There are trends and errors that affect modern church missions today of which we should be aware. Some of these trends are mentioned, for example, in the writings of prominent church theologians about current and future church missions. One such writer is the late Prof. David J. Bosch, a South African missiologist who became a professor at the University of South Africa in 1971. He has written helpful summaries about the history of missions by the church in the New Testament till the present, but his influential books (Transforming Missions, Witness to the World, and Believing in the Future) demonstrate in certain places the emphasis and direction that present-day missions has taken and may continue to take. His writings seem to be a good example of what some in the church world would like modern missions to become in order for it to be more numerically successful in both western and eastern regions of the world.
What are these trends and what is our response to them?
First, one of the trends is that modern missions must be “counter-cultural.” Prof. Bosch, in his book Believing in the Future, writes in his conclusion that “. . . a mission . . . must be counter-cultural . . . .”1 We agree that proper missions must oppose and be “counter” to the evils and wickedness of culture. The light of the Word of God must expose the wickedness of man as it comes to expression in the cultures of the world and, in the light of that, issue the command to repent and believe in Christ.
Perhaps a better way to describe the relationship of missions to culture is antithetical. For one thing, this term reminds us that missions is the work of Christ ultimately over against the kingdom of darkness and sin. Moreover, antithetical missions is rooted in the truth of the Word of God, especially the truth that the triune God is the holy and righteous God. Antithetical missions stands for the glory of God over against man’s unrighteousness and ungodliness that come to expression in the cultures of this world. Antithetical missions declares the promise of salvation for believers and their seed in the Lord Jesus Christ, in whom alone is all our righteousness and godliness.
Being antithetical, missions will have its focus, purpose, motivation, and starting point in the glory of God revealed in our Lord Jesus Christ, rather than in the culture whose specific evils a given missionary may be opposing.
In this regard, this antithetical nature of missions may not be allowed to be diluted by the theory of common grace. Common grace establishes a dangerous bridge between the church and the world, and it allows the church in many cases not to be “counter-cultural.” For example, the culture of man has produced drama and the opportunity of man to play sin, another’s sinful nature, and even Christ. Man’s culture has produced democracy and the exaltation of the sovereignty of the individual. The church may not accommodate in its preaching such fundamental errors of man’s culture, but be truly counter-cultural or antithetical. Every step of the way, missions must battle against the world’s culture of man’s supposed sovereignty, righteousness, goodness, and wisdom, and it must battle for the glory of the absolutely sovereign, righteous, wise, and good God in Jesus Christ for His church alone.
Second, it has been taught that modern missions must be “contextual.” Prof. Bosch wrote that “we have, at long last, come to the conviction that missions in the Third World must be contextual.”2 This is often explained to mean that missions must follow the “incarnational model” of Jesus. Just as the Word of God came into our flesh among the Jewish culture, so the missionary must bring the Word of God into the culture in which he will labor. The missionary must embody the incarnational model of Jesus in his work by living among the people and “just like them” at their level. This push for “contextual” missions even affects the work of Bible translation. It is argued that the translation of the Bible by the church into a native language must be contextual, so that, for example, if a particular culture and language does not have words for bread, sheep, snow, or a patriarchal family structure, then the translation must use terms that are relatively the same and familiar in the native language. As a result, the Word of God must adjust to the context or culture in which the Word is brought and preached. Moreover, “contextual” missions would even determine whether it would be necessary to introduce and teach the Reformed confessions in a particular foreign culture.
The problem with this trend in modern missions is that the focal point of missions is lost. Is the focal point of missions really the context and the people to whom the missionary goes? Although a missionary must obviously understand the culture into which he will bring God’s Word and must live with the people of God in that culture and language, yet must that dictate the content of his preaching? Is not the focal point of missions God and His authoritative Word? Rather than those spoken to, ought not the God who spoke His infallibly inspired Word be the focal and starting point?
