Eddie and Sue Arthur

Bible and Mission Links 39

Bible Translation and Languages

I’m generally pretty scathing about the constant flow of new translations of the Bible in English (to put it mildly). However, this article comes makes a good case for another English version: Why it matters if your Bible was translated by a racially diverse group.

I believe it matters who translates the Bible, and that more diverse translation committees could inspire fresh confidence among Christians of color. Such a translation would allow black Christians and others to “know with certainty the things that you have been taught” (Luke 1:4).

Not quite on the same theme, this sermon which compares Abram and Nimrod does a fantastic job of unpacking how important different languages and cultures are to the mission of God.

Evangelicals

This report paints a pretty grim picture of Evangelical decline in the UK. Despite attempts to put a positive spin on the figures by showing that Evangelical numbers are declining less rapidly than other church goers and that one group of Evangelical believers is growing in comparison to others (a larger slice of a smaller pie), these figures are not encouraging and we need to face up to them realistically. (The article was freely available when I first looked at it, but it seems to have disappeared behind a paywall – sorry about that).

Meanwhile, reporting from the US, the ever excellent Atlantic says that Evangelical Has Lost Its Meaning: A term that once described a vital tradition within the Christian faith now means something else entirely.

This transformation of evangelical from a theological position to a “racial and political” one is not just bad for serious Christians; it’s also a prime driver of the increasing hostility of liberals to religion in almost any form. Those who have insisted on yoking (a very vague notion of) God and (a very specific account of) country may soon find themselves dispossessed of both.

I’m not convinced that the same thing is true in the UK, however, the way in which our news and culture are dominated by events in North America, it would not surprise me if the term Evangelical becomes somewhat toxic over here.

Mission and Missionaries

Brian Stanley is a pre-eminent historian of mission and if you don’t have the time and energy to read his books, this article from the British library is well worth a read.

Christianity is not a western religion. It originated on the Western fringe of Asia – what we tend to call the ‘Middle East’. However, for many centuries the expansion of Christianity was directed from Europe and became entangled with the growth of the great European empires. Today over two-thirds of the world’s Christians live outside Europe, which has reverted to what it was in the days of the early Church – unbelieving territory on the margins of the faith. The texts that you can look at here tell part of the story of how European Christians spread their message. They reveal some of their assumptions that we might now find strange or unacceptable. They also point to some of the reasons why Christianity would eventually take deep roots in other cultures – not least through the translation of the Bible into many different languages.

Picking up the theme of the growth in the world church, Christianity Today considers majority world missions:

In 2015, 9 of the top 20 sending countries—including Brazil, the Philippines, China, India, Nigeria, and South Africa—were in the majority world (also referred to as the developing world), with a total of 101,000 international missionaries.

While this report looks at a recent conference on diaspora mission to Europe:

How do diaspora communities in the UK reach out as missionaries if the people they are reaching out to do not receive or accept them?’

Missionary life can be complicated and this article captures some of the frustrations: 10 Things That You Will Hear from Your Missionary.

I constantly feel like I have to prove myself to you.

To me, Paul gave the best answer to this assertion, “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself” (1 Cor. 4:3). If your ministry is lived out in front of man, you will always feel inadequate and sense a need to prove yourself. Ultimately, however, we will not give an account to man, but to God at the Bema Seat (2 Cor. 5:10). At this judgement, Christ will do a proper evaluation of our service and even our motives for ministry.

Meanwhile, the Gospel Coalition suggests that we should cancel our short term mission trips.

Here’s another situation I’ve often seen. A church struggling to support a skilled and trained long-term missionary for $200 a month won’t question raising $40,000 to send many untrained workers for a week. Churches are less likely to support a long-term missionary than to send a group of teens to paint a house or put on a VBS in a country where they don’t speak the language.

American churches often send untrained individuals from among the financially privileged on short-term trips as a means of discipleship. In doing so, we swamp long-term workers with people who have flexible schedules and eager hearts, but not a lot of skill.

Many missionaries wish they could tell you the same thing, but they’d lose support from churches if they publicly expressed this view.

