More Than a Command

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

Since the advent of Protestant missions, the dominant motivation for missions has been an appeal to the “missionary mandate.”  Thus, missions became a response of obedience to a particular set of commands, most notably those texts commonly referred to as embodying the Great Commission.  In contrast, Lesslie Newbigin has pointed out that in the New Testament we witness not the burden of obeying a command, but rather a vast “explosion of joy.”[1] Jürgen Moltmann described it as the joyous invitation to all peoples to come to a “feast without end.”[2] Missions is, of course, never less than a command of Christ, but it is certainly far more than that.  The perspective of the New Testament is never, how-can-we-motivate-someone-to-go, but, rather, who could possibly be silent in light of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ?

Harry Boer in his Pentecost and Missions rightly points out that none of the key figures in the book of Acts ever makes a direct appeal to any of the Great Commission passages to justify their preaching, even when questions are raised about the emerging Gentile mission.  He further points out that the earliest believers who took the initiative to preach the gospel to Gentiles (Acts 11:20) were very likely not even present at any of those post-resurrection commissioning events.[3] However, this is less a statement (one way or the other) about the importance of Jesus’ final commission in their minds as it is about the effect of the transformative events of Resurrection and Pentecost in the lives of those earliest witnesses.  The 19th century missiologist, Gustav Warneck (1834-1910) was probably correct when he stated that “the Great Commission was the silent presupposition underlying the witness of the earliest Christian community.”[4] The point, however, is that the Great Commission cannot, nor should it, be viewed in isolation from either of the two determinative, supernatural events which precede and follow the commissions; namely, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and the coming of the Holy Sprit on the Day of Pentecost.  It was the transforming reality of these two supernatural events which thrust the early church outward into that “explosion of joy.”

Understanding missions as an extension of the Holy Spirit’s life and work through the Church and into the world carries with it a wide range of implications for missions.  However, in a more general way, three representative examples will be noted here.  First, this new perspective should help to liberate the undue emphasis on human strategies which all too often have been articulated in isolation from the Spirit’s work.  Contemporary missiology places great emphasis on the skill of human efforts, sociological models and elaborate strategies, but comparatively less emphasis on conceptualizing missions as primarily an extension of the ministry of the Holy Spirit.  We need to prepare missionaries not only in what to say and do, but, more importantly, how to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ in the world.

Moonjang Lee, one of my former colleagues and teacher of  missions at Gordon-Conwell, once surprised some of our students in a chapel service where he was preaching.  He commented that no missionary should go out onto the field until they were certain that their own spirituality was deeper than those to whom they were being sent.  We have emphasized so much the inherent power of the Christian message, that we sometimes forget the importance of the messenger, whose life fully reflects what it means to live in the power of the Holy Spirit, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Second, the under-developed doctrine of the Holy Spirit has limited the church’s ability to integrate missionary training with important biblical themes such as understanding the role of persecution, or the role of signs and wonders in the proclamation of the gospel.  Yet, even a casual reading of the Book of Acts reveals that “signs and wonders” as well as persecution often accompany and attest to the faithful preaching of the gospel.

Third, placing missions within the larger context of the Holy Spirit’s work in bringing in the new Creation has important implications for how we understand and define the “task” or “goal” of missions.  In missions writings dating back to the 19th century there is a great deal of emphasis on “completing the task” and “fulfilling the Great Commission.”  Probably the most famous missionary slogan emerged out of the Student Volunteer Missionary Movement:  “The Evangelization of the World in this Generation.”  Since that time, the language of “completion” and “fulfillment” has typified evangelical, missions literature.  In the 20th century, the most important movement which focused the church’s energy on “completing” the Great Commission was the A.D. 2000 Movement.  The motto of the A.D. 2000 movement was “A Church for Every People and the Gospel for Every Person by 2000.”

All of these movements have wonderfully served the church.  Indeed, the global church is stronger today because of the zeal, commitment and the genuine Christian fruit which these movements produced.  However, we must increasingly recognize that the language of “completion” can only be comprehended when missions is being built on the foundation of Christendom, not on the Trinity.  Through the lens of the missio dei we no longer isolate soteriology from pneumatology and eschatology.  Therefore, even when every person has had an opportunity to hear the gospel, or even if a church is planted in every people-group of the world, missions will not be over.  Once missions is linked inseparably to the Triune God, then the church recognizes that the ultimate goal of missions can only be found in the New Creation.  This does not negate important goals such as planting a church in every people-group in the world.  However, it does mean that the church must always live in the tension of “unfinished business”   The mission of the church (missions) is to participate in the missio dei by continuing the mission of Jesus throughout the world until the end of history.


[1] Lesslie Newbigin, “The Logic of Missions” as found in New Directions in Mission and Evangelization, vol. 2; James Scherer and Stephen Bevans, eds. (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1994), 16.  Original context found in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, chapter 10, pp. 116-127.

[2] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit (London:  SCM Press, 1975), 75.

[3] Harry Boer, Pentecost and Missions, 43.

[4] As quoted by Harry Boer, Pentecost and Missions, 36.

Comments

  • Steve Gober says:

    Dr. Tennent, Thank you for this excellent reflection on the heart of the missionary call and endeavor. Truly, it is only through the Spirit of God that we will ever be enabled to fulfill the command. May God use ATS in the years ahead to send forth many more young men and women who reflect Spirit-filled and Spirit-empowered lives and ministries.

  • Bob Kaylor says:

    Dr. Tennant – Great piece. One of the major challenges we face is the fact that the resurrection of Jesus has become a peripheral or, for some traditions, optional truth. We’ve consigned the resurrection to one Sunday a year and made the gospel more about getting to heaven than transforming creation. Recapturing a robust understanding of the resurrection as central to Christianity will be a key to missional practice and motivation. Thanks for your reflections!

  • Bob Kaylor says:

    Sorry that I misspelled Tennent! Thanks again for your leadership.

  • […] Testament we witness not the burden of obeying a command, but rather a vast “explosion of joy.”[1] Jürgen Moltmann described it as the joyous invitation to all peoples to come to a “feast without […]

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