Eddie and Sue Arthur

The Mission of the Spirit and the Church

I continue to plod through The Mission of the Triune God: Trinitarian Missiology in the Tradition of Lesslie Newbigin. It is, perhaps, the richest book on theology and mission that I have ever read and pending a proper review, I thought that I’d give a few more annotated quotes.

I’ve recently preached two sermons, one on Acts 1:8 and the other on John 20:21. I was struck in both passages how Jesus links the mission of his disciples to the work of the Holy Spirit. This thread is brought out forcefully in the following quotes.

In the New Testament it is clear that the Holy Spirit advances the missio Dei by way of the elect people, the church, by means of election, and this is clear in the story of Cornelius. In Acts 10:3–6 the Holy Spirit indeed speaks to non-Christian Cornelius through an angel in a vision, without ecclesial mediation, as Ariarajah has said. However, the Holy Spirit does not reveal the gospel to Cornelius, but rather instructs him to send for Peter who will tell Cornelius what to do. The Spirit is free and sovereign and goes ahead of the church, “but it is (if one may put it so) the church that he goes ahead of.” Peter arrived and as he explains the gospel of Jesus Christ “the Holy Spirit came upon all who heard the message” (Acts 10:44). This is unsurprising given that the dominant New Testament portrayal of the Holy Spirit’s working is in relation to either eschatology, or to the Church.

This is one of those really obvious things that I’d just never noticed. The Spirit could have explained the gospel to Cornelius, but he didn’t, he told him to send for Peter. The Spirit works through the church. This has to be one of my favourite insights in the book.

“The Christian mission is always Christological and pneumatological, but the New Testament knows of no Christology or Pneumatology which is not ecclesial.”

It appears that, ordinarily speaking, in his sovereignty the Spirit will not save without the witness of the church, and yet the church’s witness alone does not and cannot convert people.

I love the way that these two quotes draw together the work of Spirit and the work of the church. There is so much to meditate upon here. The final quote shows why we can be certain that the church will complete her mission, despite her many failings and missteps.

Jesus committed part of the work of salvation to the church and this confidence is not misplaced because, although human, flawed, and fallible, the church is far more than simply this. The church is not chiefly comprised of sinful humans but of persons regenerated by the Spirit and made holy in Christ. Jesus is confident that the church’s mission will succeed because the church is animated by the Holy Spirit, and Jesus can completely trust the work of the Spirit in and through the church.

It appears that, ordinarily speaking, in his sovereignty the Spirit will not save without the witness of the church, and yet the church’s witness alone does not and cannot convert people. Click To Tweet Jesus is confident that the church’s mission will succeed because the church is animated by the Holy Spirit, and Jesus can completely trust the work of the Spirit in and through the church. Click To Tweet

 

The Mission of The Church

I am slowly working my way through The Mission of the Triune God: Trinitarian Missiology in the Tradition of Lesslie Newbigin which is very, very good but it isn’t an easy read.

This morning, I thought I would highlight a few quotes about the church’s mission in the world.

“When Christian communities speak about God, by definition they have to speak about Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is simply no other God.”

I love this one. All too often the Trinity is presented as a confusing doctrine; a mathematical conundrum that we don’t need to worry about. This couldn’t be further from the truth; God is triune and the gospel message only makes sense if that is true. Arguments about whether or not the Christian God is the same as those worshipped by other religions all have to deal with this reality at some point.

God’s being consists of the Triune Persons in communion, and one comes to know God through redemptive and revelatory participation by the Spirit in the Son’s loving relationship with the Father.

From the church’s understanding of God as three Persons in mutual perichoretic relations, there issues an invitation for others to come to understand this Triune God by themselves personally participating in these relations.

OK, these two quotes are rather geeky, but they illustrate the fact that our salvation and our subsequent mission find their origin in the Trinitarian nature of God as it is expressed in human history.

the Son’s ongoing mission is accomplished through the mission of the church, which cannot be considered apart from the mission of the Spirit.

This is a neat summary of John 20:21,22.

Jesus’ training of the disciples was preparation for entrusting and committing his ongoing mission to them, for they were his primary legacy. As Newbigin famously said, “what our Lord left behind Him was not a book, nor a creed, nor a system of thought, nor a rule of life, but a visible community.

