Reflections on the Nature of God's Mission for His Church - Part 1 of 3

by Robby Butler

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the Nov.-Dec. 2008 issue of Mission Frontiers. We are reprinting it here because the insights it brings into the Church's responsibility for the global cause of Christ. Thought originally a single piece, we have broken it into three segments in order to fit it into Pulpit Helps.

Tremendous Progress

When the Perspectives on the World Christian Movement course was first developed in the early 1970s, half of the world's population was "hidden" in cultures without a church movement in their midst.

Over the last 30 years God has used many factors, including the Perspectives course, to awaken His Church to the urgent priority of the darkest and hardest places on earth.

As a result, among an additional sixth of the world's population the Church is now accessible within their own culture, proclaiming God's Word in terms they can understand and accept, and capable of demonstrating that the kingdom of God is at hand.

Many encouraging trends suggest that the complex "missionary task" of crossing all the remaining "barriers of understanding or acceptance" may yet be completed in our generation! This isn't all that Jesus commanded in Matt. 28:19-20, but it is an important step in that direction.

Yet amidst such dramatic progress, some troubling trends have also emerged, prompting careful reconsideration of our mission strategies and challenging naive assumptions regarding what God expects of His people. The 2009 revision to the Perspectives Reader thus incorporates a variety of urgent new insights.

One such insight is woven by Dr. Ralph Winter, designer of the Perspectives course and founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission, into an update to his classic article on the three eras of Protestant mission. That updated chapter compares the roots and results of two alternate approaches to mission, concluding that as the Church pursues God's broader Kingdom purposes in combating evil it is empowered to more effectively reach unreached peoples.

Following a review of the new insight in that chapter, this article outlines a reflection regarding obstacles to our pursuit of God's Kingdom purpose and the danger of thinking we are simply engaged in completing a task when we are in a battle against an evil intelligence who actively works to polarize the Church between two emphases which should collaborate rather than compete.

While the Bible does not dwell on Satan, it discreetly refers to our adversary by various names in enough detail to provide a fairly clear picture of what we are up against. We ignore or over-spiritualize the devil's activity at our peril, and at the expense of our effectiveness.

Four Men, Three Eras

In the Perspectives Reader, Winter identifies three overlapping eras of Protestant mission outreach over the past 200 years.

In the first, the Coastland Era, William Carey's Enquiry provoked the first broad, organized efforts among Protestants to "go," reaching out to the coastlands of the world from 1800 to 1910. In the second, the Inland Era, Hudson Taylor's appeal for the interior of China brought new emphasis on "all [places and countries]," sending a fresh wave of outreach to inland areas from 1865 to 1980. In the third, the Unreached Peoples Era, Cameron Townsend and Donald McGavran brought biblical understanding to "nations" (Greek ethne) as ethnic groupings rather than countries, prompting the present focus on unreached peoples which began developing around 1935.

A Disturbing Trend toward Shallowness

These three eras resulted in an amazing period of global growth for the Church. Yet a disturbing trend toward shallowness emerged among some second and third era mission fields, leaving them worse off in some ways than before they embraced the Gospel. Such fields stand in stark contrast to the impact of God's Kingdom in Britain and its American colonies through the Evangelical awakening of the 1700s.

This Kingdom impact protected England against the revolutionary spirit that engulfed France, and laid the necessary groundwork for the development of the Industrial Revolution.

Many mission fields where the Gospel was embraced eagerly but shallowly are, by contrast, still rampant today with corruption, oppression, immorality and disease.

Winter's new insight takes direct aim at the roots of this trend. In Two Approaches to Mission Winter explains his insight in terms of two mission approaches which Evangelicals have pursued alternately during these three eras, and which remain in tension today. Both give top priority to expanding the Church among every people group-where the Church exists and especially where it doesn't. But "Church Mission" focuses on expanding the Church, whereas "Kingdom Mission" expands Church Mission to include proclaiming and demonstrating God's Kingdom.

Kingdom Mission views the Church as God's primary instrument for His larger purpose of extending His Kingdom to destroy the full range of the devil's works (1 John 3:8). Kingdom Mission also sees combating the devil's works as an essential component of our witness to God's Kingdom, by which the Church is built. While it pursues the eternal salvation of individuals, it also seeks to enlist them in seeking God's Kingdom.

Where variants of Kingdom Mission may be tempted to neglect building the Church, Church Mission is tempted to view combating the devil's works as a distraction and to focus on building the Church solely by getting individuals saved and sanctified. Kingdom Mission differs from social action in that it actively recognizes evil intelligence behind, for example, at least some diseases and natural disasters, rather than simply encouraging individual good deeds or mopping up consequences without regard to the source (for example, dealing with sickness and not attempting to eradicate the pathogens causing the sickness).

Church Mission calls for most disciples to be simply beneficiaries and supporters of ministry within the Church and of gospel proclamation to extend the Church. Kingdom Mission abolishes false dichotomies between secular/sacred, clergy/laity, and evangelism/social action, and seeks to actively engage the full resources of all disciples in multifaceted large-scale efforts to proclaim and demonstrate God's Kingdom. As Kingdom Mission involves many more disciples through their fulltime vocations-as well as their prayers, witness, giving and after-hours service-the additional breadth of activity involved in Kingdom Mission is undergirded by a much greater release of additional manpower and other resources.

Originally appeared in Mission Frontiers, Nov.-Dec. 2008 issue.

Next month, Butler discusses the interplay of Kindgom Mission and Church Mission throughout missions history and examines some of the pitfalls of Church Mission.

Robby Butler worked for the U.S. Center for World Mission for 24 years and is now developing
a movement of believers to seek first God's Kingdom through their vocations.

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