Mission Shift Essay #3 and Geoff Henderson Response

This is my final post in the MissionShift series: “takes” on the book of the same name, which comprises 3 main essays, and a plethora of responses.
Ralph Winter, a dear brother in Christ (not to me, but I’m sure to plenty of folks), who is now with the Lord, contributed the third main essay in the book titled “The Future of Evangelical Mission.” Like the other essays, he wisely chronicled the history of missions in the last several centuries in order to offer a critique of how to move forward in the 21st century.
While I did find the terms First Inheritance Evangelicalism and Second Evangelicalism a bit confusing, Winter at the least, reminds us that many folks after 1700 were committed to the proclamation of the gospel as well as numerous social reforms, eradication of diseases, and concern for higher education. Some critique his break-up into such terms as overly simplistic. But because this was ultimately a didactic tool to remind us that evangelicals once truly concerned themselves which such “kingdom issues, I had no problem with this reductionism.
Ultimately, I find Winter wise to aim evangelicals today to concern themselves with what he calls “defeating the works of the devil.” And in the responses from the rest of the responders, what I’m picking up from them is a disagreement on primacy. So is there a primacy to defeating the works of the devil or a primacy to proclamation of the gospel?
Here are a few thoughts:
1.) Location, Location, Location: Most of us write about these issues from nice cushy lifestyles without experiencing the reality of Malaria, AIDS, or other prominent socially debilitating diseases or oppressive structures. As a result, we tend to think, proclamation AND then be concerned about the other stuff, which isn’t as eternally “important.” But were we placed in such living conditions, and had literal concerns for clean water, would we not see both proclamation and social activity as being necessarily concurrent? I think so. Our location tends to affect more than our reading of Revelation (Americans read it mostly in a future sense b/c we don’t see the battle as heated on Earth now as many of our brothers/sisters in other countries), but our missiology as well.
2) Winter’s states his desire that missionaries one day will not have to hide their “real purpose,” but that their “Real purpose will be to identify and destroy all forms of evil, both human and microbiological, and will thus be explainable without religious jargon.” I like this goal, as it includes both proclamation and social transformation taking place at the same time. The extent to which such “works of the devil” will be eradicated before Jesus returns is as debatable as politics, but I think this lofty goal comes from Jesus’ own life. Yet the real and more relevant question regards primacy. Few folks question this goal. But shouldn’t we convert folks, start churches, and then let those churches decide what to do? Or shouldn’t individuals who feel convicted, not simply the church as church (a question that D.A. Carson raises in Christ and Culture: Revisited), decide how they want to attack such issues?
3.) Same time. Again, from the life of Jesus, and the Spirit of Jesus in James 1:27: “looking after widows and orphans in distress” we have plenty of good examples of how to relate to the world in word and deed. James doesn’t want us to simply preach the gospel to those in distress but to take care of those in distress. If that means working toward the eradication of disease, doing relief or development, then we shouldn’t necessarily do one before the other, but the same time.
4.) I don’t totally agree with Winter’s necessary result, or even completely, his purpose of “defeating the works of Satan.” The gospel will be given greater credibility for sure if we can through the works of missionaries, teamed with scientists, end Malaria. But we need to be careful about the assumption of such ends. Jesus says folks will see our “good works” and glorify God. And Jesus fed the 5000 because he wanted to show love. And his miracles, as did those of the apostles done in his name, validated the message. But they did not prove his message and immediately cause conversion.
When Lazarus was raised from the grave, some Jews believed in Him, but others didn’t and instead told the Pharisees, who in turn wanted to kill Jesus. (John 11). It validated the message and messenger; some believed Him while others sought there was enough substance to him and his message that they needed to eliminate him. Again, when Paul told the crippled man to walk, while he “continued to preach the gospel”-I might add-in Lystra, people thought he was Hermes and Barnabas was Zeus (Acts 14). Defeating the works of Satan did not necessarily lead to conversion.
Whether it is what we call a miraculous cure or scientific cure, this Kingdom work will never by itself produce conversions. It never has and never will. But such Kingdom work does validate the messenger and message by revealing a real love for neighbor as well as presenting a God who cares about us even now, not just our eternal state. And it does open the door for conversation, particularly amidst rational, racial, socio-economic barriers (or just plain years of animosity against Christianity) which often preclude serious dialog.

In the end, I do hope that evangelical missions has an eye to concurrent proclamation and deed. Not because it will necessarily produce the most “salvations,” but because it is most biblically faithful to our Savior and Master and Commander, Jesus.

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