“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, Because He has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18)
The Emergent Church concentrates on Luke, chapter 4 as the key mandate for us as well as for Jesus. Note that there’s nothing here about evangelism unless you spiritualize the language. This was pre-cross, pre-great commission. But this is taken as the answer to the prayer he taught us, “thy kingdom come.” Bringing in God’s Kingdom, then, is to obey the first of the five versions of Christ’s great commission: As the Father has sent me, so I send you (John 20:21).
Since Christ does not expand his meaning of “as,” commentators through the centuries have not agreed on his meaning. Was it a simple parallel, “as the Father sent, so I send?” Or did he intend the “as” to mean the motive–love? Or did he mean the same job description, as emerging interpreters contend? Surely it would be instructive to consider all his final mandates to understand a term so critical to understanding his final command?
Also the commission in Matthew is used to reinforce this Kingdom mandate: Go…disciple…baptize, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…” (Matthew 28:19, 20). And what did he command? Deliver the poor, the ill, the oppressed. In a word, Bring in my Kingdom.
To make this shift on biblical grounds three major factors must be ignored: (1) Jesus didn’t carry out his mandate the way the contemporary Emergent Church advocates, (2) the three other “great commissions” can’t be made to sound like that quote from Isaiah Jesus read in the synagogue at Nazareth; and, most significant (3) those who heard him repeatedly give his last, great command, his marching orders for the church, understood him to mean something wholly different from what the Emerging Church is up to.
Consider those three flaws in the new paradigm. (1) Jesus’ ministry as our model. Jesus was concerned about illness, poverty, injustice, but he did not work to change the structures of society, he didn’t even preach against an oppressive Roman regime. His ministry seemed more like a spiritual implementation of that ancient prophetic word. He said explicitly, when accused of seeking to set up a kingdom, “My Kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:19).There’s coming a day when it will be fully earthly- political, if you please. Yes, military. But not when he was here on earth. And not what he commissioned his disciples, his Church to do. (2) The other three commissions are hard to get around, so they’re largely ignored by those who advocate the new paradigm: Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15). And what is the “gospel” they are to preach? He leaves no doubt of his intention. There in the upper room he showed them from the Old Testament Scripture what their mandate was to be:
“Thus it is written …that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And you are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24.46-48).
You’ll notice the Apostles still didn’t get it, because as they left the upper room where he had just spelled out their mission, they were still into Kingdom mission – displacing the unjust oppressors, restoring the messianic reign. But Jesus said, “That really isn’t your business. Kingdom restoration is up to the Father – his timing, his action. Your business is to….be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the world” (Acts 1:8). (3) So what did those who heard the great commission, given on five different occasions, hear him say? Read the book of Acts. Follow the travels of Paul. Surely they healed the sick, yes, they raised funds to care for the poor of their own church family. But the focus of their ministry was to go and go and go to proclaim the good news of eternal salvation and plant local congregations. “I will build my church,” Jesus had promised. Not, “I will transform society into God’s Kingdom on earth.” I will build my church! They finally got it. We seem to be losing it.
So if the new paradigm of holistic mission- merging the two, the evangelistic mission and the ministry of mercy, if you please – is not Bible-based, where did it come from? The leaders of the emergent church describe themselves as “evangelical postmoderns.” For much of the leadership this is self-conscious, but for the vast majority of evangelicals it’s simply the inevitable result of unconscious adoption of some postmodern assumptions.
To the self-conscious postmodern evangelical, Scripture is not taken as objective, unchanging, revealed truth. It is simply the narrative of God’s story, his wisdom worked out in the experience of the people of that ancient culture. It’s valuable, but never intended to make unalterable mandates. For example, to the postmodern, judgmentalism is out, tolerance is in. You don’t impose, you propose. And who knows who has more of God’s truth–you or them?
So how does an eternal destiny called hell fit in? Not very well! Thus, even if you suspect there may be some reality to the biblical suggestion of an eternal destiny at stake, you mustn’t talk about it, let alone shape your ministry by it. And if you did, you would be doomed to failure because that kind of black-and-white, in-or-out talk is unacceptable to the postmodern.
Yet, because we are true followers of the Jesus way, what do we do? Well, there are parts of our good news acceptable to the postmodern – compassion, caring, personal involvement, relationships. Thus, to maximize our postmodern values in the cause of God’s Kingdom, what better way than to focus on those ills in society we can see and, if we’re like Jesus, care about. Besides, if we insist on the old paradigm of evangelistic church multiplying, you authenticate that message only by embodying the character of Christ in seeking mercy and justice.
Does the 21st Century missions’ enterprise, then, mean bringing in the Kingdom by correcting the ills of society? The answer may well depend on where you live. Do you live in the North or the South?
We spotlight the mega-shift in Christianity from the Northern hemisphere to the Southern. We northerners are in the rapidly shrinking minority of Christians. And what is the mission theology of the South? First of all, it’s thoroughly evangelical, biblical, if you please – it flows from Scripture, not from their – often dreadful – environment.. For the Southern hemisphere, missions is defined in apostolic terms, not by 21st century postmodernism.
Where, then, is the 21st century church headed? I predict continued explosive growth from the Southern hemisphere by a people who believe the Word of God. They’re out to win their neighbors – near and far – to reconciliation with God and incorporation into his church. And often, as they go, they ameliorate the ills of their community as well. And in the Northern hemisphere? If we do not correct course we may discover the churches’ efforts to save for eternity submerged by the emerging surge of efforts to save for time. So perhaps the answer to where we’re headed depends on where we live. How do you define mission? Is it defined in apostolic terms, or by 21st century postmodernism?