Publication: One-to-One, Summer 2006
We are privileged to live in the most prolific hour of the “mission” of Jesus’ followers in history. However, much of the amazing expansion of the Gospel witness is coming in revolutionary ways – ways that break through the barriers of cultures, yet often surprise Western evangelical believers. Today, more people are becoming followers of Christ every day than ever before; but the “means” of doing so are requiring God’s people to let go of expectations and requirements which could lock others out of the blessings of God.
The call to take the blessings of God to all the world was first given to Abram. God told Abram to trust Him, to leave his home, and to go to a new, strange place. In Genesis 12:1-2, He promised that Abraham’s family would become a great nation and would eventually take the blessings of God to all nations. The family of Abram did become a great nation, but for centuries they failed to take the benefits of God’s promise to other nations. This was because they wanted to own God and his blessings as their possession, and because they became so religiously rigid they loaded the blessings of God with “baggage” – extra-scriptural elements of their culture which made it difficult for people of other cultures to embrace the blessings.
Today, much of the Church, and even much of the modern “missions” movement, struggles with these same issues. However, when and where we “get back to basics,” millions of people around the globe are finding the blessings of God through Jesus within their own culture.
For example, Jesus told his disciples to make disciples of people of every ethnicity and culture. Today, there are thousands of Muslims who are becoming followers of Isa al Masih (Arabic for Jesus Messiah). Yet, these disciples remain in their culture with little, if any, resemblance to Western Christians. Many of them continue to meet in mosques on Fridays, just as some first-century converts from Judaism met in Synagogues on Saturday. Similar observations could be made of thousands of other ethnic groups – they gather and worship Jesus in forms almost entirely unrecognizable to traditional Christendom. This is called contextualization of the message, applying it within the context of a culture.
In mission, real contextualization points us toward the mission models of the apostolic church. Paul said, “To the Jews, I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews…. I have become all things to all men so that by all means I might win some. (1 Corinthians 9:20-23).
Ours is not the first generation to be forced to think in new ways. In the early 1800’s, some missionaries began to see that the aim of mission was to start churches that would start churches that would start churches – churches that were self-sufficient, and totally indigenous in appearance and activity. “Missions” which adapted to these principles gave birth to the people movements” described above, movements which are now reaching Chinese, Hindus, and Muslims in record numbers.
Obviously, this kind of mission requires a new kind of missionary. We need to think “out of the box.” Charles Simpson has compared the Western model of “the church in the box” to what he calls “the church of the vine” – the organic, family-model church knit together by relationships. These are the kinds of churches that can flourish in the tougher places today. Here are just a few of the new types of missionaries needed today:
VINE GROWERS are missionaries who have experienced this kind of relational church life, and who can model and teach that concept in other cultures. Extended circles of relationship are the normal pattern of life in many cultures, and these readily become the environment for discipling new believers who, in turn, can become leaders of their own relational circles.
KINGDOM BUSINESS MISSIONARIES are persons with expertise who can develop businesses which are more than just a “cover” for missionaries to obtain a visa. A “Kingdom Business” is defined as one that equally produces converts and profits – profits that can change local economies. A Kingdom Business can benefit local believers, and also secure the favor of governments who might otherwise resist mission efforts. For example, IOM workers, whose business is building homes in one nation, are also reaching leaders in that culture.
NON-RESIDENTIAL MISSIONARIES live outside of the country or culture they are reaching, but augment the efforts of indigenous believers through strategy, counsel, or technology. An example would be Matt Brennan, who leads IOM’s “eBridge,” our Arabic language Internet outreach. Matt provides the technology to support the efforts of Arab Muslim-background believers. They have a unique ability to tell the Gospel to their own people. As cultures discover the Internet, electronic media may be to the mission reformation today what the printing press was to the Reformation of the sixteenth century.
INNOVATIVE INSIDERS are indigenous believers who find ways to proclaim Christ to their resistant cultures. One such man was a Syrian soldier who met Christ while fighting against Israel. Today, as an Arab follower of Isa al Masih, he has written and published popular novels for the Arab world. This placed him in a position to publish the Gospels in Arabic with notes answering the questions Muslims ask when reading those books. These are sold with his novels throughout the Arab world. He has also gathered the network of Arab believers who are providing the evangelistic content for eBridge.
The faith of Christ is infinitely translatable; it creates a place to be “at home” in any culture. The challenge of twenty-first century mission is for each church to embody that truth within each unique cultural context. Achieving that will require new thinking at every level, a revolutionary reformation of mission as we have known it.
Scripture Reference: Genesis 12:1-2; I Corinthians 9:20-23
Gary Henley is a member of the International Outreach Ministries (IOM) Board of Directors. He served as the President and Executive Director of IOM for twenty years, traveling widely and encouraging missionaries around the globe. In addition, he spent twenty-six years as a church planter and pastor.