Competing Worldviews: “Why Can’t You See the Gospel Like I Do?”

“Differing worldviews compete within me!”

I was struck by this realization as I ministered to a small group of new Christians and seekers in Kenya during a time of famine. Crops were dying in the fields. Women were walking miles to carry water on their backs to their homes. Everyone realized that if rain did not come soon, current crops would wilt in the fields. We decided to conclude our time of fellowship, teaching, and discussion by beseeching God for rain. Had we not been discussing that Creator God was the sovereign Lord of his world? Before we finished our time of prayer, clouds gathered and rain began to pour from the sky. In response, we gave God glory, honor, and praise. What a time of fellowship—and seeing God work—in a new church!

On the way home, as my short wheel-base Toyota Land Cruiser (the old type) slipped down the muddy road and twice slide into a ditch, I was surprised that it had rained only in the general vicinity of our meeting. My mind began to discern the reasons: Rain tends to come from the West, follow a certain ridge of hills, and then drop into this valley.

My thoughts then returned to our powerful time of prayer and our belief that sovereign God is the ultimate giver of rain. I realized that within me are competing worldviews. I am a secularist! I believe the world is organized around “laws of nature” which determine when and where it will rain. I am a theist! I believe that God is sovereign over the world he created. Within my mind I seek to merge these worldviews believing that God created the world to work with certain cycles or rhythms, but our loving, ever-present Creator willingly changes these rhythms he has created. Nonetheless, these two worldviews compete within me for allegiance—sometimes leading me to be more of a secularist than a theist. “Oh, God, help me trust your presence, think your thoughts, and walk in your paths so that I pray to you with expectancy!”  

What might we learn from this story to better understand ourselves and the people among whom we minister?

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Missional Helix

 

This Missiological Reflection provides a framework for cultural understanding by describing four types of worldviews and continues our discussion about “Cultural Analysis” within the Missional Helix. As you read this typology, ask yourself the question, “Which worldviews compete for my heart’s allegiance and for the hearts of the people among whom I serve? How must I live to make God my sovereign Lord?

The purpose of this Missiological Reflection is to provide categories for interpreting yourself and the culture in which you minister.

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Secularism

A secular worldview divides the world into natural and supernatural realms but focuses almost exclusively on the natural. God is considered either nonexistent or irrelevant to human affairs. Humans intuit that they have the ability to understand and shape their own reality. Secularism, which is rooted in Greek and Roman beliefs, became a philosophy of life in Western Europe during the “Enlightenment” or “Age of Reason” from the 1620’s to the 1780’s. It then spread to the rest of the world through colonialism, Western education, and media. Secularists tend to be resistant to the gospel until they realize, usually during times of trauma, that humans are unable to “direct their [own] steps” (Jer. 10:23), that the divine and the human are interrelated.

In the story about God giving rain I revert to the secular part of my heart and heritage. Euro-American Christianity struggles to be thoroughly Christian because facets of life have become secularized.

Animism

An animistic worldview presupposes that personal spiritual beings and impersonal spiritual forces have power over human affairs. During times of disease, death, and drought, animists use divination to discover which beings and forces are impacting them in order to ward them off or to employ their power. Animism has deep roots in much of Africa and in other “tribal cultures” who organize themselves around family, lineage, and clan and who believe that the spirits of the dead (and other spiritual beings and forces) have power over and influence the living. Animism easily intertwines itself with other worldviews and religions, as illustrated by terms like “Christo-Pagan,” especially infiltrating certain forms of Pentecostalism, and “Folk Islam.” Veneration of the dead, very prevalent in traditional Shintoism in Japan and Confucianism in China, is animistic. Animism is also present in Euro-American cultures, where bookstores sell thousands of books about divination, witchcraft, and veneration of ancestors, spirits, and gods and in organized cults like Wicca. Animism often integrates itself into the fabric of more organized forms of religion.

