Co-morbidity. In this year of the coronavirus pandemic, we have been continually confronted with this term “comorbidity.” (Apparently, the hyphen is not needed.) These “comorbidities” are pre-existing conditions which compromise the ability of the body’s immune system to fight off the virus. Such comorbidities, such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and old age, make it more likely the patient will get seriously sick or die after contracting Covid-19.
Considering our Missiological Health
As I observe missions training and teaching, I observe an analogy to this concept of comorbidities. It appears in these days our missiological health is compromised. In short, a swirl of theological and missiological errors swirl around us. In our context, these could be considered as “pre-existing conditions” or “comorbidities.” These missiological comorbidities render us susceptible to fad teachings and methodologies which can be missiologically lethal.
Much in the way people today are taking extra vitamin C and Zinc, I propose the following positive recommendations to bolster our missiological health. Implementing these proposals will help missionaries to disciple strong converts and plant spiritually-healthy churches.
Recommendations for Bolstering our Missiological Health
1. Keeping Theology as the First Lens of All Evaluation
Gailyn Van Rheenen’s renowned “Missional Helix” provides an instructive tool for missionaries and missions leaders. In this helix model, Van Rheenen describes four components in the missional process: 1. Theological Reflection; 2. Cultural Analysis; 3. Historical Perspective; and 4. Strategy Formation.
With a view to pragmatism, we often jump right to strategy formation. Van Rheenen describes why theological reflection must precede the other elements in the progressive spiral:
Theological reflection is the beginning point for ministry formation and the most significant element in the spiral. All missiological decisions must be rooted both implicitly and explicitly in biblical theology in order to mirror the purposes and mind of God. Too many church planters, while acknowledging the Bible as the Word of God, allow culture rather than scripture to shape their core understandings of the church. The Bible is used to proof-text practice rather define its essence. Without a biblically-rooted ecclesiology, the teachings and practices of the church are likely to be shaped either implicitly by the dominant evangelical culture or explicitly by random surveys to ascertain what people want. 1
My father is a retired doctor who practiced medicine for over 60 years. Recently we were talking about the novel Coronavirus, or Covid-19. He explained to me in laymen’s terms that the human body continually fights against pathogens—invaders that seek to bring sickness and disease. Our white blood cells form the first line of defense. Without white blood cells, he said, we would all be dead within one week. The body maintains other lines of defense, too. Covid-19 is new to human beings, whose immunity to it is still developing. Thus, the virus may crash through these lines of defense, eventually anchoring in the lungs. There, it may prove fatal, especially to those with comorbidities.
In missiology, the Bible is our first line of defense against serious errors. Orthodox, biblical theology continues to be the most reliable safeguard of our missiological health. Charles Kraft, an ideological father of “Insider Movements” provides this important perspective: “I feel we have focused so much on appropriateness at the culture end that we have neglected the Scripture end of our discussion.” 2
Ideas have consequences. Anti-biblical ideas have disastrous consequences. Too many of these ideas have found a vulnerable host in Christian missions. In some cases, relevant cultural analyses have morphed into dangerous, pathogenic missiologies.
2. Church History is our Family History: We Must Know it Well!
Missionaries do well to read church history extensively. Our familiarity must extend beyond our own respective denominational histories. We are God’s church. As such, church history is our family history.
The study of church history enables us to know which issues are truly non-negotiable. Which hills are hills to die on? Where is it better to agree to disagree?
Furthermore, most unreached peoples live in traditional societies that value their own tribal, national, and religious histories. Our invitation to embrace Christ is not an aimless safari into a historical vacuum. Rather, those who receive Christ as Lord become part of a 2,000-year living history, cheered on by many witnesses. The knowledge of and appreciation for church history greatly bolsters our missiological immune system.
3. Approach our Beloved Bible with a Healthy Measure of Fear and Trembling
Jesus is a loving and approachable Savior. He is our good shepherd. The beloved disciple John rested his head on Jesus’ chest. And the Bible is an everyday book for the everyday Christian which speaks to every area of everyday life.
Unfortunately, theological liberalism is undermining biblical missions and must be identified as a dangerous comorbidity. Very few Christians, seminaries, and missionaries will claim have to a low view of the Bible. But proof is in the actions. One example is the massive liberties Bible translators have taken in producing “Muslim Idiom Translations.” Much of what should have been, at best, left in comments or footnotes has been inserted directly into the divine text and presented to Muslims as the very words of God. The issues here are not mere turns of phrase; they rise to a virus-like invasion upon the sacred terms of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Changes to these terms should have been handled with fear and trembling. Sadly, these mistranslations only confirm in the minds of many Muslims their erroneous belief that the Bible has been corrupted. It is difficult to overstate this missiological tragedy; it has left us on ventilators.
4. Decreasing our Susceptibility to the Success-Story Marketing of New Missiological Products
Marketers spend billions to convince people to buy things that they neither want nor need. Many advertising appeals include a success story. Whether it is a weight loss testimonial, or a glowing “product rating” of some kind, people are quick to trumpet success stories. However, in many cases they are being paid to do so or have some vested interest in this marketing. They may not be truly objective witnesses.
