John Stackhouse on Rethinking Christian Missions

In the latest issue of Books & Culture, theology professor John Stackhouse, Jr. (Regent College, Vancouver) lays out a more inclusive vision of Christian missionary work: one that respects the spiritual riches as well as the limitations of all religious traditions (including our own), and that saves not only individual souls but their bodies, their communities and their environment. It was hard to choose excerpts from this essay because every paragraph seemed essential and worth quoting. Here are some highlights, but go read the whole thing while access is still free:

Christians typically have believed that those who have not heard the name of Jesus are simply lost and destined for hell. Much of the energy of the great 19th-century missionary movement among Westerners, and much of the impetus of missions work around the world to this day, has come from the horror of a Niagara of souls pouring into a lost eternity for want of an evangelist.

We also need to acknowledge, however, a corresponding horror in the hearts of many—including many missions-minded Christians—about a God who allows whole nations and generations to plunge into a lost eternity simply because no one happened to reach them with the gospel. Does faithfulness to the Bible mean we must retain this picture?

I don’t think so. What we must retain is the Christian conviction that everyone needs salvation and that salvation comes only through the work of Jesus Christ. How the blessings of that work are applied by God to each person, however, is an issue on which Christians disagree. I would like to commend what is sometimes called an “inclusivist” position.

This position affirms that “without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb. 11:6, NRSV). This assertion comes in the great chapter listing examples of faith from the whole sweep of the Bible. Thus it includes lots of people who apparently had never heard of Jesus Christ, but had encountered the true God, believing that he did exist and that he is trustworthy, that “he rewards those who seek him” with what they cannot do for themselves. This is the fundamental posture of faith, and from this passage, as from many others in the Bible, it is obvious that one does not have to know about Jesus to adopt this posture that results in salvation.

Does this mean that other religions are salvific? Certainly not. No religion is salvific: not Hinduism or Shinto or Islam, but also not Christianity. God is salvific. Practicing religion, however correct it is and however correctly one practices it, will not save you. That is basic Christian conviction. It is trusting God that will save you—that also is basic Christian conviction.

I am a professional theologian, so of course I think theology matters. Theology can help us live better or worse, depending on its quality. But theological accuracy is not the heart of the gospel. Encountering God’s Spirit and responding in faith to him in that encounter is what finally matters. And how God meets people, through whatever theology they might have, in whatever circumstances, is ultimately not visible to us….

Furthermore, we must beware of a second problem that lies nearby. And that is the idea that missions is all about getting people saved, and particularly about rescuing their souls from hell so that they can go to heaven. Multiple theological errors, in fact, attend this view of salvation.

God is not interested in saving merely human souls. He wants human beings, body and soul. Furthermore, he does not settle for saving human beings, but the whole earth. He made it in the first place, pronounced it “very good,” and he wants it all back. So he is saving us, the lords he put over creation, as part of his global agenda to rescue, indeed, the globe….

We are living demonstrations of our message, and much more attractive and effective ones than if we are only constant talkers, interfering with God’s original and abiding command to make shalom by trying to shove Jesus into every conversation at work or at home as if mission simply equals verbal evangelism.

Medicine, therefore, is part of God’s mission, whether any patient or co-worker comes to faith or not. So is education and environmentalism, and cooking and cleaning, and farming and family life. God cares not only about eternity but about the welfare of his creation now. And he calls us to participate with him in that care as generic human beings, stewards of that creation, even as he calls Christian people also to our special work of witnessing to, exemplifying, and spreading his gospel light….

Christian missions typically have felt obliged to show the deficiencies of other religious options and the superiority of Christianity.

In the case in which there was a simple binary opposition—the extant tribal culture versus the gospel—this could sometimes plausibly be done: Christianity can explain the world better, Christianity can assuage guilt better, and so on. In mission to globalizing urban populations, however, there is no way the missionary can plausibly claim that her religion is better than everyone else’s, and for several reasons.

First, no one can complete the study necessary to claim expertise on each of the other options available. Second, it is psychologically impossible to experience each of those options from the inside, as a believer, to complement the “external” knowledge of the scholarly expert. And third, there is no obvious and universally-acknowledged standard by which one could stand above all religious options and evaluate their relative worth.

Since we cannot demonstrate that Christianity is better than all the other options, however, the happy conclusion is that we are not obliged to do so. Instead, we should follow the apostolic pattern. Do we really think that Jesus’ early band undertook a comprehensive study of all of the religions available in the Roman world in the first century and then concluded that Christianity was the best option? No. “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life” (I John 1:1).

Jesus called us to be his witnesses, not his experts in comparative religion. We cannot prove that Jesus is the world’s one Savior and Lord, or that the Bible is alone the Word of God written. Only the Holy Spirit of God can do that. What we can and must do is what Christians can uniquely do: Testify to our experience and conviction that Jesus is indeed Savior and Lord and that the Bible is the Word of God written, and invite men and women to consider those startling propositions for themselves on the way to encountering Jesus himself. No other religion in the world places Jesus Christ where he belongs: in the center. That is our uniqueness, by the grace of God, and therefore our responsibility, by the command of God. That is all we must do—and we must do it….

God has not confined his goodness to Christian cultures. He has sent not only his rain on the just and the unjust, but his law, a sense of himself, and the institutions of human civilization to all peoples, however much those gifts have been repressed, confused, adulterated, or corrupted (Rom. 1). There is beauty, goodness, and truth almost everyplace we look in other religions and civilizations, however much we must also question or even condemn therein.

As Solzhenitsyn reminds us, furthermore, the dividing line between good and evil runs right through our own Christian hearts. And as recent events remind us (as recent events always do), we are individually simul justus et peccator (simultaneously justified and yet sinners) and our own churches and cultures have plenty of lostness, darkness, and paganism in evidence.

We need to appreciate, therefore, that not everything about their culture is bad and not everything we would erect in its place would be good. And the “them” implied here are not only those who live far away, but our neighbors, too, not to mention our own teenagers with their apparently inscrutable folkways and tastes! What, then, can we learn from them? What should they retain from the light God has already shed on them that can be taken up into the fulfillment that is Christ? What must they modify or discard in the light of the gospel? How can we foster a truly indigenized Christianity that will bring distinctive fruit from this culture, as Christianity has previously blossomed in the Middle East, the Mediterranean, Eu
rope, and the New World? And what does this encounter tell us that we ourselves must modify or discard in the light of the gospel? These are the humble questions we must ask in authentic mission, as the apostles themselves did.

Read the whole essay here.

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