Missions at the Edge: Moving Past Cultural Christianity
In conjunction with the International Society for Frontier Missiology and the Alliance for Missions Advancement, the Evangelical Fellowship of Mission Agencies (EFMA) conducted its 2003 annual meeting September 15-18 in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The theme: “Missions at the Edge: Moving Past Cultural Christianity.” EFMA president Paul McKaughan comments,
“The edge is a monumental place. People used to think the edge was the place where one fell off into the abyss. Today we know the edge is where innovation takes place. The edge is where the impetus for renewal always starts. It is at the edge that true transforming mission happens. To often we who have organizations and positions of responsibility still look at the edge as the place where historic gains are threatened. We often feel immobilized by the possible threats to theology and practice and fail to perceive the very holy seeds of transformation that exist at the edge.
The edge is that location where Biblical faith encounters the belief systems of those who do not acknowledge Christ as Lord. This is the place where our theological reflection ceases to be theoretical and becomes intensely practical. This same faith encounter with the people at the edge can and must take place in our own culture if mission is to be effective. In the encounter at the edge the Holy Spirit applies his word and we as instruments of his grace are enriched with new understanding of what it means to be followers of our Lord. The Holy Scriptures take on new significance at the edge. By this wonderful
work of the Holy Spirit lives and society are transformed by the power of the Gospel.”
In this issue of Mission Frontiers we excerpt three presentations from the 2003 Virginia Beach conference. As you read, consider: where might God be calling your church or mission agency to move beyond your comfort zone and out to the edge?
The Global Chinese:
Rethinking Kingdom-Building and Nation-Building
All we tend to hear about the Chinese church from the media and ministry newsletters likewise is amazing statistics of growth. It seems that both Chinese and foreign Christian leaders have a similar “rapid church growth” fever, focused on the miracle of the largest and longest church revival and growth in the history of Christendom which has taken place in the past thirty years in China. But what would be a more balanced perspective?
Last year, ten house-church leaders gathered together to study the history of the life and death of revivals. With tears they asked, “Why does God bring people to Himself faster than we can disciple them?” One leader lamented, “We can only ask new converts to disciple new converts, and it results in so much bad teaching that we are beginning to fear that the gains of the revival could be undone.” Another leader added, “This revival looks statistically incredible, but it is spiritually vulnerable. Millions of Chinese Christians are just one unanswered prayer away from moving on to another religion.”
Political repression and social discrimination are obviously major reasons why the church in China is having trouble discipling its converts, and why it remains marginalized in society. These external troubles are well known, but it is the internal problems of the Chinese church that we need to learn more about. It is time for us to take a realistic rather than romantic approach to the problems in the church and our contributions to them.
For example, there is a false sense of urgency and there are mass conversion methods that leave a shallow faith. Here we can see a combination of the “quick results” mindset of outside supporters with a traditional Chinese “short-cut (or Great Leap Forward) mentality. Often, only a few weeks of training (mainly in evangelism) are given to new converts, and then they are sent out on the road. This approach leaves the revival “a mile wide and an inch deep.” There is insufficient time and attention given to spiritual formation – to the deep transformation of character, lifestyle, and relationships. As a result, immature church leaders are vulnerable to temptations that discredit their witness. (Remember that even Paul took three years after conversion before he began to evangelize.)
Also, there is competition and a lack of accountability. Fund-raising often leads to exaggeration of accomplishments and cover-up of problems. Chinese church leaders are tempted to monopolize resource channels and to double-dip in multiple channels for the same projects. Outside supporters are tempted to compete rather than work together in order to get the requisite photo-ops with “top leaders of China’s largest house church movements” or reports of large numbers of converts. I am afraid that the genuine need in China for caution, discretion and secure communication may be abused at times to avoid partnership, transparency and accountability.
The Back to Jerusalem Movement may be a good case study of both the pluses and minuses. The idea of training thousands of Chinese missionaries to take the gospel to ethnic minorities, such as Tibetan Buddhists and Turkic Muslims, across China’s Western borders and along the Old Silk Road through Central Asia all the way back to Jerusalem is a genuine and admirable calling of the Chinese church with deep roots in the 1930s. But current efforts often reflect a simplistic and naïve response that focuses on idealistic goals and fast results more than on realistic plans. For example, talk of building 10,000 training centers and sending 100,000 missionaries in ten years reflects both outside influence promoting Year 2000 goals, and Chinese millennialism. The numbers game sets idealistic inspirational goals that often dissipate into thin air. Overseas champions have added hype to the facts in their fund-raising efforts, which may be attracting enthusiasm but wasting resources without good accountability. Added to this are authoritarian church leaders who practice army-style “volunteering” of young evangelists to go out with little preparation, cultural or language knowledge – and no ticket home. These leaders may have great faith, but there also may be a problem with irresponsibility. They may need to be challenged and helped to develop a servant leadership style.
