Theologically-Driven Missiology, Part 1: A Southern Baptist Moment

Perhaps the most significant issue facing evangelicals, including Southern Baptists, today is a disconnect between doctrine and practice, between theology and missiology. Our tendency is to affirm Christian Scripture as being inspired by God and without error, and then to ignore Christian Scripture in forming our strategies and methods. It is as if we are saying that “what” we believe about God is important, but “how” we practice is not. We think that we can “bank on” inerrancy and then do whatever we’d like.

In a recent paper, “Will We Correct the ‘Edinburgh Error’?-Future Mission in Historical Perspective,” David Hesselgrave laments the current disconnect between theology and missiology, and traces it back to the Edinburgh conference of 1910. At that conference, Chairman John R. Mott and other organizers made the decision to restrict the conference discussion to matters of strategy and policy, ruling out discussion of doctrinal issues.

For Mott, the issue of doctrine was “divisive,” and thus to be avoided, but for Hesselgrave, doctrine is the life-blood of the church and her mission. The Edinburgh planners “should have insisted on including doctrinal discussion both when planning and when guiding conference proceedings.” And again, “I believe that only on very rare occasions and with more precautions than were evident in 1910 do representatives of mission agencies have the prerogative of ruling divine revelation out of order in order to pursue their own objectives, however noble.

Hesselgrave is right and his paper’s thesis, while focused on missiology, is easily applicable to other disciplines and areas of church practice-including preaching, evangelism, church growth, church planting, contextualization, and pastoral counseling.

It is the contention of this post, and the others to follow in this series, that we must avoid such a disconnect between doctrine and practice, between theology and missiology. We must build a theologically-driven missiology, one in which doctrine and practice are riveted together.

This missiology will be in conversation with the social sciences, which are useful as humble handmaidens for the gospel. However its starting point, trajectory, and parameters are determined by Christian Scripture. Problems arise when this is not the case. A faulty doctrine of God will lead us to a wrong definition of “success.” A poor hermeneutic will lead to an aberrant understanding of God’s mission and of our mission. A faulty soteriology neuters our attempts at evangelism and discipleship. And so forth and so on.

In the posts that follow this one, I will take the classical loci of Christian theology and give examples of how each one may be brought to bear upon the church’s practice in general, and upon missiology in particular. An examination of the doctrines of revelation, God, Christ, the Spirit, Creation, Man, the Church, and the End Times bear fruit for the church’s practice, and are fruitful for reflection in connection with all aspects of the church’s mission.

David Hesselgrave is correct that evangelicals, who are defined by their belief in the Divine inspiration of Christian Scripture, often contradict that very belief by ignoring it in matters of practice. We proclaim the inspiration of Scripture while at the same time undermining it in our strategies and methods. Southern Baptists are not exempt from this ironic state of affairs, and it is our charge under the Lord to work against this trend. We must consciously, carefully, and consistently proceed in such a manner that theology takes the “driver’s seat” in our missiology.

If we will do so, there is no limit to the way that we will be able to bring glory to our God. God will not have to plow around us in order to advance His kingdom. Instead, He will be able to employ the great resources He has given us-ecclesiological, financial, missional-toward that same end.


[Note: The excerpts from David Hesselgrave are taken from an unpublished version of his essay, “Will We Correct the ‘Edinburgh Error’?-Future Mission in Historical Perspective.”]_gamesmmo online mobilonline for mobile

Toward a Great Commission Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention: Part Two

This evening, I am signing on again from Central Asia, where I am drinking a coffee at a small café in the middle of the city. Inside the café are tourists, mostly from America and Europe. It is a scene to behold. Directly in front of me, at the table that is rammed right up next to mine, is what appears to be an alternative rock band of some sort, thirty-somethings, complete with pierced pre-frontal cortexes and little dust bunnies on their chins.

To my left is a long table surrounded by mid-50s women, wielding their cell phones and Louis Vuitton purses, and laughing loudly enough to be heard over a cement mixer. There is another group of Americans outside on the street. Surely they are on a church trip-they’re wearing matching, neon green backpacks, and walking around grinning like its their birthday. And then there is the author of this blogpost, sitting at the booth in blue jeans and a Gap® shirt, sipping my hot brew and trying to write this post.

Here in front of me are three different groups of Americans, with some things in common such as the English language and a shared national history; however, from another angle, they likely have many things at variance, such as their views of the world and of cosmic history, or their convictions about the end goal of human life, or their preferences in music and TV and literature. They share a civilizational and national context, but probably not a cultural or existential context. Communication across these three groups would very likely be cross-cultural communication.

And all of this reminds me that Danny Akin and Paige Patterson, and Ed Stetzer and Bob Roberts, are right. We must treat the United States as a mission field. We must proclaim and embody the gospel across boundaries, we must plant churches, we must live missionally, as if our lives depended upon it.

While it is true, as I wrote in an earlier post, that there are places in the world where people have little or no access to the gospel, and that we should unite as a convention to focus our attention on those places, it is also true that we should unite as a convention to focus our attention also on North America, including especially the USA.

Living missionally in North America?

We most often use the term “missions” to denote the cross-cultural and cross-linguistic outworking of the church’s mission. It is for this reason that missions has most often been used to refer to international evangelism, discipleship and church planting. International missionaries cross vast cultural divides and overcome daunting linguistic barriers in order to share the gospel.

