Church Growth and the Global South: Toward a Biblical and Missional Ecclesiology

This weekend I’ll be presenting this paper at the Southeast Regional Evangelical Missiological Society (EMS) meeting. You can download the paper here. I welcome your thoughts and feedback!

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The Missiological Necessity of Presence: How Being Gives Purpose to Our Doing

In all honesty, I don’t always love being in Africa. I do love the people we work with and I love the work we do. But Africa itself can be a taxing place to live. This past week was a good example of the challenges, ranging from the mildly frustrating to the somewhat terrifying. On Tuesday I spent hours trying to stay online long enough to do something as seemingly simple as book airline tickets. Then, we spent the next two days running back and forth to the clinic because our daughter had malaria. In the midst of all this, I found myself asking…

…Could we not be more productive in a country with slightly better infrastructure and a little less malaria?

After thinking about this for sometime, I’ve come to the conclusion that productivity is perhaps the least important reason we should pack up our family and move to a foreign country as missionaries.

In missions, we are often driven by the need to do. Sending churches want regular updates telling, not about what we have thought about, prayed about, or read about, but rather what we’ve actually done. Because of this, cross-cultural missions work tends to be action-oriented. Plus, I think as Americans, we’re sort of wired that way to begin with (at least the adult versions of us are).

But Jesus taught that presence is more important than productivity. And I think there is a significant missiological implication to this.

In the Gospel account of Jesus visiting the home of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38–42), we find a discussion that well captures the importance of being. While Martha is busy making preparations, she becomes agitated with her sister Mary, who sits at Jesus’ feet, listening carefully to what He has to say.

The point of the story is not to make Martha out as the bad guy for being productive. Productivity is a good thing and is commended in Scripture (Prov. 10:4). Rather, there is a cultural dynamic that one might easily miss in this passage. In Jesus’ day, women were not usually considered worthy of receiving religious instruction, and instead were usually confined to domestic tasks. As one commentator observes, “Jewish women were normally cast in the role of domestic performance in order to support the instruction of men rather than as persons who were themselves engaged in study.”[1]

Jesus though transforms this cultural norm. Martha, in her busyness, has missed a golden opportunity. She was looking for her sister to provide a little temporary relief from her domestic burdens, not realizing that Jesus was offering that very thing in far greater measure!

Mary would surely at some point return to her domestic chores. But she would do so as one who had sat at the feet of Jesus, heard his words, and been transformed by them (cf. Luke 6:47–49). She would never again be simply a woman going about her duty in a society that had little regard for women. She would be a woman forever born along by the transformational Words of her Lord. She would return to her work knowing that her work did not define her as it seemed to define Martha. Rather, Mary would be defined by the radically different door to self-understanding that Jesus had opened to her. She was now one worthy of instruction in the things of God, and not just somebody who set out the coffee and doughnuts for others.

So what is the point of the story then? I think it’s this: Presence gives greater meaning and greater significance to our productivity. Otherwise, we can be very productive in a lot of things that really don’t matter very much. But spending time with Jesus transforms us and gives us clarity about who we are and what we should do. This is true of us spending time with Jesus, and its true of Jesus’ disciples spending time with each other. Our being with Christ should compel us not to busyness, but to community:

“By entering into fellowship with Jesus, who emptied himself and became as we are and humbled himself by accepting death on the cross, we enter into a new relationship with each other. The new relationship with Christ and the new relationship with each other can never be separated.”[2]

So what precisely is the missionary implication of this? I believe the key is exactly the point made by the story of Mary and Martha: effective doing depends first on effective becoming.

What I mean is that when we spend time with Jesus and with fellow believers, we become defined (like Mary was) by his transformative words rather than by cultural definitions of success or significance. For cross-cultural workers, this means we cannot know our task or even ourselves until we know Christ and the faith community to which we belong.

Remember, Jesus’ missionary commission to the disciples was followed by the promise of His presence: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Likewise, Paul frequently spoke of the necessity and importance of being with those he served. To the church in Thessalonica he said, “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:8). Therefore, we need not only time in the presence of Jesus through personal devotion, but time in his presence through fellowship with the saints. We need to be with each other in order to be truly for each other.

Whether living in West Africa or the West Bank then, our reason to be there must first be about who we become in the shared reality of togetherness. Only when we have through the power of community become who Jesus wants us to be, can we then begin to do what Jesus wants us to do.

[1]Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, New International Commentary on the New Testament. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), n.p.

