Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World


Written by: on June 1, 2018

In his book Grassroots Asian Theology, Simon Chan explains that “healthy theological development requires holding together two processes in a healthy tension: ressourcement and aggiornamento.”[1] This statement caught my attention because I’m coming to believe that much of the Christian life is lived in healthy tensions.

Justice and mercy.

Faith and works.

Spirit and truth.

But ressourcement and aggiornmento aren’t part of my theological vocabulary, though they are words that I know. (Ressourcement is French for “healing” and aggiornamento is Italian for “updating.”) I was eager to read more and see how Chan would apply these terms to theology. Chan defines ressourcement as “a creative engagement with earlier sources, the fountainhead of spiritual life” and aggiornmento as “adaptation and updating (!) in light of the new situations in which the church finds itself.”[2]

I was reminded of the renewal movements I studied in church history, which Professor Brunner pointed out always involved both a restoration of important practices that had been neglected and a renovation (or updating) of archaic practices. He often used the image of opening wide the windows of a stuffy room and letting the stale air out and the fresh air in.

So according to Chan, theological development has much in common with renewal movements. And the reason the tension is so important, in Chan’s opinion, is that “Without the prerequisite of ressourcement, aggiornmento could easily end up with the church capitulating to the spirit of the age.”[3] Which is another way of saying that if the church doesn’t stay connected to her roots, she risks renovating herself into irrelevance.

As I study missionary effectiveness and sustainability, I’m realizing that this tension between ressourcement and aggiornmento may also have a place in helping missionary sending organizations move their missionaries into the 21st century. I am convinced that we cannot continue to do missions and to fund missions in the same way that have for the past 100 or even 50 years. It is time for restoration and renovation.

One of the movements in the right direction in the past few decades—a way of aggiornmento—has been the push for contextualization. In contextualizing the gospel message, missionaries recognized that while the core message is the same, different aspects of the gospel have a different impact in different cultures. For example, in some cultures, being able to trick and deceive another person is seen as a strength and a positive attribute, so if the story of Jesus’ betrayal is told as a Westerner typically tells it, Judas comes off as the hero in some cultures. When we contextualize the gospel we might start with Jesus’ triumph over death, presenting Christ as a person who “tricked the grave,” and honoring his strength before showing how he used that strength in meekness and humility.

One reviewer noted that “Chan makes an important contribution in arguing that the grassroots implicit and practiced theology of Asian church communities must be heeded in any discussion of contextual contributions to theological understanding.”[4] The same could be said for missions; however, I don’t believe that contextualization alone can bring missions into the 21st century, where we are facing the reality of global connectivity and the shift of the global center of Christianity from north to south.

Perhaps the most critical shift of the 21st century, where missions are concerned, is the shift in funding priorities from gospel proclamation to social justice. Millions of dollars are spent on short-term mission trips that bring first-world “missionaries” to third-world countries for w few weeks to dig wells or build houses. The target country is typically already evangelized, and the main the goal of the mission is to meet practical needs. Meanwhile, missionaries whose main focus is evangelism and discipleship are struggling to find and sustain donors. Such mission work is a lot less sexy these days. It’s a “long, hard slog”[5] and rarely produces quick, concrete results.

In a book review, Enoch Charles summarized, “Chan believes that the pentecostal-charismatic and indigenous Christian movements are crucial for grassroots  theology and that they offer an effective alternative approach to social  engagement in contrast to mainline liberal theologies.”[6] This got me thinking, “What might be the ‘effective alternative approach to social engagement’ for missionaries?” Are gospel proclamation and social justice yet another tension that must be held? Are we forced to see the two as “either/or” or could they be embraced as “both/and”?

It is in this very realm that I see the greatest opportunity for global missions to practice ressourcement and aggiornmento. Historically, in bringing the gospel missionaries also brought schools and hospitals. The gospel had a salvific effect in individual lives, but also an impact in society. This is an “earlier source” to which modern missionaries must connect. Those who focus on gospel proclamation have become too focused, perhaps, on individual conversions, to the neglect of seeking healing and hope for the towns in cities in which they live and work.

But healing and renovation are also imperative, for indeed, those early missionaries failed and contextualization and often forced their culture on others, resulting in either colonization or a paternalistic relationship. We must contextualize (or better yet, collaborate!) in both evangelization AND social justice efforts.

[1] Simon Chan, Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2014). 7.

[2] Chan. 7.

[3] Chan. 7.

