Posts Tagged ‘Mission’

The Greater Commission: God’s Revelation and Our Response

Thursday 4 February 2010

When I applied to Wycliffe Bible Translators 7 years ago I was asked to write several doctrinal statements outlining my beliefs about various biblical themes, one of which was God’s mission. I was expected to discuss the basis on which church was involved in mission in the 21st Century.

In answering this question I relied heavily on a single verse from Matthew 28, often known as the “Great Commission”, where Jesus tells his disciples to “Go and make disciples of all nations”. I reasoned that if this was true for the disciples 2,000 years ago,  it must also be true for us today. If Jesus has given us this command, how can we claim to be his followers and not carry it out?

7 years on I would answer the question very differently. It’s not that what I said at the time isn’t true – I still believe that Jesus has commanded his church to make disciples of all nations. If this was the only verse in the Bible where God called his people to tell others about himself, I would still take Jesus’ commandment completely seriously.

My mistake was not in believing something that wasn’t true, but rather in believing something that was true, but ultimately missing out on the whole truth. Rather than just being a command tacked on as a panicked afterthought as Jesus realised he was leaving his disciples, God’s mission – his revelation of himself to all nations – is something that God started with the creation of the world, and has been doing ever since in and through that creation. For thousands of years God has been revealing himself to his people through the law, through prophets, through angels, visions, dreams, a donkey… and ultimately through his son.

Why is it important that we understand the whole truth about God’s mission to the nations? If we have one command from Jesus, surely that’s enough? 7 years ago that was my logic – if Jesus said something, who am I to even think about the matter any further? I should just take him at his word without question.

Our western culture likes to frame concepts abstractly and to reduce things to their logical extreme. If we believe Jesus is God, and God is truth, then Jesus always speaks the truth. If Jesus tells us to make disciples of all nations, why look any further for our mandate?

But actually we see in the Bible that God’s communication is much more holistic than we might at first think. The Bible isn’t a list of commands for us to follow like robots, but rather a collection of diverse writings – history, poetry, law, proverbs, prophecy, letters – which don’t just tell us how to live, but reveal to us the nature of God.

When God does give a command in the Bible it is always in the context of relationship. God reveals part of himself to his people, and then gives them a command which is their appropriate response.

In the verse in Matthew 28 Jesus says “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations…” (Matthew 28:18-20) If we look back to the ten commandments God says “I am the Lord your God, who rescued you from the land of Egypt, the place of your slavery. You must not have any other god but me…” (Deuteronomy 5:6-7) And in the following chapter “Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:4) Repeatedly throughout the giving of the law, the commandments are framed as responses to the revelation of who God is.

My problem 7 years ago was that I understood and was willing to carry out God’s command, but I was generally ignorant of the revelation of God’s character that prompted the command. I knew that Jesus had commanded his church to make disciples of all nations, but I didn’t understand that the command was supposed to be my response to the revelation of the missional heart of God himself that we see throughout scripture. It was in fact an invitation to join in with what God had been doing since the beginning of the world.

What I believed was true, but it wasn’t the truth.

Understanding what God commands, but being ignorant of the revelation of God that prompts the command actually affects the way we carry out that command. If we hear Jesus’ call to make disciples of all nations, but don’t see the missional nature of God’s actions running through the Bible, we’ll be tempted to think that mission is our job – a task God has given us to complete alone. And so we’ll devise whatever strategies we can to accomplish that task as quickly and easily as possible. On the other hand if we understand that mission is at the heart of God’s character, and Jesus’ command is actually an invitation to be part of what God is doing, we’ll depend completely on him, in the knowledge that we are part of something so much bigger. We won’t be tempted to cut corners when we think God isn’t looking, or to achieve our goals in ways that are contrary to how God works.

Our culture values following instructions. As Christians we’re always tempted to reduce the Christian life to following rules, hoping that if we work hard enough at completing the tasks set before us, we’ll finally stand in front of God and hear him say “Well done good and faithful servant”. But I’m not sure that God defines obedience in this way.

The Bible teaches us that God cares deeply that we obey his commands, but that, despite what our reductionist culture teaches us, those commands can never be divorced from his relationship with us. We should obey God’s commands, but unless our obedience is a response to the revelation we see of him, and is a product of our relationship with him, we’re no better than the Pharisees in their hollow adherence to the rules.

Ultimately we need to have a whole-Bible understanding of God’s mission, not so that we can carry out the right commands and follow the right rules, but so that we can know the missional nature of our God, and through our relationship with him, respond by joining with him in sharing his nature with people from all nations.

