So mission will not end when the last of the people groups is reached. We are not sent because of the temporary need in the world (which is indeed great!) because God is a sending God and He is glorified in our obedience. We must recognize that mission is the very nature of God and the basis of our relationship to Him. Mission isn’t a task to be finished, it’s our identity in Christ.
E. Goodman, The Anthropological Approach to Missions
Mission did not begin with the the Great Commission, nor with our modernistic interpretation of people groups in the 1970′s. Mission is the movement of God. It will not end when all the “unreached” have been “reached,” or when the “unengaged” have been “engaged” (and none of those words are biblical). No, mission will end when we are gathered around the throne, worshiping at the foot of the Most High God.
“Unfortunately, there is a danger that in the expression, “the whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world” turns the church into nothing more than a delivery mechanism for the message. All that matters is “getting the job done”– preferably as soon as possible. And sadly, there are some forms of missionary strategy and rhetoric that strongly give that impression.
“The Bible, in stark contrast, is passionately concerned about what kind of people they are who claim to be the people of God. If our mission is to share good news, we need to be good news people. If we preach a gospel of transformation, we need to show some evidence of what transformation looks like.”
The Mission of God’s People
Missiology in the first instance is not preoccupied with the question of what the truth is, but with the secondary question of how we are to present that truth about Christ. How are we to speak the truth about Christ in such a way that the gospel is comprehensible to its hearers? I might indicate in this connection that evangelization struggles with the same complexities. For, in the western world today, unchristian opinions and tendencies are certainly beginning to be seen in more audacious and flagrant forms, with the result that the difference between missions and evangelism is shriveling. In both terms, at issue is the demand to preach Christ relevantly and compellingly to people who do not know the one who is the Light of our light and the Life in our lives. The way of posing the issue in missiology is not the same as it is for dogmatic theology. For missiology, it is not about summarizing synthetically the truth of Scripture as that is mirrored in the church’s confession. Nor is it about apologetics, although missiology must often sharply and clearly expose the errors of false religion and ward off all the attacks concentrated against the gospel. But all of this is simply provisional and not yet its actual task. The essential task of missiology is missional. As soon as the church moves from a defensive posture concerning unbelief and superstition and assumes the offensive position of positively proclaiming the gospel, it unavoidably faces the weighty issue of the form in which the gospel must be rendered.”
Bolt, John (2013-06-03). The J. H. Bavinck Reader (p. 116). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
So I’m coming out of blog retirement. For this post, anyway. It turns out that I really miss writing through my thoughts on God’s mission. Regardless of whether or not anyone actually reads this blog, I enjoy asking the missiological questions that I don’t hear others asking. So I’m back. For now.
Also, John Piper keeps telling everyone that they aren’t missionaries.
And this guy says I’m confused about cessationist missiology (if there was such a thing).
So here we go. Again.
The Upstream Collective have launched their new book, Tradecraft: For the Church on Mission. It’s a collection of nine basic missionary skills which, according to the authors, was written for “all Christians everywhere.”
In the old days (and by old days, I mean the First Century), missionary skills were treated as basic discipleship. If you were going to be a follower of Jesus, you had to know how to join tribes, exegete culture, and build relationships. Jesus instructed His disciples to look for persons of peace and to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Being a Christ-follower was being a missionary.
But somewhere along the way, we separated out the missionary training from the rest of discipleship. It became acceptable to be a Christian not on mission (as if there was such a thing!). The missionary training we reserved only for those who would commit to living abroad.
With Tradecraft, Upstream calls on the Church to re-integrate missionary skills back into discipleship. It’s one thing for a church to say that they are making disciples, but it’s another thing altogether for a church to make missionaries.
Tradecraft is an important book, if for no other reason than it moves beyond defining mission (as so many other books do) to focus on how to do mission. Believe it or not, there’s really very little
in the way of practical guides to mission available today. Most prescribe formulas for small-group Bible studies or consider cleaning up the local public school to be “mission.” Tradecraft instead focuses on the skills that help Christians sort through all of that and decide how best to live a God’s people among those who do not know Him.
While the authors may have intended the book to be for non-professtional missionaries and their churches, it’s actually the professionals who could use this kind of guidebook. The vast majority of international Christian workers have no formal training (or education, for that matter). Even those career missionaries with seminary training often don’t get much practical instruction. Tradecraft would be an excellent “field guide” for missionaries everywhere.
I recommend the following uses for Tradecraft:
- Church small group studies: this is a great way for a small group to have a common vocabulary and perspective on everyday incarnation.
- Mission teams required reading before a trip: no more ignorant missions teams! Require volunteers to read this before they get on a plan.
- Church planting team formative study: you’re doomed to replicate the attractional, event-based consumer model unless your team thinks like missionaries.
- Missionaries on the field: it’s like continuing education; even if you’re been around for a while, refresh your memory of the basics.
- University/Seminary missions courses: Tradecraft fits nicely as a practical complement to Christopher Wright and David Bosch.
- Student groups: turn students into campus missionaries by teaching missionary tradecraft.
