Posted by: edsohn | May 22, 2008

Postmodern Missions: Imaging Christ

Dear readers: Be warned, this is not a short post. And much of it has probably been said better by others; I confess I am not well-read enough to feel redundant. But I beg your patience, as I really desire your feedback.

My heart is for what Christians have referred to as “missions”, but I want to frame the mission of God within the postmodern pool I’ve been swimming in. Being a postmodern Christian does not require me to humbly submit to rampant relativism in a pluralistic reality. In other words, there is STILL a mission, a story to be told, people to be convinced. There are still people who are living their lives without Christ, people who are in need of a restored relationship with the One True God.

So here’s what I’ve come up with, tentatively, to bring it all together. There aren’t novel ideas here or anything that someone else hasn’t said, but in my own words:

The Christian mission from a postmodern viewpoint cannot obsess on the triumph of truth over error, but rather, the advocacy and glorification of the compelling story out of individually and corporately held convictions about Christ. The message of Jesus is more effective and arises more organically when imaged into the story of life, not gripped as a bludgeon of intellectual argument. As the Christian mission is being accomplished, the motifs of the Christian story will manifest in at least three ways: (1) more self-described Christians; (2) a mobilization of people to meet physical needs; and (3) zealous advocacy of the oppressed against the unjust forces in the world.

These are not just positive side effects of Christian influence or signs and symptoms of Christian presence. Imaging Christ through evangelism, compassion to the needy, and justice for the oppressed IS the mission itself, uniquely Christian and Biblical, because it all displays Christ.

I. This is more than letting your actions speak louder than your words.

It is that, in essence, but there’s more. For too long, I’ve heard mission strategists using “good deeds” as simply a channel through which we can establish a relationship with the ultimate goal of a moment of conversion. So, good actions ENABLE good missions, but the acts of mercy and justice are not THEMSELVES missions… but I would argue to the contrary. I believe that acts of mercy and justice are, in and of themselves, the very same task as evangelism in the mission of God.

II. These are not SEPARATE aims of traditional missions; they all serve the same purpose: to biograph God’s character into the living drama of human history.

Mercy and justice are not separate from the mission of God to glorify Himself as the greatest good of the universe. We can look at them that way, but we may run the risk of portraying them to be inferior purposes not tied to the very personhood of God. We must understand that if someone knows God, then he will instantly know grace. If someone knows God, she will instantly see love (1 John 4:7). God is not reduced to those qualities, but He is the ORIGIN of such qualities, and it is horridly incomplete to preach the “good news” that God sacrificed Himself so that we might be in a restored relationship with our Creator without showing off, with great flair and gusto, the abounding love, joy, kindness, justice, mercy, and sacrifice that is at the core of His character.

I think we should move away from preaching a forumlated “gospel message” and starting preaching (and displaying and singing and painting) God Himself!

III. This is not an exhaustive list.

God is infinite! Portraying His character will be the task of eternity, as we live out (and not just sing with harps, etc., but LIVE OUT) worship in the renewed and glorified world. But that task begins TODAY, as we pray for His Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. So to do justly and to love mercy are not the only qualities of Christ to show off as we proclaim His story in our lives.

  • Proclaim that He lays down His life for His beloved by chasing after people with sacrifice. (1 John 3:16)
  • Declare the wonder and mystery of incarnation, God made into the nature of a servant, by obeying in the face of suffering. (Phil 3:10-11)
  • Preach the depths of God’s grace by displaying radical, grace-filled, undeserving forgiveness. (Eph. 4:32)

IV. Finally, this view of incarnating Christ in how we live and love is in addition, and not the preclusion, of what we have learned through traditional Christian missions.

I used to dismiss as slow-paced the notions of demonstrating Christ through the imaging of His great qualities. How could we try to be fuzzy and unclear about a message in the face of the urgent cry of the unreached people groups, ancient tribes who have never heard the name Jesus uttered and have never had any part of the Bible in their own language? How can we sit around and try to be do-gooders when people are dying without the message of Christ?

First, I have found that God Himself is a far greater motivation for me, at least, than the cries of the unknown and unnamed. Yes, my heart breaks for those people, but my heart more easily is overwhelmed and overjoyed by the greatness of Christ in such a manner that it spills over. Missions is not ultimately motivated by pity; it is founded in worship, which means it begins with God’s great overwhelming worth.

But secondly, and I write this with great liberation, the urgency IS real; people are dying every instant without even the opportunity for a relationship with Christ. That does not take away from how the Christian mission is accomplished, or how the story of God is told. We absolutely should target the 10/40 window, the unreached people groups of central Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. We should not deter our desire to go there and plant house churches.

Now, more than ever, I believe the Church has an opportunity to go into those places and shine Christ brightly by imaging His compassion, justice, grace and love.

Conclusion

It is organic and observably natural to simply be people who bear witness to the amazing God that has moved in our lives, and to imitate His qualities so as to show Him to others. And without more, that should be enough. However, I have found great assurance that the way we love, share, advocate, empathize, lavish compassion, and fight evil will display the elements in the unique story of Jesus in a way that invites people to engage with the reality of the God that we serve.

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