Mission – quo vadis? (part 1)

Thorsten Prill considers the current theological crisis in evangelical mission organisations.
In June 2005 Jonathan Stephen, principal of the Wales Evangelical School of Theology, published an article entitled ‘The Current Crisis in Evangelicalism’ in EN.

Stephen looked at a number of postmodern heresies which posed a severe threat to Bible-centred Christianity. Among these heresies in contemporary evangelicalism identified were Open Theism, the New Perspective on Paul, and the Emerging Church, as well as the rejection of the doctrine of penal substitution. Seven years on, these postmodern theologies have undoubtedly gained influence. However, they no longer pose a threat to evangelical churches in Europe and North America alone. There is another group in the evangelical constituency that is also affected: mission organisations and their partners overseas.

Heresies on the mission field

Evangelical missionaries from North America and Europe have undoubtedly played an important part in the spread of the gospel, the formation of African churches, and the practical support of the poor and marginalised, and many of them still do so. There are, however, also missionaries who bring with them some unhealthy theological baggage, such as Open Theism and certain Emerging Church philosophies. While the former, with its denial of God’s full foreknowledge, is surely still an exception, the impact of the latter is more visible. One of the main features of the Emerging Church is a deep distrust of the institutionalised church. In some African countries this view manifests itself in such a way that missionaries work independently of indigenous churches. While in the past missionaries were involved in the planting of churches, the training of church leaders and the education of children and young people in church schools, there are an increasing number of missionaries who serve in hospitals and schools, agricultural projects or projects for orphans and vulnerable children which have no or only little church connection. As a result the sustainability of some of these projects is not always guaranteed.

Verbal witness?

Sometimes this approach goes hand in hand with a view of mission which considers evangelism and verbal communication of the gospel at best as optional extras but no longer as the heartbeat of mission. Mission is first and foremost understood in terms of community development. The main focus is on the transformation of society and no longer on people’s salvation from sin, death and the power of the devil. In other words, mission is no longer Great Commission mission; it has become ‘kingdom mission’.

Theological ignorance

What are the reasons that have led to such a development? Well, as so often there are various reasons. One of them is theological ignorance — or shall we rather call it theological naivete?

It is hard to understand how the leaders of an evangelical mission organisation, whose aim is the establishment of Christ-centred churches, can declare that they have no official position on the Emerging Church. It is also difficult to believe when evangelical mission leaders state that Open Theism is acceptable because it is basically the same as Arminianism.

However, it is alarming when an evangelical mission organisation, in an attempt to promote a holistic view of mission, teaches a model of the atonement which claims that Christ died so that people can be reconciled with their self or inner being. How do these mission leaders arrive at such conclusions? Again, there is more than one answer. The obvious one is a lack of theological training and a limited understanding of biblical teaching. Most evangelical mission organisations require some kind of formal Bible and cross-cultural training for their missionaries. In a number of mission agencies, however, the standards in this field have been lowered in recent years. Instead of one or two years of full-time training at a Bible college, it is sufficient for mission candidates to attend a six-week residential course or to complete an online course in cross-cultural mission. Of course, that does not mean that these courses have no value. On the contrary, they often help future missionaries to gain a deeper understanding of culture, the importance of team work and the biblical basis for mission.

However, it can be problematic when missionaries with a background in medicine, nursing, education, business or law, who have undergone only very basic theological training, are appointed as team or unit leaders or given other leadership responsibilities within the mission organisation that require theological discernment. But even missionaries with a good theological knowledge might not always feel able to respond to new theological trends. Day-to-day ministry can be so demanding and at times frustrating that all these missionaries feel they can do is to concentrate on their own ministries and keep the work going.

False teachers

While lack of theological knowledge and interest might explain some of the unbiblical positions held and promoted within mission organisations, we must not forget that the Bible also warns us against false teachers who infiltrate the church and damage the believers (e.g. 2 Corinthians 11.3-4; 2 Peter 2.1-3; Revelation 2.20). If things like this can happen to a local church, why should evangelical mission organisations be spared from them? When mission leaders argue that the cross of Christ might have been only ‘God’s plan B’, because the Bible does not give us God’s total perspective on his plan which would allow us to know what he was thinking at creation, they clearly go against the teaching of the Bible.

The apostle Peter, for example, assures us that Christ ‘was destined before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the end of the times for your sake’ (1 Peter 1.20). Also, when mission leaders argue that the Bible’s teachings on the church and church leadership are not prescriptive for us today but only descriptive of the early church, it raises some serious questions about their view of Scripture and their agenda. The same is true for those who claim that evangelism does not work in certain countries, that all we need to do is to get alongside people and sort out their problems, or that the gospel is an invitation to live in a relationship with ourselves.

Choose missionaries wisely

What can local churches do about all this? Well, the obvious answer is that they need to choose their missionaries wisely. The biblical pattern is that missionaries are sent out by their local churches and remain responsible and accountable to them (e.g. Acts 13.1-4; 14.27). Usually, churches have known the missionaries they send out for some time. The future missionaries have been members of the church, served in different areas, and shown an interest in cross-cultural ministry and world mission, and the church leadership has had enough time to test and confirm their missionary call. But their responsibility does not end here. They need to actively accompany their future missionary in the process of finding a suitable mission organisation which recognises the God-ordained role of the local church in mission.

This may include pointing them to particular mission societies which are clearly gospel-driven and church-minded and directing them away from others which are not. Sometimes it happens that church leaders are approached by other churches or mission organisations asking them to partner with a new or serving missionary who lacks the necessary funding. While there is nothing wrong with this, the church is still obliged in such a case to test the call of this missionary and his character, as well as his theological convictions in general and views on mission in particular.

Thorsten Prill is a lecturer at Namibia Evangelical Theological Seminary (NETS) and a Crosslinks mission partner.

(This article was first published in the August 2012 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.)

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