Mission Confusion or Evangelical Confusion?

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Here is the original article, Gary’s response is below:

Mission Confusion
Dale Little, Japan Evangelical Missionary Association
Plenary Session Address (Feb 23, 2009)
Japan Harvest, Vol. 60, No. 4 (Sping 2009), 14-17.
Copyright by Dale Little, 2009.

Over the 25 years of my missionary career, I have a heard many comments made by missionaries about their ministries. I list a few here. These comments have been made by North American missionaries. My own personal response to these comments are noted in the parentheses which follow each comment.
“My ministry as a missionary is to develop profit generating employment for the people of this country who do not know how to start their own businesses in their new democratic or capitalist environment.” (Dale: Is the winner the one who dies with the most “stuff”?)
“As a missionary I am drilling wells for clean drinking water and building houses for the poor people in this country because they have so little. Someone else will need to try to reach these people with the gospel.” (Dale: Is someone really a missionary if she does not desire to proclaim the gospel? What makes a Christian missionary different than an atheist or secular non-government organization worker?)
“I joined this two week short term missions team in order to have an interesting cross-cultural and international experience.” (Dale: Is the purpose of missions to give the missionary a good experience?)
These kinds of comments lead me to suggest that mission confusion might be a problem among our North American evangelical churches and missionaries. Evidence for the confusion is sourced in what seems to be a lack of clear focus upon the purpose of our missional ministry. I have probably made a few of these kinds of comments myself! And maybe you have too.
But is our confusion limited to a place like North America? How about here in Japan?
On December 1, 2008, the Japan leadership of Lausanne III (Cape Town, 2010) convened in order to begin the process of nominating people from Japan to attend Lausanne III. I represented JEMA at that meeting. A few expatriate missionaries in Japan can be nominated to go, but they will have to cover their own costs.
In early February, several leaders of the Japanese Lausanne III planning team visited Seoul, South Korea, in order to meet with the North Asia Lausanne III planning committee. One of the documents coming out of that meeting in Seoul includes a brief history of the influence of the Lausanne movement in Japan. The following four paragraphs summarize that document.
John Stott was one of the main speakers at Lausanne I in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1974. Shortly thereafter, Stott was the keynote speaker at the first Japan Congress on Evangelism, held in Kyoto in 1974. He taught that mission ought to give equal weight to evangelization and social responsibility. This teaching had a great impact on Japanese evangelicals. As a result, Japanese evangelicals quickly moved through the following three models for thinking about how evangelization and social action might be related: from “salvation of soul as primary,” through “social responsibility as pre-evangelism,” to “evangelism and social responsibility as the two equal arms of mission.”
The impact on Japanese evangelicals was not only due to Stott’s teaching on this issue. It was also due to the fact that Kansai Mission Research Center had translated into Japanese several Lausanne I occasional papers on contextualization and social responsibility.
Lausanne II was held in Manila in 1989. Japanese evangelicals were well represented. But the theological perspective of Lausanne II is said to have had an overemphasis upon the charismatic movement and evangelization. Many Japanese evangelicals were disappointed and therefore withdrew from the Lausanne movement. Apparently no important documents of Lausanne II were translated into Japanese.
But Drs. Makito Masaki and Gyoji Nabetani began to pray about bringing Japan back into the Lausanne movement. At the Lausanne Forum in Pattaya, Thailand, in 2004, Dr. Masaki became the leader of the Lausanne movement in Japan and as a result formed the Japan Lausanne Network. The first official meeting of the JLN was on December 1, 2008—the meeting I attended. JLN desires that a solid theology of mission be presented at Lausanne III and hopes that Japanese evangelicals will appreciate the meaningfulness of that theology.
What can we learn from this description of the Lausanne movement and its influence upon the Japanese evangelical world? The meaningful theology of mission which JLN wants to see developed at Lausanne III is the kind of missiology which gives equal weight to evangelism and social work. In this way of thinking, evangelism has no higher priority than social work. The idea is that if we do not give equal weight to these two arms, we are not balanced in our theology of mission.
I wonder how many of us expatriate evangelical missionaries in Japan share this desire to give equal weight to evangelism and social action in our understanding of what mission is. Viewing ourselves from the perspective of the Japanese leaders of the JLN, I would guess that we are seen to be unbalanced. We are probably seen as giving inappropriate emphasis to evangelism. We are probably considered dualistic thinkers, separating the soul from the body. We are probably seen as placing too much emphasis on saving the soul, and not enough on social action.
