Friday, March 17, 2017

Ten Perspectives on Missiology

Here are ten perspectives that describe the approach to missiology to which I aspire. I wrote this two years ago for a different audience but it was never used. Having just rediscovered it I thought I would post in on the blog in the hope that it might be helpful for others. It was prompted by reading John Frame's approach to theology. I borrowed the first three perspectives from him, as well as I understand him. I hope it doesn't make mission look complicated. Missiology is simply careful thinking about mission. The following is just an attempt to unpack that.

1. Biblical: the normative perspective

It is in the Bible that we read of God’s heart for the world. The text of Scripture must be read and understood for our missiology to be shaped by God himself. “All Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2Tim 3:16-17). We examine the views and opinions of the Lord’s servants even though some do not hold to the infallibility of the Bible. Whether they do or not, their assertions must be checked against the Word “to see if what [is] said is true” (Acts 17:11). So, the biblical perspective keeps us centred.

2. Contextual: the situational perspective

We need to reflect on the context the Lord has put us in. We should seek to be involved in ministry as we reflect on it. That ministry will continually throw up questions to answer, issues to address. This is an important element in missiology; it is not to be merely theoretical. As the biblical perspective keeps us centred, the contextual perspective keeps us grounded in the stuff of real life.

3. Personal: the existential perspective
In considering missions, we are inevitably confronted with the challenge to consider our place, as individuals, in God’s purposes. Not only so but we are also challenged to consider our place as missiologists. We are forced, if we are honest, to reflect on ourselves as interpreters of God’s revelation in Scripture and in creation. Each of us has a unique perspective, which brings with it great potential for creative thinking and acting, because we are made in God’s image to reflect his creativity. But we also have great potential for both misunderstanding, because we are finite creatures with limited powers, and for twisting the truth, because of the continuing effects of sin on our thinking. So, we must consider the personal dimension as we learn and reflect, not just to bring our perspective to the discussion, but also in response to our discoveries as we learn. We do not approach missions from a distance but from within, with our personal histories, gifts, and scars from the battle.

4. Historical: the anterior perspective
We are not the first to do missiology. God’s people have reflected on God’s mission and their place in it for thousands of years. We need to learn from them, seeking not to repeat their mistakes but rather to stand on the shoulders of giants and carry the baton in our day as well as we possibly can (Hebrews 13:7).

5. Communal: the global perspective

The best learning goes on in community. It demands the development of good quality, honest relationships, in which we are partners, not competing with one another but seeking to use our gifts and ministry experience to build up others. Each of us is unique so we can all learn from each other. Missiology, then, is not an individualized discipline but an ecclesial one. Furthermore, the context can become as wide as the globe so we must consciously seek to learn from others who are different from us. Paul prayed for the Ephesians that “you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all God’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:17-19). So, that journey of coming to know God’s love is to be travelled in companionship with all God’s people. We have the tremendous joy of being able to do that in the twenty-first century with brothers and sisters all over the world. There are great obstacles that make that difficult, especially in language. But great gains to be made if we work at it.

6. Theological: the structural perspective
No-one comes to God’s revelation with a blank slate. Each of us has a grid, a framework, through which we see the Word and the world. We filter and select data and arrange it in our minds to make sense of it. In this way, then, we are all theologians even before we open the Scriptures. The question is, however, whether our theological framework is adequate for the task? In what ways does our theology need changing? As we reflect on the Scriptures and God’s wider revelation in the world about us we will be seeking to allow them to challenge preconceived ideas. Our framework will need to be revised as we go along, as we ‘think God’s thoughts after him’.

7. Eschatological: the future perspective
Paul tells the Corinthians that the events of Israel’s wilderness experience happened as examples and were written down for the benefit of the church. We are those, Paul says, “on whom the culmination of the ages has come” (1Cor 10:11). We are still living in that age today. As we draw near to the Lord and seek to understand our place in his purposes we can do so with this profound appreciation that we are doing something truly eschatological, that is that we are involved in God’s grand plan for his people, a plan that culminates in the completion of our salvation.

8. Critical: the analytical perspective
As we read the opinions of God’s people we need to do so with a realistic appreciation of human fallibility. So, we approach such writings with a view to weighing what is said. “Test all things,” said Paul (1Thess 5:21). We need to be fair in our presentation of the views of others, seeking to state their position as well as if they had presented it themselves. And then we need to argue our case cogently and clearly with a view to persuade our readers of our position. In this way, we can be like iron sharpening iron. We must not stoop to caricature or arguments ad hominem (that is against the person rather than their view) but handle ourselves with integrity.

