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Toward a Worldwide Theology of Vulnerable Mission

The Alliance for Vulnerable Mission has proposed a theology of vulnerable mission that encourages Western mission workers to cede power in key areas. Eleonora Dorothea Hof has critiqued the Alliance for proposing a model of vulnerable mission that does not enable the participation of “non-Westerners.” This article seeks to develop a worldwide theology of vulnerable mission that is rooted in the inherent vulnerability of the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Vulnerable mission is a theme that Missio Dei has explored in depth, with particular reference to the work of the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission (AVM).1 The Alliance defines vulnerable mission as mission “carried out by a Westerner in the non-West using the language(s) and resources of the people being reached.”2 The Alliance urges Westerners engaged in mission and development deliberately to cede power. However, by articulating a theology and praxis of mission specifically for Westerners, the Alliance has not considered the applicability of vulnerable mission to Majority World mission workers. This article engages with Eleonora Dorothea Hof’s critique of the AVM in order to propose a worldwide theology of vulnerable mission.3

The Alliance for Vulnerable Mission

The AVM promotes a model of vulnerability that cedes power in the key areas of language and resources.4 The AVM’s focus on language is not simply about abandoning the language of the Westerner, but about operating within the vernacular language of the people being served. For example, in the Kenyan context where Harries works, this might mean operating in Dholuo or Kikuyu rather than Kiswahili, which is typically a second or third language for most Kenyans. The AVM has addressed the issue of resources by particularly focusing on the way that money is used in mission and development. However, resources are not limited to money but include soft resources such as thinking styles. Stan Nussbaum argues that Western mission workers are vulnerable as they recognize the validity of orality as a thinking style and choose to operate from this perspective.5 Vulnerable mission as defined by the AVM can be summarised as Western mission workers operating in non-Western contexts using local languages, local resources, and local methodologies, while living as proximate as possible to those they are serving.

Hof’s Critique of the AVM

Hof’s fascinating doctoral thesis explores the themes of spatiality, marginality, vulnerability, and vocation as she constructs a postcolonial theology of mission. In her review of vulnerability, Hof gives attention to the theology of the AVM, which she says is “to date the only academic and professional group of thinkers and practitioners who both research the theoretical underpinnings of vulnerability in mission and have strived to incorporate these principles in their praxis of mission.”6 Despite this encouraging introduction, Hof has reservations about the AVM’s construction of vulnerable mission, which she considers to have colonialist overtones.

Hof’s critique of the AVM flows out of her arguments about spatiality and an insistence that mission should move on from the language of “mission field” and “homeland.”7 The AVM’s articulation of vulnerable mission centers on a distinction between the Western missionary and the non-Western recipient. Hof argues that in a postcolonial world, theologies of mission must address the issue of Western privilege. However, the AVM’s theory of vulnerable mission is addressed only to the Western missionary working in a non-Western context, thereby perpetuating historic imbalances and an unhelpful geographic separation between homeland and mission field. Hof points out the inequity of a model that allows only the Western missionary to be vulnerable: “It is therefore problematic that the discourse of vulnerability is connected chiefly with activities of missionaries from the West. Vulnerability as defined by the Alliance attributes privilege to individuals and churches originating from the West. This privilege consists in the voluntary shedding of one’s privilege in order to engage in mission in the way of Christ. This type of vulnerability is relevant only in a Western context and privileges the Western missionary over the non-Western follower of Christ.”8

This issue would not be a problem if the AVM were proposing a contextual theology that only has local implications. However, Hof argues that since the AVM’s model of vulnerable mission encompasses both the Western missionary and the non-Western context, it goes beyond local theology. As Hof says, “Although the proposal of the Alliance is a form of local theology, the proposal is also a particular construct that only acquires meaning in contrast with the non-Western other.”9 In her review of AVM literature, Hof also notes that the question about the appropriateness of sending Western mission workers to foreign countries is not addressed. Hof does not offer her own answer to this question. However, the tone of her work and the focus on postcolonialism make it clear that she considers sending Western mission workers to foreign countries to be a sensitive issue. Hof notes that the AVM wants to promote non-colonial models of mission. Indeed, central to the AVM’s purpose is a desire to challenge hegemonic practises of Western mission. However, Hof argues that by perpetuating the Western / non-Western distinction, the AVM has committed itself to an inherently colonial model, in which the Western mission worker must be vulnerable “over there” but not “back here.” She argues: “The theme of vulnerability is therefore in the work of the Alliance employed to perpetuate the colonial distinction between an idealised and projected safe homeland on the one hand, and on the other hand the exotic and dangerous foreign territory.”10

The challenge that Hof places before the AVM is to articulate a theology and praxis of vulnerable mission that has “planetary”11 validity. Is vulnerable mission a concept that is useful for worldwide Christianity or is it simply a Western response to a colonial issue? It is the position of both Hof and of this article that vulnerability as a concept is deeply rooted in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Therefore, if the gospel is universal, vulnerability as a theme must have planetary validity. We will therefore develop a worldwide theology of vulnerable mission in the light of Christ’s kenosis before considering its practical implications.

Vulnerable Mission and Kenosis

As Hof points out, if a theological construction is located Christologically it should have worldwide application to all of God’s people.12 The incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ is therefore a helpful foundation for a worldwide theology of vulnerability. When Christ Jesus became flesh, he let go of the power and privileges of heaven, no longer counting “equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Phil 2:6).13 The Apostle Paul’s Christological hymn in Philippians 2 provides a model for vulnerability. The Lord Jesus “made himself nothing” (Phil 2:7). The Apostle develops this self-emptying, or kenosis, in a series of explanations. The Lord Jesus emptied himself by “taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness and by humbling himself and being obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). In the structure of the hymn, Christ’s death on the cross is the culmination of kenosis, the moment of the Messiah’s complete self-abnegation. It is also the turning point, after which comes exaltation.

Christ’s kenosis is therefore a model of absolute vulnerability, which Paul argues should be the attitude of the Philippian church (Phil 2:5). It leads to the most humiliating and agonizing of deaths. However, it is important that we move with caution from the life of Christ to the lives we are called to live as Christ’s people. The Lord Jesus died as an atonement for sin; this work is complete, and we do not participate in it. In order to understand how Christ’s kenosis applies to God’s people today, it is necessary to explore the ways in which the crucifixion is applied to God’s people in Scripture. The New Testament outlines three ways in which this happens.

First, God’s people must appropriate the benefits of Christ’s death for themselves through repentance and faith (Rom 3:22–24). The kenotic nature of Christ’s death is mirrored in the kenotic beginning of the Christian life. Nobody from any culture, class, or background makes a contribution to their salvation, for “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). Vulnerability is therefore the universal starting point for the Christian journey, which begins at the foot of the cross. Every disciple must accept, with empty hands, the gift of God in Christ Jesus.

Second, God’s people must live cruciform lives, obeying the call to daily take up their cross and follow Jesus (Mark 8:34). The cross is not only the starting point for the Christian journey but also defines the shape of Christian living. God’s people are called to live in vulnerability, characterised by complete self-sacrifice and other-person-centered love.

Third, God’s people commit to speak the message of the cross (1 Cor 1:23–25; 1 Pet 3:15). The news of Christ’s atoning death is a story filled with hope and life for every human being. The gospel encompasses both universality and particularity—in Christ there is hope for every person in every culture; without Christ there is no hope for anyone, anywhere. In Hof’s development of kenosis, she suggests that Christ’s self-emptying leads us towards humility and silence.14 In the logic of the New Testament, however, kenosis moves God’s people not to silence but to speech. The cross is to be proclaimed. This proclamation is not coercive or power-laden but rather is inherently vulnerable because of the content of the message that is spoken. Scripture promises that no matter where God’s people go or what culture they are speaking within, the message of the cross will be weak and foolish in human eyes (1 Cor 1:18–2:5). There is nowhere on earth where the cross will make sense. While recognizing that the New Testament’s model of gospel ministry has often been abused in appalling ways, there is, nonetheless, an inherent vulnerability in the proclamation of the gospel by faithful heralds. Christ’s crucifixion is supra-culturally a message of weakness and foolishness. Faithful heralds are intended to be those who embody the kenosis of crucifixion, as we carry “in the body the death of Jesus” (2 Cor 4:10).

Vulnerability is therefore central to the character and ministry of God’s people as they embrace the kenosis of the cross. While God’s people do not repeat Christ’s sacrificial death, they are called to believe it, to live it, and to speak it.

Language and the Praxis of Vulnerable Mission

Each of these activities requires self-emptying and is inherently vulnerable. How, then, does this theology of vulnerability inform a praxis of vulnerable mission that will serve worldwide Christianity? To speak about the cross is to communicate a message that is inherently vulnerable, since the cross is weak and foolish. However, the New Testament adds an additional layer of vulnerability to the speaking of the cross. It models to God’s people that the communication of the gospel takes place in the language of the hearer rather than the language of the speaker. As Lamin Sanneh points out, the New Testament is unique amongst sacred texts in being written in a language different from the language in which its founder conducted his ministry.15 Jesus probably conducted most of his teaching ministry in Aramaic; the New Testament is written in koine Greek, meaning that the Gospels are substantially translated documents.

The day of Pentecost adds further color to this story (Acts 2:1–13). God chooses to work in a way that demonstrates the translatability of the gospel. Filled with the Spirit, the Apostles speak in many different languages. God might have chosen a gift of miraculous hearing rather than miraculous speaking. The Apostles might have proclaimed the gospel in one language and the hearers might have been given the ability to understand. This is not what happens. Rather, the Apostles speak in the many languages of their multi-ethnic congregation. Pentecost is not a reversal of Babel that reunifies people into one language group. Rather it is a fulfilment of God’s promise to bless the nations (cf. Gen 12:1–3). The great eschatological vision of the New Testament is not one that imagines God’s people gathered around his throne in homogeneity. Rather, it points to a future where every tribe and tongue is gathered around the throne of the Lamb (Rev 7). The translatability of the gospel is not purely a linguistic phenomenon. The New Testament models not only linguistic but also cultural translatability, as the Gentile churches emerge from their Jewish roots (Acts 15:1–29).16

Sanneh has argued that the nineteenth-century Protestant missionary movement embraced two different missiological paradigms—mission as translation and mission as cultural diffusion, the translation model being the one promoted by the New Testament.17 As Sanneh says: “As translation, mission commits to the bold, radical step that the receiving culture is the decisive destination of God’s salvific promise and as such has an honoured place under the kindness of God, with the attendant safeguard against cultural idolatry.”18 Mission as linguistic translation is embedded in the day of Pentecost and as cultural translation in the council at Jerusalem (Acts 2; 15). There is, therefore, a double vulnerability inherent to gospel ministry. Not only is the message inherently one of weakness and foolishness, speaking as it does of a crucified savior, but the herald of the message is inherently vulnerable, speaking in the language of the hearer.

As the AVM points out, this model of language transfer within mission cedes power to the hearer. This theological construction allows the AVM to extend the principle of language to a worldwide level. Rather than saying that Western missionaries should engage in mission using local languages, instead AVM might argue that all missionaries should engage in mission using the preferred language of the hearer, thereby enabling not only the linguistic but also the cultural translatability of the gospel. It is important to specify that mission should take place in the preferred language of the hearer to ensure that the speaker does not retain power by deciding which local language should be used. The cultural translatability that is created through appropriate language use also ensures that principles such as orality will be taken seriously.

Resources and the Praxis of Vulnerable Mission

How might the themes that have been developed so far inform the use of resources in mission? The AVM argues that Western missionaries should engage in mission using local resources, with particular caution exercised around the use of money. Can this theme be extended from Western mission to worldwide mission?

The proclamation of the weak and foolish message of the cross creates an intended outcome in the New Testament. This outcome is not primarily envisaged to be individual converts who become individual disciples. Rather, the New Testament imagines that the proclamation of the cross will be God’s means of gathering believers together into local churches. A key concern within the New Testament is providing leadership for these new churches. Once leadership is established, the model of ministry proceeds with clarity; church leaders equip the saints, that is the members of the local church, to use their gifts to serve one another in love and build each other up towards maturity in Christ (Eph 4:11–13). The gifts that are described in a series of passages in the New Testament encompass practical gifts such as hospitality, acts of mercy, and generosity, as well as word-based gifts such as teaching and prophecy (1 Cor 12; Rom 12; 1 Pet 4).

The image that the New Testament paints is one in which a local church is established through gospel proclamation, with the church quickly moving to a point where its members use their gifts to serve one another. This service includes practical care for the marginalized and needy. The New Testament echoes the pattern of the Old Testament in recognizing the relational nature of poverty. In the Old Testament, the poor are identified in relational terms as the “sojourner, the fatherless and the widow” (Deut 16:11–14). God’s people are to provide for the marginalized by incorporating them into the life of the community. The Old Testament law requires that the nation organize its community life in such a way that the marginalized are both included and provided for (Deut 15:4–11; 24:19–22). The New Testament follows this pattern by ensuring that the needy within the local church are practically supported (Acts 6:1–7; Jas 1:26–2:7).

As God’s people are gathered into churches through gospel proclamation, they are therefore to become a community who love one another and care for each other’s needs, using the gifts that God has given them. This model of ministry reflects AVM’s argument that mission should be conducted without injecting external resources. The only external resource that is imagined in this scenario is the gospel of Jesus Christ. A great deal of worldwide mission is conducted in exactly this way, since many worldwide missionaries possess no resources other than the gospel.

This theological argument begs a number of missiological questions. First, is this construction proposing that the model of holistic or integral mission be abandoned in favour of a model of mission that makes proclamation the priority? In order to answer this concern, the possible meanings of priority must be considered. Priority might mean either prior in terms of sequence or prior in terms of importance. To argue that the gospel is first proclaimed, then the church is gathered, through whom the poor are cared for, is to place proclamation prior to care for the poor in sequence but not necessarily in importance. An analogy can assist us here. Godliness in the believer comes after conversion, but is no less important.19 To argue that a local church has a responsibility to care for the poor as it has a responsibility to live godly lives is to place proclamation prior to care for the poor in sequence but not in importance.

Second, does this theological construction ignore the poor who are not Christians and limit care for the poor to those within the community of the local church? The answer to this question will depend on the faithfulness with which a local church reads and obeys Scripture. If a local church understands the principle of other-person-centered love and accepts the challenge given by the Lord Jesus in the parable of the good Samaritan, then they will not put boundaries around their loving acts of service.

Having reviewed the ways in which the issues of language and resources might be informed by a worldwide theology of vulnerable mission, we are now in a position to revisit definitions. The AVM defines vulnerable mission as mission “carried out by a Westerner in the non-West using the language(s) and resources of the people being reached.”20 In the light of Hof’s critique and her challenge to articulate a theology of vulnerable mission with worldwide scope, the following definition is offered: Vulnerable mission argues that mission should take place in the language of the hearers and should empower the local church to care for the poor within its community using its own gifts and resources. This definition enables vulnerable mission to take place at a worldwide level and requires no external resources other than the good news of Christ crucified.

Conclusion: Vulnerable Mission and the West

Having argued for an expression of vulnerable mission that has worldwide scope, this article now comes full circle and defends the need for a specifically Western expression. The worldwide definition of vulnerable mission that has been offered engages with the critique leveled by Hof to enable God’s people around the world to participate in vulnerable mission. However, a local theology of vulnerable mission for Western Christians is still necessary for two reasons: first, because the West was, for the most part, the perpetrator of colonial rule. Second, because the twin hegemonies of colonial language and Western resources create specific issues that Western Christians must address. A local, Western, theology of vulnerable mission can be constructed as a subset of the worldwide theology of vulnerable mission that has been offered. Vulnerable mission is defined as above, while a Western expression of vulnerable mission is articulated as mission carried out by a Westerner that deliberately cedes power by not using Western languages or resources.

Rev. Dr. David Williams is Principal of St. Andrew’s Hall and a member of the faculty at Ridley College (Melbourne, Australia). David and his family served as missionaries in Nairobi, Kenya, where David was Principal of Carlile College. David helped the college to establish a specialist urban mission training program based in Kibera slum, one of the largest informal settlements in sub-Saharan Africa.

1 The whole of vol. 4, no. 1, of Missio Dei was dedicated to Vulnerable Mission. See Christopher L. Flanders, “Vulnerable Mission,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 4, no. 1 (2013): http://missiodeijournal.com/issues/md-4-1/authors/md-4-1-preface.

2 Jim Harries, Vulnerable Mission: Insights into Christian Mission to Africa from a Position of Vulnerability (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2012), 258.

3 Eleonora Dorothea Hof, Reimagining Mission in the Postcolonial Context: A Theology of Vulnerability and Vocation at the Margins (Utrecht, NL: Boekencentrum Academic, 2016).

4 See esp. Harries, Vulnerable Mission.

5 Stan Nussbaum, “Vulnerable Mission Vis-a-Vis Mainstream Mission and Missiology,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 4, no. 1 (2013): http://missiodeijournal.com/issues/md-4-1/authors/md-4-1-nussbaum.

6 Hof, Reimagining, 188.

7 Ibid., 80–121.

8 Ibid., 193.

9 Ibid., 194.

10 Ibid., 195.

11 Planetary and planetarity are terms Hof uses to describe worldwide inclusion. She prefers this to the term global since globalisation implies uniformity and Western control.

12 Hof, Reimagining, 194.

13 Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.

14 Hof, Reimagining, 221.

15 Lamin O. Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture, American Society of Missiology Series, 2nd ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009).

16 See Timothy C. Tennent, The Translatability of the Christian Gospel (Franklin, TN: Seedbed, 2009).

17 Sanneh, Translating, 36–7.

18 See Jim Harries, Communication in Mission and Development (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2013).

19 Tim Chester and Tony Payne, “Social Involvement and Evangelism (Part 2),” The Briefing, February 2005.

20 Harries, Vulnerable Mission, 258.

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The Last Word in Rhetoric: Ithele Traditional Singers/Storytellers, Meaningful Communication, and a Reading of 2 Timothy in Mozambique

Among the Makua-Metto of Mozambique, Africa, the omwisho (or last word) has an important rhetorical function. Someone giving counsel in this context may touch on different topics or themes, but certain verbal cues help the hearer identify the communicator’s main point. Traditionally, ithele singers creatively use both story and history to exhort their hearers to respond by living appropriately. Approaching Paul’s last letter to his apprentice Timothy, his last word, in light of these communication patterns, has allowed for a reading that resonates with a Mozambican audience.

In an interview about communication patterns and strategies among the Makua-Metto people, one of my (Alan’s) friends told of an experience that was significant to him. Their family had been sitting near the fire after supper one night when his father, now deceased, began telling a humorous story. Everyone was drawn into the tale, laughing when it was over. But before the laughter had stopped, his father made a serious final observation. At that moment they all understood that the story had a deeper meaning and connected it to their own recent experiences as seen through the lens of his conclusion.

Cross-cultural communication requires a knowledge of language that goes beyond the meaning of words, phrases, sentences, or paragraphs. It requires an appreciation of rhetorical and communication dynamics. To truly understand the meaning, we need to be able to recognize elements at the macro and micro levels of communication. In many settings, a Makua-Metto speaker begins with a proverb, story, or observation that may at first seem unrelated and disconnected from the topic they want to address. They often will not move toward the point sequentially but slowly circle closer and closer, touching on different themes, before eventually landing with a surprising burst of speed on a conclusion, a last word (omwisho) that ties what was said together at a specific point.

While a complete analysis of Makua-Metto rhetorical strategies is certainly outside the scope of this article, we will share observations about larger patterns and specific message markers or sign posts that are important for meaningful communication in this context by looking at the way that ithele singers/storytellers1 (whose closest comparison may be the griots of West Africa or the imbongi of South Africa, though the epic poet Homer is another useful analogue). In the Makua-Metto language, the word ithele typically means a myth, tale, or fable with an ethical point. We will explore how the rhetorical strategies of ithele singers help shape the task of preaching. After that we will briefly examine Paul’s final communication to his apprentice Timothy in light of the communication patterns and dynamics among the Makua-Metto to appreciate how a Mozambican audience can hear the great Apostle’s “last word.”

