Even so I Send You – Some Reflections on the Current Missionary Task of the Church
We live in changing times with regard to many aspects of church life, and this also affects our approach to mission. Changes in our society and in the opportunities and possibilities given to us lead to new approaches and new avenues with regard to the exercise of the believer’s mandate in the world. Given our history we are accustomed to think of missionaries as those who go to very primitive areas and preach the gospel to people who are illiterate or totally cut off from the mainstream of civilization. But the constellation of mission work of the Reformed churches is changing. We now work in more civilized countries, and in more advanced cultures. And most areas of the globe have been confronted with the message of the gospel in one way or another. Some are now sent out to teach rather than preach, or to provide help and assistance in training pastors rather than being ministers themselves.
What is mission? Where do the limits of mission stop and where does providing aid take over? What is the relation between mission and providing aid, or between mission and teaching? These are the questions with which modern day missiology must grapple. And as we grapple with them we must admit that we cannot simply rely on the old ways of doing things. We must exploit the new possibilities that the Lord opens up to us as Reformed churches. At the same time, we are called to work in a way that honours the Reformed and Scriptural principles concerning the work of mission. We cannot compromise our position, or adopt the style of the mainstream churches with their emphasis on humanitarian deeds, and on imparting a gospel which gives no offense, but only provides resources for people to go on living in the present darkness they are in.
In my address tonight I would like to consider some of these issues and also offer a contribution to the discussion concerning the many challenges facing the church’s mission today. We want to consider the changing nature of the missionary task of the church. We consider first, the modern perspectives regarding this missionary task; second, the abiding principles regarding this missionary task and third, the current directives regarding this missionary task.
Missiology, the science of missions, has been undergoing much change and development in the last thirty years. You can characterize this period as the breakthrough of the modernistic idea in mission. This modernistic idea is: we cannot really speak of mission in any traditional sense, that is, of a being sent by Christ to the unchurched or the unreached. Can we in the west presume to say that we have a message for the rest of the world? The old adage was: there is no salvation outside the church. But this must be turned around. There is no salvation inside the church, for there people are complacent and self-satisfied. There people think they have a ticket to heaven, but they have let themselves fall asleep. The church must change if it wishes to be saved. It must go out into the world and become the church for the world. It must join in the suffering of this world, and share people's suffering, becoming partners with them of the suffering of God in the world.
These sentences capture in a nutshell what the new missiological thinking is all about. David Bosch speaks of the emergence of a new paradigm, that is, a new world and life view with respect to missions. 1 That new world and life view or paradigm is predominately characterized by the abolition of any sense of western priority, as if the west would be in a position to show others the way to salvation. Mission does not flow from the west to the rest of the world's nations. There is a new flux, a new matrix with a complex chart of points and counterpoints, a grid of interchanges and flow lines going in every direction. One can hardly speak of mission anymore, for everyone is at the same time sent, but also one to whom one is sent, a giver and receiver, one who shares and one who experiences sharing. As Lesslie Newbigin puts it:
It is no longer a matter of the simple command to go to the ends of the earth and preach the gospel where it has not been heard. In every nation there are already Christian believers ... The missionary calling is thus merged (or dissolved) into the general obligation of all Christians everywhere to fight injustice, challenge evil, and side with the oppressed. 2
Here one meets with the end point of the modernistic idea: you cannot really speak of mission anymore today.
Let us consider some elements of this emerging paradigm in missions, and also the impact that this paradigm has had on the activities of many mainstream churches today. First, we can no longer speak of the mission of the church. The preferred concept today is missio Dei, the mission of God. 3 God is the real and only missionary. We do not do mission, we only participate in God's mission. And therefore the church cannot dictate to the world, but in its sharing with the world it at the same time discovers with the world what the mission of God is all about.4
This means, secondly, that the church is not a body for itself. It is always church for others. The essence of the church is mission. The church is a missionary church, and being a missionary body belongs to the very essence of the church. As Bosch puts it, the church is never static. 5 It is a pilgrim church, a church on the move; it is essentially a sign or a sacrament of the comprehensive salvation of God, and of God reconciling the world to Himself. The church is not the bearer of a message; the church is an illustration of God's involvement with the world.