[2] Henry Nouwen, et. al. Compassion (New York: Doubleday, 1982), 48-49.

Book Review: Global Evangelicalism

global evangelicalismLewis, Donald M. and Richard V. Pierard, Global Evangelicalism: Theology, History, and Culture in Regional Perspective. Downers Grove, IVP Academic, 2014. Reviewed by Jerry M. Ireland.

Its rare to read an edited volume and find very little to criticize. This, though, is precisely the case with Global Evangelicalism. This text quite simply is an excellent introduction to the varied and complex nature of modern evangelicalism. In fact, I’m somewhat hesitant to label it an introductory work, because most introductory works tend to oversimplify. This work does not. Instead, it underscores the complex issues involved in formulating an evangelical identity, historically, theologically, and culturally. In doing so, it highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of the movement, and offers ample fodder for scholarly and practical reflection on the future of evangelicalism.

Rather than summarize each of the chapters, I shall instead focus my review on what are the important strengths and weaknesses of the work. And I will do this in light of the author’s stated goals of helping both insiders and outsiders better understand the global and diverse nature of evangelicalism.

Perhaps the best part of this work is the broad sweep it offers of the global evangelical movement. The editors have rightly chosen to extend their gaze beyond the shores of the United States and Great Britain, and included essays by some of the leading scholars of evangelicalism from across the globe, including preeminent scholars such as René Padilla and Ogbu Kalu. One might think, though, that such a broad sweep would lack in depth and detail, but that is not the case. Yes, the authors tend to present the usual suspects on evangelical definitions, theology, and history (for example, Bebbington’s quadrilateral), but they also offer some insightful and less well-known critiques, such as Kalu’s observation regarding the way in which evangelical shortcomings in West Africa contributed to the spread of Islam in that area (chapter 5).

I also found Donald M. Lewis’s chapter on “Globalization, Religion, and Evangelicalism” (chapter 3) especially insightful. His discussion of “glocalization” and the closely associated concept of “globalization from below” help show Christianity’s adaptability, its cross-cultural power, and ability to influence society at every level, and to do so not by destroying the receptor culture, but building on them and adorning them, as Lewis points out regarding the Karen people of Burma who value Christianity’s culture preserving ability. Also, Lewis highlights that some of the very things that make evangelicalism difficult to define, such as the lack of a single holy language or precise holy place, make evangelicalism highly adaptable, allowing for constant growth and expansion. In addition, missions leaders will find this chapter enlightening as it underscores the need for both urban evangelistic strategies and social activism, in light of the reality of increasingly “global cities.”

If there is a weakness to this work, it would be that I found myself wanting more, especially in regards to part III, “Issues in Evangelical Encounters With Culture.” The issue of evangelicalism and culture is, in my view, the arena for which the future is most uncertain, and so it would have been nice to have more than the two excellent chapters in this section on ecumenism and gender. For example, given that marriage equality and LGBT issues are among the thorniest issues facing evangelicals not only in the west but also in Africa and other parts of the world as well, an article on this topic would have greatly added to the volume. Also, though several chapters reference evangelicalism’s response to the poor and the need of social concern, an in-depth discussion of the prioritism-holism debate would have helped the unaware reader better understand one of the more divisive issues among evangelicals.

But these are very minor critiques, and without a doubt, the authors could not have addressed everything. Overall, this text makes an excellent resource on the global nature, unity, diversity, history, and potential of evangelicalism. For the uninitiated, it provides insightful scholarly reflection from some of the most knowledgeable scholars on this topic. For those who have studied evangelicalism in some depth already, this text too will prove valuable as it implicitly hints at numerous avenues for further scholarly study. For example, when Padilla warns of the dangers inherent in rapid numerical expansion in Latin America, and of growth apart from a biblical understanding of the kingdom of God and the mission of God, I find myself compelled to consider this statement in the African context and in reference to the often lauded growth of Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity there.

In sum, I highly recommend this text to academics, missionaries, and to non-Christians who desire a more accurate and robust understanding of evangelicalism around the world. And, I would hope that many of evangelicalism’s critics would also read this work, as it would surely temper some of the more unbalanced and ahistorical accusations leveled against it.

Disclosure: Thanks to Alisse Wissman at IVP Academic for providing a review copy of this text. However, the opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own.

 

Traveling, Sight-seeing, Experimenting Missionaries!

