Thoughts : Progressive Christianity (Poverty) : Goforth National Missions Conference 2005

From the 16th to 18th of June, 2005, I was at Suntec City Convention Centre attending the Goforth National Missions Conference. This was my first time at this conference and what really attracted me to it was the fact that there was going to be some workshops there promoting holistic forms of missions. On the first day (16th), I attended the morning sessions and the afternoon workshops. However, in the subsequent two days I merely attended the workshops from 2:30pm – 5:15pm. I skipped the rallies in the evening.

Overall, I’m glad that I attended this conference. The 6 workshops I attended over the three days helped shape my thinking in 2 particular areas.

1) Holistic missions

I was very excited at the end of the first day and remember sharing this excitement with some friends. I was excited because of some of the organizations I got to know at the exhibition booths and also a workshop I attended on micro-enterprise development in missions. The reason I signed up for this conference was because I expected to find out more about people and organizations involved in holistic mission work. I would define holistic missions as involving both doing good works and preaching the good news in a cross-cultural setting. The difference between this kind of mission work and normal mainstream missions work lies in its holistic nature. Most evangelical mission work involves merely evangelizing – i.e. preaching good news to win conversions to Christ. Doing good works – e.g. helping the poor, being in long term development work…etc – has often been frowned upon by evangelicals and fundamentalist Christians who view mission work narrowly as meeting the spiritual needs – i.e. salvation of the soul.

This sort of reductionism came about mainly in the 20th Century as the fundamentalist-liberal controversy pitted fundamentalists (most of whom would later label themselves as evangelicals) against liberal Christians. What happened was that liberal Christians started to deny major essential and fundamental historic Christian doctrines and question the authority of the Bible. With supernaturalism taken away from the liberal Christian’s faith, the only thing left remaining for them was to focus on helping the poor. Their whole faith was focused mainly on doing social good for the physically and materially needy in obedience to God, rather than proclaiming the uniqueness of Christ and the call to salvation of the spiritual lost. In reaction to such liberal theological views, fundamentalism arose. The movement was named such because these theologically conservative Christians held firm to the fundamental doctrines of the faith – unlike their theologically liberal counterparts. The fundamentalists, however, over-reacted so much against liberal Christianity that they reduced the Christian faith to merely evangelism and the call for personal salvation. In a sense, they made the personal realm the main focus of Christianity and ignored the social realm (the liberals focused on the opposite). Social concerns like meeting the physical needs of the poor were not a priority at all for the fundamentalists as such actions were considered as so much less important than meeting the personal and spiritual needs of people – i.e. salvation. Furthermore, helping the poor was considered by fundamentalists as a “liberal” thing to do as that was what liberal Christians reduced their faith to and what liberal Christians were good at and did all the time. Thus for much of the 20th Century, liberal Christians were known for their focus on helping the physically needy and for being concerned about issues of social justice while conservative fundamentalist and evangelical Christians were known for their focus on evangelism and winning the lost. The sad thing was that the Bible talked about both evangelizing the lost and caring for the poor. God cares for both the body and the soul and it wasn’t an either-or thing that the liberal-fundamentalist divide had made it seem. The early Christians evangelized and gave money to help the poor. And many Christians before the 20th Century led great social movements. The mission of the Christian has always been holistic in nature but yet for major sections of the evangelical world it’s been reduced to evangelism at the expense of social concern. Holistic missions, therefore, brings together both of these aspects – i.e. evangelism and social concern.

(Some people may question whether there’s that great a divide as portrayed above and whether historically evangelicals have tended to downplay helping the poor in their mission work. For example, some may point to World Vision and Habitat for Humanity as two Christian organizations that focus on helping the poor. However, one must also realize that these have always been seen as humanitarian organizations and not missions organizations and have historically been viewed as too liberal in outlook for evangelicals to support wholeheartedly because they don’t preach the gospel or seek to save the lost. Many evangelical Christians I know still question whether World Vision is Christian at all since it does not share the good news outrightly. I believe this sort of attitude is due to the fact that most evangelicals have been brought up believing that preaching the gospel is the only thing so important in their faith that if helping the poor were to be done without sharing the good news, such helping of the poor would not be considered Christian enough! I think this sort of thinking is erroneous. It is indeed ideal to do both helping the poor and preaching the good news together but doing either separately alone should not be considered any less Christian. If we want to criticize World Vision for not preaching the gospel along with its development work, then we also have to criticize the many mission projects that do not seek to help the poor along with its evangelizing.)

