center of the universe. The Church has not remained impervious to this far-reaching reconstruction. Whereas Protestant missionary ethos originally focused on the glory of God, in the nineteenth century it was “superseded by the emphasis on his love,” which resulted in another shift in motivation “from the depth of God’s love to the depth of fallen humanity’s pitiable state” (Bosch 1991, 290). As such, God’s love was reduced to “patronizing charity” for those in the so-called undeveloped world (1991, 290).
This anthropocentric posture gained further momentum in the twentieth century, most notably through the influence of Johannes Hoekendijk. His disillusionment with the organized church led him to emphasize how God was bringing his kingdom and shalom to those outside the church. His views ultimately found fruition at the World Council of Churches (WCC) assembly in Uppsala (1968) where the catch-phrase, “the world sets the agenda,” was oft-repeated, signifying the predominantly horizontal view of mission that had been embraced.
It was at Uppsala that the evangelical “backlash” (or “meltdown”) occurred. Donald McGavran decried this move toward humanization in mission and retorted, “Will Uppsala betray the two billion [unreached]?” John Stott also interjected that while Jesus wept over those who rejected him, he did not notice the “assembly weeping similar tears.”
The ecumenical/evangelical divide reached its climax at the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism’s Bangkok conference (1973). Peter Beyerhaus testified afterward that the gathering “seemed to have lost sight of the preeminent goal of Christ’s great commission” and that “the concept of salvation [had] been so broadened and deprived of its Christian distinctiveness, that any liberating experience at all can be called ‘salvation’…. any participation in liberating efforts would be called ‘mission.’”
Therefore, Beyerhaus believed that evangelicals “now are challenged to present the biblical alternatives by articulating our faith and by acting accordingly in obedience to Christ’s great commission” (1973, 150, 161). The stage was set for the Lausanne Movement.
For ten days in July of 1974, 2,430 participants and 570 observers from 150 countries met in Lausanne, Switzerland, to discuss the church’s missionary mandate. Stott, the central figure in drafting the covenant, took a new position. He began to view Christian mission as an equal partnership between evangelism and social action. That is, the two should be considered as wings of a bird—they must work together. However, McGavran’s view won out as the covenant declared, “in the church’s mission of sacrificial service, evangelism is primary.” Lausanne has continued to affirm this position as written in the 1980 Thailand Statement, the 1982 Grand Rapids Report on Evangelism and Social Responsibility and in the 1989 Manila Manifesto (Stott 1996,159–160, 183, 236). Yet the question of priority was still not easily resolved, and to varying degrees tension over the matter has lingered as evidenced in the 2004 Forum in Pattaya.1 Thus, a “consensus over this complex issue [still] remains a goal to be reached in the future rather than a present reality” (Moreau 2000, 638).
Evangelicals committed to the primacy of proclamation in Christian mission have been accused of “reductionism” by ecumenicals, whereas the latter have been charged with “expansionism” by the former. Be that as it may, the evangelical missions movement is presently undergoing a metamorphosis of monumental proportions as it contemplates and pursues its missional obligation to the world. Moreover, this transformation parallels in many ways events of the WCC in the last century.
Such an assertion, of course, must be supported by hard evidence. We can only briefly touch on this evidence. First, evangelical, missiological theologians are advocating that the missionary task involves securing justice for the poor, overcoming violence, building peace, caring for the environment and sharing in partnership (Kirk 1999). Second, evangelicals are now told that mission entails launching businesses which bring the kingdom of God (Borthwick 2003; Rundle and Steffen 2003; Yamamori and Eldred 2003). Third, the recent edition of the Mission Handbook records that for registered organizations there was a decrease of 11.9% for evangelism/discipleship ministries; an increase of 65.8% for educational programs; and an increase of 14.6% for relief and development activities from 1998 to 2000. Additionally, relief and development projects comprised 35.1% of total income given for overseas ministries (Welliver and Northcutt 2004, 23ff).
