Forgive the pretentious title. It encapsulates thoughts that are broad, but they may or may not be deep. You decide. Perhaps I am scattered, but I hope to share a wide range of thoughts I think must go together. I am a missionary, but there are men and women who have been missionaries longer. Twenty-something years does not make anyone an expert. The ideas, the nagging ideas I keep struggling with, will not leave me alone. They beg to be heard, and I am in the mood to indulge them.
An observation: I am an American Protestant living in an uncertain time. It is not uncertain because God is absent or disinterested. I do not for a moment believe that. It is uncertain because American Protestants are uncertain about who they are and why they are here. When I became an evangelical Christian forty-seven years ago and started living overseas, I became aware of a criticism leveled against people like me. We were arrogant, ethnocentric people, exporting American Christian culture. We were missionaries of Americana, of capitalism, of militarism, of coercion, trammeling the cultural identities of everyone we met. We forced our way onto the poor and the needy. There is probably truth in the perception, though I think the charges were often overblown and unfair. The one thing right about the perception is the sense of confidence that undergirded American Christianity in the late twentieth century.
To say the least, things changed. They had to. Western Christianity took a backseat to the growth of the church outside of the West—in South America, but most especially in Africa and Asia. We no longer represented the majority. Our thinking also changed. Phenomena such as Asian or African theology, liberation theology, perceived orientalism, and so on offered non-Western versions of Christianity. Christianity (and Christian missions) began to see itself increasingly through diverse lenses provided by surging social science. Anthropology, psychology, and linguistics took on directive rather than descriptive roles. The social scientific turn meant that the emphasis shifted from the proclamation of biblical, covenantal, propositional doctrine that confronted culture to the contextualization of a supracultural, often nonconfrontational message that could be customized for each global context.
The shift to the social was shattering in its consequence. It moved the center of gravity in missions and church planting from revelation to human construct. Let me clarify what I mean. I assume that most of the people reading this short article are professed Christians. They affirm the Bible as having come from God. They believe that their eternal future depends on God’s saving love for them. They, in other words, do not believe that God is make-believe or that genuine faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ is principally psychological. While I think that many professing evangelicals are moving in that direction, they are not there yet. For the broad but diminished expanse of evangelical Christians in America, the triumph of the social works in subtler ways. I use that word triumph deliberately. It reminds me of Philip Rieff’s seminal work from the 1960s, The Triumph of the Therapeutic.
In this book, Rieff demonstrated how Christianity’s mutual confrontation by and accommodation to modernism, particularly psychology, forced Christianity to redefine what it did and offered. In other words, as it confronted an increasingly therapeutic age, it modified its message and services to conform to the changes in society. People came to believe that what troubled them most were conditions to be treated rather than sins to be confronted. Similar accommodations were taking place in many other fields as well. As modernism morphed into postmodernism (or liquid modernism, as I prefer), the objective gave way to the subjective in linguistics and interpretation. What an audience needed to hear was more important than what an author meant to say. The study of culture began to dominate missions as a practice, but that too led to culture’s dominance of the process of theologizing. In other words, if theological interpretation formerly resided in its divine revelation and divine intent, ascertained by reading the Bible in harmony with itself within the historical church, it now shifted to developing theology in local cultural contexts as the text was reinterpreted according to cultural norms. Culture became king.
There were two great consequences: cultural fragmentation and incoherence on the one hand, and the oversimplification of the gospel on the other. People such as Charles Kraft, who taught generations of missionaries, presented the gospel as a supracultural nub surrounded by disposable, convertible cultural husks. In that way, pastors, elders, priests, sacraments, liturgies, creeds, confessions, and so on were all up for alteration or erasure. What mattered was the simple core: Jesus rose from the dead and is Lord. Some made rash statements, opining that adding anything to this simplistic statement is a denial of the gospel. Syncretism became the inevitable order of the day. Influential evangelicals extolled “center-set” rather than “bounded-set” Christianity, which I would argue undermines the key distinctions that separated religions from each other, such as Islam and Christianity. The details of revelation were muddied, making it easier to say that we all ultimately worship the same God. If that is true, then religions are not necessarily competitors. I remember reviewing a typical example of this in Duane Bidwell’s book When One Religion Isn’t Enough.
Evangelicals were caught in the turmoil of change. Of all people, Western evangelicals—and to some degree, American Roman Catholics—were most vulnerable. Evangelicals, convinced of their own guilt as being anti-intellectual fundamentalists, opened up to the vast academic developments flooding into the world in the second half of the twentieth century. Along with it came a strong desire for approval by that world. We got our PhDs and published in peer-reviewed journals, but we paid a heavy price for all of that. In exchange for the recognition, we took on the anthropological perspectives of the modernist elites. The Bible lost its aspect as God’s speech. Religion became nothing more than an amalgam of culture. Culture, a nineteenth-century idea, swallowed up religion altogether. The consequences for missions were incalculable.
Religious expression could now be dictated by the tastes and sensibilities of local culture. Rituals were not earthly expressions of divine realities; they were “man-made.” They expressed the imperfect imaginations of people grasping for God. Revelation took a backseat. This erosion of traditional Christian sensibility leveled the playing field with non-Western philosophy and religion. It meant that, revelation excepted, we all worship the same God. Religion would no longer divide as it had in the Balkan War of the 1990s. Rather, it could be harnessed as a tool of peace to convince Muslims and Christians, for example, that their animosity was fueled by nothing more than a tragic misunderstanding.
So, whither go missions and its missionaries? Protestant missionaries float with the tide for the most part. They accept the status quo, almost without questioning. They are about action, after all, not reflection. They go to church, but many are not about the church. They find their identities in agencies. Even denominational missionaries commonly locate their identities in their missional institutions rather than in the churches that raised them in the faith and sent them out. They adopt schizophrenic methods, claiming biblical fidelity but reinterpreting the Bible constantly through secular humanistic tools such as anthropology, psychology, speech pragmatics, and so on. To repeat myself: the problem is not that missionaries use the tools of modernism. I do myself. Rather, it is that they now often use these tools to dominate their theology.
Western missionaries are in a tough spot. There is now a hyperawareness of racial, cultural difference. We live in a postcolonial world. We eagerly acknowledge guilt and actively divest ourselves of directing church planting in other cultures, but only partly. National church planters spring up from soil we helped till, and they exert their authority from us. That is good, but it is incomplete. They rely on Western theological education, missiology, and money. National scholars, when they emerge, rarely impact our thinking unless they themselves were trained by us. Relationships between Western and non-Western churches begin, but the focus often comes down to money.
Western missionaries flow into the support of church planting without ever having themselves worked in a church. Mutual respect is hard to achieve on these grounds. There is too much guilt and too much desire for control and power. Missionaries slowly get pulled into a new role. I have helped encourage it, but I am troubled by what it has meant to me. Rather than planting a church overseas, as I might have done fifty years ago, and rather than simply funding one, I have carved out a place for myself as a missionary go-between, suspended between two cultures. I have become a third-culture missionary encouraging a third-culture partnership.
Theologically, I think it is the right place to be. I am just not sure whether I can live with it. It sounds good and biblical: godly men and women representing the Christians in one place to the Christians of another. Try it. It is hard. You live with a greater knowledge of both Christians, West and non-West, but you are never fully affiliated with either. You are also never fully trusted. You sound different. You represent the best of one church to other churches that are ignorant of it. Values and contexts between cultures are, by definition, different. They are alien. When you decide you really like some of them better than what was native to you, you become alien to your own people.
It is a missionary role that also does not require large numbers of people. Embassies may have a large staff but only one ambassador. Who then are your people? Who takes care of you? I am a great advocate for missionaries placing themselves underneath the spiritual, personal oversight of local churches, but the match is always a bit tentative, never completely consummated. When the work gets hard, the middle position feels a bit like being crushed between millstones. It is never restful.
My problem is that I cannot think of a better place to be or of a more useful role for missionaries: ambassadors and representatives from church to church. It resonates with the Bible. It respects the changing global church. It represents a better post-postcolonial future, a future when the painful memory of colonialism is no longer in view. But it means a new way in which missionaries go the way of the cross. It is a different kind of dying to self.
Basil Grafas is the pen name of an American missionary working overseas.