The Two Captivities of Missiology

The field (I do not say “discipline”) of missiology is liable to two kinds of captivity, and this liability entails overcompensation on both sides, especially in the US cultural milieu of polarizing discourse. At the same time, the call for a middle ground or for balance makes my entire brain roll its eyes, because such calls always feel like a failure to deal with each side’s substantial concerns.

The first captivity is to resultism (my word for it). Whereas many people tend to use the word pragmatism here, I think that is a mistake, about which more below. Resultism is actually captivity to the supreme value of results, effectiveness, planned outcomes. In evangelical missiology, resultism comes to expression in various ways, a large category of which could be labeled growth—focusing on numbers of conversions, of members, of attendance, of programs, and so on.

The second captivity is to cognitivism. This captivity is to the supreme prioritization of right thinking. In evangelical missiology, it comes to expression most frequently in the critique of resultism, often (erroneously) using the word pragmatic as a kind of slander. When right thinking is the priority over against (i.e., in reaction to) resultism, we tend to get a pendulum swing, with the result that, what really matters is the prioritization of right thinking. Then practices and their effects follow from right thinking, naturally and necessarily.

Reading the introduction of Scott Sunquist’s Understanding Christian Mission: Participation in Suffering and Glory has me thinking about this. It provides a case study in the rhetoric of captivity. He writes:

Mission, like liturgy, pastoral care, or preaching, is rooted in right thinking about the task, but it must also involve a practice. Although there are practical outcomes and specific practices that will be encouraged or discouraged, what the individual, church, or society actually does is rooted in what they think about God, humanity, the church, and the world. Therefore, as an introduction, this book is primarily concerned with right thinking about Christian mission, right thinking about the church, and pointing toward faithful practices.

This is a theological inquiry rooted in an understanding of God that is informed by most other areas of theological studies: biblical studies, hermeneutics, history, practical theology, ecclesiology, and ethics. Other supportive areas such as cultural anthropology, sociology of religion, history of religions, and psychology feed into the study, but part of the argument of this book is that missiology must resist being taken captive by the social sciences. Missiology is first concerned with thinking correctly about the Triune God— the God who by his very nature is a sending God— rather than with particular practices or programs. In fact, until fairly recently in Christian history, the word “mission” (sending) was used in theological discourse of the Trinity, not of missionary practices. The Father sending the Son and the Father and Son sending the Holy Spirit was a “mission” discussion. It was not until late in the sixteenth century that the early Jesuits first used the word missio to speak of Christian people being sent to non-Christian people. It has been commonly accepted since the late eighteenth century that “mission” primarily refers to the church’s task to carry out the will of the Father in the world. Again, my point is that such work must be grounded in right thinking. Good practice flows out of good thinking in context.[1.  Scott W. Sunquist, Understanding Christian Mission: Participation in Suffering and Glory (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 1–2.]

As a theologian, of course I’m sympathetic with prioritizing theology. And considering the particular conversation in which I’m engaged academically—theological hermeneutics—there is a great deal of similarity between the desire to prioritize theology in missiology and the desire to prioritize theology in hermeneutics. I understand that the social sciences can and have set non-theological and sometimes anti-theological criteria for the theological curricula.

Nonetheless, Sunquist’s way of putting it strikes me as problematic, because the fear of captivity motivates a cognitivist overcorrection. Furthermore, a footnote specifies what Sunquist means by captivity:  “The captivity of missiology to the social sciences is not determined by one’s theology. Conservative, fundamentalist, Pentecostal, and liberal theologians are equally prone to such captivity. When missiology turns into sociological studies of what “works,” then we have turned away from proper missiological centeredness on the knowledge of God and the missio Dei as revealed in the life of Jesus Christ.”[2. Ibid., 2n4.] Captivity to the social sciences figures here as resultism (what “works”).

Two points give me pause. One, participation in mission is theologically productive. To a significant extent, right thinking follows and cannot be separated from right action (regardless of results, I should add). This is a virtuous circle that makes strange the claim that “missiology is first concerned with thinking correctly.” Two, among contemporary missiology’s great contributions to theology is precisely its sociological and anthropological acuity. While captivity—whatever that might mean—would presumably be bad, that is a far cry from recognizing that the social sciences make their own contribution to right thinking. This is where my insistence on the validity of pragmatism comes in.

Pragmatism is not resultism (bowing to what “works”) but a concern with the truth revealed by effects. In other words, it is primarily epistemological. For example, the sociological analysis of churches planted in a mode of resultism might indicate that members have not been transformed or converted in any sense that Christian theology would recognize. In this case, a pragmatic sociology is itself the most useful critique of the thing that Sunquist rejects. Likewise, a theological account of “right thinking” might be greatly served by a pragmatic understanding of what “right thinking” actually does in the world. This is a crucial point in missiology, which is concerned with the radical differences in theological reasoning and justification across cultures. Missiology’s ability to account for what actually happens in theological contextualization (including Sunquist’s contextual claims about what counts as right thinking about the Trinity!) and what that reveals about theological truth is a vital gift to Christian theology. I worry that the abstract prioritization of “right thinking” over against “captivity to the social sciences” in missiology undermines the pragmatism that is the field’s distinctive strength.

Additionally, this priority seems to entail the Western church once again predetermining the “rightness” of thinking—at just the moment when the fruit of Western mission has become the arrival of Majority World missionaries to the West, who stand to lead the development of a new missiology precisely because their thinking is differently right.

I may return to this post as I read Sunquist further and find clarifications.

[Painting: Gebhard Fugel, “An den Wassern Babylons” (1920)]


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