David Bosch's Transforming Mission

I’ve read four books this summer focusing on the theology behind missions and evangelism. Of the four, I especially liked one, one was good, one was just OK and one was mostly bad because the writer’s theology is just wacked. In any case, I’ll devote four articles reviewing the four books. Below is the first . . . about the book I liked best. It’s the great work of the Dutch Reformed theologian and missiologist David Bosch. Here you go:

In his preface to the 20th anniversary edition of David Bosch’s book, Transforming Mission, Paradigm Shifts in the Theology of Mission, William R. Burrows praises Bosch for creating an oasis that recognizes God’s complete freedom to be who He is. It is we humans who build up illusion-creating systems that tame God’s mystery to make God safe for us. Of course, God is not safe, not for any person and certainly not for any system created and nurtured by the minds and hands of fragile human beings.

Bosch himself experienced the fragility of life and the fruit of a sinful system in 1992 when he bled to death in rural South Africa after a head-on car crash, only one year after publishing Transforming Mission and two years before the end of apartheid. After the crash, passersby called for an ambulance to free him from the wreckage to stop his bleeding. When no ambulance arrived, they called a second time. The ambulance dispatcher reportedly replied, You didn’t say he was a white man. A subsequent investigation proved inconclusive, largely because recordings of the two phone conversations had disappeared.

In Transforming Mission, Bosch clearly describes the certain transience of all things that are not God and all methods and models that do not come from His hand. Bosch first focuses on the New Testament models of mission, detailing the differences and similarities of mission in the entire New Testament and discussing mission practices of the apostles. He follows with descriptions of the many and inexorably shifting historical paradigms of mission in Christian history. The descriptions are completely satisfying for their detailed clarity and thoughtfulness.

If one covering statement is to be offered for a theme of Bosch’s book, it may be, We are the product of our times. Apart from taking right confidence and comfort in the certain reliability of the Scriptures, history shows that human beings have no reason to be certain that their interpretations and, consequently, their life applications of the Scriptures will endure beyond the current generation. This is not to say that the Scriptures are not reliable and that the tenets of the Christian faith are malleable. The Scriptures are completely reliable. The tenets of the faith are not malleable. As the divinely inspired apostle Peter said in 2 Peter 1:20-21: . . . know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. Proper interpretation of the Scriptures is not God’s problem. Proper interpretation—and resulting application—always is man’s problem. Man’s interpretations reflect his holiness, his sinfulness  and the powerful unseen influences of the era in which he lives. We would be wise to build a hard strength in the discipline of allowing the Scriptures to speak for themselves no matter the influences of the day.

What can be certain is that the gospels reveal the Lord’s heart and standards for the mission of spreading faith in Christ. The gospel of Matthew, written for Jews, is interested in costly discipleship. Matthew’s gospel is not simply interested in the numerical expansion of the church. Says Bosch, Ideally, every church member should be a true disciple, but this obviously is not the case in the Christian communities Matthew knows. If this attitude (of costly discipleship) scares people away, then so be it.

In the gospel of Luke, written for gentiles, the reader is told in nine references that, whatever else Jesus was doing, He was on His way to Jerusalem to suffer and die. The gentile readers know from Jesus words in Luke 24:46-47 that . . . the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. Luke’s particular interest is in the materially and spiritually poor and other marginalized people groups. But what does Luke say in his gospel and in the book of Acts about the materially rich? Acts notes that wealthy and distinguished people joined the Christian community. Both rich and poor are tested for their willingness to follow Christ no matter the cost. Bosch notes: In Luke’s gospel, the rich are tested on the ground of their wealth, whereas others are tested on the ground of their loyalty toward their family, their people, their culture and their work. Just as the materially rich can be spiritually poor, the materially poor can be spiritually poor.

For the apostle Paul, mission means the announcement of Christ’s lordship over all reality and an invitation to submit to it. Paul’s mission is deeply personal, as it is driven by and rooted in the overwhelming experience of the love of God received through Jesus Christ. Bosch cites Galatians 2:20 and Romans 5:5 as evidence of Paul’s devotion to his Savior. Bosch also could have cited Romans 2:4 as further evidence of Paul’s devotion. Paul calls for personal response to the Lord’s astounding love for each person: . . . do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?

It is important to note the contrast between the solidarity of the Scriptures and the fractious practices of the church throughout its history. The Scriptures describe coordinated motivation and heart of mission. But church history is marred with fractious, contentious and often vicious persecutions—pitting follower of Christ against follower of Christ—in the name of advancing the Lord’s work on Earth. Despite these terrible divisions, the universal Christian church was and is ultimately battling against the spirits of the age that war against the Lord’s reign.

Bosch notes these terrible divisions as he walks through an analysis of the church’s missionary paradigms in the Eastern church, in medieval Roman Catholicism, in the Protestant Reformation, in the wake of the Enlightenment, in the postmodern world and in ecumenicalism. History marks the ebb and flow of life as a Christian. Whereas the earliest Christians were persecuted, ridiculed, isolated and pursued as ignorant renegades against the state, by the late second century Christian scholars were matching pagan philosophers in erudition and argument for the Christian faith. Says Bosch, Even before the persecutions stopped and Christianity was declared the sole legitimate religion in the Roman empire, the church had begun to be a bearer of culture and a civilizing presence in society.

It is ironic how things have swung around for followers of Christ in the present age. The world is largely post-Christian. Certainly the U.S. and Canada and Europe are post-Christian. Most people know the message of Christ and His offer of salvation. Most have heard of Jesus, they know of His church through relationships with followers of Christ or through the exposure gleaned via the media or through government messaging. They often are committed to non-Christian, pagan, agnostic or atheistic worldviews. Many of them despise the thought of Christ and what they sense is the bad odor emanating from Christians. And so, as Bosch rightly notes, It is today a liability rather than an asset to be a Christian. He notes an ever-increasing tension between the church and secular authorities.

Even with such tension between the church and secular authorities, the church in North America seems to have fallen into what Bosch describes as an effort to re-gain lost ecclesiastical influence. The church appears to act out of what may be wrong motive to win people not to Christ, but to individual churches. . . . there is an implicit (and sometimes explicit) suggestion that competition is necessary. Thus, people in the surrounding community, whether they belong to other churches or not, are perceived as ‘prospects’ to be won. Much of this reflects the tendency toward empire-building—the church cannot resist the temptation to open yet another branch office in an area that looks promising. Whether intended or not, this mentality suggests that it is not by grace, but by becoming adherents to our denomination, that people will be saved.

Bosch goes on to argue that much of so-called contemporary evangelism aims at satisfying rather than transforming people. That seems obviously true, at least in much of the contemporary Christian church in the U.S. and in Canada. Equally obvious, then, should be a call to return to the simple and powerful imperative in Matthew 28:19 to Make disciples. This must include Matthew’s concept of costly discipleship and, as Bosch says, if that scares people away, then so be it.