Humanism, liberalism, and evangelical activism influence the central focus of missions.

Potential missionaries today are picking up confusing signals on which tasks in the church’s mission should take priority. As a result, some may be diverted from the primary task of making disciples of the nations and building the church. It is a case of too many drummers with too many diversionary drumbeats. The loudest of these drumbeats come from secular humanism and from religious liberalism.

Secular Humanism

Paul Vitz locates the roots of much of today’s pandemic humanism in the church itself—especially in Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity (1841). In that book theology was dissolved into anthropology, and by adapting the idea of incarnation in reverse, Feuerbach made God the projected image of man.

According to Vitz, Feuerbach’s work influenced many of the world’s great thinkers, such as Engels, Nietzsche. T. H. Huxley, J. S. Mill, Freud, and John Dewey. In spite of differences, secular humanism is basic to all these brilliant men. Through their works, along with the impact of various court decisions and the influence of mass media, the values of the entire nation are changing. Public schools often ignore the biblical point of view, and public media focus on one national or international ill after another while their solutions betray no need of God whatsoever.

Secular humanism threatens missions in two ways. First, it unnecessarily influences the response of the church to contemporary society. Second, it distorts the way a Christian thinks about himself and his service.

Humanism and Contemporary Society

Using the influence of mass media, secular humanism redirects the church’s efforts toward places and problems of the world’s own choosing. In fact, “Make the world’s agenda our business” became a slogan for the meeting of the World Council of Churches in Uppsala in 1968. Evangelicals called this approach into question, but they, too, shift their concerns in response to the vagaries of the press. Something is amiss when the evangelical call for missions in Japan gradually diminishes to an echo with the end of Allied occupation; or when relief for Cambodian refugees is reduced as soon as Americans are taken hostage in Iran.

But humanism has also changed some churchmen’s understanding of the nature of world problems. According to humanism, the world’s ills arise from inequitable social, economic, and political arrangements. The biblical teaching about the even deeper causes (rooted in sinful human nature) falls on humanistic ears as strange and even repugnant. Soon some in the church reflect this response. Gradually, words like “redemption” and “salvation” come to seem outmoded and in desperate need of redefinition. Words like “humanization” and “liberation” take on a contemporary ring.

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As a consequence, the World Conference on Salvation Today at Bangkok (1973) attempted to make the meaning of salvation compatible with the views of people in a variety of cultures and religions. As a consequence, the theology of ecclesiastics of the Roman Catholic church like Gustavo Gutierrez and Ruben Alves becomes “liberation theology,” and we are directed to find out what God is doing primarily by attending to the pressures of the marketplace rather than by consulting the pages of the Bible. As a consequence, grants of $85,000 and $125,000 respectively to the Marxist-led Patriotic Front in Rhodesia and SWAPO in Southwest Africa become expressions of a “mission” of liberation and humanization. One result was that a seminarian and missionary volunteer who attended the Consultation on Liberation, Development, and Evangelization in Ventnor, N.J., several years ago said, “When I came to this consultation I thought I was called to go abroad as a missionary. Now I see clearly that my mission is to stay home and do all I can to oppose the multinational corporations.”

Nor have evangelicals escaped the influence of humanistic thinking. On the positive side, it has reminded them that people around the world are battered by injustice and frightful needs. Still, secular humanism adds to this an over-confidence in human ability to solve these problems apart from repentance and faith in Christ. It is difficult to believe that humanism has not been a factor in the unsuccessful attempt of one evangelical seminary to construct a viable “evangelical liberation theology”; in the growing softness among evangelicals concerning the biblical doctrine that all are lost without Christ; and in the uncritical parroting of “in” words like “liberation,” “dehumanizing,” and “humanization” without sorting out and rejecting antibiblical elements in the common definition of such words.

Humanism and the Individual

Humanism has resulted in what Vitz terms the “cult of self-worship.” Ethics ultimately reduces to one dictum: “Be true to yourself.” Secular theories of motivation thread through the various human needs to one final, crowning concern: self-actualization. Philosophies for successful living converge on one basic, seminal passion: self-love.