The Mission of God: Christianity and Post-Modernism

Wednesday 3 February 2010

After meaning to for several months, I’ve finally started my way through Chris Wright’s mammoth book, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. As it’s 500 or so pages long there’s no way I’m going to remember all the good quotes when I get to the end, so I thought I might post a few as I go along, if nothing else to provide myself with a summary of what stood out to me in the book.

The first section is about the Bible and Mission. Wright says that he used to teach a course on the biblical basis of mission, but became increasingly convinced that the western evangelical method of listing out a few proof texts to prove what we’d already decided was true, just didn’t do justice to the missional nature of the whole Bible, including the Old Testament.

But before we can gain a fuller understanding of such a foundational theme we need to become aware of the cultural glasses* through which we view the Bible, and the world in general, and take a step back to see the bigger meta-narrative that runs through scripture. Wright suggests that reading the Bible together with people from all nations can give us a much broader and richer view of God, and shed light on the missional theme running through every page of scripture.

Even when we affirm (as I do) that the historical and salvation-historical context of biblical texts and their authors is of primary and objective importance in discerning their meaning and their significance, the plurality of perspectives from which readers read them is also a vital factor in the hermeneutical richness of the global church. What persons of one culture bring from that culture to their reading of a text may illuminate dimensions or implications of the text itself that persons of another culture may not have seen so clearly. (p39)

And on the previous page:

There is a great irony that the Western Protestant theological academy, which has its roots precisely in a hermeneutical revolution (the reformation), led by people who claimed the right to read scripture independently from the prevailing hegemony of medieval Catholic scholasticism, has been slow to give ear to those of other cultures who choose to read scriptures through their own eyes, though the situation is undoubtedly improving. (p38)

In many ways the acceptance that different cultures will read the same scriptures in different ways reflects the trend of post-modern thinking. But Wright says firstly that Christianity in effect got there a couple of millenia before post-modernism as we know it came into existence, and secondly that the church has something unique to contribute to the post-modern way of thinking:

What we [the church] have to offer, I contend, is a missional hermeneutic of the Bible. The Bible got there before postmodernity was dreamed of – the Bible which glories in diversity and celebrates multiple human cultures, the Bible which builds its most elevated theological claims on utterly particular and sometimes very local events, the Bible which seems everything in relational, not abstract, terms, and the Bible which does the bulk of its work through the medium of stories.

All these features of the Bible – cultural, local, relational, narrative – are welcome to the postmodern mind. Where the missional hermeneutic will part company with radical postmodernity, is in its insistence that through all the variety, locality, particularity and diversity, the Bible is nevertheless actually the story. This is the way it is. (p47)

If I can get my mind around it I’ll try to continue to post some thoughts from the rest of the book as Wright explores how God’s mission to his world is an/the overarching theme of the entire scripture narrative. It might take a few months however…!

*Someone once told me he was going to Kenya for a couple of weeks to give some Bible teaching to Pastors because “they always read the Bible through their own cultural glasses”. While agreeing with his statement, I don’t think he had appreciated the irony that he also had his own cultural glasses through which he read the Bible… it’s just that our glasses are a lot more obvious to those around us than they are to ourselves.

Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Flickering Pixels by Shane Hipps is a fascinating look at communication media and the role these media play in shaping an entire culture. While Western culture emphasises the message and generally disregards the medium, Shane Hipps argues that media affect the way we think, and that until we recognise this fact we will be under their control.

Does that sound too deep? Let me give some examples…

Shane talks about how in oral cultures, where there is no written form of a language, people store information in their minds. When something is learned, it is passed on through the community, generally through telling and retelling stories. The culture therefore tends to be very community-oriented, and people derive their identity from the community.

When literacy is introduced to a culture, people have the luxury of thinking apart from the tribe, without worrying that their thoughts will disappear. The community is no longer needed to perpetuate ideas, and people will tend to become more individualistic.

“In pre-literate societies, a person’s identity is bound to the tribe; the notion of individual has little importance. However, the technology of writing, regardless of content, weakens and even destroys tribal bonds and profoundly amplifies the value of the individual.”

Another fascinating example that Shane gives is that of writing systems. He compares the Chinese pictographic alphabet, with the western phonetic alphabet. The western way of writing is a simple, linear, sequential list of symbols. The symbols in themselves have no meaning, but when put together they are very efficient at bringing meaning. As a result, western culture values abstract concepts, efficiency, and linear sequential thinking.