I’ve recently been struck by the way in which the Bible uses the term ethne (translated as Gentiles or nations according to context) and the way that mission literature uses the term. As this excellent article from the Gospel Coalition points out, much modern mission strategy is built on a somewhat dubious interpretation of a first century Greek word in terms of 20th century sociological categories.

But the point is that we need to align the way we talk about the world and its peoples with how Scripture speaks of them. We should define our missionary expectations by the Bible, not going beyond what it has said. And we must ground our endeavors and formulate strategies in ways primarily driven by God’s Word. This involves sending missionaries to places where the gospel has never been heard. But it can also include encouraging them to stay long after churches are established.

If you don’t follow any of the other links in this post, read this one!

Varia

This thought provoking article from Jeremy Marshall looks at para-church organisations, while this piece from UnHerd examines the way in which the migrant crisis in Europe is being addressed.

Books I Have Read: The Godless Delusion

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what to make of The Godless Delusion: Europe and Africa by Jim Harries of the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission. At one level, it is an exploration of the implications of the central theme of Dominion which I reviewed a few days ago; that Western thought and language have been broadly shaped by Christianity. Harries takes this thought and explores what it means for communication between the West and Africa. Categories such as the nature of religion and the dualism between the sacred and secular are Western concepts which are not found in African thought and language, so what does this imply for communication in general and mission in particular?

The book is a medium format (available in hardback, paperback and in electronic format) and has 190 pages, of which around 30 consists of a bibliography. The style is academic, with abundant footnotes, but it certainly isn’t pitched at a level that will frustrate the average interested reader. If it does prove difficult, there is a summary at the end, which pulls the argument together in a few pages.

Overall, the book provides an interesting trip through aspects of anthropology, linguistics and intercultural dialogue. In doing so, it provides a new way of looking at issues such as dependency, short-term mission and the reality of the supernatural. Along the way there are some fascinating insights and comparisons, such as this view on the “prosperity gospel”:

…in short, African people are as desirous of material wealth as is every- one else, but they see the source of wealth and how to get it differently from Westerners. This should not be surprising in the light of prior discussions above. Westerners on the whole do not seek to acquire material wealth through spiritual avenues. They have already divided their understanding, between material and spiritual because they have a dualistic perspective. They seek for material wealth in the material realm. This makes African people’s means of searching for wealth hard for Westerners to understand. As a result, when African people’s grasping for human flourishing happens in the form of the prosperity gospel, it is easy for Westerners to condemn it.

Overall, the book is a ringing endorsement of the ability of the Christian gospel, rather than Western, Enlightenment philosophies to transform societies. Anyone thinking through issues of cross-cultural communication will find something worthwhile here, though it will be most useful to those working in East Africa, where the author’s experience is most telling.

That being said, I do have a couple of criticisms. The first relates to the book’s subtitle “Europe and Africa”. Although the author is English, the tenor of the book is far more North-American than it is European. This is particularly obvious in the various discussions of conservative and liberal viewpoints (in particular Ch. 4) which are rooted in North American concepts which do not easily translate into the UK, much less the rest of Europe. It should be noted that the two commendations for the book are given by American college professors. In itself, this is not a problem, but the sub-title is unfortunate.

More substantially, this quote is found on page 139:

Relying on foreigners for one’s information about a foreign country and people is always problematic.

Harries acknowledges in the introduction that despite his long experience in Africa he cannot give a full account of African experience and understanding. However, despite this, there is only minimal engagement with African writers and virtually no input from African theologians. I find this puzzeling as there are a number of Christian writers from across the continent who have engaged with these same themes. While the book has its good points, the lack of authentic African voices speaking to African issues does reduce its usefulness significantly.

I was provided with an electronic copy of this book by the author in return for an honest review. I am grateful for this generosity, but I have not allowed it to colour what I have written. You can find further reviews of material by Jim Harries here.

While on the theme of the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission, they are holding a conference at All Nations College in the South East of England from 8-11 of December. You can find booking details here. The conference description reads:

Outside Christian workers who build on foreign presuppositions in work amongst indigenous communities can, especially when using foreign funds and languages, be interpreted as riding roughshod over indigenous sensibilities. True empowerment of local people requires getting alongside them. This necessitates vulnerability to their position and context. Such vulnerability can best be achieved if one shares the Gospel using indigenous languages and utilising local resources.