Finally, 160 leaders from fifty-three countries under the World Evangelical Fellowship Missions Commission met in Iguassu, Brazil (1999) to craft the Iguassu Affirmation. Drafters hoped it would “be received as a working document to stimulate serious discussion around the world…that it will become a point of dialogue that will help shape both missiology and strategy in the next century/millennium” (Taylor 2000, 16). Embedded in the Affirmation is a desire to:
—Emphasize “the holistic nature of the gospel”
—Pursue appropriate responses “to political and economic systems”
—Study the “operation of the trinity in the redemption of the human race and the whole of creation”
—“Address the realities of world poverty”
—“Commit themselves to reflect God’s concern for justice”
—Engage “in environmental care and protection initiatives” (2000, 17ff)
It must be added, however, that the Affirmation also upholds the commitment to proclaim “the gospel of Jesus Christ in faithfulness and loving humility” (2000, 17ff).
The priority of mission in the Church, however, is conspicuously absent here. This appears purposeful since those at Iguassu made a concerted effort to not “repeat the errors” of “the last decades of the twentieth century [in which] an unfortunate over-emphasis on pragmatic and reductionist thinking came to pervade the international evangelical missionary movement” (2000, 4, 7). Perhaps they were attempting to empower evangelicals to reach a consensus on what has beleaguered them for decades. If this is the case, some evangelicals will find reason to applaud. Others, however, may wonder if McGavran (had he been present) would have again raised the thorny matter of the 4.2 billion non-Christians in the world.
At most, these developments show that contravening mission agendas are at the center of evangelical discussion. At the very least, they show an erosion of the biblical mandate to evangelize the world. It is fair to say that a trend towards horizontalization in missions among evangelicals is mirroring what happened to the WCC. This bourgeoning movement is being propped up by two pillars: holistic mission and the kingdom of God motif. An in-depth analysis of the two is important here.
Holistic mission views evangelism and social responsibility as inseparable. It intentionally seeks the “integration of building the church and transforming society” (McConnell 2000, 448–449). Most startling is that the two main missional models of the New Testament fail to live up to their goals.
Recall the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand (John 6:1ff). According to A. B. Bruce,
Jesus mercifully fed the hungry multitude in order that he might sift it, and separate the true from the spurious disciples….To allow so large a mixed multitude to follow himself [sic] any longer without sifting would have been on Christ’s part to encourage false hopes, and to give rise to serious misapprehensions as to the nature of his kingdom and his earthly mission. (1988, 124)
Consequently, Jesus refuses the role of a false king who continues to offer the benefits of the kingdom apart from submission to its true king (John 6:15, 26, 29).
Given the theology of holism, Jesus was mistaken. He should have ministered to the felt needs, the physical appetites, the earthly desires of the crowd—all to demonstrate concern for the whole person. Instead, those present heard this: “Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life” (John 6:27). Jesus’ response proves three things: (1) he required behavioral change in order to receive the benefits of the kingdom; (2) the heavenly character of his ministry did not generate a more just society on earth; and (3) although mission may include word and deed, deed requires word to explain it (cf. Moffett 1999, 576), whereas word apart from deed is a perfectly legitimate expression of Christian mission (contra Engel and Dyrness 2000, 65–66).
The Apostle Paul exhibits the same orientation in mission. For over a year Paul and Barnabas ministered to church leaders and taught many people in Antioch (Acts 11:26). Having been set apart by the Holy Spirit, they were then taken to Cyprus (Acts 13:2ff). But weren’t there downtrodden, disenfranchised and diseased people to attend to both inside and outside the church? According to Rodney Stark, war, fire, floods, earthquakes, epidemics and famines continually devastated Antioch (1996, 159ff). So why did Paul leave the suffering behind? Robert Speer rightly surmises,
[T]he energies by which St. Paul naturalized Christianity throughout the Roman Empire might have been exhausted in the effort to cope with the physical evils of the one city Antioch. He had a greater work to do and was strong enough not to sacrifice the best on the altar of a good. (1910, 101)
This greater work was to turn people “from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God” (Acts 26:18).
The inherent dilemmas with holistic mission do not stop here. Bruce Bradshaw asserts, “Christians who separate evangelism from development have a dualistic worldview” in which spiritual ministries like evangelism are justified instead of physical ministries like development (1993, 28). A holistic worldview must be embraced which tolerates no dichotomies except the one between creator and creation (2002, 32ff). Accordingly, there can be no priorities in God’s redemptive activity in relation to creation. Yet Bradshaw has overlooked one crucial factor—the eternal/temporal dichotomy. Not all of creation will last forever. Some elements are temporal and others are eternal. Even Jesus endorses this dichotomy: “I say to you…do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the one who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear him!” (Luke 12:4–5; Matt. 18:8–9). Jesus clearly promoted a biblically-informed theocentric worldview where eternal realities outweigh temporal ones. This necessarily leads to priorities in mission (contra Strauss 2005, 61–63). Indeed, God’s “priority for alienated human beings is reconciliation to himself. The reason is not hard to find. Continued alienation in time means alienation for eternity” (McQuilkin 1993, 177).
