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Issues Facing Missions Today: 39.16 Mission as Renewal Ministry

Issues Facing Missions Today: 39.16 Mission as Renewal Ministry


Our sixteenth point to evaluate in the proposed Missions 101 course is

Point 16: ‘Foreign missions is really something of the past: Asia is now sending missionaries, North and South America and Australasia are Christian, the Church is growing fastest in Africa, there is no open door in the Middle East, and Europe is where the Church started.’

An obvious focus in our course in response to this dubitable perspective is to discuss the unfinished task in evangelistic mission.  For that I might suggest engaging the project of mapping the unfinished task in missions undertaken by Mission Frontiers.[1]  What I would like to consider, however, is another matter that arises: the proposition that not all mission work is pioneering, evangelistic work.  My interest is not here about holistic missions, whereby the task of mission is expanded such that it can never be a finished task (‘you always have the poor with you,’ Mark 14.7; Mt. 26.11; Jn. 12.8).  Rather, my contribution here will be to reflect on mission—Great Commission missionary work (Mt. 28.18-20)--as renewal ministry.  In this regard, mission to the West (or in South Africa and countries in Europe, North America, and Australasia) comes into clear focus.

Sometimes evangelism and church planting provide the appropriate focus of missions in a certain region; sometimes Biblical teaching and Church renewal rise to the forefront of missionary efforts.  All such concerns are characteristics of Great Commission missionary work (Mt. 28.18-20).  Paul’s missionary work was pioneering (‘not where Christ has already been named,’ Rom. 15.20).  Yet his ‘second missionary journey’ began with revisiting the churches established during his earlier missionary travels.  His letters, moreover, were attempts to teach established churches from a distance even as he pressed ahead with new pioneering activities.  These letters were, on some occasions, concerned with correction and renewal.

Mission to the West may involve a replanting of the Church in fallow ground, in fields that have returned to hardened soil infested with thorns and thistles.  In such circumstances, the Church’s missionary activity is once again evangelistic, and denominations and churches in the region need to support new evangelism rather than protect existing yet dying parishes.  Furthermore, much of renewed mission to the West needs to involve revival or renewal work.  The line between churches still alive but needing revival and churches already dead is sometimes difficult to determine. 

Dying, Dead Religion

In his excellent work on the history and dynamics of Church renewal, Richard Lovelace stated:

Periods of spiritual decline occur in history because the gravity of indwelling sin keeps pulling believers first into formal religion and then into open apostasy.  Periods of awakening alternate with these as God graciously breathes new life into his people.[2] (40).

Formal religion, I would suggest, is that form of religion whereby liturgy becomes rote; Scripture’s authority is attacked while the community’s own dialogue is considered authoritative; dynamic belief is reduced to a mere, philosophical worldview; the call to radical discipleship of Jesus is equated with either social conservatism or a cultural, liberal activism, no longer challenging—not even uncomfortable; mission becomes little more than foreign, short-term excursions and de-emphasizes proclamation of the Gospel; invitations to conversion are replaced with concerns for religious dialogue; unity of the faith is understood as tolerance of diversity rather than agreement about the singularly true Gospel of Jesus Christ; the power of God is understood only as forgiveness and redemption and not also as transformation and God’s working of miracles; finances are devoted primarily to operating costs, salaries, and buildings; and so forth.  If so, then the formalization of religion is, as Lovelace suggested, the doorway to apostasy.

Yet there is hope.  Mission is God’s mission.  Renewal is renewal by the Spirit of God.  Nothing is so dead that God cannot resurrect it.  To seek such revival, though, requires realizing that what were once Christian communities witnessing the Gospel have become sick and, all too often, have already died.

Characteristics of Renewal

More important than determining whether a church or denomination has died is to focus on the characteristics of revival and the dynamics of renewal.  We more easily confirm what is alive than that something is dead—we call a doctor to confirm a death, but a child can say if something is alive.  Lovelace suggested five distinguishing marks of a genuine work of the Spirit of God in renewing the Church: the church that is being renewed by the Spirit (1) exalts Jesus Christ, (2) attacks the kingdom of darkness, (3) honours Scripture, (4) promotes sound doctrine, and (5) pours out love toward God and humanity.[3]  

It is actually important to expand this sort of a list, acknowledging that it is difficult to provide a complete list or ordering of the characteristics of renewal.  The leader of the first great awakening of the Church in New England, Jonathan Edwards (18th c.) expands on several of the characteristics of revival noted by Lovelace and would also have us add some more characteristics.  What follows are some further elements of renewal from Edwards’ Thoughts on the Revival of Religion in New England, part I (written in 1740).

Regarding honouring the Scriptures, Edwards says,

If we take the Scriptures for our rule, then the greater and higher our exercises of love to God, delight and complacency in him, desires and longings after him, delight in his children, love to mankind, brokenness of heart, abhorrence of sin, and self-abhorrence for it; the more we have of the peace of God which passeth all understanding, and joy in the Holy Ghost, unspeakable and full of glory; the higher our admiring thoughts of God, exulting and glorying in him; so much the higher is Christ’s religion, or that virtue which he and his apostles taught, raised in the soul (Thoughts on the Revival, I.II.I).