 

Questions 1: What Is Mission?

Over the next few weeks, I want to try and answer some questions that people have about mission, the global church, Bible translation and other issues that I cover in this blog. Inevitably, this means that I’ll be repeating things that I have posted in past, but it will draw a lot of threads together in one place. The answers I give won’t necessarily be the ones that you would find in standard mission texts; if you want those answers, read the books. I’m also on the lookout for questions. I’m not particularly looking for questions from “mission people”, rather from others involved in churches (particularly, but not exclusively, in the UK) who want to explore more about what mission means. If you have any questions that you’d like me to address – they can be as broad or as narrow as you like – leave them in the comments for this post or contact me via Twitter or Facebook.

So, to kick off the series, what is mission?

To be honest, mission is somewhat of a troublesome term. Its origins are in a Latin translation of the Greek words for “to send” and it wasn’t used in its modern sense of “sending missionaries” until around the time of the Reformation. What this means is that there is no clear, biblical definition of mission – at least not one that people agree on.

Broadly speaking, people writing on mission divide into two camps, those who define mission in terms of the “great commission” passages at the end of the Gospels and those who define it more broadly in terms of God’s actions throughout Scripture. I fall into the latter camp, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t take the “great commission” passages seriously.

I believe that mission finds its origin and meaning in the triune God’s purposes and actions in history as revealed through the biblical narrative. It is dangerous to pick out one passage to sum this up, but I think Colossians 1:20 gets close to doing so:

and through him God reconciled everything to himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross.

So, as a preliminary definition, the church’s mission is our participation (in the power of the Spirit) in the Father’s purpose to reconcile everything to himself through the death of the Son.

However, this doesn’t help us much in determining what it is that we actually should do. Just a note in passing, this passage shows us that God’s purposes and therefore our mission are not restricted to human beings, the whole of creation is in focus. I believe this is backed up by the wider biblical narrative, but it is why I would agree that creation-care is part of the church’s mission.

So, with this framework in place, let’s briefly look at the “great commission” passages in Acts and Matthew.

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8)

The clear call here is to be witnesses to Jesus; to show the reality of his message in word and deed. This will include teaching and preaching, but it will also include other things that Jesus did such as confronting injustice and religious hypocrisy and healing the sick.

Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age. (Mathew 28:19,20)

Though it isn’t entirely clear from the English translation, the primary command here is not to go, but to make disciples. In both the Acts and the Matthew passage, the implication is that Christians are already going; they are travelling around the world to every nation. This doesn’t preclude “professional missionaries” who go with that specific aim, but it certainly isn’t limited to them either. We all have a responsibility to make disciples by witnessing to Jesus wherever we are.

So let’s pull all of this together into a definition of mission which I suspect will not please any mission scholar – but as long as I upset them all equally, that’s fine!

The church’s mission is our participation (in the power of the Spirit) in the Father’s purpose to reconcile everything to himself through the death of the Son. We do this through making disciples by bearing witness to Jesus in word and deed. 

It’s not about making converts and it goes beyond preaching and teaching – but making disciples must lie at the heart of what we do if something is to be genuinely called mission.

The church's mission is our participation (in the power of the Spirit) in the Father's purpose to reconcile everything to himself through the death of the Son. We do this through making disciples by bearing witness to Jesus in word and deed. Click To Tweet

I’ve added links to a few books which cover issues raised in this post, I don’t agree with the position taken by all of them, but they are still worth reading. I’d also recommend my own little ebook on the great commission which you can find here.

A Church In God’s Image?

In the sermon on the mount, Jesus says these words to his followers (Mat 5:48):

But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.

There are plenty of other passages which urge Christians to be mature, Christlike and so on; the clear picture is that the Church should grow to be more like God. In practice, this is generally unpacked in terms of “morality”. Christians are to be honest, generous, faithful to their spouses of impeachable character and so on. Now, I’m not knocking this. These are all good things that Christians should live up to, and more besides. However, I think that there is a whole area of this “being like God” issue that we tend to ignore.

