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—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

MR #26: The Missional Helix: Example of Church Planting

In the last missiological reflection I described the Missional Helix and attempted to show the intertwining, inseparable nature of theological reflection, cultural analysis, historical perspective, and strategy formation in the practice of ministry.

Developing practice of ministry was understood as a helix because theology, history, culture, and strategy build on one another as the community of faith collectively develops understandings and a vision of God’s will within their cultural context. Like a spring, the spiral grows to new heights as ministry understandings and experiences develop.

Above: The Missional Helix

Each of these four elements (theology, history, culture, and strategy) is essential in reflecting on and planning for all types of Christian ministry.

This Monthly Missiological Reflection examines each item of the Missional Helix as it relates to the practice of church planting. Because this is only an overview and application of the process, the material is simplified and reduced to a few reflections which illustrate the process.

Theological Reflection

Theological reflection is the beginning point for ministry formation and the most significant element in the spiral. All missiological decisions must be rooted both implicitly and explicitly in biblical theology in order to mirror the purposes and mind of God.

Too many church planters, 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 define its essence. Without 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 want1. A biblical understanding of the nature of the church, consequently, enables church planters to develop churches that are rooted in the mission of God rather than presuppositions of popular culture.

The Missional Helix proposes that church planters beginning their ministry must use scripture to form a biblical ecclesiology. For example, in Ephesians 2:19-22 Paul uses multiple metaphors to describe the nature of the church. The church is a new nation: Newly converted Christians are “no longer foreigners and aliens” but “fellow citizens” in a community of faith (2:19). The church is a family, or “God’s household” (2:19). The church is a holy temple, well constructed with each part joined together and built around Jesus Christ, the chief cornerstone. This fellowship comes into existence through conversion: Those dead in sin (2:1-3) have been made alive with Christ (2:4-7) by God’s grace (2:8-10). 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” (1:12). These perspectives form an inspired picture of God’s divine community.

Theological reflection, however, extends beyond textual study. The church planter must realize that all readers understand and apply Scripture within their historical traditions, based upon their rational systems of thought, and formed by their perspectives of experience. The church planter, therefore, must be cognizant of four different 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 of 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 upon the connotation of these metaphors using all four resources of theological reflection.

Cultural Analysis

In addition to theological reflection the church planter must undertake an indepth worldview analysis of the local culture. Much too often this second element of the Missional Helix is excluded. Church planters naively project their worldview upon other contexts and interpret reality in terms of their 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. Based on these cultural understandings, trained missionaries are able to be theological brokers to those within the culture and minister alongside them in developing contextualized theology for their own context.

Church planting does not occur in cultural vacuums but in cultural contexts, where rival perspectives of reality vie for human allegiance. Church planters must, therefore, become adept at differentiating worldview types and diagram how these types influence the target culture. These understandings enable them to communicate God’s message so that it interacts with the culture’s perspective of reality.

At least four different worldview types are present in world cultures. Stated succinctly, a secular worldview divides the world into natural and supernatural realms and focuses almost exclusively on the natural realm. God is considered to be either non-existent or irrelevant to human affairs. Secularists tend to be resistant until they realize, usually during times of trauma, that humans are unable to “direct their own steps” (Jere. 10:23), that the divine and the human are interrelated. An animistic perspective of reality believes that personal spiritual beings and impersonal spiritual forces have power over human affairs. During times of disease, death, and drought, they use divination to discover which beings and forces are impacting them in order to ward them off or to employ their power. Animists must learn that creator God is approachable and concerned about human life, and unlike the gods, “majestic in holiness” (Ex. 15:11). Through the death and resurrection of his son God has defeated all the principalities and powers (Col. 2:15). 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 can become one with the essence of the world through meditation, thus achieving a change of consciousness called enlightenment. The pantheist, through living illustrations of Christian meditation, must experience God to be living and personal, full of compassion and having a distinctive holiness. A theistic plausibility system presupposes that God created the heavens and the earth and continues to care for that universe. Some theists follow God’s distinctive way of salvation through Jesus Christ while others focus on submission to and honoring of Allah.

Based on these typologies, missionaries and ministers can diagram 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 types may be syncretized in various configurations. Understanding the various influences in the culture enables missionaries and ministers to encode the gospel in theological metaphors appropriate to the culture.

Worldview analysis is only one of many tools of cultural inquiry. Other tools include study of the epistemological sources forming worldview, types of cognitive processes, a culture’s grid/group orientation, levels of technology and the resultant strategies for use of money and media, differing definitions of sin and related conceptions of salvation, and the logico-structural integration of its worldview universals within cultures.

Too 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, like the premodern, modern, and postmodern, but are not equipped to make localized cultural analysis.

Historical Perspective

Likewise, church planters must develop ministry based upon historical perspective rather than being oblivious of what has previously occurred. Because of their short national history and focus on practical inclinations, many North Americans “rush into the future without looking back” (Hesselgrave 1994, 7-8). Samuel Escobar believes that North American missiologists tend to negate theory and historical background. In other words, they look at missions as a management task necessitating “a task-oriented sequence of steps to be followed in order to achieve” specified goals. He challenges the North American missions community to expand the horizons of their “managerial missiology” (1992, 13-14; cf. 2000, 109-112).

Historical perspective provides many insights that guide church planters to develop their practice of ministry. For example, the reading of history greatly aids contemporary evangelists to understand syncretism. Ancient Israel, like many people coming out of animism, was tempted to follow both God and the gods of the nations. “They bow[ed] down and [swore] by the Lord and . . . also by Molech” (Zeph. 1:5). Modern Christians have syncretized secularism and theism by negating the Holy Spirit and demythologizing spiritual powers. Postmodern Christians have brought new syncretisms, including pervasive relativism, fascination with spiritual powers, focusing on power and neglecting truth, and interpreting emotions and intuition as the work of the Holy Spirit2.

Church planters will find it difficult to understand the nature of syncretism or other issues in church planting without historical perspective.

Strategy Formation

Church planting, by its very nature, necessitates strategic planning. Strategy formation, however, should never stand by itself as a self-contained, “how-to-do-it” prescription. Never should practitioners merely ask the question, “Does it work?” Many strategies that “work” and enable the church to grow for short periods of time do not reflect the qualities and purposes of God. For example, the “health-wealth” gospel produces numerical results, but when God takes away health or wealth as in the case of Job, the faith of those who have come to Christ to receive His “benefits” will likely prove deficient. A question that better reflects the Missional Helix model is: “Does this model of praxis reflect the purposes of God within this historical, cultural context?”

The foundational understandings of theology and the perspectives developed through cultural analysis and historical perspective should, then, lead church planters to critical reflection upon praxis. The missionary or minister should return time and time again to reflect theologically, culturally, historically, and strategically in order to develop ministry models that are appropriate to the local context. The four elements work together and interpenetrate each other. Based on these understandings, I will define “strategy” as the practice of model formation for ministry shaped by theological reflection, cultural analysis, and historical perspective and by the continued practice of ministry.

Strategies for church planting currently are undergoing radical transformation as missiologists reflect upon the different social contexts of missions and the need for the church to be God’s distinct, called-out people.

Because the social contexts are vastly different, strategies for urban church planting are not appropriate for rural areas. Rural areas are largely homogeneous whereas urban centers are heterogeneous and pluralistic. In rural localities people tend to live in extended families and know everyone within the immediate village; in urban contexts people live in close proximity to thousands of other people but paradoxically are neighbors with few of them. In rural communities kinship is the dominant relationship connecting people; in urban societies associational and occupational webs overlay kinship relationships and frequently are considered more important. Church structures in rural cultures tend to coincide with families who know each other and interact with each other in many aspects of life; in the urban context, however, structures of community must be created in order for the church to function as a body of Christ.

Note, for example, some of Valdir Steuernagal’s points in his “map of challenges” for the new decade during the Iguassu Dialogue (2000, 128):

  • “Is there a friend around? The search for relationship in an environment of loneliness.”
  • “I am alone, without a ‘father or a mother?’ The crisis of the state.”
  • “The savage urbanization process and the absence of sanctuary. Urbanism is a mindset.”

The metaphors of Paul from Ephesians 2:19-22 take on a new meaning within this urban environment. Migrants from various areas are united to become a new nation. New community structures are created so that “foreigners and aliens” who have moved from a homogeneous rural environment become a family in a heterogeneous city. The church is a holy temple that stands as a beacon of light in the midst of the corruption and immorality of the city. The church must not be comprised of spectators who fail to receive nurture to become functioning members of the body of Christ.

The strategic implications of the above three paragraphs are immense. Churches can no longer operate as they have in the past. Because people in impersonal urban churches tend to get lost and slip out the back door, nurturing systems must be developed to incorporate new believers into the body of Christ. Church structures must move from impersonal models, in which Christians are spectators absorbing knowledge, to models that are participatory. Thus newly planted churches must make allowances for the anonymity of urban culture and develop intentional structures of nurture and incorporation. The house/cell church movement is predicated upon these social and theological considerations.

Conclusion

The Helix Metaphor is useful in at least two ways. First and foremost, it provides the Christian practitioner with a model of decision-making that is both intentional and instinctive. In other words, the missionary or minister should seek theological understandings, cultural analysis, historical perspective, and strategy formation in the process of developing patterns for ministry. Hopefully, this process becomes instinctive to the missional practitioner. Second, the Missional Helix could be used as a model for theological education. Equipping for ministry should not focus on some of the elements and give little consideration to others but form an integrated model of formation.

Finally I would like to include an insight from a reader: Lynn Anderson of Hope Network Ministries, responding to the missiological reflection introducing the Missional Helix, wrote that he has frequently “felt ping-ponged between theologians and practitioners” and concludes that “theologically impoverished practices are usually proven to be poor practices” and “theology divorced from practice is usually impoverished theology.” He speaks of once writing a satirical article in Wineskins entitled “Why aeronautic engineers don’t make good fighter pilots and vice-versa,” which only succeeded in making both poles mad (Anderson, 2002). The Missional Helix thus works to explain the relationship between theology and other aspects of ministry preparation.

________________________________

1 Christian A. Schwarz in Natural Church Development (1996) and George Barna at are two examples of church planting models that were devised based upon survey methodologies.

2 For a fuller description of syncretism and types of syncretism during modernity and postmodernity read my article entitled “Modern and Postmodern Syncretism in Theology and Missions” (1997, 164-207).

Sources Used

Anderson, Lynn. 2002. Personal Correspondence.

Escobar, Samuel. 2000. Evangelical missiology: peering into the future at the turn of the century. In Global Missiology: The Iguassu Dialogue, ed. William D. Taylor, 101-122. Grand Rapids: Baker.

Hesselgrave, David J. 1994. Scripture and Strategy: The Use of the Bible in Postmodern Church and Mission. Pasadena: William Carey Library.

Hiebert, Paul. 1993. De-theologizing missiology: A response. Trinity World Forum 19 (Fall): 4.

Steuernagel, Valdir. 2000. Learning from Escobar . . . and beyond. In Global Missiology: The Iguassu Dialogue, ed. William D. Taylor, 123-132. Grand Rapids: Baker.

Stone, Howard. W. and James O. Duke. 1996. How to Think Theologically. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Van Rheenen, Gailyn. 1997. Modern and Postmodern Syncretism in Theology and Missions. In The Holy Spirit and Missions Dynamics, ed. C. Douglas McConnell, 164-207. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.

MR #34: Contrasting Missional and Church Growth Perspectives

I pray that churches will become missional, i.e., theologically-formed, Christ-centered, Spirit-led fellowships who seek to faithfully incarnate the purposes of Christ.  Missional churches define themselves as bodies formed by the calling and sending of God and reflecting the redemptive reign of God in Christ.  They are unique communities in the world created by God through the Spirit as both holy and human.  Missional leaders, likewise, reflect the calling and sending of God.  They minister with humility recognizing themselves as “jars of clay” who finitely seek to enter into what God is already doing in his world.

The missional approach to ministry stands in obvious contrast to the traditional Church Growth perspective.  Church Growth thinking has brought much to the practice of foreign and domestic missions.  Donald McGavran, the father of Church Growth, encouraged missionaries to personally minister among unbelievers rather than attempt to draw people into Western-style mission enclaves or mission stations.  He rightly emphasized the missionary nature of the local church and the need for pioneer evangelism among peoples ready to hear the gospel.  He called for the incisive evaluation of missions.  Above all, he taught us to employ tools from the social sciences to analyze culture and to use this analysis to develop penetrating strategies for reaching both searchers and skeptics with the gospel of Christ.

The seeds of syncretism, however, were rooted in the very principles of cultural analysis and strategy formation employed by this movement.  Practitioners succumbed unintentionally to the humanistic suppositions of the Modern Era.  Assuming that they could chart their way to success by their ingenuity and creativity, Church Growth practitioners focused on what humans do in missions rather than on what God is doing.  They saw the missional task as setting goals, developing appropriate methodologies, and evaluating what does or does not work rather than seeking God’s will based upon biblical and theological reflection.  Their thinking segmented the gospel and practice, the human and divine into two compartmentalized worlds, and practice was developed on the basis of “what works” rather than the will and essence of God.  Christian leaders placed more emphasis on developing effective strategy than forming communities shaped in the image of God.  Although they advocated faithfulness to God, the system they proposed was based on human intelligence and ingenuity.

It has been my privilege to work with five other missions educators (Elmer Towns, Craig Van Gelder, Charles Van Engen, Howard Snyder, and editor Gary McIntosh) to evaluate the Church Growth Movement.  The resulting book, Evaluating the Church Growth Movement (McIntosh, 2004), is part of the Zondervan counterpoints series.  My comparison of Missional and Church Growth thinking is are drawn from my chapter and that of Craig Van Gelder (Van Gelder, 2004) in this book.  A fuller description of this comparison can be found here.

Missional Church Growth
Orientation/ Perspective Theocentric Anthropocentric
Theological Practical
Postmodern Modern
Theological Focus Missio Dei Great Commission
Beginning Question What is the gospel? What makes the church grow?
Perspective on Scripture Narrative of God’s purposes Propositional truth
How does missions happen? By the Spirit (God’s “surprises”) By strategic planning
Nature of community Inclusiveness, unity of the body of Christ People groups
Focus of Evangelism Initiation of people into the kingdom of God; holistic understanding of “making disciples” Differentiation between  discipling and perfecting, individual salvation
Orientation toward Social Action The Gospel, evangelism, and social action cannot be separated Priority of evangelism and church planting over social action; Reactive to the Social Gospel

Church Growth thinking begins anthropocentrically.  The focus is on strategy development and cultural analysis with biblical passages appropriated to give validity to the perspectives.  The Missional movement, on the other hand, begins theologically with the perspectives of the mission and kingdom of God.

The Church Growth movement, emphasizing the human ability to decipher and strategize, reflects Modernity.  Missionaries and missions scholars, however, increasingly doubt the ability of human ingenuity to guide the mission enterprise.  They recognize the finite nature of human understanding and the need for dependence on the Spirit of God.  Post-Modernity provides a more favorable cultural environment for Christian leaders to understand missions as authored and guided by the Holy Spirit.

Deciding the primacy and ordering of questions determines the missiological focus.  Church Growth begins with the question “Why do some churches grow and others do not?”  The central concern of the Missional movement, on the other hand, is “What is the gospel?”  The gospel is thought to intersect with every question of theology and strategy.  Because it is the essence of the Christian faith, the gospel cannot be relegated to the periphery, even when formulating practical issues of strategy.

The Church Growth movement focuses on truth as proposition.  Christianity is reduced to culturally-defined categories and communicated based upon these conceptual groupings.  This topic framework of mental referencing is susceptible to syncretism because it is based upon conceptualizations made by Christian leaders attempting to intellectually clarify Christianity in the human cultural categories.  The Missional movement maintains that the gospel cannot be contained in a set of propositions.  The mission of God must be communicated as the dynamic story of God’s relationship with his creation.

Missional proponents believe that God’s mission cannot be predicted by human planning.  They point to “God’s surprises” in the book of Acts, resulting from the Holy Spirit going ahead of human messengers and directing them in God’s mission.  For example, Acts 10 describes the Spirit of God going ahead of Peter, teaching him of God’s acceptance of the Gentiles, and leading him to household of Cornelius.  The story is one of God working through his people for his purposes.  While the Church Growth heritage has emphasized the mighty workings of God and the Holy Spirit due to the emphasis in such writings as Roland Allen’s Spontaneous Expansion of the Church, the major focus has been on human ingenuity in decision-making.  Elmer Towns, for instance, has great trust in human creativity.  He believes that Church Growth thinking is leading missionary practitioners into a period of unprecedented growth by intentionally applying the scientific method to evangelism and church planting (2004, 39-40).  The tension between the sovereignty of God, on the one hand, and the creativity of evangelists and church planters to strategize for success is the most significant difference between Missional and Church Growth thinking.  A balance is needed between these two perspectives.  God does miraculously lead us forward in His mission.  He, nevertheless, calls us to minister intentionality.  Paul, for instance, viewed himself as “an expert builder” laying the “foundation of Jesus Christ” and encouraged other ministers to “be careful” how they built (1 Cor. 3:10-11).

The Church Growth movement has focused on the uniqueness and distinctiveness of people groups and the contextualization of the Gospel among the ethne of the world.  The Missional movement, on the other hand, believes that the gospel breaks socio-economic and ethnic divisions between peoples so that all become one in Christ.

The Missional orientation does not dichotomize evangelism and social action, discipling and perfecting, but views God’s mission holistically.  Church Growth adherents, reacting to the Social Gospel, argue that the primary task of missions is evangelism and incorporating new believers into the body of Christ.  Evangelism and church planting, therefore, take priority over social action.  They point to the existence of many social programs, which share loaves and fishes without the gospel.

The Church Growth and Missional movements represent two very different emphases.  The Missional perspective accentuates theological reflection and historical perspective and the Church Growth movement cultural analysis and strategy formation.   Each movement has much to learn from the other.  Those of a Missional heritage can learn from Church Growth how to study culture beyond the general impressionistic level and be more intentional in strategy formation.  Church Growth practitioners can learn to rethink their discipline in integrative theological categories and to study culture, interpret history, and develop strategy through the lens of Christian theology.

The Missional Helix

The limitations of Church Growth that have been discussed–the anthropocentric focus, pragmatics and the segmentation of theology and praxis, the theological level of inquiry, and the focus on growth–suggest the need for a new model of missions.  This new paradigm would maintain the strengths of the Church Growth model–a focus on identificational ministry, belief in the missionary nature of the church, critical understandings of culture, and incisive evaluation–while broadening its theological horizons.  The model, termed missional, is rooted in an understanding that a missionary theology should permeate both theology and missiology.  Kirk writes:

All true theology is, by definition, missionary theology, for it has as its object the study of the ways of a God who is by nature missionary and a foundational text written by and for missionaries.  Mission as a discipline is not, then, the roof of a building that completes the whole structure, already constructed by blocks that stand on their own, but both the foundation and the mortar in the joints, which cements together everything else.  Theology should not be pursued as a set of isolated disciplines.  It assumes a model of cross-cultural communication, for its subject matter both stands over against culture and relates closely to it.  Therefore, it must be interdisciplinary and interactive.