9. Covenantal: the operational perspective
Missiology is not to be studied purely as an academic exercise. We cannot truly say we have understood the message of Scripture until we put it into action. We cannot say we truly appreciate God’s mission and our part in it until we are acting on that understanding. In this way, we acknowledge that God has brought us into covenant with him. He demands covenant faithfulness: action on our knowledge, obedience to his call on our lives. “Watch your life and doctrine closely,” Paul commands Timothy. “Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1Tim 4:16). So, we should press the application of God’s word on our lives as we learn of his purposes.

10.  Doxological: the ultimate perspective
The ultimate goal of missiology must be worship. John Piper puts it like this: “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because God is ultimate, not man”. Likewise missiology. We reflect on God’s purposes with the grand vision of the Apostle John in front of us, in which he saw “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before God and before the Lamb [crying] out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb’” (Rev 7:9-12).

Friday, February 24, 2017

Reflections on Student Ministry

Over the last month I have had the privilege of being involved in two major student events weeks, the first in Reading University and the second in Leeds University. In both I was a guest of the Christian Union ('CUG') and was a member of a team of workers from different backgrounds and from across the evangelical spectrum. I want to share some of my observations and reflections from those weeks.


What a blessing to be in early morning prayer meetings with scores of students enjoying the realities of the gospel and imploring the Saviour to be good to their friends. Seeing hundreds turn up to events knowing that the centrepiece was a talk about Jesus was a great joy. The good news of Jesus was central. The hard questions - Where is God when it hurts? How can a God of love send people to hell? Can we trust a book of fairy tales? etc. - were answered head on, and competently. Miracles were not seen as an embarrassment. The exclusive claims of Christ were not hedged. I had the joy of about a dozen serious conversations in each week. One or two lasted for two hours. I felt that a number of these were deeply affected by the presentations they attended. Many came back time after time. At each week several students filled out cards expressing that they had prayed with the speaker at the end of the evening. And many requested to be included in the follow up course or to go to a church. I was able to introduce most of those that I had had good conversations with to a CU member so that they were able to develop a friendship and continue their exploration of the faith.


The CUs used many creative ways to attract their fellow-students to the events: the venue in both cases was a large marquee right in the centre of campus (Durham CU's experience last year seems to have been a great boost in this direction); wine and cheese; ceilidh; live acoustic music; sandwiches for lunch; full-blown meals for international students. I never felt these tactics were in any way inappropriate. There was no glorification of performers and no one suggested the CUs were tricking students to attend. One Chinese student asked why we put on such meals. I answered, "As followers of Christ we love to give hospitality and we love to talk about Jesus." At one lunchbar I did notice two students eat their sandwich and head straight out. They were by far the exception. The vast majority stayed right through the event; sometimes the formal part lasted over an hour - no mere epilogue here!


The CUs (with good advice from their UCCF staff workers) have clearly become wise in the way they act towards their peers. There is much to commend about this. But I remain concerned that there is a naivety about engaging with those of other religious traditions. Neither of the CUs I worked with put on a hog roast but my son was involved in the event at St Andrews, where they did. How to alienate all the Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Jain and many Buddhist students. Perhaps there was a vegetarian option but is that enough not to put such people off? I don't know. It would be good to do some research on this; it wouldn't have to be onerous. My hunch is the smell alone would be off-putting for many. But it is not just the food issue. One speaker who shall remain nameless tossed John's Gospel on the floor in the middle of his talk. What is an endearing gesture to one would surely lower the value of the book in the eyes of another. It is not worth it. Speakers also need to be careful not to caricature the beliefs of other traditions. Not all Muslims think alike. Nor do Hindus (Western evangelicals seems to think all Hindus are Advaita monists - in fact hardly any are really). Not all Buddhists are non-theistic.

But it is not just with other traditions that we need to be wise. We live in a culture ourselves as aliens and strangers. But I wonder if our students are conscious enough of that. One morning, I suggested to the CU leader who had selected the ambient music in the tent that Frankie Goes to Hollywood's 'Relax Don't Do It' was inappropriate. He clearly had not thought it important to check out the lyrics. I wasn't listening for the words either, but I do remember that the song was banned on the BBC! Somehow, we need to help our young people to engage with their own culture critically.


Early mornings and late nights (in which sleep was not always easy - intense conversations kept coming back to my consciousness) made for sleep-deprivation. But that is a small price to pay for the reward of involvement in this work. Hats off to those who do two-weeks in a row!

Friday, October 14, 2016

A Vast Overview: Review of Scott Moreau's Contextualization in World Missions: Mapping and Assessing Evangelical Models

Moreau, A. Scott. Contextualization in World Missions: Mapping and Assessing Evangelical Models. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2012.