If so, then I suggest that confusion about mission is not a uniquely North American phenomenon. There also seems to be some confusion in Japan.
So what is mission? In attempting to provide one possible answer to this question, I will ask two more questions.
1) What do we find in the New Testament, especially in Paul, about mission?
When it comes to the issue of mission, there is an immense amount of material in the Bible for us to digest, especially in the New Testament. I will concentrate here only on Paul’s missionary ministry. What were Paul’s priorities in mission? Was he as confused in his mission thinking and practice as I think we might be today?
To see Paul’s priorities in mission, one of the best kinds of texts to use are his statements about his own understanding of mission. One such text is Romans 15:20-25, where Paul describes his personal ambition about his mission work.
V.20—“It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.”
Paul’s goal was to preach the gospel where there was no foundational knowledge of Jesus—where there were no churches.
V.21—“Rather, as it is written: ‘Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.’”
Paul saw his ministry as a fulfillment of OT prophecy in Isa. 52-53 about the Messiah, Jesus Christ. That is, the Messiah will be seen and understood by those who hear the preaching of the gospel.
V.22-23—“This is why I have often been hindered from coming to you. But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions, and since I have been longing for many years to see you…”
Paul’s work of preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ resulted in new churches being established throughout the Mediterranean world. That is, churches were birthed in the places where he preached. When Paul penned the letter to the Romans, he had already served as a founder of new churches for many years. Paul and those who worked with him started dozens of churches.
This gospel-centered, Christocentric preaching and church founding ministry and passion of Paul prevented him from visiting Rome. He was so focused on this work and so busy in it, that the church in Rome had to take a back seat to his work in Asia Minor. He really wanted to visit the church in Rome, but could not. At least, he could not visit right away. But he eventually considered that the birth of these new churches signaled the end of his ministry in the eastern part of the Mediterranean world. In some fashion, he reasoned that his work there had come to an end. Thus being released from that work in Asia Minor, he could at last begin to fulfill his dream of heading to Rome.
But even then, his planned and hoped for visit to Rome did not have the purpose of simply visiting Rome.
V.24—“I plan to do so when I go to Spain. I hope to visit you while passing through and to have you assist me on my journey there, after I have enjoyed your company for a while.”
So Paul planned to visit the church at Rome while on the way to Spain, where he planned to continue his work of preaching and establishing churches. Rome was not the destination for Paul. It was a stopover on his way to Spain. He desired a partnership with the Roman church—a church he had not founded. That sounds like what we missionaries do when we take home assignments. We sometimes seek churches to become our ministry partners. Paul wanted the Roman church to partner with him in his work of preaching the gospel way out west in Spain.
V.25—“Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the saints there.”
However, before going to Rome enroute to Spain, Paul would first take a financial gift to Jerusalem from the churches he had founded in Asia Minor. This was a relief project which had significant theological meaning for Paul. He understood both his preaching and this financial offering as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies. In the case of the offering, he understood it as bringing the wealth of the nations to Jerusalem.
So Paul had the ambition of preaching the Christ-centered gospel so that new churches would be started. This was his ambition because he understood that he was fulfilling the Biblical injunction to help others know and believe on Jesus Christ. He had already done all this in Asia Minor, and now, with the partnership of the believers in Rome, he wanted to do the same in Spain.
2) What was the main mission thing for Paul?
It is difficult to reduce the answer to one point. Rather, it seems Paul displayed three major commitments in his missionary ministry.
1. Paul was committed to proclaiming the gospel (evangelism). Proclamation of the gospel was central to Paul’s understanding of mission. Everywhere he went he was a proclaimer of the gospel and of the power of God found in the gospel.
2. Paul was committed to founding churches (church planting). As he proclaimed the gospel, churches were born. Churches seemed to spring up everywhere Paul went! That was no accident. It was Paul’s intention. Jesus commanded his disciples to go and make disciples. So Paul went forth, preaching the gospel and founding churches.
3. Paul was committed to strengthening churches (church strengthening). Moving beyond our focus on Romans 15, Paul did not stop with evangelism and church founding. He also had a heart for strengthening the new churches and the new believers in those churches. He wanted to move those microcosms of the kingdom of God which we call local churches toward maturity in Jesus Christ. Paul was more than a church founder—he was also a church strengthener. Evidence for this can be found by recalling the names of many of the letters we find in the New Testament. Many of those names are taken from the places where Paul founded new churches. The New Testament provides convincing evidence that Paul was more than just a starter of new churches. He was also a teacher and one who strengthened churches.
