Following my “Stories about Jesus: how they fit together, and what he means for us today” post a couple of months back, a missionary friend got in touch wondering what this all meant for the “job of the missionary” in the secular Western context. My typical way of answering this sort of question is to spend so long reviewing the biblical narrative that there is little space left at the end to consider the practical implications—I’m not much of a missiologist. This post will be no different, but in my defence I will argue—as a non-missiologist—that telling the story of the creator God as a matter of history is, in fact, the primary task of the missionary in the secular Western context.
What New Testament missionaries did
Jesus inaugurated a prophetic movement within Israel that had in view the coming catastrophe of the war against Rome and the vindication of Jesus himself as king over his people. This was the coming “kingdom of God”. It was the solution to the problem of the failure of first-century Israel to represent YHWH well among the nations.
This prophetic movement was continued by Jesus’ followers after his death and resurrection. They proclaimed to the leaders and people in Jerusalem that the man whom they had killed had been raised from the dead, seated at the right hand of God, and made Lord and Christ, and that there was salvation for first century Israel in no other name (Acts 2:36; 4:12).
By and large, this message was not believed either by the leaders and people in Judea or the synagogue communities of the diaspora. But the resurrection of Jesus was found to have an important corollary for the nations of the Greek-Roman world. This is expressed most sharply, I think, in Paul’s announcement to the men of Athens that the creator God “has fixed a day on which he will judge the oikoumenē in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).
The oikoumenē was not the cosmos. It was the Greek-Roman world—a world that in ignorance thought that God could be represented by manufactured images, a world of philosophers who could do no better than raise an altar to the “unknown god”. The men of Athens scoffed at the notion that a man had been raised from the dead, but history was to prove Paul right. The “times of ignorance” were brought to an end.
So missionaries in the first century had a two-part message about Jesus. The message to Israel was that Jesus had been made Lord and Christ—the one who would both judge and save his people. The message to the Greek-Roman world was that he would judge the old pagan belief system and rule over the nations, to the glory of the God of Israel. The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70 and the conversion of the nations of the Roman empire were the decisive and climactic historical moments in the fulfilment of this “eschatological” mission.
Over the next three or four centuries the political-eschatological mission gave way to a philosophical-theological “mission”—to rethink the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit as the central plank of a new worldview for the Greek-Roman world. The identification of Jesus with divine Wisdom is an odd, ambiguous appendage to the largely apocalyptic vision of the New Testament, but it proved a critical transitional idea for the theologians of the early Patristic period—the bridge to the full integration of the Son into the Godhead in a way that more or less satisfied the requirements of Greek rationalism.
Christendom and beyond
Missionary activity in the Christendom period was essentially the propagation of the Trinitarian worldview, with all its socio-cultural baggage, around the globe.
Since the collapse of Christendom in the modern era and the rise of a secular-humanist worldview, the “mission” of the church has pursued three somewhat incompatible objectives: 1) to restore Christendom or at least prevent further decline; 2) to lend its weight to humanitarian and social justice projects; and 3) to convert individuals to an alternative privatised form of faith. The first mission reaffirms Trinitarian orthodoxy. The second presents Jesus as a radical social reformer. The third casts him as a personal saviour who died on the cross for my sins.
My sense is that we are currently going through a protracted “eschatological” crisis comparable to the crisis faced by the early church, as the second temple Jewish world fell apart and a quite vicious pagan imperialism fought back against a movement that was convinced that God had given the nations to his Son as his heritage, the ends of the earth as his possession (cf. Ps. 2:7-9). Only, we are on the other side of the Christendom bell-curve, on a downward rather than upward trajectory.
This suggests to me that the first thing that the church needs to say about Jesus is that he is Lord—he is in control of the historical circumstances of his people.
But Christendom is behind us. Jesus no longer rules over the nations. To affirm that he is Lord now is not a direct challenge to the secular world in the way that Paul challenged the men of Athens. We are not predicting a future re-conversion of the West or a new Christian cultural hegemony.
The primary mission of the church in the West is to maintain a credible witness to the living creator God who chose a people for his own possession.
We do that as a people which acknowledges the risen Jesus as king, and the story of Jesus must remain a central part of the story that we tell about ourselves. But it seems to me that the fundamental task is not to present Jesus to the world—whether as Second Person of the Trinity, social reformer, or personal saviour—but to present God to the world.
Again, we are where Paul was in Athens, except that the world is retreating from God into the unknown rather than from ignorance to knowledge of the creator. For Paul it was not Jesus but the living God whom the men of Athens had to reckon with. But because of Israel’s crisis, Jesus had been given authority to judge and rule over the world of the idolators, Epicureans and Stoics, for the sake of God.
This does not mean that we no longer need to give an intellectually coherent account of the relation between the Father, Son and Spirit, or that we can step back from the pursuit of justice, or that personal salvation has become an optional extra. But I would argue that the only way we can hold these diverse missionary impulses together is by telling the whole story in all its complex, concrete, historical glory.
Missionaries to the secular West, I think, are bound before anything else to tell a compelling story—not on their own but through the life, culture and practice of prophetic communities—about the God of the whole universe, who chose a priestly people to serve him, who saved that people from the consequences of its sinfulness, who gave all authority and power to his Son, who overthrew pagan empire, who was worshipped and fitfully obeyed by the Christian West for 1500 years, who lost out in a big way to rationalist secular humanism, but who still preserves and renews a faithful priestly community to serve him from the margins of this brave new world.
Well, it’s a start at least….