Wednesday, May 30, 2018

TTT #14 The Goal of Missions is the Kingdom of God

The article I posted on May 20 summarized some legitimate reasons why Christians still engage in, and support, global evangelistic missionary activity. (I encourage you to check out the comments made, here, about that article.) It is now fitting to consider what the ultimate goal of missions is.
Three Problematic Goals
In the history of Christianity there have been various goals for mission work, and while not equally problematic three such goals can be negatively stated as follows:
(1) The goal of missions is not primarily the expansion of Christianity.
It cannot be doubted that from the time of its beginning as a small Jewish “sect,” for centuries Christianity expanded greatly. Much of that expansion was clearly due to missionary activity.
That does not mean, however, that expansion was, or should have been, the primary goal of missions. Nor, certainly, does it mean that that expansion through the centuries was always done by legitimate or admirable means, even by missionaries.
Much of the expansion of Christianity in the seven hundred years between 300 and 1000, for example, was due to the military and political activities of powerful kings and emperors.
The expansion of Christianity, especially for political reasons, should in no way be considered the primary goal of missions.
(2) The goal of missions is not primarily the spreading of Western civilization.
To some Christians in the past few centuries, missionary activity was linked to the spread of “civilization” to the “benighted” lands of the world.
European civilization was considered superior to that of the indigenous cultures of the other parts of the world, so spreading that civilization, seen largely as the fruit of the Christian faith, was considered a legitimate and praiseworthy activity for many Christians, especially in Great Britain and then in the United States.
There were, of course, important contributions made by missionaries, along with others, who took “civilization” into “primitive” societies. The introduction of Western medicine, for example, was a great benefit to multitudes of people.
But local cultures, societal structures, and religions were sometimes trampled underfoot in that process, and that type of missionary activity has, justifiably, come under intense criticism.
The spreading of Western civilization cannot legitimately be recognized as the major goal of Christian missions.
(3) The goal of missions is not primarily the planting of churches.
During the last decade of my missionary career, the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention began to place almost complete emphasis not only on planting new churches but on the “church planting movement,” which was said to be the rapid multiplication of indigenous churches planting churches that sweeps through a people group or population segment.
While planting churches certainly is a commendable activity, still, that should be one means of reaching the proper goal of missions, not the goal itself.
The Proper Goal

As stated in the title, the goal of missions is the Kingdom of God, and as I emphasized in the article posted on Feb. 28, the main characteristic of the God’s Kingdom is shalom (peace and justice).

This matter was well presented by E. Luther Copeland, my former missionary colleague and good friend in Japan. His 1985 book is titled World Mission, World Survival: The Challenge and Urgency of Global Missions Today.
In his last chapter, “The Kingdom and the Mission,” Copeland (1916~2011) elucidates that the goal of mission(s) is the kingdom of God (p. 139). 
That often overlooked point was made more than 100 years by Christoph Blumhardt. He wrote to his missionary son-in-law, “[T]here is no other purpose in your mission work than to proclaim God’s kingdom.”
Yes; true then, true now.
[Christoph Blumhardt (1842~1919) was a German Lutheran pastor. His letters to Richard Wilhelm are presented in the 2015 book Everyone Belongs to God, compiled and edited by Charles E. Moore.]

[The 14th chapter of Thirty True Things . . . (TTT), which includes much more than could be presented in this article, can be found by clicking on this link.]


  1. This is a good and an important addition to your earlier blog on missionary work. As you realize, this flies in the face of most of evangelical Christianity whose stated purpose of missions is the winning of souls. (I remember an article, not too long ago, in Christianity Today celebrating, and highlighting the mission of, converting Muslims.)

    I suspect a good portion of evangelical Christianity is moving in this direction. Some future blogs I would find interesting would be some "empirical" exploration of just how much good Christian missionary activity has brought to the world versus how much bad. Having just taken a course in the history of Christianity in Latin America, I see a very mixed history, and I would hate to have to estimate whether Christianity was a greater blessing than a course in the course of that history. And it's easy enough to suspect that the beneficial "Western" things Christianity contributing to bringing to indigenous peoples would have been brought by the imperialists regardless of Christianity.

    Have you been following the writings of Rodney Stark, by any chance? Apparently he's been on some kind of scholarly crusade of celebrating the benefits Christianity has brought to the world. I have mixed feelings about his work, but he should probably not be ignored.

  2. Thanks, Anton, for your pertinent comments.

    It would be very hard to gather sufficient "empirical" evidence to show whether missionary activity, overall, has been beneficial or detrimental to the people of the world. It is, indeed, a "mixed history."

    I have seen Rodney Stark's name from time to time and have probably read an article or two by him in the past, but I don't think I have read any of his books--but I have had his book "For the Glory of God" (2003) on my "to read" list for several years.

    I was interested to read the Wikipedia article about him--and surprised to find that he was born in 1934. Thank you for calling him to my attention, and perhaps I will make some effort now not to ignore him.