[4] Trube, “Book Review: Review: Grassroots Asian Theology,” Emerging Scholars Blog, September 11, 2015, https://blog.emergingscholars.org/2015/09/book-review-grassroots-asian-theology/.

[5] Jen Oshman, “The Truth About Missions Is That It’s A Long, Hard Slog,” A Life Overseas  |, February 19, 2018, http://www.alifeoverseas.com/the-truth-about-missions-is-that-its-a-long-hard-slog/.

[6] Charles, “Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up,” Religious Studies Review 41, no. 1 (March 2015): 10.

About the Author

Jennifer Williamson

Jenn Williamson is a wife and mother of two adult sons. Before moving to France in 2010, she was the women's pastor at Life Center Foursquare Church in Spokane, WA. As a missionary with Greater Europe Mission, she is involved in church planting and mentoring emerging leaders. Jenn benefitted from French mentors during her transition to the field, and recognizes that cross-cultural ministry success depends on being well integrated into the host culture. Academic research into missionary sustainability and cultural adaptation confirmed her own experience and gave her the vision to create Elan, an organization aimed at helping missionaries transition to the field in France through the participation of French partners.

13 responses to “Tensions”

  1. M Webb says:

    Thanks for helping expand my French and Italian vocabulary with theology. When you made the deduction about the risk of capitulating to the age, I was convicted as a leader. We, the members of this cohort, have a responsibility to advance God’s church and do our leadership part to help delay and overcome Satan’s evil scheme of irrelevance. Thank you for doing your part in France!
    Excellent discussion and examples of contextualization in ministry. While I understand and support the idea of Spirit led contextualization, I find myself cautious and humbled to “change” God’s word. I was drawn to Peter’s sermon at the Pentecost where there were Jews from every nation under heaven visiting Jerusalem to celebrate the Shauvot or Feast of Weeks to commemorate when Moses received the Law from God. I saw a map depiction of where everyone came from, and it was impressive showing present day countries of Iran, Iraq, Europe, Israel, Palestine, Turkey, Egypt, Libya, Crete, Greece, and all the countries on the Arabian Peninsula.
    So, what does that mean to Chan’s contextualization? Nothing, something, I’m not sure? But here is what I do know from Scripture: Acts 2:41 says Peter’s first Gospel message cut across all contextualization challenges and saved 3000 souls. Acts 4:4 says another 5000 men were saved, not counting women and children. Wow! What does that mean to our need to contextualize? I’m still thinking about that, but believe God needs less help and more obedience from me.
    Great post as always!
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

    • Jennifer Williamson says:

      Hey Mike,

      Yeah, I don’t think of contextualizatiion as me “helping God;” but rather, me acknowledging that I can’t help but read and understand scripture with my own cultural lenses, and if I want to be faithful to communicating scripture authentically in another culture I need to be freed from my own cultural biases. It is more about liberating scripture from the biases that I have super-imposed on it.

  2. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Jenn,

    I was fixated on your statement, “I am convinced that we cannot continue to do missions and to fund missions in the same way that have for the past 100 or even 50 years. It is time for restoration and renovation.”

    I totally agree! In my “tribe” we are using the model to “equip and disciple” Nationals to carry on their own ministries–in effect having our missionaries “work themselves out of a job.”

    I would be interested to hear your take on this strategy! (an example is attached).


    • Jennifer Williamson says:

      Jay, I look forward to reading the doculent you shared (haven’t done so yet), but yes in general I think equipping nationals is the way to go, understanding that I need national input and cultural insight before I can even do that.

    • Jennifer Williamson says:

      Jay, I look forward to reading the document you shared (haven’t done so yet), but yes in general I think equipping nationals is the way to go, understanding that I need national input and cultural insight before I can even do that.

  3. Salut Jenn,

    Chan’s use of the term ‘aggiornamento’ is a clear link to Vatican II, where the term was used to express the need of opening the windows and letting the fresh air circulate.

    The Wikipedia page here —
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aggiornamento makes the following statement:

    “The rival term used was ressourcement (French pronunciation: ​[ʁəsuʁsəmɑ̃]) which meant a return to earlier sources, traditions and symbols of the early Church.

    Many clergy could be categorised as belonging to either camp. Aggiornamentos were seen as looking to the future in a post-Tridentine Church, while ressourcement members were seen as attempting to look back to the church before Trent for a simpler liturgy and less Rome-orientated leadership style.”

