Tuesday, August 27, 2013

What is the Mission of the Church?

Review of Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church? MakingSense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011).

American pastors, Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert have joined forces to deliver an excellent book on the task of mission. The burden of the book is to seek to define the mission of the church more tightly than it often has been lately. The word ‘mission’ is ambiguous and that has recently become more so with the addition of words and phrases like ‘missional’ and ‘missio Dei’ to our vocabulary. When the local betting shop has a mission statement (I don’t know that it does but I’d be prepared to...no, forget it) then mission can mean anything at all. And these days it usually does. So this book is a welcome contribution to the discussion.

David Bosch’s hugely influential Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission reaches its climax with a chapter in which he discusses 13 ‘elements of an emerging ecumenical missionary paradigm’. In the end, mission is all these things (quest for justice, common witness, inculturation and liberation, as well as evangelism, contextualization and theology, for instance). He cannot tie his understanding of mission down any more than that. You may think I am childish to desire something tidier but I do think it is possible and that is what DeYoung and Gilbert do so well.

They do this by the careful exegesis of a number of key biblical passages, critiquing as they do so the position of Chris Wright in The Mission of God. Wright asserts that Genesis 12:1-3 should be taken as ‘the Great Commission’ with its two imperatives to ‘go’ and ‘be a blessing’. DeYoung and Gilbert call that into question by quoting Wright himself that “‘when two imperatives occur together the second may sometimes express either the expected result or the intended purpose of carrying out the first imperative’ (ibid.: 201)” (31). So the command to Abram is to ‘go’ so that he may be a blessing.

The authors argue against an incarnational reading of Israel’s role, i.e. that the role of Israel as a kingdom of priests (Exod 19:5-6) is not to be a blessing to the nations: “The image of a royal priesthood in the Old Testament and in the New Testament suggests holiness and privilege, not incarnational presence” (35). Wright doesn’t actually use the language of incarnation but the notion is there so the point stands I think.
Luke 4:16-21, argue DeYoung and Gilbert, is not primarily about material poverty – this is demonstrated by an exegesis of Isaiah 61:1-2 and throughout Luke. Rather, they agree with Andreas K√∂stenberger and Peter O’Brien in their Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: ABiblical Theology of Mission, that “‘the poor to whom the good news is announced are ... “the dispossessed, the excluded” who were forced to depend upon God’” (39), a position that, interestingly, Bosch also argues (1991:104).

In a nutshell, DeYoung and Gilbert are arguing, against Wright (2010: 26), that the mission of God is not the mission of the church: “One of the biggest missteps in much of the newer mission literature is an assumption that whatever God is doing in the world, this too is our task” (41). The mission of the church, they argue, is summarized in the Great Commission passages (Matt 28:16-20; Mark 13:10; 14:9; Luke 24:44-49; Acts 1:8).

The authors survey the synoptic Great Commission passages and that of Acts and then tackle the most controversial Gospel text, that of John 20:21 and the significance of Jesus’ mission as a model for our own. They conclude, against Stott, that “the mission of Jesus is not service broadly conceived, but the proclamation of the gospel through teaching, the corroboration of the gospel through signs and wonders, and the accomplishment of the gospel in death and resurrection” (57, emphasis in the original).

The authors conclude this lengthy and well argued chapter with their definition of the mission of the church: The mission of the church is to go into the world and make disciples by declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit and gathering these disciples into churches, that they might worship the Lord and obey his commands now and in eternity to the glory of God the Father (62, emphasis in the original).

After a helpful survey of the biblical narrative in four acts—creation, fall, redemption and consummation—the authors seek to handle hot issues in mission theology and practice by examining the meaning of key terms in missiological writing: the kingdom of God, social justice and shalom.

In discussing the significance of the kingdom of God they distinguish between two ways the word gospel is used in the Bible, a ‘zoom-lens’ way (they mean telephoto-lens), and a ‘wide-angle lens’ way. The former is the gospel of the cross; the latter is the gospel of the kingdom. They are one and the second necessarily includes the first.

On ‘social justice’ they distinguish between a ‘constrained’ view and an ‘unconstrained’ view of justice and opt for the former (181). In arguing for an acceptance of the concept of ‘moral proximity’, they accept that this is difficult with modern communications bring the world’s disaster areas into our living rooms (184-85). I am a bit uneasy by the authors’ uncritical acceptance of free-market capitalism: “No enlightened ruler or board or administration can possibly manage millions of people with as much knowledge as the market can” (191). I ask whether we should talk at all about the market ‘managing’ anything. The market, after all, is a network of institutions, a phenomenon of global culture that has been created by people. It is people who manage, make decisions, trade, cheat, defraud and resist all the above. No inanimate cultural phenomenon can do that. So the market is a human construction that allows the exchange of goods and services; it doesn’t manage anything.