I would argue that the most fundamental thing that the Bible teaches us about God is that he is triune; one God in three persons. No doubt some people might want to argue that it is more important to recognise that God is love. However, the statement God is love only finds full expression in the eternal, loving relationship of the Trinity that existed before creation. If God is not triune, he could not become love until he created an object for his love – think about it.

So, God is triune, what does that mean for the church? Well, clearly we cannot imitate being Trinity on an individual level. Try as I might, I cannot become three persons in one. However, and this is key almost all commands to the church are given to the ensemble, not to individuals. As a body, we can model the unity and diversity of the Trinity. Jesus prayer in John 17 can find an outworking in the lives of our church fellowships.

“I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.

Jesus prays that we will be one, just as he and the Father are one and then makes the astounding statement that he will be “in us so that the world will believe you sent me”. Our unity involves unity with the Father and the Son, but it also proves Jesus message. There are a couple of things here that I’d like to note:

  • The Trinity has a welcoming relationship. There is space for us, in some way, to be grafted into the Father and Son. We will never be divine, but in some way, we will be one with them. This is a challenge for our church fellowships, how open are we?
  • Secondly, this unity thing is important and we ignore it at our peril. Yes, it is important to recognise that there are false teachers, but we shouldn’t be so busy sniffing out heresy that we have no time to be in fellowship with others who differ from us in small ways. There are more important things at stake here than our views on the gifts of the Spirit, the five points of Calvinism or what-have-you.
It is important to recognise that there are false teachers, but we shouldn't be so busy sniffing out heresy that we have no time to be in fellowship with others who differ from us in small ways. Click To Tweet

There is another little phrase from John 17 that I’d like to highlight: the world will believe you sent me. The Father sent the Son into the world and the Father and Son sent the Spirit. The triune God did not sit around in eternity in self-sufficient glory (though he could have). Our God is a sending God and first of all, the Son and the Spirit are sent out into the world and in turn, the Son sends the church, equipped by the Spirit (John 20:21, 22). As we imitate God, our church fellowships are to be sending bodies. This doesn’t just involve sending people around the world to be full-time missionaries. Week by week, we send people out into schools, offices, homes and factories to be witnesses to Jesus. Some of these environments are hostile, some less so, but all of us – without exception – are sent out every week. A key part of our gathering together is to equip us to be sent and this needs to be a conscious part of church life. When Jesus gathered together his disciples he did so in order to equip them for the mission that he would give to them and we need to be equipping people in the same way. We cannot assume that people know how to be missionaries in their work situation without training and support.

We cannot assume that people know how to be missionaries in their work situation without training and support. Click To Tweet

Imitating God in our church life certainly involves being good, generous and truthful, but it means more than this; much more.

Translation Insights and Perspectives

Back in 2010, I wrote the following:

Just as each culture brings something new to humanity, so does every language. Each language is capable of expressing some things better than all other languages. Why else do coffee shops sell cafe latte rather than milky coffee? On a deeper note, each language has the ability to express itself in ways that other languages can’t quite manage. There are subtleties of meaning and inference that just can’t quite be transferred from one language to another without losing something. And this is really important, because that means that each language can say things about God and is capable of praising God in ways that other languages can’t quite reach. When God multiplied the languages at Babel, He also gave us the possibility of understanding Him and praising Him in new ways. Babel was a judgement, but at the same time God blessed humanity immeasurably and revealed even more of himself to us.

One of the great blessings of being involved in Bible translation is that you get to wrestle with expressing God’s word in other languages and as you do, you begin to see things clearly that were, up till that point, somewhat opaque. Of course, not everyone can be a Bible translator, but thanks to a new website: Translation Insights and Perspectives those who aren’t involved in translation have access to insights from all sorts of languages. The blurb for the site says:

God’s communication with humanity was intended from the beginning for “every nation, tribe, and language.” While all languages are equally competent in expressing the message of the Bible, each language has particular and sometimes unique capacities to communicate certain biblical messages in exceptionally enriching ways that other languages cannot. The Translation Insights and Perspectives (TIPs) tool collects these outstanding translation insights in the form of stories so they can be made available to everyone in the church as well as researchers and other interested parties.

