“And Jesus came and said to them, ”All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
Let’s agree right up front that the terms “emergent” and “holistic” are so elastic they can be made to fit whatever the user has in mind. At the same time, let’s agree that proponent and opponent alike feel, whatever the meaning, it is of great significance for the future of the churches. And that future will differ from the past. One other agreement one could wish – the discussion should not begin till the discussants agree on what they’re talking about!
So let me begin with a statement of what I’m talking about. A growing (“emerging”) number of those who consider themselves evangelical wish to combine (“holistic”) all the responsibilities of the church toward the world in defining the mission (“missional”) of the church.
Who could object to advocating that the church fulfill all of God’s purposes toward “those who are without”? Simply put: that depends on how you combine them. Do we prioritize? If so, which purpose receives priority? Or should we keep them differentiated? My objection is to those who combine the churches’ ministries of mercy and seeking justice with the historic evangelistic/church starting mission in such a way that the evangelistic mission is diminished, if not dismantled. Increasing numbers do this intentionally for reasons we will shortly examine, but far more seem to be slipping unconsciously into such a mode.
My contention is that this is justifiable neither by Scripture nor by history. I become more distressed and confused as I watch the juggernaut of missions in the last century fade. Numbers of career missionaries shrink, historic mission agencies struggle for recruits, training programs languish in seminaries and Bible colleges designed to prepare Pauline style pioneer missionary church starters.
What happened to the tidal wave of World War II veterans who flooded to the fields for what must have been the greatest foreign missionary advance since the first century? What happened to the vision we saw in 1974 as we sat with 4,000 mission and church leaders from 141 countries in Lausanne, Switzerland? Billy Graham, who convened the convention, said, “We stand on the threshold of a new era. Never before have the opportunities been so great. I believe that God will….direct our strategy toward total world evangelization in our time.” At Lausanne we heard Ralph Winter tell us of the “hidden people,” the thousands of people groups lying outside the reach of gospel witness. A whole new focus of mission activity was born. Target those as yet unreached people groups, he advocated. And that’s exactly what we did. Missions activity was transformed. For example, of the scores of movements that emerged, the most prominent was the AD 2000 movement, a movement that strategized how to get the gospel to every person and a church for every people by the year 2,000.
The result? Well, I’m sure those efforts participated in what became the greatest advance of the gospel in history. But I’m sorry to report that, in spite of that, today probably six billion people have yet to hear with understanding the way to life in Christ, and half of those can’t hear because there is no witnessing church among them. They live out of reach of present gospel witness. Church-less, Christ-less peoples. Missiologists call them the “unengaged unreached people groups.”
So what is the response of the evangelical churches of America to this unfinished task? We hear of holistic mission by emerging churches. We hear of missional vision and a focus on finding scientific solutions to the health problems of the world, especially AIDS, our responsibility to protect God’s creation from the assaults of modern consumer-driven technology, to educate the illiterate, to correct all injustices, empower the oppressed, alleviate poverty.
Is this bad? Not at all. Just insufficient. Because, if all illnesses were conquered and all people lived strong and healthy to age 100, if all poverty were eliminated so that everyone owned her own home, a “chicken in every pot” and a “car in every garage,” if all illiteracy and ignorance were wiped out and every citizen of the planet had a college education, if we could eliminate injustice so that everyone on earth lived free and without fear, but they all ended up in hell, what would we have accomplished?
We would have utterly failed God’s purpose for his Church. From Genesis 3 to Revelation 22 the problem is sin, alienation from God. And God’s own solution? It’s the story of spiritual redemption, reconciling an errant people to himself. And his method? Create a redemptive remnant. To do what? Reconcile the alienated with himself. In a word, provide hope for eternity, not just comfort for one’s brief lifespan. God’s primary mission from of old – including the 21st century- is John 3:16! God so loved that he took extreme action so that people need not perish but have everlasting life. In summary, my problem is the paradigm shift from finding and sending special evangelistic church starting incarnational missionaries to holistic mission by everyone to do everything good and calling it the mission of the church.
Am I saying that humanitarian effort is unworthy? Not at all. If God rewards for even a single cup of cold water given a thirsty person in Jesus’ name, what sort of reward can the giant-slayers anticipate? So, yes, do all the good you can to relieve this dysfunctional human race. We’re appointed as salt and light for a dark, corrupt and corrupting society. Furthermore, if we don’t demonstrate the mercy and justice of God, why should anyone believe our story? I truly believe in holistic ministry. You could say the church has many missions if you mean by that term, “purposes.” But to draft the term “mission” to encompass all the church is called to do for a fallen world is misleading in light of what the term has meant historically.
So will it be the Great Commission or The Great Command? The evangelistic mandate or the cultural mandate? Both! And don’t just prioritize. Differentiate. Because, when you merge the two and call it “holistic mission,” the horizontal, the visible, the cultural mandate has always submerged the evangelistic.
This move to merge, of course, ranges all the way from those who simply want to consolidate the purposes of the church toward the world into a whole and who yet maintain a priority for evangelism, all the way to those in the Emergent Church who replace the evangelistic mission altogether and whom their fellows no longer consider evangelical in faith. The commonality among the holistic and emergent of all varieties is the merging of church purposes into one. And how does the Emergent Church movement, not to mention increasing numbers of main-stream evangelicals, justify the leap from the differentiated model to the consolidated? Simply put, by shifting the model for missions from Acts and the example of the apostles, especially Paul, to Jesus himself with a contemporary spin on what Jesus’ mission was.