Mission Matters: Love Says Go by Tim Chester, Inter-Varsity Press, 2015. All page numbers indicated below are Kindle locations.
Tim Chester‘s short new book is a call to world mission. It’s concise and comprehensive — and it may just have been written for the wrong century.
The book opens with a detailed outline of mission as the lifeblood of the Godhead, followed by a mission-themed biblical theology. These two sections make up the first half of the book; the other two sections contain a mixture of material.
At the end of the third section, in chapter 8, Chester hopes to challenge ‘the traditional image of mission’ in which ‘people go from the West to the non-Western world’, and ‘the mission field is “over there” somewhere’ (1071). He points out that the West is a mission field and that the non-Western church is a missionary church, using the adage that mission is from everywhere to everywhere. Most of Mission Matters points in only one direction, however.
Chapter 8 also poses that ‘one of the major challenges facing mission in the future is the interface between southern and northern mission’ (1120). Here Chester draws on the letter to the Galatians to show that Western paternalism is illegitimate: ‘The gospel did not originate with us,’ he says, ‘so if we want to work with churches around the world, then we need to do so as equal partners’ (1133). This is a vital challenge, but the effect, given its placement in the book, is that the global nature of the church appears as supplementary information rather than a foundational reality.
What looms large is Chester’s emphasis on church planting (chapter 6) and reaching the unreached (chapter 8). In Mission Matters, mission really takes focus in the perpetual establishment of new churches, and the book indicates that it is normal for Western missionaries to be involved in pioneer church planting, ‘to evangelize the lost, disciple converts and form them into a new church’ (939). Chester goes on to say that ‘the unreached must be our priority’ with reference to the ’10/40 window’ (1082). ‘Like Paul,’ he says, ‘it should be our “ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known”‘ (1167).
Mission is from everywhere, but we in the West still have a role to play. The rise of the global church brings wonderful opportunities and some challenges, but it doesn’t mean that our job is over. There are still many places where Christ is not known. We need humbly to learn to work alongside people from other nations, but we still need to work. We still have much to offer. You still have much to offer. (1167)
In these ways, Mission Matters places Western Christians in a pioneering role, and its exemplar missionaries add to this picture. The book was written for the Keswick Foundations series and it’s packed with people from the Keswick movement: Hudson Taylor, Amy Carmichael, Barclay Buxton and Paget Wilkes, Samuel Zwemer, Watkin Roberts, and others. These time-honoured heroes are apparently included to inspire us much as they have always done.
I agree with Chester that ‘we in the West still have a role to play’. The question is what this role is. There are undoubtedly still gospel-poor contexts in which it is fitting for Westerners to be involved as evangelists and church leaders, and Chester has some good examples of church planting in eastern Europe. Yet further examples are needed: examples of Westerners partnering appropriately with established non-Western churches, Westerners empowering non-Western churches as pioneers where appropriate, and so on.
Without these kinds of possibilities on view, it is difficult to conceive of Western missionary efforts in anything other than traditional terms — the terms in which Westerners do the ‘sending’ and the leading. It is also difficult to conceive of cross-cultural partnerships beyond the level of a church planting team, leaving us without the opportunity to truly learn from the life of the world’s non-Western churches. If we are only ever pioneers, then ‘mission’ ends with the conclusion of the pioneering phase, and we will be unable to deal with other timely questions: are we ready to be a ‘receiving’ church? Are we ready for cross-cultural ministry in our own neighbourhoods?
In sum, Mission Matters comes off as an attempt to re-energise traditional mission from the West. It depicts a Western church still able to draw on its rich missionary history in order to continue reaching the lost, but ambivalent about its relationships with the emerging Christian traditions and established churches of the non-Western world, and new realities such as global migration and pluralistic neighbourhoods.
For more than 40 years now, a number of leaders have called for a reconsideration of Western missionary efforts. Here’s how Tim Tennent puts it:
We in the West have been accustomed to playing the melody. We directed the orchestra and decided what pieces would be played and where, and the players were mostly from the West. Now, the orchestra is far more diverse, and we are being asked to play harmony, not melody. This requires a temporary interlude — a time to pause and reassess, a time to think about what we are doing in fresh ways.
We cannot go on talking about mission just as we used to. The truly global character of Christianity is a game-changer, and we Western Christians cannot presume to be its leaders. Business as usual — mission from the West — will put us out of kilter with the times and out of step with where the Holy Spirit is at work.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.