‘A love I seemed to lose with my lost saints’: Mission and evangelical identity

This weekend passed was our church mission weekend; it was excellent. It was led by Eddie Arthur of Wycliffe Bible Translators, ably supported by Sue Arthur, Judy and Iska, two of our members who spent seventeen years in Papua New Guinea working with Wycliffe, and continue to be involved in Bible translation from their present home in Fife, and Hilary and Peter, who worked with Wycliffe in South Asia and now work in the UK office, and with whom we also have long-standing links. I have, I think, three reflections as a result that I would like to blog about: one on the place of mission in evangelical identity; one on conversion; and one on the Bible.

One of the wonderful things about the weekend was the connections: these are our people; we know them and love them; it happens that one of the couples has a daughter a similar age to our elder two, and they have become friends during visits over the years, and now keep in touch on social media. Because of connections like that, their triumphs are our triumphs: there was an astonishingly moving moment during the weekend when Eddie held up a Kamula New Testament and told the – amazing – story (the Kamula people in Papua New Guinea were, literally, headhunters and cannibals just a generation ago; they asked for the Bible; our church members became involved, created the written language, and translated the NT and portions of the OT; now many of the Kamula are headhunters once more, evangelists to the neighbouring peoples…). Then he looked out at our little church congregation and said ‘You did that – thank you!’ And it wasn’t cheesy or forced; this was, in part, our project, carried forward by our people, who we had sent out, prayed for, and supported through many years.

Eddie and the team led the weekend extremely well; it was interactive, fast-moving, very positive and upbeat, informative, encouraging and challenging. I do not, however, suppose we would have held such a weekend without these personal connections – and, for a mainstream evangelical congregation like ours, that is a significant shift from where we would have been a generation ago.

I have reflected several times in public on the place of a formal or informal list of ‘saints’ in every Christian tradition: every vibrant Christian spirituality, it seems to me, is deeply formed by a set of stories that convey a vision of what Christlike living might look like in our generation and context. For British evangelicals, the missionary biographies unquestionably fulfilled that role; overseas mission defined us as a movement, and overseas missionaries were our heroes, our ‘childhood saints’. Zealous evangelicals went overseas; the rest of us gobbled up their news hungrily, prayed for them, and gave, often sacrificially, to support them. Even I remember the tail-end of this: the church into which I was converted, just over 25 years ago now, and which sent me to train for ministry, had a chair that had belonged to William Carey in its pulpit; even when we moved here to St Andrews, only ten years ago, retired visiting preachers at this church (we had a pastoral vacancy when we arrived) would recall David Livingstone (there’s a local connection) or another of the authorised list of great missionaries; our children’s church library still holds tattered biographies of Gladys Aylward and the rest. These were the stories we expected would shape our young people’s faith, and inspire the continuation of our own.

What changed? Three things, I think. The first was a loss of interest in the idea of conversion; more on that in another post. The second was a measure of success of the missionary enterprise; Henry Venn imagined an African church that was self-led, self-supporting, and self-propogating; his dream came true some generations ago in much of Africa. (He never imagined an African church that was sending missionaries to the UK, but this has been the reality for over a century, as Israel Olofinjana has repeatedly demonstrated – see for one quick survey, his blog here, but see also his various books; in recent years this ‘reverse mission’ has become extraordinarily significant; the expansion of the, Nigerian, Redeemed Christian Church of God across the UK in the last two decades is one of the great untold missionary stories – approaching a thousand churches planted, several with membership in the thousands.) Of course, there are many unreached people across the world still; but in many areas, quite rightly, Western missionaries made themselves redundant.

The third, and most significant, is the end of the British Empire. Of course this is a good thing; imperial colonisation was unjust, often astonishingly brutal, and has left lasting damage in many areas of the world. Because of this, it is absolutely right that one of the key intellectual currents of our day is postcolonial theory, unpicking all the lies told to justify the colonial oppression. It is equally right that, to the extent that they colluded in colonial oppression – indeed, to the extent that they did not actively resist it – the missionaries should be criticised.

