The brilliance of the Christian message is that it communicates directly with people — sinners and saints — where they are living and making a living in ordinary, everyday life situations. Christians know that their lives lay bare before a gracious and caring God who made them, performed for them His redeeming act uniquely in His Son’s blood and preserves them in the true Christian faith for eternity.
This is in congruence with God’s desire that all people are saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4). Mission is the very heart of God. God intruded an otherwise sin-infested world to demonstrate in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection His reconciling and restoring power for the sake of the created order. God in His wisdom has entrusted His church with His mission to tell the world that He in Christ has reconciled the world to Himself and set apart a people to spread that Word throughout the world (2 Cor. 5:17). Christian mission is God’s mission.
Christopher Wright has observed that it is not so much that the church has a mission, but rather that God has a church for His mission. Wright further observes, “If it’s not missional, it’s not church.”
For more than two decades, I have been privileged to serve on the faculty of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis as a mission professor. Whenever I teach the course “Theology of Mission,” I state clearly to my class that an important outcome I desire of the course is to undo the word “mission” from the church’s vocabulary. From this instructor’s point of view, all theology is missiology.
In other words, missiology is theology done right.
Just as mission is the heart of God, God’s people have a heart for His mission in every generation and in every context in which God has placed them. A clear missional focus is a reality check on how we are doing and how we are succeeding (or failing) in serving the people amidst whom God has put us for His purposes.
By divine design, God gathers His church anywhere for scattering it everywhere. A generation ago, missiologists predicted that the United States was becoming a mission field. That foresight is now a lived reality before us. America is the world’s third-largest, mission-ready population, next to China and India.
Since the latter half of the 20th century, the Lord has been bringing to our shores immigrants from non-Western countries in the millions. Most metropolitan areas have become homes for new immigrants and refugees. As people travel, especially in groups, their native religions traditions, values, mores, cultures and patterns of behavior travel with them and take deep roots within the milieu in which they relocate.
New immigrants do not compromise their native religions for the dominant religion of their new domicile. First- and second-generation immigrants are still educating their children in the vernacular of their country of origin. They publish newspapers and literature in the mother tongue and promote performing arts, music and drama as natives to their respective country of origin. Peoples’ identities do not change simply because they relocate. They learn to adapt well to the new situation. Beyond religion, culture works as a totality that shapes and forms the people, especially new generations.
Along these lines, a paradigm shift has taken place in all disciplines of life. Classical education, though covetable, is no longer decisive for equipping men and women to perform well in their respective areas of accomplishment. “Missional” and “glocal” have become buzzwords, although they have yet to find their place in standard lexica.
At home, especially since the millennial generation, the younger generations are losing a sense of belonging in the traditional church. Estranged largely from the institutional church, they identify themselves as “nones” or “dones.”
The traditional church, according to them, speaks a language past their head and fails to listen to their cry for reception and recognition. In their own words, however, they love Jesus, but do not belong in the institutional church. The church of today surely is at the crossroads, being able and willing to be of service to those who find themselves among the “excluded middle.”
Among the natives as well as the new immigrants in this country, the church of Jesus Christ must work as the agent of transformation. Within a nation that cherishes both unity and diversity, the church needs to engage the cultures in which it is placed, and speak the Gospel winsomely to those who lend a listening ear. The church by all means must keep the lamps before the Lord lit continually for generations to come (Lev. 24:4).
The 21st-century church learns from the past, lives in the present and looks forward to the future with optimism and courage to bear witness to the one, uncompromising Gospel. The Gospel transforms people and draws them to the Cross when presented in the heart language of the listener.
Globally, theologians and missiologists, pastors and missionaries take into account contextual realities of the places they are called to minister in the name of Christ. The Gospel bears much fruit when the listener confesses from his heart “Jesus is Lord.” Those who share the Gospel are conscious of how important it is that they first become learners before they can speak and gain a hearing before a new audience.
Christians from countries and cultures where Christ is newly introduced and the faith is being newly built from the ground up understand how challenging it is to grow together with a mutually agreed upon vocabulary that will present the true claims of the faith clearly to the audience that is new to it.
In communicating Christ cross-culturally, the burden lay more on the side of the communicator than the listener or audience. The receptor cannot be overwhelmed by the jargon and the ineptness of the speaker to speak to the conscience of the listener, however sincere such efforts might be.
In real life situations, Christians find that the crushing, if not convicting, function of the Law of God is already at work in the conscience of many who do not yet belong in the kingdom. Christian communicators therefore might, through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures, present to them Jesus Christ that they might have living hope in Him. The iron is already hot to be struck.
That does not mean that the Gospel is compromised in any way for the sake of celebrating diversity and inclusiveness in the church. It does mean, however, that — as the first-ever meeting of the church council resolved — Christians need to not make it difficult for non-Christians to turn to God and to not burden them with anything beyond abstaining from pagan religious practices, such as idolatry and prostitution, and from rituals like eating food first offered to idols (Acts 15:28).
While rituals have their meaningful place in the practice of religion, they can be misunderstood by those who are new to the faith, if not properly instructed in them. If it is that the Lord has the church for His mission in today’s world, then the church must take into account the contextual realities of the time in order to lift high the crucified One before the whole world to behold. After all, the church exists for those who do not belong.
Paul spoke of becoming all things to all people in order that he might by all means save some and, for that very purpose, he became like Christ and he invited his listeners (and readers) to become like him. Christian missionaries who have lived and served in other cultures long term serve as the best examples of cross-cultural communication. The story is told of a missionary couple — and they are still living — who ordered poached eggs for breakfast. They waited and waited and finally they were served pork chops!
Such challenges in communication come closer to home to us in our own neighborhoods and even in our own households. Dinner table conversations have a different flavor to them than perhaps a generation ago.
Mission has lost its foreignness and it strikes home today more than ever. Intergenerational communication cannot
escape notice. Theology takes root in any community wherever the seeds are sown as in a seedbed with intentionality, at the grassroots, the fear of the unknown notwithstanding. The church is the Lord’s and His is the planting. After all,
He gives the increase.