I had recently been listening to God’s Story: As Told By John. This consists mostly of a reading of the Bible text from the English Standard Version, with a number of sketches included through which certain Scripture passages are explained. These sketches are presented in a narrative fashion, following a pattern of: God’s Story, My Story and Their Story. What the author of the sketches are trying to say is that God is already active in people’s lives and what we need to do is to find the overlap between God’s story, my story and their story in order to understand God’s working in people’s lives.
This got me thinking about the concept of Missio Dei (God’s mission) and how this term had been interpreted through time. David Bosch, in his Transforming Mission (p 390-393), gives an excellent summary of where this term came from and how it underwent changes in meaning. This term originated at the Willingen Conference of the International Missionary Council held in 1952, where it was said that mission is derived from the very nature of God. As the Father sent the Son into the world and the Father and the Son sent the Holy Spirit into the world, so the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit sends the church into the world. Mission was seen as the church’s participation in the sending of God. Because mission is God’s priority, it is not the church’s initiative. The church is working with the sending God to bring God’s love to the world.
Gradually the understanding of Missio Dei underwent some changes. God’s Mission was seen to incorporate all things, including creation, care and redemption. It also embraces both the world and the church and is present in ordinary human history. In its missionary activity the church encounters a humanity and a world in which God’s salvation is already present through the Spirit. This wider understanding of the Missio Dei caused great unhappiness amongst certain theologians. In a study of the World Council of Churches it was stated that “The church serves the missio Dei in the world … (when) it points to God at work in world history and name him there.” In a certain sense, through this interpretation, the church had become unnecessary for the Missio Dei. Since Easter, according to this viewpoint, the world had been reconciled to God and it is therefore unnecessary for the world to become anything else than what it already is.
Back to the book I’d been listening to: In one of the sketches it is also implicated that we cannot really do anything when moving into a community. God is already active there and all that we have to do is to help people to see God (in other words, to find the place where God’s story, my story and their story overlap.
While this sounds wonderful and almost super-spiritual, I’m not exactly comfortable with the implications of such a viewpoint. Nine years ago I attended an ecumenical church conference in Indonesia where the same type of thing was said. And the implication of what was said at that time is that we, as Christians, do not have the right to discuss our faith with people of other religions with the intention of convincing them to come to faith in Jesus. Whether they are Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist or anything else, God is already working in their lives and therefore we cannot tell them that they should accept Christ. And this, I think, is pushing the concept of Missio Dei to an extreme which it was never intended to be at.
One of the most often quoted passages in this regard is Acts 17:22-31, where Paul visited the people in Athens. It is said that Paul latched onto their existing religion and that we need to do the same when visiting people from other cultures. The fact is that Paul, after referring to their existing religion, clearly stated what he believed in, mentioning the necessity of repentance and even ending off by referring to the day of judgement. Undoubtedly there is truth in saying that missionaries are not bringing God to a country or a community for the first time when they start working there. God is already there. God has always been there. But that does not imply that God is known or served in the way He wants, just because He is present.
Missio Dei, as I understand it, is that God is reaching out to the world, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Although God could have used other methods to proclaim the message of salvation to the world, He chose to use the church. God needs the church as instrument of mission, not because He is incapable of reaching the people in other ways, but because He chose to use the church. And for this reason, the church is not unnecessary in mission. The church is a vital part of God’s plan to reach the world. And where the church refuses to take up this task, God’s work is being hindered.
And this is quite a frightening thought!
Thomas Smith has a blog called Soulgardeners and has some very interesting topics which he writes about, such as Steps towards solidarity with the poor and Connecting the rich with the poor.
Thomas started a discussion under the title: Asking new questions and many people responded to this. Basically he asks whether, when trying to discover where a person is in his or her relationship with Jesus, instead of asking “have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour?” we shouldn’t rather ask something like “have you accepted Jesus as the world’s communal Lord and Saviour?” or “how is your communal relationship with God growing?”
From the comments left on this post and which I advise you to read, it is clear that a distinction is made between personal salvation and something more in line with communal salvation. Some people feel strongly for personal salvation while one especially focusses on our involvement with the community.
