5 Stories You Will Read about in 2015 Regarding North American Missions

I typically post a “top trends” article as the year begins to flip. This year I offer this list of stories I think we will be reading about next year.

1.  Continued debate over the definition of missions

Under the surface of Great Commission theology is the understanding of what “mission,” “missions,” and “missionary” means. For the past century or so, Mission Dei has been the favorite flavor of missiologists, particularly those from theological institutions. Missio Dei fits well with a modern / post-modern missiology and influential authors such as Leslie Newbiggen embraced it and made their mark on missiological thinking. I think much of this philosophy of missions culminated with Chris Wright’s book The Mission of God as taught at Lausanne a years back.

However, the Evangelical missionary movement globally has grown fastest and deepest when its proponents have not embraced a broad definition of mission. Particularly among Pentecostals and Baptists an alternative view of missions challenges the Mission Dei definition. This alternate view is conversionistic, focused on church planting, sees social action valid only when accompanied by proclamation of the gospel, and is quite theologically conservative. it is closer to fundamentalism than Western missiologists might like.

In 2015 I expect we will begin to see theologians (particularly from the non-Western world) begin to challenge the dominant Missio Dei definition of mission. The fall out will be felt in the North American missions movement as more narrow definitions of mission begin to take hold. This will not happen quickly, but it is ripe to start.

2.  Consolidation, mergers and “acquisitions”

It sounds so Wall Street to talk like this so forgive me. However, the “missions industry” is not immune to the process of growing and aging like any other “industry.” I would commend the book, How Industries Evolve for more information on this. The basic thesis is that mature industries end up with a handful of dominant players. Smaller, niche players will appear in the areas where the larger organizations aren’t interested in focusing. I see no reason why the missions agency sector would be immune from this and, in fact, see why it needs to happen. This has been going on for some years already but will probably accelerate in the next decade.

In 2015 I expect we will see at least a few missionary agencies “merge” into other agencies, increase cooperation substantially for some services, or altogether shut down. This will be encouraged in part by local churches who are not excited about support structures in missions and who are asking for greater efficiencies in the back room operations of organizations.

3.  Security Issues

The world is an increasingly dangerous place for missionaries. Despite the growing danger there is a sustained focus on the part of missionaries to work in the Islamic world where much of the danger exists.

While we have always had stories of missionary sacrifice and martyrdom, I expect that in 2015 there will be a new round of high profile cases that will get our attention.

4.  Growing Local Church Involvement in Missions

There have been a number of starts and stops when it comes to integrating the local church in missions. The exception to this would be in regard to the short-term missionary movement. When I talk with church leaders, they often characterize the short-term trip as necessary but disappointing. At the same time, most missionary agency executives long for deeper involvement by the local church.

I believe the maturing mega-church movement will, in 2015, begin to demand and exercise greater missiological sophistication. Another way to say this is that after decades of asking the question, “Who owns the Great Commission, the church or agency?” (which has setup a false and antagonistic dichotomy). This question is being replaced with, “How do we get this job done?” A good part of this is due to the emphasis on church planting that has taken place in the North American church. In 2015 this will be an encouraging and growing story.

5.  Church Planting Movement (CPM) Controversy

Within missionary agency circles the concepts surrounding CPM have taken a strong hold. I recently read an unpublished research paper in which over 30 agencies were questioned about their  use of CPM strategies. All but one had made strategic shifts to embrace a CPM oriented ministry philosophy.

Within the US there are few churches which embrace the CPM concepts (house churches, decentralization, lack of didactic preaching, etc.). There are also some church structures that are overtly hostile to the leadership paradigms being used globally. I anticipate that we will see a debate emerge over the theological underpinnings of CPM strategies. At the same time, the CPM outcomes are hard to argue with: they form a challenge to our traditional ecclesiology. In 2015 I would expect we see these issues debated and discussed in a healthy and necessary way.

So, there you have it: 5 stories I think you will read about in 2015. I would welcome any thoughts you might have about these items.

