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ANALYSIS — Mission words and images: It’s time for a change

PASADENA, Calif. (BP)–“Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war” just doesn’t work anymore.

As a call to world missions, at least, it’s time to shelve it — along with other militaristic words and images — and try a different tune.

Not because such language offends American political correctness; the PC crowd opposes biblical evangelism regardless of terminology. Rather, because it offends — and confuses and frightens — many of the people Christian missionaries want to reach with the good news of Jesus.

And as any good missionary knows, the only thing more important than the language you use is the love behind it.

Of course, the word “missionary” itself carries plenty of negative freight in some countries because of history or anti-missions propaganda. Christian workers avoid using it if they want to cross certain borders. But other words are even more problematical.

“Target,” for instance. Or “conquer.” “Crusade” still provokes violent reaction in the Muslim world, which has a far longer historical memory than the West. And don’t forget popular missiological words like “advance,” “mobilize,” “deploy” and “engage.”

The nations and peoples being “targeted” may be forgiven for asking: What are these Christians trying to do, lead us to their God or defeat us in battle?

More than 30 mission leaders, scholars and communicators — including Southern Baptist International Mission Board President Jerry Rankin — gathered recently to discuss the words they use. The “Consultation on Mission Language and Metaphors,” held June 1-3 at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., drew representatives from the Evangelical Fellowship of Mission Agencies, Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association, AD 2000 and Beyond Movement and World Evangelical Fellowship.

The group claimed no right to represent all evangelicals — and found no definitive answer to the “word gap” in missions. But they urged evangelicals, their mission agencies and churches to start looking.

“We are not ashamed of the gospel, which is salvation to those who believe. We seek to preach it, teach it, and demonstrate it through acts of love and mercy,” they said in a joint statement issued after the consultation. “We realize that the gospel itself is an offense and a stumbling block to those who reject it. We also understand that the mission of Christ will be opposed in many places and by all means — including violent persecution — regardless of the language we use to communicate the gospel.”

But Christians, stressed AD 2000 leader Luis Bush, should be “offensive only to the degree the gospel itself is an offense, and no more.”

The participants repented for adding unnecessary stumbling blocks to the gospel: “We regret that certain words and images long employed to call the church to mission have increasingly caused offense to the very people with whom we are seeking to share the Good News … . We may know what such terms mean to us, but what do they mean to others?”

Warfare metaphors and other aggressive terminology, the conferees stressed, are biblical. But they have been over-used and misused in missions, becoming “increasingly counterproductive to mission work, sometimes endangering the lives of local believers, and … used by opponents of the church to indict and impede its work.”

Several agencies and individuals represented at the conference, including the AD 2000 Movement and mission leader Ralph Winter, have come under attack for statements about Hinduism found in published articles or on Internet websites. The International Mission Board, meanwhile, has been harshly criticized at home and abroad for publishing prayer guides — intended for use by Southern Baptists — focusing on Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Buddhists.

The criticism illustrates not only the explosive power of misunderstood words, but the way instant global communication technology has virtually eliminated “we/they” communication.

“The technology that opens the world to us also opens us — and our words — to the world,” the statement said. “We can no longer maintain a dichotomy between what we say to the ‘home folks’ and what we say to the world. The world, we must assume, will read or hear whatever we say to our own.”

Scripture, the participants continued, offers a treasure-trove of positive words and images Christians can use in missions — not least those offered by Jesus himself, “the great master of redemptive metaphors,” who proclaimed good news to the poor, release for the prisoners, sight for the blind (Luke 4:18).

“We encourage Christian mission agencies and local churches to re-examine Scripture and restate their global task in terms consistent with the teaching and mission of Christ. Alternate words and images include: blessing, healing, inviting, sowing and reaping, fishing, restoring family relationships, becoming reconcilers, peacemakers and ambassadors.”

Such themes not only go over better in the non-Christian world, they more effectively motivate today’s Christians, who are “responding to the call to glorify God among the nations … follow Christ into servanthood and sacrifice [and] lift up the downtrodden … . These are themes around which we need to develop metaphors to summon God’s people to God’s mission.”
Bridges, an International Mission Board writer, participated in the consultation.

    About the Author

  • Erich Bridges