The Bible graphically portrays God’s people struggling with animistic powers. The Old Testament shows how the Israelites were continually forced to choose between the God of Israel and the gods of the nations. Thus Moses contrasts Yahweh to the gods of Egypt by saying, “Who among the gods is like you, O LORD? Who is like you—majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?” (Ex. 15:11), and Elijah on God’s behalf challenges the fertility cult of Baal (1 Kings 18). The Gospels describe a struggle between Jesus and the demonic world. Mark summarized Christ’s ministry with the statement: “And He went into their synagogues throughout all Galilee, preaching and casting out demons” (Mark 1:39; see also Matt. 4:23-24; Acts 10:38). In the Pauline Epistles the Christian’s battle is against principalities and powers (Eph. 6:12) and the elementary principles of the world (Col. 2:8, 20). Although the terms change, there seems to be a consistent battle with spiritual forces throughout scripture. Animists interpret these references to spiritual powers literally; those of a secular heritage tend to overlook or deconstruct them (Note Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts, pp. 95-126).

For animists to become God-followers, they must recognize that Creator God is approachable and concerned about human life, and unlike the gods, is “majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders,” the God of deliverance (Ex. 15:11). Through the death and resurrection of his Son, God has “disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col. 2:15).

In ministering among animistic people, I am continually amazed how simple prayer by ordinary Christians for God’s healing, His indwelling, His deliverance delivers those under Satan’s bondage. By contrast, many Christians in the West have forgotten the power of God to answer simple prayers by everyday Christians.

Pantheism

A pantheistic worldview perceives that an impersonal, all-pervading essence, sometimes defined as “god,” fills the universe. As droplets of water merge to become a stream, then a river, and finally an ocean, so individuals become one with the essence of the universe through meditation and achieve a change of consciousness called “enlightenment.” Thus “god” is defined not as a personal being but the energy that fills the earth. Pantheism, taken from the Greek πᾶν pan (meaning “all”) and θεός theos (meaning “God”), assumes that God is the totality of existence. By meditation one merges with the oneness of the world. The end result is peace, tranquility, Nirvana—connection with the oneness of the world.

Pantheism has deep roots within classical Hinduism and Buddhism in India and Nepal and Taoism in China. The 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza popularized this worldview in the West by challenging Descartes dualistic theology that separated body and soul. He rather maintained the “monist” perspective that body and spirit are one.

Westerners find pantheism enticing as they search for inward peace in a hectic world where Christianity is nominalized and personal holiness is minimized. Neglecting the spiritual disciplines of walking in relationship with God by his Spirit has opened the door to new forms of spiritual mysticism. This syncretism begins by doing rites (meditation) to calm self—to come into unity with self—rather passionate prayer to our loving and faithful Creator God (like that of David in Psalm 51). Eastern meditation seeks unity with the oneness that is within everything (which ultimately is nothing, only ourselves); Christian prayer in meditation, on the other hand, is personal communication in the Spirit with God.

As pantheists encounter living illustrations of Christian meditation, they begin to experience God as living and personal, full of compassion and distinctively holy.

Theism

A theistic worldview presupposes that God created the heavens and the earth and continues to care for that universe. A theistic worldview is as distinctive as the holy and loving God who created us, as Jesus who came to earth to show us how to live and to die for our sins, and as the Holy Spirit that indwells us and leads forward in God’s mission.

At its core theism assumes that this world is intensely personal. God, who is loving and holy, created the world with the expectation that we would walk faithfully with him. But the world is broken, fallen, infiltrated by Satan, and we struggle to find our identity under His sovereignty. Our hope, however, is not in the world as it is today but in the new heavens and the new earth that our Father will usher in with the second coming of Jesus. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

The presence of Creator God walking with us and forming us as expressed in this song of worship, is central to a theistic worldview: “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)

We believe that there are some aberration to this worldview—the reinterpretation of Jesus as a prophet and the negation of the Holy Spirit, for example, in Islam. Thus some theists follow God’s distinctive way of salvation through Jesus Christ, while others focus on submitting to and honoring Allah.

Missionaries and ministers can use this typology of worldviews to discern the intertwining influences of secularism, animism, pantheism, and theism within their host culture. While most cultures emphasize one or two of these types, influences from all four may be syncretized in various configurations. Understanding the different influences in the culture enables missionaries and ministers to encode the gospel in theological metaphors appropriate to the context.

