Mission Issues

Thinking and re-thinking missionary issues

Ed Stetzer & Mike Dodson: Comeback Churches

I’ve just finished reading Ed Stetzer & Mike Dodson’s book: Comeback Churches. The sub-title is: How 300 churches turned around and yours can too. This book reminded me somewhat of Jim Collins’ book: From Good to Great, although the method they used in doing their research is totally different. The two authors made use of questionnaires which was sent to churches. The criteria which was used to determine whether a church is a comeback church are:

  1. The church experienced five years of plateau and/or decline since 1995 (worship attendance grew less than 10% in a five-year period)
  2. That decline or plateau was followed by a significant growth over the past two to five years which included:

2.1 A membership to baptism (conversion) ratio of 35:1 or lower each year and
2.2 At least a 10 percent increase in attendance each year

I am fully aware that one cannot necessarily determine a church’s spiritual status by looking at attendance. Our own church attendance in Swaziland is fairly low, for various reasons, mainly because we are “competing” against traditional churches where cultural traditions tend to take a higher priority than Biblical truths. But this research was done in the USA where increasingly, as in most first world countries, church members tend to leave the church. Comeback churches are those churches that are doing something to win people back into the church (and obviously to Christ), not by harvesting from other churches but by reaching people who are not traditionally church members (any more).
A few encouraging things I read in this book is that comeback churches are not restricted to churches with a certain type of worship, nor are they restricted to a certain type of pastor or pastors of a certain age. God can use any type of pastor and any type of church to reach people and the church can start growing.
The three factors that were dominant in the more than 300 churches that effectively turned around, were:

  • Renewed belief in Jesus Christ and the mission of the church
  • Renewed attitude for servanthood
  • More strategic prayer effort

The two other factors that followed in line were:

  • Setting goals
  • Valuing Relationships and Reconciliation

Going into more detail, the authors said that comeback churches were characterised by:

  • Growing deeply in love with Jesus
  • Growing deeply in love with the community
  • Growing deeply in love with the lost
  • Comeback leaders turned their churches outward
  • Comeback churches led people to care more about their communities than their own preferences

Looking at churches today, the focus seems to fall increasingly on larger buildings, more “wow” things, bigger and better bands, better video material, better sound systems. And although all of these things can play a role in the bigger picture, it does seem to me that we need to return to basics if we want the church to have an influence in the world.

  • Love Jesus
  • Love the community
  • Love the lost

Compare this with the attitude that we often find amongst Christians:

  • Love Jesus
  • Tolerate the community
  • Condemn the lost

This is a book that any church leader can benefit from, if they are serious in leading their churches to become the type of church that God intended it to be.

Monday, June 22, 2009 Posted by | Book Review, Building relations, Church, Culture, Evangelism, Jim Collins, Leadership, Mission, Swaziland, Vision, Worship | Leave a comment

So what are Christians for?

This is a topic that I’ve wanted to blog about for some time now and didn’t, mainly because I’ve felt that I had more important things to say, such as the orphan problem in Swaziland.
Last week I was sitting in a Swaziland mission meeting where someone mentioned that Christians seem to be more focused on things which they oppose than things which they support. I wholeheartedly agree. Then, driving back to my home I was listening to a CD on which Bill Hybels and Dave Workman were both engaged in an interview about the “Outward Focused Life.”
The interviewer asked the two gentleman a question: What do the people on the street think of Christians? Dave Workman (if I remember correctly) responded by telling how he had asked a number of people that question, one being a waitress at a restaurant not far from their church. She responded that, in her opinion, Christians are cheap, very demanding and they don’t tip well. Bill Hybels answered the question by saying, amongst others, that Christians are better known for the things which they are against than the things they are for.
Last night my wife and I attended a cell group in which the same topic came under discussion, this time with the theme: What does it mean to be an obedient Christian?
As a young Christian, I was probably also more focused on the things which I opposed than the things which I felt strongly about to support. But as I grew older and hopefully became more mature both as a human being and also as a Christian, I realized that I would not be influencing many people through the things I oppose. But if I am willing to stand up for a certain issue, I might just be able to get a few others to stand up with me and together we can make a difference.
As I read blogs and other Christian material, I think that Bill Hybels is correct in his analysis. Christians are against evolutionism, against creationism, against liberalism, against fundamentalism and a whole bunch of other -isms (including Calvinism!) But what are we for?
If someone should step up to us and ask: “What do you believe?”, would we be able to give a clear answer (not necessarily a final answer), or have we possibly become so focused on the things that we are against that we no longer know what it is that we stand for?
I know a number of people who will be able to tell me in no uncertain terms what things they oppose. When asked what they believe, they will be able to give me a well-formulated textbook answer. But the question should rather be what people feel so strongly about that they will stand up for it and, by doing so, make a difference in the world.