Now, that ‘to the extent that’ conceals a world of scholarly argument. Most interestingly, recently, Robert Woodberry has offered an astonishingly detailed demonstration that the presence of a stable democracy in a place (country; state; territory; …) now depends almost entirely on the number of non-state-sponsored evangelical Christian missionaries it received and how early they came. (The article is here in pdf preprint; it is worth working through, and if you have access to the Cambridge Journals site, digging through the hundreds of pages of supporting evidence also; he makes astonishing claims, and demonstrates the truth of them beyond reasonable doubt.) Such arguments are fascinating, but in popular reception, postcolonial theory has established that colonialism was unjust and disastrous (which it was), and that missionaries were an integral part of the colonial enterprise (which most of them – some Anglicans excepted – probably weren’t in most places).

I remember one of our retired visiting preachers talking about David Livingstone and the evangelical missions to Africa a decade or so ago; I looked around at some of our undergraduate students as he started, and saw several actually physically flinch. They had imbibed, more or less with their mother’s milk (or with whichever formula feed was then fashionable in Surrey), the unshakeable conviction that missionaries = colonial oppressors = somewhere around Hitler, Davros, or Darth Vader on the intergalactic scale of badness.

If I am right that missionary biographies were central to evangelical spirituality, then this marks a very significant shift. UK evangelicalism is left without any narratives to tell itself about how to be faithfully Christian; worse, those stories that formed its visions of authentic Christianity have become not just suspect but toxic.

Now, I’ve mentioned six friends already in this post who have given their lives to cross-cultural mission; I could have mentioned at least another eighteen; none of these people – I am talking of good friends, and speak whereof I know – even remotely fit any account of mission as colonial enterprise. The mission agencies got over that mistake at the 1910 Edinburgh conference (complex history oversimplified; but it’s basically true except for the Anglicans, who took rather longer), and have over a century of experience of doing mission differently. UK-based agencies are reinventing themselves in a world of global mission as hubs which facilitate the movement of people from every country to every country. This afternoon I read an astonishingly powerful testimony of a woman who had turned her own experience of sexual abuse as a child into a vocation fighting against gender-based violence wherever it occurs; she comes from the majority world, works presently in Africa, and I will have the enormous privilege of being a tiny part of a global campaign against GBV that she will front next year; the agency that funds her work supports another friend of mine, a refugee from his own country, who is engaged in street evangelism in London to people from his whole native region, and in pumping web-based evangelistic materials back into the nation that has threatened his life, and the lives of his children; that’s the reality of the modern mission movement that I know firsthand.

But – none of these stories are iconic. These are not, and perhaps cannot be, our ‘childhood saints’. I look with awe on these missionaries; I count it among the greatest privileges of my life to have some of these people as friends; the world is not worthy of them! But in some cases their story cannot yet be told, as they are working in closed countries; in others their story is not yet over – in several cases, I hope and pray, it is barely begun. Our battered church copy of Gladys Aylward’s biography cannot yet be replaced with the story of Judy or Hilary or Katherine (Katherine is the most able evangelist I have ever met!) or Sarah or Rhiannon or Grace (I so wish I could tell you about Grace!) or Sue or so many others…

And so we live in this place where UK evangelicalism has lost its missionary vision, and cannot, yet, embrace a new one. Mission weekends are now an oddity amongst our churches; interest in global mission is perceived as a strange and specialist concern. This is a far-reaching, and (I believe) potentially disastrous shift in our evangelical identity; I am convinced that we are at our best, and we are truest to ourselves, when we boldly and unashamedly commit to and celebrate the work of bringing knowledge of the gospel, and signs of the kingdom, to all in the world who do not yet know to name Jesus as Lord.