This is excellent and something which some evangelicals (including Bible translators) who have a high view of Scripture but a lower view of the church need to consider.

Consequently, elsewhere Newbigin says “the Church’s mission to the nations is the clue to the real meaning of world history” because the church-in-mission bears witness to people of “what God is doing and will do, of his kingly power which is hidden now but will in the end be revealed to all in its majesty, glory, and terror.”

As I implied above, we need to have a high view of the church – it is important!

For Newbigin, the church’s missional thinking and praxis must be determined by and modelled on Christ’s mission; “We are not authorized to do it in any other way.”

Something for mission strategists to muse on!

Central to mission is the communication of the good news of Jesus, and this communication incorporates the manner of speaking, the content that is spoken, and the lifestyle and credibility of the speaker.

You cannot separate word and deed or social action and evangelism. The one gives life and credibility to the other.

Jesus The Game Changer: To The Ends of the Earth

Six months ago, I spent a fascinating morning chatting to Karl Fasse of Olive Tree Media for the new series of Jesus the Game Changer. The full series will be available soon, but you can watch this short trailer to get some idea of the content. It’s going to be great. There are extra points for spotting the sun glinting off my head.

Kouyanet Resources

I’ve been blogging on a regular basis for well over a decade now and we are getting close to the three thousandth post on this site. Looking back over the posts, some are fairly embarrassing and naive, others are mildly amusing and some are genuinely useful. The problem is finding the good stuff. I can sometimes write a post and then discover that I wrote something similar in 2008, only the original was better, funnier and shorter (I think I wrote a better version of that sentence some years ago).

Anyway, in this post, I want to draw your attention to some things which I have written over the years and which may still be useful. Some of these articles and booklets started life as a series of posts on this blog, others are one-off pieces that were written for specific situations.

Praying for missionaries: I think this might be the best thing I’ve ever done on the blog. It’s a simple series of ideas, based on the Lord’s prayer to help you pray for mission partners. The advantage of this is it is written from an insider’s perspective and highlights some of the issues that I face and about which I need prayer; things which might not seem so obvious to the non-missionary.

The Great Commission: This series takes a look at the Great Commissions in Matthew 28 and Acts 1. It compares and contrasts what the two accounts say and draws out their relevance to the contemporary world.

Things Home Mission Can Learn from Overseas Mission: This one does what it says on the tin and provides advice and idea for church planters and evangelists in the UK.

The First Five Weeks: This is over 30 years old, now. It is the diary that I kept during our first spell in a Kouya village. Mobile phones and the internet have changed things dramatically since then, but culture shock is still culture shock and embarrassing situations are still embarrassing.

The St Mary Mede Model of Cultural Adaption: This is a rather quirky take on cross-cultural adaption.

 

Books I Have Read: To Africa in Love

As regular visitors to this blog know, I read a lot of novels. I generally get through two or three a week. That being said, the majority of my fiction reading tends to be of a type; somewhere in the second chapter, someone will be murdered and a harassed detective inspector (quite possible with alcohol and/or marriage problems) will solve the crime with one chapter to go. I know my detective fiction. However, this makes me somewhat unqualified to review To Africa in Love by Jim Harries.

To Africa in Love is part love story, part missionary biography, part espionage-ish thriller and 100% supporting tract for the Vulnerable Mission movement.

Vulnerable mission aims to encourage cross-cultural workers to follow the humble example of Jesus, who demonstrated His vulnerability in part by living like the Jews of His time and place. Examples of humble vulnerability include but are not limited to carrying out ministry in culturally appropriate ways, refusing a high-status position, learning a local language, and avoiding the use of imported resources in favor of local ones.

Over the years, Jim has written a number of more academic books which explore this concept and you can see my reviews of them here. Using fiction to explore and introduce a concept which people find difficult to grasp is a well-worn path and Jim is to be commended stepping out in this way.

For my own part, I struggled slightly; it’s not that there is anything wrong with the book, it’s just not the sort of novel I would ever choose to read. I’m sure that others will love it. Fiction is a very personal genre.