Monday, June 15, 2009 Posted by | Alternative Society, Bill Hybels, Church, Meetings, Mission, Swaziland, Theology | 12 Comments

And what if revival comes?

A number of years ago, one of our dear friends, living in the same town where we stay, made a remark which more or less said the following: “I’m praying that God will bring revival to this town and that at least 2000 people will come to repentance.” To which I replied (to her shock): “I’m going to start praying that it will not happen.” After she recovered from the shock of hearing blasphemy from the mouth of a pastor, I explained to her why I said this. At that time we were just not ready to receive 2000 new believers into any (or all) of the churches in the town. The new believers would be neglected. They would probably starve (spiritually) and eventually many of them will leave the church and return to their old lives.

Even now, when I do evangelism training in churches, I tell the people that they must not even start with an evangelism program, unless if they have everything in place to receive and support the new believers. This is almost like preparing the unborn baby’s room in anticipation for the birth that will take place.

During this past week I realised once again how unprepared most churches are for new believers. And this time it was my own congregation in Swaziland that I had to admit is still not ready for any form of revival. Since we started with our AIDS Home-Based Caring ministry, I believed that people will be affected by the caring attitude coming from the church. Our aim was not to attract new members for our own church, but we did hope that people in the communities where we work will start realising that God actually loves them. From time to time individuals did decide to join our church.

And then, in 2007, I received an invitation from one of Swaziland’s Members of Parliament in an area known as Lavumisa, to start conducting church services in his area. He opened his home to us, invited people to come and things started happening. I myself went there on various Sundays and when Tim Deller was still in Swaziland, he also went there regularly. He mentioned this a few times in his own blog, and I also blogged about it, amongst others in Starting a new church at Lavumisa.

There is, however, one big problem about conducting services at this place, and this is the distance which I have to travel to get there. It is almost 160 km (100 miles) from my home, meaning that, to go there, implies a round trip of more than 300 km. But then I also have other places which I need to visit on Sundays and furthermore I’m also invited at times to preach in other churches. From the start I realised that it would not be possible for me personally to take responsibility for this area. After the people indicated that they wanted our church to continue working in the area, I took the matter to the church council and asked them to discuss ways of helping these people. I sensed a reluctance amongst some of the church council members, but they eventually agreed that they would arrange that people in the vicinity of Lavumisa would help with church services. Unfortunately, it seems as if they did send people there a few times and then stopped going.

Last month we trained a group of caregivers in an area known as Qomintaba, which is about 20 km (12 miles) from one of our existing churches at Matsanjeni. I was totally unprepared for what happened next. On Wednesday I heard that the headman of the area had come to repentance. We didn’t speak to him about Christ. But he was so touched by what he saw the church doing, that he decided that he wanted to accept this Christ we are preaching and now he, and a large number of the caregivers, want to join our church. I know that most people will say “Halleluiah” when they hear this, but this is becoming a logistical nightmare. Once again, we don’t have people in that area that can take responsibility to do the work. But then the church members at Matsanjeni made their own plan. They would drive down to Qomintaba on a Sunday morning, help them with a church service at 9, then drive back to Matsanjeni to have another service at 11.

And then, on Wednesday, I had a long discussion with one of our church elders, and found that he was actually irritated by this. His first remark was that I’m putting him under stress because he feels that it is his responsibility to care for these people. In fact, he told me that we should just forget about them. (Wow! I can now understand how Peter felt when he returned to Jerusalem after Cornelius had accepted Christ in Acts 10.) I could understand his point of view. But I also realised that he was still not ready for God to do big things in the church. He was still feeling that everything is his responsibility. Eventually I (hopefully) convinced him that not I nor anyone else was expecting him to conduct services at Qomintaba on a regular basis. I would love to visit them in the near future. I would love him to visit them as well. But we need to respect the church at Matsanjeni who have taken this responsibility upon their own shoulders, encourage them, supply them with the basic needs and then allow them to do this work. This, I think, is probably fairly close to the New Testament model of the church.

But I couldn’t help wondering what would happen in most churches, my own included, if a real revival starts taking place.