Among participants in the Back to Jerusalem movement, there are some with mixed motives, who seek any means of leaving China. When I queried one young trainee about his motive for crossing the border, he said, “It is too hard to work in China.” The assumption that it will be easier to work outside China in turn is based on a naïve expectation that ethnic groups in neighboring countries will welcome Han Chinese more than Westerners discredited by the Crusades.
This totally ignores the history of Han oppression and neighbors’ fears of Chinese expansionism. Chinese evangelists may stumble into unnecessary conflict with those of other faiths, and also with state agencies who view them as instigators of intra-religious strife. There may also be an element of nationalistic pride in claiming a key role for China in world missions that creates a blindness to potential partnership, for example with Mongol Christians who want to bring the blessings of Christ to countries their ancestors pillaged, or Turkic Christians who have an ancient legacy of Christianity and in fact
helped first bring the gospel to China!
By raising these concerns about the Chinese church, and by questioning the Back to Jerusalem efforts, I do not mean to denigrate the work of the Chinese church or this positive vision of world missions, and I do not mean to overlook the sacrificial and fruitful work underway by dedicated Chinese believers around the world and by Chinese-speaking expatriates committed to long-term service in China. Right now, experienced mission agencies and educated Chinese church leaders are beginning to grapple very creatively with some of these challenges. They are expanding leadership training to include personal and family counseling, conflict resolution, and administration and management.
The effort to deal with these issues cannot come too soon, because we face a new wave of ad hoc missions, as a whole new set of actors in North America is getting involved in China ministry. Large churches or church coalitions with little experience, limited discernment in identifying ministry options, and very little awareness of the cultural baggage and sectarian agendas they carry with them are getting involved. Also, young mainland Chinese congregations in North America are beginning mainland ministry, but they lack experience in providing leadership either within their church or in missions. I personally think we should place a high priority on mentoring and supporting these mainland leaders right at our back door, so they can take the lead in mainland missions.This wave of church-based missions has inspired a new effort by ChinaSource to encourage wise and effective agency-church partnerships, both English- and Chinese-speaking, and we ask for your prayers and participation in this effort …
What could we do differently to help the Chinese church prepare for an era of globalization, to meet the challenges of sectarianism, consumerism and nationalism? How could we help them sustain and expand this period of relative toleration in China?
First, as Luis Bush’ World Inquiry has suggested and modeled, learn to listen and learn to follow! Note that this may require slowing down and taking the less efficient route. What do Chinese believers ask for? They ask, “Help us help ourselves.”
Chinese church leaders want to move beyond the ad hoc sporadic training formats and materials translated from other cultural contexts, provided by whatever group or denomination happens to choose them to “help.” They want to learn how to discern for themselves what to adopt from foreign experience and how to draw out lessons from China’s indigenous experience and realities. Shanghai house church leaders told me in January 2003, “We’ve learned from Saddleback’s seven-fold growth experience, but help us all learn from our 70-fold growth history.” One current goal is to create a comprehensive and systematic leadership training curriculum. This will require unprecedented cooperation within the church and among outside mission actors.Second, we need to adopt a long-term commitment and mindset and help develop sustainable strategic initiatives that can transform society. Lay leaders want mentoring, advice and support in all occupations and professions. Some are involved in popularizing the Christian worldview as a coherent social philosophy in academia and the media, building up civil society institutions in the non-profit sector, and reforming government and developing the rule of law, including a new “edict of toleration” to provide full religious freedom protected by the Constitution and legislation. There is a civil rights movement just around the corner in China in which Christians will be involved or even take the lead. The protest demonstrations in Hong Kong over the anti-subversion law
are an important harbinger.