Anyway, going back to the first day of the conference, after lunch and before the afternoon workshops started, I spent about 30 minutes walking through the various booths. A few organizations promoting holistic missions captured my attention. There was Care Channels that is “dedicated to the missions of reaching the poor through a holistic approach”, seeking to “minister to the whole person”. Their work in the Philippines includes education sponsorships, health programs, faith gardens, microenterprise development, IT and livelihood projects. Another was Crisis Relief Society which seeks to “bring God’s hope and love through crisis relief”, endeavoring “to demonstrate God’s love purely through our actions in crisis relief.” I was also glad to find out that Joshua 21 – a short-term missions mobilization of youths in Singapore – focused on helping the poor in their 2004 missions project. The organization that impressed me the most, however, was Vision Network. This is a relatively new organization that seeks to “equip the church to transform communities through sustainable development.” Two of the main development strategies they have been working on include microenterprise development and AgriVentures (faith gardens), however they also hope to work on other strategies like appropriate technology, community health education, education, social concern, business strategies, social entrepreneurship and sports to lift communities out of poverty. This organization adopts a strategy called Community Platform For Church Planting (CP4CP). What this means is that it helps churches to do community development as a means to its missions work. This community development (be it microenterprise strategies or whatever) enables church planters to build good relationships with the local people and thus provides a legitimacy and platform for church planters to be in the communities and thus start planting churches. Quite creative indeed, I should say. The church can thus meet both the needs of the poor and evangelize at the same time. Perhaps one could criticize such a strategy as being insincere – as community development is seen as a means to provide legitimacy and a platform for the real deal of planting churches. However, I do like that idea as I recognize it’s always difficult to strike a balance in doing both good works and evangelism.

There will always be a lot of difficult questions to be answered in seeking that balance of being sincere in both winning the lost and helping the poor. Not only did I attend a workshop on the first day of the conference by Vision Network on microenterprise development but I also attended one by World Vision on the second day entitled “Uplifting Communities through Missions”. I was keen on the topic and didn’t know it was to be held by World Vision. I was quite familiar with World Vision but learnt during the talk how evangelism is incorporated into the work of World Vision. For example, some local World Vision staff are allowed to discretely evangelize to the people they serve in the third world and also if any Church desires to get the help of World Vision to start a local church in the community, World Vision would help them do that, though would not be in the forefront of evangelizing the lost. They are mainly a humanitarian organization and do not focus on preaching the gospel. During the Q & A session, there were some people who seemed quite unhappy and disagreeable to the fact that World Vision didn’t do much evangelism and only sought to help the poor. I think that reflected the conservative evangelical mindset I was talking about that places little premium on helping the poor if it’s not accompanied by evangelism. I am a big supporter of World Vision and do believe their work of helping the poor mainly is definitely a good one. I certainly wouldn’t call their work missions though because saving the lost soul is not really a part of their focus. However, even if they are not involved in missions so defined as both bringing both the good news and good works, that doesn’t mean their work is not as worthy of support as say a missions organization. There is a place for Christians to do work that helps the poor alone and not evangelize. It is of course ideal to do both as I said before. However, I also do see a lot of benefits in Christian organizations that do work that focus on helping the poor alone. I think there is a great need for such organizations because we have for a long time created a bad reputation for ourselves of being people who merely care about converting people to our faith and who can’t be bothered about helping the poor. Or if we do help the poor, we do so with strings attached, hoping to get them become believers.

Overall, I am very glad to see the existence of organizations like Vision Network and Care Channels which are into holistic missions and seek to integrate development concepts and practices with evangelism. It’s also really encouraging to see so many holistic missions organizations involved in this evangelical missions conference. I even found out that Singapore Bible College – a very conservative theological college – teaches holistic missions in its intercultural studies program. Indeed, I remain hopeful that more and more evangelical missions would seek to be holistic and minister to the whole person and not just the soul. There’s been so much talk about development and poverty in recent years in the mainstream media (e.g. the “Make Poverty History” campaign and debt relief issues) and I believe this wider concern of society will increasingly filter into the agenda of evangelical missions.

2) Church Planting Movements

Three of the workshops (one on each day) I attended mentioned about a special strategy to do mission work called Church Planting Movements (CPM). This was the first time I was confronted with the fact that there are various ways evangelicals do missions – here I’m talking about the different way evangelicals do missions as evangelism and not any form of holistic missions. I was never really into missions and so I had no idea that there was a more traditional and mainstream approach of doing missions and another approach called church planting movements which is gaining in popularity. The other workshop I attended on the first day was on Sumatra. The presenter of the workshop mentioned a bit about CPM in that workshop and on the second day I skipped a workshop I had signed up for to go for his workshop focused on CPM. I was very interested through the very little I had heard about CPM from him during his talk on Sumatra and wanted to find out more in-depth about CPM. On the last day, I attended two workshops on trends in missions and the 2nd workshop was totally devoted to the new trend of CPM in missions. Thus CPM is clearly something of a trend in missions and I’m glad I had learnt about it.