The one missio Dei breaks down into the various missiones ecclesiae. All churches are involved in mission. But here there are not mother churches opposed to daughter churches. All churches are equal, and all are involved in mediating God’s salvation for the world. Here one meets the modern ecumenical approach. Churches of all denominations, stripes and colours are included in the missio Dei. Modern missiology is essentially a missiology of convergence, and especially convergence between Protestant and Roman Catholic missions. 6 On these points, the church of Rome has changed dramatically. Protestants were formerly called “heretics” and “schismatics” but are now labelled as “dissenters” or “separated brethren” or “brothers and sisters in Christ.” 7
A fourth characteristic of the modern approach concerns the salvation which the church mediates. It is described as a comprehensive salvation, liberating the whole of life from the false structures of tyranny, hardship and oppression. The whole matrix of spiritual and material life together forms the one eschatological idea of salvation. It is holistic and all encompassing. The term most commonly used to describe this salvation is: the coming of the kingdom of God. 8
Ultimately the one mission of God is God’s movement – His self-journey through the world. This is a journey of humiliation and suffering. God sends His Son to journey to suffering and death. And His Spirit demands the same journey of those who are disciples in the true sense. The missio Dei is marked by compassion for the world and by suffering.9 The holistic approach of mission demands that the church sacrifice itself for the good of the world. The rich must give to the poor, the strong to the weak, so that God’s triumph can be seen in weakness, and His riches in our voluntary poverty.
The new approach to missions also incorporates a new approach to other religions. One can no longer speak of a message of light to free those trapped in darkness. One cannot speak of the relation between the Christian and the non-Christian religions as a difference between truth and error, “but only as the dynamic relation of a part of truth to all of the truth.”10 David Bosch notes how through the years the terminology at the meetings of the WCC has changed: from speaking of the witness of the Christian faith to men of other faiths it has become “dialogue between men of living faiths.”11 From witness to dialogue – a telling mark of the times. For the end result, as before, is that one can no longer speak of the mission of the church.
Now we would also like to say something about the unchanging principles with regard to Reformed missiology. For even though we recognize that we live in changing times, we all realize that God’s Word does not change, and His norms for mission still apply. Therefore a Reformed missiology will be antithetical in character to many of the perspectives that dominate modern missiology. At the same time, in the process of interaction with modern missiological themes, it will seek to apply the unchanging norms to the current situation facing the church today in its missiological task.
We have another reason for going back to the Reformed principles of mission. One might say that the basic principles of Reformed missiology were set forth at the Synod of Middelburg in 1896, thus one hundred years ago. And the speech this evening is also commemoratory of the work of this synod. Allow me to tell you something about the work of this synod as it relates to our topic.12
The synod of Dordtrecht held in 1893 appointed deputies to report to the Synod of Middelburg 1896 concerning the structure and method of the work of mission according to Reformed principles. The report brought out a very important principle: mission is not the task of private societies, but of the church of Christ. Christ gathers His church, and He uses the means of the preaching of the word. However, this report said that for practical reasons it would be better that mission was governed by deputies of the General Synod, and that these deputies be appointed to coordinate the work for the various churches. For this position they had a number of compelling arguments.
The deputies suggested that there were no direct Scriptural givens with regard to what method should be followed, i.e. the more centralized, or the more decentralized method. They also felt that a decentralized approach – as they termed it – would be irregular and poorly structured. By way of example they mention a possible mission meeting held with delegates from all kinds of different bodies: the church of Rotterdam, the classis of Amsterdam, the combined classes of De Hague and Leiden, the province of Friesland, and the combined provinces of Overijssel and Drente. This would result, according to the brothers, in inequality in leadership, methods, correspondence and approaches, in ease of work and in perspectives. The Deputies then postulated a marked difference between the order of churches in a federation, and the order of church life on the mission field.
Further, the brothers argued on the basis of Art. 30 C.O. that mission matters could well be conducted by an agency appointed by the churches in their broadest assembly, since many questions in the area of mission were matters of the churches in common. For this they gave many arguments, of which I mention only a few. They held that a missionary to a certain extent occupies a general office. The relation of the churches to the mission churches is a matter of the churches in common. Many matters the church had to deal with – liturgy, doctrine and so on – concerned the churches in common. A fourth argument concerned the relation to the authorities. Since this was regulated by the General Synod according to the Church Order, the relationship between the mission churches and the government could best be regulated by a synod. And finally the brothers argued that where each local church was not able to fulfil its calling independently it was the duty of the churches in common to deal collectively with these matters in major assemblies.
