In the previous post, we looked at some of the reasons that modern missions is majoring in innovation and creativity. Next I want to share a couple concerns about this trend.
1. This tendency betrays a lack of clarity about the mission itself
Think for a moment about why creativity is so important in some other realms. Why is creativity so highly valued in the world of business, for example? I think most business minds would say that creativity is needed for a successful business because there are so many challenges to meeting the goals of the company and very often there is no tried-and-true method for overcoming them.
A business invents a new widget and wants to share it with the world. Well, they have to find a way to fund the widget, produce the widget, ship the widget, sell the widget, market the widget, etc. And no matter how very fine a widget it is, there is no guarantee that it will in fact make any dent in the marketplace. Here is where creativity is so valuable. Creative minds think of a multitude of ways, indeed they invent ways, to overcome these challenges. Thus, creativity is rightly credited for the success of innumerable businesses.
A certain case can be made for creativity in missions that runs along the same lines. The church has a mission: preach the gospel to the world. But there are a thousand challenges (some of which we examined above). Enter creativity.
But there are some very real differences between the church’s mission and the mission of our widget-producing business above. First of all, in their case, the mission may not be set in stone. Plenty of successful businesses starting out doing something very different than they are now. Now, someone may point out that their real goal was just to make money, so it didn’t matter if they were selling cell phones or hockey pucks. But this only helps us to see the difference even more clearly. The actual work they were trying to accomplish from day-to-day has changed. They used to spend their time trying to fill the world with cell phones, now they try to fill it with hockey pucks. But should such a fundamental change occur in the world of missions?
Admittedly, there are some people who think so. Traditionally, the work that missions has been trying to accomplish is filling the world with the gospel and churches. But there are now voices that insist that this is a far too narrow view of the church’s mission. They might prefer to say that missions is about increasing the justice and shalom of the world, or about expanding the kingdom’s influence. So providing good education and clean water might be just as much a part of the church’s mission as making disciples.
While those of us with a more narrow conception of the church’s mission would agree that such activities are good and God-honoring, we would still insist that we can do all of those things and still fail to obey the mission. Of course we should try to alleviate suffering wherever we are! Christians can do no less! But there’s something left over, something which belongs in another category, that needs to be done as well! Namely, the global proclamation of the gospel. A teacher may be pleased that a student read a dozen books over the weekend but will nevertheless flunk that student if they failed to read the one book they were assigned! We are not free as individual believers or as churches to decide whether we will bless the world through improved healthcare or through gospel proclamation. The latter is not an option on a list. Worldwide disciple-making is an essential, irreplaceable category all by itself.
Let’s reflect a moment about what this means for creativity in missions. There is far less room to improvise in our execution of the Great Commission than in the widget business because we have a far more strictly defined goal. We have no need to dream up ways that we might make the world better. The Commission sends us to make the world better in one specific way (and some would argue, the only real way). If the goal is fixed, creativity has a very limited use. For example, while no one would deny that creativity might play a part in, say, a basketball game, it plays a very small part. Trick plays make for good cinema, but it is a set of fundamental, traditional skills that wins real games. Why? Because at the end of the day, there can only be one goal: to put the ball in the hoop. This necessarily puts a lid on creativity.
The second major difference is that our mission and our work are intrinsically connected. Does it affect the widget-company if they sell their product online or in the store? Does it matter if the customers are young or old? Likely not. In other words, creativity is particularly useful in a business scenario such as this one because, while the goal may be decided, the means of reaching that goal could take any number of forms.
There are those who feel the same could be said about Christian missions. Sure, we want to spread the gospel all over the earth. But the Bible hasn’t exactly prescribed a method for us to follow, has it? So it seems that we should trust our best creative minds to sort through all methods, both existing and potential, to find those that will make the greatest impact.
But are we so sure that the Bible really has nothing to say to us about the methods that we use in missions? Are we so sure that there really is that much room to experiment and postulate while remaining faithful to the mission? I would argue that the mission as given to the church by Christ not only gives us the goal we are to pursue, but also a fairly rigid framework about how to go about it. So rigid, in fact, that it’s hard to see where there could be a need for creativity when it comes to the core work of missions.
