“Missions is the Mother of Theology”

I did not come up with this headline, a guy by the name of Martin Kähler did. Kähler was a theologian himself, from Germany, and was making a very important point when he penned these words. In fact, it is significant enough that it bears repeating.

In short, Kähler is claiming missions birthed theology.  Put another way, missions gave rise to theology. There may be some caveats to the statement, but overall he is correct. Furthermore, that is pretty important for the church to grasp and not in some academic, theoretical way. This is not some cute saying to make missionaries feel important, and it is not some mantra to be remembered in seminary classrooms. This truth should affect the way we live and the way we function as the church.

Missions is at the heartbeat of Christianity.

If you unpack Kähler’s claim, he is pointing out that missions was the occasioning incident for the process of theology in the first century of the church. Take the letter to the Romans for instance. Paul wrote it, and it has been consistently upheld as one of the (if not the single) most magnificent pieces of theological writing ever penned. But, Romans was written by a man doing missions, to a church he wanted to visit while on a missionary journey, asking for support about his next missionary endeavor to Spain. Romans is a missionary letter that necessitated theology. The same can be said for much of Paul’s writing.

Truth is, the first theologizing of the early church came as it was trying to explain the Scriptures and this good news of Christ’s resurrection to other people. The result was consistent efforts at explaining those truths, and Christian theology was born. In this regard, missions stands at the heart of Christianity, and theology is one of its natural outflows.

Theology is out of place unless it is in the context of mission.

Since missions is at the heartbeat of Christianity, theology is only healthy in the context of mission. I believe this is where our idea begins to land, and we see how it affects us today. Too often, we (pastors, professors, scholars, leaders, churches, etc) divorce missions and theology. Of course, I am not referring to select courses that focus on one or the other. My point here is that good theology cannot be done apart from mission. Furthermore, good mission should always result in good theology.

Ripping theology away from its Great Commission setting naturally pulls it away from its center. Theology becomes unavoidably skewed. In one instance, it becomes the dry abstractions of theorists. It becomes an endless list of categories, bullet points, and “isms.” It is an intellectual exercise that brings neither glory to God nor real understanding to its hearers. It is the arena of a prideful heart. Or perhaps it floats off into individualized, emotional sentimentality. Theology becomes the substance of a heart set free from the constraints of Scripture, informed more by experience and heartburn from last night’s dinner. It is modern-day mysticism. Regardless, unmoored from missions, theology is adrift at sea.

When this happens, theology’s priorities change. First forged in the fires of evangelism, theology adrift begins to major in the minors. Gnats are strained as camels are swallowed, and we develop algorithms to count angels on the head of a pin. We spend hours instructing our congregations on theological trivialities (all in the name of discipleship), while assuming the fundamental teaching that everyone should be making a disciple somewhere.

I recall a situation where a young man became a believer and began attending one of the small groups I pastored. He was definitely new to the faith and had no theological categories. The average group members, however, were steeped and mature disciples by any popular standard. Some were seminary students. I watched, week after week, as this young man asked questions that had nothing to do with the neat categories of theology but were precisely the questions of training a new believer. Seminary students were confounded, sometimes not knowing how to respond and even feeling the questions were silly. These questions, though, were the very questions of a new believer learning how to understand the faith. That is the very essence of theology. If our theological instruction, whether in our churches or our schools, does not equip us to answer those questions, then it is adrift from our mission.

Stop driving a wedge between evangelism and discipleship.

We perform a disservice to our congregations when we separate evangelism from discipleship. Discipleship, of late a common moniker for cognitive Bible teaching, is the talk of the town in many Evangelical circles. The problem, according to so many, is that we stepped away from making disciples for making decisions. I do not disagree with this. Often, a conversionist focus in ministry led to poor evangelism methods, resulting in a lot of hand-raising and little heart change. The result of so many high-pressure vacation Bible school altar calls was the walking away of high school seniors from the church as soon as they went off to college. Or, perhaps it was a league of people in our churches on Sunday mornings that looked no different than the people sitting at home on the couch. We need more discipleship, was the cry.

But if theology is divorced from mission, discipleship means a coffee-shop conversation about the latest Christian book. It is the impulse to fill a person’s head instead of the desire to direct a person’s steps toward the commission they had received. No, when we lose our focus on evangelism in our congregations, we place a wedge that turns discipleship into something it is not. Soon, we have a theology adrift from the mission.

 

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