It was a contest I just had to enter. Mrs. Vera McKim, our Upstate New York District missions president, announced the children’s essay topic: “The work of a missionary.” My 11-year-old imagination kicked into gear, as I thought of stories I’d heard about missionary heroes like lifelong missionary to Swaziland Fairy Chism, Scottish surgeon David Hynd, and pioneer missionary to Peru Esther Carson Winans.
At the top of my paper, I carefully wrote: “S.A. on missionaries by Greg Crofford.”
“A missionary,” I began, “is a person God calls to leave the United States and go to the mission field. They are gone for many years, and preach about God. Sometimes they start schools or hospitals. When the church is strong, they say goodbye and go somewhere else to begin all over again.”
That was 1974. Much has changed in the intervening 37 years. The NWMS (Nazarene World Missions Society) is now Nazarene Missions International, but much more than a name change has occurred. Let us consider three shifts in thinking and methodology applied in carrying out Christ’s Great Commission to go and His Great Commandment to love.
The mission field: From “over there” to everywhere
Missionary work by definition is cross-cultural. In Acts 1:8, Jesus called his disciples to begin spreading the news about new life in Christ in Jerusalem, continuing to all Judea, going on to Samaria and to the rest of the world.
As Jews, the disciples first preached to fellow Jews in their own city and country. Next, they went to the Samaritans, distant cousins with some key cultural and historical differences. Finally, the disciples became apostles (“sent ones”), evangelizing cities with peoples radically different from themselves.
Though the Roman Empire had laid a thin veneer of Hellenistic (Greek) culture all around the Mediterranean basin, this masked divergent and enduring local cultures. The Church sent out Paul, Barnabas, Silas, John Mark, Luke and the other Jews to proclaim Christ crucified, risen and coming again in places drastically different than their homeland.
The founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission Ralph Winter (Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: a Reader, 3rd edition, p. 341) has labeled these three gradations – from a shared culture between messenger and listener, to a somewhat different setting, to a radically different culture – as E-1, E-2 and E-3. The second and third levels usually involve learning the language of the host culture, and always include learning new customs and norms.
As a denomination born in the United States, the Church of the Nazarene began primarily with E-1 evangelism accomplished through revival services and camp meetings. Yet from the beginning, there was a concern for E-3 efforts.
The Church sent missionaries to far away places like Cape Verde, Papua New Guinea, Swaziland and Peru. The “mission field” in the popular imagination was “over there,” a place far from home where American Nazarenes – and sometimes Canadians and British – went to plant the church and spread the message of holiness.
But as the denomination matured around the world, the vision for cross-cultural ministry captured the imagination of Nazarenes globally. The “mission field” is now to everywhere, from everywhere. Missionary work happens everywhere E-2 and E-3 evangelism transpires. A Congolese pastor teaches theology at a Bible college in Malawi and learns the local language, Chechewa. He is engaging in E-3 cross-cultural ministry regardless of whether he bears the title “missionary.” Indeed, most missionary work on the African continent is carried out not by official Western missionaries but by Africans who cross cultural and linguistic barriers.
In the same way, the diaspora of South Korean Christians means the gospel can penetrate places off-limits to traditional missionaries from North America or Europe. Missionary endeavors are no longer unidirectional but multidirectional. In the words of Thomas Friedman, the “world is flat.”
The communications revolution: Missions and technology
Besides changing notions of where the “mission field” is located, a second development is rapid communications. It is difficult to exaggerate the pace of the transformation.
When former Nazarene missionary Carla Sunberg titled her 1996 book Faxes From Russia, what was cutting edge then now seems quaint. Since then, the Internet and email have transformed the way we communicate. News sites are available around the clock, reporting events in what were once the remotest outposts. Most recently, social networking has woven even mundane details of our lives into a variegated global fabric. Thanks to cell phones with cameras, a teen on a mission trip to Kenya snaps a photo of a lion in the Nakuru game park and beams it seconds later back to her mom and dad who sit drinking coffee at the breakfast table in Toronto.