A Reformed theologian warned in regards to Bible translation (but which statement also applies to missions) that “the Bible, therefore, should not be reinterpreted so as to make its message suitable to modern culture.”3 We agree that contextualism, with its ideas, must neither govern Bible translation nor govern the missionary’s sermons and instruction. Faithful mis sions must not adjust its content to the culture, especially its weaknesses and evils, by changing the message of the Word of God. Rather, let God’s reliable, accurate, authoritative, and necessary Word speak to the people of God in their particular culture and call them to repentance and faith. Thereby and by His Spirit, God will gather out His chosen church from the culturally diverse nations of the earth.
When missions comes with the Word of God, it comes with the Word that is divinely authoritative and always applicable to the people of God in every age and in every culture, just exactly as God has inspired His Word. This is the Word of God that commands men to repent of their sin, including the weaknesses and sins of their own culture. This is the Word of God that applies to man in every age, that will speak to the sheep of Christ in any culture, and that by His grace and Spirit will draw them out of darkness into His marvellous light and under the enjoyment of His gracious care. Therefore, missions is powerful, not by becoming a chameleon to culture, but, in its own distinct colours of God’s sovereign, particular grace, calling men out of the culture of the world of wicked men into the holy life of the kingdom of Christ.
Third, there is now the idea that modern missions must be more and more “ecological.” We are told that “a missiology of Western culture must include an ecological dimension.”4 Missions must not only be concerned for men’s souls, but also for man’s body and for the home of his body, the earth. Missions must remember that man is body and soul, and so care for both. Being ecological, missions should not only be preaching, but missions must also feed the hungry, provide basic health care where it is not affordable or is non-existent, clothe the miserably naked, house the abandoned orphans, bury the dead, assist the reduction in pollution and disease in developing countries, and promote in developing countries greener, healthier, and sustainable living. It is argued that for missions to be successful it must fulfil this ecological dimension of serving man’s earthly needs in order to have any positive effect on his soul for his repentance. It seems that in an age of environmental consciousness and various environmental fads, adopting this all-encompassing ecological dimension to missions seems irresistible.
However, the very fact that the deacons of a calling church also sign the call letter, thus participating in the sending of a missionary to his mission charge, illustrates clearly our conviction that the Bible does require that the church in missions concern herself with the earthly needs of those whom the Lord is pleased to gather by the gospel preaching. Nevertheless, the idea that missions must be more and more ecological seems to promote the idea that the church must consider it to be her calling to have an environmental voice in the world, in governments, and in society. It seems that there is a push to have missions take a lead in the making of this earth a greener place for an earthly kingdom of Christ.
The calling of the church is not social and ecological. Missions is an ecclesiastical work that does not ignore the daily bread that the genuinely poor need (which genuine need faithful diaconal work addresses), but it has as its goal and priority the hearts and spiritual care of God’s people. In that way, the church in her work may echo faithfully what the apostle Peter said to the lame man who asked Peter for money at the temple shortly after Pentecost: “Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have I give to thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk” (Acts 3:6).
This stands in harmony with the truth that the kingdom of Christ is not earthly. He is the head of His church, but Lord over the world. Christ does not call us to establish His kingdom in the world of the wicked, nor in this creation, since that earthly kingdom under the first Adam was lost long ago by the fall. We now pray and labor towards the new creation of the second Adam, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, when He returns bodily at the end of history soon. For that heavenly kingdom the church must do missions. Most certainly, in pursuit of that heavenly kingdom she must be a good steward of her money and resources, and she must use those good gifts of God’s creation neither abusively nor wastefully, in keeping with the eighth commandment. However, her goal may not be to have a greener earth so that the kingdom of Christ can be established here and we can live here forever. Our goal is that we may serve the gathering of the church until the coming of Christ again soon.
If missions must have an “ecological” dimension to it, let it then be preached that we are “strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Heb. 11:13), sojourning and labouring vigorously in our present, daily callings, as Christ has commanded us, in the blessed hope of the new heavens and the new earth that shall be created after the final appearing of Christ and out of the fiery destruction of this present and old creation (II Pet. 3:10-14).
1 David J. Bosch, Believing in the Future (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1995), Chapter 6, “Conclusion,” pp. 55-62.
2 Bosch, pp. 55-62.
3 Jakob van Bruggen, The Future of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Institute for Biblical Textual Studies, 1978), p. 83.
4 Bosch, pp. 55-62.