Warning: Do not read this post unless you are interested in a long, ponderous reflection on the meaning of mission and evangelism.
So I began my appointment as a missionary of the Episcopal Church on April 1, 2018. I’m still trying to sort out what this means. Our specific mission is clear enough (i.e., our focus on theological education in Africa). But more generally what does mission mean in the Episcopal Church? Since the official name of our church is “The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church” I also rather think this quite important for our church’s self-understanding.
But I must begin with a confession. Part of what got me thinking about mission in the church is the Presiding Bishop’s statement “Evangelism doesn’t have a thing to do with a bigger church, it has everything to do with a better world,” that many people have shared recently. I trust this is accurate, but I have not tracked down the context in which he made this statement. That said, I find the statement (whoever said it) rather puzzling and somewhat problematic. I have heard Bishop Curry speak about evangelism before and I have been rather impressed with what he has to say. But this statement seems simplistic and slippery. It sounds like it’s some kind of argument where a conclusion follows from a premise, but it’s really just two assertions thrown together. This is a mistake that many preachers make (I know because I am one) when they get a bit carried away by their own rhetoric. But it simply does not follow that “evangelism has everything to do with a better world” if “evangelism doesn’t have a thing to do with a bigger church.” I could just as easily say things like, “evangelism doesn’t have a thing to do with a bigger church, it has everything to do with excellence in music or it has everything to do with prettier vestments or everything to do with painting every church door red.” These, of course, are silly things to say. But that’s the point. They lay bare the fact that such statements thrown together are not arguments. They are assertions, and, at some point, you need to support your assertions with some sort of argument.
Since we are going to South Africa, I want to reflect a bit on the definitions of mission and evangelism introduced by David Bosch, a great South African theologian, whose book Transforming Mission has become a benchmark for subsequent discussion of these terms.
Before getting into the details of Bosch’s work, I want to begin with a couple general remarks. For Bosch, mission is the more comprehensive term, with evangelism being one dimension alongside other dimensions of mission. This way of conceiving the relationship between mission and evangelism has become rather commonplace today across the denominations. It has attained a rather broad ecumenical consensus. What this allows us to see is that it is unnecessary and unhelpful to see evangelism as somehow standing in opposition to other dimensions of mission, such as working for social justice or interreligious dialogue. For example, in the Catholic document, “Dialogue and Mission” the totality of Christian mission is said to embrace the following: 1) witness, 2) the concrete commitment to the service of humankind and all forms of activity for social development and for the struggle against poverty and the structures which produce it, 3) liturgical life, prayer, and contemplation, 4) interreligious dialogue, and 5) announcing the gospel and catechesis. Similar statements can be found from Protestants as well. The upshot is that one does not need to play evangelism off of any other dimension of mission. They are all part of the total mission of the church.
The other general remark about Bosch is that he is representative of the general trend among theologians to see the mission of the church as grounded in the missio Dei (or the mission of God). As Bosch puts it, “Our mission has not life of its own: only in the hands of the sending God can it truly be called mission. Not least since the missionary initiative comes from God alone … In attempting to flesh out the missio Dei concept, the following could be said: In the new image mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God. God is a missionary God. ‘It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church’ (Moltmann). Mission is thereby seen as a movement from God to the world; the church is viewed as an instrument for that mission. There is church because there is mission, not vice versa. To participate in mission is to participate in the movement of God’s love toward people, since God is a fountain of sending love.” That is to say, the church has a mission only to the extent that it participates in God’s mission.
So what is mission and what is evangelism according to Bosch? Below, I’ll give his so-called “interim definitions” in bullet form. These are, of course, fleshed out by Bosch and also subject to future modification. But even in bullet form we get a sense of the comprehensiveness of the terms and the ways in which they interrelate.
So here goes. Mission in 13 points:
- The Christian faith is intrinsically missionary.
- Missiology is not neutral, but views the world from the standpoint of Christian theology.
- But this must be continually reassessed, so a narrow or permanent definition is not possible.
- A necessary foundation for mission lies in God’s self-communication in Christ.
- The Bible does not give a set of unchangeable laws of mission. Mission is an ambivalent enterprise which remains an act of faith.
- The entire Christian existence is a missionary existence.
- Foreign missions is not a separate entity to home missions. Both are grounded in the gospel.
- Mission is God’s mission. Missions are particular forms of participation in God’s mission.
- The missionary task includes the whole set of needs and aspects of human life.
- Mission is thus God’s “Yes” to the world.
- Mission includes evangelism as one of its crucial elements. “Evangelism is the proclamation of salvation in Christ to those who do not believe in him, calling them to repentance and conversion, announcing forgiveness of sins, and inviting them to become living members of Christ’s earthly community and to begin a life of service to others in the power of the Holy Spirit.”
- Mission is also God’s “No” to the world.
- The church-in-mission is a sign in the sense of pointer, symbol, example or model. It is a sacrament in the sense of mediation, representation, or anticipation.
And evangelism in 18 points:
- Mission encompasses more than evangelism. Mission is a broader all encompassing view that includes evangelism as a vital part, but also includes the work of justice and the reconciling of the world to the glory of God.
- Evangelism should not be equated with mission. If this mission = evangelism model exists, it can close off other missionary endeavors that do not fit into the evangelical spectrum. Bosch writes, ‘It is better to uphold the distinctiveness of evangelism within the wider mission of the church’
- Evangelism may be viewed as an essential “dimension of the total activity of the Church”
- Evangelism involves witnessing to what God has done, is doing, and will do.
- Evangelism aims at a response.
- Evangelism is always invitation.
- The one who evangelizes is a witness not a judge.
- Even though we ought to be modest about the character and effectiveness of our witness, evangelism remains an indispensable ministry.
- Evangelism is only possible when the community that evangelizes- the church- is a radiant manifestation of the Christian faith and exhibits an attractive lifestyle.
- Evangelism offers people salvation as a present gift and with it assurance of eternal bliss.
- Evangelism is not proselytism.
- Evangelism is not the same as church extension.
- To distinguish between evangelism and membership recruitment is not to suggest, though, that they are disconnected.
- In evangelism, only people can be addressed and only people can respond.
- Authentic evangelism is always contextual.
- Evangelism cannot be divorced from the preaching and practicing of justice.
- Evangelism is not a mechanism to hasten the return of Christ as some suggest.
- Evangelism is not only verbal proclamation.
In the upcoming days, as I live into my new call as an appointed missionary of the Episcopal Church, I will need to reflect deeply upon these dimensions of mission and evangelism. I’m not sure I will agree entirely with Bosch, but he has spelled out the many dimensions of mission and evangelism that I think need to be considered.
I also think that The Episcopal Church and its leadership would do well to think these things through a bit more carefully. We hear a lot about evangelism from our church leaders today. Perhaps a bit more care and reflection would help us move beyond rhetorical flourishes and simplistic statements. I rather think shifting the emphasis to how we are called to participate in the missio Dei would be a better place to start.