Mission: Self Sacrificial Service or Imperialistic Conceit?(Part 2)

This is part 2/2 of an article originally published by ABTS. Read Part 1 here.

Though the critique of the history of “mission” should be heard and heeded, it is not time to withdraw from the arena of global witness to Christ. As a conversation starter rather than a prescription, here are a few suggestions, condensed from a recent article, for a more positive way forward.

First, our witness must depoliticize.

Especially in the United States where evangelicalism’s current association with the far right of the political spectrum is disastrous. Caleb Hutcherson’s article on Christian nationalism strikes the right tone. A politicized expression of the faith pervades mission due to the predominance of US missionaries and media. Muslims see it as a new iteration of a Crusader mindset. Ultimate loyalty belongs only to the Kingdom of God inaugurated by Jesus. As we wait its consummation, we must resist uncritical affiliation with any earthly, political power.

Second, our witness must contextualize.

It is unfortunate that a binary polemic concerning contextualization has arisen in relation to Bible translation (especially the familial phrases “Son of God” and “Father”). Superficial techniques employed by some expatriate mission practitioners have also discredited attempts to practice proper contextualization. Nevertheless, to bring the gospel to a new culture requires an awareness of the cultural trappings which necessarily attach to our gospel witness. Lesslie Newbigin was correct in saying that every expression of the gospel is “culturally conditioned.” With the incarnation as our model, our gospel will exclude some elements of the receiving culture and include others. We must walk with indigenous disciples as they discern, and assist us to understand, the Biblical balance in their culture.

Third, our witness must be integral or holistic.

The priority of proclamation of the evangel and the planting of churches must remain central in our global witness.  Nevertheless, it must also integrate engagement with poverty, displacement, exploitation, discrimination, and myriad other injustices. Robert Woodberry’s research on the impact of “conversionary Protestant mission” demonstrates that a focus on evangelism has historically resulted in significant social amelioration, a fact that is also evident in the history of evangelical spiritual renewals.

Fourth, our witness must re-center the church.

The sowing of gospel seed is intended to give birth to the local church which becomes the expression of Jesus’ kingdom in the new context. The church in the book of Acts was adaptive, meeting in Solomon’s portico (of the temple) and breaking bread from house to house. The professionalization of ministry including some expressions of mission impede the viral spread of the church. Paul’s method was to appoint elders in each city as he moved on to new urban centers. The challenge then is to provide adequate ongoing training for those appointed to ministry while entrusting them with the pastoral care of small, non-traditional, reproducing gatherings of new believers—churches.

Fifth, our witness must be in unity.

Two aspects of this unity come to mind. The first is a global unity of the church. Westerners must join hands in reciprocity with non-Western witness. Implicitly, this requires releasing the reigns of fiscal control and other forms of dominance while ensuring accountability in mutuality. The second aspect is a serious attempt to repair the historical fragmentation of the church. It is a tall order, to be sure, but the reality that there is but one body of Christ must ever be before us. In the words of David Bosch, “the Church’s first missionary responsibility is not to change the world but to change herself” (Witness to the World, 246).

In summary, the critique of “mission” should be heard, and important changes need to be made. However, rather than returning home demoralized, we should learn the lessons and persevere in a humbler obedience to the Great Commission. That obedience must look different in the coming decades as we take stock of past mistakes and engage with an awareness of new global realities.

This post first appeared as “Rethinking Christian Mission Witness in the Middle East” which was posted on the ABTS blog on March 11, 2021.

About Mike Kuhn

Mike is a Christian author and educator who spent most of his adult life in the Middle East and now lives in the U.S. More writings and presentations can be found on his personal website.

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