DeYoung and Gilbert then tackle the great biblical word, shalom, looking at Jeremiah 29 and then at the cultural mandate. In the latter they draw heavily and profitably on Greg Beale’s work on the Garden of Eden as a temple (The Temple and the Church's Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God). The cultural mandate cannot be the same today as it was for Adam because of the fall. Adam’s failed mandate is picked up not by us but by the second Adam, who succeeds where the first Adam failed. There is both continuity and discontinuity between the old earth and the new one. But shalom is not the mission of the church as that is the mission of the Lord Jesus to whom our mission bears witness.

For the most part I think this is a very well written book that tackles the subject in a biblically informed and carefully argued manner. The book is spoiled a bit, however, by an apparent naivety with regard to global economics and a seeming reluctance to suggest that followers of Christ should examine their lifestyle in the light of global realities. That is a minor weakness, though, and shouldn’t put people off from reading it and working out how it should affect the way we are involved in mission today. I will be using it as a set text in one of my modules. Kevin DeYoung has just followed it up with a blog post taking their argument further - http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2013/08/27/goal-missions-work-missionaries/?comments#comments.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Review of Chester on the Unreached


Review of Tim Chester's Unreached: Growing Churches in Working Class and Deprived Areas (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity, 2012).

This book by Tim Chester of The Crowded House in Sheffield (and now also of WEST), is an analysis of both the author’s own reading and experience and the experiences of a number of other gospel workers who are seeking to reach out to working class and deprived neighbourhoods in the UK. These workers, sharing in the Reaching the Unreached network, have been seeking to help one another in the very challenging task of church planting and nurturing in some of the most difficult estates of the UK. Chester’s book borrows heavily from the experiences of these folk and seeks to draw together significant themes and lessons to be learned.

Roy Joslin published his important book, Urban Harvest in 1982. The social character of Britain has changed hugely since then but, as Chester points out, nothing comparable has been written in the intervening years. So this book is really significant if for this reason alone. Chester seeks to lay the foundation by clarifying a Christian view of culture. Contextualization in working-class areas means that, as all cultures contain elements that are good, bad, and indifferent, so we should neither make a blanket condemnation of working-class culture nor offer a blanket affirmation. So Chester argues that gospel workers will want to affirm what is good and seek to change what is bad.

While the whole book is useful, I especially appreciated chapters 2 and 3, “The culture of working-class and deprived areas” and “Key gospel themes for working-class and deprived areas,” which are full of helpful insight and suggestions for appropriate gospel communication.

Chester recognizes the phenomenon of social lift, of people becoming Christians from deprived backgrounds and acquiring new attitudes and behaviours that lead to social mobility. “To some extent,” he says, “this reflects an aspiration by new Christians towards middle-class values, which, in turn, reflects the church culture into which they are socialized” (14). Chester is walking a tightrope here, as I think he knows, but perhaps doesn’t express. He is at pains to point out that some working-class values are good and need to be affirmed, and some middle-class values are bad and need to be changed. Considering the vast majority of the readers of this book will be middle-class he is making is a good and necessary point. But I struggle with the argument here. Chester does say that social lift reflects the aspiration to middle-class values “to some extent” (my emphasis) but doesn’t tell us to what extent it doesn’t. In a book of this size and character it is impossible to cover all the issues but I think that the social analysis of the book is at times simplistic and over-generalized. The phrases “middle-class culture” and “working-class culture” are used throughout the book in such a way that an alien might be forgiven for believing that the two cultures are the products of two completely distinct communities, like a multi-ethnic society, living side-by-side but hardly interacting, and sharing very little. It may feel like that at times but the reality is that the categories of middle-class and working-class, as Chester acknowledges (43), are not as bounded as one might think. Moreover, British society has some cohesion such that interaction between different groups is constant and inevitable.

Furthermore, the recent Great British Class Survey (http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/0/21970879) resulted in a different construction of the class system such that Britain, according to the researchers, Mike Savage from the London School of Economics and Fiona Devine from the University of Manchester, is now better described by a new model with seven classes ranging from the Elite at the top to a 'Precariat' at the bottom. Unreached was published before this so doesn’t go into the recent diffraction of the working class into a much less cohesive agglomeration than it used to be (although this is acknowledged).

