Methodology Reveals Theology

How one approaches missions tells much about how one views God and the gospel.

“There are three great truths: 1st, That there is a God; 2nd, That he has spoken to us in the Bible; 3rd, That he means what he says.” (Hudson Taylor)

In contemporary culinary circles, prior to the COVID-19 shutdowns, business has been booming. Cooking shows, magazines, and social media channels abound with culinary exploration. The consumer’s fascination in the creative blending of flavors and transforming cuisines shows no sign of slowing.

In similar fashion, there is no shortage of innovative missional philosophies. Missional connoisseurs can sample the latest flavors cooked up by renowned innovators. Many virtuously promote kingdom-building, orphan-care, micro-enterprising, rapid church-planting, prayer-walking, artistic flourishing, culture-creation, and so much more. Consider some modified mission statements I have heard over the years, from big-hearted short-term volunteers, passionate for their new venture:

  • We exist to love on hurting and abandoned people, effectively bridging a gap between the kingdom of God and the broken world.
  • We are a community that builds God’s kingdom through redeeming the city by initiating loving relationships and effective cultural change-agents.
  • Our mission is committed to initiating hundreds of church-planting movements in each major urban center in [anonymous country].
  • Our mission is to establish houses of prayer in urban centers that usher in shalom, healing, and justice to all segments of society.
  • God cares for the unloved and so do we; we seek to partner with God’s mission of love and incarnate authentic relationships with the forgotten of society.

No doubt such mission statements reflect genuine, heart-felt enthusiasm of Christians seeking to help those in need. I am so thankful for the changed lives affected through these self-sacrificing saints. The question for constructive reflection is: What do all these have in common? Among many things, they all betray a lack of definition and acumen in theological thinking.

To be sure, our methodology (strategies, initiatives, tasks, etc.) of missions always demonstrates our philosophy of missions (aims, goals, objectives, etc.), but beneath all that, our theology guides our philosophy and consequent methodology. These above mission statements do not demonstrate lack of passion, praise the Lord for that; but they do manifest a theological imprecision and carelessness.

It is nonsense to relegate the theologian to the seminary and the activist to the mission field. If scholars are so academically enamored that they have no desire to work towards the reaching of the unevangelized and the teaching of the undiscipled, then they are living out of sync with the gospel they profess to study and articulate in their research and lectures. And what is more, they may not even delight in it themselves. If missionaries have no desire to study hard the deep truths of Scripture and thus derive no spiritual heat from theological light, they demonstrate a defective or immature view of Scripture, God, Christ, and the gospel.

Your doctrine affects your methods

If the Bible is not the driving force behind missionary endeavors, then what is? Of course, there is surely an element of compassion and kind-hearted emotion that plays out in the urgency missionaries feel toward the marginalized. But deeper than that is theology, albeit not from Scripture, but it is a theological system nonetheless. As the Reformed theologian, R.C. Sproul (1939–2017) aptly observed:

“No Christian can avoid theology. Every Christian is a theologian. Perhaps not a theologian in the technical or professional sense, but a theologian nevertheless. The issue for Christians is not whether we are going to be theologians but whether we are going to be good theologians or bad ones.”1

We all believe something about the triune God, mankind, sin, salvation, and the Bible.

Many mission endeavors are intent on helping and essentially changing people through meeting their physical needs and improving their overall life quality and environment, without addressing sin as the Bible describes it—guilty in Adam and living in defiance of God through not conforming to or transgressing his righteous laws and thus dishonoring his name.

Such missionary efforts betray a view of human sinfulness as environmentally conditioned and a result of broken systems, under which the marginalized are suffering the consequences of the sin of injustice. God becomes a social liberator that saves peoples’ lives by changing society’s structures to create a heaven-on-earth experience. And Jesus’ life serves as our mandate for carrying out his earthly mission to heal the broken and to build his kingdom on earth where peace and justice reign, effectively transforming culture. The cross becomes the emblem of Christ identifying as a pacifistic martyr-revolutionary and a victim of bigotry, intolerance, and violence perpetrated by the power-brokers of society and the Satanic influences behind such systems. The Bible then becomes a guide for living the way of Jesus, which is chiefly marked by peace, love, and justice. And the Gospels become a canon within the canon in that they promote imitating the way of Jesus, which includes practicing simplicity, contemplation, justice, and community-oriented ways of life; proponents of this Anabaptist-influenced interpretive grid promote these practices as essential to the gospel because they provide a taste of eternal life now through peaceful and anxiety-less rhythms of living in this frenetic era. And the gospel becomes the living reality of heaven breaking into earth as God brings his kingdom shalom through the lives of Christ-following revolutionaries.

