Mission Issues

Thinking and re-thinking missionary issues

Enjoying the ride on the way to our destination

One of my favourite authors is Philip Yancey. He recently wrote an article in Christianity Today with the title: On the Grand Canyon Bus. In this article he says that Christians in general “find it difficult to maintain a commitment to both this world and the next, to this life and the next.” He then uses the analogy (which he borrowed from a friend of his) of a bus en route to the Grand Canyon. Although the people on the bus may be travelling through some of the most glorious parts of America, they often keep the shades down, making it impossible for them to see and appreciate the landscape they’re travelling through, being content only to focus on the final destination. And he then makes the remark: “We should remember that the Bible has far more to say about how to live during the journey than about the ultimate destination.”
I like this! Except that I want to go one step further. Keeping to the analogy of the bus trip, you would also find people appreciating the scenery as they drive along, without in the least anticipating the final destination. And ultimately you would find these two groups arguing whether the bus trip or the final destination is the best. In Christian history we have found this in the tension between evangelicals and ecumenicals, between pre-millennialists and post-millennialists, between those who are mission-minded and those who are more focussed on unity and today you would find it between evangelicals and those who oppose the evangelicals.
But the fact is that both are correct. It’s not the one or the other. We are en route to a glorious destination. Just take the time, once again, to read Revelations 21 & 22 and try to picture the beauty of the destination. But Philip Yancey is also correct when he says that the Bible has more to say about the journey than the final destination.
As I read this, I was wondering whether this analogy could not be applied to evangelism in a post-modern world. When I read books by authors such as Brian McLaren (A New Kind of Christian and The Story we find Ourselves in) and many others, they seem to be inviting people along for the ride, without really focussing so much on the destination. And I believe that there is something to say for this. “We’re busy with a trip through some of the most beautiful parts of the country. Care to join us?” And as the trip continues and the scenery is appreciated, the time will come when the traveller will learn more about the destination.
But then, once again, there isn’t a hard and fast rule about this. Because many people (and I’m probably one of them) will want to know what the final destination is before getting on the bus. That’s how people differ and that’s how personalities differ. Those people need to be approached with the invitation: “We’re on our way to the Grand Canyon. Care to join us?” And as the trip continues the new traveller will have to be taught how to appreciate the scenery through which they are travelling.
It’s not one or the other. It’s one and the other.

Monday, September 29, 2008 Posted by | Church, Eschatology, Evangelism, Millennianism, Mission, Theology | Leave a comment

Mission and Eschatology (5)

Is there a way to explain Revelations 20 in such a way that it fits in with the rest of the Bible while, at the same time giving us acceptable ways of looking at missions which will fit in with what the Bible teaches on the subject? I believe there is. Most theologians does not accept the idea that Christ will return twice. Neither do I. But how should we then understand the thousand years of peace? In line with the rest of Revelations I would say that the thousand years should not be understood as a literal time span of 1000 years but that it should rather be understood in a symbolic way, indicating the power of God. Christ has already conquered Satan (Colossians 2:13-15) and although Satan is not dead yet, he does not have a free hand to do whatever he wants to. When Christ comes again, Satan will however be defeated completely (Revelations 20:10).
In comparison with the thousand years in which Christ reigns, Satan only reigns for three and a half years. If this is also understood symbolically as an indication of the power (or rather the lack of power) of Satan, then it means that Satan is really nothing compared to God (three and a half against one thousand!)
How would this viewpoint influence one’s understanding of missions? Firstly it helps one look at world history in an optimistic way, while at the same time retaining realism. Christ is in control (optimism) but Satan still has some restricted power (realism). Satan has already been defeated (optimism) but he will be totally defeated when Christ comes again (realism).
Secondly, when Satan came into the world he corrupted everything (man, nature, relationships, etc). When Jesus came, He came to save the world (John 3:16) and not only the souls of some people. Therefore, in missions, our aim should be to proclaim the authority of God over the world. And how is this done? By getting involved with the world! People are called by God to bear the fruit of their salvation. Therefore we can expect that the world should also bear the fruit of salvation. This means, according to this viewpoint, that I, as Christian, need to get involved in everything which was corrupted by sin: helping to repair relationships between human beings, between human beings and God as well as between human beings and nature. When I, as Christian, get involved with sickness, this becomes part of my mission. If I, as Christian, get involved in fighting against global warming, then it becomes part of my mission. If I as Christian help to solve the problem of hunger in the world, then this becomes part of my mission. If I proclaim the salvation in Christ over sin and help people come into a living relationship with Him, then that is also part of my mission.
And this is all done with the belief that one day Christ will indeed come again, at which time everything will be made perfect. But until that day comes, I, as Christian, should be busy proclaiming the power of God through my words and through what I am doing.
And this is missions!