  3. Thinking Friend Michael Olmsted in Springfield, Mo., made some excellent comments on my previous blog article, and he sends more good comments about this article:

    "In too many, the predominant approach to missions was to westernize
    the 'pagan' world, to impose on 'them' our enlightened way. This same flawed idea informed the westward expansion of the United States that decimated the original peoples of America. Our lust for land was disguised as bringing civilization to those savages.

    "I also witnessed the movement of the SBC mission emphasis away from education, medicine, and poverty to evangelism. It is a common human error to want others to be like us instead of compassionately showing them the example of Christ that can change their world for the better.

    Michener's novel 'Hawaii' is a frank expose of missions methods that resulted in oppression and injustice. Jesus did not come to lead the Jews in world domination and our goal must never be to subject the world
    to western imperialism. This same thinking also shapes the secular diplomacy of modern European nations today ... with tragic consequences."

  4. I like and Very much and agree with your assessment of what of goal of Missions should be.
    This is Now my Goal.
    John(Tim) Carr

  5. Local Thinking Friend Greg Brown sent me an email with the following comments:

    "While I admire your acknowledgement about the three problematic goals of Christian missionary activity in the past, I am not persuaded that your willingness to face the history and nature of these goals will solve the problem. That long, long ugly history still affects (and infects) missionary activity today. I just don’t think we can will it away. We both agree that history is important and it influences us even if we aren’t aware of it.

    "From what I read you are distinctly in the minority. But you are probably accustomed to that."

  6. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky writes,

    "Well said, Leroy. In my own way of understanding this, I would say that the task is to proclaim and make people aware of the Mysterious Presence of God in this world. That is how I understand the 'kingdom.'"

  7. THen there are these perceptive comments from local Thinking Friend Temp Sparkman:

    "Of all the missionaries I’ve known or heard speak, or articles I’ve read in the Commission, or speeches I’ve heard from the Foreign Mission Board workers, I cannot recall that establishing the Kingdom Of God was the aim of Southern Baptist missions.

    "Do you remember how you evolved in this understanding of the mission task? Did you ever say this kind of thing when you and June spoke in churches about your work in Japan? What you propose would be a wholistic strategy which would transform this enterprise that we call missions."

    1. Thanks, Temp, for your thoughtful comments and questions.

      I am not sure I like the use of the word "establishing," but there has been some emphasis on the Kingdom of God and missions for quite some time--although you are probably right in saying that Southern Baptists have not talked about that very much.

      SB missionary and missions professor Luther Copeland (whom I mentioned in the article), however, wrote about the Kingdom as the goal of mission(s) in his book published by Broadman Press in 1985. I'm quite sure I read Georgia Harkness's book "Understanding the Kingdom of God" (1974) before that, but both of those books aided my thinking about the importance of the Kingdom of God.

      Sometime in the 1990s at the annual meeting of the Japan Baptist Mission, I gave a major talk (of an hour or more, as I remember it) on the Kingdom of God, so this has been a deep concern of mine for decades.

      As for mission talks we gave to churches, we probably talked much more about "means" (what, in particular, we had been doing) rather than "end" (the goal of missions).

  8. Also, this brief comment from local Thinking Friend "Dub" Steincross:

    "Certainly gives one much to ponder. Your credentials make one look at missions from an insider's view and experience.

  9. After linking to this article on Facebook yesterday, I was happy to read the following comments posted by American Baptist missionary Dwight Bolick--and a former student of mine at William Jewell College during the 1976-77 academic year:

    "I concur wholeheartedly. The goal is Shalom, and we should look to build bridges to the same longing which exists in other cultural/religious contexts.

    "From a missions-development perspective I found very helpful guides in C. Norman Kraus' 'An Intrusive Gospel?,' and Bryant Myers' 'Walking with the Poor.' The latter gave us a way to articulate our goals in everything as 1) the recovery of identity as people made in the image of God and 2) the discovery of vocation as productive stewards of God's creation. But this is to go against the current of much in modern-day missions."

    1. Thanks, Dwight, for your helpful comments.

      As you may know, for several years Kraus was a missionary theologian who worked in Japan. I have read a couple of his books, but not "An Intrusive Gospel?: Christian Mission in the Postmodern" (1998)--but thanks to you I would like to read it now. I was always highly impressed with Dr. Kraus, who just died in April of this year at the age of 94.

      I did not know of Myers's book "Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development" (rev. ed., 2011), as poverty was not an issue in Japan where I served as a missionary--although it is certainly a central issue for missionaries in many parts of the world.

  10. This afternoon I received the following comments from Thinking Friend (and retired Baptist missionary) Les Hill:

    "Olmsted's note in response rests on a false base. Michener is first a novelist and secondly a historian. In post graduate studies at Fuller's School of World Missions, I had classes under Dr. Alan Tippett [1911~88].

    "In his class I recall his mentioning Michener's 'Hawaii.' Tippett stated that his description inaccurately presented the Hawaiian religious situation when the missionaries arrived. He stated further that clearly Mitcher knew better because in his (Tippett's) reading of historical documents in Hawaii, Mitcher's initials revealed that he had read the true historical setting."