In this volume, Scott Moreau, my former Professor of Intercultural Studies at Wheaton College and editor of Evangelical Missions Quarterly, has analyzed a vast body of literature on contextualization. Moreau’s purpose in this book is to produce an evangelical supplement to Stephen Bevans’s map that outlines models of contextualization across the theological spectrum (1985; 1992; 2002) (13). To do this he takes a phenomenological approach that is descriptive rather than prescriptive (21) and uses the metaphor of mapping to convey his project to his readers. For the most part the author gives attention to missiologists rather than biblical scholars or theologians.

The book is in two main sections with six appendices that show the various maps of contextual approaches and other material to supplement the text itself, and a 48-page bibliography that is a tremendous resource in itself.

In the first section, Foundations for Evangelical Contextualization, Moreau summarizes how scholars map the entire world of Christian contextualization, and zooms in on the values and rules that constrain their work. Moreau quotes his own definition of contextualization helpfully as
the process whereby Christians adapt the forms, content, and praxis of the Christian faith so as to communicate it to the minds and hearts of people with other cultural backgrounds. The goal is to make the Christian faith as a whole—not only the message but also the means of living out of our faith in the local setting—understandable. (36)

In the second section, Mapping Evangelical Models of Contextualization, Moreau analyses 249 evangelical models of contextualization by focussing in on two criteria: the method used and the role of the initiator in that approach. In this way the 249 disparate examples in Moreau’s survey are arranged in 30 categories. Evangelicals, for the purpose of this work, are those who self-identify as such, rather than those who meet certain confessional standard.

In a concluding chapter Moreau looks at possible Future Trajectories, examining trends and making the following predictions: 
  • that evangelicals, for pragmatic reasons, will be more and more oriented towards dynamic equivalence critical realism rather than correspondence critical realism;
  • that the next generation of evangelical missionaries will assume a holistic approach without really giving alternative approaches a fair look;
  • that the debate over ‘insider movements’ will continue to lead to division but may be sidelined by the “vitality of Global South Christians—for whom many of today’s questions and debates are less relevant than they are to American evangelicals” (318);
  • that attempts to clarify the distinction between contextualization and syncretism will continue with perhaps some evangelicals moving towards a position common in conciliar circles that syncretism is both inevitable and positive;
  • that power struggles over who is right and wrong in debates over contextualization will continue but may benefit from insights from anthropology and sociology on the “more hidden agendas that frequently undergird our debates” (320);
  • that contextual efforts in local settings may generate bite-size theologies expressed in local forms but these will provoke intense scrutiny by outsiders if they seem to contradict what is generally conceived as universal concepts of truth;
  • that Pentecostals will make a significant contribution to contextual discussions; and
  • that the rise of the church of the Global South in mission will continue to become much more significant.

None of these is particularly surprising but all most interesting. A second edition in, say, ten years time would give the author the opportunity to reflect on whether these have been realized.
Scott Moreau has put the evangelical missions world in his debt through this masterful survey of in-house opinion on this most significant and tricky issue. He has corralled a vast quantity of data into manageable categories for us to examine. Although he does venture to take pot shots at various ideas or practices, he has left the evaluation largely to the reader. This is understandable given the enormous field he has undertaken to survey. The breadth of models clearly reflects the latitude with which the label evangelical is used today. I suspect a more robust, confessional definition would reduce the number of models under consideration. 

The book will mostly appeal to those who are wanting to reflect in a sustained way on evangelical approaches to contextualization and will be heavy-going for the average reflective-practitioner. I will be working my way through his bibliography for years to come and returning to this volume when I want to know how a particular actor or method or viewpoint fits into the grand scheme of things. I hope that in future editions the numerous typographical, formatting and other errors that I found will have been ironed out.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Spurgeon's Autobiography: The Early Years

Over the summer I have had the pleasure of reading the first volume of Charles Haddon Spurgeon's Autobiography: The Early Years. What an encouragement that has been! Spurgeon (1834-92) is one of the most remarkable men of whom I have ever read. By the age of 19 he was preaching weekly to a congregation of thousands in London.

He was clearly a very intelligent individual - he excelled in maths at school among other subjects and on leaving school was hired by a former teacher to help him set up a new one in Cambridge. But it is not his intelligence that strikes me so much as his godliness. He was brought up in nonconformist village chapels that were pastored by his father and grandfather but came to faith at the age of 15 when he turned in to a different chapel on a snowy evening and heard the words of Isaiah 45:22: "Look under me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth." Spurgeon writes, "Oh! I looked until I could almost have look my eyes away".

