Gospel & Culture blog
As a professor of missions, I often hear people say "you can be missionary right in your own neighborhood." As with any academic field, it's important to get the terms clear. While you can be an evangelist in your own neighborhood, "missionary" and "missions" should not be confused with "evangelism" or "discipleship."
Missions is cross-cultural discipleship, so some very important work that we do as the church is NOT missions. Drawing a boundary does mean excluding some work from the definition of missions (thought such work may be missional and strategic for the church). Consider the following true examples from my students:
Sharon, from the USA, teaches English in Thailand. She was not sent by her church, is not under a mission agency, and receives a salary from her university. While she is working cross-cultural, she does not see herself as a missionary because her presence in Thailand is not particularly about making disciples
Miguel, from the Philippines, is studying theology and missions in the USA, but plans to plant churches among his own ethnic group in the Philippines. He considers himself a church planter, but not a missionary.
Carmen, from the USA, is financially supported by members of her own church to do the bookkeeping for a mission organization in West Africa. She does not particularly “teach them to obey all Jesus has commanded,” but her mission organization does have an overall plan to make disciples. Carmen sees herself as a missionary because of her important role in an organization that is doing missions.
If a cross cultural worker digs wells but has no overall plan for “teaching them to obey all Jesus commanded,” then while it is obeying the first commandment to manage the earth for the flourishing of humankind, it is not part of the narrower aspect of the churches mission to make disciples across cultures. And in all fairness, I must add, if an organization plants churches and hands out tracks, but is not actually “teaching them to obey all Jesus has commanded,” then it, too, is not actually doing missions.
Of course, in our day-to-day experience, the set of activities which are involved in making disciples is fuzzy. Healthcare can be done in a way that teaches people to obey Jesus, or it can be done without touching on issues of discipleship. A Christian could work cross-culturally in such a way that she makes disciples in her secular workplace, or she could hide her light under a bushel. By defining missions narrowly as cross-cultural discipleship, I am not as much excluding certain activities as I am focusing on the setting (does it cross cultural boundaries) and strategy (does it make disciples) that drives those activities.
The activities (methods) and purpose seem to fall in three general categories. The most obvious is witness. Some “teach them to obey all Jesus commanded” by planting churches, teaching in international seminaries, exorcising demons, and preaching to crowds at college campuses. But in 2016 we reached the threshold where more than 50% of people who call themselves missionaries say their primary activity is not witness, but service, development, healthcare, or cultural production through the arts. A second category of missionary methods includes engagement in public life. And a third we may label as “cultural production.” The below shows how these categories fit together in the bigger picture of making disciples across cultures.
When I type "how do i convert to..." in Google suggest, the first suggestion is .pdf. It appears more people are curious about converting their word documents to Acrobat Reader than those who want to know how to follow Jesus. Islam and Judaism come up in the Google Suggest; but Christianity doesn't even appear. Are more people wondering how to convert computer files than how to convert to Christianity? Are people more interested in converting to Judaism and Islam than to Christianity?
We know that Islam is the fastest growing religion, and will soon catch up to Christianity. Pew says that there will be 2.76 billion Muslims by 2050, and 2.92 billion Christians by the same time. Obviously, the growth in both cases is mainly biological (Christians have babies who become Christians, and Muslims do the same)- so this is not primarily conversion growth.
While "nones" (those who have no affiliation) are a growing demographic in Western nations, the number will barely rise globally. 79% of millennials say they are not affiliated with any religion, according to this study from Pew. That's compared to 54% of those born before 1946.
I suppose a main question that arises from the Google Suggest is whether one can learn how to convert through a google search. If you finish the search "how do i convert to Christianity" it sends you to a 10 step wikihow with reasonable advice: get a Bible, get into a church, accept Jesus.
The apostle Paul said “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12 ESV). Yet Open Doors and Voice of the Martyrs remind us that some are experiencing much greater levels of persecution than others. Open Doors' “World watch list” breaks down persecution of Christians into three “impulses” or pressures on Christians: tribalism (factions, in-fighting), secularism, and exploitation. Some persecution is acute (which Open Doors refers to as “the smash”) and some is more chronic (“the squeeze”). Religious intolerance, factionalism and tribalism are increasingly dangerous to believers. It was Justin Long who reported “During this century, we have documented cases in excess of 26 million martyrs. From AD 33 to 1900, we have documented 14 million martyrs.” The Vatican says that 75% of people who are killed for their faith are Christians.
Historically, theologians have been ambivalent the role of persecution in Christianity. Tertullian noted that “the blood of the martyrs is seed [of the church]" (Apologeticus, Chapter 50). This was more descriptive than prescriptive. That is, Tertullian wasn’t advocating for martyrdom as a church growth strategy; he was observing that rather than stamping out the church, martyrdom rallied the faithful. Why is this? Maybe because stories of persecution are inspiring. They help us think through our own priorities. We think, “If someone ordinary- not a super saint- had the courage to stick to their convictions, then maybe I can too.” Westminster Abbey's statue to ten 20th century martyrs from all six continents received wide attention because of the inspiring stories and adventuresome lives of Bonhoeffer, Dr MLK Jr, Archbishop Oscar Romero and others.
Why do governments and factions persecute Christians?
Some postcolonial theorists find the martyrdom narrative within Christianity to be disturbing, so they discount the degree to which the church has been, and still is, persecuted. Most notably, New Testament scholar and contributor to the National Geographic Channel Candida Moss has argued that the persecution complex gives license to Christians to vilify their opponents:
Instead, Moss says, early accounts of martyrdom were few and far between. Such accounts were highly stylized to suit the author’s purpose. Christians, Moss argues, were prosecuted, not persecuted, for a crime that made sense to the ancient world. In order to further distance Christianity from its historical claim of disproportionately high levels of persecution, Moss argues that the act of martyrdom was not original, but followed motifs in the life of Socrates and the Greek romance novel. Or perhaps, Moss fancies, early Christians “couldn’t help themselves” from rehearsing the passion narrative!
While persecution is one of the greatest threats to Christians, Patrick Fung (Director of OMF) tried to keep this perspective: “The greatest challenge to missions isn’t martyrdom, but a diluted gospel” (NA Mission Leaders’ conference, Chicago, Sep 21 2012). Interestingly, Glenn Penner, CEO of Voice of the Martyrs takes a similar radical stance: “I do not believe that persecution is the greatest threat to the continuing spread of the gospel. I am much more concerned about something that, at first glance, seems benign and even helpful but which I contend is far more insidious. I am referring to the dependency creating practices that ministries are increasingly promoting in the name of ‘partnership.’”
The issue of martyrdom raises a number of questions for Christians
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor