The Words of the Pople Family

The Theological Basis for Mission: An Evangelical View

Joy Pople
July 1980

Like a great living tree, Christianity has branched throughout the earth, in some places blooming abundantly, in others sharply pruned. It was Christian missionaries who formed the limbs extending in every direction. The phenomenon of worldwide Christian mission, providentially vital in the preparation period for the second coming of Christ, grew not so much from the established churches as from pietistic movements of the seventeenth century in Europe. Stirred by evangelical theology, individuals and missionary societies felt the call to go to the ends of the world to preach the gospel; in the late eighteenth century, Protestant churches began to take up the challenge and started sending thousands of missionaries throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America. The nineteenth century in turn became the great missions century.

Now in our era, with people in every country having heard the gospel, Christians wonder if missions are still relevant, and ponder what message today's missionaries should bear.

A study of current views of the theory and strategy of mission sheds light on our Church's mission at this time, on our call both to revitalize Christianity and to carry out the providential tasks of the 21-year course. I began studying some of the vast material on Christian missions only recently, and I must apologize for the limited treatment of the subject at hand. Nevertheless, what I have found has challenged me, and will, I hope, stimulate others' thoughts and actions. This initial article of a series on strategies of mission attempts to outline the traditional theological basis for mission, as espoused by conservative, "evangelical" Christians, and the following article will treat the more recent "ecumenical" views of mission. In general, "evangelical" refers to Christians concerned with personal and mass evangelism for the conversion of individuals to Christ, with common stress on the authority of the Bible and the deity of Christ. It is less easy to categorize more liberal- minded Christians. But ecumenical bodies, such as the World Council of Churches, have published considerable creative material on mission.

A recent conference on evangelism in Amsterdam published the following call: "As we have studied evangelism in its ecumenical setting, we have been burdened by a sense of urgency. We have recaptured something of the spirit of the apostolic age, when the believers went everywhere preaching the word. If the gospel really is a matter of life and death, it seems intolerable that any human being now in the world should live out his life without ever having had the chance to hear and receive it ... Now, not tomorrow, is the time to act." Evangelicals begin with the New Testament. After his resurrection, Jesus gathered together his disciples and gave them one final command: "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: leaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world" (Matt. 28:19-20). This commission, the Great Commission as it has become known, motivated the Apostles to go to the Greek and Roman world with the Christian message, and has stirred Christians at intervals since then, to take the gospel to an ever wider radius of the world's peoples, crossing boundaries not only geographic, but racial, cultural, economic and religious. Gerald Anderson wrote of the challenge to sharpen evangelical understanding of mission coming from two modern changes in Christianity: the theological developments seen in a series of international missionary gatherings, and the narrowing of the gulf between churches and mission. In the nineteenth century, missionary societies spearheaded mission work, whereas now the church is more intimately involved in mission.

Anderson urges evangelicals to study theology: "The fundamental task, therefore, of the missionary enterprise today is to clarify the nature and meaning of its being. This must be done in the realm of theological thought, not only to increase effectiveness in presenting the gospel to the world, but also to give Christians a deeper understanding of what their task is in the world."

In an ecumenical dialogue, Jack E Shepherd of the Jaffrey School of Missions in Nyack, New York, outlined four evangelical contributions to the understanding of Christian mission:

1. The redemptive mission of God in the world is affected only through the Church. This does not mean that God is not at work in the world, but it means that the ministry of reconciliation is focused on the Church, which has this mission.

2. The Church has a mission (not is mission, as an ecumenical conference asserted). The Church also has an obligation to service, distinct from that of mission.

3. Evangelism is persuasion; the gospel must be proclaimed as a diagnosis of the world's need and as a solution to that need. Converts are to be brought into the fellowship of the Church.

4. The goal of mission is the consummation of history, in which the kingdoms of the world will become the kingdom of our Lord. "Mission," Shepherd added, "is primarily the concern of a gracious God to redeem sinful man through a personal experience of salvation." Note here the key words recurrent among evangelicals: "redemption," "sin," "personal experience" and "salvation."

