Since the Bangkok World Missionary Conference which took place at the turn of the years 1972/1973, in Thailand, there has been a feeling of uneasiness regarding “mission” within the churches in the Western World. At Bangkok, representatives of the newly decolonized countries had accused Western missionaries of having linked the proclamation of the gospel with the spread of Western civilization, which had destroyed indigenous cultures in the name of evangelization. In order to make it possible for the local churches in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific to set their own priorities in mission, the proposal was made for a temporary “moratorium” on sending money and missionaries from the North. The delegates at that conference acknowledged the role of culture in shaping contextualized theologies. It was also at Bangkok that the delegates emphasized that the gospel must be proclaimed in holistic terms—including spiritual, socio-economic and political aspects in equal measure.
After almost 43 years, since Bangkok, one would believe that the debate on mission is definitely behind us, but the truth is that it is not. The hullabaloo on mission and the uneasiness that it stirs up still disturbs the church.
This is certainly the case in my own church, Mennonite Church Canada. Now and then, I am invited to speak about my work in our congregations. Sometimes, I am approached by people who ask why we are still doing mission in foreign lands. Sometimes the issue of respect for foreign cultures and religions is raised. Some Mennonites wonder, “Who are we to evangelize other people? “What makes these questions even more excruciating and difficult to deal with is our own national history of how our White-dominated government and the Christian churches have dealt with our Canadian indigenous people.
Another difficulty that we face when we speak about mission is related to the very concept of mission. The main question asked is, what should mission workers be doing, evangelism or service? That controversy, started with the Dutch missiologist Johannes Christiaan Hoekendijkin the aftermath of the Bangkok Conference, still divides the so-called “evangelical” and “ecumenical” to this day.
As for the people in our Mennonite church pews, in North America, they are generally open and supportive of relief, service and development in the name of Christ. But “evangelism” and “church planting” are seen as an imposition with a controlling agenda. A good friend of mine, a Mennonite church leader, recently shared with us he is allergic to words like “church planting, etc.” At the Mennonite Church USA delegate sessions four years ago, Andre Gingrich Stoner remarked that “Mennonites love service, flirt with peace, and are allergic to evangelism.”
When faced with this attitude against the sharing our faith verbally and enthusiastically, I am troubled. However, I can’t help but think on the advice given in the first letter of Peter: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15, NIV). And as I ponder on that advice, I find no better answer than taking a fresh look at what Jesus, the founder of the church, said and did about this institution that I am part of. What did he intend when he sent the Twelve to the lost sheep of the House of Israel? What did Jesus ultimately mean when he gave his disciples the so-called Great Commission?
The New Testament narratives give testimony that Jesus first introduced himself and his teaching saying: “The Spirit of the Lord is in me, for he has anointed me to bring the good news to the afflicted. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives, sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim a year of favour from the Lord” (Luke 4:18–19). The Gospels used the Greek word ευαγγέλιov. The prefix “ευ” found in that the Greek word could be rendered in English by the word “good,” and the root word “αγγέλιov” by the word “message”. No matter how we translate this, we should always remember that not only is God speaking, but God is addressing us a good message. The gospel of Jesus Messiah is good news of great joy, just as the announcement of his birth by the angels was: “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will come to all people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10–11). As a matter of fact, joy is the keyword. With Jesus’ proclamation of the good news, our joy is that God is offering us to be partakers in his Kingdom.
Matthew’s Gospel tells us that after that temptation, when he heard that John had been arrested, Jesus withdrew to Galilee and settled in Capernaum and from then onwards, he began to proclaim his message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand” (Matthew 4:17).The Gospel of Mark has Jesus identifying the proclamation of the good news—“ευαγγέλιov”—of the Kingdom of God as the reason for his coming to this world, saying: “That is why I came” (Mark 1:38) The Gospel of Luke has him emphasizing: “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns too, because that is what I was sent to do” (Luke 4: 43).
According to the New Testament narratives, Jesus did not proclaim the kingdom alone; he had gathered a group of friends and invited them to partake in this mission. The New Testament writers tell us that he called them using expressions such as “come after me,” or “follow me” as in Matthew 4:19; 9:9: “Come after me and I will make you fishers of people.” The verb ακολουθώ (to follow) appears 56 times in the Synoptics and 14 times in John’s Gospel. In most cases, it is associated with disciple (μαθητής) making. For one to become a disciple, one must follow a master; sit at his feet, to learn from him in order to put into practice all that he or she has learned.
It is no accident that Matthew’s Gospel has arranged Jesus’ ministry journey beginning with the temptation in the desert where Jesus affirms the Kingship of God and God alone. After the temptation, we see Matthew’s Gospel drawing us into the teachings of the ethics of the Kingdom, which is found in discourse on the mountain of beatitudes. (Matthew 3–7). Matthew makes it clear that we understand that Jesus was making disciples. The Gospel says, “Seeing the crowd, he went into the mountain. And when he was seated, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak.
Jesus began his proclamation saying: “Repent!” or “metanoei/te!” This μετάνοια is about a change in allegiance and a total returning to God as the centre of all our values. Even today, we too, as Jesus’ church need to we need μετάνοια, we need a “change of our mind, so that we may see this world as Jesus, the founder of the church saw it. Gospel writers bear testimony that Jesus looked at this world with compassion (rachamim). In the image of the Compassionate God (Ha’ Rachaman) who sent him, Jesus fed the hungry (Matthew 15:32), and because of the same compassion, he proclaimed the good news to the crowds, made disciples and entrusted them with a mission: “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few, therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:35–38). It is because of that very compassion that Jesus sent his church to make disciples of all nations. And he promised to accompany the church in this task to the end of time” (Matthew 28:18–20).
Mission was in Jesus’ DNA and mission is in church’s DNA. There can’t be a church without mission. We must do mission, and we must do it Jesus’ way, pledging our obedience to God and God alone, and denouncing any other principality or power that frightens human lives.
Brothers and sisters, do not take lightly the Great Commission. Do not water down Jesus’ command, and do not replace his last command to his church with your individual theological inclinations. At the example of our Lord and Master Jesus of Nazareth, let us preach the good news of the Kingdom of God, and let us preach it to the full, speaking the word and serving the world.
If we do not enthuse ourselves with the Great Commission, in its double sense of evangelism and service, we may cease to be a church. A church cannot choose whether or not to do mission; the church is missional by nature.
Jesus’ offer for us to partake in his kingdom is a gift that we should welcome with gratitude. And gratitude (“hakarat ha’tov” as the Hebrew language translates), refers to awakening to the good we have been given and to give thanks for it. Let us be grateful to God, for the offer of his kingdom, for gratitude is contagious. Let us be grateful to God, because as the Jewish Chassidic teacher Rebbe Nachman of Breslov said, “Gratitude rejoices with her sister joy, and is always ready to light a candle and have a party.”
—Hippolyto Tshimanga is director of ministry in Africa, Europe and Latin America for Mennonite Church Canada.