Towards Renewing Our Vision for Mission

A paper prepared for the International Minisries Consultation of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, January 24-25, 1996 by Dr. J. Kevin Livingston, Minister, St. Andrew's Hespeler Presbyterian Church, Cambridge, Ontario.

The great missions historian Kenneth Scott Latourette said many years ago in his massive seven-volume work, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, that it appears that the Church's spiritual vitality and strength ebbs and flows much like waves upon a beach. There are times of growth and forward momentum, followed by retrenchment and decline. We give thanks to God for these special times of growth under the great Celtic missionary bands led by Columba and others; or the Protestant Reformation under Luther and Zwingli and Calvin; or the Great Awakening under the preaching of such evangelists as George Whitefield, or the Wesleyan revival in England; or the great century of missionary advance under John R. Mott and the Student Volunteer Movement with the watchword, "The Evangelization of the World in This Generation"; or even of our own day with the astounding growth of Christianity — particularly in its charismatic and Pentecostal forms — in the Two-Thirds World; or of the Roman Catholic Base Community movement across so much of Latin America.

1. Recurring trends in times of church renewal

Dr. Paul Pierson, a Presbyterian pastor, church historian and former dean of Fuller Seminary's School of World Mission has made the provocative observation that in the history of every movement of spiritual revival and the renewal of the institutional church, there are recurring trends. The first recurring trend during times of revival is this: the distance between clergy and laity is decreased, with an emphasis upon the fact that every Christian is gifted by the Spirit for ministry.

This was certainly true in the book of Acts. The Spirit is poured out on all people. On women as well as men. On the young as well as the old. On persons of all backgrounds and nationalities. And all these people are gifted for witness and service in the body of Christ.

And this pattern has been repeated in various ways throughout the history of the Church. For example, in the Reformation, we saw a rediscovery of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, along with the Protestant goal of getting the Scriptures into every household. In the missionary movement, particularly since the 19th century, it has primarily been non-ordained laypersons, particularly unmarried women, who responded to God's call to the "regions beyond." And in our own day, both the Pentecostal and Catholic Base Community movements emphasize the ministry of the whole people of God, and dependence upon outside, clerical leadership is reduced.

When the church is in the midst of genuine spiritual renewal, ordinary Christians rediscover their spiritual giftedness and their apostolic calling.

The second common feature in the history of all of these revival and renewal movements is this: there is a re-contextualizing of the gospel, and with that re-contextualization comes a burst of new innovations — new methods of communicating the gospel, new styles of leadership training, a new impetus for reforming injustices in the social order, new strategies of evangelism, new structures for congregational life and missionary outreach, new forms of music and hymnody, and new art forms and architectural styles. All these innovations are a result of the gospel becoming truly incarnated and taking root in the new cultures that it penetrates.

And so for example in church music, during the Reformation Martin Luther wrote hymns to familiar tunes that the people knew, and encouraged the whole congregation to sing instead of merely the professional cathedral choristers. During the time of the Great Awakening and the Wesleyan revival, hymnwriters like Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley began writing a new form of hymnody that the common people could identify with. Roughly a century ago our Presbyterian foreparents were passionately debating the newest trend in church music — whether or not to allow an organ into the sanctuaries of our non-instrumental churches. And of course today, with the growing worldwide Pentecostal and charismatic movements, the likes of Graham Kendrick and the Vineyard movement are creating whole new ways to express our musical praise to God — to the relief of some of us, and to the profound chagrin of others.

Historically, revivals of religion bring with them lots of new wine — some of it good and some of it not so good. There is a great need for discernment in times of spiritual renewal, to sort out the good vintage from the vinegar. But spiritual vitality and renewal — with all its untidiness and problems — is certainly preferable to spiritual decline and death.

Dr. Pierson further observes that as we look across the world today, churches that are most rapidly declining, numerically speaking, tend to be those who are flexible in their theological convictions but rigid in their methodologies and relatively closed to innovation with regard to ministry and mission structures, worship practices, etc. In effect, the denominational "culture" stifles this spirit of creative innovation and gospel re-contextualization.

And the converse is also true. Across the world, churches that are most rapidly growing, numerically speaking, tend to be those who are more rigid or firm in their basic theological convictions but very flexible in their methodologies and open to new and creative innovations in ministry and mission.

I would like to reflect on both these issues in turn; first our need as a Reformed church to maintain biblical fidelity and doctrinal integrity; and second, our need for structural flexibility. Both these issues have profound implications for mission.

2. The need for doctrinal integrity.

First, on the need for doctrinal integrity today. Effective and growing congregations and denominations are those who stand firm and solid in their conviction regarding the nature and power of the gospel, and they feel compelled to share that good news with others. The gospel, as Acts 10:34-43 make clear, centres on the good news of the mighty acts of God in Jesus Christ. Churches that waver on this point will have no real, long-lasting missionary passion, because they will have no life-changing message. Let me say here that I have a real fear for the future of the mainline Protestant churches because of our confusion on this point.

In a society marked by increasing religious pluralism, ethnic diversity, and cultural relativism, the one unpardonable sin is to make any kind of exclusive and public religious truth-claims. Is Jesus Christ the unique and decisive revelation of God for the salvation of the world, or merely one revelation among others? I believe that the scandal of the gospel must be maintained over against those who would soften its message by reducing Jesus to mere ethical example. We must continue to emphasize the centrality of Jesus Christ to mission, and the uniqueness and finality of Christ for salvation.

Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, in his recent books, reminds us forcefully that our faith rests not on some abstract ethical principle or eternally valid proposition, but in the historical life, death, and resurrection of one particular man. The event of Jesus Christ is of ultimate significance for all humankind, and provides the clue to the meaning and direction of history. That which is foolishness to the Greeks — and to modern Western culture! — must be maintained and proclaimed with conviction in our pluralist society. 1 This issue, which always prompts long letters in The Record and Glad Tidings, is going to have to be faced squarely and honestly by our church in the years to come.

John Leith, a Reformed theologian from the PCUSA, has argued that the Christian mission to the world is confessional. The Christian confesses what God has done for all people in Jesus Christ, and invites others to share this faith. 2

God alone knows what happens to people when they die. Willem Visser 't Hooft, the renowned founder of the World Council of Churches, once wrote, "I do not know whether a Hindu is saved. I only know that salvation comes in Jesus Christ." This "theology of neutrality" has been vigorously attacked for not declaring that those outside Christian faith are saved. Yet it is wise to leave the fate of all to the judgement of God.

Are the heathen "lost?" Lesslie Newbigin argues that this is a poor question because only God can answer it. The fundamental question is, How can God be glorified and his grace made known? Newbigin proposes that we Christians should welcome signs of God's grace in any life, that Christians will cooperate with people of all faiths in projects that are in line with Christian understanding, that in this association we shall discover where we must separate, and that the real contribution of Christians to the dialogue will be telling the story of Jesus and the Bible.

Our own Living Faith has an admirable section in this regard.

    Some whom we encounter belong to
    other religions and already have a faith.
    Their lives often give evidence of devotion
    and reverence for life.
    We recognize that truth and goodness in them
    are the work of God's Spirit, the author
    of all truth.
    We should not address others in a spirit of
    arrogance implying that we are better
    than they.
    But rather, in the spirit of humility, as beggars
    telling others where food is to be found,
    we point to life in Christ.

3. The need for structural flexibility

Let me now address the other side of the coin. Paul Pierson argues that those churches that are rapidly growing around the world today tend to be those who have flexible structures and methodologies, who are able to "re-shape" themselves according to the changing historical context to communicate the gospel with cultural relevance.

Of course Paul Pierson isn't alone in this observation. Loren Mead of the Alban Institute has been crying in the wilderness for some time now, urging us — as individuals, as congregations, as denominations — to come to grips with the fundamental paradigm shift our culture is currently undergoing. That's the burden of such best-selling recent books as George Hunter's How to Reach Secular People and Bill Easum's Dancing with Dinosaurs. And closer to our own context, Canadian authors such as Reg Bibby and Don Posterski are bringing similar insights to us. 3

But are we listening? To what extent have we become so deeply entrenched in familiar patterns and outmoded structures that we are simply unable to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches?

Recently I was looking into the life of the illustrious and colourful career of Jonathan Goforth, one of our most noted Canadian Presbyterian missionaries. After some years spent at a mission station, Goforth felt led to abandon the mission station and begin a variety of more personal and direct missionary strategies. Ruth Tucker, the author of From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions, comments that:

    The Goforths' efforts to reach the Chinese were unconventional by most missionary standards, particularly their "open-house" evangelism. Their home, with its European interior design, and their furnishings (including a kitchen stove, a sewing machine, and an organ) were subjects of intense curiosity to the Chinese people, and the Goforths willingly relinquished their privacy and effectively used their house as a means to make friends and contacts among the people of the province. Visitors came from miles around, once more than two thousand in one day, to tour the house in small groups. Before each tour began, Goforth gave a gospel message, and sometimes visitors stayed on after the tour to hear more. He preached [hours] every day, and during one five month period some twenty-five thousand people came to visit. Rosalind ministered to the women, sometimes speaking to as many as fifty at a time who were gathered in the yard…

    As he travelled through China and Manchuria in the years that followed, Goforth's evangelistic ministry mushroomed. Some of his colleagues and supporters back home were wary of his evangelistic zeal. They were uncomfortable hearing reports of weeping and confession of sin and of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and some charged that it was a movement of "fanaticism" and "Pentecostalism." Goforth ignored the criticism and kept on preaching… Another problem Goforth faced involved his own mission board. He regarded the "Holy Spirit's leading" above the "hard and fast rules" of the Presbytery under which he served, and thus, according to his wife, "with his convictions concerning Divine guidance of himself, he naturally came often into conflict with other members of the Honan Presbytery," making him "not easy to get along with." Goforth did not demand special privileges for himself, but rather insisted that each missionary should have "freedom to carry on his or her work as each one felt led." 4

My point in this brief vignette is not to evaluate Goforth's theology or strategy, but merely to highlight Goforth's sense of freedom in the gospel, his willingness to create new, innovative (and controversial) strategies to accomplish the task God had given him. Goforth was not easy to get along with. But then, neither was that other cross-cultural evangelistic missionary, the Apostle Paul! Within our church, and within International Ministries, we need more risk-takers, more dreamers, more visionaries, more passionate prophets, more pioneers.

The frontiers of mission have changed. Our understanding of mission has broadened. But the fundamental need to "reshape" our witness in order to communicate the gospel with cultural relevance remains an indispensable ingredient to missionary faithfulness.

4. Three mission priorities

In the space I have left let me suggest three mission priorities that have clear biblical warrant, and could shape the future of International Ministries within the Presbyterian Church in Canada.5

a. Mission to people who are unreached

"It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known…" Romans 15:20

Over five billion persons inhabit the earth. People in this world normally identify themselves as members of particular groups: cultures, languages, ethnic groups, nationalities, vocations, classes, or religions, to name a few. These "people groups" number tens of thousands and are in constant flux as societies and world conditions change.

In most countries there are "people groups" among whom there is no viable, culturally-indigenous church. Few, if any, of the people in these groups acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. Many of these groups have been described as "hidden" or "unreached" peoples because the church has been unaware of their existence or inactive in sharing the gospel with them. Significant barriers tend to separate these groups from the Church.

While some of these unevangelized people groups can be found in isolated parts of the world, many are increasingly found in the teeming cities of the world. Sharing the good news of Jesus Christ among these groups involves finding persons committed to holistic evangelism, equipping them with skills for cross-cultural living and communication, with the goal establishing a viable, evangelizing, culturally-indigenous church. The WCC's 1982 statement "Mission and Evangelism: An Ecumenical Affirmation" (paragraph 25) calls for the establishment of congregations in every human community and culture:

    It is at the heart of Christian mission to foster the multiplication of local congregations in every human community… This task of sowing the seed needs to be continued until there is, in every human community, a cell of the kingdom, a church confessing Jesus Christ and in his name serving his people. The building up of the church in every place is essential to the gospel.

We need to renew our focus on those peoples who are thus far "unreached" by the gospel of Christ. The task of mission as currently practised by the PCC has largely become "inter-church aid." And as valuable and necessary as this dimension of mission is, it can never replace the primary mandate of the Christian mission — crossing the frontier between belief and unbelief among the unreached and least evangelized peoples throughout the world.

This will call for new partnerships and new approaches. But it is being done already within the PCUSA. There is active co-operation between the official PCUSA mission agency and a network of individuals and churches called the Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship. New holistic evangelism projects are being designed in and funded by interested congregations.

b. Mission among people who are poor and powerless

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor." Luke 4:18

From our privileged perspective it is almost impossible to empathize with the poor. One and a half billion people in our world are malnourished, and an estimated 780 million of earth's inhabitants are considered destitute. Yet the gap between wealth and poverty continues to grow in our own nation and around the globe. The "poor" are also those who suffer persecution, oppression, and social marginalization.

There are many causes of poverty. Unjust economic orders. Unequal distribution of political power. Racism. The fragmentation of families through divorce. The bottom line, however, is that an increasing number of people find themselves homeless, isolated, imprisoned, disenfranchised, and feeling abandoned and voiceless, without a sense of being in control of their own destiny.

God is active in the world working among the poor of the earth, seeking to reconcile them to Christ and blessing them in their longing for justice and liberation. As the poor become bearers of the whole gospel, they have much to teach us. I have lived in Latin America. I have talked with "street children" and sat in the one-room tin shack of a mother and her children in one of the vast barrios of Mexico City and seen a radiance of faith in God that put my puny faith to shame.

What would it mean for us to give strong emphasis to holistic gospel ministries among the poor of this earth? It would undoubtedly affect our church's priorities and lifestyles. And how can ministry with the poor be personalized to touch the lives of our congregations, our Sunday School children, our members who often feel so powerless when confronted with the issue of global poverty?

Surely we must redouble our efforts to help our people see the biblical basis for ministry with the poor, and for all aspects of development work. It has always perplexed me that PWS & D — perhaps for very good reason — has remained somewhat detached structurally from the rest of International Ministries, because the work of development, medical healing and literacy education is gospel work.

c. Mission with people who are uprooted and displaced

"Share with God's people who are in need. Practise hospitality." Romans 12:13

"Millions of people are made refugees through war, poverty, oppression and changing social conditions. They become displaced from familiar surroundings to live in new lands among strangers, often destitute and marginalized. 6 The story of Ruth in the Bible is a graphic reminder of the constant obligation for God's people to welcome the stranger and sojourner in our midst, and to extend hospitality to those in need.

And this ministry of hospitality has tremendous evangelistic and missionary significance. Dr. Jonathan Bonk, Professor of Global Christian Studies at Providence Theological Seminary in Otterburne, Manitoba, has reminded us that "God's way has always been to work through unimpressive peoples and gatherings, not through impressive shows of corporate and organizational strength." He tells the story of how one of the greatest Christian movements in our century began in the Winnipeg YMCA, when John Hayward befriended Bakht Singh, then a young engineering student alone and far away from home in the autumn of 1929. Because Hayward practised hospitality (philoxenian — literally, love of strangers [Romans 12:13] — in contrast to xenophobia, dread of strangers), Singh became a believer and was discipled, returning to India in 1933 not as an agricultural engineer but as one of India's leading apostles in this century, responsible for establishing nearly 1,000 congregations around India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the USA. To his evangelistic ministry, furthermore, may be traced the ministries of many of the leading missionaries and ministries in India and Nepal. 7

John Hayward did not profess a great love for the masses, but he did show hospitality to a stranger at the YMCA. And his faithfulness to the simple biblical mandate allowed the Holy Spirit to do a mighty work.

Canadian cities and universities are teeming with international students, new immigrants and refugees. "The world has literally come to our doorstep. Clearly there is plenty to do without ever leaving this continent. As Presbyterians we have a responsibility to increase efforts to reach out in love to these newcomers in the spirit of Christ's vision of the kingdom: an open house, a festive table, a royal banquet ready for all who will come." Practical strategies need to be developed and models of ministry developed to help our church reach out creatively to these persons.


  1. See his Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Eerdmans and SPCK, 1986) and The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Eerdmans and World Council of Churches, 1989).
  2. What follows in the following two paragraphs are taken from John Leith's Basic Christian Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), p. 284.
  3. See Reginald Bibby, There's Got to be More! Connecting churches and Canadians (Winfield, B.C.: Wood Lake Books, 1995); Don Posterski, Reinventing Evangelism: New strategies for presenting Christ in today's world (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1989); and True to You: Living our faith in our multi-faithed world (Winfield, B.C.: Wood Lake Books, 1995).
  4. Ruth Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), pp. 190, 192-93.
  5. Much of what I have to say here derives from the statement Turn to the Living God: A Call to Evangelism in Jesus Christ's Way, a Resolution adopted by the 203rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, USA (Louisville: Office of the General Assembly, 1991). It is a remarkably helpful policy and strategy document.
  6. Turn to the Living God, p. 19.
  7. This is a summary of a section of Jonathan Bonk's unpublished paper: "Thinking Small: Global Missions and Canadian Churches," prepared for the Canadian Consultation on Global Mission in Toronto, October 30, 1995, pp. 7-8.