In missions, we are continually urged to “buy into” something new—a new paradigm, a new methodology, a new doctrine, a new book. Historical and theological perspective provide a bulwark against fad missiologies. Yet, instead of being wary of fad theologies, we are instructed that we should celebrate them. Jayson Georges, proponent of the new Honor-Shame ideology, finds surprising license to reinterpret a doctrine so central as Christ’s atonement:
“While atonement of sins is the central theological interpretation of Jesus’ death in the early church, the way each New Testament author interprets Jesus’ death to make the historical event significant for his community directs contemporary theologies in new ways to meet new needs.” 3
This statement is a made within a troubling article on ministry to Muslims. The new ideology championed by Georges is woefully light regarding any consideration of sinfulness, repentance, regeneration, or conversion. The blood of Christ is not mentioned. Yet, he has attempted to create a new theory of the atonement for Muslims, and apparently Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul have directed him to do so.
5. Let’s Leave the “Gurus” to Hinduism
All too often we listen to the wrong people and read the wrong authors. I am a big believer in open access to ideas, especially since I am a former Muslim who would like Muslims to have increased access to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, many people who write or speak, even under pseudonyms, have come to be considered Christian missiological gurus. Many of them have no accountability relationship to a recognized church body.
We must require more vetting of these gurus. Improved critical thinking skills will dash this comorbidity. Here are several questions to help in a responsible vetting process regarding any teacher, author, or speaker:
- To which recognized church group is this person accountable?
- Is their contextual familiarity, including their ministry history, credible?
- What information may be missing from their published bios?
- If they claim to have expertise in evangelism or church planting, is that expertise verifiable?
- Which indigenous persons can verify both their proclamation of expertise and their Christian integrity?
All people should aspire to be life-long learners. This includes teachers. But the reality is that we have many people teaching missions that need better training before they should consider teaching others.
6. Sometimes Affirming the “Null Hypotheses” is a Good Thing
Many missions trainers have high academic degrees. On the surface, this is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. The first and greatest missionaries did not have academic degrees. Jesus’ apostles were noted by the local religious leaders to have been “uneducated and untrained men,” other than that small detail that they had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13).
In the Western academic model, researchers in all disciplines study the relationships between variables. As a simple example, one may research the variable of the height of a person. Soon it will become evident that another variable, the height of the person’s parents, will correlate strongly with that person’s height. The “Null Hypothesis” suggests that there is no significant relationship between two variables being studied. For researchers, this is often seen as a “non-finding” and boring. Research projects which affirm the null hypotheses are less likely to get published than research projects which “reject the null.” Hence, in academic circles, there is a strong impetus to identify the new, the novel, a unique angle, a new theory, a new hypothesis, or a new relationship between variables.
In missions circles, a fascination to believe the new and even the untried constitutes a problematic comorbidity. We want to hear something we have not heard before. We want to try something that has not been tried before. IF variable X is done, THEN variable Y will happen.
This type of thinking leaves us impatient and therefore vulnerable to fad missiologies and silver-bullet methodologies. One example of this in ministry to Muslims is a Qur’an-based gospel approach to Muslims. This “Camel Method,” authored by Kevin Greeson, lauds itself in the book’s foreword: “There may not be a magic bullet for Muslim evangelism, but the Camel is as close as it gets.” 4
Greeson has apparently discovered a magical positive relationship between variable X of reading Sura 3 of the Qur’an, and the variable Y of Muslims receiving Christ. However, sticking with the initial null hypothesis would have been better in this case.
Our missiological immune system is compromised by comorbidities. A variety of bizarre ideas, fad methodologies and unbiblical initiatives wage war against our spiritual health. Though we will one day look back on this era with shame and embarrassment, that day has not yet arrived. The present situation is serious. The Body of Christ remains susceptible. We have been told to wash our hands longer than usually—for 20 seconds—to limit the spread of the novel Coronavirus. We should likewise take additional time and care in evaluating novel missiologies and faddy methodologies.
Nevertheless, with God all good things are possible. The simple preaching of the simple gospel by simple missionaries with simple faith is the time-tested, God-approved missiology. Prayer, perseverance, and patience are needed as never before. By retaining a Christ-centered and Bible-bounded understanding of missions, rooted in the 2,000 year of the Church, the good news will continue to be flourish in contexts where it has yet to take root. And Jesus will continue to be glorified.
- http://www.missiology.org/blog/What-Is-Missiology-Gailyn-Van-Rheenen, emphasis in original. ↩
- Kraft, Charles. 2005. Appropriate Christianity. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, p. 5. ↩
- http://honorshame.com/jesus-death-for-muslims/ ↩
- Kevin Greeson, The Camel: How Muslims are Coming to Faith in Christ, Bangalore, India: WIGTake Resources, p.13. ↩