Posted by: Alex | June 19, 2011

Desiring God and Missions

Week one of staff training at the Barbara C. Harris camp is completed!  One more week of staff training and then the kids begin to show up for our summer programming.  Our staff is really beginning to gel and get to know one another and I’m excited to see what the summer has to offer.  Trying to get a few posts written this weekend which will be set up to publish at a later date.  This should wrap up our discussion of John Piper’s book Desiring God.  In this post I want to look at the chapter titled “Missions.”

There is much in this chapter that is impressive.  Piper throws out some remarkable (though by his own admission dated) statistics about the contrasting emphasis on missions in mainline and evangelical denominations:

Between 1953 and 1980, the overseas missionary force of mainline Protestant churches of North America decreased from 9,844 to 2,813 [a 71% decrease], while the missionary force of evangelical Protestants, who take this biblical teaching more seriously, increased by more than 200 percent.  The Christian and Missionary Alliance, for example, with its 200,000 members, supports 40 percent more missionaries than the United Methodist Church, with its 9.5 million members.  There is amazing missionary power in taking seriously all the Word of God.  (228)

There are some jabs at mainliners in here that I think are less than becoming a major Christian leader, but in fairness plenty of jabs get made at evangelicals along similar lines.  Another interesting set of statistics is in the footnote that Piper gives to this section:

In 1980 the Division of Overseas Ministries of the National Council of Churches [mainline body] had a membership of thirty-two missions representing just under five thousand missionaries.  Income approached $200 million annually.  The Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association represented ninety interdenominational mission boards with roughly 10,700 missionaries and an income of $150 million.  The Evangelical Foreign Missions Association had a membership of eighty-two mission agencies representing more than ten thousand missionaries and an income of $350 million.  During the decade of the seventies the DOM (the more liberal group) lost 3,462 missionaries, while the IFMA and EFMA (the more evangelical groups) gained 3,785.  Incomewise, the DOM increased by $28 million or 24 percent while the IFMA/EFMA increased by $285 million or 293 percent.  (228)

These statistics are undeniably impressive (though there seems to be a discrepancy between the two paragraphs numbers that I would like explained).  There is certainly, and this seems like a natural expectation in a lot of ways, a greater emphasis on missions in evangelical denominations, it would seem.  And this is certainly one of the things that has always been attractive to me about evangelicalism.  Three things that I think would be worth exploring, however, which are not revealed by these statistics, largely as a result of their datedness: (1) has this trend continued for the last 30 years?  (2)  how has the development of the Emerging movement in evangelicalism impacted this?  Are Emerging churches more interested in missions or less than Neo-Reformed churches?  (3)  What is the theology of the various missions organizations?  Are they strictly “conversionistic” or are they interested in humanitarian/social issues?  How does this change across denominational/theological lines?  I don’t have time or energy at the moment to explore any of these things, but if anyone has some information about this or some predictions about what that information might reveal, would love to hear your thoughts!

There is another very interesting idea in Piper’s chapter about missions that I want to note here.  He writes it this way:

Evangelism can never be finished, but missions can be finished.  The reason is this:  Missions has the unique task of crossing language and culture barriers to penetrate a people group and establish a church movement; but evangelism is the ongoing task of sharing the gospel among people within the same culture.  This fact allows us to talk realistically about “closure”- the completion of the missionary task- even if there may be millions of people yet to be won to Christ in all the people groups of the world where the church has been planted.  (230)

Piper goes on to give some statistics about the progress of missions in establishing churches in various cultures that are again very impressive, showing an incredible amount of progress in establishing indigenous churches in the overwhelming majority of the world’s cultures.  This idea is very intriguing to me and would love to hear what others have to say about it.  I find it simultaneously appealing and potentially distressing: I think planting indigenous churches that can sustain themselves is a far better model for missions than sustained dependence on missionaries.  On the other hand, what I worry is that the missionary movement turns into an exporting of our particular theology and philosophy, an attempt to “westernize” other societies in the process of evangelizing them.  Maybe that is not a concern I should have.  What do some other people think?

There are two things I want to point out in this chapter that I have more substantial questions about, however.  The first happens early in the chapter as Piper is giving justification for missions.  First, Piper writes this:

My assumption is that people without the gospel are without hope, because only the gospel can free them from their sin.  Therefore, missions is utterly essential in the life of a loving church.  (226)

Piper writes on the very next page the following:

God is not unjust.  No one will be condemned for not believing a message he has never heard.  Those who have never heard the gospel will be judged by their failure to own up to the light of God’s grace and power in nature and in their own conscience.  (227)

So my question is this: are these two statements inconsistent with one another?  To me it seems there is a tension here.  If people can be held accountable for knowledge naturally available to them, why can they have no hope without hearing the message of the gospel?  This tension I think gives rise to many of the questions about “universalism” that are currently coming to the surface in evangelicalism through the writings of figures like Rob Bell.  Piper is not immune to the tension.  I just wonder how he would solve it.  To me it does not seem like he has made any such attempt in this book.

Finally, there is toward the end of the chapter an attempt by Piper to graft missions in with his Christian “Hedonism.”  We do missions, says Piper, because of the benefit it brings to us.  Here is an illustrative quote:

Our great incentive for throwing our lives into the cause of Frontier Missions is the 10,000 percent return on the investment.  (244)

I want to make an analogy in critiquing this kind of reasoning, and it is an analogy that I think fits well with the evangelical notion of missions.  As part of my staff training for camp here I have just gone through a couple of “rescue courses,” one on doing rescues on a ropes course (nothing like using alligator clips to climb out to someone stuck on a tightrope walk that’s 40 feet in the air to get the blood flowing…) and another a CPR refresher course.  Something both instructors said seems fitting here.  Both instructors made the point that the safety of the rescuer is primary in doing a rescue.  Why is that?  Not because the rescue is about the rescuer but because its about the victim.  If I climb up to rescue someone stuck on the rope and I myself get stuck then we have an even more dangerous situation (especially for the original victim, who now has to hang on while someone else climbs up by an alternate route which is likely even less safe).  So for the sake of the victim being rescued, I must watch out for my own safety in making the rescue.  This is, I think, the opposite of the logic Piper promotes.  He wants to claim that I must do the rescue not for the sake of saving the victim but for the sake of my own  benefit, perhaps my own fame, or the appreciation of those watching on the ground, or the thrill of being suspended from that wire by an alligator clip instead of a belay rope.  But the problem with reversing the order like that is that I now am exponentially increasing the likelihood that something terrible will happen.  If I am climbing for a rescue with my own benefit- either in the form of appreciation or excitement- as my primary goal then I am much more likely to take unnecessary chances, to make a jump I didn’t need to make in my attempt to reach the stranded climber.  I am far more likely to fall myself and be stuck myself.  Now we are both stranded and in need of rescue.  I think if we look at the numerous disastrous falls of prominent evangelical leaders in the past few years we can perhaps see something of this logic at work: when we get too caught up in our own benefit our “rescue work” of missions/ministry becomes dangerous not just for ourselves but for those we serve.  Its important I think to keep the benefit of the “target”- the unreached person, the church member in the pews, or the stranded climber- in mind as we work as ministers of the gospel (or rescue climbers).

What do you think?  Is the missionary endeavor an instance of Christian Hedonism or should it be “self-less”?  How do we make sense of the tension between needing to spread the gospel and God’s grace being revealed in the world naturally?


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