Monday, November 19, 2007 Posted by | Eschatology, Hope, Millennianism, Mission, Social issues, Theology | Leave a comment

Mission and Eschatology (4)

The term a-millennialism is a bit difficult to define. (And if you struggle to follow the argument, don’t worry. Just skip this post and go on to the next one!) Some people seem to think that a-millennialists actually reject Revelations 20, but this is not the case. Rather, they interpret Revelations 20 in a non-literal and a non-temporal way. The thousand years of Christ’s reign is regarded as a spiritual, non-earthly and non-political reign. A-millennialists do not expect a time of peace or righteousness to come on earth, but share a fairly pessimistic world view with the pre-millennialists. Together, the pre-millennialists and the a-millennialists form the larger part of modern Fundamentalism and together they stand against the post-millennialists who believe that the kingdom of God will come due to man’s involvement in social issues on earth.
The a-millennialists are usually not very worried about the deterioration of life on earth and they are also not very worried about the so-called signs of the times and they are also not much interested in missions.
While the above may be a description of a-millennialism in a nutshell, this is definitely an oversimplification of the issue. David Bosch, as an example, described himself as an a-millennialist, but nobody would ever be able to say that he did not care about things on earth and that he was not interested in missions! His understanding of a-millennialism meant that, someone who expected peace to come on the new earth, should work towards peace on the present earth. Those who expected that there will be no tears on the new earth, had to work towards making the present earth a better place to live on so that people did not have to cry as much.
While the pre-millennialists tend to focus entirely on the salvation of the soul and the post-millennialists focus on the saving of the present world, a-millennialists typically don’t focus on either one of the two, focussing rather on the new world which is to come one day, looking forward to the day when Christ will come again to put an end to things as they are at present.
When evaluating the three typical viewpoints, specifically regarding their view on missions, it should be clear that not one of the three really give an acceptable answer to our involvement in missions. And therefore I would like to propose another way of reading Revelations 20 which I believe should enable us to focus fully on missions as I believe God intended us to do it. But that will be in a next post.

Thursday, November 15, 2007 Posted by | Alternative Society, David Bosch, Eschatology, Evangelism, Millennianism, Mission, Social issues, Theology | Leave a comment

Mission and Eschatology (3)