The Chinese writing system on the other hand involves symbols that actually represent a particular thing. In many ways this is a very inefficient way of writing – requiring a separate symbol for every single word – but the writing system is as Shane says “a visual art form”. Eastern culture similarly has developed to be nonlinear and holistic, valuing these things above efficiency and simplicity.

These media shape our culture, and even our understanding of Christianity. The Roman alphabet’s tendency towards efficiency and simplification has meant that western churches tend to emphasise the simplicity, rather than the mysticism of the Christian message. Our approach to the gospel is to present it as A + B + C = Go to Heaven, when other non-western cultures might take a more holistic and less simplified approach.

Shane goes on to look at other media since the printing press – particularly photographs (allowing for non-textual literate communication) and the telegraph (bringing instant communication over a distance). The telegraph, in many ways the forerunner of the internet, for example changed the culture by providing a mass of information. This mass had to be sorted through, and was assigned subjective value based on how the reader responded to it, paving the way for a move away from modernism, where the printed book with its sequential argument was king, to post-modernism, where a mass of information is weighed up by each person receiving it.

He then addresses social media (and what some might call our post-literate culture), which in many ways are a strange juxtaposition of previous media and their cultures. As a result they bring paradoxical ways of interacting with each other:

  • We are a tribe of individuals. Where pre-literate cultures value community, and literate cultures promote the individual, we long for the community of a tribe, but we define it on a strictly individualistic basis.
  • We feel empathy at a distance. Pre-literate cultures feel great empathy for others in the community, and literate cultures allow people to distance themselves from what is going on around them. As post-literates we paradoxically feel empathy at a distance – we empathise with celebrities and African Aids orphans, but we also feel detached from them and unable to relate to them.
  • We are anonymously intimate. Where pre-literate cultures are in many ways very intimate, and literacy brings the possibility of privacy and anonymity, as post-literates we are anonymously intimate. We share very personal and intimate parts of our lives with a large number of people, giving the illusion of intimacy as we present our façade to the world.

What does all this have to do with faith? Firstly Shane would say that it’s important for us to understand the culture that we live in, so that we are not trapped by it. Our culture likes to think that information is important, and the media of communication are simply serving us in our desire to pass on that information. But we need to be aware of how the media we use are actually influencing our entire view of the world, and of God himself.

But secondly Shane finishes the book by looking at the media God uses to communicate his message, and the fact that his ultimate means of communication with his people was through Jesus – a messenger who was himself the message. As Christians God has also chosen us to be his messengers, but like any medium of communication, we are part of the message itself.

“Why would God choose such a frail, failing, and inconsistent medium to embody his abiding message? Is it possible that God chose a collection of bent and bruised hearts to bear the message of redemption and reconciliation because that is a message in itself? Maybe God chose a medium of weakness to reveal his stunning power to reach through human failure, sin and sadness to grow new life.”

Flickering Pixels

I don’t feel I’ve done the book justice in this post – you’ll just have to read it for yourself. You may also be interested in listening to a sermon I gave in the US a couple of weeks ago about Peter telling Cornelius about Jesus in Acts 10, which was actually influenced by some of the ideas of how God communicates that originated from the final section of this book.

Mission After Christendom

Sunday 7 December 2008

I’ve just finished reading an excellent book – Mission After Christendom by David Smith.

The book discusses how the modern missionary movement of the last 200 years has been very much tied to christendom – Europe and North America – and the modernist worldview, largely influenced by evolutionist philiosophy and the idea that science and reason would drive mankind towards an ever increasing utopia.

Missions were from the western church to the heathen nations, who were seen as backward and in need of the religion and civilisation of the west. As such, they often went hand in hand with colonial power and ideology, sometimes with the justification that “the heathens get saved, and in return we get their natural resources”.

The twentieth century, and all the war and destruction that went with it, saw the end of modernism as people realised that science and reason alone wouldn’t guarantee that civilisation would continually evolve towards higher and higher levels of development.

The main message of the book is that when mission is strongly tied to christendom and modernism (or to any one particular culture), the message it spreads is a poor version of Christianity, severely limited by the cultural lens through which it is portrayed. In reality, by God’s grace, over the past 100 years we have seen the growth of indigenous churches, expressing the gospel in their own cultural contexts across South America, Africa and Asia. This growth is not only a blessing to the church in these places, but in fact should be a blessing to the church of the traditional Christian heartlands as it sees the gospel worked out in completely different cultures.