Macro Elements in the Rhetoric of Ithele and the Practice of Preaching

To understand the work of an ithele singer, we will describe a recent performance by a well-known singer known as Nhihapusiya. After sitting down next to his apprentice singer, he made some introductory remarks to a small crowd. Our performer then began telling stories (fables with animal characters as well as tales of human actors), during which he would often pause and lead a song or a verse of a song with the help of his apprentice before continuing on with that story. Nearing the end of a tale, he would indicate a transition to its thematic point where he would give a short moral or counsel for his hearers to implement in their own lives. Nhihapusiya told stories that addressed a variety of topics: the need for respecting authorities, counsel regarding marriage, and encouragement to his hearers to work hard and not steal. After an application and conclusion of a given story, he would lead a song or chorus unrelated to the story that served as a transition before beginning his next tale. This process cycled multiple times before the ithele performance finally terminated.

In summary, the ithele singer typically uses a macro rhetorical structure that begins by telling a story, uses a verbal cue to mark the transition, and then moves into exhorting people to live by a certain code or standard—elements that compare naturally with Christian preaching. Accordingly, in qualitative interviews with an ithele singer and with Mozambican church leaders and triangulation of the principles gleaned from the data in small groups,2 we found that ithele is a helpful model for talking about the promise and process of preaching.

In talking with Mozambicans about the way that “story” and “code” are the primary ingredients in ithele as well as in meaningful communication for the people of God, two biblical texts have been especially helpful. The book of Exodus is divided roughly in half between the story of salvation of Abraham’s descendants from Egypt (chs. 1–18 covering everything from the ten plagues to the crossing of the Red Sea) and the code for the people that God gives in calling for their transformation (chs. 20–40 covering everything from the 10 commandments to the construction plans for the Tabernacle). In Exodus 19:1–20:3 we can note a transition between these sections as their encounter with God on Mt. Sinai shifts the emphasis from the story of salvation to a call for transformation.3 A book from the New Testament where Mozambican participants can also see this same ithele-like macro structure at work is Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Chapters 1–3 retell the story of salvation, then, in 3:14–21, a prayer marks a transition before moving on to the code that Jesus’s followers are called to live out. Exodus and Ephesians are example texts from Scripture that highlight a macro rhetorical strategy similar to the one used by ithele singers in the Makua-Metto context.

An illustration that has been helpful for talking about the importance of both of these elements in the process of ithele and preaching is the example of a bicycle. The “story” is the back wheel of meaningful communication and it provides the power, while the “code” is the front wheel, offering direction, helping the hearer to go safely down a good path. No one could get far on a normal bicycle missing either of these wheels. We talk about how an effective ithele singer would never leave out either of these parts, and effective Christian communication will also be sure to include both the story of salvation and the code for life in God’s kingdom.

One difference between preaching and ithele is that while the traditional singer/storyteller spends a much higher percentage of time on the story than the code or moral offered at the end, Christian communicators in this context tend to spend more time on the application of the story to the specifics of everyday life. Often, though, they will tend to do so in a way that is indirect.4 That is not to say that since less time is spent on it, the moral or code is unimportant or insignificant in ithele. Interviewees and participants agreed that the final word or moral (code) of the ithele was the key to understanding the point of the tale (story).

One memorable example of this was a meeting that Alan participated in where Christian leaders were dealing with problems caused by a rogue church leader. One of the men addressed the group by telling a story of a man who had a pig that had grown fat and aggressive and was beginning to destroy property and even kill younger, smaller pigs. Alan winced, thinking that the speaker’s point would be that the group needed to find a way to get rid of this church leader. Instead, the owner of the pig, in this story, put a metal bar through the pig’s lips—allowing him to eat, but curbing his ability to do damage. The speaker quickly transitioned to his counsel for the group, saying that we needed to find a way to stop this leader’s destructive habits. This speech was met with applause because it helped the group clarify our objectives and methods. While the ratio of story to code may differ between ithele and preaching, for both types of communication it is necessary to pay attention to the code given or the hearer may misunderstand the real point of the story.

Another difference between preaching and ithele is the use of songs. Ithele singers will pause the story and sing part of a song in a way that holds the audience’s attention and builds anticipation for the rest of the story. This practice is one that preachers among the Makua-Metto people could make better use of to augment their communication. The way ithele makes use of songs reminds us of a popular reading of Paul’s letter to the Philippians where he pauses his written sermon and inserts what may be one of the earliest Christian hymns to highlight his point.5 The apostle seems to have made use of songs within the rhetorical flow of his communication.

We see many natural connections between ithele and the practice of Christianity in the Makua-Metto context. One example is a contextualized picture of Jesus as preacher. An image that has stuck with us from Nhihapusiya’s performance was seeing him, sitting down, holding a young child in his lap while he presented to a room crowded with people. That made us think of scenes from the Gospels where Jesus, the storytelling king, would welcome children to him, constantly speaking to crowds of people about his kingdom. When we interviewed a traditional king from this area about ithele, he said that kings in the past would rely on ithele singers for history and that any good king would be familiar with these stories/histories so he could give good kingdom counsel. In post-colonial Mozambique, ithele seems less connected to kings and more for the population in general as education and entertainment.

Micro Elements in the Rhetoric of Ithele and the Practice of Preaching

We have looked at the macro level of the rhetoric of ithele in our context in northern Mozambique to find clues to increase effectiveness in Christian communication. Now we will turn our attention to the micro level of rhetoric to find specific words and markers essential for meaningful communication among the Makua-Metto and briefly explore their connections to 2 Timothy.

Ithele stories are instructive for showing how Makua-Metto rhetoric works. The first and most obvious lesson is that Makua-Metto discourse is interactive. At the beginning of each story, the singer/storyteller would teach the audience a short musical refrain relating to the content of the story, and at different points he would lead them in singing it. Also, throughout the performance, before moving on to a new story, he would use call and response to make sure the audience was paying close attention: “Nihaawo? (Are we all here?)” “Nihaawo. (We’re here.)”

As already noted, ithele stories follow a predictable two-part structure: a long story followed by a concise (often single-sentence) moral explanation or code. The transition is impossible to miss. Sometimes a storyteller will spell out the explanation in so many words, for example: “This story tells us that. . . .” More commonly, the transition is marked by certain key words or phrases that automatically tell the reader that the moral of the story is coming. Nhihapusiya consistently used the word maanaca (the meaning) to mark this transition. Other storytellers may use one or more variants of this, for example: maana aya wiira (its meaning is that) or phimaana (for this reason).

This last marker is interesting because it tends to be used more widely, not just in stories but also in exhortational discourse like that of 2 Timothy. Obviously, Paul’s letter to Timothy is a very different kind of discourse than an ithele story. Nonetheless, the importance of the last word (omwisho) is an important common thread. Unlike Paul’s discourses in Greek, sermons and exhortational discourses in Makua-Metto make use of only a small handful of logical connecting words. Two in particular stand out as overwhelmingly the most common: vano and phimaana. Though these two words often get confused with one another in translation because of their overlap in meaning (both can sometimes be translated in English as therefore), they actually play distinct roles. To continue the bicycle analogy, vano is like the pedal and phimaana is the brake. Vano is used all throughout the discourse, sometimes to signal a logical inference drawn from what was said just before, but other times simply to move on to a new point in a general fashion. In this way it is roughly as flexible as the Greek conjunction de.

Phimaana, on the other hand, has a more limited usage. It tends to occur much more frequently toward the end of a discourse. The information that follows it usually sums up the main point, which may have been previously stated or implied earlier in the discourse. Sometimes phimaana makes an explicit application from a story used to counsel someone indirectly, much like Nhihapusiya’s stories. Like the brakes on a bicycle, phimaana slows the discourse down toward a stop. Its message can be generalized as follows: “What came before is the basis for what I’m telling you now, namely that you should do X.” The discourse may take many turns and even apparent changes of subject, but the last word ties it all together and ensures that the hearer leaves with the main point in mind.

In the Makua-Metto translation of 2 Timothy, one might hope to find phimaana before Paul’s ultimate exhortations to Timothy, since the exhortations are bringing the discourse to a close and summarizing different commands Paul has given throughout his letter. Instead, we find that Paul’s last word to Timothy contains highly unique linguistic features that more closely resemble a “first word” in Makua-Metto discourse but that nonetheless underline the supreme importance of the command more effectively than anything else could. Thus, we will see that instead of activating the brakes as we would expect, Paul in a way “pedals the bike” forward in the hope that Timothy will keep the momentum going as he continues to preach the Word. The rhetoric then speeds up as Paul’s last word is an exhortation to keep the Word going through the ministry of his apprentice.

In a small survey of exhortational discourse, I (Sam) asked eight Makua-Metto speakers to imagine themselves in a situation where they needed to counsel someone, and I then recorded a short discourse from each. To my surprise, every one of the participants spelled out the main exhortation of the speech at or near the beginning using what linguists call a “performative” verb—that is, the very word itself performs the intended speech action, as in “I’m telling you this” or “I declare to you that.” This kind of sentence is much more common in Makua-Metto than in English, and the seeming redundancy creates an expectation that what follows will be important. After beginning this study, I began experimenting using this kind of language when I needed to give someone advice or direction, for example telling a work crew how I wanted them to construct a bamboo fence in my yard. In each case, when I got to the main point and said, “I’m telling you the following [pause],” I could observe the listener’s ears almost visibly perk up. This kind of language is typical of a “first word” in Makua-Metto discourse, to which the last word often refers back.

Performative sentences of this type are somewhat rare in Paul, but these few examples introduce rhetorically powerful statements (e.g., 1 Cor 15:50; Gal 1:9). Thus, to a Makua-Metto speaker, it is clear that Paul already has Timothy’s attention when he opens the final section of the letter with the performative Greek verb diamartureo. But this is even more pronounced due to the semantics of the word itself, which means “to exhort with authority in matters of extraordinary importance, frequently with reference to higher powers and/or suggestion of peril.”6 Paul not only puts both his own name on the line but even invokes as witnesses God and Christ Jesus the judge, further underlining the gravity of the moment. No precise parallel of such a rhetorically charged command can be found anywhere else in Paul’s letters. Clearly, the commands that follow are of the sort that must not miss their intended target. In the next section we will look more closely at 2 Timothy in light of ithele and Makua-Metto rhetorical strategies.

Reading 2 Timothy and the Rhetoric of Omwishoni and Ithele

In 2 Timothy, Paul writes an appeal to his young colleague to remain loyal to Christ, to the gospel, and to Paul himself while also addressing the issue of false teachers.7 Paul, arrested again, has been taken to Rome, and nearing the end of his life, sends one final letter.8 It focuses on “Timothy and his character and leadership and teaching. There is no attention to church order and no discussion of Christian roles either in the house or the house church, and there are only two short sections on the opponents. . . . This is fully and truly a personal letter.”9 Witherington further observes that, “one gets the clear sense that Timothy is in over his head. This letter shatters the illusion of the inexorable progress of the Pauline mission and makes clear that there were many difficulties, even at the end of Paul’s life, when one would have hoped that the congregations established earlier would have been mostly stable.”10

While Paul is in chains, he wants to make sure that Timothy understands that God’s word is not chained (2:9). In 1:6–14, Paul references fear and shame, two chains that have the potential to keep Timothy (and Makua-Metto believers) from sharing the word,11 but encourages his apprentice to act honorably, using his gifts and authority to preach the word and not give up. Paul goes so far as to say that if Timothy doesn’t preach the word, following his example, that he will bring shame on Paul (1:12). Timothy is challenged to model his life after sound doctrine and continue the legacy of faith he’s been given (1:6, 14). The word of God is not chained as it is still walking around freely, embodied in others like Timothy who are faithfully sharing the word.

Witherington notes that, “The rhetorical analysis of 2 Timothy has not been properly undertaken in full,” as most commentators only really deal with the “micro-rhetoric not the macro-rhetoric of 2 Timothy.”12 Witherington analyzes the rhetoric of the letter in connection with similar examples of persuasive discourse from that period and concludes that “we have in 2 Timothy more of the vintage Paul, the Paul who wants to offer one last full rhetorical salvo taking advantage of the full arsenal of macro-rhetoric. Forming careful arguments that are presaged by a thesis statement and lead up to a peroration, the rhetoric of 2 Timothy is powerful and involves the ongoing development of a full discourse. Timothy is being galvanized to change his current behavior and get on with using his gifts and doing the tasks bequeathed to him by the great Apostle.”13

The rhetorical force of the whole of 2 Timothy builds until it reaches its climax in the charge in 4:1–8. Witherington describes 4:1–8 as the “peroratio” or conclusion of his discourse.14 He notes, “All along Paul has been charging and urging Timothy to do or be one thing or another as a minister of God. Now those charges are brought to a climax or final distillation, all introduced by an oath to indicate the seriousness of the final major exhortation.”15

Towner, commenting on the rhetoric in 4:1–2, notes, “This single sentence in Greek begins the charge by underlining its gravity (v. 1) before setting out the terms of the task (v. 2). The seriousness of the obligation being laid on Timothy is emphasized in two ways:” (1) affirmation that the charge was made in the presence of divine witnesses (God and Christ); and (2) acknowledgment of the authority of Christ and his future appearance as eschatological judge.16 So, in v. 1, we see Paul referencing the history of salvation—the story of Jesus as the true judge who will judge justly both the living and the dead. In v. 2, Paul shares the code that he is calling Timothy to live by. Since 2 Timothy is Paul’s last word, then ch. 4 is the last word of the last word (his “Omwisho Omwishoni”), which is: Preach the word! It is interesting that Paul’s last word is an exhortation for it to not be the last word, but that this good word would keep spreading. “It is the Word that is to be preached,” and Timothy should “not let circumstances determine whether he does it or not. In addition, he is to convince, warn and also encourage or use argument, reproof and appeal—in short, rhetoric. We might say that preaching takes several forms and involves all three of these actions: convince, warn, encourage.”17 Timothy is to teach the story and the code by offering explanations of the story and giving counsel for proper application. In the Makua-Metto translation of v. 4, the word ithele is used in a negative or false sense, which serves as a good reminder that what Timothy, and his heirs today, are called to speak is the true myth or ithele, not the false myths/ithele. Similarly, in Portuguese, the national language of Mozambique, the word história can mean both factual history and fictional tale. There are people in churches who will want to hear false histórias/ithele of personal ambition, sin, and death so they can follow those codes, but that is not what we are to preach.

Later, in 4:6–8, “the impending death of Paul supplies the element of urgency that supports the charge to Timothy.”18 Towner, commenting on the structure of the section, notes that “verse 8 concludes the section begun at v. 1 by repeating the theme that initiated the commission to Timothy: final judgment. Now the athletic theme is extended to the point of reward for victory.”19 Paul also uses his own life as an illustration—he is in chains, knowing that he is about to give his life as a sacrifice, but that is not going to be the end of the story because God’s word is not chained—it will continue through apprentices like Timothy.

The Makua-Metto people are very familiar with master-apprentice relationships. All professions are expected to have some type of formal or informal apprenticeship. Ithele singers have an assistant or apprentice to accompany their singing, and that is how an ithele singer is trained. They sit beside their master, learning the stories and songs, and when that person retires or dies, the apprentice steps into the master’s role. Paul is saying that even though he is about to die, Timothy is his apprentice and should continue the sharing of the word.

During Nhihapusiya’s recent performance he paused often to sing a song that concludes with the word saminiya (Makua-Metto for open flame kerosene lamp).20 This final word, sung like a chorus by all the participants present,21 is a way to say, “Bring the lamp/light . . . don’t stop . . . keep going . . . keep telling the story.” Ithele performances often go late into the night and singing saminiya is a way to encourage everyone involved to continue—even though it is getting dark, the song needs to continue. A connection with 2 Timothy that resonates strongly here is this: Paul doesn’t want the ithele to stop. He wants his apprentice to continue the song, to continue the story. This is a strong message for Makua-Metto Christians. Since so few have become disciples of Jesus, and so many people are still in darkness, preachers of the word need to keep bringing the light into dark places.22 Paul’s final counsel, his last word for Timothy before he dies and the fuel in his lamp runs out is: preach the word in and out of season—even when it is getting dark—saminiya.

Conclusion

Paul was a master rhetorician, schooled in the methods and conventions of his day. His communication style reflects an education in the ways of Aristotle and others.23 Cross-cultural communicators would be wise to explore and appreciate the conventions of macro and micro rhetoric that can augment the preaching of the word in their contexts. For communicators serving the Makua-Metto people, we have found that ithele singers can serve as a helpful model and an inspiration to answer the call issued in Paul’s last word (omwishoni) to Timothy, to keep preaching the word, making sure that this last word is not the final word.

Alan Howell, his wife Rachel, and their three girls lived in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique. Alan has a MDiv from Harding School of Theology. The Howells resided in Mozambique from 2003 to 2018 as part of a team serving among the Makua-Metto people.
Sam Pflederer and his wife Elizabeth live in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique, after moving there in 2015 to support the Makua-Metto Bible translation project. Sam has an MA in Applied Linguistics from Dallas International University.

1 We could refer to ithele performers as poets, storytellers, or singers. Since the most common verb used to describe the ithele performance is wiipa, which means “to swell” or “to sing,” we will refer to them as ithele singers in this article.

2 I (Alan) did individual interviews (20 minutes) with a few church leaders and then discussed these findings with small groups or classes of mostly men (over 105 participants total at different stages in the development of these ideas).

3 Unfortunately, it does not take long before they break the code (in Exod 32:19–20 this is recognized by the breaking of the tablets), leading to more stories of salvation in the future.

4 Westerners typically value direct communication, but our Mozambican friends and colleagues often prefer to play a different kind of communication game. Their rhetoric tends to be more indirect, making use of riddles and proverbs, which is often more convincing than addressing a topic directly. Communication and conversation are to be savored—not gulped down quickly. That dynamic appears in both ithele and preaching as well.

5 While this is a common reading, it is important to note that understanding the “Christ hymn” as an actual “hymn” is certainly under debate. For more on this topic see these recent studies: Michael Wade Martin and Bryan A. Nash, “Philippians 2:6–11 as Subversive Hymnos: A Study in Light of Ancient Rhetorical Theory,” JTS 66, no. 1 (2015): 90–138; and Ben Edsall and Jennifer Strawbridge, “The Songs We Used to Sing? Hymn ‘Traditions’ and Reception in Pauline Letters,” JSNT 37, no. 3 (2015): 290–311.

6 Walter Bauer, Frederick W. Danker, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 233.

7 While Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles in general and 2 Timothy specifically is a matter of debate, the Makua-Metto churches assume authorial authenticity. In light of this assumption, and lack of a “compelling case . . . to exclude the reasonable possibility that the letters are actual, individual letters to historical persons and situations,” we will “read the letters as they purport to have been written” (Philip H. Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, The New International Commentary on the New Testament [Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2006], 83–84).

8 Ben Witherington III, Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians, vol. 1, A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Titus, 1–2 Timothy and 1–3 John (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 66.

9 Ibid., 301–2.

10 Ibid., 302.

11 For more on the rhetoric of honor, shame, and fear in the Makua-Metto context, see Alan Howell and Logan T. Thompson, “From Mozambique to Millennials: Shame, Frontier Peoples, and the Search for Open Atonement Paths,” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 33, no. 4 (2016), 157–65.

12 Ben Witherington III, New Testament Rhetoric: An Introductory Guide to the Art of Persuasion in and of the New Testament (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009), 173.