The point of this post, however, is that those who minister in the United States now must often cross subcultures and overcome linguistic barriers in their efforts to advance the kingdom.

A missional Christian in an American context is the same as one in the international context. He is first and foremost a theologian, but also is a student of other disciplines such as world religions, contemporary cultures and sub-cultures, and current affairs. In studying world religions, he learns to understand the core beliefs and religious practices of those to whom he will minister. In becoming a student of other cultures and sub-cultures, he learns to pay careful attention to the people group he is working amongst. He seeks to understand their beliefs, feelings, and values, as well as their patterns of behavior and material trappings. From current affairs, he gains an understanding of the broader regional, national, and international context within which he ministers.

What, then, is the task of the SBC, in relation to North America?

Given the present situation, the focus of North American missions should be to create and implement a missiology for North American cultures. One of the challenges facing Southern Baptists is how to reach our own country. The United States is not monolingual or monocultural. Multiple cultures and languages have been introduced within our borders by immigrants.

In addition, there is a dizzying array of sub-cultures, each with their own distinctive beliefs and ways of life. Many of these sub-cultures are post-Christian, in that they do not have even a basic understanding of a Christian worldview or Christian vocabulary.

We have got to learn how to take our own cultural contexts as seriously as IMB workers take their contexts. This means that we would take care to learn the cultures and sub-cultures around us so that we can communicate the gospel faithfully and meaningfully, and plant churches faithfully and meaningfully, within the framework of our neighbors’ cultural and existential contexts.

Toward a Great Commission Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention: Part One

Today I am writing from the fifth floor of a hotel in Central Asia, having just gotten finished conversing with a local Muslim merchant, whose political and religious views are farther to the right than Sam Donaldson’s part. Having escaped from the conversation as quickly as possible, I am now seated on the terrace roof of a very small hotel.

It is noon and the local mosques are having their calls to prayer. Within my line of vision, there are nine mosques, their prayer-callers warbling and wailing over the loudspeakers attached to the minaret. It is at once humorous, as the prayer-callers compete with each other by increasing their volume, and quite serious, as it calls attention to the fact that there are close to two billion people worldwide who have little or no access to the gospel.

By “little or no access to the gospel,” I mean that, for the majority of them, unless something changes, they will never encounter a Bible, a Christian, or a church. Whereas in the United States, an “unreached” person is one who does not attend one of the many churches in his city, in other countries the word “unreached” signifies those who could not possibly find a church even if they wanted to. They could leave their houses and walk, for days and months and years, and never find a believer or a church.

To compound the problem, the only thing they know of “Christianity” is that Christian countries like the United States manufacture such commodities as Britney Spears, Sex & the City, and homosexual marriage. They know this b/c their religious and political leaders, and their satellite dishes, tell them so. While it may be difficult for American Christians to believe that large swathes of humanity would caricature Christianity in such a manner, it is the very real perception of much of the world.

The Unique Situation of the SBC

What gives me hope, however, is the network of churches with which I am associated, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). I am here in Central Asia with 20 of our SBC students, many of whom will be coming back here to live and work for the rest of their lives. Our churches have entrusted their best and ablest to us, and we are sending them to join the dozens of other SBC families who live and work in this region, and the several thousand who work across the globe.

Never before in history, and at no other place on the globe, will one find a network of churches that is more capable of planting the gospel among every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. We have the theological, financial, and personnel resources to finish the task given to us by our Lord-we have enough people, enough money, and a statement of faith that reveals our belief in the uniqueness of Christ. Any Southern Baptist who does not have doctrinal, moral, or medical obstacles can be fully salaried and sent to proclaim the gospel and gather churches in nearly any country in the world.

We are committed to this because we are “taken” by John’s vision in Revelation 5 in which all of heaven bursts forth into worship. Among those worshiping are men and women from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. This is the vision that drives us-that our Lord will be worshiped from all corners of the globe. He is no tribal deity, limited to receiving the admiration of a few. Rather, there is something about Him so profoundly true, and comprehensively good, and strikingly beautiful, that He will find worshipers among every type of person who has ever lived. He alone is worthy of such worship. We believe that our lives should be lived in such a way as to contribute to this triumphant march of God, as He draws unto himself worshipers from among every people group on the face of the globe.

The Task of the SBC

What, then, is our task? Our task is to make the gospel readily accessible to every tribe, tongue, people and nation; it is to do so even in the face of formidable financial challenges and potential personal cost, to do so joyfully even when we might suffer for the sake of the gospel.

The magnitude of our task, moreover, is matched and exceeded by the magnitude of our biblical convictions: That God is a missionary God; that all people without Christ are lost; that a central theme in the Scriptures is God’s desire to win the nations unto Himself; that since the coming of His Son, God has chosen that all saving faith be consciously focused on Christ; that the church’s task in each generation is to proclaim the gospel to her generation; and that this progress of the gospel to the ends of the earth may be hindered temporarily, but there can be no doubt about its final triumph.

A Great Commission Resurgence

This, then, is why the call for a Great Commission Resurgence resonates so deeply within the convention. Based upon our gospel convictions, we as a convention know that we must build Great Commission churches and seminaries. We must be committed to making disciples “to the ends of the earth.” As mentioned above, upwards of 2 billion people have little or no access to a church, a Bible, or a Christian witness of any type. In the words of Paul, “How shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent?” (Rom 10:14-15).