(Kirk 1997, 50)

The Missional Helix visualizes such an “interdisciplinary and interactive” approach to the practice of ministry and provides a corrective to traditional Church Growth perspectives.  It images the intertwining, inseparable nature of theological reflectioncultural analysishistorical perspective, andstrategy formation within the context of the practice of ministry.

The helix begins with theologies, such as Missio Dei, the kingdom of God, incarnation, and crucifixion, which focus and form our perspectives of culture and the practice of ministry.  Cultural analysis forms the second element of the helix.  Cultural awareness enables church planters and Christian leaders 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, etc).  The spiral then considers historical perspective, how things came to be as they are based upon the interrelated stories of the particular nation, lineage, the church, and God’s mission.  Finally the spiral considers incisive contextualstrategies, which are based upon theological reflection, cultural analysis, and historical perspective, for the practice of ministry.  This process of ministry formation must occur within an environment of spiritual formation in which the soul is being nurtured through a personal walk with God and a continual seeking of direction from God where God is sought for direction.

The Missional Helix is a spiral because the missionary returns time and time again to reflect theologically, culturally, historically, and strategically in order to develop contextual ministry.   Theology, social understandings, history of missions, and strategy all work together and interpenetrate each other.  Thus theology shapes praxis, which in turn influences theology within the context of on-going ministry.   The helix also infers growth as the practitioners spiral to higher levels of maturity and ministry effectiveness.

The Missional Helix is useful in at least two ways.  First and foremost, it provides the Christian practitioner with a model of decision-making.  Church planters, evangelists, and pastors seek theological understandings, cultural analysis, historical perspective, and strategy formation in the process of developing patterns for ministry.  Second, the Missional Helix could be used as a model for theological education.  Equipping for ministry should not place high emphasis on some elements and give little consideration to others.  Rather, it should provide an intentional, integrated model of ministry formation.

Conclusion

I embrace Steuernagel’s belief:  “As we move into a new century, . . . we need to reposition ourselves and to work once again on the agenda” (2000, 127).  The Church Growth model is inadequate.  By beginning with anthropology rather than theology and segmenting theology and practice, Church Growth advocates assume that their model reflects the nature of God.   In other words, church growth determines effective practice and then seeks to validate this practice by the use of Scripture.  The movement emphasizes growth rather than faithful proclamation of the gospel and faithful living of the gospel.

I advocate an adapted missional model, one which begins with and always returns to theological reflection while taking seriously cultural analysis, historical perspective, and strategy formation.

Works Cited

Kirk, Andrew.  1997.  The Mission of Theology and Theology as Mission.  Harrisburg, PA:  Trinity Press International.

McIntosh, Gary L. (ed.).  2004.  Evaluating the Church Growth Movement.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.

Steuernagel, Valdir.  2000.  Learning from Escobar … and beyond.  InGlobal Missiology for the 21st Century – The Iguassu Dialogue, ed. Wm. D. Taylor, 123-32.  Grand Rapids:  Baker.

Towns, Elmer.  2004.  Effective Evangelism View.  In Evaluating the Church Growth Movement, Gary McIntosh, ed.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.

Van Engen, Charles.  2004.  Centrist View.  In Evaluating the Church Growth Movement Gary McIntosh, ed.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.

Van Gelder, Craig.  2004.  Gospel and Culture View.  In Evaluating the Church Growth Movement, Gary McIntosh, ed.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.

Van Rheenen, Gailyn.  Accessed on Dec. 16, 2004.  From Theology to Practice:  The Missional Helix.  http://www.missiology.org/mmr/mmr25.htm.

_________.  Accessed on Dec. 16, 2004.  The Missional Helix:  Example of Church Planting.  http://www.missiology.org/mmr/mmr26.htm.

_________.  2004.  Reformist View.  In Evaluating the Church Growth Movement, Gary McIntosh, ed.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.