Moreover, such mission efforts are considered to be most strategically launched in the urban centers from which cultural, educational, and political systems penetrate the masses. Essentially, the gospel functions no longer as a good news announcement of Christ’s past, present, and future work for his people that merely requires our repentance and trust alone; rather, it functions as an ancient sage-like story, promoting heaven’s wisest counsel about devoutly emulating Christ’s life-giving piety, which, if a critical mass of Christ followers would adopt, then social transformation would inevitably follow. With all the positive benefits that Christ-imitating piety produces, this actually reflects the spirit of the non-confessional and pietistic evangelical age; this imitation-of-Christ activism is a far cry from the chief purpose of Christ’s incarnation to fulfill all righteousness and to be the atoning sacrifice for those who would believe in him.

These doctrineless, egalitarian, and emotive movements, though surging with noble intentions, have distracted evangelicals from remembering and teaching the historic creeds and confessions of the faith, passed down through the ages from the early church. Instead, we often modify the doctrine of sola scriptura to promote a me-and-my-Bible-only approach to the Christian life. Modern evangelicalism has famously championed a least-common-doctrinal-denominator, emotions-based, Jesus-is-my-buddy, theology-quenches-the-Spirit approach to spirituality that bases its assurance subjectively on listening for God’s soft whisper for direction in decision-making and responding obediently to promptings of the heart.

Some popular expressions of evangelicalism demonstrate a mystical spirituality foreign to the Bible, emphasizing a utilitarian relationship with God, treating his word like a horoscope, his Spirit like a force or a cheap buzz, his power like a magic genie, his gospel like an echo of our self-esteem, his kingdom like a community organizing agenda for culture change, his grace like a license to sin, and his church like a day at the mall and the theater.

We often modify the doctrine of sola scriptura to promote a me-and-my-Bible-only approach to the Christian life.

Possibly one of the most obvious examples of this utilitarian vision of being a ‘follower of Christ’ is seen in how preoccupied we are with ‘finding God’s will’. Is it any wonder that in the history of the church, there is a deafening silence among written sermons, letters, and treatises on what we today consider to be a normal part of the Christian life—hearing God’s voice, seeing a sign, sensing a prompt from the Spirit, interpreting a dream, and having a worship experience that helps us discover God’s perfect plan for us. Professor of Old Testament Bruce Waltke aptly explains:

“When we seek to ‘find’ God’s will, we are attempting to discover hidden knowledge by supernatural activity. If we are going to find His will on one specific choice, we will have to penetrate the divine mind to get His decision. ‘Finding’ in this sense is really a form of divination. This idea was common in pagan religions. As a matter of fact, it was the preoccupation of pagan kings. . . . The king would never act in something as important as going into battle until he had the mind of the god as to whether he should or should not go to war. Many Christians follow this same path in seeking the divine mind in decisions. . . . There isn’t a magic formula offered Christians that will open some mysterious door of wonder, allowing us to get a glimpse of the mind of the Almighty. The Bible forbids pagan divination (Deuteronomy 18:10) and invokes severe penalties for those who resort to magic for determining the will of God in this way.”2

Just as theologian J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937) argued that modernism threatened Christianity by emphasizing what is useful and productive,3 so the post-modernism of our therapeutic age threatens to quietly dilute and stealthily replace biblical evangelicalism by promoting what is useful in helping us feel better through self-discovery, whole-person well-being, and the maximum enjoyment of the good things in this life.

Not that those things are evil in themselves, but it is evil to emphasize them as essential to, in place of, or equal to the gospel message. Doubtful that Polycarp (69–156), Perpetua (182–203), Ramon Lull (1232–1315), Jan Hus (1370–1415), William Tyndale (1495–1536), and today’s unknown thousands of martyrs would promote the gospel as useful for modeling kingdom rhythms for living so that God-rejecting sinners could be empowered, achieve wholeness, feel at peace, and live life to the full.

