Today's post is by regular contributor Dr. William Payne. Dr. Payne is the Harlan & Wilma Hollewell Professor of Evangelism and World Missions and Director of Chaplaincy Studies at Ashland Theological Seminary.
I read Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj’s recent blog on diaspora missiology with great interest. His careful prodding is timely and much needed. Great population shifts are taking place as vast numbers of vulnerable people relocate for a variety of reasons. War, genocide, sexual abuse, economic disaster, religious persecution, destruction of social systems, and disease continue to foment dislocation. The exodus from northern Africa and the Middle East is staggering.
Matthew reminds us that Jesus and his family fled to Egypt to escape the wrath of an evil king. God provided a sanctuary for the holy family in a foreign land. Certainly, God wants the church to provide sanctuary to the modern immigrants.
Still, I struggle with Dr. Dharmaraj’s one dimensional approach to the diaspora mission because it pulls apart what God holds together. In light of the current global situation, he advocates putting physical needs ahead of spiritual needs, and advocacy ahead of evangelism. He also argues that the world wants the church to move beyond mission as usual. He says that the church must partner with the ecumenical community and secular prophets (environmentalists and human rights advocates) to pursue a social justice advocacy that strikes at the root of the human disruption. I assume that “ecumenical partners” includes practitioners of non-Christian faith traditions.
In the blog, it appears that social justice advocacy is the great calling of the church in this era and that evangelistic mission is less important or unwelcomed. Frequently, such thinking influences the hierarchy of mainline denominations. Often it assumes a theocentric ideology that makes common cause with all who desire to purse a particular formulation of social justice. One denominational leader put it this way: “Since all are saved, we need to get on with social justice and the great task of loving each other.”
Instead, I believe that UM missional priorities should align with biblical priorities. A bifurcated mission that neglects evangelism is not a biblically sustainable model for engaging the world with God’s mission. When Jesus advocated for the poor or challenged unjust religious orders, he did so from the perspective of a personal relationship. For example, the Rich Young Ruler wanted to be saved. Jesus told him to divest of his riches, give to the poor, and become his disciple.
John the Baptist preached a similar message as he invited soldiers, tax collectors, religious leaders and the crowds to flee from the wrath to come by joining a just community that gave voice to the righteousness of God and pointed to the coming kingdom of God. Point being, justice is not a standalone category in the gospels. It takes on form when seen in light of the in-breaking kingdom that calls all people and institutions to align with God and God’s righteousness.
For that reason, the church should not ignore the evangelistic mandate or minimize the spiritual needs of those for whom it advocate even when engaging in crisis mission. We must remind ourselves that we share a gospel that incarnates Jesus in word and deed. Suffering people deserve to know about Jesus’ love for them. They need to know that Jesus offers them hope. They need to realize that Jesus offers real solutions to real problems. Through the church, Jesus advocates for his kingdom agenda.
Additionally, no matter how tempted the UMC is to prioritize social justice ministries, it should remind itself that social justice is not the primary mission of the church. The gospels model the kingdom of God. Jesus preached it as he brought it to bear on the suffering people he encountered. He is the gateway into God’s kingdom. He invites the rich and the dispossessed to enjoy God’s shalom by aligning with him. Those who align with Jesus become kingdom people who carry forth God’s kingdom agenda in this world. Jesus commissioned the church to give witness to this mission in the world in word and deed.
In truth, Jesus is Lord of all things. That includes the social order. Any attempt to fix the social order by by-passing Jesus and his kingdom is bound to fail. More importantly, such efforts compromise the gospel and hurt the holistic mission of the church in the world.
Additionally, in terms of our biblical faith, the term "secular prophet" is an oxymoron. Activists who minimize the name of Jesus and disavow his lordship may partner with the church in social justice witness to the extent that it aligns with God’s purposes. However, such people are not prophets. Biblical prophets give witness to the reign and righteousness of God as they invite people to align themselves with God's rule.
When the Jerusalem Church was scattered due to persecution, the members went in all directions evangelizing and church planting (Acts 8:4). To a lesser extent, the Jewish diaspora witnessed to the world when it scattered. These are biblical examples that the UMC should remember when considering diaspora mission.
Immigrants to Europe and America often see themselves as missionaries. Many have a strong desire to reach their people and the larger community for Christ. I wish that all could see how the African Diaspora in Columbus, Ohio is planting churches everywhere. They are reaching thousands of African immigrants for Christ. They are also reaching secular Americans who are drawn to their spiritual vitality and their clear witness of faith. They are partners in mission; not mere recipients of western hospitality. They have much to teach the western church about faith sharing.
When pastoring in a southern state from 1998-2001, I partnered with a Hispanic immigrant to form an outreach ministry that evangelized and discipled hundreds of Latino immigrants who did not speak English. Not only did we outgrow our facilities and plant external ministries in the surrounding urban areas and rural migrant camps, we also fed the hungry, worked with a healthcare clinic, provided transportation, and taught them English. All of it was done in partnership with the immigrants. Evangelism and advocacy do not need to be separated.
Like it or not, Christian immigrants plant churches and talk about Jesus even when the official churches are fixated on political advocacy and material needs. The UMC should remember that many immigrants were not allowed to witness openly in the places from which they have fled or immigrated. The hordes of Christians escaping from Syria and Iraq can vouch for this. A holistic mission strategy should seek to form partnerships that enable the immigrants to evangelize their people. Such a strategy would allow the immigrants to set their priorities, and would honor and utilize their gifting. In the end, it would balance word and deed mission.
Last night, my family read Acts 3 during our devotional time. In that chapter, a lame man is carried to the Temple every day to beg for alms. Pilgrim Jews to the Temple may have felt an urge to fulfill the commandments by giving to the poor. Quite possibly, the beggar received a lot of cash on a typical day. His family would have managed his alms.
One day, John and Peter went to the Temple to pray. As they approached the Temple, the beggar fixed on them. He expected to receive money. However, Peter looked past his economic need and saw the deeper need. In the end, he offered him the name of Jesus and God healed his lame legs.
Post-colonial interpretations of this passage may seek to couch the encounter in terms of unjust economic systems that dehumanize those on the margins. However, those readings are read onto the passage. They do not flow from it. In fact, at that moment, Peter knew that the man needed Jesus more than he needed social advocacy or money. The beggar’s live was forever changed by his encounter with Jesus. Shouldn’t the church in mission seek to do the same as Jesus and the apostles?
In conclusion, the biblical Jesus manifested a relational gospel that met people at the point of their needs and gave them a radically new orientation. That is why he set the captives free by healing the sick, purifying the lepers, welcoming the outcasts, casting out the demons, feeding the hungry crowds that desired to know him, raising the dead, and preaching kingdom justice. Jesus’ mission is Christocentric. It reveals God’s love as it calls people into an alignment with God and God’s work. Ultimately, the light that shines in the darkness will displace the evil when the church advocates for Christ’s lordship and for his righteousness. A mission that avoids evangelism is only half a mission.