A Critique of Standard Missions and Evangelism

Missions Observed 

Mission is something I think about a lot. The first reason is that I’m a Missionary’s kid, and lived overseas for a short while. Another reason is that I’ve gone on a number of short term mission trips to countries like Ghana, Russia, and Thailand. I’ve also done church planting internships in Seattle, and Oklahoma City. And lastly, probably the biggest reason is that one of my majors in undergrad, at a missions-minded university in a missions-minded denomination I might add, was in Cross-Cultural Ministry, aka Missions. All that to say, that missions and evangelism is on my mind a lot, and through all of these avenues, I’ve been able to observe how missions and evangelism are both understood and practiced in the Fundamentalists-Evangelical world. There are a few criticisms that I believe are needed to be made against the Fundamentalist understanding of Missions and Evangelization. One caveat before I proceed. This is not so much a critique of my mission program in undergrad, I have the utmost respect for my missions professor whom many of these critiques would not apply too. Rather these critiques are made from observations I’ve had largely outside of my missions program and was probably enabled to make because of my studies.

4 Critiques

  1. Whether it’s explicitly recognized or not it’s understood that evangelizing non-Christians is the job of Christians. Officially, particularly among more reformed circles of thought, it is God doing the work of salvation. However, it’s understood that every minute we don’t share the gospel people are going to Hell as a result. I remember watching a video of David Platt and John Piper, I believe it was saying this exact thing. The logic of such a statement is that the work of sharing the gospel and thus people being saved is up to us, not God. While officially this might be rejected, again I think it’s actually what many Christians think.
  2.  The theology of most fundamentalists and thus what fuels their understanding of Missions is essentially Gnostic. Much of the theology in American Fundamentalism is a rendition of an old heresy called Gnosticism. Church Historian Justo Gonzalez describes Gnosticism this way, “Drawing from several sources, the Gnostics came to the conclusion that all matter is evil, or at best unreal. A human being is, in reality, an eternal Spirit (or part of an eternal spirit) that somehow has been imprisoned in a body. Therefore, the Gnostic’s final goal is to escape from the body and the material world in which we are exiled. This image of exile is crucial for Gnosticism. The world is not our true home, but rather an obstacle to the salvation of the spirit-a view which, although officially rejected by orthodox Christianity, has frequently been part of it.” In addition, gnostics taught that this salvation of escape from an evil earth to a good heaven was achieved through having knowledge. Sound familiar? It should it’s what I and many others in the Fundamentalist church were taught growing up, and its what is spread around the world in missions. The “gospel” I was raised on was essentially this: We are made up of bodies and an eternal soul. Our soul is our “real” self, kinda like the man inside a spacesuit. The world is evil and God is going to destroy it one day. In order to be saved from this evil world and hell, you must believe this bit of knowledge we call the gospel. Your belief saves you. And once you’re saved when you die your real self, that is your spirit/soul will leave your body and the material world, which is bad and go to a spiritual place we call heaven. This so-called “gospel” is completely gnostic and not what the early Christians taught, both inside and outside the New Testament, and it’s certainly not what Jesus taught as the good news. What Jesus and the first Christians taught as the good news or gospel was as follows: God in Christ is becoming king, and as such is bringing his kingdom to this world on earth as it is in heaven. Under God’s kingship and the kingdom he is going to set right all of the wrongs in the world and is working to restore and heal all of God’s good, although marred, creation including our material world. In the bringing and culmination of God’s kingdom all things, including material things, will be made new, healed, and reconciled to God. The announcement of this good news, of God in Christ as king, is a call for humans to take up the work of the Kingdom by following that king and participating in his work to restore all of creation. In fact living according to the blueprint of God’s kingdom (think sermon on the mount, and really any teaching of Jesus), is the work needed and by which we cooperate with God in making all things new, of bringing his kingdom. Until mission groups stop preaching Gnosticism they won’t be preaching the gospel.
  3. As a result of the previous statement their understanding of Matthew 28, what proclaiming the gospel is, what disciple-making is, and so forth, is reductionistic, heretical, and misses much of what the book of Matthew is trying to teach. Let’s look at that famous text. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 As you are going therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Because of the gnostic theology, this text becomes back spreading “knowledge” that will save people. The gospel is thus reduced to “knowledge” that you must know in order to be saved. And thus making disciples is reduced to telling people this knowledge and then teaching them to “make disciples” by teaching others knowledge, who then will teach others knowledge and so forth until the whole world has this knowledge. “Hearing” thus becomes a literal physical hearing of the message. But we know from Jesus’ teaching that there is a deeper level of hearing that needs to occur. Getting back to Matthew’s its important to realize that Jesus is recorded as having said “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” This is how you make disciples by teaching them all that Jesus commanded, that is his own teachings. What Matthew has in mind here is all of Jesus’ teachings in the preceding 28 or so chapters of the rest of the chapters! Think his sermon on the mount in chapter 5-7, or his parable of the sheep and goats in 25 teaching us to feed the poor, visit the sick and those in prison, and so forth. In the context of the whole book of Matthew making disciples isn’t about some bit of knowledge you need to know and share so that you and others can be saved. Matthew wasn’t a Gnostic. Matthew is presenting the gospel, saying this is what life will look like when you live under the kingship of Jesus, as a citizen of his kingdom. This is what Jesus taught that we are to teach, a new way of being human. To preach the gospel is to live and embody the good news by following King Jesus and living a life that brings the kingdom, that seeks to restore the whole creation, to promote life as Jesus promoted life. As Francis of Assisi’ once said, “Preach the gospel, use words when necessary.” Only do words become the focus, necessity, and essence of the good news when you are not living out the gospel. It’s not merely words, although as I have done here it can be expressed in words, it is a call to live out what life now is supposed to look like under the kingship of Jesus as citizens of his kingdom. It is no wonder I rarely hear sermons preached on the sermon on the mount or the parable of the sheep and goats! Because we don’t even know the gospel! We’ve been deceived by that age-old Gnostic theology.
  4. A good portion of Missions in the last couple hundred years has been the handmaiden of the imperialism, and colonialism of the European powers, and the work has not been done to separate these two. This does not mean Missions is inherently imperialistic and therefore negative. Missions existed before the colonialism of Europe and existed under the oppressive power of one of the worst empires of the world, the Roman Empire. So any conclusion that would advocate throwing missions out the door is a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. So the problem isn’t missions per say, but the way that it cooperated with, benefitted from, and has served the purposes of colonialism and empire. The attitude being that these are subhumans that need to have western civilization brought to them. I think this attitude is the reason a why woman who in Europe and America weren’t allowed to teach were allowed to do so to “foreigners” because white women, although lower on the totem pole than white men, were seen and still are seen as higher on the totem pole than dark noneuropean people.

All of this to say that Missions and Evangelism in the Fundamentalist-Evangelical World needs a massive overhaul. Of course, this is going to take time and it’s going to take a lot of people working together to make it happen, but it’s a matter of faithfulness to Jesus, and therefore needs to be taken seriously.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

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