There are other notable inconsistencies with Bradshaw’s argument. Based upon his reflection of Colossians 1:15–20, he deduces that “God is working redemptively through the entire creation” (1993, 34). However, F. F. Bruce says that rather than adopting this view (which ultimately leads to universalism), we must interpret the phrase “reconcile all things to himself” as indicating God’s forcible subjugation of rebellious elements in the universe through judgment (1973, 209–210). To assume, as Bradshaw does, that God’s people can serve in this capacity is to mistake the divine role for the human. Furthermore, in reference to relief and development work, Bradshaw never sufficiently addresses the ethical issue of Christianity’s credibility in the eyes of an unbelieving world. This world believes people are being manipulated to convert (Begos 2003, 66) and that “civilizing mission” of days gone by “has metamorphosed into development” mission on the contemporary scene (Bonk 1993, 49).
Many also believe that relief and development aid takes away financial resources from evangelism (one church in Ethiopia was recently disturbed because there were more financial resources available for relief and development work than for evangelism) and that there is nothing particularly Christian about humanitarian work. Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, the United Nations, USAID, Oxfam, the Red Cross and Red Crescent all strive to alleviate the ailments of humanity for basically philanthropic purposes. Unless Christian mission transcends philanthropy, the work of holistic mission practitioners is “superfluous” since non-Christians are achieving an earthly shalom apart from Christ (Beyerhaus 1971, 91).
KINGDOM OF GOD CLARIFIED
Holistic mission draws heavily from the kingdom of God concept (McConnell 2000, 448). This has been of increasing interest among evangelicals. For instance, James Engel and William Dyrness state that Jesus calls us “to join him in the process of extending the present realities of the kingdom of God—his lordship over all of life—throughout the world.” They then refer to Luke 4:18–19 as the “mission statement” for Christ’s life and deduce that “[i]f this defines his agenda, it also must define ours” (2000, 22–23). Such an assertion deserves closer inspection.
First, Jesus gave no indication that this messianic passage (Isa. 61:1–2) had any concrete application apart from himself and his own ministry as the Messiah. In fact, he said it “had been fulfilled” the very day he read it (Luke 4:20). Andreas Köstenberger concludes that the disciples of Jesus are not to “model their own mission” after his (1998, 220). This is confirmed by the Greek terms employed both in John 17:18 and John 20:21 by which the father’s sending of Jesus is specifically differentiated from the sending of Jesus’ disciples (1998, 186ff). It can be no other way since: (1) he was born to die for the sins of the world (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45; Luke 19:10); (2) he essentially confined his mission to the Jewish people (Matt. 10:6; 15:24); and (3) his “signs” were meant to separate him and his mission from all others (John 2:11; 4:54; 7:31; 20:30; cf. Köstenberger 1998, 169ff). Any missiological paradigm which does not distinguish Jesus from his disciples in any age is not credible.
Second, Paul Hiebert believes that concentrating on the kingdom of God as “the central theme of missions” causes the church to lose “sight of the lostness of human beings and the urgency of evangelism….The focus is on the kingdom on earth, rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ” (1993, 156, 158). By default the world is allowed to set the agenda. As long as this course of action remains unchecked, the father’s yearning for the lost sheep will go unsatisfied (McQuilkin 1993, 177).
Third, Engel and Dyrness teach that every segment of human society should be infiltrated by the kingdom “with special preference given to the poor” (2000, 80). This confirms that evangelicals are now being influenced by the tenets of liberation theology. Be that as it may,
the idea that God has a preferential option for the poor causes dismay and is repudiated by many. It is argued that God is impartial. To claim that he is particularly favorable to one group of people is to run the risk of giving a false sense of security. It may lead to a subtle form of idolatry. (Kirk 1999, 113–114)
We must recognize that the “poor” in scripture is not simply a socio-economic term. Rather, several significant passages (Matt. 5:3; Luke 4:18; 6:20) relate to “the pious poor” (Countryman 1980, 31–32, 84–85). Paul reveals this tradition when paralleling the circumcised with the poor in Galatians 2:9–10, indicating the latter was actually a designation for the Jerusalem church as “the genuine eschatological people of God” (Georgi 1992, 33–34, 53). Evangelical mission philosophy has yet to reflect this biblical theology of the poor.