It’s quite a substantial novel, running to 380 ish pages and it will set you back £5 for the Kindle version and £9 for the paperback. Who should read it? I’d suggest that anyone who wants to know more about current issues in mission, but doesn’t feel like reading a missiology text-book would benefit from giving it a go.

It’s hard to provide quotes from a fiction book, but here are a few which get to the heart of the issues that the book is addressing:

“We Westerners are determined to act as global policeman, and as global advocates for human rights, development, you name it. But – we have worked in the light of an enormous ignorance. That is, we have simply wanted everyone to become like us, and assumed that they will and must do as such. We have not considered ourselves to have any serious obligations to be-like-them.”

“Now, we have nodded in that direction. I mean – we have said we want to listen to people in the majority world. But – only ever in English. We have even endeavored to recruit people from the majority world, notably Africa, into our structures. But – never the reverse. It has always been one-sided. It has always been ‘you come to us,’ never ‘we come to you,’ culturally speaking. You, Philo, have demonstrated how to do the latter.”

“We have started to look carefully at what you have said and written. We agree with you – that it is far from adequate just to rely on what majority world nationals tell us for purposes of our evaluations regarding what to do and how. We must have Westerners immerse themselves into majority world cultures. That cannot be just for a year as do anthropologists. It must be for ten years or more. And it must be on a vulnerable basis, as you have often aptly described. This is definitely more a role for Christian mission than for universities. Universities cannot do it! They are too loaded by other demands, especially by their budgets, given the way they operate. We need vulnerable people committed to serving God, Philo. People like you.”

In passing, I’m slightly perturbed about a missionary novel in which one of the bad guys (or less-good guys) is called Wycliffe.

The author generously provided me with a copy of this novel in return for this review. I have not allowed this kind provision to influence what I have written.

 

 

Books I Have Read: We Need To Talk About Race

Having been involved in minority language Bible translation for most of my adult life, I have long been interested and concerned about those who, from a Western perspective, appear to be on the margins of the church. In an African context, I’ve found myself advocating for the cause or minority language speakers who are dominated and excluded by those who use languages of wider communication or European/colonial languages. However, while I’ve advocated for and written about the global/multicultural/multiethnic/multilingual nature of the church, I’ve never given much thought to how this should work out in the UK context. I accepted the fact that in many big cities churches are effectively segregated by race, with black-majority churches meeting in city-centres and majority-white churches in the suburbs. Reading We Need To Talk About Race: Understanding the Black Experience in White Majority Churches changed my thinking. This is a very good book, indeed.

It is a normal format paperback of 186 pages with a short bibliography and about ten pages of end-notes. Although there are references to scholarly works, the style is popular and easily accessible and there are discussion questions at the end of each chapter for those who want to reflect more deeply, or perhaps use the book in a group session. The book will set you back around £6 and there is a Kindle version available if you prefer reading in that format.

The author, Ben Linsay, is a pastor at Emmanuel Church in London, which is predominantly white, while he himself is black. This experience both informs the book and gives it a degree of authority which is hard to gainsay.

The opening of the book sets the tone:

Being black in a white majority church can be a bit like the first day of a new school on repeat. Your natural insecurities come to the surface. Will I be included? Will I be noticed? How do I connect with the popular people? How do I fit in? Will my contributions be valued? Conversations feel like hard work and at times even painful without the ease of shared histories and friendships.

Now, at this point, it is easy for the white reader to get defensive; “it’s not like that in my church”, “I know black people who are perfectly at ease”… That is to miss the point. We need to listen to the voices of BAME Christians and to allow them to speak for themselves and not explain away their experiences.

This book does a great job of allowing black Christians to speak about their lives. The author’s own experiences are interspersed with quotes from literature and songs. There are also interviews and testimonies from other Christians about their experiences. All of this adds up to make the case that Black Christians are often not made to feel comfortable or at home in white churches; this is not something that we can sweep under the carpet.

However, the case is made that this is exactly what we do: we sweep issues of race and black experience under the carpet and don’t even mention them. A clear contrast is made between black-majority churches which address issues of injustice and the pain that they cause and white churches who tend not to mention them.