So a strong case can be made that for Paul, evangelism, church planting, and church strengthening were the primary foundation stones of his missionary work. That is a descriptive statement. But there is a valid way to consider it to also be prescriptive. That is, if the Bible is truly authoritative for us who claim to be evangelical Christians, then we should be able to connect our mission work to these major mission themes found in Paul’s writings and in the New Testament.
This would mean that rather than an outreach English teacher viewing herself as an English teacher, she should be able to see herself as using her English teaching as a means of evangelism. Or, if her English teaching takes place in a church, then she should see herself as strengthening that church’s ministry. She is not merely an English teacher. Rather, she is an evangelist who desires to proclaim the gospel or the evangel through her English teaching. She could understand herself to be a missionary disguised as an English conversation teacher. If she uses the tool of English wisely, people will come to believe the gospel she proclaims. She is a missionary English teacher with a passion for the gospel.
Rather than a missionary saying, “I am here to dig wells for fresh water! That’s my job!” he should be able to envision his digging of wells as a practical way to earn credibility so that at the appropriate time he can share the gospel (if permitted). His greatest desire is to proclaim the light of God’s salvation in a world of spiritual darkness and lostness. This is his heartbeat. Digging wells for drinking water is merely the means.
Missionaries have many jobs. They do many different kinds of work. But they should have a purpose which aligns with the New Testament idea of mission. They might do the work of a nurse, a doctor, a Bible translator, a missionary kid school teacher, a writer of curriculum, an airplane mechanic, or a construction worker. But they should all have a desire to proclaim the gospel, or plant churches, or strengthen churches. And they should be able to describe how their job fits with those kinds of missional purposes. When they are able to envision their own ministry in this way, then they are missionaries in the New Testament sense of the word.
Certainly this kind of prioritized way of thinking about mission leads us closer to the Biblical way of doing mission. This way of trying to link what we do in mission with what we discover to be New Testament foundations for mission will, I believe, take us a long way toward reducing the confusion about mission which might be present in our sending constituencies.
Here in the evangelical world of Japan where there is apparently a desire to place equal missiological weight upon evangelism and social action, we would do well to ask whether evangelism and social action are given equal weight in the New Testament. If our conclusion is that evangelism, along with church planting and strengthening, receive the highest priority in the New Testament, then the appropriate question to ask is this: “How does social action connect with the major missional themes found in the New Testament?” We could reply that social action is the result of evangelism. We could say that social action is the context for evangelism. We could say that social action brings credibility to our evangelism. But I am hard pressed to find a solid foundation in the New Testament for claiming that social action and evangelism should be equally weighted in our understanding of mission.
How about you? May the clarity of Scripture clear away our mission confusion.

Here is the response by Gary Carlson, who also serves in Japan:

Mission Confusion or Evangelical Confusion?
Gary Carlson, Evangelical Covenant Church

On February 23, I was one of many delegates to the JEMA Plenary and heard Dale Little’s opening message, entitled “Mission Confusion”. When I returned home, I sent Dale an email in which I expressed disagreement with him about certain points in his remarks. He showed how gracious he is in offering me the opportunity to respond in the pages of the Japan Harvest, following the issue in which his message appeared. It is my hope that my comments will be taken in the spirit of the Hayama seminars of the past, in which brothers and sisters affirm their oneness in Christ while disagreeing over certain issues.
The concerns I have center in the following areas: our approach to the Scriptures in seeking to establish a model for missionary identity and activity, our understanding of the gospel message, and our appraisal of ministries done (by missionaries and others) in Jesus’ name.
Approach to the Scriptures. Dale Little, in his Plenary address, sought to establish a model for missionary work using Paul as an example. Looking at some of Paul’s words about his own work, Dale’s conclusion is that Paul’s missionary activity centered in 1) the proclamation of the gospel (evangelism), 2) the founding of churches (church planting), and 3) the strengthening of existing churches (church strengthening). Dale went on to state that this summary is not only descriptive, but also prescriptive for us today. In other words, as evangelical Christians who accept the authority of the Bible, we should connect our mission work to these themes.
My concern is that this approach is an overly selective use of the Bible. If we wish to understand the biblical mandate for missions, should we not look at the overarching themes of the whole of Scripture? There is much throughout the Old and New Testaments that inform us about God’s love and concern for a broken creation, his plan for its redemption, and the way he wants to use people like you and me to further that plan. We need to consider all of this, and not just Paul, as we seek to determine what the Bible is saying about our mission work.