As you read this Missiological Reflection, please share your reflections with us:

  1. Which worldviews compete for allegiance within my heart?
  2. How have I learned to express the distinctiveness of what God has done in Jesus Christ within my cultural context?

You can read a full development of the Missional Helix in Chapter 13 of Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies (Zondervan/Harper Collins).

Dr. Gailyn Van Rheenen, Facilitator of Church Planting and Renewal

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The Missional Helix—Cultural Analysis

Missional Helix for BlogIn the previous missiological reflection, I described theological reflection as the beginning point of ministry. Missionaries (that is, all Christian leaders) must yearn to know the heart and motivation of God— what God is about in his world and why he is doing what he is doing—so that their ministry aligns with the purposes of God.

Theology is always contextual—always done within the contexts of living cultures. Thus this reflection describes the second arena of ministry formation—“cultural analysis.”

The question might be asked: “Why segment theological reflection and cultural analysis? Should theological reflection assume cultural analysis since theology must be done within living cultures?” The answer, of course, is “Yes!” In reality, however, it is easy for us to operate out of our own cultural bias, that is, projecting upon Scripture our own cultural paradigms of understanding. Thus missiologolists like Hwa Yung (Mangoes and Bananas: The Quest for an Authentic Asian Theology,”[i]), Kwame Bediako (“Jesus in African Culture”[ii]), and Samuel Escabar (“The Identity of Protestantism in Latin America”[iii]) seek to articulate the Gospel in the metaphors and cultural categories of their particular cultural contexts.

In Communicating Christ in Animistic Cultures I describe the difficulty of Western missionaries to not only understand but also communicate the Gospel into the philosophical presuppositions of animistic culture—where people perceive “that personal spiritual beings and impersonal spiritual forces have power over human affairs and, consequently, that human beings must discover by divination what beings and forces are influencing them in order to determine future action and frequently, to manipulate their power.” [iv] In this book I attempt to guide people to read the Bible with eyes wide open to the all-sufficiency of God’s work through Christ to defeat the principalities and powers (both personal and impersonal), and to live holy, faithful lives under the sovereignty of God. One prevalent theme is that Westerners attempt to domesticate Scripture to reflect their own secular heritages.

The questions thus become “How do we read Scripture to reflect the fullness of the kingdom of God in our cultural context? How do we faithfully communicate the Gospel and minister to human sinfulness and brokenness?” The technical word for this is contextualization, a term most vividly illustrated by the incarnation of Christ, who became God’s Word in flesh dwelling in our neighborhood speaking so that we can see and hear God’s glory, “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Thus Christian ministry does not occur in a cultural vacuum; it takes place in cultural contexts, where rival perspectives of reality vie for human allegiance. Missionaries must therefore become adept at differentiating worldview types and discern how these types influence the host culture. These understandings enable missionaries to communicate God’s message so that it interacts with the culture’s perspective of reality.

In the next missiological reflection I will describe four distinct worldview types that are present and often intertwined in world cultures.

Frequently, church planters analyze bits and pieces of a culture but are unable to make a systematic cultural analysis. Or they effectively analyze culture in broad, general terms, such as pre-modern, modern, and post-modern, but are not equipped to make localized cultural analysis.


 Overview of the Missional Helix

Missional Helix for Blog 3The Missional Helix visualizes ministry formation as a spiral. The coils turn round and round, passing the same landmarks, but always at a slightly higher level. This spiral, a helix, describes the process of effective ministry formation. The spiral begins with theological reflection – examining theologies which focus and form our perspectives of culture and the practice of ministry, such as the missio Dei, the kingdom of God, incarnation, and atonement. Cultural analysis, the second element of the Missional Helix, enables missionaries and ministers to define types of peoples within a cultural context, to understand the social construction of their reality, to perceive how they are socially related to one another, and to explain how the Christian message intersects with every aspect of culture (birth rites, coming-of-age rituals, weddings, funerals, and so on). The spiral then considers what has occurred historically in the missional context. Historical perspective narrates how things became what they are, based on the interrelated stories of the particular nation, tribe, lineage, the church, and God’s mission. Finally, strategy formation helps shape the practical methodology of ministry.  The Missional Helix illustrates how contextual strategies draw deeply from cultural and historical understandings to theologically discern what God is saying about the practice of ministry and to then develop actual practices to implement the strategies. This shaping of ministry, however, takes place within the environment of spiritual formation as Christian servants humbly submit their lives to a covenant relationship with God as Father and enthrone Christ as their King.


