Friday, July 02, 2004

Beyond Old-School Missions

Missionaries are so old-school.

The mere mention of “missionaries” to some people dredges up absolutely horrible images, such as the dreadful misogynistic preacher in The Poisonwood Bible and knuckle-rapping nuns. To other people, “missionaries” are primarily called to convert pagans and heathens from their wicked ways. Recently, we have begun to understand that missionaries often confused Christianity with Western civilization, leaving sometimes dangerous and harmful legacies in Third World cultures.

It is more fashionable these days to speak of "indigenization", "enculturation", and pluralism. This raises the questions, “What is a missionary? What do missionaries do? Should missionaries convert people of other faiths? Can that be done without disrespecting and denigrating other religions?”

I am working through these complex questions as I prepare to hit the mission field. I’ve had very little time to create a working “theology of mission” before I go, but I wouldn’t want to, anyway. It’s better to slog through those questions on-the-job, as it were.

But I need to have a starting point. Of course, the core of any missionary understanding derives from “the gospel.” To be a missionary means to take, preach, and live out the meaning of “the gospel.” Of course, this is where things get tricky … what is this marvelous mystery called “good news”?

From my perspective, Protestant missionaries have traditionally taken/preached/lived an atonement-based gospel. Ask a traditional missionary to describe the gospel in one sentence, and the answer would likely to sound something like this: “Jesus came to die for our sins as an atoning sacrifice that we might have the gift of eternal life.” In other words, missionary work is centered on the task of proclaiming this one central truth, that Jesus’ death had the purpose and effect of satisfying our debt of sin. It’s a simple assertion, which implies only one response: believe in Jesus!

This is a tragic truncation of the gospel! For one, this understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ death is simply one particular way of looking at what happened on the cross. It is not comprehensive, nor is it the core meaning of Christianity. Furthermore, if one preaches an atonement-based gospel, then the call and promise of faith is entirely based in the after-life; thus, becoming a Christian means simply going to heaven after you die!

I prefer, instead, an incarnation-based gospel. To "incarnate" something means to put flesh onto it, to bring to life something which is abstract. The word “incarnation” describes the mystery that God came to earth, put on flesh and blood, and lived among us as a human being. Jesus Christ was/is God incarnate, and thus, when we look at the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we see God’s nature and personality.

This is the news that missionaries must proclaim. And the response to this news is to become a follower and imitate Jesus. How do we do that? By doing the same kinds of things, and by allowing the love of God to become incarnate in our own lives, wherever we are. It means that, gasp!, we can do the very kinds of things that Jesus himself did. That sounds high and mighty, but it is the very thing that Jesus predicted. He said, “Anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father!” (John 14:12)

A disciple can do even greater things than Jesus?! Wow! That’s a challenge to live up to!

Based on this, my working definition of a Christian would be: “A Christian is a follower of Jesus who incarnates the love of God by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Taken a step further then, a missionary is “a follower of Jesus who incarnates the love of God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in a culture and society that is not one’s home or native culture and society.”

It’s a starting point anyway … More to come soon!