- Church staffs/elder boards: missionary thinking is the best way to insure that you’re building God’s kingdom, not yours.
- A gift for missions supporters and donors: if they understand how missionaries think- why they do what they do- donors are less likely to make ridiculous suggestions or have unrealistic expectations. Disciple those who send you into being missionaries themselves!
A missionary to Burma* would arrive to his field of service having very little familiarity with his new host culture. Any missionary worth his salt would immediately set out to learning about the people– their beliefs, values, language, and lifestyle. In the process, the missionary is likely to observe some things about the culture that he does not understand. He is also likely to find some things he understands perfectly but completely disagrees with.
For starters, the missionary may immediately notice the poor treatment of women in the country. Burmese girls are often married off at very young ages, and many are denied formal education and medical care. The missionary may also abhor the existence of sweat shops and the practice of child labor that is common in some areas. These conditions are symptoms of sin, and should be opposed by God’s people.
The missionary would probably also find things about the culture that offend him personally. He may find taxation exessive, the media biased, and the country’s immigration policies unfair. Of course, he would likely be frustrated by the fact that the Burmese government does not want him to be in their country. Though his presence is illegal, the missionary moves in and gets to work anyway (he has, after all, been sent by God). Nevertheless, a good missionary would probably not get tangled up in these sorts of things. He’s here to be Jesus to the Burmese people, not to fight for governmental fiscal responsibility.
The missionary keeps in mind that he is in this place for a reason. He therefore concerns himself with the most important things– with exegeting culture for bridges and barriers to the gospel, and with building relationships in order to make disciples. What this missionary would not do is work to maintain his comfort, preserve his preferences, insure his personal safety, or fight for his rights.
As I travel the world and interact with Christians from different traditions, I’m struck by their very unmissionary concerns. They’re worried about their security, their reputations, and their rights. They bemoan the fact that their mission field is not reflective of the Kingdom, that the people to whom they’ve been sent don’t worship the Most High God.
And how do these unmissionary Christians respond to the ungodliness of the world around them? By complaining rather than proclaiming. By fighting for their rights rather than turning the other cheek. By isolating themselves in a “Christian” subculture.
If the missionary to Burma behaved this way, we’d call him a bad missionary. We’d say that he’d become concerned with the affairs of this world and distracted from his mission. Of course, a missionary to Burma isn’t our model for mission., Christ is. His attitude toward an unbelieving world was blessing. He sacrificed His comfort, His rights, –His life– on their behalf. This is the mind all Christians ought to have. In Christ, we are all necessarily missionaries. The question is whether we will be good ones, or distracted ones.
*I have no knowledge of missionaries in Burma. I also am aware of the fact that “Burma” the country is called Myanmar.
For a related post, please read: “You’re Not From Around Here Anymore“
I’m curious about the many different takes (and assumptions) Christians have concerning international missions. For some people, it’s a task we need to accomplish for God. For others, it’s a calling they can’t shake. Others still are content to pay others to do mission for them. Many don’t know much at all about the endeavor. My theory is this: our perspective on mission is shaped by the information we receive about mission.
In other words, we don’t learn about missions in general and then fill that in with information about individual people and places. The foundation of our understanding is never really formed at all; instead we’re bombarded with pieces of information and then left to fill in the whys and hows on our own.
So I’ve got a quick question for you:
PREVIOUSLY: The Endangered Cultures List
The Seed Company is the advance guard of scripture translation. Their strategy is specially designed to jump-start the process by finding nationals to lead the work and prioritizing the translation of certain passages. It’s quite remarkable, really.
But there is more they could do to accelerate Bible translation.
Historically, scripture translation has been done by trained professionals. Involvement of supporters has therefore been limited to financial contributions. Give money, the strategy goes, and we will produce the translation. That’s not to say that Bible translations are being done through the tedious work of lone individuals- it’s a group effort. For every target language, translation efforts depend on a network of nationals, scholars, researchers, linguists, and writers to do the job. The Seed Company uses modern technology and its OurWord translation software (see video embedded in The Seed Company’s home page) to facilitate communication between translators and consultants.
As large and dynamic as these teams can be, I say they’re not large and dynamic enough. I would open them up to public participation; crowdsource the work.
Crowdsourcing is relying on the participation of volunteers to accomplish a task or maintain knowledge. Open source software is one example of crowdsourcing- its copyright allows users to makes changes to the source code, improving its compatibility, functionality, and usability. Wikipedia is another good example. Thousands of volunteer editors write the entries to the online encyclopedia that is accurate and up-to-date (and has put traditionally-edited print encyclopedias out of business).
The Seed Company should set up a wiki site that allows everyone from amateur linguists to phililogy students to national believers to aid in the translation of the scriptures. As with Wikipedia, users could write, edit, and maintain accurate translations of passages and books of the Bible in every available language. The source could always be available online to anyone who wanted to participate. The works-in-progress would provide tangible projects for churches to take on. Rather than holding potentially supportive churches at a “pray, give, or go” arm’s length, open source scripture translation would invite people in to direct and tangible involvement. Churches could support individual translations and help recruit native speakers to assist with the work.
