Mission Issues

Thinking and re-thinking missionary issues

How important is unity in the church?

I haven’t had much time for blogging the past week or so. I’ve been conducting a series of church services every evening. I focused on the Gospel of John and learnt some really remarkable stuff as I did thorough exegesis of the parts I wanted to preach about.
Tomorrow morning I will be wrapping up the series by looking at John 17. One of the things that I’ve realized since I started preparing for these sermons, is that John gives the impression that it is fairly easy to understand and then, the deeper you delve, the more difficult it becomes until you eventually discover the actual meaning of what John was trying to say to his readers.
John 17 is no exception. On the surface it is a prayer of Jesus for His disciples. I’ve done a lot of research on John 17 in the past within the context of church unity. With eleven language and almost as many race groups in South Africa, the church in South Africa is seriously suffering from the effects of disunity. Even within language and race groups, there are denominational groups which are very close to each other but which still consider those not part of their church as the opposition.
I once read the following story which illustrates in a humorous way what is happening between Christians:

I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. I immediately ran over and said “Stop! Don’t do it!”
“Why shouldn’t I?” he said.
I said, “Well, there’s so much to live for!”
“Like what?”
“Well…are you religious or atheist?”
“Religious.”
“Me too! Are you Christian or Jewish?”
“Christian.”
“Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
“Protestant.”
“Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?”
“Baptist.”
“Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?”
“Baptist Church of God.”
“Me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?”
“Reformed Baptist Church of God.”
“Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?”
“Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915!”
To which I said, “Die, heretic scum!” and pushed him off.

In 1981 my wife and I had the chance to visit Zimbabwe. This was just after many years of civil war in the country. As we sat down to speak to church members about their experiences during the years of war, we struggled to understand how it feels to leave your house or farm in the morning, knowing that you are being watched through the scopes of a missile launcher which could be triggered at any moment if the soldier carrying the launcher feels like it. People were killed at random and everybody were living in fear every single day of their lives.
In those days many pastors left Zimbabwe and new pastors were not granted work permits for Zimbabwe. Under those circumstances the “right” church was not the one with which you agreed doctrinally, but the one which had a pastor. And I can still remember that I asked myself where things will need to lead to in South Africa (but not only South Africa) before a desire will grow amongst Christians to really accept one another in love and to demonstrate their unity. If this is what it cost to get the churches in Zimbabwe to work together, what will it cost us?
I am blessed that, in the town where I live, pastors from across virtually the entire spectrum of doctrines, have expressed the desire to come closer to each other. Pastors from different races and language groups and from different denominations (Charismatic, Pentecostal, Reformed, Methodist, Lutheran and a number of others) meet each other for breakfast once a month. During these gatherings, doctrinal issues are put aside in favor of reaching out to each other in love. In fact, over the years (and it literally took years to build this trust between the churches) we have developed the ability to make jokes about our own or even the other churches and to laugh at the way in which we used to protect our domain in the past. We still have a long way to go. But I’m truly thankful that I can experience something of what Jesus prayed for in John 17.
Tomorrow, as part of the Global Day of Prayer, most of these churches will be gathering to unite in prayer. Perhaps we need to pray the words of John 17 more regularly in our churches: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

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Saturday, May 30, 2009 Posted by | Africa, Building relations, Church, Comfort Zone, Humour, Mission, Racism, Theology, Unity | 1 Comment

Preaching through words or through our lifestyle?

Almost two years ago I blogged about: Representing Christ in the world. This was mostly a critique on the supposed saying of Franciscus of Assisi who would have said: “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” In that post I raised some concerns I have with this approach, saying that the Bible never speaks of a tension existing between preaching and living the gospel.
Recently Mark Galli also wrote about this in Christianity Today in an article, Speak the Gospel. He writes in the article: “Much of the rhetorical power of the quotation comes from the assumption that Francis not only said it but lived it. The problem is that he did not say it. Nor did he live it. And those two contra-facts tell us something about the spirit of our age.”
In other words, for years people have not only been quoting these words, but actually have built a theology around what he would have said and done, only to find that the words did not originate from him. Mark Galli, who also wrote a biography on Franciscus, writes: “First, no biography written within the first 200 years of his death contains the saying. It’s not likely that a pithy quote like this would have been missed by his earliest disciples. Second, in his day, Francis was known as much for his preaching as for his lifestyle.”
I share the concern that people have with Christians who preach the gospel and then live a life that contradicts what they are saying. This cannot be justified in any way. But the Bible is full of preaching. The message of salvation cannot really be shared in any other manner than through our words.
I guess the reason why this saying has become so popular, is because this is a great way for people to justify it if they do not want to follow Jesus Christ. “I don’t believe in Jesus, because there’s this guy in our town who says he’s a Christian, but I know that he cheats on his wife.” Good excuse. But not a valid excuse. Through this way of reasoning, I’m no longer responsible for what goes on in my relationship with God. It is someone else’s responsibility. And this is not Biblical.
I never agreed with Franciscus. I was relieved to find that he had not actually spoken those words.
We need to be concerned with the way in which we live our lives. Our testimony as Christian can be seriously harmed by living contrary to what we are preaching. We can even be responsible that someone may reject Jesus because of the way in which we live. But I cannot, I may not, stop speaking about God, hoping that people will see in my life that I love God. Our words and our lifestyles complement each other. Both are important.