From the top menu of this page, you can browse and search through stories that contain such insights (“Find Stories”), contribute insights that will be reviewed by a team of curators and then published (“Submit Story”), or access a guide on how to use this site (“Help”).

You can search for insights either by looking up Bible references or by searching for different languages. This initiative with originated with Jost Zetzsche, co author of the excellent “Found in Translation” will be of interest to anyone who is involved in research and teaching the Bible, particularly those who are working cross-culturally.

A slight word of caution may be needed here. Just because a word or phrase can be translated in a particular way in one language, it does not mean that this can be applied directly to English (or any other language, for that matter). However, the different translations can certainly spark of ideas, new insights or sermon illustrations.

Three points in closing:

  • Please visit Translation Insights and Perspectives and have a look around.
  • If you think that your vicar, pastor or what have you isn’t aware of this site, please point it out to them.
  • Please could my colleagues who work in translation submit any good stories or insights that they have. The more that this can be populated the better it will get.

 

Books I Have Read: Dominion

The bottom line is that I may read a better book this year, but with only three months left, it seems highly unlikely unless something really good crosses my desk. Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind is readable, interesting, highly informative and it is important; whoever you are, you should read it. You might want to wait till the paperback comes out if you are on a limited budget, but you should read it.

This is not a small book, it’s a medium format hardback of over six hundred pages. It is a scholarly work, there are enough notes and references to keep the most assiduous researcher happy. However, you shouldn’t let this put you off, there are also pictures (not a lot, but some) but the main thing is that Tom Holland’s writing style is very accessible. You might not believe that a history of Western thought could be a gripping read, but in Holland’s hands, it is. He is a historian of note and no mean philosopher or religion, but above everything, he is a gripping storyteller.

The sub-title of the book gives you an indication of what the book is about, but more specifically, it is about how Christianity shaped the Western mind. By taking us on a historical tour, Holland demonstrates that concepts such as universal human rights and even the notion of the division between sacred and secular developed out of Christian thinking and history (sprinkled with a fine seasoning of Greek philosophy).

Just as the Bishop of Oxford refused to consider that he might be descended from an ape, so now are many in the West reluctant to contemplate that their values, and even their very lack of belief, might be traceable back to Christian origins.

It is beyond the scope of this blog (and my abilities) to give an overview of the arguments that run through Dominion, but they are persuasive. There are a few things to note; Tom Holland is not writing from the standpoint of a Christian believer, much less as an Evangelical. Some Kouyanet readers might find some of the things that he says difficult or challenging, but if that is the case, you need to get out more. Equally, this is a book about the history of Western thought, not a church history. You will look in vain for references to the Synod of Dort or Carey’s Enquiry, but you will find a lot about Bartolomeo de Las Casas (and if you’ve not heard of him, you should have). It is also a book about the West, there are some references to the church in Asia, but if you are looking for a complete history of Christianity, this isn’t the place to look. You will also find more about Aristotle, Spinoza and Darwin than you would in your average church history book.

The book ends on a personal note as Holland reflects on the life of his Godmother, a devout Christian lady who he clearly loved and admired. We are reminded that the great themes and movements which form the basis of this book find their origins in the lives of individuals who seek to follow an obscure craftsman from first century Palestine. This is, perhaps, the most surprising fact in all historical study.

A recurring theme of this blog is the way in which missionaries from the West encounter the growing global church. One of the important things in this encounter is for Westerners to disentangle the historical, political, philosophic and power structures which are bound up with the way that their faith is perceived by others. Dominion helpfully, but somewhat frustratingly demonstrates that Christianity and a Western worldview are far more entangled than we might otherwise have thought. Training for cross-cultural mission tends to focus on understanding the new cultures that missionaries encounter, but an essential (and difficult) pre-requisite to this is understanding our own culture and the things which shape our thinking. This book is an excellent resource to help Western Christians develop an understanding of their own background. It would also be remarkably useful to anyone seeking to defend and promote Christianity in the increasingly secular West.

So, who should read this book? That’s easy; I think anyone involved in Christian leadership should read it (probably more than once) and I would argue that anyone (Christian or not) who wants to consider themselves well-read should read this. It’s that good.

