Eschatology and the “need for speed” in missions

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The approach that a missionary or evangelist employs can be greatly influenced by their home culture. Imagine two missionaries: the first from a culture that values respect at all costs, and the second that values success at all costs. How might this show up in their approach? What if the elements of speed and novelty are added to the mix? These questions are not just rhetorical, but occur in real life. This article will examine how Matthew 24:14 has been used to justify the need for speed in missions. 

Examples from mission literature

An organization which helps with Church Planting Movements in _______is called RUN. It ties eschatology to its strategies: “RUN stands for Reach the Unreached NOW! At RUN Global, we believe the Great Commission task can be finished in our lifetime, if we RUN!” As much as its optimism is laudable, by expressing the hope that “Over two years we want see a minimum of 2 million Muslims saved by the Name of Christ” one wonders about the fruits of this venture, or the possible setup for disappointment.

            The literature of Church Planting Movements or CPMs likes to use the words “rapidly reproducing,” “sweeping through” and “immediate.” These words are used liberally in David Garrison’s influential book Church Planting Movements. Garrison also employs the word picture of rapidly reproducing rabbits to describe the explosive growth of these movements

            Another venture, called the CAMEL method of evangelism, which suggests that using the Koran to introduce people to Jesus is very useful, states:

            This method of evangelism is a major factor in the speed by which the Gospel is spreading. Muslim-background believers feel comfortable using the Qur’an as a bridge.

            Using passages from the Qur’an as a bridge to share the Gospel has kept martyrdom relatively low while speeding the Gospel’s spread throughout Muslim communities.

            Besides these quotes, one can read the introduction to the 2004 Camel Training Manual. There, Kevin Greeson advocates using his method and reaching the Muslim world “before it is too late” as the return of Jesus is “imminent.”

            The bias for speed also appears in Insider Movement literature. John Travis surveyed a number of movements in Asia. His characterizes common elements as including the formation of “biblical ekklesiae,  rapid multiplication, and the gospel moving through family networks.”   

The ‘need for speed’ and Matthew 24:14

            Matthew 24:14 reads,

And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

It is from this text that some mission strategists have derived the following ideas:

  • “If we complete the Great Commission then Jesus will return”
  • “Jesus can’t return until we complete worldwide evangelism”
  • “The end of time is in our control and we must hurry”

Are these legitimate readings of the text?

            If we then compare John Calvin's exposition of Matthew 24:14 we get a reading that gives comfort against discouragement due to the abundance of iniquity, and an assurance that it is Christ who will make the spread of this Gospel happen through his authorized heralds, much more so than human machinations. Calvin states:

            Our Lord, having delivered a discourse which gave no small occasion for sorrow, seasonably adds this consolation, to raise up minds that were cast down, or to uphold those which were falling. Whatever may be the contrivances of Satan, and how numerous soever may be the multitudes which he carries away, yet the gospel will maintain its ground till it be spread through the whole world. This might indeed appear to be incredible; but it was the duty of the apostles, relying on this testimony of their Master, to cherish hope against hope, and, in the meantime, to strive vigorously to discharge their office. As to the objection brought by some, that to this day not even the slightest report concerning Christ has reached the Antipodes [the point on earth which is diametrically opposite - thus the name of islands of the South Pacific directly opposite Britain] and other very distant nations, this difficulty may be speedily resolved; for Christ does not absolutely refer to every portion of the world, and does not fix a particular time, but only affirms that the gospel—which, all would have thought, was immediately to be banished from Judea, its native habitation—would be spread to the farthest bounds of the world before the day of his last coming." 

            [From: John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke  vol.3 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 128–129.]

            Similarly, Donald Hagner, in his commentary on Matthew de-emphasizes the idea that the coming or delay of the parousia is somehow in the hands of obedient or negligent evangelists, as though it all depended on them.

            [From Donald A. Hagner, Word Biblical Commentary : Matthew 14-28. [Vol. 33B]  (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002), 696.]

       

Some effects of misreading this text

            John Massey a professors of missions, and a member of the Southern Baptist Convention critically examined the relationship between eschatology, and especially Matthew 24:14 and the ‘need for speed’. He observed:

The implementation of CPM [church planting movement] strategy and its emphasis on rapid reproduction is framed within the broader organizational eschatological vision of global evangelization. As a result, at the implementation level the value of rapidity redefines every aspect of missiology from the nature of the missionary task, the role of the missionary, evangelistic method, discipleship, church formation, church leadership, leadership development, to missionary preparation and recruitment.

[From: John D. Massey, “Wrinkling time in the missionary task: a theological review of church planting movements methodology.” Southwestern Journal of Theology 55, no. 1 (2012): 100-37.] https://nextmove.net/uploads/Massey_Wrinkling_Time_SWJT.pdf

 

What he is saying is, ‘eschatology drives methodology.’ He is also of the opinion that a misreading of Matthew 24:14 is a direct cause of superficial conversions, shallow discipleship, downplaying the role of theological education with the potential for untrained and immature leadership, mother churches giving birth to premature and sickly daughter churches, and churches disconnected from the global Church and prone to every aberrational wind of doctrine that blows in the door.                         

 

  Hoyt Lovelace another professor within the Southern Baptist Convention found that David Garrison's use of the word, “immediate” from the context of Mark's Gospel, and found that he had applied it in and “illegitimate” fashion to missiology. Secondly he found that Garrison’s motif of rabbit-like, rather than elephant-like churches with a focus on rapid breeding and multiplying of the first is unwise. Lovelace suggested that the life-span of the elephant and its resistance to predators are not at all considered.  Thirdly, he found that the North American preoccupation with time may be an imposition on cultures that value relationships over productivity.

 

[From Hoyt Lovelace, “Is Church Planting Movement Methodology Viable?: An Examination of Selected Controversies Associated with the CPM Strategy,” Journal of Evangelism and Missions 6 (Spring 2007): 50.]                    

 

   Some observations   

            Although no longer members of the International Board of Missions (IMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention, both David Garrison and Kevin Greeson advocated a ‘need for speed’ in missions. Largely, they were following the lead of the past president of the IMB, Jerry Rankin, who as John Massey pointed out, frequently appealed to Matthew 24:14 as the motor for mission mobilization. Interestingly both John Massey and Hoyt Lovelace are missions’ professors in Southern Baptist schools and Massey had served with the IMB in Asia. What this tells us is that there appears to be a mechanism for theological critique of mission methods under the SBC umbrella.  Could one expect to find the same and even more in the Reformed tradition which favors robust intellectual scrutiny?

            Secondly, Massey and Lovelace connect the dots between a misapplication of Matthew 24:14 and its effect on mission strategy. They trace this misapplication back to the effects of North American culture on Biblical interpretation. This raises an interesting question, Are there areas of Biblical interpretation that Reformed churches assume are correct, but may be under the influence of the surrounding culture? Food for thought.

           

 

 

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