And too, we can help the church position itself to reach urban youth in the coming post-Cold War, post-modern generations. To some extent, Protestants from evangelical and charismatic circles have been more successful than other wings of Christianity in the industrial era of international modernization. They lead the way to a post-modern global era because they are flexible in structure. They focus on small group fellowship that provides personal nurture and community support, and they are quick to use new technology. Charismatic missions have had an especially powerful impact in poor rural areas, perhaps because charismatic worship and healing “fit” better with pre-modern traditional religion. (The downside of this is the danger of syncretism and cults around charismatic leaders.) The more fundamentalist evangelical mission efforts, which focus more on preaching than worship, seem to do especially well in societies in transition from authoritarian rule. They are independent and relatively more democratic, rather than part of a denominational hierarchy.
But looking to the future, evangelicals may make the mistake of fueling China’s worship of the Idol of Modernity, and fall far short of reaching post-modern generations growing up in the most advanced parts of maritime (urban, coastal) China and Asia. Youth are open to the cosmopolitan global pop culture, but they also have a renewed interest in seeking their traditional roots. Ignoring this, we inadvertently or even consciously pass on our contemporary American ways as the best or only way for them to do church or missions. We are oblivious to the full legacy of biblical and pre-modern Christian experience relevant to them, including early missions to China and pre-1949 independent Chinese church experiences, which they know nothing about. Helping reintroduce this history could promote pride in being at the same time both Chinese and Christian, and mitigate the pull between Chinese and foreign ways.
Living Like Jesus, a Torah-Observant Jew: A Guide for Incarnational Witness Among Muslims
Joshua Massey is a cultural anthropologist, linguist, and missiologist, laboring among Asian Muslims since 1985. He is currently coordinating the development of contextualized evangelistic and discipleship literature for Muslim followers of Jesus in Asia. He has published several missiological articles on church planting and ethnographies on folk-Islamic ritual. The following excerpt is taken from a longer paper expected to appear in a future issue of the International Journal of Frontier Missions.
Christian missionaries have a serious problem when trying to proclaim good news to devout Muslims. Without major life adjustments, even the most spiritually vibrant among us tend to appear to Muslims as unclean pagans, whose devotion is often mistaken for irreverence towards God. Many Muslims would not dare to enter Christian homes lest they become ritually defiled. Those who embrace contextualization and adjust their diet accordingly may grow a beard and don local clothes, but the actual practice of their faith often does not communicate holy living to onlooking Muslims. Such missionaries generally do not pray liturgically in a particular direction, they do not perform ritual ablutions before prayer, and they do not pray at set times throughout each day. In short, most missionaries to Muslims, even pro-C4 and C5 workers1, simply do not live and worship according to Muslim categories of righteousness, which are typically perceived as legalistic and works-oriented ritual.
As a result, most missionaries fail to earn the spiritual respect needed to be effective witnesses among devout Muslims. Ironically, however, these Muslim categories of righteousness are extremely similar to the very same Jewish categories of righteousness rooted in the Mosaic Law and practiced by Jesus and his earliest followers. Therefore, if Gentile missionaries to Muslims begin to live more like Jesus and his apostles lived—i.e., like Torah-observant Jews—we will be far more likely to earn their spiritual respect, and therefore be more effective messengers of the Gospel.
In order for Gentile Torah-observance to be genuine, and not some kind of “contextual façade” or legalistic delusion, we need to take a fresh look at the role of the Law in the new covenant, and Gentile freedom to obey it. We will be greatly helped in this task by surveying the theological work of several Messianic Jewish theologians.
Why spend so much time building a foundation for incarnational living on the Torah when Paul’s example of becoming all things to all men is far simpler and more than adequate? A cursory look at Paul’s example in 1 Cor 9 may suffice for ministry to Gentiles, but we must go much deeper into Paul’s understanding of the Law if we want to minister effectively to peoples whose worldview is dominated by divine law and religio-legal categories of thought, as is the case with both Jewish and Muslim peoples. In ministry to Muslims, then, we need to look less at Paul’s approach to Gentiles, and closely study how he, Jesus and all Christ’s apostles reached Jews.
A better understanding and appreciation of the Law is therefore critically important for four salient reasons:
- Knowing the difference between legalism and being free to obey the Law will help prevent the inconsistencies of “contextual chameleons,” whose behavior oscillates according to the people they are with at any given moment (e.g. Muslims or Christians), often resulting in a nagging inconsistency that can pester missionaries about their own authenticity, i.e. “If my Muslim friends saw me now, what would they think? Might they feel I have deceived them?”