A number of other arguments were added to solidify the position of the reporting deputies, and one must commend them for expending every effort to bolster their position. They stated that the decentralized approach would seriously effect the unity of the churches. There should not be any competition between churches; indeed, cooperation in the financial arrangements was necessary. Leaving these matters to local churches would also damage the unity and continuity of the mission effort since consistories change their make-up from year to year. And with every difference of opinion among member churches there would be a long process of appeals, blocking the forward thrust needed to get things done. Next they maintained that the spiritual strength of the churches was too small to support the decentralized approach. For example, interest in mission was not the same everywhere. Many churches lacked the expertise to maintain a mission project, or even to adequately assist in maintaining it. Some churches were simply too busy to handle mission affairs on their agendas. And some churches did not have the means to properly train and examine their missionaries. Here, too, expertise was lacking. The young and weak mission churches could not do with a haphazard and at times conflicting support system. They needed strong centralized leadership. Hence the deputies opted for what they called a more “centralized” approach.
When this report was considered by synod, the deputies appointed by synod to deal with the matter came with a different approach. They were critical of the report that has been submitted, and specifically of the reasons given for the so-called centralized position as opposed to the decentralized one. Although they had a greater affinity with the tenor of the minority report, they also could not accept its conclusions. They found the recommendations of the minority report premature, and not sufficiently based on Scriptural principles. They suggested that mission be considered in accordance with the principles set forth in Holy Scripture. Pragmatic considerations were not to be permitted to hinder the implementation of sound Scriptural principles. And the fundamental principle here was: mission is the task of the local church.
Let us consider some of the synod committee’s arguments as they opposed the formidable looking construction of the deputies’ report. First, appealing to Acts 13, 14 and 16 they stated that Scripture is clear with regard to the demand that mission be conducted by the local church. They insisted that the church order does apply to the mission situation as well, that is, in those areas of the church order which reflect confessional principles. They stated that there were insufficient grounds presented to prove that mission was a matter of the churches in common ad Art 30 of the Church Order. There were also insufficient grounds adduced to justify the conclusion that these were matters which could not be finished in the minor assemblies. The deputies argued that it was not proven that the centralized approach is the ideal way to ensure sufficient funds for mission work. And finally they stated that a strong centralized leadership as defended by the reporting deputies would be more of a hindrance than a help to the progress of the mission.
After a good deal of debate, the position of the synodical deputies was adopted. Thus Middelburg 1896 gave a strong impetus for making mission a matter of the local church. David Bosch can say that one of the chief elements of the emerging paradigm in mission is the discovery of the local church. 13Yet he was mistaken on this point! The priority of the local church was discovered long before the seventies and eighties of our century. It was already promoted at the synod of 1896!
This is not to say that Middelburg 1896 provided us with a complete list of missiological principles which we can just adopt today. On the contrary, much work needed to be done. If I may be brief at this point, one can say that the thread of 1896 was really picked up again after the Liberation of 1944. The next major synod dealing with missions in a more comprehensive way was the Synod of Amersfoort 1948. This synod pushed missiological developments in a continued Scriptural line.
The key point in 1948, in opposition to the growing climate of the day, was that the essential task of the church with regard to mission is the preaching of the gospel. Under pressure of modern missiological views, many held that the church had a comprehensive task with regard to mission. The so-called comprehensive approach, introduced at the meeting of the International Missionary Council in Jerusalem in 1928, was winning converts among Reformed proponents as well. But the Synod of Amersfoort said that the primary task of the church is the preaching of the gospel. 14 The auxiliary functions are indeed a part of the task of the church, but are required in the measure that they foster and promote the missionary task. The work of providing necessary assistance is also a task given to the church as a whole, that is, it is not a task of the special offices, but a task to be initiated by the office of all believers. It was seen as a diaconal task given to the whole congregation. It was also argued that the help provided must be adapted as much as possible to the needs and circumstances of the people.
