If we truly believe in the kingdom of God, that belief will make a difference in the way we do ministry.
Some years ago, I was at a conference for missionaries and development workers in Africa. I had a conversation there which highlights the division between two kinds of Christian workers: those doing evangelism/church planting and those doing relief and development.
In the conference were two young couples, from the same denomination, working in the same town in a small African nation. I asked them what they were doing together and they replied, Nothing!
These couples were part of the same generation, serving with the same denomination, speaking the same denominational language, and working in the same community. Yet notwithstanding these commonalities, they weren’t working together. I could not help wondering, What‘s wrong with this picture? They seemed to get along well, which suggested that personality conflict was not likely the problem.
I left that conference still puzzled. But in the years to follow, I came to understand what was happening. I suspect the breakdown stemmed from the different worldviews driving their respective visions. The nature, goals, strategy, and programs of the two ministries were born out of different paradigms.
The couple working with the missionary arm of the denomination was functioning from a dualist, sacred/secular dichotomy, what you might call the Gnostic perspective. The relief and development arm of the same denomination worked from an atheist/materialist paradigm – the Secular perspective. These two paradigms see life, the gospel, and poverty, in very different ways. The two couples likely shared a compassionate heart for the needy … and little else. I witnessed this same division for years in the relief and development organization I served.
The old arguments between Christian missionaries, on the one hand, and Christian relief and development workers on the other, have persisted far too long. This divide can only be reconciled when both sides learn to function from a biblical world view.
In this post, I want to examine the worldview impact on our understanding of thirteen issues relating to mission and ministry. Here’s the post in one sentence: Only the biblical worldview provides a comprehensive foundation for building a Kingdom of God organization.
Consider, first, what assumptions drive each group. The missions community, with its Gnostic perspective, assumes that only the spiritual, ethical, and eternal dimensions of a society are important. Everything else is “secular” and thus a distraction or worse. The relief and development folks, while clearly Christian in doctrine and belief, are often steeped in the secular perspective of development. That is, they unconsciously work from an atheistic paradigm that assumes that God does not exist, or if He does, He is unknowable and/or uninvolved in the lives of humans. Poverty must be solved by human knowledge and resources. In contrast to both, a Kingdom of God perspective recognizes God as the Lord of all who desires the reconciliation of all things. Without His redeeming work in lives and societies, there is no hope for transformation.
A second dimension has to do with the goal of ministry based on these assumptions. The goal of the Gnostic perspective is to save souls for heaven. That of the Secular perspective is to improve the quality of life for the poor here and now. But the goal of the Kingdom of God perspective is comprehensive: to reconcile all things to Christ and thus to each other (Colossians 1:19-20).
Third, who should we focus our ministry towards? Those with a Gnostic perspective focus on the lost, those in the Secular perspective focus on the poor. Both fail to recognize that humans are whole beings. One focuses on the soul, the other on the body, but God designed human beings with the soul firmly attached to the body. This means, for example, the lost and the poor are often the same people. At the outset of his earthly ministry, here’s how Jesus characterized the Kingdom perspective:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18-19 ESV).
Fourth, what is to be the focus within the individual being served? From the Gnostic perspective, the important part of the person is the soul and spirit. For the Secular perspective the focus should be on the body and mind: people need food and education. The Kingdom of God perspective focuses on the entire human being: physical, spiritual, social, mental, and emotional. The human being is comprehensive (Luke 2:52) and the solution to human need must be wholistic.
Fifth, what is the core message? For the Gnostic perspective, since only the spiritual is important, the core message is the salvation of the soul. The Secular perspective messages are technical: clean water, sanitation, health care, micro finance and business, agriculture, and education. The core message of the Kingdom of God perspective is that poverty and brokenness are rooted in lies (John 8:44; 10:10), while freedom and development are grounded in truth (John 8:31-32; Matthew 28:20). The core messages are transforming truths. The truth that sets people free is the same truth that lifts communities out of poverty and builds free, just, prosperous, and compassionate nations. These messages are to be brought within the context of helping people meet their own needs.
Sixth, what is the strategy? The Gnostic perspective builds the strategy around foreign, cross-cultural missionaries, or more recently, short-term teams. When the church (or hospital, or school, etc.) is established it is transferred to national Christians. Often, the unstated expectation is that national recipients will take over the burden left by a Western missionary. The Secular perspective locates the root of the problem in the lack of resources available to poor people. Thus the strategy is to redistribute money and western technology from rich nations to poor. The Kingdom of God perspective recognizes that God has given every nation the potential and the resources to develop. The strategy is to call people to live within the reality of God’s created order. God intends we use our minds and imaginations to create free, prosperous, and just societies, starting with local leaders (Titus 1:5) and local resources (John 6:9).