13 Witherington, New Testament Rhetoric, 175.

14 Witherington, Letters, 362.

15 Ibid., 363.

16 Towner, 595–6.

17 Witherington, Letters, 365.

18 Towner, 611.

19 Towner, 614.

20 Interestingly, the reference to letting your light shine in Matt 5:16 in Makua-Metto is translated using the word for kerosene lamp (“ipharele isaminiinyenyu iriyari yaathu”).

21 Different traditional singers in different parts of Mozambique will use different choruses. For example, in Zambezia they use different terms.

22 For Alan, this has been a deeply meaningful text during the process of leaving Mozambique after 15 years serving as a missionary among the Makua people. In saying goodbye to the churches and people we have worked to disciple here, the chorus of saminiya has been a way to encourage followers of Jesus to keep preaching the word and keep bringing the light.

23 “Rhetoric was a tool usable with the educated and uneducated, with the elite and the ordinary, and most public speakers of any ilk or skill in antiquity knew that they had to use the art of persuasion to accomplish their aims. There were not only schools of rhetoric throughout the Mediterranean crescent, rhetoric itself was part of elementary, secondary, and tertiary basic education as well” (Witherington, New Testament Rhetoric, 5).

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Love That Casts Out Islamophobia

Many Christians today experience concern and confusion with regard to Islam. How can Christians faithfully navigate these concerns without allowing them to morph into the fear and animosity of Islamophobia? First, Christian engagement with Islam should not begin with questions about Islam (i.e., whether Islam is violent or peaceful, whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God, and so on). Those questions merely divide Christians into predictable political or ideological camps. Rather, Christians should start by asking the central question of our faith: What has God done in Christ, and who are we called to be in response? From that premise, this article explores two relevant, formative practices of Christian discipleship: practicing faith over fear and practicing the Golden Rule. The article then concludes with a brief note on evangelism.

“John, what are we gonna do about those Muslims?”

I had just finished teaching a Sunday morning class on Christian responses to religious diversity. The woman had a kind but earnest face and gripped my arm as she posed her question. I hesitated to respond. For one thing, I wondered how my Muslim friends would hear the question. Are they merely problems to be solved? I also wanted to clarify a few points. By “those Muslims,” did she mean all Muslims worldwide or some smaller subset such as Muslim Americans, immigrants from Muslim-majority countries, or Islamic terrorists? Also, who is the “we” that needs to do something? Did she mean Christians worldwide, Americans, our local congregation, or something else?

Despite my wonderings, it was not the right time or place to probe, and I knew that her question was more reflective than anything. Nevertheless, the question hit on something significant: perceptions of Islam and Muslims are a source of concern and confusion for many Christians these days. It is not difficult to understand why this is true given the realities of terrorism, practices such as honor killings and female genital mutilation, current political rhetoric, media portrayals of Islam, and tumultuous circumstances in many Muslim countries. Sometimes, however, concern and confusion about Islam morph into Islamophobia—literally, “fear of Islam”—producing animosity and hostility.1

Islamophobia was on display in a letter campaign in England that declared April 3, 2018, “Punish a Muslim Day.” The letter announced a fictitious contest in which points would be awarded for specific acts of violence against Muslims, including 10 points for verbal abuse, 25 points for forcibly removing a woman’s headscarf, 100 points for physically attacking a Muslim, and 1,000 points for bombing a mosque.2 While the letter was taken as a joke by some, it is no laughing matter. At the time of this writing, incidents of public intimidation, vandalism of mosques, and physical attacks on Muslims in the United States are at an all-time high, even surpassing the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.3

Islamophobia is real and tragic.

To be clear, however, not all concern or criticism of Islam is Islamophobic. In fact, the most important critiques of problems within Islam today come from Muslims themselves, including various reformers and Muslim alliances that address challenges associated with Islamic politics, theology, gender dynamics, interfaith relationships, and others.4 Likewise, the woman who grabbed my arm at church that day is no Islamophobe. Her question requires clarification, but she wants to respond charitably and faithfully. This article is written with people like her in mind.

So if her question—What are we gonna do about those Muslims?—is not the best question, then what are better questions? What should Christians do? How do we navigate confusion and concern without giving in to Islamophobia? In what follows, I suggest practices that can help Christians pursue faithful responses.

I begin by making sure we have the right goal in mind.

What is our goal here, anyway?

When I was 13 years old and playing for my middle school basketball team, I experienced a classic teen-athlete blunder. I was standing at the midcourt circle as the referee prepared to toss the ball into the air for the opening tip-off. The ball went up, was batted around, and landed in my hands. Surprised and disoriented by nerves, I turned and ran the wrong way and scored on the other team’s basket. At the time, my basketball hero was Julius “Dr. J” Erving, and my teammates promptly dubbed me, “Dr.-wrong-way-J.”

Isn’t middle school great?

Here is the point: As American Christians, we are often disoriented by religious and cultural changes taking place around us and confused about our goals and which direction we should be running. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our engagements with Islam. Therefore, it is important to check our direction and make sure we are aligned with the faith we profess.

As we consider this, let me first highlight a wrong direction. Christian engagement with Islam should not begin with questions about Islam: whether Islam is violent or peaceful, whether it is compatible with modern democracy, whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Those are important questions, and I am very interested in and have perspectives on them. I have found, however, that starting with those questions divides Christians into predictable political or ideological camps. As such, seeking consensus about Islam in order to develop Christian responses is driving toward the wrong goal. Rather, we should start by asking the central question of our faith: What has God done in Christ, and who are we called to be in response?

In other words, more than debating whether the Qur’an is a war manual or peace treatise, we ask what it means to “know Christ and the power of his resurrection . . . to share in his suffering and be like him in his death” (Phil 3:10). More than asking what strategies are needed to engage Muslims, we start by asking what it means to have “Christ formed in us” (Gal 4:19) and to “keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal 5:25). More than accumulating knowledge about Islam (or, for that matter, accumulating knowledge about Christianity), we start by exploring what it means that “knowledge puffs up while love builds up” (1 Cor 8:1).

With all that in mind, this article explores practices that seek to make our own Christlikeness the goal that frames all engagements with Islam and Muslims. I identify and illustrate two such practices and then conclude with a brief note on evangelism.

Formative Practice #1: Practicing Faith Over Fear

In 2013, a Christian publication featured an article about an interfaith event I organized with Muslim and Christian participants. Christians from around the country posted comments on the online version. One read: “Engage in dialog with muslims???? Do so at your own risk. I wouldn’t trust one as far as I could throw’em. And, that is not said with hatred nor malice.”5 I choose to trust that no hatred or malice was intended, but the comment clearly reflects deep suspicion and mistrust, so much so that Muslims are not even worthy of our engagement. Such dismissive mistrust goes beyond mere concern or confusion. It reflects fear.

Fearful assumptions about Islam seep so deeply into the collective psyche of many in our society that the lines between real and imagined threats get blurred. In 2016, an airplane sitting on the runway in Philadelphia was delayed several hours when a passenger alerted flight attendants that a Middle Eastern man sitting across from her was scribbling Arabic on a notepad. Fearing that he might be an Islamic terrorist planning to hijack the plane, they taxied back to the gate and authorities led him into the terminal for questioning. As it turns out, the man was an Italian economics professor from the University of Pennsylvania who was scribbling an algebraic equation. He was not a terrorist; he was a math nerd.6

More than a case of mistaken identity, this illustrates what psychologists call “affect heuristic”: snap judgments based more on intense emotions and assumptions than on empirical evidence. As psychologist Jonathan Haidt puts it, “The emotional tail wags the rational dog.”7 So while there were no hijacking terrorists on board that day, the flight was hijacked, nonetheless, by fear. The same fear often hijacks our church gatherings and online interactions.

Yet, we should not be naïve about real threats and dangers associated with individuals or groups who identify as Muslim. After all, there are individuals who claim Islamic inspiration to hijack planes and detonate explosives. There are Muslim majority governments that enforce harsh interpretations of Islam on citizens and Islamic terrorist groups that recruit and mobilize globally.8 At the very least, in the words of Muslim commentator Mustafa Akyol, “The Islamic civilization . . . has lately been going through an acute crisis with severe consequences.”9 How should we assess this crisis and respond to such threats without submitting to fear?

In June 2017, ACT! for America organized “March Against Sharia” demonstrations all over the country claiming that Sharia (i.e., “Muslim law”) is a “cancer” that threatens the American way of life and must be eradicated.10 Such perspectives are not marginal. ACT! claims 750,000 members and is just one of a growing number of similar groups that consider Islam an enemy of the state and promote sweeping opposition to US mosques and Muslim immigrants. Some even forecast that Islamization, if not checked, will turn the US into the “Islamic States of America” and Europe into the radicalized colony of “Eurabia.”11

Others find the evidence for these alarming concerns about as credible as the terrorist threat on the flight in Philadelphia. Commenting on fears of Europe becoming Eurabia, historian Phillip Jenkins notes, “[s]uch grim prophecies may sell books, but they ignore reality.”12 This is not to deny that there are reasons to be concerned about the well-being of modern societies—hyper-individualism, materialism, technology addictions, superficiality, and other maladies come to mind—but an Islamic takeover is not one of them. In fact, Muslims can be great allies in addressing these other challenges.

Here is the upshot of all this: while Islamophobia obviously has something to do with Islam—or, at least, certain perceptions of Islam—it has more to do with fear, and Christian faith has much to say about fear, the phobia of Islamophobia. In fact, “fear not” is one of the most repeated exhortations in the teachings of Jesus and throughout the Bible.13 “Fear not” is not a call to ignore dangers or just think positive thoughts. It is an invitation to faithfulness, to overcome fear—and the anxiety, prejudice, and self-protecting hostility that it creates—by trusting God.

Still, fear hijacks many American churches. Note, for example, the 2015 sermon by influential evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress in which he proposes a Christian response to Islamic terrorism.14 Jeffress asserts that Islam promotes terrorism by encouraging Muslims to follow Muhammad’s example of warfare and obey the Qur’an’s injunctions to kill their enemies. While this characterization of Islam and its prophet is deeply problematic,15 what is even more remarkable is the pastor’s characterization of his own faith. While he seeks to contrast Muhammad’s warmongering with Jesus’ instructions to love enemies, within minutes he passionately declares, “It is time to start bombing the ‘you know what’ out of ISIS. That is a Biblical response. . . . [We must] rid this world of the cancer called radical Islam. It is time for us to act!”16

One might wonder how Jeffress moves so quickly from point A (Jesus teaches love for enemies) to point B (the Bible justifies bombing enemies). It certainly requires some fancy footwork with Scripture and history and a conflation of American identity with the kingdom of God. It also creates thick irony in the content being preached: We must kill our enemies to protect our freedom so we can practice our religion that teaches us to love our enemies. Beyond ironies and mischaracterizations, however, Jeffress’s message rests on a clear and coherent impulse of fear. As he summarizes, “If we do not confront and defeat the evil of radical Islam, the evil of radical Islam is going to confront and defeat us.” To some, this sounds strong and sensible. In fact, while Jeffress’ earlier descriptions of Jesus’s attitudes toward enemies received nonchalant responses from his Sunday morning crowd, his impassioned plea to US military action aroused a standing ovation. The question for this article, however, is not whether such a message receives support. The question is whether it fits with the gospel.

There is much to say here, but I limit myself to two brief reflections. First, whatever our response to concerns about Islam, if it is not drenched in love, it is not Christian. Only Christian contortionists can align fearful and self-preserving violence—whether by individuals or governments—with the teaching of the “crucified one” and his call to radical and risky love. Even when strong action against injustice is required, love for enemies must transcend base desires for revenge or self-protection and preservation.17 Second, Christian responses are based in hope. At its core, the Christian Gospel—“Good News”—is an announcement that God has acted definitively in the person of Jesus Christ to overcome the powers of darkness that produce fear and despair. For some critics of Christianity, this sounds too good to be true. For Christ followers, it is Gospel 101. While evil, sin, and death are still at large, their ultimate demise has already been determined, and we “wait in eager expectation” for the victory to be fully realized (Rom 8:18–25).18 In the meantime, hope frees us to love and serve without fear, knowing that all things are in God’s trustworthy hands: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).

In the end, however one assesses Islam and the threats associated with it, the Christian posture remains the same: faith, not fear; hope, not despair; love, always.

Formative Practice #2: Practicing the Golden Rule

The ethics of Jesus are encapsulated by the Golden Rule: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12).19 This command is comprehensive (“in everything”) and therefore includes interactions with Muslims. So what does it mean to treat Muslims as we want to be treated? Here are three suggestions, stated personally.

First, I want Muslims to have the best interests of Christians in mind as they interact with us. I want them to consider our well-being and promote our freedom even when they disagree with us on important religious matters, acknowledging that our freedoms are inevitably linked.20 I want this kind of consideration to be extended to all Christians, especially vulnerable Christians living in Muslim-majority countries. The Golden Rule, therefore, calls us to do the same in reverse by working not only for the protection and well-being of our Christian brothers and sisters throughout the world, but also minority Muslim communities in our midst. This is required of us even if the favor is not returned, although there are many encouraging signs that peace can flow in both directions. Note, for example, the 2016 Marrakesh Declaration written and signed in Morocco by Muslim leaders from all over the world seeking to protect Christians and other minorities in Muslim-majority regions.21

Second, I do not want Muslims to reduce Christianity to its historical malfunctions. I don’t want them using Westboro Baptist Church’s “God Hates Fags” campaign and its misuses of Leviticus 20:23 as a paradigm for understanding Christian teaching and activism. I don’t want them using the history of American slavery to interpret Christian beliefs about race despite the fact that, for centuries, Christian slaveholders justified the practice with New Testament citations and Christian symbols.22 I don’t want Muslims characterizing our relationship with Jews by citing centuries of anti-Semitism in Christian theology, art, and culture.23 Since I don’t want Muslims doing any of that, I am forbidden to reduce Islam to its historical malfunctions.

I lived in Uganda when the world started paying attention to a terrorist group called the Uganda Christian Army, later known as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and its self-proclaimed prophet, Joseph Kony.24 This apocalyptic, puritanical group has been terrorizing African communities and abducting children for over thirty years while blending local Acholi cosmology with Christian language and symbols and claiming to be empowered by the Holy Spirit. They often wear or display crosses, they are known to pray before their terror campaigns, and they have long sought to establish a Christian government based on the Ten Commandments.25 I once heard a Ugandan Muslim reference the LRA as evidence of Christianity’s intolerance as a whole. I understand the confusion, but I want Muslims to be more discerning.

I also lived in Uganda during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when violence erupted between the Hutu and Tutsi, claiming the lives of one million people. Before the genocide, Rwanda was the most Christianized country in Africa, and many celebrated its successful churches and missionary movements.26 Nevertheless, the killing erupted during Easter weekend and took place largely in and around church buildings and between pastors, priests, and parishioners. Some analysts cite this as evidence of the “irrelevance of Christianity” in contexts of state-sponsored violence.27 As if that is not enough, one of the only religious communities that stood against the chaos and provided shelter to both Hutu and Tutsi was the minority Muslim community in Nyamirambo, a slum outside of Kigali. As Christian theologian Emmanuel Katongole stated, “The Muslims at Nyamirambo . . . and not the Christian churches, embodied the hope of Christ’s resurrection” during Easter week of 1994.28

Critics can use these incidents to make a persuasive case against Christianity.29 However, I want those critics to reconsider and grant us the benefit of the doubt because I believe there is a different and even more persuasive story to tell. This better story provides context for difficult scriptures and shows how they fit into an overarching narrative of hope, peace, and justice. This story offers powerful counter-examples in which Christians draw on the example of Jesus to disrupt hatred and violence with radical forgiveness and healing, starting in Rwanda.30 Of course, if I want Muslims and others to consider our deeper stories, then I must be prepared to do the same for them. That does not mean ignoring differences between religions or the threats associated with Islam. It also does not mean patronizing Muslims by simplistically denying that Islamic extremism is, in fact, connected to Islam in complex ways. It does mean listening as Muslims provide their own explanations for difficult passages and counter-narratives to their historical malfunctions. It means extending the benefit of the doubt, honoring their virtues,31 and refusing to caricature 1,400 years of Muslim history in monolithic ways that either demonize or patronize.32

Third and finally, I want Muslims to be discerning and self-reflective in their own faith testimonies. I once heard a Muslim man give his personal testimony at a mosque in Los Angeles, which included his conversion out of Christianity. He had become a Christian in high school and eventually a youth minister in a non-denominational church. Once on the “inside,” however, he found Christianity legalistic and controlling and thanked Allah that he escaped into the freedom and mercy of Islam.

I know something about the potential for suffocating legalism in Christian communities. Nevertheless, taking this man’s specific experience as a paradigm for all of Christianity is unjust and, frankly, offensive. I want them to be discerning about such things. Of course, there is also a market in Christian circles for testimonies of former Muslims who convert to Christianity.33 Their stories can be insightful and inspiring, but they assert too much when they claim to provide authoritative reports about the “real” Islam and merely confirm the worst assumptions and fears.34 I understand the confusion about this. Who knows Islam better, it is reasoned, than a former Muslim? The Golden Rule, however, requires more discernment. When hearing conversion stories, we can embrace the true power of the Gospel and the authenticity of specific and sometimes horrific reports without assuming they tell us much about Islam as a whole.

In the end, practicing the Golden Rule is not merely an attempt to be fair or politically correct. Rather, it is the practice of trusting God. Trust recognizes that the Gospel does not need to be propped up or enhanced by strawman comparisons, biased assumptions, or worldly defenses. Trust frees us to be humble, respectful, open, and hospitable, without fear of compromise or loss. God, after all, is trustworthy.

Conclusion (with a Word on Evangelism)

A recent public opinion poll conducted by the Pew Research Center provided a “feeling thermometer” gauging American perceptions of different religious groups. Perceptions are ranked from cold, negative feelings to warm, positive feelings. Islam received a cooler, more negative ranking than any other religion. Interestingly, many Americans do not know any Muslims, since the religion currently makes up only 1% of the US population.35 Perceptions of Islam warm dramatically, however, among those who know at least one Muslim personally. In other words, personal interactions and simple friendships are key antidotes for Islamophobia and, as Islam grows in the United States, this will become more of a possibility for more people. In the meantime, Christianity provides deep resources to help Christians confront various kinds of fear and prepare for faithful and friendly engagements with others in our increasingly diverse contexts. Fortunately, when it comes to Islam, there are also many faithful counter-examples to the fear and hostility of Islamophobia.

In 2010, a Muslim community near Memphis, Tennessee, bought some land in order to build an Islamic center. At the time, because of increased hostilities around the country, the Muslims mostly hoped that their project would not attract much attention.36 The property they purchased, however, is adjacent to the Heartsong Community Church whose pastor, Steve Stone, read about it in the newspaper and became concerned. “When I saw that,” he reflected later, “my stomach tightened up. . . . I felt the ignorance and fear. So I prayed, Lord, what are we supposed to do?”37 Stone didn’t know much about Islam beyond what he saw in the media, but he was confident of one thing: “We follow Jesus and he tells us to love our neighbors.” So they put up a large sign on the church lawn that read, “Heartsong Church Welcomes Memphis Islamic Center to the Neighborhood.” It was a simple act of kindness but generated great surprise and gratitude from the Muslims. Furthermore, when construction of the center was delayed, Heartsong opened their building for the Muslims to gather and pray.

Not everyone at Heartsong was enthusiastic about this. Some church members left because they felt Stone was condoning a false religion. Many, however, embraced the opportunities for neighborly love, and soon the church was serving halal meat at their community potlucks in addition to organizing joint efforts to serve the homeless and tutor local children. Moreover, CNN’s coverage of the story reached a small town in Kashmir and inspired members of its Muslim majority. One Kashmir Muslim leader announced, “God just spoke to us through this [American Pastor],” and others went and cleaned a small local church. Some even contacted Stone directly and told him, “We are now trying to be good neighbors, too. Tell your congregation we do not hate them, we love them, and for the rest of our lives we are going to take care of that little church.”38

In short, rather than allowing confusion and concern to morph into Islamophobia, Heartsong put the Golden Rule into practice and allowed faith to cast out fear. In this way, they not only grew in faith themselves, but they also provided a loving witness to their Tennessee neighbors, and inspired Muslims and protected fellow Christians half a world away.

