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Issues Facing Missions Today 12: Who’s Christianity? What Church? Which Mission?

Issues Facing Missions Today 12: Who’s Christianity?  What Church?  Which Mission? 

What follows is a simple post, but one that needs to be stated repeatedly.  When assessing missions—who is doing what, and what should be done—we simply have to ask hard questions.  We have to ask, ‘Who’s Christianity?  What Church?  Which Mission?’  Failure to do so might easily lead to support and involvement in what is actually not Christian (even if some good things are done), enabling what is actually not the Church, and planning what is not helpful in Christian missions.

This concern regularly shows up in the use of statistics in missions and ministry.  Statistics are potentially and often are misleading because categories are confused and data is misinterpreted.  One needs to define such terms as ‘Christianity,’ ‘Church,’ and ‘mission’ before reporting statistics on the Church and missions, and one must engage in detailed assessment of statistics rather than reach quick conclusions based on such reporting.  Some groups purportedly involved in ‘ministry’ may actually be working against the Christian faith.  We simply have to raise critical questions and not naively accept information.

For example, World Vision has just announced that, for the sake of ‘Church unity’ and ministry to the poor, it has decided to step out of the debate over homosexual marriage and allow its members to practice heterosexual or homosexual marriage.[1]  This simply begs the question whether ‘Church’ or ‘Christian’ can be used with respect to those who practice or allow something that Scripture declares to be sinful and that the Church always, everywhere, and unanimously has said to be a sin that will exclude one from the kingdom of God.  As soon as someone objects to this point by saying that some in the past few decades in the West have accepted same-sex marriage, one engages in a debate over what is Christianity and who constitutes the Church.  One cannot bracket such fundamental questions from ministry.  In a vain attempt to defend World Vision’s Board’s decision, U.S. President Richard Stearns placed this issue in the category of topics about which Christians can and may disagree, such as adult or infant baptism.  Really?  This sounds more like theology driven by the desire of an agency to remain solvent than any serious reckoning with Scripture.  Just because a cat might act like a dog, it is still a cat, and we are only fooling ourselves if we decide to start calling it a dog.  Just because some heretical groups still call themselves the ‘Church’ does not mean that they are the Church, and just because some people whom Scripture excludes from God’s people call themselves ‘Christians’ does not mean that they are.  Quite clearly, the US World Vision is no longer a Christian ministry.  [Within days of making this decision, US World Vision's board reversed its decision.  I've decided to leave this post up for two reasons.  First, the seriousness of the board's mistake still raises questions of their ability to function as a Christian ministry.  Perhaps the ministry will regain its Christian commitments--time will tell.  Second, this was presented as an illustration of a larger issue.]

Similarly confusing was Philip Jenkins’ The Next Christendom.[2]  In his tour of ‘Christianity’ around the world, he regularly presented statistics that failed to distinguish what was what.  Researchers simply have to make some hard decisions before throwing out general statistics, and they have to do a better job at interpreting them.  In Jenkins’ case, statistics on ‘Christians’ included Mormons—really?  The Pentecostal Church in South America was confusingly discussed without distinguishing between those pushing a Prosperity Gospel and those not.  How will anyone use such reporting to assess what is really going on in the Church?  The broader the categories, the easier it is to play with the data.

Statistics are regularly used in mission discussions.  One researcher assesses that most non-believers live in the ’10-40’ window—that region of the world lying between 10 degrees north of the equator and 40 degrees south.  Another states that the centre of Christianity has shifted east and south.  The location of this centre is now said to be Timbuktu.  Just what will such statistics suggest to someone?  Should mission work in Europe be abandoned? Is the Islamic world to be the focus of Christian missions even as Christians are fleeing countries in North Africa and the Middle East because of persecution?

Paul’s concept of an ‘open door’ for ministry led him to one unevangelized field instead of another.  This is a far more compelling argument for mission work than most arguments.  Moreover, his understanding that mission included nurturing established churches led him back to already established churches and to a ministry of teaching instead of only pressing on to unevangelised fields.  It is one thing to decide that this or that language group has no Scripture in its mother tongue and should therefore be targeted for Bible translation and related ministry—that is a very sensible argument for where to focus ministry.  It is quite another to decide through statistics based on general categories what the mission of the Church should be.

Statistics can be helpful.  They are also interesting.  But one has to be aware that the statistician, even if he or she has done quality work, has made assumptions prior to collecting the data.  And, when assessing the data, one needs to interpret it carefully.  Beyond all such reasoning and interpreting, Christians of all people need to remember that the Spirit guides us in ministry such that we may never have a perfectly rational explanation for why our focus is in this direction and not that.  This calls for prayerful consideration of ministry and for knowing the heart of the missionaries involved.

Yet my point is more than a questioning of how statistics are presented.  More generally, we really do have to clarify our terms and be willing to make some hard decisions.  We have to know what ‘Christianity’ is.  We also have to have reached some conclusions about what the ‘Church’ is and should be.  Otherwise, our mission may shoot off in the wrong direction, compromise God’s Word, enable heretical ministries, and misrepresent the Gospel.

[1] Celeste Gracey and Jeremy Weber, ‘World Vision: Why We’re Hiring Gay Christians in Same-Sex Marriages’ (March 24, 2014).
[2] Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2002).