The Double Apostolate (Part 3)
The older established churches have transferred to our newer sister churches not only our rigid Church structures but our insufficient understanding of mission and missionary practice. What has been restrictive and dangerous to us has, however, become fatal to them. The crux of the matter is our faulty understanding of true evangelization.
According to the New Testament, church mission is "holistic" (or if you prefer, "wholistic.") It is mission of the whole church with the whole Gospel to the whole human being in the whole world. All aspects of this mission are important, including service and evangelization, social commitment. and dialogue.
Today we need to stress that "wholeness" includes evangelization. Churches spend much more money on emergency programs and aid to development projects than on evangelization and true apologetics. We do not suggest that too much is being spent on these programs, but we do suggest that today evangelization and apologetics ought to be given a top priority
We must stop the line of argument that fundamentally everything the Church does is "evangelization" and "mission." Such a broad application of terms may turn out to be the worst enemy of our cause, because true evangelization depends on our having a full and clear comprehension of the specific and central meaning of the word - which in fact we do not have today.
The Greek terms evangelizein and evangelizestai in the New Testament are transitive verbs. i.e. they take an object. "To evangelize" is to evangelize somebody. It is not enough to "preach the gospel," as is often said. We have to make sure that the gospel is both heard and understood. The gospel is never merely preached to the wind.
In the New Testament context the gospel is primarily preached to non-Christians. To put it plainly, we are not supposed to evangelize Christians because Christians have been evangelized already. The Christian Church is not the object. but the subject of evangelization. The Church is the "army of salvation" which brings the gospel to the world.
The famous Article Seven of the Augsburg Confession would be more biblical if we modified it a little. Instead of saying that the church is "the community of believers in which the gospel is preached purely and the sacraments administered properly," it should be changed into "the community of believers by which the gospel is preached purely..."
Partly on the basis of his exegesis and partly on the basis of his experiences in India as a missionary, the German missionary Bishop Heinrich Meyer wrote very instructively in this subject as early as 1958.i Caring for individual members of the congregation should not be neglected; but this caring is different from preaching the gospel. Church members, ideally at least, have heard the gospel already. Nobody can pretend Sunday after Sunday to hear it for the first time.
Preaching, according to the New Testament, is essentially both didakae and paraenese. Didakae means teaching, philosophy of life, comprehension. Paraenese means ethics, action, practice. Both are the gospel put into practice, and both are consequences of having heard the gospel. That is what is most needed today. We cannot just remain passive listeners: we must do what needs to be done. Not those who say. "Lord. Lord." are righteous but "those who do the will of our heavenly Father."
Any Christian church represents the corporal reality of Christ in the world, and has received the gifts of grace - the charismata with which the Church has been endowed by the Holy Spirit. These gifts, however, may die away or be taken away. It is therefore important that we build up the Christian Church, working for the building up (oikodomae) of the local congregation. Oikodomae - in the form of didakae and paraenese is central to our mission.
We have already seen that the prevailing understanding of the ecclesiastical offer in the churches today is of Western origin, and is not biblical at all. ["Tire Double Apostolate" Part I, Fall 1987]. But we take our Church structures for granted and read them into the New Testament. where in fact a different picture is found. ln the New Testament we see a variety of services that help to develop and strengthen church members and prepare them for mission.
Unfortunately the "young churches" have been provided with a whole set of traditional ecclesiastical offices, even though we know that this system is quite un-biblical. Our offices held by pastors. deans, and bishops did not exist in the early Church and indeed could not have existed. Yet our missionaries have transferred them all-lock, stock and barrel.
The office of the bishops in its monarchic form is most problematic. In India, for example, the episcopate is the worst problem in the churches. This is not so much the case among Roman Catholics, because they know that bishops should always act as a group or "college." One bishop acting alone, however, is a nuisance, a threat to the life and growth of the Church. Churches which desire to have bishops, just as Israel wanted to have kings, take a dangerous path. They should in any case always have more than one bishop - at least three - so that they can keep a check on one another,
The failure to understand Church structures biblically has severely restricted mission. When our ecclesiastical offices were transferred to the young churches, they automatically reduced mission to local church growth. The work of the evangelist rid of mobile mission is to them almost as unusual as it is to churches in Denmark and other Western countries, where the churches are arrested within their territories.