Before commenting on the CPM approach to missions, how does the traditional approach to missions look like? Some characteristics are that church is normally always focused on the church building where Christians meet. Pastors are normally professional pastors and thus paid to be a pastor – and they are normally the foreign missionaries. In fact, foreign missionaries have a big role to play in starting new churches in the foreign land and training the leaders. The CPM approach, in contrast, have local Christians meeting mainly in homes. Paid professional foreign missionaries may have a role in equipping and training but the exciting action and growth occurs as indigenous Christians witness to one another. Each home is considered a church and church multiplies very quickly due to decentralization of power and the belief that God can use ordinary people (not just paid foreign missionaries) to lead and multiply churches. The whole CPM approach is thus based on a very non-hierarchical structure and rapid multiplication of churches and believers. Ordinary Christians do most of the work, rather than the foreign missionary. Because the role of the indigenous ordinary believer is highlighted and that of the foreign missionary is downplayed in importance, many benefits accrue. For example, the best people to minister and reach out to the local indigenous people are local indigenous people themselves! There is very little cultural imposition and imperialism from the foreign missionary as his role is not as important as it is in a traditional approach to missions. The fact that Christians meet in homes rather than big churches means they will command less attention. This is very necessary in places like China where the Communist government frowns upon Christianity and is also advantageous when doing missions in Muslim-populated areas – many church buildings in Indonesia have been burnt down, for example. Roger characterized traditional churches buildings as elephants and home churches as rabbits. Certain characteristics of rabbits are that they become fertile very quickly after being birthed (6 months only!) and thus give birth and multiply very quickly. This is the same for house churches – they multiply very quickly! Rabbits can also hide very easily as they are small and fast creatures and thus can avoid persecution and the burning down of church buildings because they don’t have any! Traditional churches are like elephants in being big and steady. However, they take a long time to be fertile and give birth and thus don’t multiply that easily. And when persecution comes, elephants will find it hard to hide themselves!

Two particular bible passages are often quoted by CPM advocates. The first is the Luke 10 and Matthew 10 passage where Jesus commands his disciples to go into villages and look for a person of peace. If they find a person who welcomes them, the disciples should stay there. If not, they should leave. CPM advocates seek to do missions in such a manner. Christians are sent to strategic locations (e.g. locations where many people pass through and if there were Christians there the good news would reach many people) and would stay there for a while to see if they meet a person of peace. A person of peace is a person who would welcome and accept him/her and be open to the gospel. If such a person is found, the good news could be shared and the can spread throughout the area through the social networks of this person of peace. Family and friends, co-workers and neighbours can be reached through this person of peace. This is how missions is done through the CPM method. If however no person of peace is found after some time, the Christian would move on. The second passage is 2 Timothy 2:2. In this passage Paul speaks of the way to spread the message gospel. It is through sharing the message and teachings of Jesus with people who can and will in turn share it to others. Thus, everyone can be sharers of the gospel and there is no need to look up to paid professionals or pastors for guidance. Everyone can be a teacher of God’s truth and a house church leader. If we do this, then the gospel can be spread quickly and multiplication occur rapidly.

The vision of CPM is really that every ordinary Christian can be a minister and because of that house churches can be started by any ordinary Christian and the Kingdom of God can grow rapidly. This is a very different vision from the normal way of seeing mission work as having a church building that is paid by Christians from the sending country and seeing the foreign missionary as totally indispensable to the local congregation. The CPM vision is certainly more exciting though perhaps a bit too idealistic. Can we multiply that quickly? Can we trust new Christians so much so soon? But then again, God works miracles and He desires us to be idealistic. In order to reach all nations for Him, we need to be idealistic.

The CPM approach to missions is perhaps more widespread and less novel than we may think. I believe that the way missions have been done in China since Hudson Taylor is very similar to the CPM approach. Most of Christianity has had to be underground and not in buildings – except the state churches. Furthermore, the house church movement in the first world is probably also very similar in eschewing the building of church buildings and in its decentralization. One could argue that the mainstream approach to church growth is perhaps a better model in developed countries not facing persecution and where Christianity is pretty established. However, I believe the CPM approach is probably the best way to do missions in the third world.

Having just talked about holistic missions and now the CPM approach to missions, the question is are both compatible? It seems actually that the mainstream approach (as opposed to the CPM approach) to missions is more compatible to doing holistic missions – at least the form of holistic missions where we combine evangelism with the normal ways of doing development. But that’s not to say the CPM approach could not incorporate its own form of concern for the poor. I think it can. It may not do development in the normal way we think of development, but the CPM approach seems closer to the early NT Church way of doing church and because money is not spent on a church building, the Christians – like the early Christians in the NT – could gather together and give money to help the needy. The various holistic missions mentioned above is really about the first world Christians helping the third world communities. That is no doubt good but the model in the NT is really the Christians in the local communities pooling their resources together to help the other people in their own communities – not cross-country help. More can be said, but I’ll stop here!

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