A greater base of locals would have ownership in the project, adding a level of indigeneity to what might otherwise be seen by supporters as patronizing efforts by outsiders. Regional versions could be accommodated, allowing for hyper-local translation in linguistically-diverse areas. The process would be maintained in an ongoing fashion; translations would no longer be considered either “in progress” or “finished,” and could instead keep up with the rapid changes all languages undergo. Curation of a translation by nationals could be an indicator of the viability of an indigenous church among a people.
Some have already turned to “the crowd” for projects related to the Bible. Crossway has tracked the highlighting practices of users of its online ESV Bible to find the most commonly highlighted Psalms. Self-described conservatives are crowdsourcing a “conservative” version of the King James Bible (what they call a “translation,” I’m calling an “interpretation.”) Nevertheless, their project shows that such an undertaking is possible and productive; the conservative New Testament was produced in about a year.
Sure, there are concerns and objections (mostly on the part of professional translators)- can we trust the translation of the public? Of unbelievers? What about militant atheists who want to vandalize the project? How can we guarantee the accuracy and integrity of a translation done by strangers? What about the languages of isolated tribes who don’t have computers or internet access?
Well, for starters, technology can make this work. Version and editions tracking can make managing such a project viable. Those nationals who are currently regarded as “translators” would become editors. Their job would be to review and approve editions and proposed changes. Users could flag questionable or unhelpful translation wherever they run into it, and links could provide alternate translations. Source material could be viewed parallel to the target translation, and reference material could be easily accessed. All of this can be done on a text-based website designed to work on mobile phones.
At the very least, a raw translation can serve as rough drafts for professional translators rather than having them start from scratch. It would be the ultimate in accountability, as translation progress would be publicly visible. It would build community among participants, instill a sense of ownership, and give churches practical handles for supporting churches.
Crowdsourcing would greatly accelerate scripture translation.
NEXT: The Seed Company, Misunderstood
PREVIOUSLY: The Words of the Word
Advocating for literacy can be a PR problem for scripture translation agencies. You see, literacy campaigns within literate cultures are widely accepted as good things. But promoting literacy among pre-literate peoples (those who do not have a written language) can smack of imperialism. Combine that with efforts toward evangelization, and the general public can really come to resent scripture translation missionaries as colonialists who insist on ruining innocent cultures with Western ideals.
To make matters worse, scripture translation has been married to the anthopological approach to missions for the last 30 years. The task-orientation of this philosophy has made translation more about the task than about the people. Consequently, its come to be seen as auxiliary to mission; something that isn’t missions itself, but helpful to actual missions. Of course, this isn’t true.
If I were leading the scripture translation group, The Seed Company, I would combat this with a broad campaign to raise awareness of the impending demise of languages and cultures. In this light, missionary scripture translation is literally saving cultures. The first thing I’d do is start a list of endangered languages and circulate it widely. I would make a theological argument for the preservation of minority cultures based on Acts 2, Acts 10, Acts 16, and show their missiological value by highlighting the uniqueness and each endangered culture.
I’d remind people that each culture’s history and perspective provides us with an opportunity to know and see God from a different angle. Tim Keller says, “The city is home to more image-of-God per square foot than anywhere else.” I would add that losing a culture is the world losing observable image-of-God. The Seed Company could champion the value of human cultural diversity. When a culture interacts with the scriptures, we can learn a lot about God. Translating the Bible isn’t about making isolated cultures more like ours, it’s about giving them a voice so that they might influence others.
Doing so would help distinguish The Seed Company from its parent organization, Wycliffe Bible Translators as the social side of missionary translation. It would have the added benefit of facilitating partnership with a broader range of organizations and might bring in public and corporate funding (and mainstream attention) for specific efforts. With such an emphasis, there’s no reason that The Seed Company couldn’t partner with groups like the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in the Enduring Voices Project. This would surely accelerate Bible translation.
Furthermore, I’d cast literacy as the solution to globalization, which is both a social and spiritual problem. If we don’t translate the scripture into every human language, we’ll soon all be shopping at Walmart, drinking Starbucks lattes, and speaking the lazy, slang-infested language that passes for English these days. My campaign would feature images of the children of an isolated tribe in the Amazon wearing clothes from Abercrombie and Fitch and starving men from Somalia in line to order food at McDonald’s. That world isn’t good for anybody. Globalization is the opposite of indigeneity. Proposing a one-size-fits-all solution across cultures is social Darwinism. Indigeneity means that members of a tribe, tongue, and nation should not have to join another culture in order follow Jesus.
Scripture translation as literacy promotion and culture preservation would be a campaign that a new generation of activists (and donors) could really get behind. It would recast missionary Bible translation efforts as sociology rather than propaganda.
That’s not all I’d change if I were running The Seed Company…
NEXT: Translators Wanted
Everywhere I go, I find missionaries who have lost faith in the local church. Bad experiences have left them unsure that there’s even a place for churches in the work on the field. Well I’ve got news: it isn’t the churches who have a problem. Here are five common reasons churches won’t partner with people on the field.
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