And yet, some Christians will insist that such stories of kindness have little value, at least from an eternal perspective, if not accompanied by evangelistic efforts to convert Muslims. This raises many questions about Christian understandings of mission, humanity, and salvation that are beyond the scope of this article.39 Nonetheless, I conclude with three brief reflections that begin to address those issues.

First, Christians are called to extend and receive hospitality freely and impartially (Matt 10:8). Not only is this compelled by the humanity we share with all people created in the “image of God” (Gen 1:27), but the Christian faith is about a God who extends sacrificial and often unrequited love to all (Rom 5:8) and calls us to do the same (1 John 4:19). This reflects broader missional understandings in which Christ followers are not merely called to talk about the gospel, but to participate in it, practice it, live in the world in such a way that embodies good news.40 Such practices have eternal value regardless of anything else we should say.

Second, the comprehensive nature of the Golden Rule discussed earlier encompasses all forms of mission. In other words, as Christians, we should only practice witness to others when prepared to let them witness to us, and only in ways we would want them to witness to us.41 This excludes all forms of coercion, intimidation, manipulation, or disrespect, and refuses to reduce friendships to proselytizing targets or projects. Stated personally with regard to verbal witness, I want people to listen and genuinely consider our testimony about the power of Christ in our lives. Having said that, I have many Muslim friends who find transformative meaning and mercy in the teaching of the Qur’an and the example of the prophet. The Golden Rule calls us to extend the same respect and consideration to them that we want extended to us, regardless of whether it is reciprocated. We trust God with the rest.

Finally, we must consider how Christian Islamophobia has failed our Muslim neighbors and botched our Christian witness. In the gospel story, when Jesus was arrested, Peter lashed out in fear and cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant. Jesus immediately commanded that Peter put the sword away, and then he healed the man’s ear (Luke 22:50–51; John 18:10–11). In a similar way, Islamophobia and other forms of Christian fear have often repelled or even severed the ears of those that otherwise might have heard something good. While Jesus promised that righteous living would often result in suffering (Mat 5:11; 1 Thess 2:14–15), recent research suggests that an increasing number of Americans reject organized religion and especially Christianity, not because of the church’s Christlikeness but because it is viewed as judgmental, coercive, and hypocritical.42 Such characteristics, when accurately identified, reflect the fruit of fear, not the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22–23).

The Western church is especially susceptible to such accusations when it mimics and employs worldly power.43 This has happened enough that we may be in a time when the most authentic witness of the Western church must lead with the confession of sins, the pursuit of justice for the marginalized and suffering, and the courageous love of all neighbors and enemies.

Through such practices, we pray, Jesus will heal us all and give us all “ears to hear” the good news afresh.

John D. Barton (PhD, Makerere University, Uganda) is Director of the Center for Faith and Learning at Pepperdine University, where he also serves on the faculties of Seaver College’s Religion and Philosophy Division, GSEP’s graduate program in Social Entrepreneurship and Change, and the Straus Institute of Dispute Resolution at the Pepperdine School of Law. John served as a missionary in Uganda from 1994 to 2002 and currently is president of the board for the Kibo Group, a nonprofit which pursues poverty alleviation in East African communities. His recent publications include A Muslim Sage Among Peers: Fethullah Gülen in Dialog with Christians, editor (Blue Dome Press, 2017), and “Toward a Non-Racist Frame in the Stone-Campbell Tradition,” in Restoration and Philosophy (University of Tennessee Press, 2019).

1 The term “Islamophobia” and its parameters continue to be debated. Some suggest clarifications such as “anti-Muslimism” or “anti-Muslim xenophobia.” See, for example, Alan Aldridge, Religion in the Contemporary World: A Sociological Introduction (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2000), 138.

2 Yonette Joseph, “‘Punish a Muslim Day’ Letters Rattle U.K. Communities,” The New York Times, March 11, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/11/world/europe/uk-muslims-letters.html.

3 Katayoun Kishi, “Assaults against Muslims in U.S. Surpass 2001 Level,” Fact Tank: News in the Numbers, Pew Research Center, November 15, 2017, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/11/15/assaults-against-muslims-in-u-s-surpass-2001-level.

4 See, for example, Asef Bayat, ed., Post-Islamism: The Changing Faces of Political Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); and Mustafa Akyol, Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty (New York: Norton, 2012). Often, American Christians are unaware of these reform initiatives or how active Muslims are in addressing Islamic malfunctions. As I ask elsewhere, a more pressing question today is not, Why don’t Muslims denounce extremism and terrorism? but rather, Why don’t we hear them when they do? See my Huffington Post blogpost “The Question That Won’t Go Away About Muslims and Terrorism,” HuffPost, June 20, 2017, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-barton/the-question-that-wont-go_b_10557164.html.

5 Erik Tryggestad, “Muslims among Us,” The Christian Chronicle, Sept. 12, 2013, https://christianchronicle.org/muslims-among-us.

6 Catherine Rampell, “Ivy League Economist Ethnically Profiled, Interrogated for Doing Math on American Airlines Flight,” The Washington Post, May 7, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/rampage/wp/2016/05/07/ivy-league-economist-interrogated-for-doing-math-on-american-airlines-flight.

7 Quoted in Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), 140. See the fuller discussion on affect heuristic on pp. 129–45.

8 One of the challenges in these discussions is how to interpret the high correlation between Muslim populations globally and illiberal tendencies. While they tend to gloss over nuances, Rodney Stark and Katie E. Corcoran provide detailed analysis of Pew and Gallup polls regarding these issues and conclude with a more negative assessment of Islam. See Rodney Stark and Katie E. Corcoran, Religious Hostility: A Global Assessment of Hatred and Terror (Waco, TX: ISR Books, 2014), 77–122. For another detailed assessment of Gallup data while offering more positive and more nuanced interpretations, see John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think (New York: Gallup Press, 2007).

9 Mustafa Akyol, “What Jesus Can Teach Today’s Muslims,” The New York Times, February 13, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/13/opinion/what-jesus-can-teach-todays-muslims.html.

10 Abigail Hauslohner and Justin Wm. Moyer, “Anti-sharia Demonstrators Hold Rallies in Cities across the Country,” The Washington Post, June 10, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/anti-sharia-marches-planned-for-numerous-cities-across-the-country-saturday/2017/06/10/40faf61e-4d6f-11e7-a186-60c031eab644_story.html. Interpreting Muslim attitudes about Sharia is tricky in part because of misunderstandings of the term itself. For insightful discussions of the issues and demonstrations of how classical understandings of Sharia are compatible with modern liberal democracies, see Asifa Quraishi-Landes, “Islamic Constitutionalism: Not Secular, Not Theocratic, Not Impossible,” Rutgers Journal of Law and Religion 16, no. 553 (2015): 553–79; and idem, “Rumors of the Sharia Threat are Greatly Exaggerated: What American Judges Really Do with Islamic Family Law in Their Courtrooms,” New York Law School Law Review 57, no. 245 (2013): 245–57.

11 This often combines concerns over immigration with the perceived dangers and naivete of multiculturalism. Some, such as Brigitte Gabriel, founder of Act!, claims that Eurabia has already taken hold. See Robert Wilde, “Brigitte Gabriel: ‘Europe is Eurabia Right Now,’” Breitbart, September, 26, 2015, http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2015/09/26/brigitte-gabriel-europe-is-eurabia-right-now.

12 Phillip Jenkins, “Europe’s Christian Comeback,” Foreign Policy, June 12, 2007, http://foreignpolicy.com/2007/06/12/europes-christian-comeback. Muslims currently comprise below 4% overall of Europe’s population. Moreover, while there are small pockets of loud and dangerous fundamentalists, most of Europe’s 23 million Muslims are in various stages of cultural integration or secularization. In fact, progressive ideas are being exported through immigrant communities back to their originating homelands, leading Jenkins to suggest that Europe may actually be changing Islam more than Islam is changing Europe. See also Jenkins’s 2016 lecture, “Current Global Trends in Islam,” delivered at Fuller Theological Seminary, https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/current-global-trends-in-islam-philip-jenkins. All of these sources also draw on Jenkins’s God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

13 Examples include Deut 3:22; 31:6; Josh 1:9; Ps 23:4; 27:1; 34:4–7; 56:3; 91:1–16; 118:6–7; Prov 29:25; Isa 35:4; 41:10–14; 43:1; Mark 4:39–40; 5:36; 6:50; John 14:27; Rom 8:38–39; Phil 4:6–7; 2 Tim 1:7; 1 Pet 3:14; 5:6–7; 1 John 4:18; Rev 1:17.

14 In the sermon, he was specifically responding to the 2015 Paris attacks. The section of the sermon being cited can be accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vvjMUrPUfC4. To illustrate Jeffress’ current influence, he was selected to preach at the private prayer service for Donald Trump the day of the presidential inauguration on January 20, 2017.

15 Irfan A. Omar, “Jihad and Nonviolence in the Islamic Tradition,” in Peacemaking and the Challenge of Violence in World Religions, ed. Irfan A. Omar and Michael K. Duffey (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2015). Still, while both Jesus and Muhammad seek peace and justice, there are important differences between their teachings and examples on the use of violence and how enemies should be engaged. For more details, see Lee C. Camp, Who Is My Enemy? Questions American Christians Must Face About Islam—And Themselves (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011); Miroslav Volf, Allah: A Christian Response (New York: HarperOne, 2011); and John Barton, “Navigating the Degrees in Christian-Muslim Dialogue: A Comparative Review of Lee Camp and Miroslav Volf.” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 4, no. 2 (August 2013): http://missiodeijournal.com/issues/md-4-2/authors/md-4-2-jbarton.

16 In his comments, Jeffress consistently equates “radical Islam” with Islam as a whole. “Islam,” he says generally, “is a false religion and it is inspired by Satan himself . . . and this weekend we saw the fruit of Satan’s destruction in the acts of these terrorists. It is impossible to separate what these eight suicide bombers did from their faith, their religion that inspired them to do this.”

17 In setting out the original principles of what later became known as Just War Theory, Saint Augustine insisted that war is always lamentable but can be justified in certain cases when it serves the purposes of justice and peacemaking. In such cases, war against enemies can actually be a faithful expression of love for enemies. See Camp, 67–70; also Volf, Allah, 180.

18 Christian theology does not underplay the continuing role of evil and destructive forces and the struggle against the “principalities and powers” that empower them (Eph 6:12). In fact, there is a sense in which Satanic forces are still ruling the world (Rev 11:15; 1 John 5:19; 2 Cor 4:4; Eph 2:2). Christian hope, however, teaches that such powers are on their last legs. Like the writhing, dying body of a snake whose head has been crushed, the forces that instill fear were defeated on the cross (Col 2:14–15; 1 John 3:8; Heb 2:14) and are in the process of dying. Moreover, the infamous and often misunderstood final battle depicted in Rev 19 does not present an army preparing for battle, but one celebrating God’s victory against an enemy that has already been defeated. For a wider exploration of biblical themes of evil, violence, and God’s victory, see Gregory Stevenson, A Slaughtered Lamb: Revelation and the Apocalyptic Response to Evil and Suffering (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2013); Gregory A. Boyd, Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017).

19 Religion scholar Karen Armstrong contends that every major religious tradition has some form of the Golden Rule, which she claims represents our best hope for religious peace in our fractured world. See Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (New York: Anchor Books, 2010). See also her influential Ted Talk on the topic: https://www.ted.com/talks/karen_armstrong_let_s_revive_the_golden_rule.

20 For a Christian defense of religious freedom and political pluralism, see Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2013); See also the important work of the Religious Freedom Institute (RFI) and especially their action team that focuses on issues related to Islam. See https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org.

21 “Marrakesh Declaration on the Rights of Religious Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Majority Communities,” http://www.marrakeshdeclaration.org.

22 Biblical citations included the various “slaves, obey your masters” passages including Eph 6:5, Col 3:22, and 1 Pet 2:18–20. Slaveholders also embraced the quasi-theological and quasi-scientific notion of the Hamite curse. After slavery ended, these ideologies continued in new forms including the Ku Klux Klan and their use of Christian crosses. For a discussion of how these dynamics developed and can be addressed in my own Christian heritage, see John D. Barton, “Toward a Non-Racist Frame in the Stone-Campbell Tradition,” in Restoration and Philosophy, edited by J. Caleb Clanton (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2019).

23 A sampling of sources includes Henry Claman, Jewish Images in the Christian Church: Art as the Mirror of the Jewish-Christian Conflict 200–1250 C.E. (Macon, GA.: Mercer University Press, 2000); Susannah Heschel, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008); Miri Rubin, Gentile Tales: The Narrative Assault on Late Medieval Jews (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999); Robert P. Ericksen, Theologians Under Hitler: Gerhard Kittel, Paul Althaus, and Emanuel Hirsch (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985). Some of the Church’s great scholars who exhibited blatant anti-Semitism include Ignatius of Antioch and Justin Martyr in the second century, John Chrysostom in the fifth century, and Martin Luther’s 1543 track, On the Jews and Their Lies, and its encouragement to burn synagogues and persecute Jews to honor Christ. The many biblical citations misused to support these anti-Semitic attitudes include Jesus’ harsh rebuke of “the Jews” in John’s Gospel: “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out his desires” (John 8:44).

24 Kony left Uganda in 2006 and has been pursued by the Ugandan and American governments. While LRA activities have been reduced in recent years, the situation is far from over. See Ledio Cakaj, “$800 Million Later, Joseph Kony is Still a Threat,” Foreign Policy, June 28, 2017, http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/06/28/800-million-later-joseph-kony-is-still-a-threat.

25 In recent years, the LRA has been increasingly forced into hiding and some of these goals and motivations have become less explicit. Nevertheless, while the LRA is not identical to Islamist groups such as Boko Haram and ISIS, the parallels are striking. See Eleanor Beevor, “This is what can we learn about ISIS from Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army,” Washington Post, October 22, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/10/22/what-can-we-learn-about-isis-from-joseph-konys-lords-resistance-army.

26 For theological and missiological reflections on the genocide, see John Barton, “Confusion and Communion: Christian Mission and Ethnic Identities in Post-Genocide Rwanda,” Missiology: An International Review 40, no. 3 (July 2012): 227–48. For a philosophical and historical analysis of the issues, see John Barton, “The Hermeneutics of Identity in African Philosophical Discourse as a Framework for Understanding Ethnicity in Post-Genocide Rwanda,” Africana Philosophia 15.1 (Winter 2013): 1–34.

27 The quote is from political scientist, Michael Budde, and quoted in James Jay Carney, “Waters of Baptism, Blood of Tribalism?” African Ecclesial Review 50, 1 (2008): 26–27.

28 Emmanuel Katongole, Mirror to the Church: Resurrecting Faith after Genocide in Rwanda (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 122. Not surprisingly, the Rwandan Muslim community experienced dramatic growth in the years following the genocide. See Emily Wax, “Islam Attracting Many Survivors of Rwanda Genocide,” The Washington Post, September 23, 2002: A10, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A53018-2002Sep22.html.

29 Some find all religions, especially monotheistic religions, guilty across the board. See Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2007).

30 Immaculée Ilibagiza, Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Genocide (Carlsbad, CA: Hay House Publishers, 2006).

31 For a brief discussion of some remarkable counter-narratives and virtuous Muslims, see my blog post “The Best Answer to Bad Guys with Qur’ans is Good Guys with Qur’ans,” HuffPost, January 19, 2016, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-barton/the-best-answer-to-bad-gu_b_9018296.html.

32 This highlights the tendency of Christian commentators to treat Islam as if it contains a singular essence or core from which all of its various expressions arise. Some, such as Robert Spencer, identify that essence as aggressive and intolerant with ISIS as an extreme but authentic expression. Others, such as author and scholar Karen Armstrong, locate the essence of Islam in peace and consider violence and intolerance out of character for authentic Islam. Interestingly, Spencer and Armstrong both work with the same Islamic sources—the Qur’an and early Islamic commentaries and biographies of the prophet—and use the same hermeneutical approach to reach opposite conclusions. Spencer hones in on the most difficult and intolerant passages as a lens through which to interpret everything else, while Armstrong prioritizes the most tolerant and peaceful passages through which to interpret the difficult passages. Spencer’s version is especially influential among evangelicals, Armstrong’s among mainline liberal Protestants. See Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Emergence of Islam (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 3–10.

33 This paragraph draws on the insights of my friend and colleague at Rochester College in Michigan, Keith Huey, from his unpublished transcript, “Great Testimonies, Poor Information.”

34 The genre includes not only Muslim converts to Christianity, but Muslim converts to atheism such as the provocative Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali who escaped horrific circumstances and experiences to eventually abandon Islam and become an outspoken critic of all religion. See Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel (New York: Atria Books, 2007).

35 For US population statistics, see Besheer Mohamed, “A New Estimate of the US Muslim Population,” Fact Tank: News in the Numbers, Pew Research Center, January 6, 2016, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/01/06/a-new-estimate-of-the-u-s-muslim-population. For the Pew polling, see Pew Research Center, “Americans Express Increasingly Warm Feelings Toward Religious Group,” Religion and Public Life, February 15, 2017, http://www.pewforum.org/2017/02/15/americans-express-increasingly-warm-feelings-toward-religious-groups. Muslims and atheists typically rank the lowest, although between 2015 and 2017, feelings about Muslims improved among the general American population from cold to neutral.

36 At the time, protests were raging in New York City over the plans for a new Islamic Center near Ground Zero, and those protests reignited post-9/11 sensitivities, causing hostilities to spill over into other parts of the country.

37 Links to both local and national media reports on this story are provided on the Memphis Islamic Center’s website: http://www.memphisislamiccenter.org/about-mic/mic-in-the-news. A brief video that contains the cited quote is also available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kYembGqZF94.

38 For some of these details, see Jim Wallis’s short piece “My Neighbor’s Faith: A Test of Character,” HuffPost, May 5, 2012, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/jim-wallis/a-test-of-character_b_1501616.html.

39 For a sampling of books that discuss these issues, see N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008); Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007); Frances S. Adeney, Graceful Evangelism: Christian Witness in a Complex World (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2010); Michael Frost, Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006); Elaine A. Heath, The Mystic Way of Evangelism: A Contemplative Vision for Christian Outreach, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017).

40 Michael J. Gorman, Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015).

41 I am drawing on Miroslav Volf’s proposal for a common code of conduct for Christians and Muslims engaged in mission (or what Muslims call da’wa). See Volf, Allah, 209–13. Of course, from some pluralistic perspectives, all forms of mission (whether Christian evangelism or Muslim da’wa) are inappropriate and warlike. Most Christians and Muslims, however, will not give up on their religions’ missional impulses and believe they are compatible with genuine love and respect for others.

42 Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 120–21. In addition, Elaine Heath discusses this in terms of the exile of the Western church that results from complacency and collusion with worldly powers. Following the spiritual life cycles that God’s people have always experienced, Heath says, it may only be through the great loss and “severe mercy” of exile that the church can recover its prophetic voice. See Heath, 25–36.

43 This is not to suggest that all forms of power are worldly. See Andy Crouch, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2013).