Relatedly,[4] Edwards stated that revival is marked by a conviction of the truth of the Gospel (cf. Lovelace’s ‘sound doctrine’):

to a firm persuasion that Christ Jesus is the Son of God, and the great and only Saviour of the world; and that the great doctrines of the gospel touching reconciliation by his blood, and acceptance in him, are matters of undoubted truth.  They have had a most affecting sense of the excellency and sufficiency of this Saviour, and the glorious wisdom and grace of God shining in this way of salvation; and of the wonders of Christ’s dying love, and the sincerity of Christ in the invitations of the gospel. 

Several additional characteristics of revival that Edwards notes include the following five.  There is (6) a deep repentance over sin.  For this point, Edwards draws attention to several revivals in the 17th century, including one in 1625 in the west of Scotland.  Many people, he says, were

so extraordinarily seized with terror in hearing the word, by the Spirit of God convincing them of sin, that they fell down, and were carried out of the church, and they afterwards proved most solid and lively Christians (I.II.III).

Another characteristic of revival is (7) a concern for propagation of the Gospel.  Edwards speaks of a ‘deep distress for the souls of others’ (Thoughts on the Revival, I.II.II).  Related to this, are (8) actual conversions.  The advancement of the Gospel to new frontiers and among new ethnicities characterizes revival:

there have been many of the remains of those wretched people and dregs of mankind, the poor Indians, that seemed to be next to a state of brutality, and with whom, till now, it seemed to be to little more purpose to use endeavours for their instruction and awakening, than with the beasts.  Their minds have now been strangely opened to receive instruction, and been deeply affected with the concerns of their precious souls; they have reformed their lives.... (I.IV)

A ninth, related characteristic of revival is (9) a seriousness about the things of God.  Edwards states in regard to the New England revival that:

There has been a great increase of seriousness, and sober consideration of eternal things; a disposition to hearken to what is said of such things, with attention and affection; a disposition to treat matters of religion with solemnity, and as of great importance; to make these things the subject of conversation; to hear the word of God preached, and to take all opportunities in order to it; to attend on the public worship of God, and all external duties of religion, in a more solemn and decent manner; so that there is a remarkable and general alteration in the face of New England in these respects (I.IV).

Edwards expands his comment about a sense of seriousness about God:

They have also been awakened to a sense of the shortness and uncertainty of life, and the reality of another world and future judgment, and of the necessity of an interest in Christ.  They are more afraid of sin, more careful and inquisitive that they may know what is contrary to the mind and will of God, that they may avoid it, and what he requires of them, that they may do it, more careful to guard against temptations, more watchful over their own hearts, earnestly desirous of knowing and of being diligent in the use of the means that God has appointed in his word, in order to salvation.  Many very stupid, senseless sinners, and persons of a vain mind, have been greatly awakened. (I.IV)

Finally, revival of the Church is characterized by (10) a change in people’s practices:

There is a strange alteration almost all over New England amongst young people.... [They have forsaken] frolicking, vain company-keeping, night-walking, their mirth and jollity, their impure language, and lewd songs....  And there is great alteration amongst old and young as to drinking, tavern-haunting, profane seaking, and extravagance in apparel.... (I.IV)

Edwards reiterates the role Scripture plays in guiding Godly conversations—another practice evident in churches experiencing revival.  Relatedly, a stricter observance of the Lord’s Day, confession of wrongs to one another, making restitution, awareness of the worthlessness of mere religious performances (I.IV).


The task of Great Commission missions (Mt. 28.18-20) involves teaching disciples all that Jesus commanded.  This would include sound teaching of the Kingdom of God, of the Gospel, of Holy Scripture.  Such teaching is foundational for new believers, essential for growing as disciples of Christ, and the key for any correction of error.  Missional work involves not only evangelistic efforts but also training in discipleship and teaching in order to revive the Church where it has fallen into error and laxity.  Revival and renewal of the Church is an essential part of missions.  Where the Church needs correction and renewal, such as in many parts of the West, the task of mission continues.  While some regions of the world require a planting or replanting of the Church, other regions need a mission of renewal along the lines described by Richard Lovelace and Jonathan Edwards.  Thus, evangelistic missionary efforts may proceed geographically, but renewal ministry and Biblically sound teaching is more universal and ongoing.

[2] Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of
Renewal (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1979), p. 40.
[3] Ibid., p. 42.  Also, over several chapters, Lovelace discusses the preconditions of continuous renewal (under the topics of knowing god and knowing ourselves, the depth of sin, the flesh, and the world), the primary elements in renewal (justification, sanctification, the indwelling Holy Spirit, and authority in spiritual conflict), and the secondary elements in renewal (orientation towards mission, dependent prayer, the community of believers, theological integration, and disenculturation).
[4] My own efforts to promote sound doctrine have particularly in recent years been directed towards the heretical affirmation of homosexual practice in mainline denominations and some other churches, colleges, and institutions in the West.  My co-author, S. Donald Fortson, and I have just completed the final editing for this work, which is especially a study of primary sources in church history, Scripture, the Ancient Near East, Judaism, and ancient Greece and Rome.  It should be in print by January, 2016: Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016).