For people born in the last 20 years, their response might be: “And your point is…?” Technology in the 21st century has become so entwined with life that we forget there was a 20th century time when communication meant writing letters with paper and ink. Now, we speak derisively of “snail mail,” avoiding it whenever possible.
Communication technology has put great power in our hands, but as a popular movie reminds us, “with great power comes great responsibility.” A Facebook status update instantly mobilizes a hundred people to pray for a feverish missionary bedridden with malaria. What a blessing! Yet the same tool can be used to broadcast an unfair criticism of a church leader or one of our educational institutions.
The rewards of instant connectivity can lead us to forget the rule: “Praise publicly, correct privately.” Software like Skype connects missionaries and sending churches in new and innovative ways. Still, supporters should be sensitive not to overuse such tools. One non-Nazarene missionary lamented: “I used to be a Bible translator. Now, I’m an e-mail responder.”
Finally, we should be careful what we post on church websites or other places online. Internet search engines have shrunk the world. Security concerns mean being careful not to post specific travel details, addresses of missionaries or other sensitive material.
From Church to Kingdom
A final shift may be less apparent to those over 50, but is more obvious to theological educators working with college-age students. No longer is it enough to build the Church; young people want to get their hands dirty building the Kingdom of God. In Matthew’s gospel, the word “church” (Greek: ekklesia) appears only once, while the word “kingdom” (Greek: basilea) appears more than 50 times.
Some things never change. Preaching the gospel will always mean calling people to a life-changing encounter with Christ, to be saved, to be entirely sanctified and to grow in grace. These are Christianity 101, but the Old and New Testaments call us to a broader vision. Living the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) and the two Great Commandments (Mark 12:28-31) means becoming instruments of God’s Kingdom. The Church, as a key agent of the Kingdom, must address a wider spectrum of issues, including creation care, justice and empowering the poor, all of which are biblical mandates.
The concern to understand holiness comprehensively is on display in Chanshi Chanda’s Christlike Justice and the Holiness Tradition (Prairie Star, 2010). Ours is to take the message of holiness not only to the “weak,” but to what Chanda calls the “powers.” The holiness message must include a “timely prophetic voice” (p. 39) calling attention to oppression, but also congratulating rulers when they have done well (p. 85). Holiness means living like Jesus, ministering to the spiritual and physical needs of the “least of these” (Matthew 25) wherever we find them, no matter what their religious background. This is compassion evangelism at its best.
Sometimes we speak of “heaven” as the place where followers of Jesus go when they die. Jesus himself spoke of the place he was going to prepare for us (John 14:1-3). Sometimes we forget, however, that in John’s vision on Patmos, believers do not “go to heaven.” Rather, the “new heaven and new earth” come down to us (Revelation 21:1).
N.T. Wright in Surprised by Hope (HarperOne, 2008) maintains that this vision of the resurrection and the new creation should send us out in mission, “directed by the Spirit…to build for the kingdom” (p. 208). As important as the Church is, Jesus did not pray: “Your Church come.” Rather, he taught us to pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
The Church is temporary; the kingdom is eternal. The Church is not an end in itself, but is a God-ordained means to a glorious end: the reign of Christ over all creation (Colossians 1:18). The message of redemption is for human beings and all that exists. The nature of God’s Kingdom is a new creation in all of its facets. This is the mission to which Christ calls His Church, the cause bigger than ourselves that demands every ounce of our sanctified effort.
Conclusion: Embracing Change
Missions has come a long way since my 1974 children’s essay. Three shifts in how we understand and practice mission – from “over there” to “everywhere,” the rapid advance of communication technology and a renewed emphasis on Kingdom – point us to a hopeful future. What a promise! What a mission!
This essay by Dr. Greg Crofford first appeared on January 18, 2012 at EngageMagazine.com. Crofford currently serves as the Coordinator of Education and Clergy Development for the Church of the Nazarene (Africa Region) and Director of the Institut Théologique Nazaréen.
Circle of hands from All of Us Project
Ralph Winter: Assist News
Chanshi Chanda: Acton Institute via Flickr