As always, a few quotes to give you a feel for the book:

To identify the laws that governed the universe was to honour the Lord God who had formulated them.

That all men had been created equal, and endowed with an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, were not remotely self-evident truths. That most Americans believed they were owed less to philosophy than to the Bible:

Even though Lennon had first met McCartney at a church fête, all four had long since abandoned their childhood Christianity. It was, in the words of McCartney, a ‘goody-goody thing’ fine, perhaps, for a lonely woman wearing a face that she kept in a jar by the door, but not for a band that had conquered the world.

The rate of growth, far from going into decline with the end of colonial rule, had exploded. Nothing quite like it had been seen since the expansion of Christendom in the early Middle Ages. As then, so now, the worship of Christ had spectacularly slipped the bonds of a vanished imperial order. Even in the early years of the twentieth century, when the European empires had seemed invincible, Africans had found in the Bible the promise of redemption from foreign rule. Just as Irish hermits and Anglo-Saxon missionaries had once claimed an authority that, deriving as it did from heaven, instilled in them the courage to upbraid kings, so in Africa, native preachers had repeatedly confronted colonial officials.

Repeatedly, like a great earthquake, Christianity has sent reverberations across the world. First there was the primal revolution: the revolution preached by Saint Paul. Then there came the aftershocks: the revolution in the eleventh century that set Latin Christendom upon its momentous course; the revolution commemorated as the Reformation; the revolution that killed God. All bore an identical stamp: the aspiration to enfold within their embrace every other possible way of seeing the world; the claim to a universalism that was culturally highly specific.

Communist dictators may have been no less murderous than fascist ones; but they – because communism was the expression of a concern for the oppressed masses – rarely seem as diabolical to people today. The measure of how Christian we as a society remain is that mass murder precipitated by racism tends to be seen as vastly more abhorrent than mass murder precipitated by an ambition to usher in a classless paradise.

Questions

Today’s blog post, aimed at church leaders, is short and sweet – based on my experience of helping missionaries plan their work by asking them questions. 

  1. If someone from abroad asked you to suggest the best strategies for reaching the British population with the gospel, how would you answer them?
  2. Are you following your own advice?
  3. If not, what would it take for you and your church to get to the point where you are following that advice?

The Problem With Christians

I believe that Christianity is good for individuals and good for society; wherever those individuals and societies are found in the world. It’s not the outward forms and rituals of the religion; the buildings, services and such like that are the key (though they are important) but the message of reconciliation with God and each other in Christ and the power of the Spirit to make effective changes. I’d actually argue that life in Europe demonstrates that the outward forms of Christianity lose their power and relevance when the message of reconciliation through the cross of Christ is lost.

However, though I thoroughly believe that Christianity is a good thing, there is one big problem when trying to make that case in the public square: Christians.

It is relatively easy to find cases of Christians doing good stuff for society. As far back as Roman times, they were famous for helping others during the plague, Wilberforce’s role in the abolition of slavery is rightly feted and today a large percentage of food banks and toddlers clubs in the UK are run by churches. However, the other side of the leger stacks up too: the Crusades, centuries of using the Bible to justify slavery, church support for Apartheid and the way in which some “Evangelicals” support white nationalism in the US today.

The problem is, that for most people in the street, the negative side of the balance outweighs the positive. Religion in general, including Christianity, is increasingly being seen as a negative influence on the world. In many ways, it is futile to try and convince people that Christianity is positive. The narrative of negativity is so strong that it is hard to gainsay. Equally trying to say that some people are not really Christians, or (at least) not Christians like us doesn’t help much either. Most people don’t have the time or the interest to distinguish between the various groups who call themselves churches; as far as they are concerned, they are all the same.

So, what can we do? I think there are two responses that are appropriate.

Firstly, we have to own the negative side of Christianity, admit that it happened and, if necessary apologise. In our current climate of spin and self-promotion actually owning up to the fact that things have gone wrong is a real value. At the heart of our message is the fact that we are forgiven sinners, so admitting to the church’s failings should not be too difficult.

Secondly, we have to demonstrate that we – as individuals and fellowships – are good for society. People are perfectly happy to live with a level of cognitive dissonance; Christianity, in general, is bad, but your church does some amazing work. We can’t make up for all of the perceived failings of the church through time and across the globe, but we can try to demonstrate that a group of Christians can make a positive contribution to their local society.

