How Rhetoric Ruins Missions

“Whoever tells the best story wins.” This is one of the truest quotes I’ve ever heard. Unfortunately, this truism works for or against us. Among missionaries (and pastors), another saying could be used: “Whoever uses the best rhetoric rules.”

Whoever tells the best story wins. - John Quincy Adams

Our rhetoric too often hinders the work of missions. Consider meetings where people debate ministry strategy. Whoever frames the conversion wins based on rhetorical alone.

The Problem with Our Rhetoric

Sadly, missionary rhetoric suffers from two problems.

1. It is all too reductionistic, oversimplifying the problems faced.

2. It allows a commonly held principle to serve as the overarching value above or at the expense of all others.

I’ll give a few examples below, but I first want to ask, “How does this rhetoric cause problems?”

Above all, it silences dialogue by pressuring people to settle for what is merely true.  It obscures the difference between “good” and “best.” Such rhetoric plants the seeds of division.

One side presumes to defend biblical truth against compromised methods and strategies. The other side intuitively senses they are being put in as box and not being heard.

As a result, strategic silos become the norm and ministry suffers.

Rhetorical Traps

I mention the following examples so that we can consciously avoid rhetorical traps.

The gospel is…”

Conventional gospel summaries go something like this: “The gospel is the good news that God loves you and sent Jesus to die for you so that we can now be saved by faith, not by works.” This statement is rich with glorious gospel truths yet does not represent the way biblical writers explicitly present the gospel. (I’ve written extensively about his question in OGFAN.)

God’s love and the mechanics of salvation are essential realities that make the gospel “good news.” But confusing the doctrine of salvation and the gospel is like confusing a car with its engine.  As critical as the engine is, few 16-year-olds say, “Yeah, I got a V8 for my birthday!!”

What happens when someone tries to refocus the message back to Christ’s kingship within the grand biblical narrative?

That person is accused of making little of God’s love and salvation. People forge a false dichotomy as if we said the gospel had nothing to do with salvation and God’s love. Or perhaps, one’s comments are dismissed as if (s)he were complicating the gospel.

 “Practical, not theological…”

When our team started our seminary, even some of our advocates said things like, “We want to be practical and not simply give people ‘head knowledge.’” Opponents of our work were more severe. They complained, “People don’t need theology [insert stressed tone]; they don’t even obey what they already know.”

At one level, we can’t disagree… if we accept the way they frame the issue of ministry priorities. However, the above comments are highly problematic and so stunt the church’s maturity.

This sort of thinking is either contradictory or short-sighted.

(1) Every Christian who has ever lived obeys less than they know.

People don’t obey what they don’t know. In every church, pastors and churches are always bigger “hypocrites” by virtue of the fact they have more learning. They have more ways to fall short. This normal phenomenon does not excuse leaving people in ignorance.

Ironically, those who make these objections quickly forget how they have benefited from theological training.

(2) These critics misunderstand the nature of application.

“Application” entails our total response to God’s revelation. It involves our head, heart, and hands. Such “practical” rhetorical tends to reduce application with mere doing (i.e., hands). Consequently, ministry strategy suffers inasmuch as it is not holistic. Long-term growth is compromised.

Click here to see posts where I more fully explain this holistic view of application.

Public Domain
Public Domain

 “The task is urgent…”

In recent decades, people increasingly emphasize “rapidity.” Why? Because “billions of people die every day and so the task is urgent.” How can one argue with this? Who is going to say, “Nah, we can take our time. I don’t care about dying people who need the gospel”?

This rhetoric comes from a heart of compassion and conviction, but it sows the seeds of compromise. Such language drives people not only to prioritize evangelism and church planting but do so at the expense and exclusion of other aspects of ministry. After all, why do anything else since the task is so urgent?

 “The gospel is always relevant.”

This remark is generally made in discussions about contextualization. It is especially annoying because it manipulates people’s words to attack a strawman. When people speak of “making the gospel relevant” (a phrase that I agree isn’t helpful), they mean: “to communicate the gospel in a way that people perceive its relevance.”

Anyone who advocates for contextualization will agree “the gospel is always relevant.” By agreeing, however, they seemingly adopt the same suspicion of contextualization when, in fact, they do not regard it so negatively.

Subtly and Tone

Other verbal traps are more subtle and so are more difficult to guard against. For example,…

  • Some speak about contextualization only with a wary tone, rarely if ever in positive, constructive manner.
  • People advocate for “…healthy, multiplying churches.”

Of course, I’d love for these churches to exist. However, isn’t this phrase redundant? Won’t “healthy” churches also be “multiplying” churches (whether individual believers, small groups, other churches, etc.)? The redundancy subtly emphasizes multiplication above other aspects of health.

  • What is “simple” is deemed more true or important than what is “complex.”

One presumes the Bible is (or should be) “simple.” Ideally, we could wish that all biblical truths were plain and simple. No doubt, many parts are; yet, the Bible reveals the infinitely majestic God of the universe whose sovereign work in history is mysterious is countless ways. So why is it we have such low expectations of the Bible? Peter found Paul hard to understand (cf. 2 Peter 3) and he was the Lord’s closest disciple!

  • People use the word “Western” pejoratively to dismiss any number of things.

Certainly Western culture has its limitations and weaknesses, but simply being “Western” does not make it wrong nor imperialistic. One sometimes hears people complain about “Western logic.”

This moaning often amounts to sheer drama. For thousands of years, even before Aristotle, civilizations have understood basic logical rules like (a) the law of non-contradiction (A and ~A cannot both be true at the same time and in the same way) and (b) modus ponens (A –> B, A, therefore, B).

We could list many other examples (e.g., “relationship, not religion”, the inconsistent use of metaphors, etc.).

How have you seen rhetorical traps that impede constructive dialogue about ministry methods and strategy?

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