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Issues Facing Missions Today: 39.1 ‘Missions is not from the West to the Rest?’

Issues Facing Missions Today: 39.1 ‘Missions is not from the West to the Rest?’

Introduction:

In post number 36 of 'Issues Facing Missions Today,' I raised 20 topics for discussion in a hypothetical ‘Missions 101' course (or module).  Dr. Mark Royster tossed me an irresistible bone in a comment on that post: he suggested that I set up an opportunity for discussion around these points, giving me a limit of 500 words for each one.  (I will try to keep things in the neighbourhood of 1,000 words.)  Knowing that much discussion has already taken place around these topics, I’m somewhat reticent to gnaw on these 20 points, but it is also unfair of me to leave things as I posted them earlier.  So, with the caveat that what is said here is incomplete and introductory, I will attempt to offer some commentary to which others might respond with corrections and expansions as they see fit (allowing for some moderation on my part if the need arises).  The goal here is to identify truth in these statements while also separating the truth from error, and my suggestion in blog post #36 was that there is often more error than not in these points as I stated them.

Point 1 stated: ‘Missions is not from the West to the rest.  It is from everywhere to everywhere.  There are no longer ‘mission fields.’’

One hears this constantly these days.  If the point is descriptive, then the first two sentences are accurate and well worth dwelling upon.  I might, then, begin on a positive note.  Already towards the end of the 20th century, people were observing that former ‘mission fields’ were now sending missionaries.  This is part of the story to be told.  The mission agency, SIM, e.g., already had 9 sending countries in the days I served with it, and one of their great success stories in missions, Nigeria, had an established church (ECWA) sending out large numbers of missionaries. 

Yet missionary engagement is part of the nature of the Church itself, and the history of the Church is the history of missions.  Part of ‘Missions 101’ should entail reading a work such as Andrew F. Walls’ The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith.[1]  In conjunction, students might also read Timothy Tennent’s World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-First Century.[2]

However, an appreciative study of the issues in such works requires certain previous study in the theological curriculum.  I would suggest three prerequisites to Missions 101.  Our course would be Biblical Theology 101, but it must be taught in such a way that students could begin their study of theology not only as Biblical theology but also with an understanding that Biblical theology is missional.  This mission is firstly God’s own revelation of Himself to the world, starting with the calling of Abraham/Israel from the nations for the nations.[3]  In this and other important ways, as some have recently argued, Biblical theology is significantly missional.[4]  Our Missions 101 might also require Church History 101 and 102 as prerequisites, with Church History taught through the lens of the Church’s missionary history and its cross-cultural engagement (a mixed story of good and bad with many lessons to be learned).[5]

This sort of curriculum would help to disentangle muddled thinking that takes the ambiguous second step of ‘Missions is from everywhere to everywhere.’  Yes, missions has been and is part of the history and DNA of the Church and therefore from everywhere to everywhere.  Yet it has been and remains in good measure a purposeful, geographical spread.  That is, we should not confuse the truth in this statement with the notion that there is no benefit to thinking geographically anymore when studying and planning missionary work.  The truth lies between that thinking that disavows the concept of mission fields and those mission-minded churches that focus too much on foreign cultures and places without appreciating missionary mobility in fulfillment of missional goals.

Some of good, geographical thinking in our day entails the reverse story from sending: immigrants from unreached regions of the world are coming to so-called ‘Christian’ countries[6] rather than missionaries going to those regions themselves.  Still, there is room for, by way of example, Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship’s mission of ‘For every people, an indigenous church’ and not only its further mission of ‘For every church, a mission vision.’[7]  Ralph Winter may have overstated the meaning of ethnoi (nations) as ‘people groups’ and the Joshua Project may be too focussed on thinking of missions as a particular, geographically definable task, but there remains a geographical, ethnic dimension to mission planning.  The Great Commission (Mt. 28.18-20; cf. Mt. 24.14) remains relevant.

In this regard, there are still ‘mission fields’—places where the Gospel has yet to be preached, where churches have yet to be established, and where self-sustaining, self-propagating, Biblically sound, theologically orthodox churches have yet to grow to maturity.  This is so not only where the Gospel has yet to be preached, Scripture has yet to be translated, clear, Biblical teaching is still desperately needed, and healthy churches are yet to be established.  It is also true in places where established churches have faltered and the shining lampstand of the testimony of Christ has been removed (cf. Rev. 2.5).  This is true as much for the devastated Church in the Middle East, the cradle of Christianity, as it is for the formerly orthodox denomination in those countries where the rabid hound of heresy has run wild in the streets.  Indeed, Christianity has gone through three plantings in Africa over its two thousand year history.[8]  It is ripe for replanting in certain European countries.  New mission fields appear all the time.




[1] Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History (Orbis, 1996).  See also Andrew F. Walls and Cathy Ross, eds., Mission in the Twenty-First Century: Exploring the Five Marks of Global Mission (London: Maryknoll, 2008).
[2] Timothy Tennent’s World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-First Century (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2010).  This would expand the reflection on the history of the Church and the theology of mission in Wall’s work.
[3] Christopher Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006).
[4] An Old Testament and a New Testament theology text needs to be used to make this point.  Taking steps in the right direction, although not thoroughgoing enough from a missions perspective, are: Robin Routledge, Old Testament Theology: A Thematic Approach (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012) and I. Howard Marshall, New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel (Downers Grove, IL: 2014).  I have been working on this blog in parts of the Why Foreign Missions? section to explore Biblical (yes, the Old Testament too) theology through a studies on the Gospel.  (I am reworking the blogs for publication some day.)  Also helpful are several works by Michael Goheen, such as A Light to the Nations: The Missional Church and the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011); Introducing Christian Mission Theology: Scripture, History, and Issues (Grand Rapids, MI: Downers Grove, IL: 2014).
[5] Two possible textbooks for Church History 101 might be: Eckhard Schnabel, Early Christian Mission, Vols. 1 and 2 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004) and Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity: Volume I: Beginnings to 1500, Rev. ed. (HarperSanFrancisco, 1975).  Latourette tells the Church’s story largely through the lens of mission.  Church History 102 could continue with Latourette’s 2nd volume, ‘Reformation to the Present’ (1975).  Both courses should include reading from Stephen Neill and Owen Chadwick, A History of Christian Missions, Rev. (Penguin Books, 1990).
[6] Of course, there is no such thing as a ‘Christian country.’
[8] Paul Bowers, ‘Nubian Christianity: The Neglected Heritage,’ Africa Journal of Evangelical Theology iv.1 (1985): pp. 3-23.  Bowers’ primary point is that African Christianity, represented in the Nubian Church, is almost as old as Christianity itself and is not some new import in the past several centuries from the West.  Accessed 8 October, 2015: http://www.theoledafrica.org/othermaterials/files/nubianeglectedheritage.pdf