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Isaiah61

Social engagement or evangelism-only? 

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What is the mission of the church?

 

Here are three factors that unnecessarily polarize the debate:

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1) We think in terms of church programmes.  We frame the whole debate in terms of how many of our 15 scheduled hours of church-run activity must be devoted to helping the needy each week. 

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2) We look for justification in the wrong theological doctrine.  One crowd stresses the doctrine of creation, the other the doctrine of salvation – and then we proceed as though these are separate agendas, separately addressed by the Lord.  We need to begin with a doctrine of God from which flows a single creation-salvation programme in the Gospel of the Son.  Here’s a paper where I attempt to do this

From this approach I think it becomes obvious that evangelism simply is the mission of the church.  But it also means that social engagement does get worked out on the basis of and from within that proclaimed gospel.

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3) Even though I’m a believer that “the mission of the church is evangelism” I submit that our side is probably most to blame for unnecessary polarization.  The sad fact is that many of the evangelism-only crowd are also middle-class-only.  We don’t really believe that the Good News is for the poor.  (Which is not really a methodological problem – it’s a spiritual and theological problem).

But the debate is not about who we should minister to!  We should all agree that we must minister to the poor.  And we can hardly deny that Jesus had a decided bias to the outsider!  The debate is about what form that ministry takes and what makes it Christian.  Well then let’s have this debate while we all move onto the housing estates and with the love of Christ compelling us, let us all minister to the poor. You can knock on doors and lead off by addressing practical needs.  I’ll knock on doors and lead off with Jesus.  I still think my way’s much more faithful and I’ll try to persuade you.  But I also reckon that you will end up gospelling some of your contacts.  And there’s no doubt that I’ll end up debt counselling many of mine. 

But let’s at least make sure we’ve got the same mission field in mind.  Let’s first be clear that we must reach the poor.  Then let’s discuss how.

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This video is very well worth the ten minutes plus.

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It’s been a busy week.  I’ve only just read this from the the Saturday papers and now realise it’s all over the blogosphere anyway – nonetheless…

Whenever evangelicals lose their nerve, Matthew Parris (columnist for the Times) can be counted on to set us straight – atheist though he is.

There was this famous piece in 2003, declaring that Evangelical Anglicans were right to oppose gay bishops.

As it happens I do not believe in the mind of God. But Christians do and must strive to know more of it. Nothing they read in the Old and New Testaments gives a scintilla of support to the view that the God of Israel was an inclusive God, or inclined to go with the grain of human nature; much they read suggests a righteous going against the grain…

Revelation, therefore, not logic, must lie at the core of the Church’s message. You cannot pick and choose from revealed truth.

Or there was this brilliant aside here when comparing climate change advocates with Christians:

British ministers talk about climate change in the way many Christians talk about their faith. If they believed only half of what they profess, then the knowledge would surely have galvanised them, shaken them rigid; they would be grabbing us by our lapels and begging us, imploring us, commanding us, to repent.

But his Saturday piece on Christian evangelism as the hope for Africa was just excellent:

Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good…

Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosphical/spiritual framework I’ve just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.

Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted.

And I’m afraid it has to be supplanted by another. Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.

 

Of course in among all those “M” words there’s a glaring omission – but the point is well made no?

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“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

“May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:23)

“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:14-16)

The congregational life of the church has breath-taking potential.  We are on show to the world – even beyond this world! (Eph 3:10).  Jesus wants the world to look on and to say “The love these people display reminds me of Christ.  This love is out of this world. Now I believe that Christ came from the Father.  Praise be to God!”

If we took this seriously we would see that there is not ‘fellowship’ on the one hand and ‘mission’ on the other.  But in the plan and purpose of Jesus our fellowship is missional.  Our life together is to the end that we witness to the world.  We are a missionary body – a kingdom of priests. (Ex 19:6; 1 Pet 2:9; Rev 5:10).  The community of the church is not a community for its own sake but for the sake of the world.  This outward focus is constitutive of our life together.  Thus we are neither a ‘holy huddle’ nor a loose association of evangelists. 

These are the two errors we could fall into.  On the ‘holy huddle’ side we may invest in community life for its own sake.  And yet Jesus expects that the world will be able to see our united love.  On the other side we may neglect our brothers and sisters for the sake of mission.  Yet this is impossible if we’ve understood Jesus’ commands above.   Loving the ‘brotherhood’ is missional.  Thus when Paul says to do good “especially to those who belong to the household of faith” (Gal 6:10) it is not simply an inwardly-looking nepotism.  The love of the Christian family is the shop-window of the gospel and has unparalleled magnetic potential!