We need to preach the gospel. but in a way that it is understood, This happens in dialogue. Dialogue should not be a substitute for evangelization but is a presupposition for evangelization. The Fact is that weak evangelization is intimately connected with weak or wrong dialogue.
We have said that evangelization does not simply mean preaching the gospel, but preaching the gospel to somebody. It is more to the point to say that the task of the Church is to see to it that the gospel is both heard and understood. This does not imply that it is our responsibility to see that it is accepted. Whether or not our hearers accept the gospel is not up to us. It is, and always will be, a mystery why it is rejected by some and accepted by others. But it is our responsibility to insure that, the gospel is heard and understood.
For this reason, dialogue is of paramount importance. Dialogue implies both conversation, reflection. and a continuous exchange of ideas. Dialogue prepares the evangelist for mission, and external communication with the other person, wherein the evangelist presents the gospel to adherents of other faiths or ideologies, or of no faith.
Evangelization must happen through dialogue. According to the New Testament, preaching the gospel does not mean preaching in the air, but arguing, reasoning, explaining. True evangelization, therefore, always has an apologetic aspect. The first Christian theologians were called "apologists." Apologetics means the systematic presentation of the Christian faith for acceptance or rejection.
True apologetics is also true pedagogy. There is something which must always precede evangelization. The Catholic Church calls it "pre-evangelization," and attaches great importance to it. it is necessary because there are some fundamental insights and basic ideas which precede a true understanding and acceptance of the gospel. In our human situation we all share certain basic conditions, the nature of which must be realised before the true implications of the Christian gospel can be fully grasped.
If our notion of mission is reduced to simple church-growth. we will only meet people with the same cultural backgrounds as ourselves. The growing Church will never be able to go abroad. to "reach Spain" as Paul wanted to do. Missionaries who work among people of a different cultural background must be willing to explore unknown territory, new languages, new cultures, new religions. This requires specially trained missionaries, inventive and resourceful persons who can cope with new challenges on the modern mission field.
The fact is that churches all over the world have tended to evade their missionary obligation in relation to the major non-Christian religions. The great religions
have not yet been challenged. There are still "white areas" on the map of the churches. Not only have they not been evangelized. but they are also for the most part simply unknown to the churches and their theologians. This proves that what we are saying is not mere theological verbosity.
We may give just one example by way of illustration. In the world today, more than a billion persons believe in the transmigration of souls. But not one Christian exposition of significant theological moment has been presented on the subject. I know of no dogmatic treatise which takes up this problem for serious discussion. Studies of religion on a theological basis is the weakest point in the theology of the Christian Church. Some things are being done, but not nearly enough; and what has been done does not arrive at the study-desks of students of theology, pastors, or missionaries. Even missionaries - and perhaps missionaries in particular - have virtually no knowledge whatsoever about the main religions of the world.
A similar ignorance is found in the international church organisations. The integration of the International Missionary Council into the World Council of Churches has promoted understanding of mission in the broad sense of the word but has in fact discouraged the idea of mission as evangelization. The same is true in the Lutheran World Federation. The reduced interest in evangelization is reflected in the small number of co-workers available for this kind or mission.
It is evident that those people who are both ecumenical and in favour of mission as evangelization must try to change the attitudes within the WCC and the LWF; and if that is not possible, they must work outside these organisations - for they are no more "the Church" than any other Christian organisations.
The weak emphasis on evangelization is reflected in the inferior role which studies of religion play in these organisations. If the amount of money which is currently being spent on investigation of social and political aspects of society were spent on studies of religious aspects, the situation would be completely different. We ought to reconsider a new allocation of research means.
The declaration in 1972 by the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, in which similar ideas were voiced, led to the well-known Nairobi Report of the World Council of Churches. This report, however, was never really followed up. The ecclesiology studies of the Lutheran World Federation did something, but far from enough. The questions raised by Mekane Yesus, therefore, have not yet been answered.