Traditionally, evangelical Christians rarely explore deeply the theological basis for mission, but take the great commission of Jesus as their command. Furthermore, heated doctrinal disputes have hindered various evangelical groups from agreeing on theology. However, one attempt at a comprehensive theology of mission was made in 1970 by Harold Lindsell, editor of the popular evangelical magazine, Christianity Today. In his book, An Evangelical Theology of Mission, Lindsell begins with an outline of the Christian gospel message, highlights of which follow.

The gospel begins with the sinful nature of man: man has sinned against God, resulting in a separation from God and a need to be brought back to his former relationship. This sin is not relative, but remains the same in every age and every generation. This is basically rebellion, man putting self at the center of his life instead of God. As a result of sin, man is eternally separated from God and will be condemned to hell at the final judgment.

God's response to sin is the incarnation, the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among men. This second unchanging doctrine of Christianity involves the deity of Jesus Christ and presumes the virgin birth of Christ.

God's solution to sin is redemption through Jesus' death on the cross, the cross expressing divine judgment on sin, as well as God's loving heart. Through the cross, God's righteousness is vindicated. Christ died for all men potentially, thus all men can be saved by believing in him. Through Jesus' death man can be reconciled to God, and God considers sinful men just or righteous when they recognize their sin and have faith in Jesus Christ. This must result in changed lives: the Christian living by faith, hope, love, obedience and self-denial. Ultimately, through the resurrection, God pronounced the victory over death and sin.

This then is a summary of the gospel message Lindsell and many evangelicals would consider the basis for mission. On this foundation, he asserts the inadequacy of non-Christian religions, contending that "Christianity must triumph because it is a supernatural faith rooted and grounded in the absolute as disclosed in the person of the almighty God." All other religions must be judged by how they measure up to this absolute.

Although other religions teach of God and moral values, Lindsell asserts that they lack an adequate explanation of the nature of sin and the character of God (the latter discernible only as God himself disclosed through Jesus Christ, as found in the Bible).

In logical succession, he discusses the church as a divinely created and God-willed organism, stressing, however, the difference between the invisible church (all believers everywhere redeemed by Christ: the body of Christ, the bride of Christ), and the visible church (the concrete embodiment of the divine institution, not all of whose members necessarily belong to the invisible church). The church has a common faith, common worship, and common love, under its head Jesus Christ, but in itself cannot save people.

Limiting the role and expectation of the church, Lindsell says the world as a whole -- much less any one nation -- will never become distinctively Christian (although Christianity may influence them), and ecumenicity must fail, because unity is not worth sacrificing one's convictions. Thus, the function of the church is not to change the social structure of the world but to take the gospel of Christ to all the world, reaching individuals with the gospel and bringing them together into churches. Lindsell criticizes today's churches, however, for having lost the vision of their main objective, concentrating rather on non-essentials.

Furthermore, mission is not merely the responsibility of the church as a whole, but each individual in the church is called to be a witness and a missionary. Motivated by the will of God, he should at least support missionary work, through money and prayers.

Driven by the conviction that preaching the gospel to the ends of the world is a necessary condition for Christ's return (Matt. 24:14), evangelical missionaries have seen mission in an eschatological (last-days) light. A second major motivation for mission, among evangelicals and Catholics as well, was that all men will be condemned to eternal hell if they don't accept the message of Jesus Christ.

It is the modern questioning or reinterpreting of these two doctrines that has in a large measure forced the reconsideration of Christian mission.

In his concluding note on mission theology, Lindsell laments the current disregard of the work of the Holy Spirit. In times of material prosperity and outward success, missions have lost their spiritual basis, and modern ecumenical conferences on missions rarely stress the role of the Holy Spirit. Thus, according to Lind- sell, the fervor of nineteenth century missions has largely disappeared in our era.

The theological views outlined above have been the basis of Protestant mission until recent years. Such a theology can be criticized as being too limited, overly salvation-centered or church-centered. Max Warren, in The Calling of God, writes with a broader view: "God is primarily creator and only in the second place redeemer. It is part of our human self-centeredness which insists on seeing God almost exclusively in terms of redemption. It is salutary for us to remind ourselves that redemption is concerned only with an episode in God's creative activity, an important episode, costly to God, vital to men, but only an episode."

