There has been much talk about missions lately in the wake of the death of a young missionary, John Chau, who, against government regulation and common sense, went on a fatal excursion to North Sentinel Island, part of the Andaman archipelago. Many evangelicals see him as a martyr, many others as an example of stupidity and recklessness.
While I disagree with the evangelical assessment of martyrdom, I can understand the young man. I was once a missionary to a Muslim nation in a South Asian context, you see, and I did some reckless things myself that brought me into serious trouble. All for Jesus’ sake and the need of every tongue and nation to hear the message of the Gospel.
I’ve come a long way since then. For a number of years, now, have I been very critical of missions but I have never voiced it very openly. I think, though, that the time has come to entrust a few words to the virtual page of this blog. There are six things I want to say about the gospel of Jesus Christ that lead to an equal number of implications for the Christian mission.
1. The Gospel is Not a “New” Message
When Jesus and Paul roamed the earth the Gospel was new. When the first Christians whispered of a story about a certain Jesus from Nazareth who somehow through his life, death, and resurrection was understood to be the point of contact and reconciliation between God and humanity and who brought human beings into a new relationship with each other, there was indeed something new. The Jewish expectation of a royal Messiah who would bring deliverance and lasting peace was deconstructed into a humble and loving servant who in his demise not only brought down empires but transformed the human heart (at least potentially) into that same humility and love.
But the Gospel is no longer new. It is old. It has been around for 2000 years and has not transformed the world. Those who claimed it hardly ever gave evidence of that newness, that humility, and transformation. It is now an old faith of a world that has died and seems to have a hard time being resurrected.
Proclaimers of the Gospel should bear in mind that with their message they bring an oldness, a staleness, a loaded history that has given the Gospel all kinds of nasty connotations. It has not been lived up to and there is little chance it is going to lift the hearers any higher than those who now proclaim it but consistently fail to live it out.
2. The Gospel Has Most Often Not been “Good” News
This brings me to the next point, namely, that the Gospel most certainly has not been very good news for a lot of people. A whole lot of people! The Gospel has been enforced upon people as the Gospel became an instrument of political consolidation and exertion of power. The very Gospel that was an announcement of the subversion of empire had become in no time the main instrument to build it up.
In the modern era a Christianized culture that understood itself as the new heir of the promises of Israel to whom the inheritance of the nations befell, conquered and colonized much on the non-Western world, subjugating non-white peoples to exploitation, cultural genocide, real genocide, and slavery. The missionaries that went forth were both motivated by a desire to spread the message and a cultural pride that colluded with the interests of empire. Some were martyrs, other outright marauders. Mixed blessings were the result and much cultural damage was inflicted.
Today’s missionaries would do well to keep this history in mind and learn from the grave mistakes that have been made. But by and large, Christian missions is not learning much at all. Missionaries are still oblivious to their own cultural blinders and go forth preaching a blend of Gospel message and implicit notions of Western cultural normativity and capitalist superiority. Insofar they have learned to be culturally sensitive they still bring with them a Gospel that has been shaped by the Western tradition. Any inkling of this truth is suppressed by a theology that bans all ambiguity and uncertainty through the inerrancy of Scripture and the idea that absolute truth is at hand.
3. Some People Think They Know the Gospel, Which is Patently Untrue
And that brings me to the third observation, namely, that much missionary work is being carried out under the assumption that one “knows” the Gospel. The missionary arrives upon the “mission field” and proclaims that the Word of God teaches that one needs to be saved from an eternal fate in hell. Such salvation consists of “accepting” Jesus into one’s heart. To facilitate conversion, the missionary provides the so-called bridge illustration or takes the willing listener through the 4 spiritual laws.
Not only does the missionary work under the assumption that biblical terminology and conceptuality can be translated into another culture without passing through the filter of the missionary’s culture, no, it is also assumed that one quite precisely “knows” the Gospel. That is, one knows what sin is, one knows who Jesus is (the 2nd person of the Trinity, right?, or whatever), one knows which step is required to cross the line from lostness (which one is able to define adequately) to “savedness.”
It is in this “knowing” that missions needs to re-examine itself, its strategies, its goals, yes, it’s missions. Because one assumes to know so precisely, while in reality never being able to know, the missionary enterprise fails to adequately present the Gospel and proceeds to reproduce the very truncated definition of Gospel that has hampered Western Christianity in the first place. Missionaries need to understand in an entirely new fashion that they are merely intermediaries of a gift that isn’t theirs. It’s a gift that needs unpacking for every culture anew. In fact, one is never finished unpacking and therefore comprehending the gift of Christ.