This missiological reflection thus encourages missionaries to perform an in-depth analysis of the local culture’s worldview. Much too often, this second element of the Missional Helix is excluded. Church planters naively project their worldview on other contexts and interpret reality in terms of their own heritage. This intellectual colonialism results in transplanted theologies, reflecting the missionaries’ heritage, rather than contextualized theologies, developed by reflecting on Scripture within the context of local languages, thought categories, and ritual patterns. Transplanted theologies are merely uprooted from one context and transferred to a new one, with the expectation that the meanings will be the same in both cultures. The beginning point of theologizing in a new culture is always a thorough analysis of the culture on a worldview level. With these cultural understandings, Christian ministers and missionaries are able to be theological brokers to people within the culture and minister alongside them in developing a local, contextualized theology.

In applying this missiological reflection, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What is the role of theological reflection in ministry formation?
  2. What is the role of cultural analysis?
  3. How are these two intertwined in ministry formation?
  4. What are the strengths and limitations of this missiological reflection?

You can read a full development of the Missional Helix in Chapter 13 of Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies (Zondervan/Harper Collins).

Dr. Gailyn Van Rheenen, Facilitator of Church Planting and Renewal

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[i] Yung, Hwa. 1997. Mangoes or Bananas? The Quest for an Authentic Asian Christian Theology. Oxford, U.K.: Regnuun Books International.

[ii] Bediako, Kwame. 1994. “Jesus in African Culture: A Ghanaian Perspective” in Emerging Voices in Global Christian Theology, pp.93-126, edited by William A Dyrness. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.

[iii] Escabar, Samuel. 1994. “The Identity of Protestantism in Latin America” in Emerging Voices in Global Christian Theology, pp.199-228, edited by William A Dyrness. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.

[iv] Van Rheenen, Gailyn. 1991. Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts. William Carey Library, p. 20.

 

The Missional Helix—Theological Reflection

The previous missiological reflection described the Missional Helix and attempted to show the intertwining, inseparable nature of theological reflection, cultural analysis, historical perspective, and strategy formation within the context of spiritual formation. This blog describes the role of theology within the Missional Helix.

A theology of mission describes the heart and motivation of God and thereby defines the rationale for mission. It identifies what God is about in his world and why he is doing what he is doing. Christian ministers then are able to understand God’s purposes and discern God’s will for their lives. Reflecting on these theologies leads them to ask, “How do our lives and ministries reflect God?” or “How do we design patterns of life and models of ministry which reflect the kingdom of God?”

RudderFor example, a theology of mission is like the rudder of a ship which guides the mission of God and provides direction. My wife is fond of remembering how our children frequently wanted to “drive” when we took them on pedal boats. At times, they were so intent on pedaling—making the boat move—that they held the rudder in an extreme position, and we went in circles. Realizing their mistake but still intent on pedaling, they would move the rudder from one extreme to the other, so that we zigzagged across the lake. Without the foundation of a missional theology, Christian leaders likewise zigzag from fad to fad, from one theological perspective and related philosophies of ministry to another. A theology of mission, like the rudder of a ship, provides practical direction for Christian ministry.

BoatA theology of mission is also like the engine of a ship, propelling the mission of God forward. One spring, my wife and I taught at Abilene Christian University’s campus abroad program in Montevideo, Uruguay. During the semester, we traveled with our students to Iguazu Falls, a spectacular waterfall between Brazil and Argentina. One highlight of our visit was a motorboat excursion against the mighty current of the river almost to the foot of the falls. I was impressed not only by the immensity of the water’s flow but also by the power of the engine to push the boat up the river against the surge. A mission theology, like the engine of a ship, provides the power that enables finite humans to carry God’s infinite mission against the currents of popular cultures.