We can't make up the perceived failings of the church through time and across the globe, but we can demonstrate that a group of Christians can make a positive contribution to their local society. Click To Tweet

This doesn’t mean that we have to adopt all of our society’s views and concerns; we are called to be counter-cultural. Authentic Christianity will always be spikey and uncomfortable because it should confront the wrong things in society – even those that people are comfortable with. However, it does mean that the message that Christianity is good for people and societies that we preach from our pulpits should be demonstrated in our lives as individuals and congregations. This almost certainly means that we will need to get out of our buildings and get involved in the life of our communities in some way, rather than just inviting people in to hear what we have to say.

Would your local community suffer in a concrete way if your church shut up shop? Would they even notice?

Would your local community suffer in a concrete way if your church shut up shop? Would they even notice? Click To Tweet

It is possible that some might be offended by the picture at the top of this post. To be honest, I find it pretty offensive, myself. However, this is the sort of image that comes to mind when many people think about conservative Christianity and we need to face up to that. We have to demonstrate a better story if we are to get a hearing. 

Churches and Mission Agencies (Again)

This is the first in what may turn out to be a short series on a subject that I have looked at on various occassions over the years. Then again, it may be a one off. 

My conviction is that the responsibility for mission – be it local or global – lies with the local church. However, I think that it is valid to have specialist organisations in place which can support churches in their mission in a variety of ways. Organisations can help churches work together in an area where an individual church may not have the resources (Street Pastors would be one example), they can provide expertese in areas where churches are lacking (Wycliffe Bible Translators, for example) or they can provide logistics support in the way that most overseas mission agencies do. The growth of specialist organisations has allowed churches to multiply their effectiveness at home and to reach parts of the world that they would never have been able to touch without agency support. Pragmatically and theologically, I have no trouble defending this system, with one caveat, the agency must not usurp the primary role of the local church.

My own field of interest is overseas mission agencies and overall, I believe that they have been a good thing for the church in the UK. They are not without their problems and they are not the only way for the church to operate world-wide, but I believe that they are a good thing. However, I think that there are some unfortunate consequences of the growth of agencies that leave a difficult legacy. I don’t think that this is the fault of agencies or churches, it is just a natural development of the way in which things have evolved.

We have a situation where, broadly speaking, if you want to be involved in world mission; Church planting in Japan, medical work in Congo or Bible translation in the Pacific, you will almost certainly have to work with a mission agency. You will go through the approrpriate recruitment process, with church references, interviews and the works. If you are accepted, you will then go through a period of training – and this is where the problem lies. Cross-cultural missionaries need some specialist training that your average church pastor in the UK doesn’t require; whether this is an in-depth study of African Traditiona Religion, or an understanding of what different colours of diahorrea mean (yes, we did study this). This difference in training means that, over the years, different training institutions have developed for church leaders and missionaries. Yes, there are exceptions, but if you are training as a missionary, you are likely to go to one or other of the specialist training institutions and you are unlikely to bump into many people training for the pastorate in the UK.

I think that there are a number of unfortunate consequences of this dichotomy.

Church leaders don’t study enough about mission. The existence of specialist mission training colleges means that mission, both at a theological level and a practical level has, to some extent, slipped out of the curriculum for church leaders. In a situation where most churches now live in a cross-cultural environment, this is far from ideal.

Missionaries don’t study enough theology. Specialist mission institutions tend to focus on mission stuff and give less attention to other issues. This is increasingly true as initial mission training courses have been reduced to a few months or weeks. Pastors working in church planting in the UK are likely to have spent a three years at college studying theology, biblical languages and the like. On the other hand, it is quite possibly that a missionary church planter, who has to do the same things as their UK based colleague but in a different language, will have just done a few months missionary orientation.

Mission has been sidelined in the life of the UK church. We make the right noises about needing to reach our nation and the world for Jesus, but because of an inadequate theology of mission and a lack of concrete thinking about it, we don’t live as a missionary people.

