In their book Who Needs Theology?: An Invitation to the Study of God, Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson explain that contextual theology is constructed by “bringing our understanding of Scripture, our cognizance of our heritage, and our reading of our cultural context into a creative trialogue.” All three have a voice, though not an equal voice, in helping the believer articulate the intersection of Christian belief and practice.
Olson and Grenz go on to describe how an “integrative motif” can “provide a focus for the issues the theologian discusses, and it illuminates how the theologian formulates his or her responses to these issues.” As a modern day theologian, I believe cross-cultural missions is an “integrative motif” that needs to be revisited and my project attempts to do just that. I discovered, however, that not all theologians agree that “integrative motifs” are useful. Critic Chris O’Keefe believes that “Building a systematic theology around one aspect of the truth can lead to uneven theological commitments.” Of course this would be a risk, especially if one uses proof-text techniques. But in general I believe that the “integrative motif” approach can be helpful in clarifying one’s theological basis and understanding of various aspects of our faith.
My desire in this post is to articulate the contextual theology of my DMin project using the Grenz and Olson’s method. The goal of my project is to create an organization that helps missionaries build stronger and more effective collaborations with national partners. That organization is called “Elan,” which means “momentum” in French.
The theological basis for Elan is rooted in the Bible (my understanding of scripture), my knowledge of how missions has been done historically (heritage), and my take on the post-modern culture in which we live (conext). I’ll use a story from Luke 14 as a basis for the theology of missions that I am constructing; however, I think that the fundamental beliefs expressed through this story are ubiquitous throughout the Scriptures. When applying this story to the foreign missionary experience, missionaries can be likened to the guests, and the people in the countries to which they go can be likened to the hosts.
The passage begins with Jesus noticing “how the guests chose the places of honor.”
Might Jesus make the same observation about missionaries arriving on the field? Often, missionaries arrive and assume leadership roles and occupy places of prominence and visibility. While they have a call, a vision and a message, how they arrive on the field will impact the way in which that message is received.
If missionaries arrive expecting to be heard, needed, respected, and valued, if they have confidence in their resources, tools, and agendas, they will naturally gravitate to the highest places. They will be tempted to tell their hosts how it should be done, offering their classes and training seminars, as if they—the guests—should serve the main dish. But it isn’t even their house. It’s not their party. Not their place.
So how should they arrive?
“But when you are invited, go and take the least important place.”
Elan has a theology of missions that believes missionaries should arrive and take “the least important place” They should show up to serve, to offer what they have from below or beside, rather than from above. Consider Jesus, the first cross-cultural missionary, who chose to be born in a barn, raised as a commoner, minister with fishermen. He could have stepped into a head rabbi position at the local synagogue. Instead he touched lepers, talked to scandalous women, and washed feet. In most ways, Jesus took the least important place. And his means of sharing his message illustrated its truth. Even he did not come to be served, but to serve.
There is another side to the story. The host has a role to play, too. Here are Jesus’ words to the hosts:
“…when your host approaches he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up here to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who share the meal with you.”
“When you host a dinner or a banquet, don’t invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors so you can be invited by them in return and get repaid. But when you host an elaborate meal, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”
The role of the host is to invite the stranger to come inside. The host is to recognize the strengths and the gifts of the outsiders, and seek to provide those guests places of honor. Humans tend to be more comfortable with people who are like them, and so they build ministries with their own affinity groups. Jesus invites the host to look beyond his normal network to those who are different.
The nationals are the hosts. They are the only ones who can open the door into the culture for the missionaries. They are the ones who can pull out a seat at the right place at the table, so that each missionary is able to make her best contribution to the Kingdom work that is going on in that country. Missionaries bring valuable energy, perspective, and gifts to the field. If those gifts are left to languish at the kiddie table, then Kingdom resources are sadly wasted. Elan is built on a theology that believes that insiders must humbly acknowledges gaps and weaknesses they have in their own systems and welcome the missionary as an emissary sent by God to fill in those gaps.
Such an approach to missions represents a major shift, away from the paternalistic and colonialist tactics of the past, towards a collaborative tactic that honors and respects both the missionary and the host people. In their book Changing the Mind of Missions: Where Have We Gone Wrong?, Engel and Dyrness insist that “partnership is the only option if we take the reign of Christ and the lessons of church history seriously.” Elan is built on a theology that aims to move in that direction.
 Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God (Downers Grove, Ill., USA: InterVarsity Press, 1996). 112.
 Grenz and Olson. 116.
 Christopher O’Keefe. “Critical Book Review of Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God,” Christopher O’Keefe, September 16, 2016, accessed November 27, 2017, http://christopherokeefe.com/?p=99
 “Bible Gateway Passage: Luke 14 – New English Translation,” Bible Gateway, accessed November 30, 2017, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+14&version=NET.
 “Bible Gateway Passage.”
 “Bible Gateway Passage.”
 “Bible Gateway Passage.”
 James F. Engel and William A. Dyrness, Changing the Mind of Missions: Where Have We Gone Wrong? (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Books, 2000). 93.