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The Missional Catalyst: Reimagining the Role of the Minister

This essay reframes the often ambiguous role of the minister in a local church with the concept of a missional catalyst. First, the author briefly surveys the biblical materials about the role of minister/evangelist in an attempt to ground the minister’s role as an apostolic witness. Then, engagement with literature from missional theology informs an understanding of the role, vision, and behavior of a missional leader. This includes the practice of poetic and prophetic discernment, as well as a “gardening” form of leadership that creates space within the congregation for missional growth to take root. Finally, the author reviews recent social-science research about leadership within congregations of Churches of Christ experiencing missional transformation. Highlighted are key missional practices of various preachers who functioned as missional catalysts for their congregation. The author argues that a pathway through the elder-minister conundrum is to be found in the elders functioning as pastors shepherding the flock and the minister functioning as one sensitive to the mission of God and leading the church to participate within it.

One of the unique challenges of working as a full-time local church leader in Churches of Christ is the sense of role ambiguity often associated with the position. Churches hire individuals to serve as ministers and, on the one hand, expect an evangelistic focus while, on the other hand, demand pastoral attention. Too often, ministers struggle to know what is their original calling. One minister I interviewed summed up the dilemma succinctly, “While my understanding of Scripture is that my primary calling is that of evangelism and outreach, the church tends to expect me to be . . . a pastor.”1

This ambiguity stretches back to the beginning of the Stone-Campbell heritage.2 Alexander Campbell believed that elders should oversee a local congregation and ministers, or evangelists as he preferred to call them, should be itinerant. Later in the nineteenth century, congregations became attracted to settled evangelists, or ministers, whose main duty was to proclaim the Word. J. W. McGarvey argued that elders should have total authority and the hired evangelist should serve under their supervision. And yet the role that a minister was supposed to fulfill was not quite clear. Even Isaac Errett noticed this dilemma in the mid-nineteenth century: “Is he [minister] one of them (elders)? Or is he a ‘helper,’ calling in to their assistance? Does he bear any part in the rule of the church? Does he lead or does he follow? Is he subordinate or is he superior?”3 Also, it became unclear whether McGarvey’s suggestion was the kind of arrangement that Paul shared with the Ephesian elders, Epaphroditus with the Philippian elders, or Timothy with the Ephesian elders. Some have disagreed that it was.4

This article is an attempt to offer a theological reframing of the role of the minister. Through the use of biblical resources, missional theology and leadership, and recent social-science research, I would like to propose a way forward that can offer clarity for the ambiguous nature of the minister’s role within the confusing minister-elder relationship among Churches of Christ.

Biblical Resources

While there is considerable debate on the consistency and normative nature of church leadership patterns in the New Testament, several New Testament texts point to the idea that the key local leaders within the congregations of the early Christians were elders.5 The trajectory of this leadership position stretches back to the Israelite community during the pre-monarchical period and reemerges during the time of exile, as the synagogue appears.6 The early church continued this structure, and elders functioned primarily in a pastoral role for early Christian communities.7 Very little is said in Scripture about the behaviors and practices of elders. Yet, Everett Ferguson suggests the best way to understand the role of elders is by analyzing the various terms used to describe their leadership: overseer (episkopos), shepherd (poimēn), steward (oikonomos), and elder (presbuteros). This body of leaders was to offer oversight to the congregation by providing guidance and supervision. Next, they were to shepherd the people by protecting and feeding the flock. They were to manage the congregation through guarding and watching over God’s household. Finally, they were to offer their wisdom and counsel in the various affairs of the congregation.8 All of these terms imply that elders were to be focused on the local body, providing pastoral attention for the purposes of spiritual maturity.

There is another group of church leaders in addition to elders within Scripture who have the task of proclaiming the message of the gospel. They are referred to as a minister/servant (diakonos), evangelist (euangelistēs), or preacher (kērux). For example, Paul refers to himself as a “minister” tasked with a calling of preaching the Word of God (Col 1:25).9 Paul calls Epaphras, who planted the church in Colossae and continued to work with them, a “faithful servant (diakonos) of Christ” (Col 1:7). Also, Epaphroditus (Phil 2:25) and Tychicus (Col 4:7) are referred to as “ministers” in their work with the churches in Philippi and Colossae, respectively. Later, Paul writes to Timothy, referring to him as a “minister of Christ” (1 Tim 4:6) and a “man of God” (1 Tim 6:11), and encourages him to do the “work of the evangelist” (2 Tim 4:5).

A minister’s primary task based on these passages was proclamation of the gospel.10 For example, Paul describes his role as “preaching the word of God,” “making known” God’s glory among the Gentiles, and “proclaiming” Christ (Col 1:25–27).11 Paul also acknowledges the right for this kind of worker to receive support or payment for his work (1 Cor 9:9–14). There is some debate about whether this role was specifically geared only for unbelievers or for believers as well. Was the evangelist/minister more of an itinerant church planter or located church developer? William Combs, in his brief survey of the term evangelist in the New Testament, argues that this is the noun form of the word euaggelizomai, which means “to proclaim the gospel.”12 Most of its occurrences (particularly in Acts) refer to proclamation of the gospel to unbelievers. Thus, Combs argues that the evangelist was an itinerant church planter who focused his work on proclamation to unbelievers and planting and establishing new churches. Once a new congregation is planted and established, the evangelist’s role is done.13

However, Combs’s argument neglects a few areas. First, there are occurrences of euangelizomai within the context of believers—most notably, Rom 1:15, where Paul says, “I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.” It appears that Paul is referring to preaching to the letter’s recipients, the believers in Rome.14 Second, there are occasions of an evangelist doing more than what Combs suggests. For example, Philip the evangelist was situated in Caesarea with a home and four daughters (Acts 21:8). Did Paul just catch him between moves, or was Philip in a more permanent situation with the church? Plus, Paul sends Timothy to Ephesus, an established church with elders. Paul encourages Timothy to stay focused on “teaching the word” while in Ephesus (1 Tim 4:13). This would be done to help mature the believers and guard against false teaching, not specifically to convert unbelievers.15 Third, the gift of evangelist in Eph 4:11–12 is one of five leadership gifts that is given specifically “for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ.” Probably, an example of this is Timothy’s role in Ephesus, where Paul encouraged him to train others to be teachers and leaders in the church (2 Tim 2:2). So, it becomes difficult to neatly categorize the evangelist as an itinerant church planter. Certainly this role involved missionary church planting in some situations, but this does not appear to be the totality of the role.

Joe Crisp argues that the foundation for the evangelist/minister role was in the apostolic witness. An apostle was a witness to the resurrection of Jesus.16 The Twelve were foundational apostles, but others such as Paul, Barnabas, even Epaphroditus were also referred to as apostles.17 In some cases, representatives or delegates of various congregations who are sent out are described as apostles (2 Cor 8:23). The role of these servants was to continue to witness to the gospel message of the death and resurrection of Jesus in the various places where they lived or traveled. But this proclamation gathered churches, and these churches needed nurturing and maturing. Paul would send representatives on some occasions, such as Timothy or Titus, to carry on the apostolic work as “ministers” or “evangelists” by continuing to teach and proclaim.18 These representatives helped set up further local leadership to shepherd and oversee the flock, but this did not diminish the representatives’ role of continuing the apostolic witness. Crisp describes it this way: “Though the apostles die out, ‘apostolicity’ can be passed on. Apostolicity is independent of whether a minister is itinerant or settled. It is the authentic witness to the story of Jesus Christ; it is the living relationship of one who knows the Lord. It is an unreserved commitment to hard work and service. It is the genuine expression of the life of Jesus in the church. Apostolicity belongs to the whole church; but the church’s ministers have a special responsibility to maintain its authenticity.”19

There is some debate on the permanency of this leadership role within the early church, but Ferguson argues that the New Testament portrays a slow transition from itinerant evangelists/ministers to settled evangelists/ministers. The usage of evangelist in Paul’s charge to his representative Timothy (2 Tim 4:5) is probably a technical term at this point, describing this role.20 Ferguson notices the amazing fact that in the second century, mention of the evangelist/minister role becomes silent.21 The universal ministry of evangelists and prophets probably ceased because of threatening heresies, and the focus of the church leaders shifted to protecting local communities of faith. For example, the Didache, a second century document, suggests that the role of teaching and preaching was subsumed under the local eldership.22 However, Ignatius advocates later on in the second century for a single-bishop polity, where one bishop oversees the church separate from the elders—a structure not seen within Scripture.23 Ferguson speculates that this polity change might be because of the loss of the evangelist/minister role.24 Could it be that without a church leader carrying forth the apostolic witness, which balances the pastoral oversight of the elders, the church reverted to a hierarchical structure of a single bishop?

Thus, there are two distinct leadership roles of elder and minister/evangelist within Scripture.25 Their roles certainly overlap and are connected, yet they provide two different components for church leadership: shepherding/oversight and proclamation/apostolic witness. The local minister is fundamentally responsible for the proclamation of the gospel. Certainly this is done through preaching and teaching regularly but also through leading the congregation to engage the world in demonstrating by word and deed the redemptive love of God manifested in Jesus. The evangelist may assist the elders in their pastoral ministry, but the primary intent of this leadership position is not pastoral but apostolic.

Missional Theology and Leadership

One of the deficiencies in the discussion of church leadership roles has been an absence of a theology of the mission of God.26 For Restorationists, the focus has often been on the duplication of New Testament patterns. We determine what the early church did and then discern how to replicate this in the present. Yet, this often leads to division and confusion as there is very little said in Scripture about how the elders’ role coordinates with the minister’s role. But recently, there have been several attempts to demonstrate that Scripture has a missional origin and function.27 The purpose of Scripture was to equip the early Christians to be agents of mission who, by following the Spirit’s lead, could be witnesses for Jesus as a part of the broader mission of God.28 This missional purpose of Scripture changes the goal of biblical restoration. Restoration becomes less about duplicating biblical patterns and more about participating in God’s redemptive mission inaugurated by Christ and carried forth by his early followers. So while the structures of early church polity do inform contemporary church leadership, the guiding principle becomes the missional and restorative vision of the early church, empowered by the Spirit and recorded in the Scriptures. This missional vision informs how leadership is to be carried out, what the result of faithful leadership should be, and the kind of leadership practices one should perform. This focus prompts various questions about the role of minister, such as, how does the minister faithfully live out the missional theology of the early church in their role and practices? What behaviors of the minister lead the church to adopt the missional vision of the early church? What is the role of the minister, alongside the elders and their pastoral focus, within a missional ecclesiology?

Craig Van Gelder gives a brief review of how church leadership has been perceived over previous decades.29 The identity of an “entrepreneurial leader” has been dominant most recently among evangelical churches. This approach relies on business models and puts strong emphasis on vision-casting and goal-setting. Elders and ministers, in this perspective, function more like a board and chief executive officer.30 Yet, a missional ecclesiology suggests a different kind of church leadership: a missional leader. This leader is “deeply formed by living into and out of the fullness of who God is, what God has done, and what God is doing with respect to both the church and the world.”31 Terri Elton defined missional leadership in this manner: “Persons who understand their calling as disciples of Jesus Christ, see themselves as equipped by God with certain gifts to be shared with the larger body of Christ, and believe that they are empowered by the Spirit to engage the world by participating in the creative and redemptive mission of God.”32 They are leaders who are called, equipped, and empowered to lead the congregation to engage the world.

How does missional leadership occur? Scott Cormode offers one image: gardener. He suggests that typically the church leader is viewed as a builder (focused on structure, goals, etc.) or a shepherd (focused on relationships, empowerment, etc.). Cormode acknowledges the importance of these roles, but he suggests that missional leadership calls for a gardener. A gardener is distinct in that he recognizes that he cannot produce growth, but merely “evoke growth.” His role becomes one who tills the soil, cultivates an environment, and provides room for missional growth to happen by the Spirit of God.33 Alan Roxburgh offers a similar image for a missional leader, “a cultivator of an environment that discerns God’s activities among the congregation and in its context.”34 The missional leader will work the soil of the congregation to develop an environment where the church can “discern what the Spirit is doing in, with, and among them as a community.”35

Participation in this gardening kind of leadership requires a different set of skills and practices than are often used in church leadership. First, the leader needs to be adept at discernment and noticing God’s Spirit at work among the church and the community. Roxburgh refers to this function as being a “poet” who names for the congregation what God is up to in their midst. They articulate the experience of the congregation by listening, observing, and giving voice to the people’s desire for renewal. When done correctly, the people respond, “Yes, this is who we are!”36 Second, the leader needs to be capable of engaging God’s word and helping the congregation “indwell” the Scriptural narrative and let the text cast a missional vision and future for the congregation.37 Roxburgh refers to this function as that of a “prophet” who calls forth an alternative story for God’s people and who pushes the people to journey with God in His mission within the world.38 When done correctly, the people respond, “Yes, this is where we should go!” Both of these skills become critical for the minister, as it is through the poetic and prophetic functions that the minister can assume the role of apostolic witness by empowering the congregation to engage the world.39

Spiritual discernment in decision making becomes a critical skill for both elders and ministers as missional leaders. David Forney suggests that a key complexity of a missional polity is recognizing the Holy Spirit’s work in decision-making activities.40 Van Gelder uses the phrase “keeping God in the conversation” to describe this practice.41 Often elders and ministers use good, sound business sense in making decisions about personnel, finances, grounds, and long-range planning. But missional leadership asserts that God’s Spirit is active in pushing the church in the direction that God wants it to go. Elders and ministers are therefore called to let the Spirit guide the direction, and they use discernment to ascertain what God is doing and what God wants to do. Engaging in this discernment requires attentiveness to the local body as well as the local context.42 Often it is the minister’s role to be a prophetic voice in the conversation, reminding the leadership team of the apostolic calling that the church has received. While elders must stay aware in a pastoral sense, ministers must stay in step with the Spirit in an apostolic sense as they seek to lead and guide the congregation.

These skills and practices are often not encouraged or recognized among ministers or elders. Safe decision-making, pastoral care, and steady leadership are often the normal practices for effective elders. Sound teaching, uplifting preaching, and organizational skills are encouraged for ministers. Most of those skills are used with an inward focus on the church body. But missional leadership requires discernment, missional cultivation, and risk-taking leadership, with an outward focus on the world. These are the kind of leadership practices and behaviors for a minister that arise from a missional theology.

Ministers as Missional Catalysts

Recent research has been done on the role of the minister in the setting of a congregation experiencing missional transformation. A few years ago, a study was done on ministers and elders within congregations of Churches of Christ labeled as “Churches that Work.”43 These were twenty-five reputable congregations selected by The Christian Chronicle for their demonstration of a unified, evangelistic, and healthy approach to ministry and mission. The study of the leaders in these churches involved two phases. The first phase included a survey of the elders and ministers of these congregations regarding their individual leadership practices, their collaborative practices, their role understanding, and a brief analysis of the congregation’s missional behaviors. Based on the results of the survey, four churches were selected for further study. This second phase involved on-site visits of the four churches, which included interviews of elders, staff members, and the preacher, attending worship services, and sitting in on elders meetings. The results were combined in order to discern patterns within the leadership roles and practices. Five patterns were noticed. One of those patterns was that the minister in each of the four studied congregations had assumed the posture of missional catalyst. Because the elders in these congregations were squarely focused on pastoral obligations, the minister was free to cast a missional vision of God’s calling for the church.

The minister of each congregation fulfilled this missional catalyst role in different ways. One minister used his preaching as a means of telling stories of what God is doing among the people. As a storyteller, he drew people into God’s work and invited them to participate. The second minister, who went by the intentional title of evangelist, was an equipper. He saw his role in training, equipping, and empowering disciples to minister either locally or wherever they were sent. He helped shape the congregation’s kingdom vision by reframing current situations to help the congregation see what God is doing. His passion for making disciples helped set the tone for the congregation to have a passion and concern about the lost. A third minister was a catalyst by being an administrator. The elders empowered him to set the agenda, communicate with leaders, and to keep the church moving forward. Also, he was encouraged to be a visionary who would plant ideas slowly that would eventually come to fruition. His evangelistic identity helped push the congregation towards a missional identity. The fourth minister functioned as a catalyst through the process of aligning. At the time of the interview, he was new to his role, but he immediately went about the task of getting everyone on the same page and aligning ministries under a common theme. Each of the ministers had different spiritual gifts, yet they used them to cultivate an environment where the church could grow towards being an apostolic witness and living into a missional identity.

Analyzing these ministers’ practices more deeply, one notes the theological and theoretical frameworks that govern the role of a missional catalyst. First, the ministers embraced the theological framework of the minister as apostolic witness. The ministers understood that their primary role was to lead the church to engage the world, which provided balance to the elders’ role of pastoring the flock. Two of the ministers consistently referred to themselves as “evangelists” to capture the apostolic witness aspect of their role. They tried to assist the elders as needed in pastoral roles, but they believed their first calling was to proclaim the gospel. They became catalysts who gently prodded and encouraged the elders and the congregation toward engaging the world.

Second, the ministers utilized the theological framework of missional theology. Rather than leading like an entrepreneur or shepherd, these ministers functioned more like “gardeners” who planted seed, tilled the soil, and provided room for missional transformation. One minister used the practice of telling the stories of God’s activity within his church in order to evoke missional transformation within the congregation. His role was similar to the “poet” role described by Alan Roxburgh, in which the church leader names for the congregation what God is doing in their midst.44 The youth minister at his church remarked that there is great spiritual power when the preacher is saying, “Hey, look what God is doing here.” It was this poetic function that helped shape their culture toward a missional identity.

Third, the ministers engaged the theoretical framework of interpretive leadership. Mark Lau Branson describes this leadership approach as the ability to interpret what is taking place within the organization, in order to offer imagination to help the organization move forward.45 Often, ministers do not have the structural authority that other leaders possess, but they do have cultural resources that can be used to become “theological interpreters” for their congregations in cultivating a missional imagination.46 One minister did this by using the practice of “reframing” as a means for cultivating an environment for noticing the work of God. Often he would take a current situation—such as a moral failure, a shift to multiple service, a nearby military base—and reframe it in such a way that the congregation could see God at work in their midst. This served not only to offer a missional lens for the current issue, but also to informally train the congregation to view all of life in this manner.47 Another minister engaged in interpretive leadership through the practice of “getting on the balcony” to provide perspective for his church. Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky coined this term to describe when a leader steps away from the floor of action and gets above it to catch a glimpse of what is going on. By distancing oneself from the immediate situation, the leader seeks a “clearer view of reality.”48 This minister acknowledged that his role was to help the elders understand the big picture of what God was doing and what God wanted to do.

Often the best tool the minister has to accomplish this goal of interpretive leadership is the sermon. Scott Cormode acknowledges that in no other organization does the leader have the opportunity to speak to all the constituents each week to share what he or she believes is important.49 And yet this is the luxury of the minister. The ministers in this study recognized the value of preaching to shape a congregation, to share the work of God, and to cultivate an environment where God’s people can develop a missional imagination.

A missional catalyst should seek to be aware of the Spirit’s work among God’s people and the world. All the ministers engaged this skill by encouraging their congregations to take risks for the mission of God. Often, the ministers were helping other leaders to discern what God was actively doing and calling the church to be. They emphasized looking for God’s work among them and then sought to provide opportunities for the congregation to experience God’s mission in the world through various ministries.

Conclusion

In this paper, I have tried to reimagine the role of the minister within congregations of Churches of Christ. Often the minister can suffer from role ambiguity, not knowing exactly what their original calling is and what behaviors or practices they should manifest. First, I examined biblical resources to determine that the role of minister, evangelist, or preacher was grounded in an apostolic calling, or one that serves to bear witness to the gospel. Second, I mined missional theology for insights into missional leadership. The dominant image of leadership promoted was a “gardener”: one who tills the soil, cultivates the environment, and seeks to create space for the work of God to be discerned and experienced. The minister functions between the twin poles of poet and prophet by weaving together the work of God within the community in order to cast a missional vision for the congregation. Finally, I reviewed a recent social-science research project of ministers within congregations experiencing missional transformation. The ministers were utilizing various behaviors like storytelling, equipping, administrating, or aligning to function as missional catalysts for their congregation.

Local communities of God’s people need two kinds of leaders. First, they need leaders with a pastoral sense and shepherding heart. These leaders serve to heal brokenness and bind up wounds that disciples experience along the journey of following Christ in a secular world. Second, another kind of leader is needed. This leader is one with a sensitivity toward the mission of God. They are aware of the Spirit’s work around them and feel the burden for the gospel to be proclaimed in the local community. They are to be the missional catalyst calling the church to join God in his work. If this role is unfulfilled, the church may become unbalanced and internally focused. But when the minister fulfills the role, the church begins to live more fully into her calling of being an instrument of God’s redemptive mission for the world.

Steve Cloer has been the preaching minister at Southside Church of Christ in Fort Worth, Texas, since 2006. This historic congregation is located two miles south of downtown Fort Worth. Steve is married to Lindsay, and together they have three children: Joshua, Bethany, and Lydia. They live in an urban neighborhood near the Southside church building. Steve graduated from Harding University with BA degrees in Bible and Math. He received his MDiv in New Testament from Harding School of Theology and graduated with his DMin in congregational mission and leadership from Luther Seminary in 2015.

1 To find further interviews and a more expansive version of this article’s content, see Steve Cloer, “Missional Polity: The Minister-Elder Relationship in Churches of Christ Experiencing Missional Transformation” (DMin Thesis, Luther Seminary, 2015).

2 For a brief survey of the role and relationship ambiguity of elders and evangelists, see Steve Cloer, “The Elder-Evangelist Relationship Through the Stone-Campbell Movement,” Restoration Quarterly 58, no. 4 (2016): 229–39.

3 Isaac Errett, The Christian Standard 5 (June 5, 1869): 180.

4 For example, R. N. Hogan, “The Relationship between the Evangelist and the Elder,” Christian Echo 87 (March 1, 1990): 2, 7.

5 For example, see Acts 14:21–23; Acts 15:4–6, 22-23; 16:4; 20:17–31; 1 Tim 4:14; 5:17, 20; Tit 1:5.

6 Notice Exod 24:1–14; Num 16:11–19; Deut 21:2–20; 1 Kgs 21:8–11 and intertestamental writings as 1 Macc 7:33; 11:23; 2 Macc 13:13; Sir 38:33–34. See also James Tunstead Burtchaell, From Synagogue to Church: Public Services and Offices in the Earliest Christian Communities (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 228–30.

7 For further discussion on the pastoral and oversight ministry of elders found in the New Testament, see I. Howard Marshall, “Congregation and Ministry in the Pastoral Epistles,” in Community Formation in the Early Church and in the Church Today, ed. Richard N. Longenecker (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002), 118-119; Benjamin L. Merkle, Why Elders? A Biblical and Practical Guide for Church Members (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2009), 18-24.

8 Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 319–23.

9 Also see Rom 15:15–16. In 1 Tim 2:7, Paul uses the term preacher to describe his role.

10 Joe Crisp, “Toward a Theology of Ministry for Churches of Christ,” Restoration Quarterly 35, no. 1 (1993), 17. Crisp argues that the ministry of the word is the organizing center for preachers in Churches of Christ.

11 See a similar declaration in Rom 15:16. His duty as a “minister” is to proclaim the gospel of God.

12 William W. Combs, “The Biblical Role of the Evangelist,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 7 (2002): 27–28.

13 Ibid., 40–43.

14 Ibid., 27–28; see also C. E. B. Cranfield, Romans: A Shorter Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 16. Combs disagrees, suggesting that the “you” in the verse refers to general Romans and does not include Roman Christians. Yet, this perspective seems untenable within the context. For example, Cranfield writes, “The preaching of the gospel referred to here is . . . to those who are already believers, with a view to the deepening of their understanding and strengthening their faith and obedience.”

15 See 1 Tim 6:3–11; 2 Tim. 2:24–25; Ferguson, The Church of Christ, 331. For a possible historical reconstruction of the situation in Ephesus, including the false teaching threats, see Philip H. Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 37–50.

16 Crisp, “Toward a Theology,” 14.

17 For example, Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:14), Andronicus and Junia(s) (Rom 16:7), and Epaphroditus (Phil 2:25).

18 E. Earle Ellis, “Paul and His Co-Workers,” New Testament Studies 17, no. 4 (1971): 442–43. Ellis writes about these representatives, “In short diakonoi appear to be a special class of workers, those who were especially active in preaching and teaching. They appear in Paul’s circles not only as itinerant workers, but also workers in local congregations.”

19 Crisp, “Toward a Theology of Ministry for Churches of Christ,” 15–16.

20 Everett Ferguson, The Early Church and Today, vol. 1, Ministry, Initiation, and Worship (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2012), 26.

21 Ibid., 29.

22 See “Didache, or the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/didache-lake.html. The author writes, “Appoint therefore for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord . . . for they also minister to you the ministry of the prophets and teachers.”

23 See Ignatius, “The Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans,” http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0109.htm. Ignatius writes, “See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles.”

24 Ferguson, The Early Church, 31.

25 For further argument on the two distinct roles of minister and elder, see Robert S. Rayburn, “Three Offices: Minister, Elder, Deacon,” Presbyterion 12, no. 2 (1986): 105–14.

26 Cloer, “The Elder-Evangelist Relationship,” 237–38.

27 Darrell L. Guder, “Missional Hermeneutics: The Missional Vocation of the Congregation—and How Scripture Shapes That Calling,” Mission Focus Annual Review 15 (2007): 125–42; Darrell L. Guder, “Missional Hermeneutics: The Missional Authority of Scripture,” Mission Focus Annual Review 15 (2007): 106–21; Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006).

28 I. Howard Marshall, New Testament: Many Witnesses, One Gospel (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004), 34–37.

29 Craig Van Gelder, “Theological Education and Missional Leadership Formation: Can Seminaries Prepare Missional Leaders for Congregations?” in The Missional Church and Leadership Formation: Helping Congregations Develop Leadership Capacity, ed. Craig Van Gelder (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 12–32.

30 Ibid., 40–41.

31 Ibid., 42–43.

32 Terri Elton, “Congregations as Systems for Empowering Missional Leadership: A Lutheran Hermeneutic for Leading in Mission” (PhD Diss., Luther Seminary, 2007), 10.

33 Scott Cormode, “Muti-Layered Leadership: The Christian Leader as Builder, Shepherd, and Gardener,” Journal of Religious Leadership 1 (Fall 2002): 71.

34 Alan J. Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk, The Missional Leader: Equipping Your Church to Reach a Changing World, Leadership Network Series (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2006), 27.

35 Ibid., 28.

36 Alan Roxburgh, The Missionary Congregation, Leadership, and Liminality (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997), 58–59.

37 Roxburgh and Romanuk, The Missional Leader, 33–34.

38 Roxburgh, The Missionary Congregation, 61.

39 Ibid., 64–65.

40 David Forney, “To the One Outside the Gate: A Missional Approach to Polity,” Journal of Religious Leadership 5, nos. 1 & 2 (2006): 55–57.

41 Craig Van Gelder, The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 99–104.

42 Forney, “To the One Outside the Gate,” 55–57. Forney suggests that attentiveness to the local context will encourage one to abandon a desire for the “perfect” polity but will help shape the approach for how the leadership structure should best fit in this contextual situation.

43 For a full description of this research, see Steve Cloer, “The Minister-Elder Relationship within ‘Churches that Work,’” Discernment: Theology and Practice of Ministry 2 (2016): 1–15, http://digitalcommons.acu.edu/discernment/vol2/iss2/1.

44 Roxburgh, The Missionary Congregation, 58–59.

45 Mark Lau Branson and Juan Francisco Martinez, Churches, Cultures & Leadership: A Practical Theology of Congregations and Ethnicities (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 55–56.

46 Scott Cormode, Making Spiritual Sense: Christian Leaders as Spiritual Interpreters (Nashville: Abingdon, 2006), 64–66.

47 For more on the power of reframing, see Tod Bolsinger, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2015), 96-97.

48 Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership without Easy Answers (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1994), 53; cf. Bolsinger, 111–20.

49 Cormode, Making Spiritual Sense, 63–64.

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How Short-Term Missions Shape Sending Congregations

Disruptive events create introspective opportunities for congregations to change. Short-term missions provide one such opportunity to create an intentional disruption which can lead to healthy, missional changes. This research effort explores how a short-term trip to Costa Rica impacted the Kings Crossing Church of Christ, looking through a missional framework for specific ways in which short-term mission efforts might help the sending congregations become more missional at home.

Short-Term Missions and Missional Churches

Short-term missions and the missional church movement have the potential to be mutually beneficial. Both are fields for which there is active research and thought refinement. Both intend to help churches live into the mission of God. For this project, I conducted original research in an attempt to blend the two areas. My specific interest was in discovering what ways (if any) a congregation’s involvement in short-term missions might help the sending congregation become more missional.

This paper will describe some ways in which these two areas align, the shape of short-term missions research and future opportunities for research, a summary of my findings, and suggestions for better practices in short-term missions for sending congregations, specifically if their aim is to become more missional.

My project is based on a biennial trip that I have led for several years to Costa Rica. The participants in my research were all members at the Kings Crossing Church of Christ in Corpus Christi, Texas, where I have been the preaching minister since 2014.

A Positive Disruption

In his research regarding how senior leaders can cultivate missional change, MacIlvaine has made a strong case for the presence of a “crisis” event becoming the springboard from which a church can move in a missional direction. He lays out several types of crises that have been catalysts for churches to make positive changes, such as cultural, interpersonal, moral, and situational crises.1

There is wisdom in trying to make the best of a negative situation as MacIlvaine has encouraged. But must every catalyst for positive change be a negative experience? My own experience has been that when a congregation is involved in a short-term mission trip, it is often a conspicuous part of church life, especially when there are collective efforts to fund, send, bless, welcome, and hear reports from the team who has gone on a trip.

To nuance MacIlvaine’s emphasis on negative crises, I would suggest that disruptions—both negative and positive—might be a better framework on which to cultivate missional changes. Might a short-term mission trip be one such kind of a positive, intentionally planned disruption to the flow of congregational life that could produce new missional possibilities?

Developments in Short-Term Missions Research

Despite the seemingly ever-increasing participation in short-term missions, the scholarly literature has largely been lagging behind.2 Encouragingly, the amount of research available has begun increasing considerably in the last few years. Below is a quick summary of the kinds of publications available on short-term missions roughly in the order in which they have appeared.

‘How To’ Helps

Most of the earliest publications on short-term missions arose from the need for basic helps about the logistics of planning a trip well.3 In their best iterations, these types of books and articles address having a healthy theology for missions, clear and careful planning for the trip, and healthy types of debriefing at the completion of the trip.

Better Practices for Short-Term Missions

Perhaps the most significant research on short-term missions to date is Kurt Ver Beek’s case study of house construction in Honduras, published in 2006.4 Ver Beek provided empirical data pointing to the enormous potential for waste and ineffectiveness in short-term missions. Ver Beek inspired a wave of research seeking better practices for short-term missions. One of the first significant contributions to this effort included a chapter from Ver Beek himself in the book, edited by Robert Priest, Effective Engagement in Short-Term Missions: Doing It Right.5 Ian Corbett and Brian Fikkert have also contributed through their book When Helping Hurts regarding the seriousness of being good stewards of the resources required for short-term missions, as well as greater sensitivity to ensuring the kind of help being offered by the mission teams is actually the kind of help most needed.6

For mission trip leaders, it is worth noting that S.O.E. (Standards of Excellence) has a helpful, concise list of seven standards that would guide any mission trip to greater effectiveness.7 The seven they suggest are:

  1. God-Centeredness
  2. Empowering Partnerships
  3. Mutual Design
  4. Comprehensive Administration
  5. Qualified Leadership
  6. Appropriate Training
  7. Thorough Follow-Through

Effects of Short-Term Missions on Going Participants

There has been a scattering of articles on the effects of short-term missions on the growth of people who go on the trips. One study examined the role that short-term trips can have in helping to develop people’s faith maturity and prayer, for example.8 In a similar vein, anthropologist Brian Howell has published an ethnography about the travel experiences of people on mission trips and how these experiences might help them think about larger issues of economics and justice in the places where they serve.9

Effects of Short-Term Missions on Receiving Locations

At least partially in response to Ver Beek’s work, there has been an encouraging effort to study more receiving locations of short-term teams, particularly the benefits of working with a single location over a more extended period of time.10 One group has developed a highly successful effort to address poverty and pollution through ongoing short-term efforts to the city of La Oroya, Peru, for example.11 If the goal is to make a positive, lasting impact at the receiving locations, surely this is a needed area of continued study.

The Missing Piece

Studies in short-term missions have developed in an order that is fitting for their purpose. It is my assumption that a primary goal of most short-term trips is to make an impact for Christ in a distant location. To this end, it has been important for scholars to create new resources that provide tools for better organization and planning. Likewise, as described above, there are a growing number of resources available to help trip leaders be sure that their trips are of the maximum possible benefit, both to the receivers of the efforts and to those who go on the trip. There is, however, another important area of short-term missions that has thus far been neglected in scholarly research.12 This missing piece is the sending congregation itself.

The “how to” guides give explanations for matters such as fundraising and inviting the sending congregation to support the trip monetarily and through their prayers.13 There is also the occasional emphasis on following up and reporting the events of the trip.14 Gary Green of Abilene Christian University has produced a helpful guide for trip participants to strive for mature discernment of mission trip experiences to be used after the completion of the trip, with a goal of transformation at home because of the experiences abroad.15

However, even with these resources, there is a lack of credentialed research on what sorts of effects a mission trip can have on those who participate by sending, but not going. There are bits of research, such as Craig Altrock’s, which mention the sending congregations tangentially, but not as the primary focus of the research.16

Regarding possible long-term benefits from short-term missions, the existing research has made strides in providing answers. Better practices can create a more lasting impact, both for the receiving location, and for those who go. While these areas are worthy of continued study, there is also ample room to investigate how a mission trip might impact those who cannot go, but who send and support others that do.

Establishing Missional Criteria

The specific scope of my project was to look at whether short-term missions might be a catalyst to help congregations become more missional through their involvement. In order to measure this, it was necessary to establish some criteria for what it means to be “missional.”

As the missional church movement is still active in defining its own terms, there were several potential frameworks worthy of consideration. In the larger discussion of what attributes define the missional church, one important contributor to this conversation is Graham Hill. Hill has provided a fascinating look at several strands of Christian thought with their contributions to the missional movement. Hill suggests: “Missional ecclesiology is a movement of thought, rather than an organized movement, which is concerned with all cultures as missional fields, the missional nature and expressions of the church, the missional nature of God and Scripture, and the missional presence of God in the world.”17 Hill’s book Salt, Light, and a City demonstrates the breadth of the missional movement by summarizing views of Christian thinkers including leaders of the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, and Free Church traditions, all of whom have unique nuances that contribute to a larger picture. There are numerous areas of overlap between these various theologies, but Hill’s work helps to portray the great variety of thought involved in the missional conversation. But where Hill’s work is more expansive in terms of a missional definition, other efforts are being made to narrow down the common criteria and refine the approaches of missional leaders.

Gospel in Our Culture Network is an organization that has significantly refined the larger conversation about the missional church. This ecumenical network functions as an ongoing interaction between a variety of theological educators and ministry practitioners who seek to give shape to the “missionary way the church is called to live” through social and cultural analysis, Biblical and theological reflection, and envisioning the church and its mission.18 The GOCN has partnered with Eerdmans to create The Gospel and Our Culture series of books, which is a good representation of the flow of thought in their circles regarding missional theology over the last few decades. One example would be their explanation of eight patterns they believe to be true of what they consider missional churches.19

Another leading voice that has nuanced the efforts of the larger missional community is Ed Stetzer. Stetzer is concerned that in an effort of many missional Christians to “be” the gospel, they are neglecting to tell the Gospel, resulting in societal transformation but not global evangelization.20 In 2010–2011, Stetzer collaborated with Alan Hirsch and a group of church leaders to define what they mean when using the term missional. The result of their combined efforts they have titled The Missional Manifesto.21 Their definition is a slight pushback against other missional efforts that they believe have underemphasized evangelism or possibly compromised the centrality of the gospel in the practices of the church. One of the collaborators, J. D. Greear, expressed such a view on his blog describing the creation of the Manifesto: “The word ‘missional’ has been around for a while. I think this document is timely and necessary, because it articulates in a theologically faithful but missionally practical way what all the fuss is about. Most of all, the document keeps the Gospel right dead in the center of all that we do.”22 It remains to be seen whether the Missional Manifesto carries the significance in the larger missional conversation that Stetzer and others desire for it to have. These are a few of the numerous significant contributors to the larger missional conversation.

Even so, it was necessary for this project to narrow down the criteria into something observable. One particularly helpful attempt at expressing core missional principles is Fitch and Holsclaw’s book, Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier (2013).23 Believing that it is not possible for the church to know fully the destination at the end of its journey until it arrives there, they attempt to provide missional “signposts” to help keep the church moving in the direction of the mission of God. These signposts function very similarly to the hallmarks of the GOCN or the elements of the Manifesto. A church moving in a missional direction, according to Fitch and Holsclaw’s signposts, would be:

  1. Journeying into a post-Christian culture. (Post-Christendom)
  2. Deepening their relationship with the missionary God. (Missio Dei)
  3. Understanding the incarnate nature of mission, as revealed in Christ. (Incarnation)
  4. Living as a community of witnesses to God’s truth. (Witness)
  5. Understanding their lives as continuation of God’s story found in Scripture. (Scripture)
  6. Following the way of salvation, which leads to God’s setting the world right again through the Gospel. (Gospel)
  7. Participating in God’s transformative reign through local communities of the kingdom. (Church)
  8. Extending God’s mission to the broken, sexually and otherwise. (Prodigal Relationships)
  9. Addressing systemic social injustices. (Prodigal Justice)
  10. Speaking clarity to the pluralist versions of truth in the world. (Prodigal Openness)

As I tried to evaluate whether the short-term mission trip to Costa Rica has helped the Kings Crossing church to become more missional, I chose to use David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw’s missional signposts as my main basis of comparison. This is in part because theirs is a recent attempt to articulate a simple list that summarizes what missional principles are and also because they have shown awareness of the greater preceding conversation that led up to their book. They provided an open-ended way of thinking about what missional can be. The guideposts suggest which characteristic actions one could be looking for, which aligns well with how I would evaluate the interviews with my participants. I examined the responses of my participants, evaluating whether their contents indicated any missional leanings among our members, evoked through the mission trip.

The Shape of the Project

The Kings Crossing Church of Christ was the location of the research. As there existed no comparable research with preexisting hypotheses to test, my research was qualitative in nature, seeking to formulate hypotheses based on my findings for future research.

The basic shape of the study was that I invited a cross-section of my congregation to let me conduct two interviews with them. During the time in between the two interviews, I led a group from our congregation on a short-term mission trip to work with our sponsored preacher, Ronald Martinez, in Desamparados, Costa Rica.24

Here is the makeup of the interview participants:

  • There were 23 total participants.
  • 11 were female (48%) and 12 were male (52%).
  • 6 were between 25 and 40 (26%), 9 were between 41 and 55 (39%), 6 were between 55 and 70 (26%), and 2 were over 70 (9%).
  • 19 did not go on the trip (83%), and 4 did go (17%).
  • 16 did not go on the trip and had no relatives going either (70%), and 3 did not go, but had relatives who did (13%).

Kings Crossing as a congregation had not received prior education about the missional church movement; nor did they have much experience with short-term missions.

In forming my interview questions, I was careful not to lead with an emphasis on the mission trip in order to see what directions they went naturally when reflecting on how they saw God at work in our congregation. The fourth and final question was specifically about the trip, as I did want to know their perceptions of the role it played in congregational life. Here are the four questions I asked, which were the same both in the first and in the follow-up interview:

  1. Please describe what you understand to be the mission of God. What all does this mission involve?
  2. If you were telling the story of what God is doing through our congregation, what would the current chapter be about?
  3. How do you believe God is trying to shape us through our present experiences?
  4. What role, if any, do you believe the short-term mission trip to Costa Rica is playing in how God is shaping our congregation right now?

The aim of my research was to analyze the responses to these questions, asking: (1) Did the short-term mission trip seem to have any discernible impact on regular members of the congregation who did not go on the trip? (2) If so, when the interviewees spoke about this impact, would any of their observations align well with what could be considered missional impulses?

Locations of Impact

Here are some of the times and places that the interviewees revealed were impactful especially for the non-going members of the congregation.

Preparing for the Trip

In preparation for this trip, we tried several different types of fundraising events. These included congregational meals and silent auctions with fundraising components. The most popular format was that we would work out an agreement with a local restaurant, and on a certain night, we would invite members of our church to eat there, and the restaurant would give us a percentage of the proceeds towards our trip. One sending participant commented:

We had a goal. We had to raise money. That provided a way for people to be involved and to have a stake in it. That was good because it created excitement. I saw excitement. It was neat . . . to see you people at the restaurant, but I was there! I saw the people who were there doing this, but I saw that and said, I’m there with them! Not physically, but in prayer and that kind of stuff. I think that was good. I saw people respond to that. I saw people respond to the fundraising projects that we did.

During the Trip

On the trips I have been part of, we spend most of the trip practicing what we call a technology fast. Though I do not take up people’s electronic devices, we have strongly encouraged people to use the opportunity to live differently. We do not watch the news in the hotels, nor do we correspond with people on social media. Instead, we encourage people to build relationships, both among the team and with the locals, and to practice spiritual journaling, in a guided journaling folder that we provide to the team members.

However, believing it is a helpful way to keep people at home connected to the events of the trip, I take responsibility for posting daily updates online. By keeping all the updates in one place, Kings Crossing’s Facebook fan page, it makes it easy for concerned family members to know where to check and be sure that everything is going well.25

I never asked any specific questions about social media in my interviews, but four of my non-going interviewees brought them up and mentioned that they had been watching the updates online with interest. Here is how one non-going participant commented about the experience of seeing the daily updates on social media: “Hey, we’re sending family members over there and we’re seeing the results come back immediately, not seven months later, oh that’s what they did six months ago. We’re seeing it immediately. We saw the impact as you’re there, we saw the pictures on Facebook. With social media now you see the impact right as it occurs. Oh ok, that’s where they are; that’s what they’re doing. Then you see pictures of the kids . . . it’s a huge impact, and it’s helped bring people back to what we’re truly about.”

Reporting after the Trip

Upon returning from the trip, I spent the next three Sundays emphasizing concepts related to the mission of God and to our recent mission trip. These included: A general message about the mission of God in the Great Commission preceding the “founding” of the church in Acts 2, a full report about the Desamparados location which Kings Crossing has sponsored for many years, and a multimedia summary of the trip with personal stories about several of the people we encountered. Several of the interviewees commented that they had enjoyed the reports and found them informative and inspiring. One said: “I especially liked the way you did the follow up, where you didn’t immediately tell how the trip went. You had videos prepared and described those people’s lives. You went way into their life.”

Types of Impact

Above I have described the times and places where the most significant impact occurred. But impact alone does not substantiate my research hypothesis that short-term mission trips can help congregations become more missional. Below I will describe the collective ways in which the above experiences shaped the Kings Crossing Church of Christ, based on the viewpoints of my interviewees.

I have analyzed their comments through the lens of missional theology, looking for overlap between areas in which they have perceived change with areas that are typically categorized as missional ways of thinking and being.26 Several themes continually rose to the surface.

Imaginings of New Missional Possibilities

One of the things that amazed me most about my interviews with sending participants is the number of them who started brainstorming about new possibilities for our church in response to the mission trip. One of my interviewees, a non-going participant over 70, spent a sizable portion of her interview brainstorming about ways our church could enhance our commitment to missions and to each other. As she thought and shared, some of her ideas included:

  • Having more deliberate prayer services for the mission work, both before the team leaves and while they are away
  • Doing more to integrate the younger children at church in their class settings with supporting the mission effort and teaching them about our missionaries
  • Having the returned team prepare a meal in the style of Costa Rican cuisine and invite people to come share and reflect more on their part in the mission to “get more involved”
  • Following up with the Martinez family in Costa Rica to learn more of their needs, and working together to meet their needs

Another non-going interviewee felt inspired by the happenings of the trip to look for new ways to serve people nearby: “I know you didn’t only show pictures of people. You talked about them and made them more like people than just photos. Making the awareness . . . it’s not just feeling like I have to go to Costa Rica to do these kinds of missions. I can do these things in my own community and look for opportunities. And be aware that there are those opportunities.” In total, 68% of non-going participants either shared new ideas or commented on how the mission trip was producing fresh ideas and fresh focus on mission among our congregation.27 As an eschatologically-driven ecclesiology is a frequent theme in missional theology, future tense thinking is a close companion of imagination. It is not a large leap to speak of a church with an active imagination about God’s possibilities for them in relation to missional thinking. Even though talk is cheaper than action, thinking must precede action, and the mission trip experience created significant imaginative space for how Kings Crossing could live more fully into God’s mission.

Enhanced Feel of Community

The communal aspect emerged as one of the strongest and most consistent responses I received. In total, 78% of the interviewees made strong statements about how they saw God at work through the strengthening of relationships among the members of Kings Crossing in connection to the mission trip. One interviewee noted how they had not actually known many of the people who went on the trip, but the interviewee’s participation in preparing for the trip still helped him or her feel more connected to the broader church community: “I thought the activities that were done for the fundraising to get people involved . . . I don’t know the group very well that actually went, but we participated in some of the fundraising events, and to see the enthusiasm and the power that people were connecting to . . . that’s refreshing. The events we went to I thought were very well attended; it was much broader than just the group that was going, and it’s that type of event that I think will help build for the future; whatever events we go to. So, I think it’s good.” These perspectives about community were not just a matter of increasing the number of existing surface-level relationships but of a deeper reflection on how the community of God works together in bringing others in to connect to the community, in ways not possible for a single individual:

[God] has a way of putting things in your path and people in your path for reasons. You may not know why at that point, but some day you’ll look back and say, “Now I know why I met that person, because he knew this person who said the right thing to the right person in the right place.” That is in life and with jobs. Your Christian walk. Saying the right thing and the right time to the person. You may not be the first person who’s supposed to say it, but God wants you to say it and have a third person and a fifth person and maybe the seventh person who finally says it and lays it on their heart and gets them to realize that that’s what I’m here for.

Multiple participants made comments on the congregational buy-in to the trip and the unifying effect it had on the congregation. From my own perspective as an organizer of the various events, I noticed often people sitting with and meeting other members of the congregation they had not known before, or at least had never spoken with before. As participants in the fundraising events spanned all demographics, it provided cross-generational contact that is easily lacking when church members might otherwise be organized by their families or peer groups. As a summary of the trip’s impact on the congregation’s relationships and sense of missional identity, here is a statement from one interviewee, who was a non-going participant: “God’s at work more than ever before. We’re starting to see it and it’s exciting. When a church is growing, life is different. When a church is kind of humming along, it’s a place. Right now it’s not just a place. It’s a church. We are the church. That’s where I see us going. We’re growing, and this mission trip is key to it.

Missional Signposts at Kings Crossing

Having looked at the times and locations of impact related to the trip and to the general types of impact made by the trip experience on the congregation, here is an analysis of the responses through the lens of the ten “signposts” in Fitch and Holsclaw’s Prodigal Christianity, which provided a framework for analysis. It is not the case that I found evidence of all signposts, but I have highlighted below the points of correspondence that emerged.”

Missio Dei

The interviewees spoke at length about the flow of history, and how God is interested in saving the people who are lost through the missionary efforts of the church. The mission trip provided participants with a helpful disruption to the normal routines of church life, which allowed them to contemplate what it might mean to get more deeply involved in the mission of God. Though I could not substantiate that this mission trip changed people’s fundamental definitions of what God’s mission involves, there was more conversation going on in the congregation about mission as a result of the trip, and awareness of missional opportunities is an important step in embracing the mission.

Incarnational Ministry and Trinity-Inspired Community

There was an abundance of comments from interviewees about the need to start thinking more about mission opportunities, both abroad and at home. Missional theology has excelled at calling people to think more contextually about how God might be sending them to serve through the prompting of the Holy Spirit. One interviewee invoked Trinitarian ideas as he spoke of how God was trying to work through Kings Crossing: “The way I see things with church is that one of the most important things we do is that we are the light of the world, we are the salt of this earth, we are preserving society, and I think that our interaction with the community through our work is a huge part of what God is doing… So they are preserving society in that way, but the living water, the Holy Spirit is coming through the lives of those people.” With increasing discussions about what it should mean to be the church in our own community, prompted in response to the mission trip, it seems that short-term missions are a natural fit for helping people imagine what it means to become Christ’s representatives to the community around us.28 This will especially be the case when all participants are invited to contemplate what it means to serve incarnationally in another place, as a way to practice how we should serve our own community.

Witnesses to the Kingdom

One of the areas that livened people’s imaginations about being witnesses to the kingdom was in the fundraising efforts. There was excitement in each of the restaurants where we went to raise funds for the trip. Numerous people in those settings commented on how excited they were to have our church in a public setting, open about our commitment to serving in foreign missions. Several talked to me excitedly about people who asked them about our church, and about how they had an opportunity to share about their faith with people who asked. The sense of togetherness at such efforts promotes the idea of a shared life that embodies God’s work among us as witnesses to what God is doing.

Prodigal Relationships

Fitch and Holsclaw describe “prodigal relationships” as one of their missional signposts. They use this term to describe relationships between Christians with various groups of people with whom they might not normally associate, and perhaps intentionally so.29 The most frequent cause for reflection on “prodigal” relationships for the participants was through the stories told in the reporting about the mission trip. The presentations included numerous stories of individuals, their journeys to faith, the challenges of poverty, or their deep struggles in life due to the consequences of their decisions. Interviewees were quick to connect the value of learning other people’s stories to becoming more aware of the community around us and what people’s lives need God’s intervening. Experiencing “prodigal” relationships internationally can open a church up to doing the same thing nearby. One non-going participant reflected on how the mission trip might gradually shift Kings Crossing’s focus on what needs to happen in the local community: “It’s interesting to me to think about how the mission trip could affect the entire congregation. . . . If we are going to be a mission-oriented congregation, then the things we do for a mission in Costa Rica could very well be the same things that we use for a mission here in this community. . . . You can’t do everything, but what does God want us to do? If we want to be a foreign-oriented mission church then that’s good, but then how do we take that stuff and use it here also?” Prodigal relationships, as defined by Fitch and Holsclaw, entail both giving and receiving hospitality—a mutuality that was evident in one fundraiser in particular. Local small businesses were given the opportunity to purchase booth space at our church, and the mission team worked at bringing in both church members and people from the community to shop at the fair. The experience was powerful because the church made connections with local people.

Thinking contextually about Kings Crossing, the community is mostly white-collar, and not in need of handouts or financial assistance. But it became clear at several of the fundraiser events that the community was hungry for a good cause to support. Numerous vendors and shoppers, not members of the church, were excited to be part of supporting the work and felt connected to what we were trying to do in service to God. Several team members commented to me excitedly about the opportunity to talk to many of our guests about matters of faith.

In the past, most of what Kings Crossing would call “outreach” would involve community fair events and giveaways. It was very different to be receivers of the community’s hospitality and support, and it helped open eyes to where God might be at work outside of our own circle in ways that we would not have perceived without our openness to strangers in the community who responded to the call to help in God’s mission.

Higher Narrative Perspective

In the interviews, it seems that most participants, when invited to think about the bigger picture of what God is doing, were glad to reflect on God’s activity in working in and through Kings Crossing. One going participant reflected on how she perceived the mission trip’s impact on the congregation: “I think it made them look at God’s kingdom in a bigger way. A bigger picture of God’s kingdom. Sometimes we get pretty narrow-minded about our congregation, but it’s a worldwide kingdom, and a worldwide battle going on for the lost.” Her views were consistent with the general consensus that one of the main points of value in any mission trip was the change in perspective that people would experience.30 Most frequently, this comment occurred in the context of young people learning to appreciate their blessings when compared to people of lesser financial means. But beyond this, a mission trip is nothing if not a shift in perspective. All participants commented on aspects of God’s mission they had been thinking about in connection to the trip, and it seems that personal journaling enhanced this aspect. Referring both to this quote, and to several others above, it is clear that a mission trip invites people to look at their own local setting from a much different perspective—specifically from the missional way in which God views the opportunities that surround them.

Findings Less Supportive of the Hypothesis

One area of my findings that was not fully supportive of my hypothesis was how people defined the mission of God. Missional theology refuses to create a firm dichotomy between saving souls and meeting temporal, material needs of people. In 2014, I had a phone conversation with Brian Howell, following a reading of his book Short-Term Mission (2012). When I asked how I might approach my project, he had suggested looking for ways that people talk about what mission is. Because many short-term mission trips are largely humanitarian in scope, could the perspectives gained from a short-term mission trip help people to include language about feeding the hungry or serving the poor as mission in the same sense that saving souls is?

The first question of each interview was the broad invitation to define the mission of God, and “what all do you think the mission of God involves?” Though I got a variety of responses, most all of them centered around God’s desire to save souls, and for us to ultimately help with God’s work in saving souls. This would not be contrary to God’s mission, but from a missional lens, this would not be all of it, either.

As I compared the first and second responses regarding how one should define God’s mission, there was no change in the basic way people defined the mission of God, nor were second interview responses particularly more nuanced than first interview responses to the same question. This is an area that would be fruitful for future research. It is also notable that on my mission trips, our work is much more evangelistically oriented, with less of an emphasis on humanitarian relief. It would be profitable for a leader of a trip with a more humanitarian slant to conduct similar research to see if a humanitarian emphasis during the trip would be more impactful in broadening people’s definition of the mission of God to include such things.

Another potential limitation of my research was that at the time I was a new minister in this location, leading a new mission trip. Even though I believe the findings of this research have important implications for creating maximum impact, my own presence as a new leader was a significant part of congregational life at the time—61% of my interviewees alluded to this, and my conspicuous attachment to the mission trip had to have influenced way the participants thought about the trip. It does not, in my opinion, negate the value of what was found, though it does create opportunity for comparison to established mission efforts and how a congregation experiences them.

Formulating a Hypothesis

Based on all of the above, I formulated a three part hypothesis for how short-term missions might help congregations become more missional:

If a congregation participates in a short-term mission trip, and if this congregation makes efforts to involve the whole church in the preparation, sending, receiving, and sharing in the reported experiences of people who go on the mission trip, the congregation will become more missional:

  1. In how they think about the way in which God is at work in the world and the part their church is to play in God’s larger story.
  2. In their relationships within the church, with a greater sense of shared purpose.
  3. In the way they perceive their role within the community around them, and with how they experience hospitality as part of the community, both in giving and receiving.

Applications for Local Churches

Congregations participating in short-term missions have several points at which they can promote missional thinking and practices. Commonly, existing material about short-term missions speaks of the importance of three major phases of the trip: (1) preparing to go, (2) time during the trip itself, and (3) follow up after the trip.31 Below are suggestions for promoting missional development within the sending congregation through their involvement in the short-term mission, categorized under the three phases mentioned here, with a few preliminary reflections about the leaders of such trips.

Consider the Leader

In order for communities to have a more missional narrative, the leaders of these communities will need to help them envision a better story, into which they can live and find meaning.32 The leader typically has much control over the shape of the trip. There are always unforeseen circumstances on trips, such as flight cancelations or inclement weather. But much of the effectiveness of the trip for changing both the sending and receiving community can come from the way the leader shapes the purpose and meaning of the trip.

The leader must exemplify the greatest level of love and respect for the people the team is going to serve. This is demonstrated by planning well in coordination with the receiving community. Communication should be open, and by the leader explaining that this is taking place and why, the whole team learns the practice of listening well to the receiving community.

Before, during, and after the trip, the leader should be inviting the participants, the senders, and the receivers to share in conversations about what it means to participate in God’s mission. No aspect of involvement should be minimized, because no gift from God, used in the service of God is an insignificant thing.33

Likewise, the leader should be careful to articulate the viewpoint that the team is going to work in conjunction with God and the community, and not as a rescue effort, as if God had never been there prior to the group’s trip. God is working to reconcile all things to himself, and if the group understands its trip as a participation in the mission of God, it adds long-lasting significance to what they are doing. The leader must push participants to think deeply about how what the team is doing on the mission field can become a more regular part of how they live in their own community.34 God’s story is not only about what happens far away but also about what happens close to home. Though some ideas sprout up on their own, inspired by experiences, a leader has the power to verbalize healthy ways of thinking about the missio Dei, both locally and abroad. The ways in which people experience and understand a short-term mission trip have much to do with the way in which the leader leads them to do so.

Preparing to Go

Allow for times of prayer during team formation.

Inform the congregation when the process of seeking participants to go on the trip has begun. Invite everyone to pray that God will raise up the right people for the task, and that God will begin preparing opportunities, both abroad and at home. Prayer is especially important just before the team leaves for the trip. It is a powerful experience to have the whole team gathered in front of the assembly and to invite pastoral prayers for blessing, strength, and courage for the team members. This reminds the congregation of the upcoming trip, and it also reminds the going participants that they represent the larger body of Christ.

Preparatory events can involve all members of the congregation.

Fundraising events for the team can provide opportunities for intergenerational friendship over a common mission. Fellowship meals or silent auctions where members are invited to prepare food and donate items will give all members an opportunity to participate, directly helping to make the trip possible. When the team makes progress towards fundraising goals through these events, the collective celebration of the success can be a cohesive, positive experience for the whole congregation.

Dovetail preparation for the mission trip with other ministries at the congregation.

Sometimes it might be necessary to create a new ministry for this purpose, but often it is possible to work with congregational efforts that are pre-existing. For example, many congregations are involved in annual summer church camp programs, and many of these programs involve crafts. If the mission trip involves programs for children, one of the church camp craft options can be to work on assembling packets of whatever the mission team will be distributing. Similar things can be done in Bible classes, where children are invited to assemble or donate items that will help with the mission trip. This can also be done at the adult level, depending on the type of work to be accomplished by the mission team. If there are larger things to be packed, sorted, or assembled, why not invite more participation? In some instances, this can be a sort of outreach to the larger community outside of the church, inviting them to participate in God’s mission through collective acts of compassion for the poor or disadvantaged. Allow non-members to donate or help assemble items to be taken to needy areas on the trip.

Practice for the trip in ways that enhance local outreach.

Beyond items for donation or construction, this approach blends well with other sorts of ministries, such as drama or puppets. Some churches are involved in youth leadership training programs. Rather than developing programs and rehearsing them solely for a one-time presentation, invite the training participants to help create the dramas or puppet shows to be used on the mission trip. Beyond this, these preparations can be taken to places, such as local orphanages, and presented to them for their benefit and enjoyment. It is a way to serve locally while simultaneously preparing for the trip. It will be powerful for the young people preparing the skits and presentations, even if they are not going on the mission trip, to see that their efforts are being used in God’s work in other places, and that they possess the ability to make an impact with their talents in the name of Christ.

During the Trip Itself

Utilize technology to keep the trip in front of the sending congregation.

There are obvious limits to this possibility, because many places where mission trips travel may not have available internet access. Likewise, some places that are hostile to Christianity might be scrutinizing communication to the point that it would not be safe to use this sort of approach. Even so, technology continues to improve around much of the globe, and many short-term teams will have access to the internet while traveling. Making regular posts to social media is a helpful way to inform the sending congregation, and all other interested parties, what is occurring on the trip. Updates can include summaries of the happenings of the day, images from efforts in action or gatherings for worship, or even streaming live events as they occur. People who access and share such postings on social media can help promote much greater awareness of the trip as it takes place.

Have designated times and/or locations where the sending congregation gathers to pray for the effort.

Even if the sending congregation has limited or no ability to be connected to participants during the trip through technology, there is still great benefit to having the congregation gather to continue in prayer for the trip as it goes on. It can provide a strong sense of connection to the trip, even for those not there. But it is also a source of comfort and encouragement, both for the team, and for the members of their family at home who might be experiencing anxiety to have a loved one in a far-away place.

After the Trip

Allow prominent time for a formal presentation to the congregation about the trip.

This is critical if the mission trip is to be a source of encouragement and challenge to the sending congregation. It can provide a positive disruption from the normal routines for a church to have a worship assembly dedicated to sharing how members of their own congregation have shown greater openness to God’s mission through their service on a short-term mission. If the sending members have had much buy-in before the trip occurs, they will be increasingly curious to know what happened as a result of their combined efforts with those of the going team members. This presentation should not be rushed; nor should it be overly delayed in terms of when it occurs. But a clear presentation with highlights of what was done, where it was done, and whom it involved will likely be well-received by those who helped to make the trip possible.

It is especially desirable to create spaces where a variety of team members can share their reflections. Often, team members express anxiety about the trip, and participating in mission work, especially if they are untrained or inexperienced. Those who are able to report positively about how they believe God had used them, despite a lack of knowledge or skill, can be a source of encouragement and empowerment to those thinking of taking more action in the context of the sending congregation. The testimony that “God used me, and it was not as hard as I thought it would be,” is a healthy motivator for promoting more action at home.

Conclusion

In summary, the larger number of times and places where the congregation can feel connected to the trip, the more potential it has for impact. It is helpful to try and practice at home whatever kinds of missional activities are to be embodied on the trip. The trip should not be thought of as the primary event as much as a fresh opportunity to practice being the kind of people that Christians desire to be all the time.

Whether going or not going on the trip itself, everyone can benefit from utilizing new opportunities to practice living missionally. While a short-term mission is merely one part of congregational life, if used deliberately, it can serve as a positive, disruptive experience from the norm that re-awakens the missional imagination of the sending congregation.

Mark Adams is the lead minister for the Kings Crossing Church of Christ where he has been since 2014. He and his wife Carolina met at Harding University where they completed their undergraduate work. Additionally, Mark holds an MDiv from the Harding School of Theology and a DMin from the Hazelip School of Theology. Mark has been leading regular short-term mission trips since 2013 to Costa Rica. Mark blogs at http://kingdomupgrowth.com and can be contacted at mark.s.adams@gmail.com.

1 Rod MacIlvaine, “Selected Case Studies in How Senior Leaders Cultivate Missional Change in Contemporary Churches” (DMin diss., Dallas Theological Seminary, 2009), 33–34.

2 Robert Priest, Terry Dischinger, Steve Rasmussen, and C.M. Brown. ““Researching the Short-Term Missions Movement,” Missiology 34, no. 4 (2006): p.445. The authors lament that the short-term missions movement has been almost entirely divorced from scholarship, missiology, and seminary education. Youth pastors are generally expected to lead these efforts, but have likely not received any education in seminary for how to do so effectively. They call for the short-term missions movement to be much more prominent in scholarly research, as this is a huge component of the modern Christian experience in the West.

3 One fine example of a preparation tool is Anne-Geri’ Fann and Greg Taylor, How to Get Ready for Short-Term Missions: The Ultimate Guide for Sponsors, Parents, and Those Who Go! (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2006). For an example of earlier efforts at how-to guides, see David C. Forward, The Essential Guide to the Short Term Mission Trip (Chicago: Moody Bible Institute, 1998).

4 Kurt Ver Beek, “The Impact of Short-Term Missions: A Case Study of House Construction in Honduras after Hurricane Mitch,” Missiology 34, no. 4 (2006): 477–97. Ver Beek’s article has been significant as a critique of short-term missions. He made a quantitative study of whether those who went on a short-term mission really gave more money to mission work after their trip than they would have given before they went. Ver Beek has challenged the notion that short-term mission experiences are really so transformative for people who go, claiming that the experience does not produce concrete actions. His conclusion was that over a 5-year period, there was no measurable difference in overall giving between those who had participated in the trip and those who had not. Likewise, he has expressed that the wellbeing of those in Honduras who received help from a short-term mission effort were not ultimately any better or worse off than those who had received no group.

5 Robert J. Priest, ed., Effective Engagement in Short-Term Missions: Doing It Right! (Pasadena, California: William Carey Library, 2008).

6 Ian Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009). There have also been efforts within organizations and denominations to set specific goals and standards for practices. See Jenny Collins, “Standards of Excellence in Short-Term Missions,” Common Ground Journal 4, no. 1 (2006): 10–16; Mark Woodward, “Standards for Short-Term Missions,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 3, no. 1 (2012): http://missiodeijournal.com/issues/md-3-1/authors/md-3-1-woodward; Laura Montgomery, “Reinventing Short-Term Medical Missions to Latin America,” Journal of Latin American Theology 2, no. 2 (2007): 84–103.

7 The Standards of Excellence in Short-Term Mission, “7 Standards of Excellence: A Code of Best Practice for Short-Term Mission Practitioners,” https://soe.org/7-standards.

8 Bryce Norton, “Changing Our Prayer Behaviors through Short-Term Missions,” Missiology 40, no. 3 (2012): 329–41.

9 Brian Howell, Short-Term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012).

10 For an overview of this trend, see Matthew Woodley, “Church 2 Church: Congregations Are Trading Short-Term ‘Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em’ Missions for Long-Term Partnerships,” Leadership 32, no. 2 (2011), 64–65.

11 Hunter Farrell, “From Short-Term Mission to Global Discipleship: A Peruvian Case Study,” Missiology 41, no. 2 (2013): 163–76. For another Peruvian perspective, see Marcos Arroyo Bahamonde, “Contextualization of Mission: A Missiological Analysis of Short-Term Missions,” Journal of Latin American Theology 2, no. 2 (2007), 227–47.

12 Greg McKinzie, “Framing the Current Short-Term Missions Discussion,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 3, no. 1 (2012): http://missiodeijournal.com/issues/md-3-1/authors/md-3-1-preface. McKinzie does a nice job highlighting how various dimensions of short-term missions interact and affect each other. He lays out a list of eleven comparisons including benefits, both tangible and intangible, for the goer and the receiver, as well as the financial ramifications. He mentions neither existing research nor possible research directions that focus on the sending congregation, which helps demonstrate the opportunity for this area of study.

13 R. Peterson and W. R. Sneed, Maximum Impact Short-Term Mission: The God-Commanded, Repetitive Deployment of Swift, Temporary, Non-Professional Missionaries (Minneapolis: STEM Press, 2003) p. 128–31. This book is one of the first attempts to treat short-term missions at a scholarly level, defining terminology for different types of participants, and articulating a theology of short-term missions.

14 “Forward,” Essential Guide, 183–85. Forward’s spiral-bound book is a great example of the first round of instructional books, telling people how to work through the logistics of planning a mission trip. The emphasis is almost entirely on the going team itself, with very little about the sending or receiving locations.

15 Gary L. Green, Now What? Spiritual Discernment for Cultural Encounters (Franklin, TN: Carpenter’s Son Publishing, 2013).

16 Craig Altrock, The Shaping of God’s People: One Story of How God Is Shaping the North American Church through Short-Term Missions (Fort Worth, TX: Self Published, 2006). The bulk of Altrock’s research is on people who participated in Let’s Start Talking campaigns. Altrock does look at several factors that represent changes in trip participants upon their return home, such as an increase in giving and involvement. He is considering how going participants impact their churches, and he points to several positive occurrences, such as better-informed missions committees, more members willing to serve on missions committees after having gone on trips, and increased missions giving at a congregational level.

17 Graham Hill, Salt, Light, and a City: Introducing Missional Ecclesiology (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012), 3–5.

18 The Gospel and Our Culture Network, “What and Why,” https://gocn.org/about-us/what-and-why.

19 See Lois Barrett, ed., Treasure in Jars of Clay (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), v. The chapters of the book each address one of the eight missional “patterns. “ These include Biblical Formation and Discipleship, Taking Risks A Contrast Community, Pointing Toward the Reign of God, and Dependence on the Holy Spirit.

20 Ed Stetzer, “What Is the Missional Church? (Part 5) – Forgetting Missions,” The Exchange, November 9, 2015, http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2015/november/what-is-missional-church-part-5-forgetting-missions.html.

21 Collaborators included Ed Stetzer, Alan Hirsch, Tim Keller, Dan Kimball, Eric Mason, J. D. Greear, Crait Ott, Linda Bergquist, Philip Nation, and Brad Andrews. The original website created for this effort no longer exists. The Missional Manifesto in its entirety has been included in Ed Stetzer and Philip Nation, eds., The Mission of God Study Bible: On Mission, with God, Wherever You Are, Kindle ed. (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2012), loc. 591.

22 J. D. Greear, “The Missional Manifesto,” J. D. Greear: Pastor, Author, Theologian, https://web.archive.org/web/20110515012346/http://www.jdgreear.com/my_weblog/2011/05/the-missional-manifesto.html .

23 See David E. Fitch, and Geoff Holsclaw, Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier, Kindle ed. (Peabody: Jossey-Bass, 2013). In my analysis, I will dwell primarily on the signposts which I perceived to be present in my findings.

24 For a more exhaustive description of the research setting and methodology, see Mark S. Adams, “Short-Term Missions and Missional Formation at the Kings Crossing Church of Christ” (dissertation, Lipscomb University, 2016), 58–72. My dissertation is available ot download at https://kingdomupgrowth.com/2018/09/17/short-term-missions-for-long-term-impact.

26 For my purposes, I relied mostly on those categories provided by Fitch and Holsclaw, as defined above.

27 Thirteen of nineteen non-going participants shared these ideas and perspectives.

28 Ian Corbett, “The Theology of Mission in Contemporary Practice,” Anglican Theological Review 92, no. 1 (2010): 117–21, provides a refreshing perspective on how a church can strive to be a missionary in its own community, and the practices he suggests are very much in line with the calls of missiologists for better contextualized short-term missions practices.

29 Fitch and Holsclaw, Kindle loc. 3447. They use the term to speak of separations between Christians and other groups around them, such as the gay community, from whom some Christians might deliberately abstain. They also address issues of economic justice and how Christians might turn a blind eye to the impoverished (Kindle loc. 3880). My findings dealt more with the latter category, with how members of my (largely white-collar) congregation were considering interacting more intentionally with people not of their same socioeconomic status.

30 For an example of this type of reasoning, see Paul Borthwick, Youth and Missions: Expanding Your Students’ Worldview (Wheaton: Victor, 1988), 21–35.

31 See the extensive discussion of the “process trilogy” in Peterson, Maximum Impact Short-Term Missions, 127–49. This book was a large step forward in defining specific terminology for future study, and provides meticulous suggestions for increasing the effectiveness of trips for those who go and those who receive especially.

32 Story is the way in which a congregation views, understands, and explains itself in relation to both its history and its surroundings. See Larry A. Goleman, Finding Our Story: Narrative Leadership and Congregational Change, Narrative Leadership Collection (Herndon, VA: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2010), 5.

33 Matthew 10:42 indicates that even a cup of cold water given because of Christ will be acknowledged and rewarded by God.

34 Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Contribution to Messianic Ecclesiology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 8. Many churches that formerly thought of themselves as agents of Western Christianity are suddenly being confronted with the need to think as missionaries to their own culture, which has largely abandoned them.

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Report on the 2019 Global Missions Conference

Those who are familiar with American Churches of Christ and their affiliated universities may remember an annual tradition called the World Mission Workshop. These Workshops continued for well over fifty years and influenced generations of university students to fulfill their roles in the Great Commission. In more recent years, hosts have become fewer, with a heavier load falling on the remaining hosts, notably Harding University, which calls its equivalent event “Global Missions Experience” (GME). Bob Waldron of Missions Resource Network saw the need to assist with this load and to renew focus on missions.

Thus, Global Missions Conference (GMC) entered the rotation every third year. The Steering Committee calls GMC “a comprehensive missions gathering of churches of Christ to advance domestic and global outreach.” While GMC still emphasizes university students, it casts a wider—more comprehensive—net to include more missionaries, leaders, and members. This inter-generational dynamic gives each GMC a special value. Previous GMCs (2005, 2008, 2011) were held in Arlington, TX. The 2014 GMC was hosted by Goodman Oaks Church of Christ near Memphis, TN. GMC 2019, held October 10–12, was organized by World Bible School (WBS) and hosted by the Brentwood Oaks church and school in Austin, TX. The number that registered formally was 586, and many other attendants were “walk-ins” from central Texas. 53 exhibits showcased 46 different ministries.

The Conference’s theme was “Deep and Wide—Exploring Missions Dimensions.” Wide refers to the global scope of the Great Commission. Deep refers to making disciples who mature into all of Christ’s will. The objectives included focusing on the mission, motivating for involvement, and networking and equipping for greater effectiveness. One veteran missionary said, “It was a great event, one of the best!”

GMC 2019 featured a number of highlights:

  • Its wide range of classes offered some one hundred sessions in nineteen tracks. Subjects included Unity, Partnering, Discipleship, Social Media, Technology, Missions to the US, Reaching Youth, Muslims (not recorded), Migrations and Refugees, Business as Mission, Missionary Care, and more. Details and audio recording are available at http://gmc2019.org
  • Its attendance was notably international. Participants in past GMCs have been largely American. This GMC had markedly more international involvement. In addition to many missionaries, visitors came from India, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Greece, Brazil, Ecuador, Benin, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Cuba. More international presenters indicates a broadening base for missions by Churches of Christ. The two song leaders were from the Philippines and Trinidad. The opening speaker and an MC were South Africans.
  • The use of technology was evident in many ways. For example, a huge video wall was used for presentations, including a live interview with George Funk in Perth, Australia. George’s ministry now has fifteen “Gospel Chariots” (large trucks equipped for evangelistic meetings) that circulate through more than twenty African nations. Their evangelists enroll and follow up for World Bible School and Nations University. They lift the profile and enthusiasm of existing congregations, and they plant new congregations.
  • Its banquet for honoring missions veterans attracted over 500 participants. Sixty veteran missions and church leaders were honored by name, often with details. They received a personalized plaque and a copy of Phil Slate’s book Lest We Forget. The fifty or so veterans present were a veritable cloud of witnesses that made an indelible impression. They then passed the torch (in the form of electronic candles) to the next generations and prayed with them—a truly motivational and moving evening. This event was supplemented by inspiring missions stories sprinkled throughout the program book.
  • Its Tensions Talks took on difficult questions facing modern missions. Healthy tension was created by having two speakers for each talk. The first was tasked with defining the difficulties and their respective positions. The second, the response, aimed for biblical balance and resolution. These Tension Talks and other key-note addresses are viewable at http://facebook.com/globalmissionsconference.
    • The first Tension topic was “Adapt or Die?” It addressed contextualization’s benefits and dangers. Its presenter was Bill Richardson, a professor of missions at Harding University. Its responder was Steve Eckman, president of York College.
    • The second Tension topic was “Disciple Making or Church Planting?” presented by Evertt Huffard of Harding School of Theology with Kirk Brothers, president of Heritage Christian University, responding.
    • The third Tension topic was “Para-church or Church?” Brian Davis defined the problem. He is a veteran of missions to Benin, South Africa, and Zambia and currently is executive vice-president of WBS. Bruce McLarty, president of Harding University, responded.
  • Its unveiling of Mathetis, a newly-developed avenue for sharing the good news. (See the article in the November 2010 issue of Action!, the periodical of World Bible School.)

Mathetis Launch!

Among the highlights at GMC 2019, perhaps the brightest was the reveal of Mathetis, the brand new social media way to share Jesus with younger generations. Conceived four years ago, this event displayed the result of intensive construction over the last two years with an investment of $1,000,000. The GMC launch was limited in the sense that it was offered exclusively to event participants and required an access code. Seventy-five, mainly university students, registered at an earlier “sneak peak” at Harding University Lectureship (October 1), and 245 registered at the GMC (October 11) for an initial total of 320.

After the public launch, Mathetis will be available worldwide. Seekers will find it in two ways: (1) Through relevant online search words about God, Jesus, the meaning of life, the new birth, and many more. (2) Invitations from Christian mentors and from peers. Seekers will find high-quality, engaging videos with exercises that invite peer-sharing via social media. In order to learn how to use Mathetis, Christians will be able to use the Reaching series, a printed curriculum for classes or small groups that search the Scriptures and train in the effective use of Mathetis.

GMC participants immediately grasped Mathetis’s game-changing relevance for world evangelism—especially for the Western world. Indeed, from the time WBS began the worldwide advertising of online Bible courses, the receptivity of the US has stood out as exceptional. That, along with the needs of North America as a mission field, led to intensive research and development for the way youth interact and learn. You may view Mathetis by visiting http://mathetis.org or downloading the Mathetis app from the Appstore or GooglePlay.

The next GME will be hosted by Harding University at Camp Tahkodah, October 1–4, 2020. The next GMC is scheduled for 2022 with details still to come.

John Reese is chairman of GMC and president of WBS.

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Editorial Preface to the Issue

Readers may notice that this is the first issue of Missio Dei without a core of themed articles. We have always accepted unsolicited submissions on any missiological topic, but building an issue thematically is the surest way to have the amount of content we prefer to publish in each number. As we approach our tenth year of publication, however, there is a certain symbolism in the diversity and quality of this issue’s frankly unplanned final form.

David Williams’s article extends a conversation among vulnerable-mission theorists with whom we have been profitably engaged for a number of years.1 I am always grateful for submissions from authors outside the Stone-Campbell tradition. They enrich our missiological discourse and signal the fact that we are engaged with the whole body of Christ, wherever participants in God’s mission are reflecting critically on theory and praxis. In turn, Alan Howell and Sam Pflederer’s article exemplifies the serious missiological reflection within the tradition that MD strives to represent. The combination of fieldwork and critical analysis in their essay is a delight.

Less formal, more broadly accessible essays are another component of our regular offering. In this vein, John Barton’s meditation on the American church’s relationship to Islam is outstanding. It is, as MD editor Nick Faris put it, “gently subversive.” Barton’s personal experience and expertise in interfaith dialogue bring uncommon wisdom to bear on one of the most urgent topics in Western post-Christendom’s missionary situation.

The contributions of Steve Cloer and Mark Adams represent a too-often untapped well of missiological work—namely, Doctor of Ministry research projects—taking place among scholar-practitioners rooted deeply in missional contexts. Each of these essays presents only a fraction of the extensive work undertaken in the authors’ local ministry settings. Cloer explores the implications of missional ecclesiology for the role of the minister among Churches of Christ. Adams seeks a model for understanding the effects of short-term missions on participants and sending churches. Both deserve close attention.

Finally, John Reese’s, “Report on the 2019 Global Missions Conference” is an important record of the questions that concern many missionaries, missiologists, and mission supporters in one stream of the Stone-Campbell missiology—that of Churches of Christ. In particular, the topics of the GMC’s “Tensions Talks” are noteworthy. The issues that capture the conference’s attention comprise a sort of real-world snapshot of mission among Churches of Christ in 2019 that undoubtedly merits further reflection and commentary.

From mission theology to cross-cultural fieldwork to interreligious dialogue, from local missional ecclesiology to short-term-mission best practices to archive work, the contents of this issue represent the breadth of missiological discourse that Missio Dei is privileged to host. As always, I am deeply grateful to the contributors, editors, and sponsors who make the production of our open-source journal possible.

Soli Deo gloria.

1 See Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 4, no. 1 (February 2013): http://missiodeijournal.com/issues.html.