Where pre-millennialism holds the view that Christ will come before the thousand years of peace, post-millennialism has the opposite view that Christ will come after the thousand years of peace. In a nutshell they believe that kingdom of God is now being extended in the world through the preaching of the gospel and the saving work of the Holy Spirit, that the world eventually is to be Christianised, and that the return of Christ will occur at the close of a long period of righteousness and peace, commonly called the millennium. Christ’s victory will therefore not be sudden and unexpected (the way the pre-millennialists see it), but will come gradually, almost evolutionary and a time of peace and righteousness on earth will precede the second coming of Christ.
The implication of this viewpoint for the church and missions is fairly obvious. Because they believe that a time of peace and righteousness will precede the coming of Christ, they consider the task of the church to be mainly to work towards this peace and righteousness on earth. Those who feel strongly towards missions, consider missions mostly as work done to improve the world we live in so that the world can ultimately be saved. They are therefore strongly focussed on social upliftment programs, eradication of poverty and similar work. Contrary to the pre-millennialists, the post-millennialists usually have a very optimistic world view.
However, this optimistic world view, which may well be considered as one of the greatest assets of post-millennialism, is probably also its greatest weakness. It does not seem to take the forces of evil seriously enough and at times things happen which seem to eradicate all possibility of optimism. The First World War was one of those times when the post-millennialists seemed to be at a point where their natural optimism couldn’t carry them through. The same happened during and after the Second World War, with the result that they seemed to become disillusioned and had nothing to say through which people could be comforted. According to their understanding, the world should have been evolving into a better place and suddenly they were light-years back from where they previously were.
On the one hand then we have the pre-millennialists with a message of the imminent coming of the Lord and the emphasis on urgent repentance in order to be saved and on the other hand we have the post-millennialists with a message of peace and righteousness which we have to work for in order to make the world a better place before Jesus can come again.
Both these extreme viewpoints create problems if we compare this with the missionary vision of Jesus and the apostles in the Bible. It may therefore become clearer why it is said that one’s eschatological understanding influences to a great extent one’s understanding of missions.
I’m not quite sure how much Bob Roberts knows about the topic, but he clearly distinguishes between the two extremes when he writes on page 38 of his Glocalization: Although I’m not a postmillennialist theologically, I love the fact that Edwards, Whitfield, and many of the earlier preachers believed they had a responsibility to prepare the church, the bride, for Christ’s return. That meant they had an active role in establishing the kingdom here in society. It may have been a flawed theology (or maybe not), but it sure didn’t hurt us here in America.
Today the prevailing theological wind toward society is “us against them.” The assumption is that things are going to get worse and worse and worse until Jesus returns-so what’s the point? Why do anything to help society at all if it’s all going to pot anyhow? What a pessimistic view! That’s totally opposite of what Jesus told his followers
On a next occasion I would like to look at a-millennialism as another eschatological model and see how that would influence one’s view on missions.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007 Posted by | Bob Roberts, Church, Eschatology, Hope, Millennianism, Mission, Social issues, Theology | Leave a comment

Mission and Eschatology (2)

When I started working on my thesis somewhere in the 80s, I was really surprised to find the number of different eschatological models that people followed. Unless if you had done a doctorate in missiology or dogmatics, there is hardly any way in which you would find this interesting, so I’m going to skip all of this and come to the stuff that more people would be interested in and where we also find the greatest differences amongst Christians today, and this is how they understand the so-called millennium or thousand years of peace of which we read in Revelations 20:1-6. Here we could distinguish mainly between three models, namely pre-millennialism, post-millennialism and a-millennialism. Although it is a bit more complex than this, the place where you find yourself within these models will, to a great extent, determine how you see your missionary task. Or at least, that’s what I concluded after writing my thesis.
I’ll have to spread this over a few days, so for today I’ll concentrate on the main points of pre-millennialism. This group can roughly be defined as people who believe in an actual time of one thousand years of peace during which Christ, together with the church, will reign over the world and the nations. He will come before the start of the thousand years, hence pre-millennialism. Pre-millennialists also believe that the second coming is close at hand but that the second coming will be preceded by certain signs such as the evangelisation of all nations, the repentance of Israel, the great tribulation and the coming of the antichrist. Amongst the pre-millennialists there is a difference of opinion whether the world will be evangelised before the thousand years of before the great tribulation. Many evangelicals believe that the second coming of Christ cannot take place before the gospel had not been proclaimed to every single nation – one of those being Oswald Smith, to whom I referred earlier.
Two things stand out when speaking of pre-millennialism:

  • Our life in this age is restricted
  • The task which we have (to evangelise the world) is urgent

Especially the second point is important. One would therefore find that most pre-millennialists see evangelism as something of great urgency, emphasising the saving of people’s souls so that they will be ready when Jesus comes again. Although they are not opposed to social reform, they feel that the present age belongs to Satan and that no true reform can take place before Jesus had come to bind Satan.
Obviously I am fully aware that I am oversimplifying the topic, but in general a great number of traditional evangelicals fall into this category. And the danger in this is clear: If we only focus on the salvation of the soul, what is going to happen to the body? Or as someone once said: Some people are so focussed on heaven that they are of no earthly good!
On a next occasion I would like to describe in a nutshell what post-millennialism is about. But I think that I first want to write about something else tomorrow.

Monday, November 12, 2007 Posted by | Eschatology, Evangelicals, Evangelism, Millennianism, Mission, Social issues, Theology | 2 Comments