Set on the border between Brazil and Argentina, Iguassu Falls, a two-and-a-half-mile wide waterfall system of 275 cataracts, was the spectacular backdrop for a global gathering of scholars and practitioners of mission in October. The 159 participants in the Iguassu Missiological Consultation came to Foz do Iguassu from 53 countries to examine the way Christian mission is changing at the turn of the millennium.
The rugged terrain around the Iguassu Falls was also where Roberto DeNiro and Jeremy Irons reenacted a bloody incident from Latin America's colonial history for the 1986 motion picture The Mission. The actors played Jesuit missionaries powerless against Portuguese conquerors bent on murdering the native Guarani and stealing their land.
That history of imperialism still lives in the memory of some who attended the consultation. Seattle-based anthropologist Miriam Adeney told the parable of the mouse that danced with the elephant and was squashed—despite the elephant's enormous good will. Dozens of speakers and discussion participants invoked that image to explain their feelings toward North America and its missions organizations.
Yet the English language was used by all, and aspects of American culture permeated the conference. And as participants discussed "globalization," they could see Sri Lankan Bible expositor Ajith Fernando walk by sporting a "Welcome to Windows 98" T-shirt. Fortunately, coffee was served Brazilian style.
Missiology by management: Peruvian missiologist Samuel Escobar, who teaches at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary and who wrote two papers for the Iguassu consultation, was prevented from attending by his wife's illness. Though Escobar was absent, his papers provoked strong reactions: the mouse, it seems, had stepped on the elephant's toe.
Escobar criticized the "managerial missiology" practiced by certain North America groups which have "yielded to the spirit of the age." "The distinctive note" of this approach to missions "is to reduce Christian mission to a manageable enterprise," said Escobar. The practitioners of this approach focus on the quantifiable, measurable tasks of mission and ask pragmatic questions about how to achieve goals. Escobar calls this statistical approach "anti-theological" and says it "has no theological or pastoral resources to cope with the suffering and persecution involved ... because it is geared to provide ... guaranteed success."
Other speakers also faulted managerial missiology. Joseph D'Souza, chair of the All India Christian Council, indicted missiological trends which "have tended to turn ... communication [of the gospel] into a technique where we market a product called 'salvation.' The consumer is the sinner and the marketer is the missionary." In the bargain, what is missed is redemptive living in society."
Even the opening conference address targeted missions' market-oriented excess. Bill Taylor quoted extensively from a monograph by retired Eastern College professor James Engel, who was among the first to bring evangelical attention to marketing principles. Engel now calls this managerial approach "a major leap onto the secular stage of strategic planning."
Engel's paper notes the "darker side" of plans to "complete the task by AD 2000." " ... quantifiable results soon became a virtual obsession. Organizational public relations machinery geared up to fever pitch reporting the numbers allegedly reached through crusades, the ... media, and intensified personal evangelism initiatives." Engel worries that such efforts do not produce "definite evidence that the Kingdom of God is being exemplified" among peoples "reached" in this way.
The discussion sometimes seemed divided along First World-Third World lines, but statistical and strategic approaches to mission had their Latin American defenders: Rudy Giron, for example, former chair of the indigenous Latin American mission movement comibam, said such approaches helped him visualize the task of evangelization. Giron is convinced the approach has been a blessing in Latin America and credits the growth of the missionary movement in the region to that perspective.
Steve Hoke was one of the North Americans struggling with Escobar's critique. Hoke is a vice president at the Anaheim, California-based Church Resource Ministries. Because crm grew in part out of the church-growth philosophy spawned at Fuller Seminary's School of World Mission, the organization has a foot in the missiological stream criticized by Escobar.
Hoke said, "I think [Escobar] creates the wrong impression when he groups together the church-growth popularizers, the AD 2000 Movement and the U.S. Center for World Mission."
"Ralph Winter's call at Lausanne '74 to see unreached people for what they are, to look at the task remaining and to use research in service of that is very different from the mottos and statistical graphs of some others. Doesn't it make sense to look strategically at fields that may be white unto harvest, or where, perhaps, we have neglected to sow?"
"If all truth is God's truth, we can borrow principles from marketing. Jesus was very felt-need oriented in his approach. Some people discover that in Scripture. Others discovered it in marketing and brought it to Christian communications."
