Mission and evangelism in the secular West

Read time: 13 minutes

Stefan Paas is a Dutch missiologist. Pilgrims and Priests: Christian Mission in a Post-Christian Society (2019) is a modified English version of a book originally published in Dutch. It is his attempt to answer the “big question” that logically precedes any missiological enquiry, namely, “What is your ecclesiology?”

It is certainly one of the big questions that needs to be asked—theoretically—before we set about trying to extend the reach and influence of the church. What is it exactly that we are extending? What is the church? What use is it in a progressively secular, post-Christian world? We know the role that the church has played historically, but in a rapidly changing cultural and indeed human context we find ourselves having to face up to the stark question: does the church have a future? So, yes, we need a credible and sustainable ecclesiology.

I’m not planning to review or comment on the book as a whole, but I would like to highlight certain areas of concern, mostly having to do with how Paas develops the link between mission today and the biblical narrative. In the opening chapter he outlines the development of missiology in the secular West in recent decades and looks in particular at the evolving relationship between mission and evangelism. I’ll start there.

Mission in a secular nation

Paas begins by noting what he sees as a quite broad-based reorientation towards mission in western churches. He defends this development against various criticisms—that it is still inherently imperialistic, that the church is too anxious to be perceived as relevant, or that it is theologically and spiritually shallow. Since the attacks are coming both from conservatives and progressives, he concludes that they are likely to be motivated by “ideological prejudice.” So what is needed is a “theology that does justice to the deep secularisation of many areas in the West without saying goodbye to the missional nature of Christianity” (4).

In Paas’ view mission is, and always has been, at the heart of the Christian programme, driven quite simply by an enthusiasm for Jesus and a sense of responsibility to share the object of our enthusiasm with others. There is nothing remarkable or objectionable about this, he argues. Indeed, human culture is pervasively “missional.” We are always sharing experiences with others, always seeking to persuade others that we have something of value to offer. So, “if you even remotely believe that Jesus and his story are relevant for the concrete needs of all sorts of people (or even for the future of the planet), you can’t always criticise people who, consequent on this belief, commit themselves to helping their fellow humans” (8).

The rigorous repositioning of Jesus in a historically plausible Jewish-apocalyptic narrative no longer needs to be regarded as an alienation of the New Testament from the concerns of the modern church.

The section on “intercultural missiology” I’ll come back to in a moment. We then get to the heart of this opening chapter on mission in a secular context, which is a discussion of the relation between “mission” and “evangelism.” This is what I want to focus on.

Paas makes two general observations. On the one hand, since the 1970s there has been a renewed emphasis on evangelism in the global church and on a broad ecumenical basis. On the other, evangelicals, who have traditionally prioritised evangelism, have demonstrated a growing interest in mission as holistic social and ethical engagement. Either way, the upshot is that “the heart of Christian mission is recovered everywhere” (12).

In order then to explain the theoretical relationship between “evangelism” and “mission” he presents “three complementary statements that can be found among many missiologists.”

First, “mission” is the larger category and includes “evangelism.” Paas gives the example of the “five marks of global mission” produced by the Church of England: 1) proclaim the good news of the kingdom; 2) baptise and disciple new believers; 3) respond compassionately to human need; 4) work to bring about social transformation; and 5) “strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth” (13). In this respect, “mission” is “everything the Church is called to say, do and be in this world, as a witness to what God has done in Christ with a view to the coming of his kingdom.” Evangelism is a key component.

Secondly, Paas disagrees with David Bosch’s assertion that the missionary task is “as coherent, broad and deep as the need and exigencies of human life.” Better, he thinks, is Andrew Kirk’s definition of mission as participation in the realisation of “God’s purposes in the world, as these are demonstrated in the ministry of Jesus Christ” (13). It is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that provides the “normative lens on God’s purposes with his world.” This is still a wide definition because Jesus proclaimed the kingdom, healed the sick, gave bread to the poor, included marginalised people, prophesied against those in power, formed a community, and “encouraged a sober lifestyle.” But there are things that are not mission. For example, Jesus kept earthly politics at arm’s length.

Thirdly, all that said, at the heart of mission is evangelism, understood as “testifying about God’s news in Jesus Christ” (14). Whether it happens through words or actions, “it is characteristic of evangelism that it invites people to follow Jesus, to become disciples.”

In the final section of chapter one, Paas argues for a “receptivity” in mission, by which he means an openness to receive and learn both from God and from others.

So here’s where I have a problem or two…

1. Little attempt is made to connect with current biblical studies. This shouldn’t be the case any more. On the one hand, there are a number of half-adequate narrative accounts of mission produced by biblical scholars that at least get us moving in the right direction. On the other, the more rigorous repositioning of Jesus and the emergence of a Jewish-Gentile church in a historically plausible Jewish-apocalyptic narrative no longer needs to be regarded as an alienation of the New Testament from the concerns of the modern church. At a time of grave historical crisis, both for the church and for the planet, Bible-committed evangelicals should be deeply interested in the story of how the God of Israel first delivered his people from catastrophe and then went on to establish his own rule over the Greek-Roman oikoumenē.

2. From the perspective of scripture as a whole, I would venture to suggest that making the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the missional “lens” is too restrictive. I’ve said before that as evangelicals we make too much of Jesus—or at least, that we make too much of him in isolation from his historical context.

As a missiological paradigm it fails in two fundamental respects: it ignores the crucial relation of Jesus to the story of Israel, and it discounts the whole forward-looking or apocalyptic dimension of the New Testament witness. So on the one hand, we lose sight of the Old Testament idea that God brings into existence a priestly-prophetic people to serve him in the midst of the nations under changing and challenging historical conditions. On the other, we miss the profoundly historical significance of the life, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus for the future place of that priestly-prophetic people among the nations.

So looking backwards, Jesus resolved the crisis of Israel’s persistent disobedience; and looking forwards, he—and his followers—won for Israel’s God a glorious reputation and rule among the nations. There you have the New Testament story in a nutshell.

Over the last two thousand years, of course, history has moved on, and we are having to deal with a dramatically transformed “eschatological” landscape, but the basic “missional” paradigm remains the same: we are a priestly-prophetic people called to serve the living God under changing and challenging historical conditions.1 That is the large, elaborate, and indispensable optical device in which the lens of Jesus is mounted.

3. The suggestion that Jesus was not much interested in politics is indicative of the failure to grasp the narrative-historical context. The proclamation of the impending kingdom of God (e.g., Mk. 1:14-15) is directed not at humanity in general but at the political-religious leadership of Israel. He did not just happen to critique social injustice in passing as part of a broader spiritual-ethical programme. He directly and deliberately confronted faithlessness and injustice in Israel, threatening the hierarchies with a God-driven revolution from among the least in Jewish society. He brazenly predicted that within a few decades the governing Jewish council would see him, as the rejected Son of Man, vindicated before the throne of God, coming with glory and power as judge and ruler of God’s people.

The whole of Jesus’ mission—and the mission of his followers—was inescapably political in character and deeply subversive by the standards of ancient politics. Modern missiology can’t just ignore or sideline that. It’s what the New Testament is all about, and somehow it needs to inform our own sense of purpose today, even if from a distance by way of a storyline that has since taken some abrupt and unexpected turns.

4. I am involved in a mission organisation that has always been acutely conscious of the need to develop and implement relevant and effective methodologies. So I endorse Paas’ overall objectives. But I must say, I rather warmed to the view of the Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham van de Beek, who argues that the current frantic flurry of missionary or “missional” activity merely masks the spiritual poverty of the church in the West (3). The real challenge before us (this is Paas’ summary of Van de Beek) is not to do mission more effectively but to devote ourselves to prayer, repentance and inner renewal. The church needs to rediscover why it exists in the first place—and this, I suggest, is not just a “spiritual” or even theological question, it is a biblical question.

I realise that there will be a lot more to Paas’ reflection on the matter than is on show in this first chapter, but I think that our missiology needs a more radical rethink than he is prepared to consider. Again, I state my view that biblical studies has much to contribute here, if only we could learn how to join the dots.

5. I am also in two minds about the value of the term “mission.” The narrative-historical approach suggests, it seems to me, that the primary purpose of the church as a continuation of Old Testament Israel is to serve—and to serve the interests of—the living creator God throughout human history, come what may. That is not, strictly speaking, a mission; rather, it requires an active, vital, and effective presence.

I would argue that the central biblical “model” remains the presence of God in his temple, served by a priestly people, in Jerusalem, in the midst of the nations, with the nations coming to Jerusalem to pay tribute to the living God and to learn his ways. This model is “spiritualised” in the New Testament only to the extent that the holy city is located in heaven and the priestly-prophetic people is scattered as a living temple across the Greek-Roman world in advance of a new political-religious order.

Historically speaking, however, the biblical people of God faces three further challenges or tasks.

First, there are times when the people is threatened with destruction or with the disruption of its priestly work, typically because of disobedience, resulting in some external threat to its existence. This requires the faithful to persevere, the faithless to repent, and God to act to deliver. It is arguably the type of action that dominates the biblical narrative—the response to invasion or oppression by more powerful neighbours, from the Philistines, to the Assyrians, to the Babylonians, to the Greeks, to the Romans.

Secondly, the action of the living God in judging and saving his people from crisis needs to be proclaimed to the nations, for the sake of God’s reputation in the world. This is a straightforward evangelistic mission, if you like—the public announcement of good news about the action of God in the regional-political arena. The so-called “great commission” in the New Testament falls in this category.

Thirdly, in the New Testament context the proclamation of the saving action of God among the nations led to the formation of priestly-prophetic communities of God’s reformed and restored people across the Greek-Roman world, which became a concrete sign of the future conversion of the pagan world to worship of the living God.

The New Testament does not go so far as to consider how these communities of eschatological witness were to be sustained from generation to generation (hence the controversy over infant baptism). Nor does it prescribe how the church should function after the conversion of the nations to worship of the living God—hence all the controversies about the role of the church during the fifteen hundred years of European Christendom. The New Testament certainly does not provide a model for the life and mission of the church in a progressively post-Christian, secular-humanist world.2 We have to work that out for ourselves.

6. Recognising that mission is no longer a one-way street culturally, Paas suggests that the church must develop an “intercultural missiology,” arising out of interaction and engagement among Christians from all over the world. The argument for an “intercultural missiology” recognises the history of western religious expansionism that produced a global and multicultural Christianity, but it does not take into account—at least, not at this stage in the book—the future trajectory of this shift. Does global Christianity remain strong? What happens to the children and grandchildren of migrant Christians? Do they keep the faith of their parents? Do they remain culturally distinct? And how long before the non-Western world succumbs to the secular hegemony in some form or other?

7. We do not help matters, I think, by reducing evangelism to the invitation to “respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ” and the training of new believers to invite others to do the same. Both in the Synoptic Gospels and in the mission of the later church “evangelism” was the proclamation of a future event: first Israel then the nations of the Roman Empire were told the “good news” that the God of Israel was about to act—within a plausible, historical future—to “judge” the current situation and establish his own rule, through his Son, over this world.

Initially, Jesus directly called a small number of people to participate in this mission, but as momentum picked up, people naturally got on board. Not only Jews but also a growing number of Gentiles came to believe in this future transformation and received from God the Spirit of eschatological witness.

But the invitation or opportunity to participate followed the announcement of what God was about to do in the ancient world. We can still invite people to participate in the outcome of what God did back then, in the ancient world, within the historical horizons of Jesus and the apostles. That at least safeguards the historical perspective. Two thousand years ago the God of Israel saved his people from the devastating consequences of their rebelliousness and sent in motion a series of events that would culminate in the conversion of Greek-Roman world.

Still, I think that there may be a better way to engage with the historicality of the New Testament witness. We are not now looking ahead to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and the conversion of the nations of the Roman Empire. But we are no less a priestly-prophetic people called to serve the God of history, under the rule of his Son, in the power and discipline of the Spirit, and I would argue that the invitation to participate should follow an updated declaration of the intention of the living God to judge and remake, probably as part of the narrative of global excess and environmental disaster.

Our “good news” must be that God is to be found in this crisis—perhaps that he has handed our secular civilisation over to the disastrous consequences of our immoderation (cf. Rom. 1:24, 26, 28). We preach this “gospel,” and we baptise and disciple those who believe it. That, I suggest, is the mission of the “evangelical” church today.

My main concern here has been the lack of communication between New Testament studies and missiology. I do not think that the historical perspective of the New Testament should be, or needs to be, sacrificed for the sake of contemporary relevance.

But in other regards, I expect this to be a very useful book, and I will persevere with it. I have just glanced ahead, and I like what Paas says in his final paragraph: “In my search for an attractive missional vision for small Christian communities in a secular culture I have arrived at the ‘priesthood Church’.” That holds promise.

Interesting thoughts. It is odd to me how there seems to be a resistance to historically contextualizing the NT because it might “no longer be relevant.” But we aren’t afraid of that with the exodus, or any OT narrative.

@Daniel Hoffman:

That’s right. We need to think about the transformation in the fortunes of God’s people brought about the life-death-resurrection of Jesus as much more like the exodus or the return from exile, less as a universal humanity-changing event.