Tuesday, November 22, 2005

If It Walks Like a Duck: Missions as Beyond Mere Self-Perception

For the last several years some colleagues and I have worked to articulate and model a new paradigm for response to new religions and alternative spiritualities, one that draws upon the insights of cross-cultural missions that have been used successfully in the history of Christian missions in cultural contexts around the world, but which is especially absent in the "Judeo-Christian" context of America. It has been interesting to see the responses to our work. Thus far they have largely positive, as evidenced by the book reviews given of Encountering New Religious Movements (Kregel Academic & Professional, 2004) by missions journals, periodicals, and even popular sources like Christianity Today. The only major criticism leveled thus far has come from those in countercult ministry, but even there we have some a small glimmer of hope. A few individuals and ministries have used the term "missions" in connection with their work among the new religions, and many view themselves as missionaries.

But it is not enough to merely perceive of oneself as a missionary. Missions extends beyond mere self-perception. At a minimum, a truly missional approach (as defined by the history of Christian missions and missiology) to new religions must include certain elements.

1. Missional attitudes. As was stated in the 2004 Lausanne issue group paper on postmodern spiritualities in this regard,

"An examination of the materials produced by many evangelical countercult apologists reveals an overwhelmingly adversarial and confrontational attitude to the New Spiritualities. This confrontational attitude seems more interested in defeating spiritual foes than lovingly walking life's journey with seekers in the New Spiritualities while seeking to incarnate the gospel. Evangelicals are encouraged to foster attitudes that facilitate service as ambassadors of Christ."

2. A cultural perspective rather than "cultic." In 1980 the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization issue group that addressed "mystics and cultists" recognized these groups as unreached peoples, an insight reaffirmed by Lausanne in 2004. In the increasingly postmodern West, individuals are defining themselves by their social networks that are often intimately connected to their spirituality. While we recognize the existence of unique beliefs within the the new religions, missional approaches to these groups and movements seek to move beyond belief as the defining and controlling factor in understanding and response.

3. Incarnational presence. Just as Jesus took flesh and lived out (as well as proclaimed) the gospel to the cultures of his time, the church has been given his example and command to follow in like manner (John 20:21). Missional approaches to new religions involve the development of ongoing, respectful, loving relationships as the foundation and context for sharing the gospel of the Kingdom. Monological proclamation at people falls short of the relational aspects within culture of missional approaches.

4. Application of cross-cultural missions methodology. Returning to the 2004 Lausanne paper once again,
"The development of an incarnational ministry necessarily involves certain processes of study and reflection about unreached people groups and how the gospel can be communicated effectively to them. Missiologists refer to these processes by the expression 'critical contextualzation.'

"Contextualization involves communicating the gospel about Christ in a manner that enables people in specific cultural settings to truly and honestly grasp what the gospel is about and to experience the risen Christ within that culture."
I appreciate that some in the countercult think of themselves as missionaries, and their ministries as missional. However, self-perception is not always reality. We've heard the phrase before that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it's a duck. To modify the phrase, if it walks like an apologist, and quacks heresy refutation, then its a countercultist, not a cross-cultural missionary. Missions involves moving beyond mere self-perception to the embrace and utilization of missional ways of being and acting.

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