Gospel & Culture blog
Between the 1930s and 1980s, the mainline churches changed their missions-focus from proclamation to social justice: working with orphans, civil rights, digging wells, protecting the environment and later issues like economic development and sex trafficking became more prominent whereas conversion faded to the background.
What led to this shift? Did the world all of a sudden have more physical suffering than ever? Was the world so well evangelized that proclamation was no longer a major work of cross-cultural workers?
There are actually several reasons for the shift. Some are genuine issues or problems that should inform our missiology (decolonization, social problems)- they should lead us to do cross-cultural work that is holistic and addresses physical needs. Other influences (secularism, communism) are more distractions to missions.
1) Secularization. As western society began to separate issues of faith from "real life", even church-goers, clergy and mission leaders in the mainline churches thought less and less about the supernatural, heaven, sin, forgiveness. Church, and the work of the church, was only valuable insofar as it had a secular value: promoting peace, education, development.
2) Communism. The experiment of socialism/marxism had a tremendous influence in South America in the 1960s and 1970s. This influenced Latin American theologians and missionaries. Mission work became another way of ushering in the revolution (aka the Kingdom of God). The work of missions was about equality, or really, about upending the established political and economic systems.
3) Civil rights abuses: The world saw tremendous suffering and abuse of humans in the 20th century, and Christians had to grapple with their role in perpetuating or alleviating these problems
4) The stigma of fundamentalism: If fundamentalists were seen as culturally-clueless evangelists who only wanted to make converts, mainline missionaries wanted to distance themselves from this image.
5) A reaction to the church growth movement: Donald McGavran and David Hesslegrave emphasized that missions is not just about proclamation, but persuasion. The church must be growing or missionaries are not doing their job. This made sense to evangelical missionaries, but was controversial to mainline missionaries. The distaste for such an emphasis on numerical growth and persuasion led mainline missiologists to focus more on other areas of mission.
6) Hippies: The theologians of the 1980s and 1990s came out of the hippie movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Jesus was seen as a wandering magician whose main purpose was to upset the established conservative religious and political system of the day. This anti-establishment, free-thinking attitude permeated missiology in mainline seminaries. Religion was only good insofar as it promoted peace - evangelism was seen as divisive.
7) Decolonization: As nations gained their independence from Europe during the 1950s to 1990s, the image of the European missionary who comes to teach or transform was increasingly challenged- both in the west and in the global south. The mainline church either called for a moratorium on missionaries from the West, or for a re-imagining of the role. No longer would western missionaries preach and teach, they would learn and serve.
8) Social problems: The famines, wars, earthquakes, tsunamis that have such a devastating effect in the global south captured the hearts of many missionaries.
In Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond presented the argument from cultural ecology that on a macro-scale, the differences between cultures is largely because of geography: The peoples who had access to grains and domesticated animals were able to develop civilizations (and eventually guns, germs and steel) which would enable them to conquer the world. Diamond was heavily criticized (as any best-selling scholar will be) for his argument. Since he is a biologist, and not an anthropologist, he largely neglected the role that culture plays in the trajectories of people groups. Diamond's next book, The World Until Yesterday, addresses that oversight.
Surprisingly, Diamond resists the pressure to perpetuate the politically correct notion of the noble savage and he refrains from Western self-loathing. He neither idealizes tribal cultures nor vilifies modern civilizations. He recognizes that tribal cultures in fact have much greater variation, so it is harder to characterize them at all.
Diamond's main argument is that the world until yesterday was a dangerous place- as societies moved from hunter-gatherer to agrarian, they began defedning the land that they had worked to make so productive. The defense of these limited resources caused them to be suspicious of their neighbors. There were three kinds of people: known friends, known enemies, and unknown enemies. This suspicion made it impossible to explore, which hindered trade and the diffusion of ideas. So societies became more insular, and afraid to take risks. It also mean that any justice or retribution had to be taken into your own hands.
In contrast, with the invention of the modern nation-state, we no longer have to worry about walking down the street and meeting strangers. We can enter into business partnerships that may be risky, because the government can exact justice on those who fail to meet their end of the contract. And we can explore the next mountain ridge or river shore without fear, since the state has brought peace.
But there are advantages to the world-yesterday. Some tribal societies care for their elderly better than moderns do (of course, some create social pressures that force the elderly to commit suicide actively or passively by wandering into the bush or onto an ice floe). Diamond also considers other advantages of "primitive" society such as multi-lingualism and the freedom that young children are given to wander.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Associate Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor