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Mission: no new crisis

Ray Porter & Keith Walker respond to Thorsten Prill

Where is mission going? This is the question that Thorsten Prill asked in his three articles in the August to October 2012 issues of EN.

And it’s a vital question. The big trends in global mission are exciting and challenging. Global South churches are fast becoming key players in mission sending. Western Europe is once more being seen as a vital mission field. Numbers of churches in the UK are engaging directly in mission, sometimes by-passing the traditional mission agency route.

Defecting from the gospel?

Thorsten Prill’s articles were not primarily about any of these trends. He is concerned about the potential for older, traditional and larger mission agencies to defect from the gospel under the influence of wider trends within the evangelical church scene, to become driven by the demands of managing complex organisations rather than by gospel imperatives, to be ruled by pragmatism and nepotism rather than by Scripture.

Several of these issues do need to be addressed by mission agencies. However, we do not believe that there is a crisis in mission that is fundamentally new or that there is anything happening in such agencies that should cause evangelical churches to disengage with them.

In this response we don’t want to answer Thorsten’s points one by one (and haven’t the space for all we might say), but to make some general comments that may help EN readers to understand how consistent evangelical agencies approach these challenges and to help them play a part in assisting agencies to strengthen what is right and to correct what is wrong on a case by case basis.

Slow and subtle shifts

Thorsten mentions the case of an ‘Open Theist’ advancing to leadership in a mission agency. The theological views of Christians change over periods of years rather than months. Sometimes such slow and subtle theological shifts do not become apparent until too late. The best agencies (like the best churches) will respond pastorally to the appearance of error. Initial phases of response will invite discussion but will make clear the agency’s doctrinal commitments. Most likely the missionary will be asked to step back from ministry and return home to give time for reflection. Where the change of view is carrying the missionary away from historic evangelicalism, and especially where it is inconsistent with the agency’s statement of faith, the conclusion of the discussion will be a parting of ways. If this is the same case that we are aware of (and hopefully there aren't many), this happened in the case Thorsten outlined.

Sending churches and individual supporters should help agencies to monitor the theology of their missionaries and question them if they depart from Biblical standards.

Theological training

We concur with Thorsten that many missionaries have little formal theological training. Some will have had their theological views formed through the teaching of good churches and their own study. They may even be better equipped from this informal learning pattern than some who have theological degrees.

A theological degree is not a guarantee of spiritual discernment or of theological orthodoxy. 20th-century church history is relevant. Would we rather have Lloyd-Jones, Douglas Johnson and Oliver Barclay, without a formal theological qualification between them, in Christian leadership than the well qualified theologians David Jenkins, Dennis Nineham and Maurice Wiles? The former three led an evangelical resurgence through their own ministries and in the remarkable home mission of IVF/UCCF.

Good agencies ensure that mission workers have the level of theological understanding that is appropriate for the ministry into which they are going. The variety of training mechanisms available today is of enormous benefit to mission work. As well as formal college settings, such as Oak Hill and WEST, and intensive training courses such as that offered by Cornhill, churches preparing workers for overseas and home mission may use gospel partnership training courses, Porterbrook, ‘Prepared for Service’ and other options. For not all those sent out overseas will be church planters and theological educators. Many of those going out today are spiritually alert church members and lay leaders with a desire to witness to the gospel. They fulfil a similar ministry to that which they have previously had in a home church. They are not going to be pastors of national churches or instructors of pastors, but work-place and neighbourhood witnesses to the gospel. If they find themselves in a position where they are expected to play a leading role in church life, they should seek to develop their theological training and qualification. Their sending churches should insist on that and assist financially.

Held accountable

So, whether they are involved directly in church ministries or in student work or medical work, missionaries need to be gospel people and church people. A test of whether they are is in their willingness to allow their home church to hold them accountable. Tempting though it may be, wise churches won’t send the awkward rebellious ones, but the best, the most submissive and loyal.

There is no new crisis in mission, just the old challenges of holding firm to the gospel and working graciously in partnership with gospel people in gospel churches.

Ray Porter (OMF International and Oak Hill) and Keith Walker (Serving in Mission) have lengthy experience in leadership roles in evangelical mission. This includes experience of UK and overseas mission agencies.

Both serve on the Board of Global Connections and teach in confessionally-committed evangelical theological colleges training people for service at home and overseas.