Monday, May 25, 2009 Posted by | Evangelism, Mission, Theology | Leave a comment

If you should die today…

I’ve been involved with Evangelism Explosion (EE III) since 1993 as a training method to express one’s faith in words and also to assist someone else to come to faith in Christ themselves. Over the past few years there has been increasing criticism against EE III, especially against the two questions used during the conversation:

  • 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?

One reason for the severe criticism is because it is said that these questions focus only on heaven. What about our lives on earth? Taken out of context, this may indeed be true. However, within the context of the full conversation it is clear that a new life in Christ is not only possible but is essential while we are still alive. Furthermore, the purpose of this question is mostly to bring someone to the point of seriously thinking about faith issues.
However, it was especially the first question that has been on my mind over the past 24 hours. My wife is a teacher at a high school and also helps to coach the chess team. Another (male) teacher, in his forties, helps her with the chess team. Last night they were preparing the team for a tournament this coming Friday. After they packed up, my wife came home and he went to play action cricket. There he started feeling ill, rested for a while and then decided to return home. On the way back home he had a heart attack while he was driving and died behind the wheel of his car, leaving behind a lovely wife and three great children.
And I thought to myself how many times in my life I had asked a person whether, if he should die that night, he would go to heaven. But I don’t think I’ve ever seriously thought that this would happen. Last night’s episode made me realise once again how vulnerable we are.
I’m busy preparing a series of sermons on the Gospel of John which I will be sharing from this coming Thursday up to 31 May. I’m starting on Thursday (Ascension Day) with John 14, in which verse 6 is the central verse: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.” In my sermon I want to explain a few things, one being that the Way is not something physical (a physical road) but that the Way is a Person – Jesus Christ. To be on the way therefore implicates that I have to be united with Jesus Christ and within the context of John, this happens through faith in Jesus, who is Lord and God (John 20:28). Furthermore, our aim, first of all, is to be on the Way, to live daily in close unity with Christ. Our main aim is not to reach the destination. But there is another aspect which we cannot deny, and this is that Jesus says that He has gone to prepare a place so that we can be where He is (John 14:3).
To be united with Christ leads to our ultimate destination: to be where He is, with the Father. And if I’m not sure of my destination, how can I be certain that I’m on the right w(W)ay? Or to change the order: If I know that I’m on the right Way, how can I be uncertain of my destination?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009 Posted by | Death, Evangelism, Evangelism Explosion, Mission, Theology | 19 Comments

A response to Scot McKnight

This post started off as a comment on another blog, but became so long that I decided to post it on my own blog instead.
Scot McKnight is in South Africa at the moment and my son had been attending some of his sessions. You can read more about this on his blog at McKnight on conversion theory and deconversion as well as Acts 15-20 for South Africa today. Tom Smith has also been blogging about these sessions and wrote two excellent summaries of what had been said at Scot McKnight – part 1 and Scot McKnight – part 2. I want to urge you to read these posts.
I absolutely agree with what many of the modern church leaders such as Scot McKnight, Brian McLaren, Ron Martoia and David Watson, to name just a few, are saying. What I hear is that they are telling Christians to treat much more seriously the whole story of the Bible. The story of salvation encompasses much more than only the story of the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. And I also hear them telling Christians to stop treating the gospel as a quick-fix for all problems. “Listen to me, pray with me and be blessed!”
What they do miss, in my humble opinion, is that each one we meet up with, is at a different place in their spiritual lives. (Actually, I think they are saying this, but I don’t think they take enough into consideration that a great number of people have been church attenders all their lives but have just not yet come into a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ.) If I go on a mission trip somewhere in the Amazon where people have never heard of the Bible or anything related to it, then my approach would be vastly different than when speaking with someone who had been a member of a Christian church from birth but who has never acknowledged Jesus as Messiah and Lord of all. In the latter case (although there would be exceptions) I would see no need to start with the story of Adam, Abraham, David, the exile, etc, as they would probably know it already. On the other hand, should I want to speak to someone from the Jewish religion (as we find in the first part of Acts) then this would obviously be a good place to start. And should I speak to a Muslim, starting with the story of the Old Testament also makes good sense. The same applies to someone who has no knowledge of what Christianity is all about.
My concern is that people are merely rejecting one method (and I am not a Four Spiritual Laws devotee) for another method – a much more elaborate method – which becomes so complicated, that the “normal Christian” (i.e. the non-theologian) will feel totally inadequate to master or share this story. I said the same thing in my review on Ron Martoia’s book, Static, which you can read here. I fear that our modern evangelism methods will eventually lead to people believing that evangelism is best left to the professionals, lest they make a mistake.
I think that it is extremely important that we re-think our evangelism methods, mainly to do away with the quick methods of rushing in and out of people’s lives. But if I look at the rate at which Christianity is expanding in countries like India and China, where Christians stand a good chance of paying with their lives because of this faith, then I’m not convinced that we need to reject everything that was done in the past as wrong.
Although I’m not a devotee of the Four Spiritual Laws, I think it also needs to be said that this booklet was intended to be used in conjunction with the Jesus Film (the word-by-word dramatization of the Gospel according to Luke). Where a group of people had been exposed to this movie, usually over a period of four days over which time certain parts of the movie are repeated, I can well think that sitting down with these people after the last session and explaining the essence of the gospel once again, with the use of something like the Four Spiritual Laws, may be extremely effective. In fact, there are thousands, if not millions of Christians who have indeed accepted Jesus as Messiah and Lord of their lives through this method.
We need to keep on thinking critically about evangelism. In certain countries we will need more professional evangelists. But if my next-door neighbour and his wife come to me (as has happened to me) and with tears in their eyes tell me that their lives are a mess and that they know that they need Jesus right now, then I don’t think that I need to start telling them the entire story of the Old Testament. Then I tell them “that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds” (Acts 26:20), or something to that effect.