Notice that in Matthew’s version of the Great Commission, Jesus does not just give his disciples the end goal. He doesn’t just say, ‘I want the number of Christians in the world to increase. Go make it happen!’ Instead, we are shown a number of actions that we are required by faithfulness to perform! We are to proactively preach the gospel to those who haven’t heard it, baptizing those who respond in repentance and faith, and to train them to live as part of God’s kingdom. Now, some would protest that that sentence really is too vague, and that even within that framework there is a lot of wiggle room. I am not convinced. Think of the work of the apostle Paul, the biblical missionary about whom we have the most information. How much more can we say about his methods other than what is said above? Perhaps we can say one further thing: Paul seemed to think that that last part mandated the establishment of churches.
Now, I know of no reason that a missionary, wherever he finds himself in the world, cannot do precisely the same core work as Paul, without innovation. Indeed, I have friends in virtually every part of the world that are doing precisely the same thing. Muslim contexts, restricted access nations, places where there is a danger of persecution, places where there is abject poverty, traditional cultures, highly urbanized societies – they proactively preach the gospel to many unbelievers, they baptize believers who make a public confession of faith in Christ, and they establish churches. And in virtually every place they work, they are part of a tiny minority of missionaries who do so.
To clarify, I obviously don’t mean that they are doing everything precisely as Paul would do it. Their means of transportation, meeting places, and the way they receive financial support of course differ from Paul’s. But these things are on the periphery of Paul’s life. The core of Paul’s work, however, is precisely the same. If Paul had looked through a portal a couple thousand years into the future, he would recognize their core work as being the same as his own. I don’t know how anyone could say the same about most of the creative methods. Could Paul look at someone who was, say, an English teacher in China who occasionally witnessed to students but had no leadership in a local church and recognize his own core work?
The methods promoted to us by the creative missiological types today are either an expansion on the simple Pauline approach or a reduction. There are no end to the strategies that endlessly complicate, for example, the proclamation of the gospel to unbelievers, whether because of fear of persecution, cultural resistance, or any number of other factors. And there are many other strategies that seek to evade the need, for example, to plant churches. But I maintain that it is hard to understand how these strategies are faithful to the mission.
To return to our basketball illustration, creativity is also limited in that case by the rules of the game. Have a great idea about training birds to drop the ball through the hoop? Too bad, that’s not relevant to the game. Putting your opponents in chokeholds might seem to be a good way to get more rebounds, but it’s not going to win you the game. It only means you won’t be playing the game at all. These restraints mean that, like Paul through the portal, basketball players of decades past can easily understand what they see happening on the court today.
Briefly, have you wondered why Christ would send us with specific commands and not just an end goal? I think the reason is that, strictly speaking, the end goal is not within our means to accomplish! Yes, we are sent to multiply Christ’s followers, but how are we to do that? It is not possible for us to awaken the spiritually dead! So Christ sends us with some specific instructions, tasks that we can plug away at faithfully, not worrying about whether or not there is a better or more effective way. Effectiveness does not fall within our purview. Christ’s meaning is clear: it is as we do these things that the Holy Spirit will do what only he can do, converting the lost.
In summary, the flurry of creative brainstorming and strategizing that characterizes modern missions indicates that we are unclear both on the nature of the mission Christ has given us as well as the specific tasks that he has instructed us to be busy about. Our goal in missions is not flexible, but clearly prescribed. And we have been given specific tasks that cannot be substituted or improved upon.
Someone may ask why it matters. The problem is that all this emphasis on creativity shows that we are not quite sure what the goal is. And as a result, missions efforts from Western Christians are becoming increasingly muddled. Those who do want to be missionaries rarely have any intention of working at the mission as prescribed in Scripture. Those who do are being advised to do other things. And many of those who don’t want to be missionaries actually do want to preach the gospel and make disciples at home. Many of them don’t want to be missionaries precisely because they want to be preachers of the gospel! These are real tragedies.
There’s one other concern about creativity in missions that I can think of. I’ll share it in a third and last post…