The focus of all of this, of course, is in Jesus Christ. Jesus came to this earth bringing the gospel message, and was in himself this good news. We need to learn from him before anyone else in Scripture about the gospel message he has given us, and the way in which he would have us share that message in our witness and work. Jesus is the one who gave his disciples the Great Commission in Matthew 28, and he also declared that he was the model for mission when he told his disciples, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you (John 20:21, see also Jesus’ prayer in John 17:18). How the Father sent Jesus, and the way he carried out the ministry his Father gave him, is our prime example for mission and ministry.
In choosing Paul as our primary model, we miss out on Jesus’ example. And I would also add that if we are going to look at Paul (and I would agree that we have much to learn from him), we should look at the whole of his life, his ministry and his letters, and not just a few isolated passages.
Understanding of the gospel message. Before moving on to consider the method of our mission work, we first need to make sure we understand the content of our message – the gospel itself. Our understanding of the gospel will determine much about our methods, so we must make sure our understanding is on target and complete.
For many of us, it is too easy to define the gospel only in terms of the forgiveness of sins and the re-establishment of a loving relationship with God through the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross, and the gift of new life through Jesus’ resurrection. Of course without this, there is no gospel! But if we limit ourselves to this definition, we will be missing out on the aspects of the gospel that deal with family, society, and creation itself.
At the onset of Jesus’ public ministry, in Mark 1:15, he announced, “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” There was good news, the gospel, even before Jesus made his way to the cross. About the same time, in Luke 4:18-19, Jesus stated the gospel and his ministry by quoting Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
The gospel, this good news, was the coming of the kingdom of God in and through Jesus Christ. He proclaimed forgiveness of sins, but he also healed the sick, cast out demons, fed the multitudes, and welcomed the outcasts of society to intimate table fellowship with him. He taught kingdom values of peacemaking, showing mercy, and love of enemies. For Jesus, was the gospel the salvation of the soul or social responsibility? I do not believe you can find such a distinction in the pages of the four Gospels, let alone the answer to the question of whether they are equal in importance. The gospel message that Jesus proclaimed, enacted and fulfilled was the message of God’s plan to heal everything in our lives, in our relationships and in creation that has been damaged by sin.
All of this follows in line with the prophets of the Old Testament, who cried out with God’s voice against idolatry, to be sure, but also against the oppression of the poor, widows, orphans, and the marginalized by those with wealth and power. And at the other end of the Bible we can follow the arc of God’s work in this world from Jesus through to his disciples and the early church. In Acts 2 we read of a church that verbally witnessed to Christ, but also enacted the gospel by sharing their possessions so that no one would be in need. Paul gathered an offering in the churches he established and visited not as “bringing the wealth of the nations to Jerusalem”, as Dale Little writes, but as an act of “service to the Lord’s people” (2 Corinthians 8:4) who were in need.
In Ephesians 2 after that wonderful statement of how we are saved by grace through faith, Paul says that “we are created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (vs. 10). Later in the same letter he says that God’s purpose in raising up apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers in the church is “to equip his people for acts of service” (4:12). He says to Timothy, regarding those who are rich, “Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.” (1 Timothy 6:18). When Paul said farewell to the elders of the church in Ephesus, he reminded them that he had worked diligently to support himself and his ministry companions, saying, “In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:35)
Certainly a significant part of Paul’s missionary work was to care for the poor and needy, and to train church leaders to do the same.
The writer of Hebrews echoes this. “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” (10:24). James says “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (2:15-17) Peter exhorts his readers by saying “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Peter 2:12). John challenges, “If any one of you has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in you? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue, but with actions and truth.” (1 John 3:17-18).
Returning once more to Jesus, he gave his disciples a Great Commission, but before and above this is the Great Commandment (quoting from the Old Testament) to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. (Matthew 22:34-40) He also gave us a wonderful example of what it means to love our neighbors in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30ff) – by showing mercy to those who are suffering and in need.
To sum up, the gospel message is to be proclaimed in words, but also demonstrated in the way we live our lives, especially as we care for those around us; it is this consistency of word and deed that is the appealing, compelling ministry and mission to our world.
Appraisal of ministries. If this is our understanding of the gospel, then what does this say about mission and ministry done in Jesus’ name? Dale Little would have us believe that Paul’s example teaches us that mission work consists of proclamation of the gospel, and the planting and strengthening of churches. To this I would say “Yes and amen!”, but I would add that this is not all we are called to do.