Friday, June 12, 2009 Posted by | Africa, Church, Disappointments, Evangelism, HIV & AIDS, Home-based Caring, Leadership, Meetings, Mission, Social issues, Support teams, Sustainability, Swaziland, Theology, Worship | 1 Comment

Speaking out against injustice

Our second son is a student in computer engineering. He came to visit during the past weekend. He also serves on the church council (and a few other committees) at the church where he worships. He shared something with me which made me angry and at the same time immensely proud of him.
The congregation where he worships has a great number of students attending and is considered to be something of a model church. A short while ago an orphanage, consisting of a number of smaller buildings, had a fire and one of the buildings which houses about twelve children was destroyed, fortunately without loss of life, as it seems that the house was not being used at the time. However, all the mattresses were lost.
The orphanage then approached the church and asked if they could assist them in getting new mattresses (or sponges, as we know them.) Now, we’re speaking probably of around R2000 ($250) for new sponges – not even an issue for a church of their size. Yet, as my son told me, the discussion went on for a long time and eventually it was approved that the church would donate their old sponges to the orphanage. At this point my son stood up and asked them if they could really do this with a clear conscience. The fact is, the church’s sponges were not being used, not because it wasn’t needed, but because they were so old and totally ruined, that nobody WANTS to use them anymore. And this scrap was going to be donated to an orphanage while they have more than enough money to give them twelve new mattresses.
I still don’t think that the church will buy new sponges. But I was so proud of my son standing up and speaking out against a decision that is totally wrong and unchristian (this before people twice his age or even older.)
To speak out against any form of injustice is not easy. Most of us (and I myself have done it more often than I want to admit) prefer to keep quiet when we have the choice to stand up against a group of people choosing for injustice. And then sometimes someone will stand up and become the conscience of the group to indicate to them that their decision cannot be justified in the eyes of God. These people will seldom be popular amongst humans. But then, God never called us to be popular. He called us to be witnesses of His love and his care and to speak on behalf of those who cannot speak.

Monday, June 8, 2009 Posted by | Church, Leadership, Social issues, Theology | 6 Comments

Once again: Short-term mission outreaches!

Once again! And while this blog is up and running, this topic will appear again and again. If you care to see my previous posts about the same topic, click on this link: https://missionissues.wordpress.com/?s=short-term
I’ve just said goodbye to a great team of students from the Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida, USA. As I’m writing this, they’re on their way to Miami to be reunited with their families. When I work with a team like this, I always have to ask myself the question whether it is worthwhile. There’s a lot of preparation that goes into an outreach like this. The people making the trip are investing huge amounts of money and when they leave, they want to know that they have made a difference.
Two things sparked this topic today. In July I’m expecting another team from the USA and we are working hard (meaning myself and those who will be coming) on making this a meaningful visit to Swaziland. Wendi Hammond, the one with whom I’m communicating about this trip posted something about her view on short-term outreaches which you can read here. But then I also read an article in Christianity Today about the same topic, which is really worth reading. The title is Global is the New Local.
There’s a number of arguments against short-term outreaches. Wendi touched on one of them in her blog, which is: Why go to a far-off country if there is so much need right where you are? And this is indeed a very valid argument. A few things can be said about this. It’s never one or the other. Michelle Guzman wrote in a comment on Wendi’s post why she feels that she is called to come to Swaziland. Absolutely worth reading! Do what God wants you to do, whether it’s close or far. The downside of this argument (and the most people using this argument, in my experience, fall into this category) is that people are actually saying: If you get involved in another place, you make me feel guilty. Somebody has to take care of the local needs and if you’re not here to do it, then who will? So rather remain behind, take care of the local needs and I can go on with my life. Or something to that effect. If someone goes on a mission trip to avoid getting involved locally, then that is wrong. But the reality is that many people return from a mission trip abroad and get more involved in the local community, because often people undergo a heart change while on a mission trip.
The other argument is that the money could rather have been sent to the country where the outreach would have taken place. This sounds logical. Unfortunately it won’t happen. We need to see and feel and smell and taste the needs of people, before we will really get involved with this. And, in any case, for too long have we seen people writing out cheques while relaxing in front of their TVs, believing that they have then fulfilled their mission obligation. Obviously not everybody can go on a short-term outreach. But those who do, need to go back to their own communities and become advocates for the cause to which they were exposed, wherever that may be.
I have seen the positive effects of short-term outreaches. To be honest, I’ve also seen the negative effects (fortunately, not recently). When done in the right way, with the right attitude, with a teachable spirit, focused on building relationships rather than just solving problems, short-term outreaches can possibly become the greatest learning school that any Christian can be exposed to.

Thursday, June 4, 2009 Posted by | Building relations, Church, Cross-cultural experiences, Indigenous church, Mission, Short-term outreaches, Swaziland, Theology | 3 Comments

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.”

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

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