As these metaphors illustrate, theology is indispensable to the mission of God. A theology of mission provides both direction and empowerment for developing practices of missions.

Each of these four internal elements of the Missional Helix (theology, culture, history, and strategy) is essential in reflecting on and planning for Christian ministry. Theological reflection, however, is the beginning point for ministry formation and the most significant element within the internal structure of the spiral. In order to mirror the purposes and mind of God, all missiological decisions must be rooted both implicitly and explicitly in biblical theology.

Too many missionaries—while acknowledging the Bible as the Word of God—allow culture rather than Scripture to shape their core understandings of the church. The Bible is used to proof-text practice rather than to define the church’s essence. Lacking a biblically rooted ecclesiology, the teachings and practices of the church are likely to be shaped either implicitly by the dominant evangelical culture or explicitly by random surveys to ascertain what people want. A biblical understanding of the church’s nature enables missionaries to plant and nurture churches that are rooted in the mission of God rather than in presuppositions of popular culture.

The church today is reaping the harvest of its own cultural accommodation.  I remember sitting in a congregational meeting 25 years ago when the words, “meeting felt needs,” were used 16 times in 30 minutes.  Although these words expressed the need for Christian sensitivity, within them were also seeds of the slow demise of Christianity in North America. Cultural accommodation began to supersede living Christ-formed lives transformed into God’s image (2 Cor. 3:18).

Missional Helix for BlogThe Missional Helix proposes that missionaries use Scripture to form a biblical understanding of the church. For instance, Paul, in Ephesians 2:19–22, uses multiple metaphors to describe the nature of the church. The church is a new nation:  Christians are “no longer foreigners and strangers” but “fellow citizens” in a community of faith (v. 19). The church is a family, or God’s “household” (v. 19). The church is a holy temple, well constructed, with each part joined together and built around Jesus Christ, the chief cornerstone (vv. 20–22). This fellowship comes into existence through conversion: people dead in sin (2:1–3) have been made alive with Christ (vv. 4–7) by God’s grace (vv. 8–10). Paul stacks metaphors one on another to illustrate a redeemed fellowship brought together under Christ (1:3–11) and existing “for the praise of his glory” (v. 12). These perspectives form an inspired picture of God’s divine community.

Stuart Murray says that often “mission work is done naively out of human planning rather than beginning with understandings of the nature and purposes of God and then moving from these theological frameworks to practice.” Church planters, he says, “operate within theological frameworks, but often these are assumed rather than articulated and adopted uncritically rather than as the result of reflection. Theological principles may influence strategy and practice less than unexamined tradition or innovative methodology” (2001, Church Planting: Laying Foundations, p. 39).

Theological reflection, however, extends beyond textual study. Christian ministers must realize that all readers understand and apply Scripture within their historical traditions, based on their rational systems of thought, and formed by their experience. The missionary therefore must be cognizant of four resources that shape theological reflection: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience (Stone and Duke 1996, 43–54). For example, in rural, face-to-face cultures, Christians tend to perceive the church as a “family”; in modern, industrial contexts, as a “business”; and in postmodern, informational cultures, as a “network,” or sometimes as a “community.” Missionaries and ministers, as theological “meaning makers,” must theologically reflect on the connotation of these metaphors, using all four resources.

Sources: 

  • Chapter 3 of Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies on “Theological Foundations of Missions,” pp. 63-64.
  • Chapter 13 of Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies, on “The Missional Helix,” pp. 311-312

Previous Blogs on the Missional Helix:

Dr. Gailyn Van Rheenen, Facilitator of Church Planting and Renewal

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The Missional Helix—An Overview

I was sitting in a small group of pastors, church planters, and ministry leaders at a 3dm Learning Community, discerning what God was telling us about steps forward in ministry.  David described to our group how 25 years ago he had planted the church where he still ministers and which today has over 2,500 members. Though others see him as exceptionally successful, his heart is inwardly perturbed.  His church, he says, is more a vendor of goods and services than a community of disciples on mission with God.  Attenders (and even members) come with differing motives.  For some, it is a duty; for others, it is a place to meet people of influence; for still others, it provides moral instruction for their children.  Church attendance assuages guilt and declares to others (and to self) that “I am religious.”  A spiritual responsibility has been discharged; therefore, all is well. Observing the worldliness of his members and fearing for the future of his church in an increasing secular culture, he exclaimed, “What have I created!”  He was hearing God say that his ministry task during his final era of ministry was to transform this church into a disciple-making community on mission with God.