Whether a two or three class system or a seven class system is best to characterize British society is not the point. They are all models of the social reality, not the reality itself. The point I am trying to make is that I am not sure that it is valid to talk in such concrete terms about middle-class values and working-class values. Since they are not distinct concrete social groups, but rather societal categories, their representatives do in fact share an awful lot—that’s what we might call British culture. While wanting to affirm, as Chester does, so much that is good and noble in the life of working-class people it is also right, I think, to acknowledge that some elements of British society, as any society, are more corrupt than others. New disciples from such backgrounds will have further to travel than others. Thankfully, much of the book covers the great needs of working class and deprived neighbourhoods and offers a feast of practical advice to those involved in gospel ministry among them. I hope a second edition would interact with the findings of the Great British Class Survey. This book should be read and prayed over by anyone seeking to reach out to those in working-class and deprived communities and should sound a challenge to a church that largely appeals to those it is like.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Why Christian Developing Countries Are More Unequal that Others

My friend Martin Allaby is a public health doctor and researcher who has recently published the book of his PhD dissertation: Inequality, Corruption and the Church: Challenges and Opportunities in the Global Church (Oxford: Regnum, 2013) (buy here). The book is the fruit of Allaby’s research into the causes of economic inequality around the world with a view to mobilizing Christians to do something about it. When Allaby first suggested his research topic to me at the school gate in Nepal, where we were both living at the time, I must admit I was sceptical. After all, how can anyone compare very different countries around the world and come up with anything conclusive about the relation between religion and poverty? Undeterred, Allaby, who had been working in public health in poor urban neighbourhoods believed it should be possible to isolate the data in such a way that something useful may be drawn from it for church and mission to reflect on and hopefully do something about. Several years later, and back to public health in Britain, Allaby has published his findings. 
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Allaby was, and continues to be, very concerned (as we all should be, of course) about the plight of the world’s poor. It is one thing for a doctor like him to travel with his family to serve the poor in a place like Nepal. But that wasn’t enough for Allaby. It wasn’t long before he had figured out that there wasn’t enough of him to go around and he might do more good challenging the local church to get more involved in poverty alleviation. After all, the church in Nepal was growing rapidly and should be able to take on the challenge of holistic mission.

If I remember right, Allaby thought (or was it just hoped?), naively as it turned out, that developing countries with a majority Christian and particularly Protestant population would be the least unequal economically. It wasn’t long before he discovered that the very opposite was true: economic inequality is, in fact, greatest in Christian, and especially Protestant, developing countries. How could this be? Isn’t the gospel supposed to impact the pocket of the believer as well as his soul? A careful reading of the literature, and field studies in the Philippines, Kenya, Zambia and Peru enabled him to explain this apparently incongruent fact.

What are Allaby’s conclusions? “It turns out that, although Christianity is associated with the main influences on economic inequality, it is not a significant cause of inequality in itself” (195, my emphasis). Economic inequality is greatest in countries that export raw materials, such as minerals, and where governments are large and corrupt. Many such countries have a majority population that identifies itself as Christian. How has that happened? Such countries, Allaby argues, had a pre-colonial history characterized by a relatively sparse population and unsophisticated technology, political organization and religion. This made such societies much more ready to convert to Christianity than the relatively densely populated and technologically and culturally sophisticated societies of Asia.

This problem of a high reliance on raw materials for export is often accompanied in Protestant developing countries by large and corrupt governments. These, Allaby asserts, are probably the result of colonial authorities trying to leave behind the legacy of a functioning welfare state upon independence. Corruption wasn’t controlled and state resources meant for the poor have been diverted to the ruling elite.

You might ask how it is that so many of those developing countries had sparse and technologically, and culturally unsophisticated populations. To answer that question, I would encourage you to read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everything for the Last 13,000 Years (London: Vintage, 1997). This fascinating book, by an evolutionary ornithologist as it happens, explains among a host of other things, how it is that the societies of sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas were so susceptible to being taken over by the colonial forces of Europe from 1492, why they had sparse populations, and why they were so ready to convert to the religion of their colonial masters. The relative technological and cultural advancement of Eurasia is largely, says Diamond, to do with the continent’s E-W orientation. (To treat Eurasia as two continents really doesn’t make sense at all and is a Eurocentric geographical construct of the first order.) The Americas and sub-Saharan Africa are oriented N-S and relatively cut off from the major cultural advances that were going on in Eurasia over the last several millennia. It is as simple as that, as Diamond argues most cogently. 

Back to Allaby: the second conclusion that Allaby draws from his data is that Christians can most readily reduce economic inequality in their countries by tackling corruption. In relatively wealthy majority Christian countries governments tend to be much less corrupt. This, says Allaby, is because they are also the countries where Christian influence has been more long-lasting. Christians in developing countries where the church is young and corruption rife need to avoid the twin evils of withdrawal from the world and such involvement in the world that they lose their distinctive character. My prayer is that Allaby’s study will be read and its message taken on board and acted on.