The final two chapters make some suggestions as to a way forward.

Make no mistake, this is an important book. Who should read it? I suspect that most people who lead multi-ethnic churches have read it already, but if not, they should. I would also suggest that in those contexts it would make an excellent resource for small groups. Those who are involved in leading churches which are predominantly (or entirely) white MUST read it. In multi-cultural Britain, something is wrong if your church does not reflect the make up of your community.

For more on a similar theme, I would strongly recommend Turning the Tables on Mission: Stories of Christians from the Global South in the UK which I reviewed here.

To close, I found this quote particularly challenging for those of us involved in global mission:

As a black person, I struggle with the continued fascination with and fetishization of black children in Africa, but the lack of interest in black children suffering in the UK.

 

 

Christianity IS a Religion

You would have thought that people seeking to promote the Christian faith would avoid claims that are easily falsifiable, but, for some reason, this isn’t always the case.

One claim that is rolled out fairly often is that Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship with Jesus.

The problem with this claim is that the same people who make this claim, tend to go to church, sing hymns, say prayers, listen to sermons and such like – all things that more or less fit the dictionary definition of religion. Not only that, but many churches claim tax relief on the grounds of the advancement of religion. Just to add to the pattern, the Apostle James encourages Christians to practice pure and genuine religion by caring for orphans and widows.

This certainly looks pretty much like a religion to me!

So what do we make of the “relationship with Jesus” bit? Well, I’m pretty sure that (unlike the word “religion”) this phrase doesn’t actually occur in the Bible. However, the concept does, sort of. The Bible uses various phrases such as reconciled, restored, forgiven and adopted to describe the relationship between the creator and the Christian believer. These are amazing realities and they were achieved at a massive cost to God; the death and resurrection of Jesus. You simply cannot overstate the amazing facts that lie at the core of the Christian faith. God reconciling all things to himself by means of Christ’s death on the cross.

This reality transcends religion, but crucially, the essence of being a Christian is worked out in a corporate religious framework and always has been since the earliest days of the church. There is more to Christianity than a religion but it is still a religion. Claiming that Christianity is not a religion effectively does two things:

  • It promotes hyper-individualism, making the Christian faith all about “me and my personal saviour”, which is a denial of Scripture and 2,000 years of church history.
  • It makes us look silly because outsiders can clearly see that it is a religion, even if we can’t!

Personally, I would advise avoiding these. There are plenty of amazing things we can say about Christianity without making somewhat dodgy claims.

Claiming that Christianity isn't a religion makes us look silly because outsiders can see that it is, even if we can't. Click To Tweet

Mid 2019 Mission Agency Statistics

I’ve spent the last couple of days looking at the Charity Commission reports on the British mission agencies that I’ve been tracking for a few years now. It’s as exciting an occupation as it sounds! However, crunching the numbers through an Excel spreadsheet is always an interesting occupation.

There will be more results to come over the next few months, but I thought I’d share a little of what I have discovered. I now have income figures going back to 2015 for 80 different agencies, which allows me to note some interesting trends.

The first thing to notice is that inflation over the period 2015 to 2018 was 8%. That means that agencies needed to see an increase in their income of 8% if they were effectively to stay still. 47 of the 80 agencies saw their income increase at less than that rate, which means that the majority of agencies in the sample have seen an effective drop in their income measured against inflation. Not only that, but 41 of the agencies saw an actual decrease in their income, that is they received less money in 2018 than they did in 2015.

These figures have to be taken with a degree of caution. Some individual agencies see fairly dramatic swings in their year on year income and the difference between 2015 and 2018 might just be a blip. However, as a trend across the board, this is obviously concerning.

Overall, the income for these 80 agencies increased from £171M to £186M an inflation-equalling increase of around 8%.

However, most of this increase can be attributed to two agencies, one of whom had a relatively poor year in 2015 and the other which received £4M more in 2018 than in any previous year (they had never received more than a million pounds before this). If these two agencies are excluded, the remaining agencies actually show a slight decrease in their income.

In terms of specific areas of ministry, the following trends can be noted.