For the Qom [of Argentina], as for the Saxons in ninth-century Europe, a mass movement toward Christianity resulted not in the abandonment of traditional culture, but in its revitalisation. A dispirited people, threatened with the destruction of their known world by the encroachment of a highly sophisticated technological culture, found in Jesus Christ the true redeemer who gave them as Qom, renewed hope, strength and life. Thus, the indigenous church which emerged from a movement of spiritual awakening in the middle of the twentieth century, the Iglesia Evangelica Unida, reflects a dynamic inculturation of the gospel among a people whose world-view is strikingly different from that of other churches in the Chaco, which simply adopted imported Western patterns of spirituality and worship. The Qom were able to distinguish Christ from the culture of the missionaries with the result that they now believe they have something important to offer to Western Christians from within their own cultural heritage. Thus, Hugo Diaz, an indigenous Christian leader, invites Western believers to assist the church in the Chaco in language which clearly reflects the post-Christendom context for mission with which this book is concerned: “We no longer want you to come and teach us the Bible. We want you to come and read the Bible together with us”.

Smith makes a very interesting comparison with the encounter of Peter with Cornelius in the book of Acts. Up until that point, Peter, along with the other apostles, had assumed that Jesus’ message of salvation was for the Jews, with other nations being granted salvation through becoming culturally Jewish. But after his meeting with Cornelius, and seeing the Holy Spirit given to non-Jews, Peter and the apostles rejoice at the realisation that “God has also given the Gentiles the privilege of repenting of their sins and receiving eternal life.” (Acts 11:18)

In this light the whole of the rest of the New Testament continues the theme that God has united all peoples of all cultures in himself. Mission is no longer about going abroad and persuading other peoples to be like us, but it’s about witnessing to Christ and encouraging others to worship him in their own cultural context.

Almost every page of the book had a quote that I wanted to remember, but I think this one sums up well the challenge to 21st Century missions:

…are we able to imitate Peter’s missiological and pastoral response in such a situation [with Cornelius], trusting the Holy Spirit in such a manner that our urge to proselytise such individuals and movements is overcome, so avoiding the implication that following Jesus as Lord means becoming like us? Questions like these are critical on the frontier of pluralisation because devout adherents of other faiths are unlikely ever to get close to the Jesus of the Gospels as long as the lifestyle of evangelists, or the worship of churches shaped by Western individualism and modernisation, makes him appear to be the destroyer of all that is treasured within their traditions. The tragedy of the proselytising approach to mission is that it turns the Gospel into “bad news”, ensures the closing of ranks, and short-circuits the revolutionary impact of the living Christ within these religious traditions. What is more, it ignores the profound insight of John of Patmos that all the peoples on earth may bring their ‘glory and honour’ into the kingdom of God (Rev 21:26).

Which is why I believe that Bible translation into every vernacular language – accomplished as a partnership right across the worldwide church – should be at the forefront of cross-cultural mission in the 21st Century.

Innovation in Mission

Friday 26 September 2008

One of the challenges of 21st Century mission is how to build and maintain godly partnerships with others, on both an individual and a corporate level. Increasingly these partnerships are cross-cultural, with the church in the majority world taking on much more responsibility in world mission.

I’ve just discovered a fascinating new blog on this topic called Innovation in Mission by John and Mindy Hirst, which is based on the book by the same name by John Hirst and Jim Reapsome.

Here’s a taste from a recent post:

Thursday night at the Mission Next Conference, we had a panel of Majority World leaders answering questions. […] One question was, “What does your country bring to a partnership?” Of course, as we talk about parity and mutual benefit, that is a very critical question. If Western countries are bringing funding and resources, what are other countries bringing that they view as equal to the resources.

Some of the answers were:
– Experience of the church
– Passion
– New Questions / Answers about the Bible
– Fun
– We love Jesus, we love others and we want to get the job done
– Able to live with little
– Godly insight and wisdom
– Sheer desire to survive

What caught my attention about these answers is that these are not things you can put in a suitcase. They aren’t things you can physically hand to someone. And they are definitely not things that you can grasp easily via phone and email.

Bottom line, as I have been listening to the issues, the greatest challenge seems to be “face time” with global partners. The value that Majority World people bring is something that has to be experienced in person. We can’t have a conference call and say it’s done. It is deeply personal and any effort to depersonalize it and comoditize it will fail.

Are Western organizations and individuals willing to make the commitment to this type of personal and long-term investment in partners? I think many were asking that question on Thursday night.

I think I might even be tempted to buy the book