The Meaning of ãMissionä
by Raplh D. Winter
The future of the world hinges on what we make of this word "mission."Yet at this moment mission is almost universally misunderstood÷in both liberal and conservative circles.
About the only people who still think of mission as having to do with preaching the Gospel where Christ is not named÷being a testimony to the very last tribe and nation and tongue on this earth÷are the oft-confused people in the pew. In this matter their instincts outshine those of many eminent theologians and ecclesiastical statesmen.
Speaking personally, only recently has the awesome truth dawned upon me that practically everyone today÷ liberal or conservative, conciliar or independent÷seems to agree that Christian World Mission refers to the redemptive activities of the church within the societies where the church is found. No longer does it point to the redemptive activity of the church within societies where the church is not found.
Thus, for example, only a small percentage of missionaries today, of whatever stripe, work within societies, peoples, cultures, where there is no church.
On the one hand, this is a reflection of the reality that there remains relatively little of that type of work to do. But the missionary movement originally sent missionaries out to places and peoples which had no indigenous Christian movement within their societies.
As the church was successfully planted in many parts of the world, however, since "missionaries" became involved in helping those churches reach their own people (an activity called evangelism in the sending lands), this follow-through activity slowly gained recognition as mission by nationals and missionariesalike.
It was seriously proposed at the 1963 meeting of the World Council of Churches' Commission on World Mission and Evangelism that Christian workers going to other countries to work with established churches should more accurately be designated fraternal workers rather than missionaries.
Had this idea been adopted by everyone in 1963, it would have saved the meaning of mission for the initial task of founding the church within groups where it does not yet exist.
But no. It appears that somehow the idea of going to serve at a great distance had become a more important consideration than whether or not a unique, pioneer work of medicine, education, and church planting was being performed where a national church did not yet exist. Thus, few groups adopted the new terminology. (It might be observed that those that did adopt the new terminology had monumental problems explaining things to the people back home.)
By 1963, essentially, the work done by, with, for, or through the church where it is had become labeled "mission," the church itself was considered the primary instrument of mission, and the new phenomenon was the church in mission.
Meanwhile, however, a vague unease settled upon many people back home who were supporting missionary efforts. Despite the excitement of seeing the church arise in lands across the globe, there was something disturbing about the idea that missionaries no longer had to do "pioneer evangelism," nor even evangelism÷since, obviously, national leaders can do that sort of thing better than foreigners.
The future of this kind of mission is indistinguishable from the mission of the church "back home" to its own society. Now there is no apparent need for a separate category of Christian workers called missionaries.
Part of the problem is sheer fear, fear that world problems are now too big to solve, fear that we really have no hope in missions. Otherwise, I ask myself, why do so many people react negatively to our optimism?
I have a new answer for all those nice people who react pessimistically to predictions about the fulfillment of the Great Commission. In the first place I tell them that I am not interested in making predictions of what will certainly happen but in discovering possibilities that certainly could happen.
But I am getting tired in any case of hearing how this or that prediction of the end of the world has come to naught, how this or that prediction about a date for the completion of the Great Commission has failed to materialize. My answer now is simple. I point out that there have probably been more "failed predictions" in the pessimistic direction than in the optimistic direction.
A good example is the case of all the dire predictions of total failure that emerged from scholars and churchmen alike when in the early '50s China summarily tossed out all missionaries. It would be close to hilarious today to read some of the "how-we-went-wrong-in-China" articles which were produced back then. Practically everyone either agreed with these articles or was silent. No one, absolutely no one, predicted anything positive like the awesome, unmatched growth of Christians in China that actuallyoccurred in the subsequent 37 years.
Another example of pessimism is the response of a German lay official in the World Council of Churches to an article by Dr. Donald McGavran in 1968. McGavran had the audacity to advocate an aggressive mission outreach to the ends of the earth. The professional economist and demographer at the WCC very kindly diagnosed McGavran's optimism as the product of an American success syndrome. He said, Towards the end of this century, Christians will comprise no more than 8 percent of the world's population, assuming that present demographic growth will not be arrested ih some un-forseen manner. Even the best missionary strategy with a conventional approach to the field of church planting and church growth will have no material effect upon this prognosis. How did he get such an idea? Simple. He was thinking about the shrinking percentage of the Western Christian world in relation to the rapidly expanding global non-Christian populations. But Christianity is a faith, not a racial strain which must grow merely by biological reproduction. Faith spreads by a different mechanism÷a contagion.
By now, we know that Christianity is growing to beat the band in many parts of the world outside of Europe, often five or ten times as fast as demographic growth rates. By now, we know far better than he that by the year 2000 the percentage of Christians in the world will be at least four, perhaps six, times higher than this man's projection of 8 percent.
With greater hope, the meaning of mission can once more refer to the expansion of Christianity into the non-Christian peoples of the world.