Despite the hurt feelings of some participants, Hoke called the critique basically helpful. "We trust Samuel," he said. "He retains the perspective of someone who has lived most of his life outside the United States."
Power encounters: If missiology is sometimes too managerial, it is also sometimes too magical. Paul Hiebert of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School outlined the persistence in modern life of mythic cosmic dualism in literature, sport, government, business, religion—and even mission. Whether in football or evangelism, the universe is seen the battleground between equal, opposing forces; the outcome of the battle is uncertain; winning is everything. The biblical worldview sees God ruling over all, including the evil powers. "The very existence of Satan and sinners," said Hiebert, " ... is a testimony to his mercy and love." There is cosmic struggle, but the outcome is not uncertain and winning is not everything. "Satan's defeat was not an end in itself," he said. "Rather it removes the obstacles to God's purpose of creating people fit for His Kingdom."
Hiebert applied this world-view analysis to the way that spiritual warfare is often waged. He concluded that popular novels, approaches to power encounters, mapping of territorial spirits, and exorcism, are often characterized by either dualistic or animistic elements. For example, missiologists who try to deliver populations by praying against territorial spirits sell human sinfulness short by treating people as the hapless victims of invisible forces rather than as moral agents responsible before God. Likewise, those who expect "power encounters" to demonstrate the superiority of the biblical God and bring people to faith, misread Scripture. The victorious power encounters in Acts are frequently followed by persecution or death.
New directions: The Singapore-based World Evangelical Fellowship (WEF), convened the consultation: "the only global consultation of this missiological nature in the two years prior to the new millennium," according to consultation director William Taylor.
The consultation affirmed newer models of mission that contrast with the paternalism of the past. The 2275-word Iguassu Affirmation, signed by participants at the consultation's closing Communion service, reversed the traditional First-World-to-Third-World flow and advocated a vision of "mission from people of all nations to people of all nations."
Participants also endorsed a whole-person-in-a-whole-society mode of mission over the old conversionist mode; the development of mission movements in every country where there is a mature Christian church; and they explored the meaning of the Christian teaching that God is Three in One for mission.
Postmodern Encounter: But the conference was not merely concerned with missiological trends and methods. It also looked with jaundiced eye at cultural developments—especially the threats and opportunities posed by postmodernism and pluralism.
In a discussion devoted to the missiological challenge of young adults, mission executives in their middle years heard those in their twenties describe their "postmodern" approaches to truth and relationships, as well as the special needs they feel because of unstable family structures. Those same mission leaders puzzled over how their organizations could change to absorb young people with this mind-set.
In a plenary session, Christopher Wright, who teaches Old Testament at All Nations Christian College, explored the challenges of three ideological pluralisms: pluralism in interpretation, in religion, and in ethics.
Religious pluralism (the rejection of any religion's exclusive claims and the affirmation of all religions as paths to salvation) is a special problem for Christians, Wright pointed out, because it places an abstract God, not Christ, at the center; it relativizes Jesus (counter to his own claims); it affirms Jesus as Lord for Christians only (thus emptying Lord of any universal meaning); it calls for either a deluded historical Jesus or a deluded early church; and ultimately, it requires us to regard Christian worship as idolatrous (if pluralist claims are true, "we have elevated a human being to the place of God and worshiped him there").
Wright called for "a new emphasis on the authority of Scripture, because Scripture authorizes our mission," and he offered guidelines for a missiological reading of the Bible—not as a site in which to dig for truths about God, but as the product of God's mission in his world through his people. This requires paying attention to the grand narrative of the Bible, as well as assessing the role that each different book and section plays in the redemptive mission of God. For example, we would have been spared the agonies of theological debates over the relation of God's law to the gospel if they had understood law missiologically, said Wright, as that which fits Israel to be a light to the nations.
Ultimately, a missiological reading of Scripture, of social science, and of cultural trends was the bottom line for all in attendance: that by all means they might be a light to the nations.
David Neff is the executive editor of Christianity Today, and recently wrote the article "Gen-X Apologetics" for the annual books issue.
Read the Iguassu Affirmation, also appearing today on ChristianityToday.comWorld Evangelical Fellowship's web site (http://www.worldevangelical.org) offers a page on the missiology conference, which includes the text of the opening plenary address and other coverage.
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