In C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, to entice Christians into mission drift, Screwtape devises a distraction:

“On the other hand we do want, and want very much, to make men treat Christianity as a means; preferably, of course, as a means to their own advancement, but, failing that, as a means to anything—even to social justice. The thing to do is to get a man at first to value social justice as a thing which the Enemy demands, and then work him on to the stage at which he values Christianity because it may produce social justice. For the Enemy will not be used as a convenience. Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist’s shop. Fortunately it is quite easy to coax humans round this little corner. . . . You see the little rift? ‘Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.’ That’s the game.”4

Furthermore, when we describe and limit injustice mainly to social ills such as economic and ethnocentric injustices (which in many cultures is truly a heart-breaking, chronic problem where lower castes and shunned minorities are blatantly abused, manipulated, and poorly tolerated at best), we then easily overlook the greatest vertical injustice in the world—the fact that all of Adam’s descendants, made in the image of God, defy their Creator by loving and following what is right in their own eyes.

Secondly, strictly in terms of horizontal injustice among people, is there any greater human injustice in the world than the fact that approximately one-third of the world’s population consists of lost souls who have no access to a Christian, the gospel, or a Bible in their language and who do not even have a word for Jesus Christ in their mother tongue? Those are billions of souls, tumbling headlong into eternal, conscious torment. The latest data from the World Christian Database and Joshua Project estimate that less than 10 percent of missionaries work with the unreached, and only a paltry 0.5 percent of the church’s spending goes specifically to reaching the unreached. That leaves over 90 per cent of missionaries working among the reached and 99.5 percent of the church’s resources going to the reached.5

Studies also reveal that Americans spend more annually on Halloween costumes for their pets than the church spends annually to reach the unreached.

Studies also reveal that Americans spend more annually on Halloween costumes for their pets than the church spends annually to reach the unreached.6 While whole clans and language groups plunge into God’s eternal wrath, affluent Christians spend billions of dollars, innumerable resources, and countless man-hours in gospel-gluttonized countries. To be sure, they are doing good for Christ’s sheep, but frankly, the great horizontal injustice of our day is that billions of people remain unreached and so few Christians care enough to do something about it. The term ‘unreached people group’ should be intolerable to us; it should taste like vinegar every time it comes out of our mouths. Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert make a strong case:

“Since hell is real, we must help each other die well even more than we strive to help our neighbors live comfortably. Since hell is real, we must never think alleviating earthly suffering is the most loving thing we can do. Since hell is real, evangelism and discipleship are not simply good options or commendable ministries, but are literally a matter of life and death.”7

Considering the common condition of evangelicalism’s priorities, this charge and warning of Proverbs 24:10-12 is particularly haunting:

“If you faint in the day of adversity, your strength is small. Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter. If you say, ‘Behold, we did not know this,’ does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will he not repay man according to his work?”

In today’s information age, there is no excuse to disregard the plight of the unreached. No one can say, ‘We did not know this.’8

This article is an excerpt from the authors recent book, The Missionary-Theologian.

1. R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 25.

2. Bruce Waltke, Finding the Will of God: A Pagan Notion? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 11-12.

3. See J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 3-6.

4. C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2017), 126-7.

5. See Denny Spitters and Matthew Ellison, When Everything Is Missions (Orlando, FL: BottomLine Media, 2017), 102-3.

6. Leah MarieAnn Klett, ‘Americans Spend More Money on Pet Halloween Costumes Than Reaching Lost: Missions Expert’, The Christian Post, 28 October 2018, (accessed: 8 May 2019).

7. DeYoung and Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church?, 245.

8. The teaching of Jesus in Matthew 25:31-45—pointedly within the context of the final judgment—is a similar warning about neglecting the responsibility to reach out to the ‘least of these’. For a helpful discussion of this passage and the identity of ‘the least of these’, see DeYoung and Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church?, 162-4.

E.D. Burns

E.D. Burns, Ph.D., is the international director of Frontier Dispatch. He has been a long-term missionary in the Middle East, East Asia, Alaska, and currently SE Asia. He serves on faculty at Asia Biblical Theological Seminary. As a linguist and ordained minister, Burns develops theological resources and trains indigenous pastors and missionaries to the least-reached.