  • Agencies involved in proclamation saw a slight decrease in their income (£55.2M to £54.8M)
  • Agencies involved in evangelism saw a bigger decrease in their income (£34.9M to £33.3M)
  • Agencies working with UPGs saw a slight decrease (£18.2M to £18.2M)
  • Agencies involved in social action saw an increase in their income (£134M to £149) (This includes both agencies mentioned above)
Between 2015 and 2018 a sample of British mission agencies working in evangelism saw a decrease in their income from £34.9M to £33.3M Click To Tweet

(For definitions of the terms used, see the document linked to in this post. It is important to note that working with UPGs is a subset of Evangelism, which is, in turn, a subset of proclamation, so these figures cannot simply be added up to obtain the total).

With regard to agencies which send missionaries, the following can be noted:

  • Agencies which send long-term missionaries saw a slight decrease in their income (£38.0M to £36.9M)
  • Agencies which send short-term missionaries saw a similar decrease (£39.3M to £37.8M)

These two sets of figures accord with the findings in my earlier report that those agencies which are involved in proclamation and evangelism are the most likely to send missionaries.

At this point, it is important to issue a caveat. These figures indicate income received by the agencies. They do not take into account missionaries who are sent overseas without the intermediary of an agency, nor do they account for missionaries working with an agency but who are in receipt of funding through an alternative source. Without additional sources of data, it would be difficult to draw conclusions about the numbers of missionaries sent from the UK.

However, what these interim figures do show is that, with a few exceptions, there is a broad pattern of British missionary agencies seeing their income struggle to meet inflation. There also seems to be a shift in funds towards social-action focussed agencies and away from those involved in evangelism.

Over the next few months, I will continue to gather this year’s income reports from the agencies which have not submitted them. I’ll also look at a few case studies to see what, if anything, can be learned from the fluctuations in income reported by individual agencies over the last few years.

For God So… What?

I have to admit that I am more than a little allergic to attempts to summarise the Christian message in one or two short sentences or soundbites, even when they come from the Bible. Perhaps the most common “summary” of the gospel comes from Jesus discussion with Nicodemus in John 3.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

To Christians who have some background in the Bible story, this appears to be a clear and concise statement of what Christianity is all about. However, to people who don’t share that knowledge, it may be more than a little confusing. Let me work through the passage raising a few issues that might occur to people from different backgrounds as they read this passage.

  • For God: which god? What is this god like? The rest of the verse doesn’t really help much in explaining this.
  • so loved the world… What do you mean loved the world? Is that like a sex thing? Or is this god co-dependant? He can’t cope on his own and, like Freddy Mercury, he needs somebody to love?
  • he gave his one and only Son… Hang about, what is God doing having a son? Doesn’t that mean that he had to sleep with someone? I thought Christians didn’t do that sort of thing? Anyway, if god is so great, how come he only has one son? Real men have lots of sons, it’s a sign of power. This god can’t be much cop.
  • that whoever believes in himWhat exactly does believe in mean? And who is it that we are supposed to believe in, god or his son?
  • shall not perish but have eternal life. I’m sorry, but who wants to live forever? What’s the point of that? Buddhists and Hindus have it right, they want to escape the wheel of suffering, rather than keeping on going pointlessly. This whole thing of sitting on clouds playing the harp forever really doesn’t attract me.
  • Anyway, this comes from the Bible, why should I believe what an old book says?

OK, running all of these objections together like this is a bit of overkill. However, these are all real and I’ve come across all of them in one context or another. More than that, I hope they make my point that John 3:16 is not an altogether clear presentation of the gospel if people don’t have the background to understand it.

The thing is, John 3:16 doesn’t really exist on its own. It occurs in John’s Gospel in the context of Jesus’ response to a question from Nicodemus. In context, it’s not 100% clear who even said the words; was it Jesus or are they an editorial comment by John?

So what background information do you need to understand the verse?

Well, you need to know something about who God is and his character. If he loved the world so much, why did he have to give his Son?

We need to know something about the Son and his relationship to God. A full-blooded understanding of the Trinity probably isn’t essential, but you need some sort of background.

