My comments are interspersed with a long quotation from The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission by Lesslie Newbigin (1978).
Mission is the proclaiming of the kingdom of the Father, and it concerns the rule of God over all that is. We have seen, therefore, that the church has been led by the logic of its own gospel to move beyond preaching into actions of all kinds for the doing of God’s justice in the life of the world.
Implication: a gospel that does not move beyond preaching into actions for justice is somehow deficient, else those who preach it do not understand its logic. Note the connection between mission and the Kingdom of God.
But mission is also sharing the life of the Son, for it is in Jesus that God’s kingdom is present in the life of the world, and this presence is continued — under the sign of the cross — in the community that confesses Jesus as Lord and belongs to him as his body. We have therefore to speak about this community, how it grows and is sustained in its mission. It is futile to talk about the task of the church as agent of liberation — in whatever terms we understand that task — unless we also pay attention to the ways in which the church in any place comes into being and grows. It is useless to talk about the task if you are not concerned about the agency that is to carry out the task. We have to ask not only “What is to be done?” but also “Who is to do it?” The opening announcement of the gospel, “the kingdom of God is at hand,” is followed at once by a call addressed personally to Peter and Andrew, James and John, to follow Jesus and to share in teh work of the kingdom. The calling of men and women to be converted, to follow Jesus, and to be part of his community is and must always be at the center of mission.
Implications: the gospel inherently calls people into community, so that preaching would proclaim inclusion, or acceptance. Notably, we cannot discuss the missional task without connecting it to this very community, the church.
One of today’s most influential schools of missiology takes this as its central emphasis. The Institute of Church Growth of the School of World Missions, located at Fuller Theological Seminary and under the leadership of Dr. Donald McGavran, has forced missionary agencies in the many parts of the world to ask why churches do not grow and to plan deliberately for church growth and expect it as the normal experience of missions.
I think it worth mentioning that the modern church growth movement that yielded the megachurch does not function in the manner that McGavran lays out — by identifying “church” as “local church” there began to be an emphasis on building monolithic institutions rather than on multiplying much smaller ones. Perhaps this represents the height of modernity in the church.
Dr. McGavran’s convictions were developed out of his experience in India, where he observed that some churches were multiplying rapidly while others in similar situations stagnated. He saw that these contrasting experiences resulted from contrasting missionary methods. On the one hand was the method centered on the “mission station.” (Since “mission” means going and “station” means standing still, one might think that “mission station” was the perfect contradiction in terms. It has been, nevertheless, the central element in the program of missions during most of the modern period.) In the “mission station” approach, as McGavran sees it, converts are detached from the natural communities to which they belong, attached to the foreign mission and its institutions, and required to conform to ethical and cultural standards that belong to the Christianity of the foreign missionary. The effect of this policy is twofold. On the one hand the convert, having been transplanted into an alien culture, is no longer in a position to influence non-Christian relatives and neighbors; on the other hand the energies of the mission are exhausted in the effort to bring the converts, or more often their children, into conformity with the standards supposed by the missionaries to be required by the gospel. Both factors have the effect of stopping the growth of the church.
It seems to me that I’ve written something along these lines before, with respect to the habits of the church with a new convert. By extracting them from their prior context and supplanting their old community with a new one, they actually hinder the gospel. In addition, they perpetuate a form of the gospel intertwined with their own culture and values. In the present day, the gospel is so intertwined with modernity (among other things) that they are often indistinguishable to some. Preachers under this malady preach against postmodernism without understanding that their attempts to convert people out of postmodernism is nothing more than a new form of colonialism. Note here that we’ve got the perfect basis for missional practice… don’t supplant existing communities, rather let the gospel contextualize and spread into them.
Schools, colleges, hospitals, and programs for social action multiply, but the church does not. McGavran traces this failure to a misreading of the Great Commission. According to the text of Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus instructed his apostles to disciple the nations, to baptize, and to teach. The order of these three words represents an order of priorities that must be observed. The primary business of missions is to disciple and baptize. Teaching must follow, not precede, the others. It is no doubt the task of the church to teach men to observe all that Jesus has commanded, but this can come only after they have been part of the church. The “mission station” strategy has resulted in the stopping of growth because missions have been devoted to perfecting the energies that should have been given to discipling. By contrast, the strategy of the “people’s movement” actively seeks and fosters the corporate decisions of whole social groups to accept the gospel. This avoids the breaking of natural relationships. “Men become Christians without social dislocation so that the resulting churches have leaders and loyalties intact. Churches are therefore likely to be more stable and self-supporting and to bear up better under persecution.” [(Donald McGavran, in Concise Dictionary of the Christian World Mission, ed. S. Neill et al)] Churches that are the products of such people’s movements tend to grow, and in fact the great majority of those who have become Christians from among the non-Christian religions have come in this way.
I don’t think I’d suggest that the word order of the Great Commission is prescriptive, but the wisdom of practitioners should be reason enough to give the proposal credence. The description given here outlines what we would call a missional practice, where the gospel is taken into the culture or context and allowed to spread there naturally. What is described is essentially an incarnational model as opposed to the attractional one of the “mission station,” where once attracted, the convert effectively severs ties with their former relationships. Had these remained intact, the gospel could have spread more rapidly among them. McGavran argues that focus should be given to areas where the gospel might spread rapidly in this fashion, where people hear the gospel in terms of their own culture, for “God accepts world cultures.” Unfortunately, if the observations are correct, this error snowballs and creates another, viz. the diversion of energies.
From Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, p.121-123.