    I’m glad the updaters won the day. Some changes that Vatican II brought forward include:
    –the priest now faces the congregation during mass;
    –the mass is conducted in the vernacular languages of the world, not Latin;
    –women and girls are permitted to be ministers of the eucharist and altar servers.

    The Catholic Church moves very slowly. One day I hope to see more change occur, but it may not be in my lifetime.

    • Jennifer Williamson says:

      Cool. I did not know the roots of those exact terms, but I do agree that a healtyh tension is generally the way forward. But yes, soetimes one side does need to “win the day” in order for the tension to be restored to a healthy place. It sounds like that is what happened in Vatican II.

  4. I can totally see why most of the missionary funding goes to the sexy building projects that can be completed in a week and those missionaries like yourself who are doing the day to day lifestyle evangelism are left hungry for funding. We tend to have a short-term focus and want quick fix ministries instead of investing in the relationships that have lasting long-term results. I pray God’s richest blessings on what you are doing in France and hope this trip to the states is a fruitful one when it comes to funding your important work. Great post once again Jenn!

    • Jennifer Williamson says:

      Thanks, Jake. Yes, This is something we (the body of Christ) need to be thinking about when we consider the future of missions funding.

  5. Jason Turbeville says:

    I completely agree there needs to be a focus on both evangelism and social engagement within the outreach. My first mission trip was to Serbia, I was fitted with a weedeater the size of a harley and sent into neighborhoods to clean up areas where children played and to offer to help clean empty lots. This gave me the opportunity to share the gospel with people who I served. It was the best experience I have had. I really appreciate your love for missions. How do you see this tension played out where you are serving.


  6. Trisha Welstad says:

    Jenn, I appreciate your pointing out the tensions and totally see the tensions here in the US between justice and evangelism. There also seems to be a trend that follows the trinity with the tensions and the focus: Mainline focus on God the Father and social justice, evangelicals focus on Jesus and evangelism and Pentecostals focus on the Spirit and personal spiritual revival. These are definitely generalizations but in the various spheres they tend silo toward these directions. We obviously need all of these in every church and to do so appropriately within our contexts. What do you see the bent being toward in your context?

  7. Jean Ollis says:

    Thank you for reminding us that missionary work (sacrifice, fundraising, in the trenches) is being cast aside for short term “vacations” (that’s my term, not yours). The challenge to raise funds to stay in your context and make long-term community transformation is grueling. I’m so thankful there are faithful servants still out there doing HIS work and I needed a reminder how important it is in our Western culture to support this work. I think your statement “In contextualizing the gospel message, missionaries recognized that while the core message is the same, different aspects of the gospel have a different impact in different cultures” is brilliant. There is certainly an art to learning cultural humility all the while learning how to contextualize the gospel in a relevant way. Can this be taught? or how do we help missionaries achieve this kind of skill (outside of the Holy Spirit)?

  8. Shawn Hart says:

    Jennifer, I think there is a great chasm in the ministry-world regarding what is necessary in order to count mission work as successful. If a mission program came into a community and successfully opened a school and a hospital, but failed to truly teach the message of Christ, would the program be a success? Or perhaps, what if they failed to start a school or hospital, but they managed to baptize 20 new converts and start a small congregation where there had not been one; would it be a success? What if they failed to send a missionary at all, but instead found a college student from the area of interest, trained them, and sent them back to their homeland to live and work in teaching their own people the gospel; would that ministry be a success? The reality I have found, at least for myself, is that the basis for a successful mission work (or any ministry for that matter) can only be deemed successful if there are souls led to Christ. When viewing scripture, Jesus did not start a single hospital, orphanage, or school; nor did He seem to stay planted anywhere permanently or even for a long term as He evangelized. So did Christ have a successful ministry? There are so many standards placed upon missionary success these days, and distressingly, it seems our true motive should still be to spread the Gospel of Christ throughout the world. The real question I suppose is …how do we do that? I am sure that there are a variety of techniques that may work in France that would not work in Oregon…and there are many ways that may work in Oregon that will not work in Hong Kong. However, I believe that all have the potential to spread the gospel if those involved will see the potential that God has placed in their path.

    I said all that for this: I agree that sometimes there is a need for “healing and renovation,” but I still believe that our job is not to change cities and towns, but rather to make an impact on every individual life that we can. The more people brought to Christ in a community, the more that community will be changed as a result. Perhaps instead of thinking bigger…it is time to go back to thinking smaller and letting God provide the increase.

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