Mission has been sidelined in the life of the UK church. We make the right noises about needing to reach our nation and the world for Jesus, but because of an inadequate theology of mission and a lack of concrete thinking about it, we don't… Click To Tweet

There is not enough cross-fertilisation between those in mission agencies and churches. We have things to learn from each other, but we have different peer and social groups, attend different conferences and, I would argue, we don’t respect one another’s expertise, contribution and concerns enough.

There is not enough cross-fertilisation between those in mission agencies and churches. We have things to learn from each other, but we have different peer and social groups, attend different conferences and we don't respect one another's… Click To Tweet

I realise that I have generalised, there are honourable exceptions to what I have written, but across the board I think my point is a fair one. I don’t have an easy solution – but more talking and more cups of coffee have to be a large part of it. I also realise that you can’t ever train people in everything that they might conceivably need as a missionary or a church leader – just prolonging courses won’t solve the problem.

 

Unity in Diversity

The doctrine of the Trinity shows us that while there is unity; God is one, there is also diversity, Father, Son and Spirit are distinct persons each with their own role in the divine economy. This notion of unity in diversity which is important why the one Bible can be translated into multiple languages. The book of Acts marks a transition in the life of the church from a small group of Jewish disciples who were united, but not diverse, to a large, very diverse, but still united group. This transition wasn’t easy and at times it was resisted by believers from a Jewish background (Acts 15:1, Galatians 2: 11-14). However, the growth in diversity was given clear divine sanction through the Holy Spirit speaking to the church (Acts 15:28), through Peter’s vision in Acts 10 and above all through the miracle on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2).

When the Spirit descended on the disciples in the upper room, they immediately dashed outside and began to tell the people about what God was doing. The crowd, gathered from across the Jewish diaspora, all understood what the disciples were saying in their own language. There was one message, but it was understood in a variety of languages; the first miracle of the church age was one of unity in diversity. God made a clear statement that his message could be transmitted in any language and was not restricted to the Aramaic that Jesus had used.

The impact of the Pentecost miracle increases when one considers that in one sense it was not even necessary. The people who heard the disciples’ message were all Jews who were in the city for the feast of Pentecost. Some of them would probably have been there since Passover, six weeks earlier. They had taken part in temple ceremonies and were able to function in a Jewish milieu without too many problems. In all probability, the majority of them would have understood the disciples’ speeches without any divine translation. That God chose to work this particular miracle at this point in church history underlines the importance of diversity to the Christianity. From the very outset, at God’s initiative, it has been normal for the Christian message to be conveyed in a variety of languages.

Given the parallelism which exists between the Pentecost narrative in Acts and the Babel story in Genesis, it should be noted that the existence of multiple languages in the first place is due to God’s intervention. According to the Genesis account, God multiplied human languages so as to prevent humanity gathering together to rebel against him. However, while it is clear that the proliferation of different languages has restricted human communication, it is also clear that the diversity of language and culture brings a number of benefits. Linguistic and cultural variety brings different styles of poetry and music, regional cuisine and many other advantages of a multicultural world. However, from a theological perspective, the most important aspect of linguistic variety is that each language brings its own understanding and expression of the divine nature. The diversity which was initiated at Babel was sanctified at Pentecost.

The unity in diversity which typifies Christianity contrasts dramatically with the essential uniformity which is a feature of Islam. Allah is One, without the inherent variety of the Triune God of the Bible. As a result, Islam is transmitted in one language – Arabic – and converts have to adopt some aspects of Arabic culture in order to be faithful Muslims. Though it is true that there have been situations where Christians have imposed a national or regional culture on others in a similar way to Islam, this is not inherent to the nature of Christianity.

The New Testament paints a picture of different nations and cultures being grafted into the Christian faith, not by imposing Jewish traditions on them (Acts 15), but by breaking down the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles and creating a new, multicultural, united people in Jesus (Eph. 2:14). The culmination of this process is depicted in Revelation 7 where people from every tribe, tongue and nation gather together to worship the Lamb.

Variety is intrinsic to the Christian religion because it is intrinsic to the Christian God. Bible translation is one aspect of this variety.

I’m aware that I’ve posted things along these lines before, but this is what I’m working on at the moment and it is rather dominating my thoughts.

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