And I would dare to add that Paul would tell us not to model our work so closely on his example! In several places in his letters, Paul emphasizes the uniqueness of each individual believer. After writing about the unity we have in Christ, he states that “to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.” (Eph. 4:7). He challenges believers to “think of yourself with sober judgment in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you,” and reminds us that “we have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us.” (Romans 12: 3,6) So Paul might tell us, “This is how God has created, called and gifted me to serve him; discover the same about yourself!”
It is my belief that in mission and ministry this means that rather than slavishly following one model, we need to prayerfully (and with the discernment of others in the church) learn how God has made us and how we can use who we are and his gifts to us to serve him best. That ought to be unique to each individual believer, and to each individual missionary.
Putting it all together. I rejoice with those whose primary calling and gifting is to proclaim the good news of Jesus verbally. I thank God for those who are called and gifted to plant churches. And I am grateful for those who by God’s grace are able to help strengthen churches. I affirm all of these servants of God, their calling and their gifts.
But I also say “Yes and amen!” to those God has called and gifted primarily to serve the poor and needy. I rejoice with those who are called and gifted to work for justice in society. I am grateful for those who by God’s grace are effectively working in areas of healing the hurts of individuals and families. All of this is from God, done in Jesus’ name, and leads to God’s glory.
Thinking back to those who made the comments Dale referred to at the beginning of his message, I would say that the person who is helping create a profit-generating business may not be instilling greedy, materialistic values, but simply helping poor people put food on the table for their families. I would say that the missionary who is drilling wells and building houses for people in need does need to share a verbal witness to Christ when that is possible, but we need to recognize that some missionaries work in situations where a verbal witness could result in imprisonment and death for the missionary or the new believer. It may not be shame and fear of persecution, but a solid faith and conviction of calling that leads one to believe that God will at a later time open doors for greater verbal witness.
I would also add that the person who digs wells should not “envision his digging of wells as a practical way to earn credibility so that at the appropriate time he can share the gospel (if permitted).”, as Dale suggests. If our practical deeds do not come from a heart of compassion and love, then simply using these actions as a means to an end may be seen by those we want to reach as manipulative and make people less open to our message. In other words, caring for people in concrete expressions of Christ’s love is an end in itself.
The evangelist/church planter/church strengthener needs to be aware of the hurts and needs of individuals, their families and society. Getting involved in these areas may not be their main area of strength or giftedness, but they too can contribute in time and talent here. And the missionary who is involved primarily in ministries of compassion, mercy and justice must never forget that people need to know that Jesus died on the cross and was raised to new life for them, and that Jesus calls them to come into a relationship with him and with others in the his new community which is the church. This kind of missionary also has a story to tell of coming to faith in Christ and living in him, and should “be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope you have.” (1 Peter 3:15)
It seems to me that evangelicals, whether here in Japan or in our sending countries, have long been confused about the nature of the gospel of Jesus, and how to proclaim and live it out in this world. We need to take a good, long look at the Scriptures in order to get to know God’s heart of compassion for women and men, the young and the old, the rich and the poor, those who have power and those who have none. This understanding is needed as we work out the calling God has given to each of us as missionaries.
At the end of the story of Zacchaeus, Jesus declares that “Today salvation has come to this house.” (Luke 19:9) Is Jesus only talking about Zacchaeus’ believing in Jesus? Or can we learn something from the fact that Jesus’ words come after Zacchaeus’ statement that he would give half his possessions to the poor and pay back those he cheated fourfold? Salvation is the restoration of all that is broken in God’s world due to human sin – in this case the condition of Zacchaeus’ heart, but also his relationships with his society. Jesus’ presence brought a change in all of that.
In 27 years of mission service in Japan (both short-term and career), I have often been frustrated by the indifference of so many Japanese people to the gospel message. It may be that if we only choose to focus on the verbal proclamation of the gospel, planting churches and strengthening them, Japanese non-believers hear our message as irrelevant. I have seen church ministries to the elderly, mothers with pre-school children, and the handicapped become effective in connecting with non-believers. This is not because these ministries are done as a means to earn a hearing for the gospel, but because people sense a genuine love and concern they have not experienced before.
I will not accept the question raised in Dale Little’s article and by others of whether evangelism and social action are equal. I believe the question to be based on false assumptions. We cannot find such a distinction anywhere in the Bible. When we as missionaries proclaim the good news of Jesus in our words, when we plant churches, when we work to strengthen existing congregations, and when we care for the needy, hurting, outcast and oppressed, we are moving in mission and ministry from the very heart of God. Let us not be confused about this!

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