Don’t Throw Out the Missional Baby with the Dirty Bathwater

Don’t Throw Out the Missional Baby with the Dirty Bathwater August 8, 2018
Bathwater
Earliest Known Image of “Don’t Throw The Baby Out With The Bathwater.” Creative Commons

This spring semester, I had the honor of serving as Senior Mission Scholar in Residence at the Overseas Ministries Study Center (OMSC) in New Haven, CT. It was a privilege to learn from missional leaders from around the world, and from OMSC’s Executive Director, Dr. Thomas John Hastings, who served as a mission scholar in Japan for many years. The following is Dr. Hastings’ timely engagement of key concerns pertaining to missional Christianity in our post-colonial world. Here Dr. Hastings accounts for two very different and often combative ways of addressing the global mission enterprise today—conflation on the one hand and separation on the other hand. The first approach only accounts for the dirty bathwater in global missions. The second approach only accounts for the baby, namely, gospel proclamation and missionary heroism, but fails to address important concerns bound up with colonialism and its aftermath. Dr. Hastings engages these two vantage points in critical and constructive terms and introduces us to exciting opportunities available to us today to learn from the global church in the redemptive work of Jesus’ Great Commission. I encourage readers to make themselves familiar with Dr. Hastings’ ministry, as well as OMSC, for further explorations along these lines. OMSC is an incredible incubator for missional imagination and practice today. Here is Dr. Hastings’ reflection and invitation to partner in Jesus’ missional calling on our lives.

The story of the modern missionary movement “from the West to the rest,” which began in the late 18th century, cannot be separated from the story of global political, cultural, and economic hegemony by the Western powers during the same period. Whatever the motivations of individual North American or European missionaries and their supporting churches and societies, it is an undeniable fact that the nations that birthed and backed the call to win the world for Christ also birthed and backed civil wars and revolutions around the world, and sometimes at home, two world wars, a cold war, nuclear arms race, war on terrorism, and other political and economic misadventures with devastating international consequences.

However, while allowing that they intersect at many levels, I am as wary of those who completely conflate these two story lines as I am of those who completely separate them. The “conflaters” try to delegitimize the mission enterprise, expunging the narratives “on the ground” and whatever may be of positive and enduring value, while the “separators” try to legitimize the mission enterprise in their appeal to biblical teaching, church doctrine, or personal heroism, expunging the narratives of political, economic, and cultural machinations and their often disastrous impacts on local peoples. While there are of course variations, today the post-colonial rhetoric of the “conflaters” often holds sway in mainline or conciliar Protestant churches and seminaries while the pietistic rhetoric of the “separators” often holds sway in evangelical Protestant churches and seminaries. In the former group, “mission” is a hotly contested and suspect term, while in the latter, a particular view of “mission” is seen as a mark of genuine discipleship.

I have deliberately described these rival ways of construing the history and ongoing practice of Christian mission to make the point that, while acknowledging that both groups surely have something important to learn from each other as members of the One body of Christ (Romans 12:5), today’s polarizing culture wars make such mutual listening and learning difficult if not impossible.

So where might one go to develop a broader and more nuanced view of mission? Again, while acknowledging that the conflaters and separators each bear a certain degree of truth, I believe that the answer to this question is quite simple, but as with all quests for deeper understanding, it will require us to get personally involved and to move out of the comfort zones of our ideological niches.

As someone who worked under the leadership of Japanese Christians for 20 years as a mission co-worker of the Presbyterian Church (USA), I believe we need to also attend carefully to the stories of national church leaders, laypeople, theologians, and non-Christians. After all, though the Japanese churches with whom we worked are fully independent today, they and their ancestors in faith were on the receiving end of the missionary enterprise. While not uncritical of the missionary movement and its entanglements with colonialism and capitalism, I was surprised to learn from my Japanese sisters and brothers of their sincere sense of gratitude and respect for the missionaries who founded their churches, schools, hospitals, and social welfare institutions.

Having said this, I am of course aware that many will not be able to spend 20 years living in another culture and learning another language, and this is where the ministry of a place like the Overseas Ministries Study Center (OMSC) in New Haven comes into play. Every year, we welcome a community of Christians from every nation and tradition to live, study, and worship together for an entire academic year (September-May). Each cohort is comprised of cross-cultural missionaries, church leaders, scholars, and artists, most of whom come from the “majority” or “non-Western” world. As an example, in the upcoming 2018–2019 year, we will welcome 26 program residents from China, Columbia, India, Myanmar, Nigeria, Paraguay, Peru, South Korea, and Spain. They will participate together in 19 Study Program seminars (see https://www.omsc.org/seminars/), which are facilitated by recognized leaders in their fields and designed to address relevant historical, theological, and practical questions attending the history and current understanding of the churches’ engagement in God’s mission.

In relation to the question of our need to overcome the polarities of the conflaters and separators, consider that most of OMSC’s residents and their faith ancestors were formerly on the “receiving end” of the Western missionary movement. Just imagine the lively interactions that take place in these seminars and in the less formal times of shared community life! You may hear a charismatic Nigerian couple speaking of their respect for Islam and love for their many Muslim friends, a Presbyterian from South Korea recounting her experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit, or a Baptist professor from Myanmar referring to the latest academic scholarship on the Gospel of John.

Our Study Program seminars are open to the public, so why not gather some mission-minded friends from your church or seminary and register for one of our seminars? If you come with an open mind, I guarantee you will come away with a broader and more nuanced view of the church’s participation in the mission of God. You will see why I like to refer to OMSC as an “incubator for missional imagination and practice” (see https://www.omsc.org/video).

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