With the dramatic Iguassu Falls as their backdrop, scholars and missionaries gathered in October for lively discussions about mission strategy, theology, and cultural conflicts.
The 159 participants in the Iguassu Missiological Consultation came to Foz do Iguassu from 53 countries to examine the way Christian mission is changing at the turn of the millennium.
Set on the border between Brazil and Argentina, Iguassu Falls is a two-and-a-half-mile wide waterfall system of 275 cataracts.
The rugged terrain around the Iguassu Falls is also where actors Robert DeNiro and Jeremy Irons reenacted a bloody incident from Latin America's colonial history for the 1986 motion picture The Mission. The actors played a Jesuit missionary and convert soldier resisting Portuguese conquerors bent on murdering the native Guarani and stealing their land.
That history of imperialism still lives in the memories of some who attended the consultation, sponsored by the Singapore -based World Evangelical Fellowship (WEF). Seattle-based anthropologist Miriam Adeney told attendees the parable of the mouse who danced with the elephant and was squashed—despite the elephant's enormous good will. Dozens of speakers and discussion participants invoked that image to explain their feelings toward North America and its missions organizations.
MISSIONARY AS MARKETER? Peruvian missiologist Samuel Escobar was unable to attend the consultation because of family illness. But in a paper discussed at the meeting, he criticized the "managerial missiology" practiced by certain North American groups. "The distinctive note" of this approach to missions "is to reduce Christian mission to a manageable enterprise," Escobar wrote. Practitioners of this approach focus on the quantifiable, measurable tasks of missions and ask pragmatic questions about how to achieve goals. Escobar called this statistical approach "anti-theological" and said it "has no theological or pastoral resources to cope with the suffering and persecution involved because it is geared to provide guaranteed success."
Joseph D'Souza, chair of the All India Christian Council, also indicted missiological trends that "have tended to turn communication [of the gospel] into a technique where we market a product called 'salvation.' The consumer is the sinner and the marketer is the missionary. In the bargain, what is missed is redemptive living in society."
This managerial approach is "a major leap onto the secular stage of strategic planning," according to a monograph from retired Eastern College professor James Engel. In the event's opening address, consultation director William Taylor quoted extensively from Engel, who was among the first to foster evangelical adoption of marketing principles.
Engel noted the "darker side" of plans to complete the task of evangelism by A.D. 2000. "Quantifiable results soon became a virtual obsession," Engel wrote. "Organizational public relations machinery geared up to fever-pitch reporting the numbers allegedly reached through crusades, the media, and intensified personal evangelism initiatives." Engel is concerned that such efforts do not produce "definite evidence that the kingdom of God is being exemplified" among peoples reached in this way.
The discussion sometimes seemed divided along First World-Third World lines, but statistical and strategic approaches to mission had their Latin American defenders. Rudy Giron, former chair of the indigenous Latin American missions movement Comibam, said such approaches help him envision the task of evangelization. Giron credits the approach with the growth of the missionary movement in Latin America.
Research can aid the task of evangelism, said Steve Hoke, vice president of the Anaheim, California-based Church Re source Ministries, which grew in part out of the church-growth philosophy developed at Fuller Seminary's School of World Mission. "If all truth is God's truth, we can borrow principles from marketing. Jesus was very felt-need-oriented in his approach.
"Doesn't it make sense to look strategically at fields that may be white unto harvest, or where, perhaps, we have neglected to sow?" Hoke asked.
WINNING IS NOT EVERYTHING: If missiology is sometimes too marketing-oriented, it is also sometimes too magical. Paul Hiebert of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School outlined the persistence in modern life of mythic cosmic dualism in literature, sport, government, business, religion—and even missions. Whether in football or evangelism, the universe is seen as the battleground between equal, opposing forces, Hiebert said. The outcome of the battle is uncertain, and winning is everything. In contrast, the biblical world-view sees God ruling over all, including the evil powers. "The very existence of Satan and sinners are a testimony to [God's] mercy and love," he said. There is cosmic struggle, but the outcome is certain and winning is not everything.
Hiebert applied this world-view analysis to the way spiritual warfare is often waged. Missionaries who try to deliver populations by praying against evil spirits sell human sinfulness short by treating people as the hapless victims of invisible forces rather than as moral agents responsible before God.
NEW DIRECTIONS: The consultation affirmed newer models of mission that contrast with the paternalism of the past. The 2,275-word Iguassu Affirmation, signed by participants at a closing Communion service, reverses the traditional flow from First World to Third World and advocates a vision "from people of all nations to people of all nations." (The text is available from the www.ChristianityToday.com archives.)
Participants also endorsed the development of missions movements in every country where there is a mature Christian church and explored the meaning for missions of the Christian teaching that God is Three in One.
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