The Basis of Mission Strategy: Theology or Social Sciences?


Not long ago, the leader of a large school of missions said, "We view all missions' practice through the lens of the social sciences." Knowing the context in which this was spoken would tell this observer that:

The social sciences like anthropology and sociology are becoming the main drivers of mission theory and practice.
The social sciences have largely eclipsed solid theological thinking about mission theory and practice.

If this sounds alarmist, then we can roll the clock back to 1993 when Professor Rommen of the Trinity School of Theology wrote an article called "The De-Theologizing of Missiology." That is a must read article, as the influence of the social sciences has only increased exponentially since he wrote that the missions enterprise is "adrift on a sea of de-theologized paradigms and awash in competing "how to" schemes." (p. 2 of the Trinity World Forum, Fall 1993)

A possible solution:

In 2003 the Southern Baptist professor, Keith Eitel drew up some recommendations for the International Mission Board on how to think theologically. Now we as Reformed people might look down our nose at such a venture and say that theological thinking is in our collective DNA. But we might just pause for a moment. It would appear to be incumbent on the likes of Back to God Ministries, Home Missions, World Renew and World Missions to ask if their theologizing is driven more by the social sciences than by solid theological method. Here is where Eitel's simple schema is helpful.

[Granted he might not be thinking in confessional categories or consideration of the historical and global Church as much as this author might like, but so be it for the moment.]

a. Presuppositions Regarding the Nature of Biblical Revelation...Which Determine...

b. Hermeneutical & Theological Methodologies...Which Determine...

c. Theological Convictions...Which Determine...

d. Mission Core Values...Which Determine...

e. Mission Policies, Practices & Procedures.

What is noteworthy about Eitel's schema is that it starts with presuppositions. It would appear to me that this is a part of the puzzle that is easily overlooked, and it is much simpler to jump down to "c" or "d" or even "e" as the starting point. For this blog, I will focus only on "a".

Presuppositions Regarding the Nature of Biblical Revelation:

  • If the Scriptures are the Word of God written and are unique, necessary, clear, and all authoritative, then this should be the starting point for mission theologizing
  • If the Scriptures are authoritative then we would not look to any other discipline, no matter how well informed, as to our authority
  • If the Scriptures are authoritative, then the methods, message, means, and motivation of our mission thinking must be derived from there
  • If the Scriptures are authoritative then we take them as absolute truth and not relative truth. If they say the lost are lost, then they are not semi-lost. If the Scriptures say the wrath of God is on those not in Christ, then we cannot relativize this statement to avoid this reality. If the Scriptures say that our religious neighbor is at nature hostile to the Triune God and is a constructor of gods in his/her own imagination, then we cannot relativize this under the rubric of tolerance and make them more Christian than they are. If the Scriptures say that the minds of the unregenerate are darkened, then we cannot treat them as if they simply suffer from a lack of information or a lack of appealing packaging of our message.
  • If the Scriptures are seen as culturally conditioned truths only, which may or may not be applicable to the present day, then anything can be thrown out that is not suitable for the fashions of our time.
  • If however, the Scriptures are seen as the written account of the Good Shepherd who speaks to his sheep and they both recognize and listen to his voice, then they will be very wary of the phrase "Did God say?"
  • If the Scriptures are seen as methodological tools only, in order to gain mission strategies, then it will be a logical result that North American "need for speed" or "need for results" will influence the read of the Scriptures
  • If the Scriptures are seen as the Godly deposit which the global and historical Church has wrestled with for 2 millennia, then appeals to novelty or fashion will be tempered greatly.
  • If however, the Scriptures are seen as any other book open to critique then the winds of the 'spirit of the age' of relativism, tolerance and the "ways of the world" will drive our mission thinking.

Some questions:

  1. Where does your organization's thinking start in its mission theory and practice? "a", "b" "c" "d" or "e"?
  2. Are there dominant themes in your organization's practice that might suggest that it is being more strongly driven by the social sciences than solid theologizing?
  3. At the heart of the matter, is most value in your organization placed on performance, pragmatics, packaging, presentation, pleasing people — and even donors — and productivity?
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