A recent talk that got me thinking about what’s missing from the teaching about missions that typically happen in (evangelical) circles such as I move in.
Such talks – and I’ve given a few myself – note how a page in history turns at the end of the gospels and the beginning of Acts. Here’s the new page: Christ is now reigning as Saviour and King: that good news is to be embodied and universalized. Starting with the few hundred Jesus followers, forgiveness and new ways of living through Christ are to be offered and implemented to everywhere and everyone on earth. This five-fold repeated instruction (in the four gospels and Acts) to Christ’s followers is called the ‘Great Commission’.
Usually, and in the case of the talk I heard, that means individual Christians doing evangelistic stuff, and/or supporting other Christians doing evangelistic stuff, and it reminds us of the need to cross cultures, to go places we are uncomfortable, in order for the message to go everywhere.
So far so fine. Many of us evangelicals, and especially me, however, can go into full cognitive dissonance at this point. It’s a mission meeting. We’re in church. We can all agree evangelism is good, cross cultural evangelism is good, I’m all in favour of it, but no, I’m not really doing it, please, God, send somebody else.
The problem may not be me, I am hoping. The problem is the atomistic nature of what is being taught. It denies the way the world works, denies the way the church grows, and denies the wider teaching of the New Testament itself. Are all evangelists? No. What does everyone else do then? Support the evangelists? Is that it?
Jesus taught, make disciples of all the nations. I think we too readily forget the communal, non-atomistic, nature of these commands. I think we too easily forget the importance of families and networks and cultures.
In Europe, arguably, sort of, there is a local church in every settlement from the West of Ireland to the Ural mountains, from the North Norwegian coast to the Greek Islands. In principle, there are all these little communities based around the Kingdom of God interacting and engaging in a thousand ways with the dominant cultures all around them. You will be my witnesses. Everyone who is part of Christian communities can have a part in that, doing what they do, with all their devotion.
Then look at the order of what Jesus taught in Matthew’s gospel: make disciples by (arguably first) baptising and (then, arguably second) teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. In Europe this happened when a king decided to become a Christian and all his people were roped in. In many contexts, like with a friend I interviewed with experience of people in the Indonesian rainforest, the group decides for everyone. (Or sometimes the group splits into two groups.) Everyone included in the decision to follow Christ is baptised, and then the teaching starts. When the great Catholic missionaries like Francis Xavier did their stuff, they baptised whole communities. (Xavier allegedly got repetitive strain injury from all the baptising he did.) Communities that he mass-baptized, like on the Coromandel coast of India (part of Tamil Nadu) have retained a Christian identity until this day. Indeed some have kept such an identity since the time of the Apostle Thomas, a millenium and a half before Xavier. Even if none of these options are true in your culture, the good news about Jesus’ forgiving power and current reign always tends to travel better down natural networks of family and community.
What are the takeaways from that?
- If you are part of a Christian community, doing what you do with devotion, you are part of the great commission, bearing witness -part of a community bearing witness– to the cultures around you.
- There surely is a need, and Jesus gave a command, for individuals to cross cultures to spread the gospel.
- Such missionary individuals, who go to new cultures, need to prioritize starting and building communities, or repurposing existing networks.
- Mass baptism of the whole group of humans involved (like a household, a social group, or even whole tribe or nation) may help retain a Christian identity for generations, and provide a platform for teaching.
- In this way, the nations are taught about Jesus and how to follow him.