Triennial Convention reminds us of God’s work in the world

revivalThis May marks the bicentennial anniversary of the first Baptist Triennial Convention, a meeting of like-minded Baptists passionate about missions.

It was the summer of 1814 in Philadelphia. More than 30 delegates pooled resources to support missionaries.  It came after a century of revolution and war, but also of explosive missionary activity inspired by the Second Great Awakening.

It was the age of missionary giants such as Adoniram Judson and William Carey, who ventured to India to spread the gospel.  It was the time of Luther Rice, who traveled hundreds of miles by horseback to raise funds for missionaries and the Convention alike.

Other missionaries went West, East, and South to spread the good news.  One of the first women missionaries to participate in outreach, Charlotte White, traveled to Asia.

If anything, the Triennial Convention and the societies born out of that movement reveal the distinctive qualities of America’s missionary culture.  Since the nation’s beginning, the Founders believed in a “manifest destiny” to spread out to other parts of the continent out of cultural and Christian duty.

We were (and continue to be, according to the late President Ronald Reagan), in the words of Puritan John Winthrop, a “city upon a hill.”

Yet, this zeal was steeped in a colonial worldview in which Christians believed that they also had the calling to help others become “civilized.”

Despite the spiritual motivation, it was seductively patronizing in many of its forms.  Some mission activities indirectly perpetuated institutions of slavery and imperialism that gave way to Jim Crow, apartheid, and economic disparity later that century.

Nevertheless, I am thankful for the missionary legacy that birthed the Triennial Convention.  We Christians stand upon the shoulders of courageous men and women who had an amazing vision for spreading God’s Word.

But I am also thankful for a shift in worldview between then and now.  Now, we do not do missions in order to convert “the heathen” and take advantage of natural resources and third-world economies.  We do not free men and women in Christ only to enslave them upon the manors of men.

Rather, we see others as God-image-bearers who have things to teach us as well. Most contemporary missionaries seek to do “contextual” ministry through which they work within the very cultures of those whom they are reaching.

In the American Founding, Christians believed that they had a mission to bring God to the rest of the world.  Now, we realize that God is already at work in the world.

We only have to hear God’s invitation and bear witness to God’s good news with people on God’s–and their–own terms.

This strategy is biblical.  In Acts 17, the Apostle Paul took a tour of Athens.  When he preached to the philosophers there, he said that God was among them because they already built a statue to “an unknown god” (v. 23).

Paul stressed that this nameless god was the God of Israel who became human in the person of Jesus the Christ.  Paul used this cultural symbol and pagan poetry in order to connect his experiences of God with their experiences of God.

Whereas a colonial and imperial worldview tried to get people to church and assimilate cultures, a worldview taken out of Paul’s own missionary playbook behooves Christians to learn how to be guests in a world thirsty for the spiritual nourishment that only God’s well could provide.

Let us hear the invitation and go forth, and let us regain that missionary zeal that once captivated those courageous forebears who formed the Triennial Convention.

The Changing Face of Christian Missions and Outreach

Over the past several months, I have been reflecting on paradigm shifts that are facing Christianity and Christian ministry as a whole. No surprise that Christian missions is also changing in the new millennium for new circumstances.

Some of these changes have been positive, other paradigms are shifting so swiftly many Christians feel that they are losing a grip on the church’s public witness as a result.

It was only a hundred years ago that Christian missions exploded in popularity around the world. The Second Great Awakening swept across western nations in the mid-nineteenth century, enchanting the hearts and minds of Christians who, in turn, passionately pursued the “heathen peoples” of Africa, Asia, and Indonesia for the sake of Christ.

Industrialism and transportation set global missions in motion, and soon these same missionary endeavors coincided with colonial expansion. While developed nations strengthened their empires by forming new markets and bolstering a growing economy, Christians exported western culture under the guise of the Christian religion.

Imperialism reached its height between the years 1880 and 1915, and it was during that timeframe that colonialism and missions became (in the words of Rudyard Kipling) the “white man’s burden.” This had negative consequences as businesses and politicians alike used missionaries to reign in indigenous populations (i.e. cheap labor).

Now, as the remnants of colonialism all but fade into history, Christian missions has taken on a more global hue. Very few missionaries still seek to change the culture in which they work; rather, many are adapting Christianity to the spiritual and social fabric of local communities. This has turned the church’s witness from being coercive and oppressive to being a catalyst for organic, Gospel-centered transformation.

Missionaries Ryan and Cindy Clark were recently commissioned by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship to go to the Philippines. According to Ryan, being a catalyst for transformation requires cooperation with native communities.

“Christianity is growing faster in Asia and Central and South America than it is in the US and Europe, which means there is a power shift in religious influence,” said Ryan, “We’re not going to set up a missionary outpost to convert the heathen; rather, we are going to partner with Christians who are already there to bring our gifts to their needs. This includes evangelism and church planting, as well as training the locals to do the leading.”

Shifting missional paradigms are also changing how churches do local outreach. Many a clergy celebrate the fact that more people are becoming “spiritual”; this gives them the opportunity to tell people that each person’s spiritual longing has little grounding if not anchored in a Judeo-Christian biblical tradition.

This recalls an aspect of Augustine’s confession that sounds fresh for a new audience: “My heart is restless until it rests in Thee.” No iPhone or Starbucks will do.

Likewise, parishioners now see themselves as missionaries in local communities. Folks need not travel across great oceans to reach mission fields. Instead, mission fields consist of neighborhoods, schools, marketplaces, and businesses beyond the church walls.

This philosophy of missions, however, can frustrate churches that see little need for change; but we must face a real fact: More often than not, church growth occurs because Christians are migrating from church to church, not because non-Christians are coming to know Christ. There is still a disconnect between Christians and non-Christians, between the church as “alternative community” and secular society.

With a skyrocketing rate of people who never darken the steps of any church door moving about in our midst, the challenge to change missionary models is key to engaging both local and global communities for the sake of the Gospel and for the salvation that only Christ can bring.