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.” 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.”
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.” 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.” 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” 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.” 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.
 Simon Chan, Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2014). 7.
 Chan. 7.
 Chan. 7.
 Trube, “Book Review: Review: Grassroots Asian Theology,” Emerging Scholars Blog, September 11, 2015, https://blog.emergingscholars.org/2015/09/book-review-grassroots-asian-theology/.
 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/.
 Charles, “Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up,” Religious Studies Review 41, no. 1 (March 2015): 10.