Missions is your ecclesiology armed with a passport.
The American evangelical culture has demonstrated a remarkable confusion about the nature of the church. This in-turn has led to an equally critical confusion about the nature of missions.
While a Western missionary might need to leave his PowerPoint presentation and carpeted, air conditioned auditorium behind when he hikes over the mountain to a remote village, the important things that make a church—the biblical things—transfer directly and immediately into any culture.
In the past, the majority of theologically conservative missionaries were sent out to do church planting, leadership training, and Bible translation. No longer. Today a growing percentage of new missionaries are being sent to focus on social relief, with the church and the gospel tacked on as something of theological addendum. In fact, in my twenty years as a missionary in Africa, I’ve seen a major shift in evangelical missions away from what I call “book of Acts missions” toward social reform projects or social action missions.
It’s no surprise. The influential voices dominating the evangelical conversation about the church and about missions today are promoting a new kind of mission: shalom, social justice, or the gospel of good deeds and human flourishing. And it appears that the new generation of evangelicals—the Young, Restless, and Reformed—has bought in, enthusiastically embracing social upliftment as their central missions strategy. Most of the resulting evangelical missionaries value the church and the gospel, but in many cases, they seem to view the church primarily as a platform from which to run their favourite relief project. As a missionary who has served the Lord on the pointy end of the spear for two decades, I have a significant concern about these changes.
The New Testament apostles were the Christ-appointed and Christ-trained interpreters of Jesus’ Great Commission, yet it appears to me that how the apostles defined and enacted Jesus’ commission to reach the world is often being ignored by evangelicals in their rush toward social action missions.
I believe that the book of Acts should rigorously shape our approach to missions. While no one would say that Acts is absolutely prescriptive in regard to missions, it is certainly must be considered to be more than merely descriptive. In short, the apostles’ interpretation of Jesus’ Great Commission is a timeless, definitive, and authoritative interpretation (Eph 2:20). What they did as the Christ-instructed interpreters of the Great Commission lays down for us the lane markers for the church’s missions efforts in any era. And, as evangelical churches shift from proclamation-oriented missions to social-action missions, I wonder if we aren’t running diagonally across the track rather than straight down our lane.
The current tug-of-war between proclamation-oriented missions and social-action missions is not new. However, in recent years key voices in evangelicalism have enthusiastically promoted social action missions, including prominent evangelicals such as John Stott and Tim Keller. In fact, John Stott has for decades urged the church to make social action and evangelism equal, fifty-fifty partners in the fulfilling of the Great Commission. Years ago, Stott wrote, “They are like the two blades of a pair of scissors or the two wings of a bird. This partnership is clearly seen in the public ministry of Jesus who not only preached the gospel but fed the hungry and healed the sick.”[i] More recently, Tim Keller has played a key role in promoting social action. Peter Naylor sums up Keller’s view this way: “Keller’s main thesis is that the church has a twofold mission in this world: (1) to preach the gospel and (2) to do justice, which involves social and cultural transformation and renewal.”[ii]
It’s a dicey line that Stott and Keller have drawn for the church to walk. In essence, they are saying, “We’re going to keep the gospel the main thing and focus the church on social reform; in fact, in a sense, social action is the gospel too.” In theory, it’s a noble blend of word and deed. Naturally, however, the further one pushes into the realm of social action, the closer one gets to the place where social involvement ceases to be distinctly Christian, and at some point, social involvement even starts to supplant that which is distinctly Christian.
In the 1990s, Stott acknowledged the danger of his dual emphasis: “The main fear of my critics seems to be that missionaries will be sidetracked.”[iii] In fact, I believe that fear is a perfectly valid one, and has been repeatedly proven to be so. Today, many churches and missions committees barely seem aware of the distinction between missionaries who focus on social action and missionaries who focus on Bible translation, theological training, church planting, and gospel proclamation. Tomorrow I’ll post on some of my concerns about social action missions.
[i]“Evangelism and Social Responsibility: An Evangelical Commitment,” Grand Rapids Report No. 21, Consultation on the Relationships between Evangelism and Social responsibility (CRESR) (Wheaton, IL: Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization and the World Evangelical Fellowship, 1982).
[ii] Peter Naylor, in Engaging With Keller:, 137. Peter Naylor, “The Church’s Mission: Sent to ‘Do Justice’ in the World?” in Engaging With Keller: Thinking Through the Theology of an Influential Evangelical, eds. Iain D. Campbell and William M. Schweitzer, (Darlington, England: EP Books, 2013), 137.
[iii] John Stott, The Contemporary Christian: Applying God’s Word to Today’s World (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1992), 342.