 

4 Comments

  1. John C
    May 8, 2014

    Very perceptive post, Steve – you’ve identified a major shift. As recently as the 60s/70s there was a new wave of ‘missionary’ biographies or ghost-written autobiographies – Brother Andrew, God’s Smuggler; David Wilkerson’s Cross and the Switchblade – which was cross-cultural mission within the US; Elizabeth’s Elliot’s memoir of her martyr husband, Jim; Jackie Pullinger etc.

    One other factor that has contributed to the decline of this genre is greater cynicism about ‘heroes’ in Western culture, greater scepticism about hagiography. The genre of ‘saints lives’ (which Protestants made their own despite its Catholic/Orthodox roots) was hardly ‘warts and all’ , whereas contemporary biographies often set out to debunk and demythologise heroes. A modern biography of David Wilkerson might expose his alarmist ‘prophecies’ and his construction of a ‘persona’ as well as his heroic willingness to abandon his comfort zone for the sake of the Gospel. The danger is that this can leave us bereft of stories that convey what it means to be Christlike, though it’s interesting that Eric Metaxas has revived the genre in his lives of Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer. I’m not sure we should go back to the naivete of hagiography. What we’ll need is something more like the biblical lives of Samson, or David, or Peter – which manage to inspire while being searingly honest.

  2. Judith Sawers
    May 8, 2014

    I was of the generation who read ‘God’s Smuggler’ and the Jim Elliot story and many others, too. I’ve never been able to inspire my own kids to read the stories that inspired me, though. Why not?

    On the other hand, yes, I have on my shelves some books that fall into the hagiography category, because they are some of the few that were written about the countries where we’ve lived and worked for the last 18 years. I wouldn’t wish those on my kids. But some of the others… inspirational!

    I’m really interested in any possible answers to the ‘if it no longer works that way, what do we do instead?’ question.

  3. Tim Sutton
    May 9, 2014

    Thanks Steve. Excellent blog. During the course of some research a year or so ago I noted a number of things I suspect lie behind an ambivalence about global mission.
    1. Secularism’s discouraging but mistaken metanarrative about the end of Christianity/religion – this can put us on the back foot.
    2. The reality of shrinking numbers of churchgoers in large segments of the church.
    3. Religious pluralism with its implicit challenge to the uniqueness of the Christian faith – and consequently a crisis of confidence in the Church.
    4. The 1972/73 call for a moratorium on Western involvement in world mission. One influential WCC speaker said the effects of that call are still with us today.
    5. Postcolonial Embarrassment.
    6. Postmodernism’s focus on the local and disdain for metanarratives.
    7. The move from being a productive to a consuming society. Thus we consume church rather than produce it.
    8. A weak evangelical missional ecclesiology. This is major.
    9. Church leaders who have their hands so full with keeping up with the immediate needs of their congregations let alone thinking about local mission…. Let alone thinking about global mission…

  4. chris
    May 14, 2014

    excellent post, steve. growing up in a solidly evangelical church, i remember lapping up the missionary stories (as a sport mad child, c.t. studd and the cambridge 7 particularly sparked the imagination). summer camps run by wec were a key part of my faith journey.

    i also recognize in my own experience a sense of ambivalence now about ‘missions’, especially the connection with colonialism and the narrow focus on evangelism and conversion as mission.

    my generation of evangelical (20-30s) seem to be just as concerned with social action/justice issues in mission. hence the rise of tearfund, soul action etc in place of the traditional mission society. we look to wilberforce as a saint.

    i don’t mean to be unnecessarily contentious but i wonder whether this is why the ea’s rejection of steve chalke is such an issue for many younger evangelicals. aside from the obvious presenting issue of homosexuality, i wonder whether steve acted as a sort of ‘saint’ for a new generation of evangelicals. he embodied a way of being evangelical that encompassed a broader missionary vision. social action and evangelism held together under the proud banner of evangelicalism.

    so to have this ‘saint’ rejected creates a profound crisis of identity.

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