When the lost get lost, everyone loses.
Jul 29, 2009 by Mark Young | 1 Comments
“I remember them so vividly from my childhood—the great banner texts around the walls of the missionary conventions in Northern Ireland where I would help my father at the stall of the Unevangelized Fields Missions, of which he was Irish Secretary after twenty years in Brazil. ‘Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature’, they urged me, along with other similar imperatives in glowing gothic calligraphy. By the age of twelve, I could have quoted you all the key ones—‘Go ye therefore and make disciples . . .’ ‘How shall they hear . . . ?’ ‘You shall be my witnesses . . . to the ends of the earth’. ‘Whom shall we send? . . . Here am I, send me’. I knew my missionary Bible verses. I had responded to many a rousing sermon on most of them.
By the age of twenty-one I had a degree in theology from Cambridge, where the same texts had been curiously lacking. At least, it is curious to me now. At the time there seemed to be little connection at all between theology and mission in the minds of the lecturers, or in my own mind, or, for all I knew, in the mind of God either. ‘Theology’ was all about God—what God was like, what God had said and what God had done and what mostly dead people had speculated on all three. ‘Mission’ was about us, the living and what we’ve been doing since the time of Carey. . .” (Christopher J.H. Wright. 2004. “Mission as a Matrix for Hermeneutics and Biblical Theology” in Out of Egypt: Biblical Theology and Biblical Interpretation, edited by Craig Bartholomew, Mary Healy, Karl Moller, and Robin Parry. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. p. 102)
Christopher Wright’s poignant recollection of the startling disconnect between formal theological studies and the mission-laced environment of his upbringing rings true as I reflect on my own experience. Spiritually birthed and nurtured in a campus ministry while a student at Marshall University, my understanding of the Christian life and of spiritual maturity was built around concern for, and meaningful involvement in the lives of, lost people. We prayed for the lost, we sought the lost, we spent time with them and we shared the gospel with them as a natural expression of our understanding of what it meant to be Christian.
But when I got to seminary lost folk just disappeared. We didn’t pray for the lost, we didn’t grieve their lostness, we didn’t seek the lost or intentionally spend time with them. Classes didn’t address their concerns, objections, or indifference to the gospel. In other words, lost people were a non-issue in my theological studies. Sadly, my experience, as well as that described by Chris Wright above, seems to have been the norm rather than the exception in theological schools across Europe and North America for the past several decades.
In spite of Martin Kahler’s assertion in 1908, “Mission is the mother of theology,” most formal programs of theological education in the west abandoned mission as an organizing paradigm for their programs and a focus of their learning outcomes. Of course many schools retained individual missions courses and some developed degree programs in world missions. But missions courses and programs remained largely on the margins of curricular planning and institutional culture in most schools.
The absence of mission at the core of theological education programming reflected the neglect of mission as an axial theme in theology and biblical studies. Dan Beeby observed in 2000, “Notoriously, biblical studies, on the whole, proceed comfortably without even a nodding acquaintance with mission or missiology.” (Beeby, H.D. 2000. “A Missional Approach to Renewed Interpretation,” in Renewing Biblical Interpretation. ed. C.G. Bartholomew, C. Greene and K. Möhler: Scripture and Hermeneutics Series 1, 278). Thomas Schreiner offers a similar lament regarding Pauline studies, “Magnifying God in Christ was the animating principle of Paul’s life and the foundational principle of his theology. Scholars rarely, however, consider Paul’s missionary focus when explaining his theology. Perhaps the missionary focus of the Pauline writings is not attractive because most scholars are not missionaries. We tend to seize on themes that interest us, and most scholars are not inclined to missions. Paul, on the other hand, was first and foremost a missionary. He was not a systematic theologian who wrote treatises in which various parts of his theology were logically related and explained. . . He saw himself as a missionary commissioned by God to extend the saving message of the gospel to all others.” (Schreiner, Thomas R. 2001. Paul: Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ. A Pauline Theology. 38-39.)
Schreiner’s observation about the personal and contextual interests of scholars as a critical feature of their work forces us to admit that formal theological education in North America, driven by theological scholarship largely limited to Northern European and North American perspectives, simply wasn’t interested in mission. Thankfully that neglect is waning. In some part through the efforts of thinkers like Lesslie Newbigin, Darrell Guder and Chrisopher Wright, mission is beginning to find a seat at the table of theological scholarship and discourse. For example, I. Howard Marshall, in his recent volume (2004), New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel, notes that the New Testament documents may be best understood “as the documents of a mission.” He goes on, “The subject matter is not, as it were, Jesus in himself or God in himself but Jesus in his role as Savior and Lord. New Testament theology is essentially missionary theology. By this I mean that the documents came into being as the result of a two-part mission, first, the mission of Jesus sent by God to inaugurate his kingdom with the blessings that it brings to people and to call people to respond to it, and the mission of his followers called to continue his work by proclaiming him as Lord and Savior, and calling people to faith and ongoing commitment to him, as a result of which his church grows. The theology that springs out of this movement and is shaped by it, and in turn the theology that shapes the continuing mission of the church.” (34-35)
We cannot afford to lose sight of the lost in theological scholarship and in theological education. As in the early years of the Church, theology today must be formed on that jagged edge where belief and unbelief collide. Theological acuity in the lives of seminary students is enriched as they engage meaningfully in the lives of those who do not, and do not want to, believe. Theological education that does not locate learning content and outcomes in the lives of the lost is impoverished theological education. When the lost get lost, everyone loses.
What would a theological education program look like if mission were an axial theme of its theological commitments and a central feature of its learning outcomes? That question must no longer be ignored by those who plan and execute theological education programs.