Read the Bible Like a Missionary

A subtle but deceptive way to misread scripture is to read the Bible from our own cultural context. At one level I realize that this is unavoidable. We should, however, always remember that many Bible passages were written in a particular cultural context. Some passages are truly timeless treatise of theology (I think of Romans 8 as an example). Others are cemented into a worldview quite different from our own.

Consider the following story about Mike and Joe.

Used Car Salesman

Then Mike needed a car when he was living among the people of a foreign city called New York. He said the people, “I really need a car.” The New Yorkers heard him and said, “Listen, man, you are a prince of God among us. Pick any car you like and it’s yours. Nobody will say ‘no’ to your request for a car.”

Mike bowed down to the New Yorkers, the people of the city, and said, “If any of you are willing that I should have a car, hear me and ask Joe for his Cadillac, the one he owns. It is at the end of the street. I want to pay the full price and you can be witnesses to this transaction.”

Now Joe was standing there on the sidewalk when this discussion was happening. He stepped forward in the presence of the New Yorkers. He said, “No, dude, you listen to me! I am giving you the Cadillac. It’s yours; take whatever is in the trunk, too. Here, in front of all these witnesses, I give you the Cadillac. Take it.”

But Mike bowed again and then said, “If you would just listen, please, I want to pay you for the car, the full asking price. I have the cash right here.”

The Joe responded, “C’mon, man. A car that’s worth ten thousand dollars is nothing between you and me. Take the keys and drive, my brother!”

So Mike took out his money and counted out ten thousand dollars, the amount that Joe had declared as the used car’s value in front of all the people on the sidewalk. And Mike took the keys, and drove off, content with his purchase.

The End

So what passage of scripture are we seeing mirrored in this little story? Genesis 23 in which Abraham negotiates for Sarah’s burial place. If you go read it you will see that I tried to copy the structure of the negotiation that takes place in that chapter. In our culture we do this in a very different way so it sounds very funny when placed into the style of an ancient culture.

But before we judge the ancients too harshly take a look at their approach to negotiation. There are some thing we might learn!

In the ancient context the negotiation isn’t just about getting the lowest price (the buyer’s interest) or the highest price (the seller’s interest). It’s also about the community. Everybody was present and say the exchange happen between them. In our system, financial dealings are almost always private. In our system there are also a lot of lawsuits. Abraham didn’t have to fear that he was taking advantage of the Hittites because the dealings were transparent to all. Nobody was going to complain later on that Abraham had acted deceitfully.

In our system we dicker over the price pretty boldly (other cultures are even bolder – if you’ve ever bartered at an Asian street market you will know what I mean).  We write the prices of used cars in bold letters on the windshield.

Abraham’s negotiation starts off with respectful, face-saving statements. Note that Abraham wanted a good price but he started off by making a generous offer. Ephron, the owner of the field, knew its value, but offered it for free. Nobody thought this would happen but they were giving the other respect in the process. Do you feel respect when a used car salesman approaches you? Do you show them respect? In most cases we see them as trying to get the most money out of us.

Am I suggesting that the ancients “did it better” than we do? Not at all. Rather, when we read the Bible, look for the ways in which the ancient culture affects and informs the storyline. This will give you perspective about your own culture and how it influences your interpretation of the Scriptures. Cross-cultural missionaries develop this skill in all areas of life.

Another part of this story is Abraham’s cross-cultural maturity. When he started out he was fearful of other cultures and made bad decisions about them (see Genesis 12:12-13 and Genesis 20). He jumped to conclusions about their reaction to him. Now, as an old man who has lived cross-culturally for many years, we see him adopt the customs of the Hittites and act in a way that shows an understanding of their culture.

This is how you read the Bible like a missionary.

Tennent’s Review of Bell’s Book

I will be the first to say that I am not reading Rob Bell’s latest book. I concluded long ago that Bell has deconstructed theology to the point that it is no longer relevant.

If you are interested (and I know many are after last weeks’ Bell musing on homosexuality), check out Tennent’s review.

(HT to http://matthewdgreen.com)