It is striking that, having been instructed so carefully growing up, he had nearly all his doctrinal convictions sorted out before he was converted. It is no surprise, then, that he was soon involved in teaching Sunday school.

But it was at Cambridge that a deacon saw the potential in the young man and tricked him into going along to an outlying village chapel, where, he was told "a young man was to preach there who was not much used to services, and very likely would be glad of company". Walking to the village, Spurgeon found out that he was the young man and "lifting up my soul to seemed to me that I could surely tell a few poor cottagers of the sweetness and love of Jesus, for I felt them in my own soul". He was soon called to be the pastor of one of these chapels and over the following two years pastored that congregation faithfully as well as preaching frequently around the Fens. During that time he preached over 600 times! What a tremendous training he received through that experience.

The call to London gave him a wonderful arena for his ministry and he was soon the talk of the town, with newspapers carrying articles about the boy preacher and scathing letters from older men who, sadly, were probably consumed with envy. He was supremely gifted as an orator, had a great memory for facts and stories, and could communicate with educated and uneducated alike. Indeed, he took great delight that the poor came in such numbers to hear him. But it is his closeness to the Lord that strikes me as the reason for his fruitfulness. He was a man of prayer and a man of the Word. His ministry was a demonstration of the words of the Lord Jesus: 'out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks' (Matt 12:34). No amount of theological education can substitute for that. It is what every preacher needs; and what every congregation needs to look out for when seeking to call a minister.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Black Ops for Jesus?

Jeremy Courtney's CNN opinion piece on mission in 'hostile' countries is challenging and thought-provoking. He argues that those involved in mission to places where missionaries are not welcome should be 'transparent' and not 'duplicitous'. Here is the target of his irritation:

In order to get inside these "closed" countries, some missionaries pose as aid workers, teachers and business owners. Under the guise of work they think a hostile government or population will find valuable, they sneak in, concealing their true aim: to convert as many as possible to their religion.

He argues that such an approach to mission is fundamentally dishonest, undermines the cause of religious freedom, and puts a target on the backs of local Christians. Many of the points Courtney makes are good, arguing that, for instance, missionaries shouldn't lie and that they should 'show the world there is something worth living -- and dying -- for'.

But there are some serious problems with Courtney's argument:

  1. Though there may be some truth in Courtney's picture of the covert missionary, for the most part it is a caricature - a straw man set up to make his argument sound more convincing. It would certainly be no surprise if there are missionaries operating under the modus operandi he paints. There are all sorts of people involved in all sorts of activities under the banner of mission. Much of it is commendable; sadly some is nonsense and some even plain wicked. But to paint much of what missionaries do in unwelcoming countries as 'spycraft', and 'covert missionary interventionism', explicitly comparing it to the operations of the CIA, is either grossly dishonest or just plain ignorant.
  2. Courtney is operating under a fundamentally flawed paradigm of 'religion' and 'conversion'. He argues for 'religious freedom' and that is good, as far as people in the West generally understand such a concept. But he assumes that such an understanding is shared globally. It is not. And it is surprising that someone who has lived and worked in the Middle East for a decade does not seem to appreciate that. What circles is Courtney moving in? Must followers of Christ really tell Muslims or Hindus or whoever that they want 'as many of them as possible to convert to their religion'? Clearly, when people equate 'Christianity' with Western decadence as exemplified by Hollywood, that is the last message we want to give. 
  3. Courtney's willingness to be 'transparent' about his work is hardly surprising given that is to provide 'life-saving heart surgeries for children'. Such a work is indeed commendable and what society or government is going to oppose it? But what if you are convinced, under the force of the Bible's teaching, that such work is inadequate to lead someone to salvation? What if you believe that the only way someone will get spiritual heart surgery is if they hear that Christ is the only mediator between God and man? Then you are going to go beyond medical work, aren't you? And that is the rub. You don't have to tell people to join your religion to get thrown out of a country. Simply sharing the story of Jesus and inviting people to submit to his lordship in order to be right with God might earn a visit from the secret police or even a bullet in the head. We are instructed in Scripture to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. That may mean that we withhold some information about ourselves to prevent our untimely departure. I was once asked by a secret policeman in Nepal whether I 'preach'. I asked him what he meant. He said, 'Do you pay people money and tell them to join your religion?' 'Certainly not!' I replied. And that was the end of it. It was not duplicitous. You don't have to engage in 'spycraft' to disabuse your interrogator of his misconceptions. But you may need to be very careful that your words don't get you into trouble. And if you are a teacher, you better be the best teacher you can be. Sadly, though, many live as enemies of the gospel. That may be enough to get you kicked out of a host country. Your task is to ensure that, as far as it depends on you, you don't get kicked out for any other reason.