The question in practice is how do we make this gospel fellowship visible to the outside world?  I have three suggestions, I’d love to hear any that you have.

  1. Churches should keep ‘church’ commitments to a minimum so that Christians can actually engage in the world around us.
  2. Home groups should be places where non-Christian friends can come along and see fellowship (over meals preferably)
  3. Church members should be encouraged to collaborate in efforts to ‘infiltrate’ clubs, sports teams, bars etc.  This way Christians can ‘love one another’ before the watching world rather than having guerilla soldiers go on individual ‘raids.’

Any other thoughts on the practicalities of this?

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For a sermon I just preached on John 13 which prompted these thoughts go here.

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A little detour on Barth…

Last century, Karl Barth was key in re-emphasizing mission as the outflow of the life of God.  At the Brandenburg Missionary Conference in 1932  he said:

“Must not even the most faithful missionary, the most convinced friend of missions, have reason to reflect that the term missio was in the ancient Church an expression of the doctrine of the Trinity-namely the expression of the divine sending forth of self, the sending of the Son and Holy Spirit to the world? Can we indeed claim that we do it any other way?”

The mission of God flows from Father to Son to church and out to the world.  And just as the God from whom this mission flows is a Gospel God – One who is who we see in the events of the gospel – so His mission is a gospel mission.  Just as the Father committed His words (remata) to the Son (John 14:24), the Son entrusts them to His followers (John 17:10) to be taken out into the world (John 21:20).

For this reason Barth was very particular about what he thought mission to be.  It is a word-y business.  It is about proclamation, about publishing this Gospel to the world.  Consider these quotes from a variety of his writings:

“The essence of the Church is proclamation.”  (Homiletics, p40)

“the event of real proclamation is the life-function of the Church which conditions all the rest.” (I/1,p98)

“The first if not the only thing in its witness is the ministry of the viva vox Evangelii to be discharged voce humana in human words.  It is its declaration, explanation and evangelical address with the lips.” (IV/3, p864)

“…we learn from the Biblical witness to revelation that, over and above the command to believe, love and hope, and distinct from the command to call in common upon His name, to help the brethren, etc., Jesus Christ has given His Church the commission to proclaim, and to proclaim through preaching and sacrament.” (I/1, p62)

“At bottom, the Church is in the world only with a book in its hands.  We have no other possibility to bear witness except to explain this book.”  (God in Action, p107-108)

Now, before we ever write off such a mission as narrow – ignoring the social and political needs of the day – consider article 6 of the Barmen Declaration which Barth penned in Germany in 1934:

“The Church’s commission, which is the foundation of its freedom, consists in this: in Christ’s stead, and so in the service of his own Word and work, to deliver to all people, through preaching and sacrament, the message of the free grace of God.”

Consider the context.  Germany. 1934.  Wouldn’t there have been immense pressure to deliver another message alongside that of the ‘free grace of God’??  Wouldn’t we have been tempted also to address the extemely pressing social and political needs of the day??

Yet Barth’s definition of mission speaks extremely pointedly into the social and political needs of the day because it refuses to deal with those needs on their own terms.  Instead, the church serves and confronts the world (even Nazi Germany!) by first serving its Lord.  This service is gospel proclamation.  And through it, the world is confronted with its true Fuhrer (Christ) and its true Reich (the Kingdom).  The church most engages the world when it most rejects the world’s agendas and presses its own – the Gospel of Christ.

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For more on this see my essay on What is the mission of the church?

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God is a Gospel-Alone God.  He is known only in the Gospel.  His very being is a Gospel Being.  There’s no use even conceiving of a God other than the Father revealed in the Son by the Spirit.  If you’re not convinced, read these posts which were digressions to bolster the point:

       The Trinitarian OT

       Oneness and Threeness

Now if this is true then the Gospel-Alone God is honoured in the world by a Gospel-Alone mission.  This is what I was trying to say with the first two parts of “Mission, evangelism and social action.” (part one, part two).

Here are some more thoughts on the topic…

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7)  Much talk in this debate is founded on false dichotomies.

