It remains the most helpful mission concept I have encountered in the past twenty years.
"WOW - that's a big call, Paul."
But it is true ... and it is so simple.
Devised by the late Harold Turner (the Kiwi Newbigin), the suggestion is that for mission to be effective (under God's gracious hand, of course) it needs to advance at three levels in a concerted manner.
Level One focuses on the individual-personal, incorporating spoken evangelism with acts of compassionate service. Words and deeds by individuals.
Level Two focuses on the public-social world with communities as the centerpiece. The community we know as the church - the distinctive, alternative, and attractive people of God - building bridges and walking across them into the wider community. This is where home and workplace are honoured. This is where social and economic systems are challenged. This is where the Kingdom of God becomes visible.
Level Three focuses on the deeper-cultural world. If society is a tree, the concern here is for the roots. If society is a boat, the concern here is for the tide. Level Three recognises that it is the invisible which tends to be influential. It agrees with CS Lewis in asserting that "the critical ideas in society are not the ones being argued, but the ones being assumed." This is mission to worldview or, as Turner expressed it, this is "deep mission".
[Let's acknowledge that each Level is present in the mission strategy of Jesus and the apostles. Level One is everywhere! Level Two is seen explicitly in Acts 2 & 4 and implicitly in every New Testament letter. And Level Three? Well, the parables - just for starters - tend to operate at this level.]
So what about an assessment of mission in New Zealand in 2009? Three words come to mind.
Inspiration. Concern. Hope.
The inspiration comes from what is happening at Level Two. Over the past two decades I have had the privilege of being in dozens of local churches. I have loved it. I will miss it. Generally speaking, the mission focus in NZ has been about local churches creating places of belonging for their own people and then, from that base, multiplying the ministries which reach into the community. I'll always remember the day I heard that Spreydon Baptist had 56(?) community ministries. It was inspiring.
But we are kidding ourselves if we think effective mission is about this alone...
The concern comes from what is not happening at Level One. Where have all the evangelists gone? Have we allowed society to intimidate them into silence? Or have churches fumbled the gospel? How often have I heard people who should know better describe mission as something that can be word-less? How often have I been with church groups who seem content with their community ministries remaining as social service agencies and not much more? It starts there - but does it end there?! Why is there so often this reluctance to say a little word for Jesus - surely people expect that to happen in a church ministry?
Depending on your church's flavour there are effective programmes out there to assist with evangelism: Alpha, Two Ways to Live, Christianity Explored ... but where are the evangelists? The compelling grace-filled, truth-filled speakers who can direct conversations to the claims of Christ embedded in the biblical gospel ... and who can live with the consequences - probably more rejection than acceptance?
The hope comes from what is starting to happen at Level Three. While deeply committed to Level One & Two, God's particular call on my life has been to Level Three. And it is my conviction that Level Three is best advanced through a commitment to biblical preaching, to theological training, and to tertiary mission. On each of these fronts I find fresh hope pulsing through my veins:
recovering biblical preaching
I remain unconvinced that we have a heritage of biblical preaching in NZ. But the Towards a Kiwi-made Preaching forum in April demonstrated that something is happening in the church in NZ. The numbers from around the country who showed up, the vibrant buoyancy in the day, the mixing of veterans with a whole wave of younger people, the sheer indigeneity of it ... 'deep mission' is fuelled by biblical preaching and there seems to be a growing awareness of this fact.
[NB - 'Kiwi-made Preaching' will have an ongoing regionalised life in New Zealand. Things are simmering for a few months as we assess the next steps - and as we build the database of people who are interested. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if that means you!]
renewing theological education
Like with biblical preaching, an evangelical* brand of degree-level theological education (particularly through our denominational colleges) is hardly what we are known for in NZ. The reputation is of a faith-destroying training, not a faith-deepening one. A whole layer of leaders in the church have a deeply ingrained suspicion of the value of theological training. Who can blame them? The degree-level evangelical option with its capacity to fuel 'deep mission' is less than 20 years old. Numerous countries in the Majority World had this option long before we did. Most English-speaking countries have had it for decades, even centuries ... but now look carefully at what is happening at Carey, at Laidlaw, and at Otago. I wrest my case. The cause of transformative theological training in NZ has never been better.
redeeming tertiary mission
The church in NZ has tended to scorn academia as impractical at best and irrelevant at worst. Too often our young people go there and lose their faith. Too often our academics go there and hide their faith. There has been so little engagement and so the universities keep winning the battle of ideas and go on to shape the nation in the next generation. We are such a heart-y and hand-y people, rather than a head-y one - and it shows! Shame on us. I am stunned by how often I hear Kiwi Christians downplay the significance of knowledge, understanding, the head, the mind... What Bible are these people reading? Because, as Harold Turner used to say, "ideas have legs" and "the most practical thing the church can do is to sit down and have a good think". But we'd really rather sing than think, we'd really rather find simple solutions than ask hard questions, and we'd really rather keep faith a warm private affair than a rugged public one. No wonder we are stuggling!
This is why I believe in Tertiary Students Christian Fellowship (TSCF - the NZ arm of the global InterVarsity work) - mired as it has been in a recession. Listen - it is impossible for mission in NZ to be effective without a strong campus presence which ensures that the worldviews of students are converted by 'deep mission' during their molten years. That the Christian dollar flows so readily to other NZ ministries and overlooks this one is an enduring mystery to me. But TSCF is bouncing back. Nowhere is this more evident than in this initiative known as Catalyst . It is just what the (mission) doctor ordered.
Inspiration. Concern. Hope
All three levels. All at once - in concert.
This is what we need.
* by 'evangelical' I mean an approach that is based on the Bible as the authoritative text and focused on the Christ revealed in its pages. It is possible to honour both Christ and the Bible!