Last, the supposition that the kingdom of God can be established here and now (Engel and Dyrness 2000, 79), amounts to over-realized eschatology. This view falls short of conceding that the
kingdom of God is a transcendental, supra-historical order of life.…Therefore the kingdom of God can never be realized in any social, economic, political or cultural order. If it were it would amount to saying that the absolute and perfect can be adequately expressed in the relative and imperfect. (Kraemer 1947, 93)
This is perhaps why Paul connects the coming kingdom to the return of Christ (2 Tim. 4:1, 8). Simultaneously, he interprets it as a spiritual experience in the lives of those who have already submitted to its king by repentance and faith (Rom. 14:17; 1 Cor. 6:9–11). The church in mission should take its lead from apostolic precedent rather than opportunistic theology.
DOXILOGICAL MISSION: A NEEDED CORRECTIVE
To criticize one missional paradigm without offering another is not only gratuitous but counterproductive. It is therefore my conviction that the contemporary evangelical movement stands in need of recovering the doxological theme in mission.
Jesus clearly emphasized this aspect of his ministry when he stated his principal motivation to seek “the glory of the one who sent him” (John 7:18). He summed up his entire terrestrial sojourn in this way: “I have glorified you on the earth, having accomplished the work which you have given me to do” (John 17:4). The overall context for whatever Jesus did either as prophet, king or priest was to bring glory to the father. As such, there is no purely humanitarian act discernible in the biblical record concerning his life since the vertical took precedent over the horizontal.
The doxological impetus is also witnessed in Pauline mission. Paul not only considered himself a channel for the revelation of God’s glory (2 Cor. 4:6), he was driven by the passion to see God glorified. He strove to make known “to all the nations the obedience of faith” in order that “the only wise God, through Jesus Christ” would receive “glory forever” (Rom. 16:27). He labored to bring unity between Jewish and Gentile believers so that “with one voice [they would] glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:6). Paul also yearned for the Church to spread God’s grace so that “more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:15). One can conclude that the “ultimate goal of Paul’s mission was to see God glorified” (Schreiner 200, 72). This was his modus operandi since he was keenly aware that “[i]f the pursuit of God’s glory is not ordered above the pursuit of man’s good in the affections of the heart and the priorities of the church, man will not be well served and God will not be duly honored” (Piper 1993, 12).
One can not justifiably deny that a sound theology of mission demands this doxological orientation. Without it mission may be mission, but it is neither biblical nor Christian. This is because the “ultimate purpose for…mission is to bring glory to God, so that a multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language might declare the praise and honor and glory and power of God for all eternity [Rev. 7:9ff]” (Williams 1998, 240). Consequently, mission is not fundamentally done for “the welfare and glory of man…but the glory of God forms the highest goal of missions” (Peters 1972, 57). As Romans 11:36 states, “of him and through him and to him are all things, to whom be glory forever.”
If the chief end of mission is the glory of God, the means of mission must reflect this priority. The church, which exists “for the sake of the glory of God” (Bosch 1991, 168), must concentrate on increasing his glory. We do this not by highlighting what human beings can do for one another, but by proclaiming what Christ has done for us so that we “might glorify God for his mercy” (Rom. 15:9). This obliges the church in mission to realize that “[w]orld evangelization…is [its] greatest and holiest work” (McGavran 1970, 90). Put another way, “[e]vangelism is the central task of the church on earth, because it is the one function the church can do better here than in heaven” (Hiebert 1993, 161).
None of this is meant to deny God’s concern for the physical conditions of humanity but instead to affirm that: (1) the deepest impoverished state a person can suffer is alienation from God and therefore the greatest demonstration of his compassion is the remedy for this plight (John 3:16–17; Rom. 5:8; 1 John 4:10); (2) the surest path to societal transformation is through the conversion of hearts; and (3) evangelism must remain the leading partner to social action since “[o]ur vertical relationship to God comes first” whereas “[o]ur horizontal relationship to our neighbor…is…second” (Moffett 1999, 576).