Saturday, May 16, 2009 Posted by | Book Review, Building relations, Church, Cross-cultural experiences, Evangelism, Mission, Theology | 2 Comments

Are church leaders leading their members towards mission involvement?

Rick Meigs posted a blog almost three months ago, titled: Are We Delusional? I pinned the post, meaning to respond to it at some stage. The point he’s trying to make in the post is that many church leaders will theorize about mission and about the importance of mission, but will never set the example to their church members on what it means to get involved in mission. No wonder that church members do not get involved in mission: they’re only following the example set for them by their leaders.
Something which I’ve heard quite a lot over the past few weeks and also during the past WENSA mission conference I attended, is the words: “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” When it comes to mission, I’ve seen too many church leaders not willing to lead in this regard, nor are they willing to follow, nor are they willing to get out of the way that others can do what they believe God wants them to do.
Last year, when we were awarded the runner-up position for the Courageous Leadership Award for our involvement in HIV and AIDS in Swaziland, one of the other finalists stood up at the awards ceremony at Willow Creek and told how his own congregation had been waiting for him, either to take leadership or to get out of the way so that they could do something. Fortunately, he made the choice to lead, not only his own congregation, but eventually a large part of his city, to get involved in a town in Lesotho. You can read a summary of their amazing story here.
Everybody in church seem to want to be leaders. I saw it once again during this past conference when the large group had to break up into four smaller discussion groups, speaking about youth, women, community involvement and leadership. I would guess that at least two thirds of the attendees went to the discussion on leadership. Obviously we need better leaders in the church. But true leadership (in the church at least) is not something that is taught from the pulpit. It is something which is demonstrated in such a way that church members will want to follow. And where this happens with passion and with honesty, nothing can stop the army of church members signing up to follow their leader in making God’s Kingdom become visible on earth.

Thursday, May 14, 2009 Posted by | Africa, AIDS, Bill Hybels, Church, HIV, HIV & AIDS, Home-based Caring, Leadership, Meetings, Mission, Short-term outreaches, Social issues, Support teams, Swaziland, Theology | Leave a comment

Who will be the new Missionaries?

I’ve just returned home after attending a WENSA (World Evangelisation Network of South Africa) mission conference over the last three days. (I’m still hoping that the name of this network will change so that it says Southern Africa instead of only South Africa. Eight people from our church in Swaziland attended the conference.)
On the first day, Pieter Tarantal (and if you’re not from South Africa, don’t try and pronounce that!) kicked off by speaking about The God of New Things. He shared some amazing statistics with the group. I did not try and verify each number, as I believe what he said is fairly close to the reality. According to him:

  • 114 people are coming to Christ every second
  • 44,000 new churches are established each year
  • In India, 15,000 people are baptised daily

In Africa:

  • There are 20,000 new converts every day
  • In 1900 there were 8 million believers
  • In 1990 there were 275 million believers
  • 396 million in 2000
  • 450 million in 2005
  • Today there are close to 500 million believers

The largest church in the West is found in the Ukraine and the leader of this church comes from Nigeria

I can’t remember where I read it, but apparently the nation with the greatest growth in Christianity at the moment is China.
Listening to these statistics and seeing what is happening to the church in the West (where most churches are becoming smaller at an alarming rate), I asked myself the question where missionaries will be coming from in the future?
And the answer, it seems to me, is that a new wave of missionaries are going to be sent into the world, not from Europe and the USA as in the past, but from Africa, Asia and Latin America.
And as I listened to this, I was wondering if we perhaps are seeing something of 1 Corinthians 1:21 coming true: “For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” Might it be that the West has become so self-sufficient and so sure of themselves, that they have come to the point where many feel that they do not need God anymore? And is this perhaps the reason why the Gospel is spreading at such a rate through those countries that we had traditionally regarded as our missionary objects?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009 Posted by | Africa, Church, Cross-cultural experiences, Evangelism, Indigenous church, Meetings, Mission, Missionary Organisations, Swaziland, Theology | 5 Comments

Missio Dei – The role of the church

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!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009 Posted by | Church, David Bosch, Mission, Theology | 3 Comments