An old Chinese proverb says, “Give a man a fish and he has food for a day [a description of relief]. Teach a man to fish and he has food for a lifetime [a picture of development].” But relief and development are not the whole picture. To this we must add “Teach a man to think comprehensively about fishing and his life and community will be transformed!”
Seventh, what is the ideal staff person? From the Gnostic perspective it is a missionary, and godly character, more than skills, is the important qualification. The Secular perspective thinks little about the need for character. What is needed is a professional with technical knowledge and management skills. The Kingdom of God perspective calls for people of godly character working in their vocational calling (Romans 5:4; Exodus 36:1). There is to be no divide between character and skills.
Eighth, what are the critical competencies of a staff person? The Gnostic perspective calls for skills in evangelism and discipleship. Some would add church planting to that list. The Secular perspective staff need technical skills in R&D programs: providing clean water, feeding hungry people, launching agricultural programs, etc. Some would add program design and management. The Kingdom of God perspective sees workers with a variety of competencies springing from their gifts and calling (I Corinthians 10:31).
Ninth, what kind of education and training is needed for staff? Those operating from the Gnostic perspective, such as many missionary sending organizations, fall on a spectrum. Some require little training, only availability and willingness. Others expect Bible school, and some, seminary degrees. The focus is on spiritual preparation. The Secular perspective wants trained professionals with a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree plus field experience. Master’s degrees in technical areas are often preferred. Most of the education or training in either the missions frame or the R&D frame are in formal settings with large classes. From the Kingdom of God perspective, formal education may be an asset but is not the ultimate. Jesus, the master teacher, taught the masses, groups of followers, the 72. He taught and mentored his disciples (Luke 10:1). Above all, kingdom workers in all vocations should be lifelong learners with the Bible as a foundational text. That is, the Bible is to be read vocationally. We should be reading the Bible with a view to the application of its principles for our particular vocation.
Tenth, what is the worker’s relationship to the community? Sometimes, the Gnostic perspective encourages a fleeting relationship, perhaps a short-term project of one week to a few months. Others stay long enough to plant a church. The Secular perspective views the relationship as temporary, long enough to identify physical needs and address them through development projects. When the funds run out, the agency often moves on. The Kingdom of God perspective values an incarnational approach. Kingdom organizations want to build relationships. Out of those relationships come mutual learning, and opportunity to demonstrate and preach the good news of the Kingdom of God (John 1:14; Matthew 4:23).
Eleventh, what is the institutional focus? Those working in the Gnostic perspective generally focus on churches and other ecclesiastical institutions such as Bible schools and seminaries. The Secular perspective focuses on government, international organizations such as the United Nations, and community and business leaders. The Kingdom of God perspective works to see the kingdom advance in every sector of society. A primary focus is the family as the most basic institution for the health of a nation (Genesis 2:18). Another is the church (specifically the Monday church) as the primary institution for the transformation of society (Ephesians 3:10). A third kingdom focus are the leaders (Heb. 13:17), particularly those in the community, market, and public square.
Twelfth, what is the economic paradigm? The Gnostic perspective largely considers economics secular and thus irrelevant. This lack of concern for economic development leads to deplorable neglect such as I saw on my first trip to Africa. I visited a church in the high plains of Kenya. Missionaries had been in the region 30 years, doing evangelism and church planting. The church members lived in hovels. They had hope for heaven, but no hope for today; they were just waiting to die and be with Jesus. The Secular perspective functions from a Zero Sum – closed-system economic paradigm. The rich are rich because the poor are poor. Poverty is solved by the transfer of wealth from rich countries to poor. The Kingdom of God perspective understands that the universe is an open system – wealth can be created. Poor people have the ability to create enterprise and wealth. (See this recent story about children living on a garbage dump and playing musical instruments crafted from refuse.)
Thirteenth, and finally, how does the organization relate to other organizations? Notwithstanding a more recent emphasis on partnership, too many Gnostic Perspective ministries are highly proprietary. They are sometimes suspicious of other organizations, seeing them as competition, and thus seek to work independently. Those in the Secular Perspective function competitively, largely with their own expertise in development situations. In disaster relief they often are forced to collaborate because the crisis is so large and immediate. In contrast to both of these, the Kingdom of God Perspective affirms no power, no glory to the organization! This is the work of God and each organization has its unique part to play in the Kingdom enterprise (1 Corinthians 12:12-13).
It’s time for Christians to stop organizing their lives and ministries around faulty paradigms of the Gnostic or Secular kind. We need to lay aside our arguments and embrace instead a kingdom perspective. Let’s begin to function from the Biblical worldview and start building kingdom organizations.
- Darrow Miller