How do we bridge theology and missions?

How do we bridge theology and missions? October 18, 2022

People who want to address this split between theology and missions will be questioned. Missionaries will think you are “too theological” and theoretical. Some theology lovers will accuse you of “just being a practitioner.”

(My previous post identified 3 reasons why we frequently see a split between theologians and mission practitioners.)

It is my ambition to help bridge this gap in whatever way possible. As a generalist more than a specialist, I often joke that being a generalist makes me either arrogant or insecure at any given moment.

Bridging the Gap

To mend the divide, we need to do much more than point fingers and complain about what “they” get wrong. Yes, we have things to undo and adjust. But we must have a forward-looking vision. It takes imagination to see what such an integrated approach might look like.

Here are just a few suggestions.

1. Orality

In the missions world, orality is a critical issue.

Missiologists and entire organizations have labored to figure out how to reach and train people who are predominantly “oral.” Oral people are not necessarily illiterate, but they strongly prefer and utilize various non-literate methods to convey significant cultural information. Such methods include storytelling, ritual, song, dance, art, etc.

Imagine the challenges facing missionaries who want to bring the gospel to oral people, who want to disciple them, and train believers for ministry. Most Christians utilize very literate-based tools and resources for their own development. They are familiar with conventional approaches that are best suited for non-oral contexts.

What can they do?

Without reviewing all the work that’s been done in the area of orality, I’ll simply point out one potential contribution from biblical studies. An array of scholars have written on the oral context and background of the Bible. When certain parts of the Bible were compiled and organized, the compilers drew from reports passed down orally (e.g., Luke 1:1-4).

In addition, they often arrange the information in a way that would well fit listeners from an oral context. Don’t forget that most people first heard rather than read the Scripture. Here are a few questions worth asking:

  • How might reflecting on this ancient background stimulate fresh ideas when it comes to mission strategy?
  • How might biblical theologians benefit from a better understanding of how orality works in cultures even today?

2. Honor and shame

Because I’ve written so much on honor and shame on this site, in articles, and in books, I won’t drag on here. Instead, for those of you familiar with the conversation, I urge you to take a step back and observe the constant interaction in such writings between the Bible and various cultural contexts.

I’ve argued for years that we can glean so much insight from Scripture simply by becoming more familiar with the multifaceted nature of honor and shame across many contexts. Likewise, Scripture’s own use of honor-shame themes provides invaluable wisdom in responding to the honor-shame dynamics found in our own mission contexts.

Good things happen when we bridge the gap between theology and missions. It can bring about fruit that lasts.

What are some other ideas that you would suggest? How else might biblical scholars, theologians, and missionaries collaborate in meaningful ways?

As I announced a few months ago, I’ve signed on with GTN specifically so I can keep doing this work. Want to support the effort?


Photo Credit: Jarek Tuszyński 

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