Take as an example Dwight Moody’s comment:

“I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel.  God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, ‘Moody, save all you can.”

Many of the ‘evangelism-only’ advocates in this debate sound closer to Plato than Scripture as they forward an essentially dualistic world-view.  Here “this world” is pitted against a salvation that is clearly ‘out of this world.’  Salvation is from this ‘wrecked vessel’.  Such thinking is very common.  People play off against each other then and now, soul and body, heaven and earth, individual and corporate, internal and external, rational and physical.  In each case it is the former that is given precedence. 

Yet surely God’s purposes for ‘this wrecked vessel’ are to renew it not abandon it!  The new creation – the realm of salvation – is this creation renewed.  The spiritual realm is not anti-physical, the Word became flesh!  Any arguments for Gospel-alone mission must avoid such dualisms.  But…

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8) We must also maintain some Biblical distinctions.

‘Spiritual vs physical’ is more recognisable as a Greek dualism  But the Bible puts forward some right distinctions.

  • Adam vs Christ
    • Adam refined is still Adam.  “Flesh gives birth to flesh.” (John 3:6)
  • Works vs Faith
    • Even faultless legalistic righteousness is dung in God’s sight. (Phil 3:1-9)
    • “Faith comes by hearing.” (Rom 10:14)
  • Christ’s work vs Our witness
    • All authority is given to the risen Christ – the Church goes in a word and sacrament ministry. (Matt 28:18-20)
    • We do not redeem the world – Christ has done it.  As ambassadors, we bring word of this finished work (2 Cor 5: 18-21)
    • We are not the doers.  It is finished.  We bear witness to His once-and-for-all Doing.

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9)  ‘Service to the world’ does not co-ordinate our mission.  Mission co-ordinates our service to the world.

Often people conceive of ‘service’ as the umbrella activity under which evangelism sits (side by side with social action).  Yet, what does 2 Corinthians 4:1-6 say?  Apostolic ministry is setting forth the truth plainly – in this context we serve. 

It’s always perilous to claim ‘this is how Jesus did it’ but that’s what I’m claiming.  Ministries of mercy always accompanied Christ’s preaching of the word.  Praise God!  I mean, really, can you imagine a Christ who ignored the physical needs of those who came to Him??!  Not for a second! Yet His service was in the context of His Gospel (word) mission:

Think of Mark 1:

“Everyone is looking for you!” 38 Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else–to the nearby villages–so that I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” (Mark 1:37-38)

His word ministry co-ordinated His mercy ministry. 

Think of Mark 2: the paralytic’s physical need was met but first Jesus pronounces forgiveness and then heals him as a witness to the reality of that forgiveness. 

Think of Mark 3:  Jesus appoints the 12 and sends them out to preach and to drive out demons.  Now whatever you think about this second task it surely functions similarly to the way it functions for Jesus (it is His authority He gives them to do it).  In Jesus’ ministry it functioned as authentication that the Strong(est) Man has come.  It can’t be interpreted today as sanction for elevating social action to the level of proclamation.  Jesus could easily have said ‘Go and campaign for social justice.’  Instead He said v14 and 15,

Think of Mark 4.  The Kingdom grows in the power of the word.  In fact the power to grow a world-dominating kingdom organically resides in this word alone.

Think of Mark 5. The woman with the flow of blood simply wanted a physical fix.  Jesus wants a personal encounter and to pronounce a word of forgiveness.

Think of Mark 6. Jesus identifies the people’s need – teaching (v34)!  Those who would sit under Jesus’ teaching were shown tremendous kindness – the feeding of the 5000!  Yet even this deed is a sign proclaiming Christ and Jesus uses words to explain it as such.  To those who come under the word, their every need is catered for.  Yet even these needs are met in Gospel-proclaiming ways.  No-one could doubt that here is a Gospel, Word-ministry.  But one in which the full, vibrant, physical life of the Kingdom is manifest.

We could continue in Mark, but let’s stop there.  Doesn’t Jesus’ example challenge our mission strategies?  We often put on a meal to attract non-Christians then tack on a Gospel talk.  Jesus puts on a teaching event and then, in costly love and in demonstration of the miraculous resources of the kingdom, He meets the physical needs of those who come.  What should be our response?