To leaders like David, the Missional Helix provides a process—a meta-narrative, a way of thinking—to guide them in forming the practices of ministry for church renewal and church planting. Missional Helix for Blog

The Missional Helix[1] visualizes ministry formation as a spiral. The coils turn round and round, passing the same landmarks, but always at a slightly higher level. This spiral, a helix, describes the process of effective ministry formation.

The spiral begins with theological reflection – examining theologies which focus and form our perspectives of culture and the practice of ministry, such as the missio Dei, the kingdom of God, incarnation, and atonement. Cultural analysis, the second element of the Missional Helix, enables missionaries and ministers to define types of peoples within a cultural context, to understand the social construction of their reality, to perceive how they are socially related to one another, and to explain how the Christian message intersects with every aspect of culture (birth rites, coming-of-age rituals, weddings, funerals, and so on). The spiral then considers what has occurred historically in the missional context. Historical perspective narrates how things became what they are, based on the interrelated stories of the particular nation, tribe, lineage, the church, and God’s mission. Finally, strategy formation helps shape the practical methodology of ministry.  The Missional Helix illustrates how contextual strategies draw deeply from cultural and historical understandings to theologically discern what God is saying about the practice of ministry and to then develop actual practices to implement the strategies. This shaping of ministry, however, takes place within the environment of spiritual formation as Christian servants humbly submit their lives to a covenant relationship with God as Father and enthrone Christ as their King.

The Relationship between the Five Elements of Ministry Formation

The Missional Helix’s spiral illustrates how the missionary returns time and time again to reflect theologically, culturally, historically, and strategically under the guiding hand of God to develop Missional Helix for Blog 3ministry models appropriate to the local context. Theology, social understandings, historical development of these understandings, and strategy all work together and interpenetrate each other within this environment of spiritual formation. Thus praxis impacts theology, which in turn shapes the practice of ministry.

The broken lines between the four internal elements of ministry formation demonstrate how each interacts with the others.  As Christian leaders humbly and prayerfully submit to God as Father and to each other within an environment of spiritual formation, they find identity, purpose, and are called to mission.

The diagram is called a helix because theology, history, culture, and the practice of ministry build on one another as the community of faith collectively develops understandings and a vision of God’s will within its cultural context.  The spiral grows to new heights as ministry understandings and experiences develop. Ideally, the missionary is always learning, growing in the Lord, always spiraling to a new level of understanding and competence.

Ideally, the missionary is always learning, growing in the Lord, always spiraling to a new level of understanding and competence.

Application

The Missional Helix is useful in at least two ways.  First and foremost, it provides a model of decision-making for the Christian practitioner.  The practice of mission must become intentional and with experience intuitive.  Second, the missional helix provides a model for curricular development in Bible schools, universities, and seminaries.  Equipping for ministry should not put high emphasis on some elements and give little consideration to others.

Two questions:

  1. What elements of the Missional Helix have you generally neglected in developing your model of ministry? What elements have you emphasized?
  2. How intentional is your current paradigm of ministry? What are the components?

You can read a full development of the Missional Helix of Chapter 13 of 2nd edition of Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies (Zondervan/Harper Collins).

Dr. Gailyn Van Rheenen, Facilitator of Church Planting and Renewal

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Copyright ©2015 by Gailyn Van Rheenen

All rights reserved.  We allow you to forward this article individually to friends and photocopy it for personal or class use.  Please do not reproduce this material in printed or digital form without reference.  If you wish to reproduce this material in printed or digital form or in any other way reproduce or distribute this information, please obtain permission by contacting me at gailyn@missionalive.org

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[1] The Missional Helix was first described in a Missiological Reflection in Missiology.org in August 2002 (www.missiology.org/?p=203) and then applied to church planting in another Missiological Reflection in January 2003 (www.missiology.org/?p=157). This Missional Helix was used to present the reformist view in the book Evaluating the Church Growth Movement (McIntosh 2004, 167–89).