David Bosch loved to speak of “Creative Tension” and I wonder whether we couldn’t speak of some creative tension between these two concepts. Part of the distinction between the Old Testament community of faith and the New Testament church, is that those who became part of the NT Church all had come to a point of accepting the salvation through Christ as something personal. This is the story of the book of Acts. Small (and sometimes larger) numbers of people listen to the message of the apostles, believe what they say and thereby come to personal salvation. In the Old Testament people were mostly automatically considered to be part of the faith community, merely by being born as Israelites. (Prophets like Jeremiah, Micah and Amos spoke against this viewpoint, of course.)
Even when asking a question such as: “have you accepted Jesus as the world’s communal Lord and Saviour?” or “how is your communal relationship with God growing?”, we are still concentrating on the individual’s personal viewpoint of God and therefore that person’s personal relationship with God. And that, as far as I can see, is absolutely Biblical. We are not saved because our names appear on a register indicating membership of a faith community. I am saved because something extremely personal happened between God and myself through the atonement of Jesus Christ. How we formulate the question is not as important as to help a person to understand that something personal has to happen between him or her and God.
In Evangelism Explosion, with which I’m fairly involved, two questions are asked:
- Are you sure that, if you should die today, that you will definitely go to heaven?
- If you should die today and God should ask you for what reason you should be allowed into heaven, what would you answer Him?
This method has been criticised greatly by modern theologians and I, for one, do not consider the questions as “untouchable”. But once again, as in all the questions above, this is just an attempt to evaluate a person’s personal relationship with God. In a post-modern, Western community, I would probably, when speaking to someone about God, rather use phrases such as: Would you mind sharing with me your personal viewpoint about God? How do you understand the work of Jesus Christ? Has this in any way led to a change in your personal life? etc. (And this, of course, would be part of a much longer conversation which could take place over the course of days, weeks or months.)
The crux of the matter is that, once a person has entered into a personal relationship with Christ, that things need to start to change. That person needs to know that, although I have a personal relationship with God, I cannot keep it personal. I am part of a greater community of believers. And this group of believers exist not for their own well-being only, but exist primarily in order for God’s reign to extend into every part of the world. My personal salvation thereby has a ripple effect on community.
There is no conflict between my personal relationship with Chris and my involvement within the faith community as well as the community at large. At most, there exist a creative tension as I deliberate about my involvement as believer within the community.
When I started blogging, one of the first topics I wrote about was partnerships in mission. If you click on this link, you will find everything I wrote about partnerships. One of the reasons why I believe that partnerships often stop functioning effectively, is because most partnerships in mission are one way roads where resources are channelled from the “haves” to the “have-nots” which are only too glad to receive all kinds of gifts. But this usually leads to a very unhealthy relationship and eventually the people handing out the gifts get tired of doing this and then the relationship often stops.
I can’t remember where he wrote about it, but I recall that David Bosch once mentioned that both partners in a mission relationship should be giving. Obviously, the poorer of the two can hardly support the richer partner financially, but in most cases they have other things which they can give. What needs to happen is for the richer partner to realise that they have a need for what the poorer partner can give to them. One example of this would be the caring spirit that is often found amongst poorer communities – something which I have heard time and time again really touches people from richer communities who live in circumstances where they do not really need to take care of others.
In the past, when hosting short-term outreach teams, the team would greet me at the end of the time with the words: “When we came, we prepared ourselves to give to these people, but it feels as if we had received more than we could give.” Nowadays, when hosting a short-term outreach team, we prepare ourselves to give to them. We know much more about the culture than the visitors know. We know much more about the needs of the people. We know much more about ways of taking care of people, using the minimum resources. We have much more experience in taking care of people in need, of encouraging the sick and the dying. In most cases we know much more about HIV and AIDS. The list goes on. What the visitors have to offer we receive gladly, but I inform them beforehand that we are going to expose them to situations which most of them have never experienced, but we do it on purpose to help them better to understand what we are doing and in such a way equipping them to use their newly acquired knowledge in other places.
No longer do we have to feel guilty or ashamed because of what we are receiving. We are thankful for everything that is given to help in the ministry, but at the same time we are sharing our experience and our example with others, so that we can truly be equal partners in accomplishing the task God gave us to do.
While en route to Russia recently, I stayed over in a North African country for two days. I decided not to mention the name of the country as I do not want to jeopardize the Christian church in that country in any way. While I was there I was (unexpectedly) asked to present a lecture on mission at a YWAM training base about 100 kilometres from the city where we were staying. I agreed to do this and had to make do with very little sleep that night as I prepared what I would be teaching on the following day. Fortunately I had the basic thoughts in my mind (and some notes on my laptop) and it was more a matter of organising things in the form of a lecture.
