Keeping missions aloft in the winds of change

I stepped onto a Boeing 737 headed for South Africa, admiring its sleek design and powerful engines. “What would Wilbur and Orville Wright have thought of this bird?” I asked my missionary colleague.  In a little over 100 years, aviation has changed massively. Yet despite the changes, some things have stayed the same. The same aeronautic principles that allowed the Wright brothers to float just above the beach at Kitty Hawk also lifted us thousands of feet into the air.

As with aviation, so it is with world missions. Amidst changes in how we carry out the mission, some principles have stayed the same. This is the message of Franklin Cook and five other veteran Nazarene missionary writers in the collection, Vista: The Changing Face of Nazarene Missions (Beacon Hill Press, 2009). Church planting movements and creative access missions are two of the new things that God is doing. Yet getting these efforts off the ground and keeping them aloft requires the “old fashioned” practices of prayer, discipleship, giving and education.

Some may argue that church planting movements are as old as the book of Acts, yet God does seem to be outdoing himself these days. Howie Shute describes the contours of a Nazarene Church Planting Movement (CPM) in Ethiopia, an exciting move of the Holy Spirit in our time. Growth happens most rapidly where focus is upon multiplication rather than addition. Shute emphasizes the necessity of passing along the “right DNA,” which means preaching and living holiness, churches planting churches in rapid succession and using local resources to get the job done (p. 48).

Elsewhere in the world, creative access is another promising innovation. Rick Powers speaks of this “new paradigm for a new age of mission” where discretion is the order of the day. In many countries, it is not a traditional preacher from the outside who will reach people for Christ, but those who have come as nurses, teachers or consultants. In such an atmosphere, promoting the traditional denominational infrastructure is not possible; instead, we must “surrender institutional success for the sake of the Kingdom” (p. 60). In a book about change, Powers’ comment evokes a shift of emphasis in the current generation, one not mentioned by the other writers. This is the conviction that any denomination – including the Church of the Nazarene – is called to serve broader Kingdom purposes, an objective larger than itself.

Innovations in missions must be supported by unchanging practices. Daniel Ketchum outlines many of these, including prayer, discipleship, giving and education. These are the annual emphases of the NMI (Nazarene Missions International). Ketchum illustrates each point with stories of local Nazarene congregations that are thriving as they put these principles into practice. His emphasis on the importance of the World Evangelism Fund (WEF) was welcome. Also, as a theological educator working in a “school without walls,” I was pleased to see him extol the virtues of distance education, which remains the most effective way to equip the number of pastors needed to sustain rapid church growth.

Though largely effective, Vistas has its weaknesses. Of the six contributors, none is female, leaving the wrong impression that missionary leadership in the Church of the Nazarene is a “boys club.” The book also suffers from occasional insider jargon, using terms like “GenNext” and “GenNow” with no explanation of their meaning. In an otherwise excellent chapter on globalization, an unfortunate disparaging comment about another historic Christian church slips into the manuscript.

But weaknesses aside, Vistas is an excellent primer for the reader who wants a snapshot of trends in Nazarene missions. Amidst change, the call to remember the timeless practices that keep the mission enterprise aloft challenged me to re-evaluate their importance in my own life. Vistas  is a welcome addition to missions literature.

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