Today many of our ecclesiastical institutions are being called into question. Much of what we take for granted is in reality simply the result of random development in Europe. It is true of our parish congregations as well as our ecclesiastical offices. It is time for us to begin to concentrate on the "feed-back" of missions, so that we can profit from the dearly bought lessons which missionaries have accumulated through the years.
Many Christians think that the parish congregation is an age-old institution. It isn't. In fact it is a comparatively modern .invention which dates from the Middle Ages. It is based on the idea of membership, just as the national churches represent citizens of the individual nations. Normally in the parish system, congregations do not care much about people living outside the parish boundary. But even within these boundaries people who should have had the attention and care of the congregation often live unnoticed. The fact is that the work of the pastors is mostly devoted to church ceremonies, which are for members only.
Where it is at all possible to raise the issue of mission in the local church boards, usually only the growth-type of mission on the local level will be considered. [See "The Double Apostolate" Part I, Fall, 1987.] Mobile mission to people of different cultures and different faiths or ideologies is in most cases looked upon as irrelevant by local church leaders.
Such local congregations are not actually qualified for promoting mission, and this fact has been of great significance to our newer sister churches. They have copied our church structures, our divisions into parishes, deaneries, dioceses, and above all the division into national churches. They have taken over our ecclesiastical offices of pastors, rural deans, and bishops. If this system functions more or less badly for us, it functions still worse for them.
These sister churches may have incorporated the idea of the "missionary church" into their theology, but they can hardly realise it because of the static and territorial units of the church - which almost force the congregations to care more about membership than about mission. The mission that does take place is local church-growth, not mission among people of different faiths and ideologies, and different cultures.
We have also exported the nationalistic attitude which makes church leaders look upon the territory or nation as their own "area." The West is certainly no longer looked upon as a field of mission. Here we are back to the old question: to whom does the field of "mission" really belong?
We can understand the scope of the issue by looking at the situation in the established churches of the West. In Europe when free churches hold revival meetings in order to win converts to the Christian faith - often supported from abroad, for instance from the USA - the churches have difficulty accepting it. They ask: Aren't these churches trying to rob members from the national Church? When persons who are nominally members of the (Protestant) national church, but not practising Christians, are converted to the Roman Catholic faith, isn't this "proselytising"? The Catholics are supported financially from abroad: isn't this a ease of interference in our field of mission? We meet the same questions and suspicions from the sister churches when we insist on our right to evangelize in their area: the territorial instinct is aroused immediately.
These churches are right to insist that nobody has a right to reap in the mission fields of others. Freebooting is a sectarian phenomenon, All missionary efforts ought to take place in an atmosphere of openness and love towards existing churches and congregations, not in an attitude of hostility and suspicion, At the same time, nobody has the right to reject the idea that the Church as a whole has a mission responsibility towards the rest of the world. It is high time for us to understand that no individual church can cope with world mission alone. We can cope only through combined efforts. In doing so. there is at least one alternative to the local congregation model which needs to be taken into consideration for mission today.
In recent years so-called "base communities" have been organised all over the world. In numerous churches they play an important role in the renewal of mission. They are found within the Roman Catholic church, within the Pentecostal movement, and within the mainstream of traditional Protestant churches. These base communities work with mission in specific milieus. They invite people. who meet the gospel, into their midst: into an open community of Christian hospitality. The emphasis on togetherness and community distinguishes these new groups from traditional parish congregations. with which they have almost everything else in common. In the new church groups people become acquainted with each other, know about each other, care for each other, and help and support each other.
The existence of such church groups involves new possibilities for mission. They also raise some real difficulties. These issues, which are outside the scope of this essay, need to be discussed by the churches today for the renewal of mission.
This is the last of the three-part series on the "Double Apostolate," by Dr. Johannes Aagaard. Dr. Aagaard is a former Professor of Mission Theology and Ecumenical Theology at the University of Aarhus.
Note:i See his "Mission und Evangelisation von neutestamentliche Grundbegriffen her gesehen," in Jahrbuch Evangelischer Mission, 1958, pp. 53-62.