No doubt the debate over the mission of the Church will continue. Yet the most disturbing fact confronting the Church as it enters the twenty-first century is not an imbalance of material resources but “the unequal distribution of the light of the knowledge of God in Jesus Christ.” Thus, the Church is called upon to do what the world cannot and will not do—evangelize the lost. “It was the supreme task for the church of the New Testament,” so may God grant it to be the same today (Moffett 1999, 576).
1. The Summary Affirmations state with one breath that church planting among unreached peoples is “a central priority” but with another calls for the “increasing integration of service to society and proclamation of the gospel” (www.lausanne.org/Brix?pageID=13891).
Begos, Kevin. 2003. “Iraq’s Good Samaritans.” Christianity Today 47(11):64–66.
Beyerhaus, Peter. 1971. Missions: Which Way? Humanization or Redemption. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan.
____. 1973. “The Theology of Salvation at Bangkok.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 9(3):150-161.
Bonk, Jonathan. 1993. “Globalization and Mission Education.” Theological Education 30(1): 47-94.
Borthwick, Paul. 2003. “Business Can Heal the Community.” World Pulse 38(3):6.
Bosch, David. 1991. Transforming Mission. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.
Bradshaw, Bruce. 1993. Bridging the Gap. Monrovia, Calif.: MARC.
____. 2002. Change Across Cultures: A Narrative Approach to Social Transformation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.
Bruce, A. B. 1988. The Training of the Twelve. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications.
Bruce, F. F. 1973. Commentary on the Epistles to the Colossians. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
Countryman, Louis. 1980. The Rich Christian in the Church of the Early Empire. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press.
Engel, James and William Dyrness. 2000. Changing the Mind of Missions. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Georgi, Dieter. 1992. Remembering the Poor: The History of Paul’s Collection for Jerusalem. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press.
Hiebert, Paul. 1993. “Evangelism, Church, and Kingdom.” In The Good News of the Kingdom. eds. Charles Van Engen, Dean Gilliland, and Paul Pierson, 153–161. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.
Kirk, J. Andrew. 1999. What is Mission? London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd.
Köstenberger, Andreas. 1998. The Missions of Jesus & the Disciples according to the Fourth Gospel. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
Kraemer, Hendrik. 1947. The Christian Mission in a Non-Christian World. New York: Harper & Brothers.
McGavran, Donald. 1970. Understanding Church Growth. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
McConnell, Douglas. 2000. “Holistic Mission.” In Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions. ed. A. Scott Moreau, 448–449. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.
McQuilkin, J. Robertson. 1993. “An Evangelical Assessment of Mission Theology and the Kingdom of God.” In The Good News of the Kingdom. eds, Charles Van Engen, Dean Gilliland, and Paul Pierson, 172–178. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.
Moffett, Samuel. 1999. “Evangelism: The Leading Partner.” In World Christian Movement. 3rd Edition. eds. Ralph Winter and Steven Hawthorne, 575–577. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.
Moreau, A. Scott. 2000. “Mission and Missions.” In Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions. gen ed. A. Scott Moreau, 636–638. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.
Peters, George. 1972. A Biblical Theology of Missions. Chicago: Moody Press.
Piper, John. 1993. Let the Nations Be Glad! Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.
Rundle, Steve and Tom Steffan. 2003. Great Commission Companies: The Emerging Role of Business in Missions. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Schreiner, Thomas. 2001. Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Stark, Rodney. 1996. The Rise of Christianity. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperCollins.
Stott, John, ed. 1996. Making Christ Known. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
Strauss, Steve. 2005. “Kingdom Living.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 41(1):58–63.
Taylor, William, ed. 2000. Global Missiology for the 21st Century: The Iguassu Dialogue. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker.
Welliver, Dotsey and Minnette Northcutt, eds. 2004. Mission Handbook 2004-2006. Wheaton, Ill.: Evangelism and Missions Information Service.
Williams, Joel. 1998. “Conclusion.” In Mission in the New Testament, eds. William Larkin Jr. and Joel Williams, 239–247. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.
Yamamori, Tetsunao and Kenneth Eldred, eds. 2003. On Kingdom Business: Transforming Missions through Entrepreneurial Strategies. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.
Christopher R. Little has been involved in cross-cultural ministry for over fifteen years on four different continents. He holds a doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary.
Copyright © 2006 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.