 

 

 

The Missional Helix—The Story of Jim and Julie

Paradoxically I begin this blog about Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies, not with Chapter 1 on “The Biblical Narrative of Missions: Entering God Story” but with Chapter 13 about “The Missional Helix.  Why?  The Helix reflects the heart and soul of the book—the working DNA that stands behind its writing!

Missional HelixPerhaps a key word in the chapter is “discern”.  We discern what God is saying to us in scripture during our present stage of life and ministry—a theological discernment so deep and personal that it transforms our hearts.  We discern the cultural environment in which we live and minister.  We discern the historical impulses that got us to the point that we are at.  We discern practical strategies to convey God’s eternal message in contemporary, life-changing ways that build community and in so doing launch kingdom movements.  Above all, we discern God’s working in our lives as He spiritually forms us in His Spirit to carry forward His mission.  This discernment forms our character as disciples of Jesus and enables us to develop the competency for effective and exponential ministry.

In other words, the Missional Helix is a spiral leading ministers to return time and time again to reflect theologically, culturally, historically, and strategically—within an environment of spiritual formation—to discern ministry models appropriate to a local context.

The Missional Helix was first developed when I saw the disparity, the friction between pragmatic church leaders using organizational principles and understandings to build what we typically call consumer churches and theologians in seminaries who sometimes reflected theologically but not out of experience in ministry and frequently without a passionate call for God’s mission in His world.  This chapter begins with the story of Jim and Julie, who are learning from the seminary while ministering with their local church.

“They need to listen to and learn from each other,” Jim and Julie concluded. The purpose of the seminary is to serve the church. The church in turn should listen to people from the seminary with years of study and experience. Jim and Julie were learning equally from each environment: they were studying missions and ministry at the local seminary while ministering with youth in their local church.

“They noticed disparity in focus, contrasting orientations. People in the seminary focused on biblical and theological formation and the historical development of these theologies. They viewed pastoral and missional ministry as the practice of theology and, though they acknowledged the importance of these ministries, the hands-on aspects were ill-defined. Church leaders, on the other hand, tended to focus on pragmatics—asking about cultural relevance and success. They wanted to draw people to their church, shape the people’s lives, and make a major impact on the community.

“Jim and Julie had seen how easy it is for church leaders and missionaries, whether domestic or foreign, to make pragmatic plans without theological reflection. They recalled lessons learned earlier in their missions course, about moving from theology to practice in order to minister out of the will of God: ‘A theology of mission, like the rudder of a ship, guides the mission of God and provides direction,’ or it is ‘the engine of a ship, propelling forward the mission of God.’ They believed that a theology of mission is both a primary an ongoing activity in missionary practice. They remembered their friend Bill. After he had planted a church by seeking to meet the needs of the community, Bill perceived that the church had become more a vendor of goods and services than a community of the kingdom of God. Jim and Julie concurred that pragmatism without theological reflection threatens the future of the church. They were, however, thankful for ministry within a church where the Word of God was studied, disciple making was emphasized, and leaders were prayerfully seeking to live like Jesus.

“They heard church leaders claim that theologians are ivory-tower thinkers unable to connect with the common people and discerned truth in this statement. It is easy for people in the seminary to process intellectually without serving incarnationally. Recognizing this tendency, the organizers of the seminary curriculum asked entering students to read Helmut Thielicke’s classic book A Little Exercise for Young Theologians (1962) in the class introducing graduate studies. This book describes the cultural dislocation of seminary students who no longer speak the language of the common people. Jim and Julie were pleased, however, that almost all of their professors, especially those in missions and ministry, taught out of their ministries and experiences within local churches.

“They realized that they had the best of both worlds: a good seminary where they could learn deeply and a church community genuinely committed to faithfully following the way of God in Jesus Christ!” (pp. 307-308).

Thus the Missional Helix gives an integrative model of learning which brings together the strengths of studying in a seminary with those of ministering in a local church.

How have your experiences reflected those of Jim and Julie?

Dr. Gailyn Van Rheenen

gailyn@missionalive.org