Mission is the Shape of Water


In this excerpt from Mission is the Shape of Water, a new book by Baptist Minister and Missiologist Michael Frost, we learn about the use and abuse of Christian history.

I’ve long feared that our imagination has been somewhat limited when it comes to thinking about the mission of the church. People tend to harken back to the early church, by which they mean the church described in the Acts of the Apostles, claiming that this is the shape that Christian mission today should take. If only we could emulate the mission of the Jerusalem church, they say. But that church was peculiarly shaped by its time and place. Sure, there is much we can learn from the Jerusalem church, as there is from the churches in Antioch or Corinth or Ephesus or Rome. But we aren’t doing mission in the ancient Roman world.Indeed, the very fact that the mission and composition of the churches in Corinth or Rome was so different to that of the church in Jerusalem tells us the apostles knew that context shapes mission as a bottle shapes water.

More recently, some missional scholars point to the Chinese underground church as the defining shape of mission. And I am definitely open to learning how those Chinese church leaders took the unchanging nature of mission and shaped it to the extreme challenges of their context under the oppression and persecution of the Maoist regime. It is one of the ways that context has shaped mission.

But if our only points of reference are the early church under Roman persecution and the Chinese church under Communist persecution, are we really going to be able to discern what Christian mission in a post-Christendom West looks like? Don’t we need our imagination enlarged somewhat?

I’m sure you’ve heard people (usually old-timers) say we need God to raise up another Billy Graham or D. L. Moody or some other great heroic figure of the past. I always have two reactions to comments like that. Firstly, if you could miraculously plonk Billy Graham or John Wesley in twenty-first century America, they would almost certainly not have the effect they had in their time. They were shaped by their contexts and responded brilliantly to the needs and interests of their times.

But my second reaction to a statement wishing the great men of history were ministering today, has to do with the people they choose. For a start, they’re nearly always men. I don’t hear anyone crying out to God to raise up another Junia or Perpetua or St Brigid. I can’t recall anyone saying we need another Mary Slessor or Aimee Semple McPherson or Mother Theresa. But even the men who are conjured up as being apparently so necessary for our time are from such a limited range. Why yearn for another C. H. Spurgeon but not the greatest evangelist of all time, Francis Xavier? Why hanker after another William Carey but not the real founder of the modern missions movement, Count Nicolas von Zinzendorf?  And why not Simon Kimbangu or Hélder Câmara or St Boniface? I think I know the reason. Many people only know a little bit of history. The bit they like the best.

And if the bit you like the best is all you know you will be forever trapped in that particular historical “container.” You probably know Abraham Maslow’s famous expression, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” Well, it’s applicable here too. If you only have one historical container in your imagination, every mission initiative you think of will fit that container. We don’t need another Billy Graham or Francis Xavier. We need Christians to be sensitive to the cultural and philosophical landscape in which they find themselves and to develop missional responses specific to that context.

One of the ways to free your imagination to do this is to study history.

Yeah, I just said, “study history” and linked it to freeing your imagination. Maybe your days in history class at high school killed that possibility for you, but I’m going to try to rekindle it.

What I’m trying to say is that an excessive focus on the present leads to historical and spiritual myopia. We need Christian history to expand our horizons. For some conservative Protestants, it’s as if the history of the church begins with Paul, jumps 1500 years to Martin Luther and John Calvin, then another 200 years to Jonathan Edwards, and then yet another 200 years to Billy Graham. But plenty of awesome stuff happened in those big gaps in the timeline.

The well-known Christian historian Paul Barnett wrote, “History must be our deliverer not only from the undue influence of other times, but from the undue influence of our own—from the tyranny of environment and the pressures of the air we breathe.”

If you’re going to understand what the shape of mission looks like in your context you need understand the container into which it is being poured. To be sure, developing a deep understanding of our environment and our times is essential. But a rich awareness of our history can shed light on present trends and circumstances, thereby going a long way toward explaining why things are the way they are today. As Edward Smither says, “grasping the history of Christianity shapes the global church’s consciousness and contributes to a healthy Christian memory.”

This is an excerpt from Mission is the Shape of Water by Michael Frost, available now on Amazon.

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