In the Oct. 1912 edition of his Word and Witness, E. N. Bell took some of his church’s supported missionaries to task for their, um, methods. Here’s what he wrote:

Our people are tired, sick, and ashamed of traveling, sight-seeing, experimenting missionaries who expect to make a trip around the world and come home. We are not willing to waste a cent of God’s money on such. It is all right when necessary on account of serious illness or to stir up new interest by a visit to come home; but only to return soon. We want missionaries who go out to live and die on foreign fields. It is as near to heaven from there as anywhere, and if you don’t think so, don’t go. ~ E. N. Bell, Word and Witness, 8 no. 8 (Sept. 1912), 2.

Wow! I wonder how that would go over if it were to come from the Executive Director of AG World Missions today! (By the way, not long after this, E. N. Bell stepped down as the one handling missions support!).

Is Priority the Right Question? Part III: Conclusion

“What we do when we weed a field is not quite different from what we do when we pray for a good harvest.” – C. S. Lewis.

In the above quote, I think C. S. Lewis is getting at much the same point I have been making throughout these last three blog posts: namely, that we are mistaken when we unnaturally separate that which God has put together. Life is holistic and God calls us to a fully integrated life that incarnates all that He himself embodied during His earthly ministry.

There is much more evidence than what I have presented in support of this point. I could have, for instance, shown that in Scripture the words in both the OT and NT that are used for ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ are often used to mean the whole person, as are the words for ‘flesh’ and body.’  There are nuances and the two are not the same, to be sure. But we have to be careful that we don’t read into these words ideas that never existed in the mind of the writers. In addition, I might have pointed out that Paul had every opportunity to adopt a Platonic separation of the body and soul, and yet he never did. This doesn’t mean that he or Jesus never distinguished between the two, for surely they did. But what they didn’t do was elevate one above the other. I could have also shown how it has been largely philosophical systems, such as that of Plato and Aristotle and their influences on Augustine and Aquinas respectively, that have greatly influenced our theological tendency to exalt one aspect of the human self over the other. I could have given evidence that Christianity, following in the footsteps of the Enlightenment, has come to embody many of the precepts of modernity, precepts that furthered the chasm between the secular and sacred. But my aim, has not been to overwhelm anyone with evidence, but rather to simply help us to see that this holistic notion is in Scripture, and it is there in a pretty major way!

I also want to pause, and point out that this has been a journey for me. It is not something I have arrived at casually or, in some ways, even intentionally. In the course of studying other things (eschatology and church history, for instance) I have sort of stumbled across these things, and then as a result of what I found (more accurately, what others have found and written), I’ve felt compelled to look into this a little deeper. As a result, I am increasingly convinced that the biblical picture is holistic, that when Jesus said, “whatever you did not do to the least of these, you did not do to me,” that he was saying something of extreme importance for the Church about the external aspects of our faith, about the integration of faith and acts of service.

The thing is, and this may surprise you, but my own calling and gifts lie mostly on the proclamation/evangelism side of things. I am primarily a teacher/preacher with a deep interest in theology and apologetics (could you tell?). Those passages of Scripture that most resonate with me are those that show Paul using ‘persuasion’ and presenting arguments and evidence that help convince people of the truth of Christianity (see Acts 17:4; 18:4; 19:8). And yet, that said, I am convinced by Scripture that if my whole ministry, my entire Christian calling consists of nothing more than standing in a classroom and teaching, or sitting behind a computer reflecting on theological meanings, or even standing behind a pulpit on Sunday morning speaking to the mostly already convinced, if my Christian life never gets out into the byways, highways, and alleyways where the broken, the lost and the suffering live and struggle everyday, and if I don’t meet them there with the love of Christ, tending to them in body and soul, then I’ve missed something. I’ve come up short of what Jesus has called me to do. Because all theology is ultimately practical, and all of our faith must ultimately find its way to our hands and our feet, not just to our hearts and heads.

Even as I write this, I recognize how far away I am from this holistic biblical picture at times, and I am convicted. But, my prayer in all of this is that we would all take seriously these emphases in Scripture as we plot our course forward, that we might embody a faith in which preaching the good news and compassionate acts of service become as two cords twisted indubitably together, exhibiting a strength that neither aspect could ever have on its own. May we embody a Gospel faith, a loving and compassionate faith, a proclaiming faith, a teaching faith, a building faith, and in everything a serving faith. So that when the Lord of the harvest returns He’ll find us, as was He, always about His Father’s business.