I have long been interested in the Gospel of Luke and the other book written by the same author, Acts. In 1988 I attended a synod meeting, consisting primarily of Black church leaders with a few White people in between. This was not a good meeting. This was at the height of the racial tension in South Africa. The meeting took place in a Black township outside Pretoria (Mamelodi) and the tension was clearly visible even at this meeting. One political activist attending the meeting was known to proclaim openly that if any White person should agree with him, he had not been radical enough.
It was at this meeting that David Bosch was asked to lead the daily Bible study. He chose to do it from the books of Luke and Acts and sub-titled the Bible studies: Two books for our time. Never before nor since have I experienced such depth and such practical guide lines in a Bible Study. David Bosch later published his research on these two books in an Afrikaans publication which he sub-titled: Good news for the poor … and the rich and later, when he published his Transforming Mission, he devoted the entire chapter 3 to these two Bible books. (Just as a matter of interest: The same radical Black person at the synod was afterwards asked to thank David Bosch on behalf of the synod for the Bible studies and he said something like: I would never have thought it possible that a White man would be able to lead us in a Bible study in such a way that I could agree with him, but David Bosch did exactly this! I thought this was quite a compliment.
In my lecture I did not follow Bosch’s guidelines. I followed another route which I will try and explain over the next few days on this blog.
I’m not, first of all, a New Testament scholar, but in the books and commentaries I consulted, one verse stands out in the gospel of Luke as the central verse and this is Luke 9:51: “As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” As I proceed, it will become clear why this verse is so important.
Jerusalem plays an extremely important part in both the gospel of Luke as well as in Acts. The following examples will help to illustrate this:
- The gospel starts and ends in Jerusalem
- Jesus is dedicated to the Lord in Jerusalem (Luke 2:22)
- Jerusalem is indicated as the place where Jesus would complete His earthly mission (Luke 9:31)
- From Luke 9:51 Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem starts
- Jerusalem is the city where Jesus died, was resurrected and ascended to heaven
- Jerusalem is the end of Jesus’ mission on earth
- Jerusalem is the starting point for the disciples’ mission to the world (Acts 1:8 )
I’m just back home after a round trip of about 500 miles to attend a meeting on Evangelism Explosion. One person opened the meeting with Scripture reading from 2 Corinthians 2:14-15: But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.
He then shared with us the “normal” explanation of this part that God has made us (as Christians) part of His triumphal procession so that we can share in His glory. In other words, being part of this procession also makes us triumphant – the Christians are the triumphant soldiers.
I said that this is the “normal” explanation for this passage. It was, once again, David Bosch who opened my eyes to the true meaning of this passage. (I’m not sure how many people are aware that Bosch, although being one of the greatest missiologists of the previous century, was in fact a New Testament scholar and that he did his PhD on the New Testament!) This passage is NOT saying that Christians are part of the triumphant army. God is the triumphant soldier and we as Christians are those people who had been taken captive by God. In his book, A Spirituality of the Road, Bosch says that the metaphor which Paul uses most probably refers to the march of triumph of the Roman general who parades his captives and booty in the busy streets of Rome. The same metaphor is used in Colossians 2:15. Under normal circumstances the prisoners were a sorry sight, according to Colossians stripped of their clothing and bound in chains. Paul, however, is rejoicing in the fact that he had been captured by God. Although he realises that he may be martyred because of his faith in Christ, there is no better place for him to be, than to be captured by God.
For centuries, the church had a mentality of triumphalism. The military terms that were used (and still are being used) to describe the triumph of Christianity include words like soldier, forces, advance, army, crusade, campaign and many more. Up to this day we still speak of an evangelism crusade or a campaign in the context of “us” overpowering “them”. We are the triumphant ones.
Paul’s attitude is totally different. We are those who had been humiliated by God. Being part of Christ means sacrificing your own will. This is humiliating! I have to bow down before God and I have to bow down before people (even washing their feet!) because of my choice to follow Christ. This is in total contrast with the “normal” way of understanding 2 Corinthians 2:14-15. But then, if I had to choose again, I wouldn’t choose anything else than to be a prisoner in God’s triumphal procession. Ironically, there is no safer place to be than within this procession – a prisoner of God!