On this point Amersfoort 1948 brought in a correction to the line of Synod Middelburg 1896. For although Middelburg gave the task of mission to the local church, it also promoted a strong comprehensive position with respect to the various auxiliary services that need to be provided in mission work. The argument on which this position was based was the notion of prevenient, or preparatory grace. 15 This theory held that through various temporal and physical auxiliary means, the hearts of people are prepared by God in order to receive the spiritual blessings of His Word. This theory of preparatory grace has its roots in Abraham Kuyper’s theory of common grace, which he, in turn, adapted from Reformed scholasticism. 16 In rejecting the comprehensive approach, Amersfoort also opposed this aspect of the line of Middelburg 1896.
One sees since 1896 a twofold line: decentralization of the mission mandate, and a specification of the mandate to the matter of preaching the gospel, with an added provision for necessary auxiliary services. The task of the church concerns those auxiliary services necessary to advance the preaching of the gospel. Further work, such as the building of schools and hospitals fall outside of the immediate task of the church. And as we remember Middelburg 1896, we do not mean to boast in ourselves. We may thank the Lord that He opened the eyes of His servants so that the church took up its missionary task. And we may thank the Lord that He led the synod of Amersfoort 1948 to set its demarcation line against the modernistic ideal in mission. For the comprehensive approach ultimately ends in the promotion of liberation theology, and a horizontal gospel which brings no lasting peace to people.
At this point we would submit that this historical line as indicated by the Reformed synods treated above follows the line of Holy Scripture itself. To be sure, we must keep a trinitarian perspective. 17 However, mission cannot adequately be treated with the notion of missio Dei. In fact this notion tends to blur the specific mandate given by Christ to His church. One cannot say: the Father sends His church. It is more accurate to assert that Christ is the author of mission. This is the import of John 20:21, the text from which our title has been taken this evening: “As the Father has sent me even so I send you.” To be sure, all mission begins with the decree of the Father. But historically the execution of the mission mandate begins with mandate given by the Son.
The text of John 20 implies that although there is an analogy between the sending of the Son and the sending of the apostles, this is not a direct identity. 18 Christ was sent for a specific task. He now sends His apostles in the power of the Spirit in order to gather the harvest, that is to bring forth the fruits of His task. Christ gathers His church, in accordance with the confession of Lords Day 21. 19 He sends the Spirit into the world to work with the Word for the completion and fruit of His work.
The apostles serve as His ambassadors, and the apostolic mission means being agents for God and agents for Christ, 2 Corinthians 5: 18ff. Only in this oblique sense can one speak of a missio Dei. And just as the apostles were sent out in their task by local churches (Acts 13:1, 2) so the local church sends ministers of the Word who are especially set apart for the gathering of the converts from the nations. Jesus sent His disciples into the world with the promise of His care and protection, (Matthew 28:18, 19; John 17:22). As these disciples were sent, so all those whom they appointed to succeed them through the generations carry on the one missio Christi, the mission of Christ to all the world. 20
The method of mission remains: the preaching of the gospel, and its goal: the planting of the church. 21 The apostle Paul preached the good news to bring about the obedience of faith among the Gentiles, Romans 1:5; he then sent fellow workers and evangelists to solidify the initial gathering of the churches, Titus 1:5, Philippians 2:19.
Once this planting has taken effect, the sending churches can provide additional support, but only as a gesture of support from a sister church. This is not mission in the technical sense of the term, but, as Amersfoort 1948 said, a matter of post-mission, or follow-up care. The Form for the Missionaries of the Gospel calls the missionary to preach the gospel, to administer the sacraments, and to institute the offices. Once this point is reached, a new dimension of labour must be initiated, a dimension which cannot be termed mission in the proper sense. 22
Just as the Son suffered in the flesh in accordance with the mission given Him by the Father, so His servants are called to suffer in the flesh in their missionary task, bearing abuse for the sake of the gospel. Here again the relation is one of analogy, not identity. Yet, as Bosch has pointed out, while compassion is one of the great motivating factors of mission, but marturia – witnessing and suffering – is one of its chief characteristics. 23 The apostles had to “complete what was lacking in Christ’s sufferings” – i.e. bring the supplement which would ennoble the whole, Colossians 1:24. So the church is called to offer that sacrifice which shows that its compassion is not only spoken, but also felt. Our compassion for the lost must result in a willing sacrifice for the gospel. It must be proclaimed first among Jews and Moslems, but then also among all peoples – and especially those who have not heard it before, (Romans 15:20).