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True enough, Scripture calls upon us to respect ourselves. God made us, saved us, gave us the Spirit and spiritual gifts, commissioned us, and uses us. But many potential evangelical missionaries now view their involvement in missions in a new and unbiblical way: in terms of self-fulfillment and self-actualization, rather than of self-denial and self-discipline.

Of course, we must object when legalism and peer pressure jam Christians into one mold. In such cases they lose their freedom to discover Christ’s will. But self-fulfillment can be disastrous as a starting point for missionary service because it easily translates into such questions as “Will I like it?” “Will I be happy?” “Will I be required to do tasks I’m not well prepared for?” “Will I be successful?” It is imperative that we secure the answers to these questions more on the basis of obedience to God and a willingness to sacrifice self-interest to the interest of others, than on the basis of self-determination and self-fulfillment. An unbiblical preoccupation with self-interest is mere selfishness in disguise. From a biblical point of view our willingness to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Christ takes precedence over considerations of happiness, interests, talent, training, and even spiritual gifts. A short-term assignment designed to tell the candidate whether or not he will “like it” is no substitute for a commitment to the will of God.

A student should refuse, then, to contemplate mission first in terms of the self—its preferences, growth, and realization—rather than in terms of Christ—his command, provision, and greater glory.

Religious Liberalism

A second diversionary drum beat, matching that of secular humanism, comes from liberalism. For Schleiermacher (the “father of liberalism”), true Christianity is grounded not in propositions (even biblical ones) but in inner experience. The religious philosopher, Hegel, taught that God is immanent in the world, working through (and therefore discoverable only in) nature and the world process. Ritschl, the greatest liberal thinker of the last half of the nineteenth century, emphasized practicality: doctrines that are not practical are dispensable. Due in part to the impact of neoorthodoxy, liberalism has changed considerably in the last generation. Today’s liberals take biblical revelation and the mission of the church more seriously, but the change is not so much in kind as in degree.

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Religious liberalism, of course, impinges directly upon Christian mission. It denies the uniqueness of the Christian faith, downgrades propositional revelation and doctrine, and dissolves mission in syncretism and dialogue.

Arnold Toynbee, for example, informs us that Christians must develop a new method of approach to people of other faiths. First, we should “try to purge our Christianity of its Western accessories.” So far so good. Then he suggests we “try to purge our Christianity of the traditional Christian belief that Christianity is unique.” Only then, he insists, can Christianity be the religion of the future. Precisely at that point Toynbee has laid the ax of liberalism to the root of the Christian faith.

Again, the influence of liberalism surfaces in the WCC-sponsored consultation on the Dialogue Between Men of Living Faiths held in Lebanon, in 1970. A group of 38 scholars representing the Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist faiths talked for 10 days on “inner dialogue” aimed at an “experience” rather than a “mere intellectual foundation.” According to one participant, the consultation introduced all present to a “new interfaith spirituality” and a “new relationship with God.” The consultation was proclaimed by one participant to be the “dawning of a new day toward which all history is moving.”

Evangelicals and Liberal Missiology

For the most part, evangelicals will not easily fall prey to religious pluralism, syncretism, or “inner dialogue.” They are, nevertheless, vulnerable to influences of religious liberalism.

One problem arises from a defect in the preparation of many missionaries. Evangelicals are often poorly informed on the teachings of non-Christian religions, and have had little personal acquaintance with the best representatives of those teachings. They stand, therefore, in danger of being swept off their feet by the winsomeness and erudition of some of the non-Christian religious leaders they eventually come to know. Then the inadequacy of studying only the weak points of these religions will be painfully apparent.

A second area of vulnerability to liberal influence is evident in the haste with which evangelical missiologists adopt its concerns. All too often evangelicals sound like last year’s liberals. The current emphasis on contextualization is a case in point. The term was officially coined in the 1972 publication of the Theological Education Fund, Ministry in Context. But its meaning was already implicit in a letter sent to participants in a 1971 WCC Consultation on Dogmatic or Contextual Theology by its chairman, Orthodox theologian Nissiotis. In that letter he spoke of a crisis in theology occasioned by the increasingly technological nature of society: “The effect … has been to lead to a kind of ‘contextual or experimental’ theology which gives preference … to the contemporary historical scene over against the biblical tradition and confessional statements constructed on the basis of biblical texts …” (emphasis is mine).

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Within a few years the term had become current among evangelicals as well as liberals. Partnership in Mission began the journal. Gospel in Context. The Lausanne Committee sponsored a consultation on contextualization in Willowbank, Bermuda, and published the papers in Gospel and Culture. Lectures, articles, books, and conferences on the subject have become numerous.

This is not to criticize such timely concern. For too long evangelicals have exported the accretions of Western culture along with the biblical gospel. But those who speak and write about such sensitive matters should avoid losing the authority of the gospel in the attempt to preserve its relevance. Bruce Fleming says the term “contextualization” has become so freighted with liberal presuppositions that evangelicals should abandon it to avoid confusion. While few may adopt his suggestion, every evangelical missiologist who uses the term is duty bound to make clear his commitment to the authority of Scripture and his definition of contextualization. Failure here has raised many unanswered questions. Without clear definitions and parameters, evangelical missiologists themselves tend to slip toward an unbiblical understanding of contextualization by attributing too large a role to culture.

Evangelical Activism

The drumbeats of secular humanism and religious liberalism come from outside the evangelical world. However, we also need to give attention to diverse priorities proposed from within the evangelical family. This diversity represents not a rejection of scriptural authority, but a dispute over biblical priorities. We must approach such alternatives with special sensitivity or run the risk of aborting the mission.

The fact of the matter is that evangelical missionaries and supporters of missions are being called upon from every side to do something. Evangelize the world by 1982 (or 1985, or whenever), reach the unreached, promote church growth, put a Bible in every home, educate the laity, rectify injustices, work for social change, feed the hungry, influence governments—the list seems almost endless.

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These proposals for evangelical involvement relate to definitions of mission and strategies. The two are closely interrelated, they are not the same. The former has to do with the meaning of mission, the latter with the method.

Disagreement over definitions emerges in the current dialogue between Arthur P. Johnston and John R. W. Stott. In answering the question “What is our mission?” Johnston emphasizes the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18–20(The Battle for World Evangelism). He is convinced that the church’s mission is to proclaim the gospel, make disciples, and organize them into Christian churches. Good works (social action) constitute the fruit of mission as converts are instructed to obey all Jesus commanded. Missionaries do good works not because these are integral to the mission itself, but because missionaries are Christians and because good works open doors and hearts to the gospel. Social ministries are necessary, but they are secondary and supportive of the primary task.

In his book Christian Mission in the Modern World, John R.W. Stott proposes an alternative. While formerly he considered the Matthean statement the most important form of the Great Commission, now he believes that the Johannine statement, “As the Father hath sent me, even so I send you” (John 20:21), is the “crucial form in which the Great Commission has been handed down to us.” Emphasizing the “as” and the “so,” Stott says that Jesus “deliberately and precisely” made his mission a model for ours. Since he was sent into the world not only to preach and teach, but also to feed the hungry, wash dirty feet, heal the sick, comfort the downhearted, and restore the dead to life, we must do the same. “Mission,” says Stott, “describes … everything the church is sent into the world to do.” Mission includes evangelism and sociopolitical action as partners, with a “certain priority” to be given to the former.

At first glance, the difference between Johnston and Stott may seem merely semantic. But practically, the difference between these two ways of defining mission may prove to be crucial.

Johnston’s view reflects the most common evangelical understanding of missions from the past. But today evangelical young people have gained a heightened awareness of social needs, and Johnston’s statement risks losing this group. They may feel his view represents indifference to valid Christian responsibilities.

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Stott’s statement, however, involves a risk that is at least as great. Since the word “mission” as such is not defined in the New Testament, it is permissible to opt for his wide definition. But Protestants today use the term “missionary” when Paul used the term “apostle,” so Stott’s definition of mission is immediately connected with missionaries. Many conclude that missionaries are responsible to do everything the church is sent to do! They seem charged to carry out social ministries in precisely those places where social needs are absolutely overwhelming, and to engage in political activities in countries where they are aliens!

Experienced evangelical missionaries know how difficult it is to give sufficient time, energy, and money to evangelism and church planting when social ministries are considered “supporting ministries.” How much more difficult will they find it if social ministry and political action come to be considered more or less equal partners of evangelism and church development! This development may well result in a frustrated generation of missionaries who will neither change the world nor disciple the nations.

Perhaps John Stott does not mean to precipitate such frustration by assigning to the “missionary” all that is involved in his definition of “mission.” If so, the church and the missions would be the better for it if he would make the difference explicit. Until he does so, his viewpoint may cause grave confusion.

From questions about the definition of missions we must turn to the issue of strategy. In recent years evangelicals have been bombarded with challenges to participate in this or that ultimate strategy for winning the world to Christ. Careful missiological thinking reinforces some of these: Evangelism-in-Depth a few years ago, then Theological Education by Extension, and now the new strategy to reach the unreached peoples. Other strategies such as those of Here’s Life, Every Home Crusade, Bibles for the World, International Students, Inc., PTL television evangelism, and so on, are not so much informed by missiological thinking as they are the result of personal vision and enthusiasm. We must make two observations in terms of tomorrow’s missionaries, however. First, the proposed strategies are not equally important in carrying out the Great Commission. They require careful evaluation—the kind few recruits have the experience to undertake. Unfortunately we tend to bombard these new recruits with a profusion of untested programs and exciting but uninformed challenges. Young people find their spiritual circuits overloaded and too often become confused or make commitments that later produce disillusionment.

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Second, competition for money and volunteers has reached the point where leaders often try to outdrum one another by promising more than any person, organization, or strategy can deliver. This leads, for example, to an unhealthy concentration on the unreached while thousands of the “reached” totter between true Christianity and Christo-paganism, and while the newly won remain strangers or loosely attached appendages to local churches. Thinking younger Christians, who are desperately needed in tomorrow’s mission, may, because of these extravagant candidating procedures, turn cynical and look elsewhere for service.

To sum up; tomorrow’s missionaries are hearing more conflicting philosophies, competing challenges, and confusing evidence than the missionaries of any previous generation. What should be done?

Missiologists need to exercise care in their writings and teachings. They must remind themselves that few subjects are more amenable to the teacher’s personal biases, creativity, and enthusiasms than missiology, because the classrooms are often far removed from the laboratories in time and space. Theory that is not both biblical and practical will be a millstone around the neck of tomorrow’s missionary.

Mission leaders likewise need to exercise caution. Promotional campaigns that serve to bring recruits and money to a missionary organization do not necessarily serve well the larger mission of the church. Programs that attract attention and support to missions at home do not automatically strengthen the churches abroad. And prescriptions that get missionaries to the field without adequate education and experience usually do a disservice to Christ and his church, to the mission, and to the missionary.

Tomorrow’s missionaries, however, must assume responsibility for their own involvement. They must identify closely with a local church because only in that context will they really become prepared for biblical mission in the Third World. They must study the Scriptures for themselves because only there will they find ultimate answers regarding the mission of the church. They must seek out the advice of spiritual, effective, practicing missionaries who by virtue of their experience know something about the goal in missions—winning people to Christ and building up local bodies of believers. They must seek out schools that will provide well-rounded biblical and cross-cultural training.

If the missionaries of tomorrow and those who direct them will do these things in dependence upon the Holy Spirit, the Christian army is more likely to advance in step with the drumbeat of the Master.

Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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