The very narrow view of the Bible and God's work held by many conservative and evangelical missionaries has tended to reproduce in other countries churches modeled on their mother denomination rather than strong indigenous organisms meeting the needs of their people. Another evangelical writer, Douglas Webster, contends that while the mission of the church is constant, the application may vary. "There is only one mission. It is God's mission to the whole world through his son, his Spirit, and his Church. Neither its meaning nor its goal can ever change. It springs from eternal love: it concludes in eternal salvation. But the ways of carrying out this mission are determined very often by a variety of historical situations, by the questions men ask, the needs they feel, the forces that condition them. These are the variables. The Christian mission and the Christian gospel are constants."

A recent development among evangelicals is the "church growth" movement, exemplified in the work of Donald A. McGavran and the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. This trend focuses on church planting as the prime objective of missions. For McGavran, the meaning of mission is "communicating the Good News of Jesus Christ to unbelieving men in order that they might believe and live." He defines his church-centered view of missions as "an enterprise devoted to proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ and to persuading men to become his disciples and dependable members of his church." Through studying successes and failures of missions in third world countries, they have been able to identify the key factors for success in church planting and to inspire considerable church growth in some areas.

The church-centered theology of missions has given rise to some criticism, even among those associated with evangelical Christianity. One, M. Richard Schaull, Professor of Ecumenics at Princeton Theological Seminary, notes three signals of the need for reform in mission:

1. The church-centered means of announcing the gospel to all men is not effective.

2. The present approach does not reach the secular masses and believers in higher religions, but mostly those of the more primitive animistic religions.

3. Bringing large masses of people into the church only makes for an acculturated form of Christianity, without fulfilling the roles of judging and transfiguring, society. What is needed instead is the witness of a small minority community.

Despite many criticisms, in studying the history of Christian missions, one is struck by the great conviction and zeal of evangelical Christians. There have been outstanding results of their missionary efforts in the third world, in the growing numbers of Christian believers and in the transmittal of missionary zeal to new believers. Educational and medical aspects of mission work have made significant contributions to developing countries, especially in Africa and India.

In addition, their emphasis on the Bible as a constant standard has given them a single-minded purpose.

Because of their narrow theology, however, Christian missionaries have sometimes been preoccupied with building up their denomination and thus transplanting in the third world the same denominational divisions that exist in Europe and America (although on the other hand, the ecumenical movement gained much of its impetus from Christian missionaries trying to meet overwhelming needs of the people, who realized that theological differences among Christians are insignificant compared to their common grounds of faith.)

Without a full perspective of church history, some missionaries have failed to distinguish between what is truly Christian and what is western civilization, and as a result graft "Christendom" to a new environment rather than planting and nurturing genuine Christianity.

The traditional method of evangelism meant that the missionaries came to a new country and set up a "compound" where the missionaries and their converts lived in isolation from society around them, supported by money from their home church. Sometimes the mission work became very institutionalized, laden with educational and medical services, and missions lost their mobility and adaptability. As a result, nationalist voices have accused missionaries of Christian "imperialism" and reject Christianity along with the evils they perceive in Western civilization.

However, since this has been a discussion of theological bases for mission, and since theology has motivated the method of mission, let us conclude with some observations of the theological limitations of mission. Evangelical Christians often lack a deeper understanding of God as Creator, not just redeemer. Seeing individual salvation as the goal of the Gospel, they lack an understanding of the work of God in history, and therefore tend to abandon the prophetic role of the church in today's world. Too church- oriented, they tend to lose the vision of the kingdom.

A noted Christian author, D. Elton Trueblood, writes that the church has been guilty of offering to the world cut flowers, rather than a growing plant. Western civilization displays lovely "flowers" which bloomed from roots of faith now dormant. If Christianity directs its attention to helping others copy such Christian blooms as democracy and education, instead of grounding people in God, vital Christianity will give away to sometimes unsuitable -- always perishable -- cut flowers, borrowed blooms without true roots. 

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