Should we put on a soup kitchen for the homeless and have a five minute ‘God slot’ in the middle?  Or shouldn’t we rather move into the deprived areas of our world on a Gospel-proclamation footing, and in that context offer food, clothing, shelter, brotherly-sisterly love to any and all who will come under the sound of that Gospel. 

All this is part of what it means to have evangelism co-ordinate our ‘service’ rather than the other way around.

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In my next post I’ll talk about the costly, life-sharing, counter-cultural, need-meeting love we ought to be manifesting in our churches.  None of that is a betrayal of our mission of Gospel-proclamation.  In fact, Jesus thought it was the back-bone of it!  (John 13:34-35)

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I tried to argue in the last post that neither soteriology nor ecclesiology nor eschatology should define our priorities in mission.  Rather, it’s our doctrine of God that must be our first point of call.  It is the God whose being is in the Father’s sending (missio) of the Son who is the proper foundation for missiology.  If that’s true then it follows…

  

4)    A deficient doctrine of God will lead to a deficient missiology

5)    The divorce of ‘God the Creator’ from ‘God the Redeemer’ is one of the chief errors in doctrine of God and, consequently, missiology. 

John Stott has been a vocal proponent of “evangelism + social action = mission.”  The links with his doctrine of God are exposed in quotes like this: 

“[There are two freedoms and two unities for which Jesus Christ is concerned] On the one hand there is socio-political liberation and the unity of all mankind, for these things are the good will of God the Creator, while on the other there is the redemptive work of Christ who sets his people free from sin and guilt, and unites them in his new community.  To muddle these two things (creation and redemption, common grace and saving grace, liberation and salvation, justice and justification) is to plunge oneself into all kinds of confusion.” (From a sermon quoted in Timothy Dudley Smith, John Stott: A Global Ministry, IVP, 2001, p204). 

Here we see God the Creator and God the Redeemer laid side by side.  The concerns of creation and redemption are, in this way of thinking, separately addressed by the Living God. 

Now of course the Father is very interested in the whole spectrum of these activities above.  Yet He accomplishes them through the one Gospel. 

As Athanasius was so keen to stress:

“The first fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word who made it in the beginning.” (Athanasius, On the Incarnation #1)

The Word became flesh – there are no purposes of God that are not bound up in the exaltation of His Son, in Him creation and redemption are inseparably bound.

 6)    God’s mission is a Gospel mission 

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The purposes of the Father from all ages have been exclusively focussed on His Son (Psalm 2:1-12; Psalm 110:1; Daniel 7:13,14; Romans 8:29; Ephesians 1:10; Colossians 1:15f).

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In the power of the Spirit, His word has been the agent for all divine activity in creation and redemption.( 2 Peter 3:5-7; Hebrews 1:3; 1 Peter 1:23; John 1:1-3; 5:24; 6:63,68) 

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In the Incarnation of the Word, the Father gives to Jesus His word (John 8:55; 14:24), which accomplished all that Jesus does (John 14:10; Mark 4:41; Luke 4:43; John 5:24; 12:48; 17:17).

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It is this word that Jesus entrusts to his followers (John 15:20; 17:6,14,20). 

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The Church has inherited a Gospel mission for the world, i.e. the Father’s mission to the exalt His Son in His Spirit-empowered word.

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God is exclusively concerned for the exaltation of His Son.  All other interests (in justice, liberation, common grace etc) find their place under this one agenda.  And the Father has committed all His omnipotent power to Christ (Matt 28:18) who in turn grants it to the Church (Matt 28:19-20; Eph 1:22-23).  The Living God has unreservedly committed Himself to the Gospel mission of the Church.

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Barth saw these things so clearly.  In 1934 the pressure for the Confessing Church to have another agenda was immense.  Yet even (and especially) here Barth is adamant that the mission of the Church is the proclamation of Christ: 

‘The Church’s commission, which is the foundation of its freedom, consists in this: in Christ’s stead, and so in the service of his own Word and work, to deliver to all people, through preaching and sacrament, the message of the free grace of God.’ (Barmen Declaration, article 6)

 Or as he says in IV/3: 

“The first if not the only thing in its witness is the ministry of the viva vox Evangelii to be discharged voce humana in human words.  It is its declaration, explanation and evangelical address with the lips.”  (IV/3, p864.) 

Now if Barth can say that in the face of the Nazis, can we really countenance a socio-political side-show in our own day?   In my next post I’ll tease out some of the implications for the Church’s ministry today.

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