Brad A. Greenberg, author of the God Blog, contributed a recent article to the Wall Street Journal in which he wondered aloud if the Edinburgh 2010 meeting, which I devoted six posts to last week, offered “a modern master plan [that] was less ambitious [than the 1910 version].” The 2010 version of Edinburgh was a call to global missions and “to witness and evangelism in such a way that we are a living demonstration of the love, righteousness and justice that God intends for the whole world.” Greenberg see this as a dramatic shift from 1910. In 1910 those who came to Edinburgh thought of taking over the world by preaching the gospel but in 2010 they “wondered if they should even try” (quoting the words of C. Douglas McConnell, dean of Fuller Seminary’s School of Intercultural Studies).
Greenberg makes a serious point but one that I think, in the end, misses the real point. In 1910 those who came to Edinburgh still came from a few white Western (Protestant) nations. There were no Pentecostals, no Catholics and no Orthodox in the 1910 meeting. They also came from a time before World War I when post-millennialism was still robust among such evangelicals. Missions was almost entirely about spreading the gospel but it sounded a lot like more taking over the world when the words are read in today’s context. David A. Livermore, executive director of the Global Learning Center at Cornerstone University, believes that modern missions reflect a shift from spreading Christianity to living it! I think he is right.
It may well be that the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. Some missiologists, especially some older ones, rue this swing and feel that the shift has led us in the wrong direction. They cite how little is actually being done to reach the unreached in the Muslim world. Scott Moreau, missions professor at Wheaton Graduate School where I teach as an adjunct professor, says that two decades ago half his students wanted to go overseas to build churches while today that number might be only 10%. Moreau adds, “Fighting trafficking, orphanage work, HIV-AIDS, poverty—that is probably 50%.” (The other half have a variety of primary interests.)
In Africa this is what appears to be needed Greenberg notes. 90% of the people in 19 countries now identify themselves as Christians or Muslims. This means a whole new approach is called for from the West since there is little room for radical movement. (Much of what is needed in Africa is compassion and teaching!) It seems to me that what drives people these days is the second great commandment, which includes the Great Commission but is not limited to it. If you love your neighbor you (should) want to share your faith and proclaim the good news to him but there is more to loving a neighbor than sharing a message and going home. It was St. Francis of Assisi who said, “Preach the gospel always, and if necessary, use words.”
Greenberg notes that there is some solid research that shows that non-Christians still need the words if they are to believe in Christ. I agree based upon the words of the apostle himself: “But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them” (Romans 10:14)?”
Research shows, Greenberg adds, that there was “little or no difference” in people’s response to two groups of people, one Christian and one not, who showed charity and compassion to them unless the Christian group explained the reason for their work. This is the real difference between all other forms of charity and Christian charity. The government can hand out food, clothing and rebuild homes. Christians do this because they love Jesus and long to make disciples of others.
Have missionaries lost their chariots of fire, as Greenberg’s title in the Wall Street Journal suggests. I am not sure. I believe the young Christians I teach still want to proclaim the good news but they are weary of preaching without love. I think the pendulum is swinging but I am just not yet convinced that it has swung as far as Greenberg suggests. I am especially unimpressed with his linking of all of this to Edinburgh 1910 and 2010, as if there is a wide chasm between the two events. While it is true that they were attended by different groups of people it is also true that the unreached worlds of Africa, Asia and Latin America are now far more Christian than they were in 1910. And the Lord knows we can do a lot more about humbly urging people to become Christ-followers without promoting “Western empires” in the process. (Have you looked at any of the old hymns on this one?) Like all changes there are things to like and things to be concerned about here. Greenberg raises a good question but he didn’t tell the whole story. Readers might be misled unless they dig much deeper into the beliefs and practices of young Christians in 2010. There they will find more than research reveals if they actually talk to these young, devoted followers of Jesus.