4. The Gospel is Not a “Verbal Announcement”
This introduces another important point: the Gospel is not a verbal announcement. The most insidious way in which the Gospel has been truncated was in the way my own faith tradition, the Evangelical Protestant one, which has also produced by far the greatest number of missionaries in the past 200 years, believed the Gospel to be something that required intellectual assent. The Gospel entails a certain “ABC” and in order to be saved, one needs to first hear the ABC and then respond in faith to the ABC.
The ABC of my own evangelical tradition– an ABC I proclaimed myself and tried on people who seemed open to the message about Jesus–was characterized by a number of things which, in hindsight, are rather diametrically opposed to the Gospel itself. The Gospel was narrowly interpreted to solely pertain to the individual and his relationship with God. What was at stake was one’s destination in the afterlife. Insofar this life was concerned all that counted was a personalized ethic that only existed to ensure that one went to heaven and not hell. Forgiveness was needed of personal sins and the Gospel seemed to have little to do with the whole of society even though every attempt was made to enforce a social ethics on society whether that it consisted of Christians or not.
Missions today should reject that verbal Gospel with a vengeance. The idea that salvation is assured through mental assent to a body of propositions is absolutely ludicrous as is the idea that the Gospel is captured in any number of claims. Of course, I do not want to reject every cognitive aspect of the Gospel, but we all know that the Gospel is really about something else. Even if we can’t exhaustively define or conceptualize it, we can at least say it is not so much about a definition as it is about an encounter that shatters concepts and definitions.
If we want to somehow link the Gospel to the Word of God we should have the courage to acknowledge that this Word does not primarily refer to the Bible but to the Word that became flesh. The Gospel is encounter and in the process of that encounter it deconstructs human conceptions of God, Christ, and Gospel. It does so every day anew. Or else it isn’t Gospel. This may be a hard one to swallow, but the most effective missionary will be the one who admits to having no clue about what the Gospel is.
5. For the Gospel to Be True it Must Be Embodied
To be more exact, the Gospel is about an incarnational presence. Now, when I use the words “incarnational presence” all sorts of notions are conjured up because these words are loaded and often used in missiology precisely by those I disagree with when it comes to missions. So using the words may not help to get my point across. Maybe I should say that the Gospel needs to be embodied. That is to say, it needs to take on flesh and become a concrete thing in the world that acts and lives out the Gospel in all its incomprehensible complexity and stupefying simplicity.
Gone are the notions of definitions, propositions, prescriptions, and cognitive processes. Just as Christ, who in the Scriptures is presented as the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us, so the missionary needs to take on the flesh of those to whom she is called. Or, to widen the understanding to the understanding of Christian presence in the world, the Christian needs to become one with the world on behalf of the world. And just like Christ did not teach anything in terms of a body of teaching but only in terms of deconstruction, Christian missions should not be out to shape the world in the form of its own understanding of the Gospel, but embody what it means to be confronted and transformed by the Gospel. Embodying the Gospel means to start every day again.
6. Those Who Embody the Gospel Will Be Marginalized and Crucified
I think these things were to a lesser or greater extent true for John Chau. He was a typical evangelical missionary like I’ve known and still know so many, for whom the Gospel is contained in words rather than embodied kenotic incarnational existence. They rather use the bullhorn and the revival tent than that they learn to dwell in humble silence. True, John willingly gave his life out of love for the people he tried to reach but wasn’t this love not misfiring as his attempt to verbal communication scared and then angered the very people he wanted to reach?
Was a verbal message the thing these people needed to hear in order to avoid going to hell? What about the value of their earthly existence (threatened as it was by the young man’s presence). What about the possibility that the whole idea of having to go to hell for not having intellectually assented to a cognitive message is a misconstrual of the Gospel by the religious culture John Chau comes from? What about the fact that the answer Jesus is in the understanding of Western suburban white Christianity means nothing to a tribal culture from the Stone Age? John Chau died trying to export a Western faith on Western conditions.
If it is true that the Gospel needs to be embodied, as I suggest above, then it is also true that this embodiment leads down the path of the incarnation of the Crucified. The Gospel in its pure form has always been antithetical to empires, whatever form they take. Today more than ever, the Gospel does not take the form of exuberant Western positivism in its feigned innocence regarding colonialism, imperialism, racism, and economic exploitation. The Gospel is the opposite of these things and those who embody it will experience the scorn and hatred of those belonging to the empire. The night before he was killed, John Chau wrote in his diary: “Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?” Little did he realize that the empire-embracing Christianity he came from was, and is, in some ways more part of Satan’s stronghold than the Sentinel people will ever be.
Those who embody the Gospel have to go the way of the cross. They are not killed by spears of tribal people who still live in the Stone Age but will be marginalized and persecuted for speaking of the freedom that is in Christ; a freedom that subverts all claims to powers and releases people from all forms of bondage.