Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it. – Winston Churchill
Human nature will not change. In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak and as strong, as silly and as wise, as bad and as good. Let us therefore study the incidents in this as philosophy to learn wisdom from and none of them as wrongs to be avenged. – Abraham Lincoln
A mission historian who I have greatly appreciated is David Bosch. His book, Transforming Mission (1991) does not waste words and speaks frankly about what we can learn about missions from the early church and how we can apply those lessons to ministry today. In this post I’ll submit two principles that Bosch asserts we can learn from the early church. Each of these failures continue to be potential rabbit trails in missions today. Not that we look back and say, “how silly of them,” but instead we need to regularly look back with an honest humility and say, “how might we avoid those pitfalls today?” I also offer a few reflection questions to help us listen to how God might shape us like clay into a noble vessel that engages the world with the love of Christ.
THE CHURCH EXISTS FOR THE BENEFIT OF ITS NON-MEMBERS
I have suggested that Jesus had no intention of founding a new religion. Those who followed him were given no name to distinguish them from other groups, no creed of their own, no rite which revealed their distinctive group character, no geographical center from which they would operate (Schweizer 1971:42; Goppelt 1981: 208). The twelve were to be the vanguard of all Israel and, beyond Israel, by implication, of the [known world]. The community around Jesus was to function as a kind of… community for the sake of all others, a model for others to emulate and be challenged by. Never, however, was this community to sever itself from the others. -p. 50
- What things really bother you or make you mad about the culture you are surrounded by?
- How might those emotions reveal subtle ways that you have distinguished yourself from other groups rather than relate with them?
- In what ways are you more like those you don’t like than you are different from them? How might God help you love and engage in relationships with people you struggle with rather than push away from them?
CHURCHES THAT VALUE MOVEMENT MOBILIZE MISSIONS. CHURCHES THAT SETTLE FOR SUSTAINABILITY OFTEN DON’T
Intimately linked to this first failure of the early church is a second: it ceased to be a movement and turned into an institution. There are essential differences between an institution and a movement, says H.R. Niebuhr: the one is conservative, the other progressive; the one is more or less passive, yielding to influences from outside, the other is active, influencing rather than being influenced; the one looks to the past, the other one looks to the future. In addition, we might add, that one is anxious, the other is prepared to take risks; the one guards boundaries, the other crosses them. p. 50-51
We cannot have it both ways, then: purely and exclusively a religious movement, yet at the same time something that will survive the centuries and continue to exercise a dynamic influence. Our main point of censure should therefore not be that the movement became an institution but that, when this happened, it also lost much of its verve. It’s white-hot convictions, poured into the hearts of the first adherents, cooled down and became crystallized codes, solidified institutions, and petrified documents. The prophet became a priest of the establishment, charisma became office, and love became routine. The horizon was no longer the world but the boundaries of the local parish. The impetuous missionary torrent of earlier years was tamed into a still flowing rivulet and eventually into a stationary pond. It is this development that we have to deplore. Institution and movement may never be mutually exclusive categories; neither may church and mission. p. 53
Discussions Questions for individuals, groups, mission-minded leaders who want to mobilize missions in their arena of influence:
Movement vs. Institution / Mission vs. Comfort & Sustainability:
- What are some characteristic difference between mission movements and established local churches?
- Is the church and are the groups you are a part of strategically focused on influencing others? How could they be more so?
- In what ways do you allow anxiety or fear influence what you do? Are you ready and eager to take risks?
- What relational or community boundaries might God be calling you to cross? What boundaries might your church or para-church be guarding that God is not calling you to guard (but has called others to do that, not you?)
- What are some of your strongest convictions/values? Have any of them started to cool down?
- Is your horizon more to engage the world in cross-cultural missions or to build up the local churches ministries? Have you prayerfully discerned that this is what you are called to right now? Where is your time mostly going? This reveals what is essential to you or what your priorities are.
Mobilizing Better Student Ministry Questions:
- What do you want to see changed in student ministry in your neighborhood and city?
- What do we believe must happen in this generation in student ministry?
- What is working really well in your city to reach students with the Gospel? Why do you think it is working so well?
- What is stopping you from taking big risks to further advance student ministry in your city, state, nation?
- What do you think needs to happen spiritually in your personal life right now to keep you on the path Jesus has called you to walk in ministry?
- If you could have one vocational coach and one spiritual director in your life right now to listen to you and give you advice, what specifically would you want from them right now?
- What obstacles are hindering you from successfully leading students in your city to Jesus and helping them grow in their faith?
- What resources would help you right now accomplish the mission God has laid on your heart?
- How might it benefit you to take a brief retreat like Jesus did with his disciples to reflect on the implications of these questions?