The “giving” of the Son only makes sense if you fill out the details of his crucifixion and resurrection and these, in turn, need to be understood in the light of the Old Testament sacrificial system. Again, a detailed understanding of Exodus and Leviticus probably isn’t needed, but the idea of sacrifice is so foreign in the UK today, that you can’t assume that people will understand it.

The promise of eternal life needs to be understood in its Biblical context. The idea of life that just goes on forever without stopping isn’t particularly attractive and people need to understand that the gospel offers more than this.

The promise of eternal life needs to be understood in its Biblical context. The idea of life that just goes on forever without stopping isn't particularly attractive and people need to understand that the gospel offers more than this. Click To Tweet

In former generations, when people were more biblically literate than they are today, it might have made sense to quote John 3:16 in isolation, you can’t make that assumption these days. I’ll just close with a few thoughts?

  • As Christians, we quickly grow to take a huge amount of background understanding of our faith for granted. We don’t realise that others don’t share these assumptions, but we need to learn to spell them out.
  • This means understanding where people are coming from. If you are not listening to people and to our culture, you will find it hard to explain your faith to people.
  • God can and does bring people to himself very quickly, but in our society, it is normal to expect conversion to be a slow process.
  • We need to learn to tell the Bible story as a whole. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection mark the climax a narrative that stretches from creation to eternity and those key events only make sense as a part of that big story.
  • You should feel free to ignore any of these points as appropriate, but know why you are doing so.
We need to learn to tell the Bible story as a whole. Jesus' life, death and resurrection mark the climax a narrative that stretches from creation to eternity and those key events only make sense as a part of that big story. Click To Tweet

Yes, I know that I’ve blogged on this theme before, but after 13 years of regular blogging, it’s getting hard to find new stuff!

Being A Witness To Jesus

Let’s have a quick little look at Luke’s version of the “Great Commission” as it’s found in Acts 1:8

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

There are a couple of things which are absolutely central to this verse, which I’m not going to touch on; the importance of the Holy Spirit and the international nature of our call to witness to Jesus. I’m just going to consider the nature of being a witness to Jesus in our home setting.

A quick thought, in passing. When some people comment on this verse, they suggest that Jerusalem, is the disciples’ home, the place they feel comfortable, the place where they can witness to Jesus without crossing cultural boundaries. That is true-ish. Jerusalem is also the place where Jesus had been brutally crucified just a few weeks earlier and where Stephen was to be stoned to death not too much later. Just because a place is home, doesn’t mean that it is comfortable for Christian witness.

So, what does it mean to bear witness to Jesus in our home setting? Simply put, it means pointing people to Jesus (not to a church, our view of Christianity or whatever). This involves exposing them to the historical facts about him that are recorded in the Gospels and also to our own lived experience of Jesus at work in our lives.

The obvious way we can and should do this is through our words; you know that, I know that, we all know that – and (with a few exceptions), we struggle to do it. I could bang on about how we need to share our faith more, to take the opportunities to witness to people as they arrive, but I wouldn’t be saying anything new and, unless I can come up with something really helpful, I’d just end up making everyone feel guilty. Let’s just admit that this is a huge issue – and one we need help with – and move on.

I’d just briefly like to think about what it means to bear witness to Jesus in our actions. How can our lives authentically reflect Jesus’ values and so point people to him? I think that part of the answer is found in the beatitudes in Matthew 5. What would it look like if we applied these in our family, social and professional lives? What does it mean to be meek in a competitive, dog-eat-dog business environment? How can we be peacemakers in an office riven by jealousy, rivalry and faction fighting? What does it mean to mourn when you are a teacher? How can students be pure in spirit? What does being merciful mean in a family relationship?

I believe that a serious part of our calling is to stand at the points where our families, our friends and our workplaces and professions are in tension and in pain and to reflect Jesus values, meekly serving, not pushing ourselves forward and making peace as we go. We may not be successful at bringing peace and we may not be popular for confronting some of the discord and injustices at we come across, but we will be, in a quiet way, bearing witness to the life of Jesus in our world. Of course, at some point, a verbal witness is needed. We have to talk about him. But talking about Jesus is both easier and more authentic when it emerges out of a radical lifestyle that reflects his values in tough situations.

Just a little thought for a Monday morning.

 

 

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