- Rooting incarnational witness in the Law frees a missionary from the occasional discomfort of wondering whether or not it is healthy to adopt Islamic forms which are ultimately rooted in flawed theology. However, when Torah-observance guides our personal liturgical practice and diet (among other things), it becomes clear that we are actually living more like our Lord and his Jewish apostles.
- Similarly, the Torah provides a much firmer foundation to explain our lifestyle adjustments to accusing Christians who think we’ve abandoned the faith or succumbed to syncretism.
- Fourthly, understanding the Law as interpreted by the world’s preeminent rabbinic theologian (i.e., Jesus Christ our Lord), will not only help us live incarnationally among Muslims, but it will help us preach a Gospel with Law that truly is good news to Muslims. A gospel without Law may have been good news to Gentiles in the first century who didn’t want to keep the Law in the first place, but it is not good news to most Muslims, who share a Jewish appreciation of delighting in the Law as “a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path” (Ps 119:105).
Proclaiming “freedom from the Law” does not sound like Good News to God-fearing Muslims, but like antinomianism, a lawless, chaotic existence that demands unbridled freedoms and eventually results in what we see today in the Christian West: the virtual rebirth of Sodom and Gomorrah. Young missionaries to Muslims often naively assume that once a Muslim learns how few restrictions will be upon them if they become Christian, naturally they will convert. However,just the thought of eating pork is enough to make many Muslims nauseated.
We also mentioned a fifth reason to let the Law be our guide for incarnational living among Muslims, especially for pro-C4 and C5 workers who want to promote truly indigenous church planting movements. Living like a non-Torah-observant Christian can actually hinder the very indigeneity we long to promote as we mentor Muslim believers. Though they hear our constant encouragement to remain culturally Muslim, students are more likely to follow the example we live out before them. Living as liturgyless Gentile Christians, therefore, may well end up contributing to their “Christianization” and “de-Muslimization” which we strive to avoid. As Jesus said, “A student ... who is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Lk 6:40).
All of the Law is good if used properly, including dietary laws, the law of keeping a beard, the law of circumcision, and even traditional developments surrounding observance of the law to serve God with all your heart. So while Gentiles are free to let the Gospel permeate their own society according to the categories of their own worldview, incarnational witnesses to Muslims are free to obey the Torah for the right reasons, i.e. if they want to delight in the Law as David did, and not pervert it into burdensome legalism as the Judaizers did.
(1) “Pro-C4 and C5” refers to missionaries who favor the use of biblically permissible Islamic forms by Muslim followers of Jesus (Massey 2000).
Big Denominations and Their “Second Mission Structures”: They Really Do Need Each Other
Call it Symbiosis.1 Denominations are governing bodies that “grow the church where it is,” while small, scurrying “second mission structures” initiate all kinds of pioneering outreaches to “go to where the church is not.” My recent survey of 23 denominations and denomination-related mission agencies supports this idea.
I asked 12 denominations and 12 small denominationally related mission agencies—let’s call them “second mission structures”—how they start new mission initiatives. The question I e-mailed each of them was:
Suppose your office wanted to send missionaries to Muslims in a country where you presently do not have work—say, in Morocco or Iraq—how would your office go about doing this? In other words, how would you proceed to begin mission work in a new location?
I followed up most of the e-mails with a phone conversation. An intriguing pattern emerged: Each denomination—Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, Reformed—that has defined its mission as “partnering with existing national churches” has made room—at times unenthusiastically—for creative outside-the-headquarters structures that initiate missions “where there is no partner.”
Andrew Walls, perhaps the foremost missiologist of our day, has called this pattern the “fortunate subversion” of the church. Here is Walls:
The voluntary society arose because none of the classical patterns of Church government, whether Episcopal, Presbyterian, congregational, or connexional,
had any machinery (in their late-eighteenth century form anyway) to do the tasks for which missionary societies came into being. By its very success, the
voluntary society subverted all the classical forms of Church government, while fitting comfortably into none of them.
From age to age it becomes necessary to use new means for the proclamation of the Gospel beyond the structures which unduly localize it. Some have taken the word “sodality” beyond its special usage in Catholic practice to stand for all such “use of means” by which groups voluntarily constituted labour together for specific Gospel purposes.
The voluntary societies have been as revolutionary in their effect as ever the monasteries were in their sphere. The sodalities we now need may prove equally disturbing (The Missionary Movement in Christian History, 1996, New York: Orbis Books, pp. 247, 253-254).