In the book Global Evangelicalism, there is an essay entitled, “The Theological Impulse of Evangelical Expansion,” in which the author, Wilbert R. Shenk offers an historical look at the protestant missionary endeavors with an eye on the theological trends that were motivating the various movements. His history reveals that people such as Calvin and Luther were actually NOT advocates of mission, believing that “passages such as Matthew 28:18-20 and Acts 1:8 applied to the first-generation church only.” According to Shenk, biblical interpretation regarding the Great Commission has shifted and changed over the course of church history as the impulse for mission adapted to the needs and realities of the world.
It turns out that one of the main tensions in global missions today has been a tension for the past 500 years—that great divide between gospel proclamation and social justice. The focus of gospel proclamation was (and is) fuelled by premillennialism. “If Christ’s return was just about to happen, and the most important thing was the salvation of souls from hell, everything else was of secondary importance.” But those who believe in the value of social justice ask, “How could one have the answer to humanity’s ills and not be moved (like Christ himself) by humanitarian compassion?”
The answer seems too easy to me—why do we create false dichotomies, as if the answer must be one or the other? Of course the answer is both! Jesus announced the Kingdom of God AND healed the sick. If we don’t do both, we have, as Rich Sterns noted, “a hole in our gospel.” In his book of the same title, Stearns observes that a gospel that only proclaims the good news of eternity and life after death is missing something—and therefore has a hole in it. In order to present the WHOLE gospel, we need to live out the reality of the Kingdom of God here on earth, caring for the poor and practicing hospitality. Sterns’ aim was to wake up comfortable American Christians to the world of suffering and to charge them to take their place in the Kingdom as those who work for social justice.
His book did wake many of us up. My pastor in the United States was so challenged by Stern’s book that he bought a copy for every member of the church (we were about 5000 in membership at the time) and shepherded us through a time of conviction, confession, and repentance as a body. This was particularly challenging to me because David and I were in the final phases of fundraising to launch into mission work…in France, of all places. A wealthy European nation that was flush with health care and clean water. It was tempting to jump on the “gospel proclamation” bandwagon, and double down on the immense need for the people of France to meet Jesus. Instead we decided to sponsor another child through World Vision, embracing the BOTH/AND approach: We can be BOTH called to the work of gospel proclamation in France AND called to participate in the Kingdom work of alleviating human suffering in the world.
I was captivated by Shenk’s historical review, and discovered that 20 years ago Shenk wrote a book called, Changing Frontiers of Mission, in which applies what he has learned by studying the history of missions to encourage appropriate innovations for the future of missions. Shenk asserts, “we must continually seek to discern where the ‘new thing’ of the mission of God is happening. This is not to argue for novelty for its own sake. Rather, the ever-changing socio-political context challenges the church to remain flexible and responsive.”
As I think about the future of missions, I wonder what the “new thing” of the mission of God is today. My research leads me to believe that multi-cultural ecumenical whole-body of Christ is the challenge that God has placed before us. Will we learn to work collaborative with one another, being freed not only from our fears and prejudices, but also from our tendencies towards paternalism and control? Will we learn was it means to submit to one another and consider the other as more important than ourselves?
Jesus prayed that his disciples would “be one” as he and the Father are one. We’ve spent that last ten years beating the drum of discipleship—and I think that needs to continue. But as we make disciples, are we inviting them into full partnership in the Kingdom? Will we give men and women, nationals and foreigners, rich and poor, and people of every color an equal place at the table? Will we work across denominational lines and geographical lines and political lines for the glory of God and the good of humanity?
I believe the future of missions lies in collaborative networks that resource one another, serve one another, encourage one another, defer to one another, and love one another. Its BOTH doing the work of God AND doing it together. This is our invitation. Will it be our reality?
 Donald M. Lewis and Richard V. Pierard, eds., Global Evangelicalism: Theology, History and Culture in Regional Perspective (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2014), 44.
 Lewis and Pierard, 51.
 Lewis and Pierard, 48.
 Richard Stearns, The Hole in Our Gospel: What Does God Expect of Us? The Answer That Changed My Life and Might Just Change the World, 2014.
 Wilbert R. Shenk, Changing Frontiers of Mission, American Society of Missiology Series, no. 28 (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 1999).