DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Constructing a Theology of Missions

Written by: on November 30, 2017

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.”[1] 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.”[2] 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.”[3] 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.”[4]

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.”[5]

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.”[6]

And…

“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.”[7]

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.”[8] Elan is built on a theology that aims to move in that direction.

 

[1] 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.

[2] Grenz and Olson. 116.

[3] 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

[4] “Bible Gateway Passage: Luke 14 – New English Translation,” Bible Gateway, accessed November 30, 2017, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+14&version=NET.

[5] “Bible Gateway Passage.”

[6] “Bible Gateway Passage.”

[7] “Bible Gateway Passage.”

[8] James F. Engel and William A. Dyrness, Changing the Mind of Missions: Where Have We Gone Wrong? (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Books, 2000). 93.

About the Author

mm

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.

10 responses to “Constructing a Theology of Missions”

  1. Greg says:

    Hey Jenn. Great Post. I almost wrote on contextualization as well. I do wonder if our roles as leaders pushing our way into these cultures feeling like we have all the answers is another form of western domination? It is definitely a prideful heart to assume that we have all the right answers and those around us need to follow our lead. In Asia, this is an easy place to fall into because the teacher is exalted.

    Beautiful imagery of Luke 14 within our context. I like that it challenges the local workers to step up while the foreign ones step aside. The new org sounds like a great model. Do you have suggestions on how new foreign workers come in and learn from locals? Are there practical steps built into your model of ways to enter a new area?

    • mm Jennifer Williamson says:

      Yes! The ELAN program is three years (part-time, designed as an add-on to the missionaries’ first three years in country) and consists of Spiritual Formation, Mentroing by a French national, and coaching. You can see the details on the bottom of this page of our website: http://www.elanmission.org/en/missionary/

  2. mm Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Jenn,

    I liked thinking about your “Theology of Missions” the same I liked thinking about Mark’s “Theology of Philanthropy.” It makes theology come alive better for me that both of you have bridged your research topic so well to this book. Good job!

    I was wondering if there will be a point in time when you will work yourself out of a job in France and the nationals will take over ministering to their own people? Is that even a realistic goal in your circumstance?

    • mm Jennifer Williamson says:

      Hey Jay, the French are already quite active at ministering to and reaching their own people for Christ. I think that the point of missions is not only to be a witness to the Gospel where none exists, but also to be reaching across cultural borders to be a Church that models unity in diversity and reflects the Kingdom of God.

      I don’t think that it would be healthy to think that I am in France because the French aren’t up to the task. But there are some advantages to being a stranger, and I can bring something unique to the task if I am working in conjunction with and in collaboration with my French brothers and sisters.

      But I do understand the point of your question. France is about 2% evangelical Christians. There are 50% who claim to be Catholic, but fewer than 10% of those are “practicing”,” meaning they have any faith belief behind that designation. So French Christians generally welcome the help of foreign misionaries, especially as evangelists and church planters, as the task is quite large. Should evangelicals reach, for example, the 10% mark, then I imagine the US and other sending countries might choose to prioritize less “reached” countries.

      At the same time, I think good leaders are always, in every context, working themselves out of a job by equipping and empowering emerging leaders. So we are continually passing on leadership roles, no matter where we live.

  3. Merci beaucoup, Jenn, for this excellent post. I really appreciated your bringing Luke 14 into the conversation, and applying it to your context. I think it is bang on in terms of the attitudes and approaches one must cultivate in mission today.

    When I read the critique from Chris O’Keefe, I paused to consider whether theology is possible without an integrative motif. I don’t think it is. Even if it is unnamed, there must be an integrative motif as the theologian will be organizing her ideas around some framework, n’est-ce pas?

    What would yours be?

  4. mm M Webb says:

    Jennifer,

    I keyed on the “integrative motif” too. I believe that has merit as we create and do good theology.

    Who is your source Christopher O’keefe? It appears he is a graduate student at Austin School of Theology. I searched for him, and found no scholarly records. He does not use any outside supporting citations for his critical analysis, so I am suspicious of his conclusions currently. I went to his link and found this as an example:
    One critique I would offer is to the authors’ discussion of some common objections to theology. One of these objections is that theology is divisive (pg. 59). Formal study of theology should never divide members of Christ’s body but should create unity. In an attempt to answer this objection, the authors take a verse out of context to make their point (pg. 60), thus proving how weak their argument is. “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34).

    I identify with your “Elan” theology of missions. Taking the seat of the servant, depending on the culture, is not always possible. For example, when serving in Botswana we would be invited as missionaries to go to villages, meet with elders, and speak through interpreters to gatherings of people. We had to be carful not to insult the hosts, by refusing to take a position of honor. I think missions, like leadership, is situational and must be done through the leading of the Holy Spirit and within the context of the ministry opportunity.

    Stand firm,

    M. Webb

  5. mm Jean Ollis says:

    Jenn, I really like your statement, “but it isn’t even their house. It’s not their party. Not their place.” It makes perfect sense in the international context and I can’t imagine how challenging it is to integrate and build relationships. It makes me think this should be applied here too – we engage with people we feel comfortable with rather than the poor, the crippled, the lame and the poor. Imagine how challenging it will be to reintegrate when, and if, you return to the U.S. How would you change your ministry context here once you do return?

  6. I love your concept for Elan. I think it is revolutionary and so needed in every missions organization. It resembles the model of servant leadership displayed so beautifully by Jesus and focuses on us being the guests. Very cool and can’t wait to see how it turns out. Wondering what you think will be the biggest barriers to this moving forward with lots of “momentum”? Great post once again Jenn!

  7. mm Trisha Welstad says:

    Jenn,
    Thanks for sharing about your project in a little more depth and as it relates to theology with Grenz and Olson’s text. It seems you are getting traction with Elan. I am curious if you have explained this concept to the nationals, your ‘hosts’ and how they have responded. Do they agree? Add personal insight? Help you understand the type of hosts they are by their feedback? I am looking forward to how your project develops and how the outcomes might serve missionaries in and beyond France.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *