Modernism, Mission Planning and Western Syncretism

August 2, 2012 in Mark, Africa, Mission, Theology by Mark

Eddie Arthur recently highlighted a couple of posts from Mark Meynell entitled “The dehumanising metrics of modernist ministry: The Present and The Future“, where Mark looks at how a modernist worldview can affect the work of the church and at times lead away from the very values of the gospel that the church is called to live out. Mark looks at several trends in modern ministries, including our obsession with speed, novelty and uniformity.

But the sections that really stood out to me were his observations concerning “The economics of effectiveness” and “The hubris of strategy”.

But I fear a sinister trend has crept in. For if we’re not careful, we can seek an effectiveness shaped more by Wall St than the via Dolorosa. Big business constantly seeks a combination of efficiency and growth in order to thrive… which is fair enough. Maximum profit for minimum effort. But this is effectiveness measured by the Damoclean sword of the bottom line.

But in ministry…? I hear a lot of talk about constantly seeking to have an effective ministry. And who doesn’t want that? But how on earth do we measure that? The Wall St resort is to use numbers and graphs (which of course have their place): whether bums on seats, cash given tax efficiently, staff size, baptism register etc etc etc. But that is not necessarily, or even inherently, kingdom ministry… after all, it’s pretty interesting to study Jesus’ reaction to crowds in the gospels – he was usually getting away from them; or at least suspicious of their intentions. Read More…

The problems with applying a modernist mindset to kingdom ministry are many:

  • We are often not sufficiently steeped in kingdom values to discern what our ministry goals should be – if we’re not careful, we’re more concerned with the increase in our crowd, our prestige, our methodology than with seeing the kingdom grow. This is empire building not harvest growth. How often do you come across a new ministry vision that does NOT involve the expansion of the particular ministry the visionary is involved in. But I’m getting silly now. You can’t exactly have a vision for someone else’s ministry… can you?
  • Such flawed goals inevitably lead to flawed means. And because of our pragmatic age, we’ll do whatever ‘works’. For ministry is just about cranking the right handles to achieve the right results. Isn’t it? Read More…

Typing on a laptopI definitely think there is a temptation for us as we’re involved in cross-cultural mission work to develop strategies that derive more from the principles of “successful” western business than from Jesus of Nazareth. In some ways this is inevitable, as these principles lie at the very heart of western culture, out of which much of the funding for world mission comes (and often some measure of economic effectiveness is even required by law in the donor country). And yet we may start our meeting time together with a devotional reading of the Bible, but ultimately put down our Bibles and talk efficiency and business strategy (reaching the most people, gaining the most followers, producing the most materials, in the quickest time with the given resources) when it comes to planning our work. In rural Tanzania we call this mixing of belief systems syncretism – at times following a certain set of beliefs, but returning to our traditional cultural beliefs when dealing with important matters.

What would it mean for us to make strategic decisions based on a study of God’s mission throughout the Bible? Or what Jesus had to say about poverty and wealth? As we are working across cultures and in multi-ethnic teams, what can we learn from Paul’s New Testament letters as he continually battles with a multi-racial church, with vastly different cultures, histories and traditional beliefs, that he insists has been united in Christ? How might we plan our work in a post-colonial and globalised world in light of the Bible’s interaction with the major themes of empire and oppression? Or slavery and (both geographical and spiritual) exile? How might the biblical approaches to suffering and persecution inform our decisions? Or the experiences of communities in the Bible as they live as ethnic minorities, with their culture and identity under threat from every side? What can we learn from Jesus about how to announce a kingdom that is putting everything right, but starts out as a small seed that falls to the ground?

I think at times we can be afraid to discuss these things in a corporate setting (particularly those of us working in an inter-denominational environment), as we are afraid to disagree. But again I think this fear stems from the modern insistence that there is only one right answer, and that we must decide on it together. Maybe the truth is that it’s only actually as diverse but united believers, wrestling with these huge issues and humbly stepping forward in faith, that we begin to draw closer to God and appreciate more of what he is doing in his world.