Bored with a ‘me gospel’?: what integral mission is and is not

The opening chapter of Relentless Love: Living out Integral Mission to Combat Poverty, Injustice and Conflict is by Graham Joseph Hill, the book’s editor. It gives an overview of the theology and the challenges of integral mission within world Christianity and is our ‘way in’ to the subject. This post will mostly summarise Hill’s chapter and conclude with some observations and questions.

Shifts within World Christianity

Two shifts are happening within Christianity globally

1) By 2025, two-thirds of Christians will live in Asia, Africa, Oceania, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and Latin America. The centre of gravity of world Christianity continues to move South, away from Europe and North America. And it is proportionately less and less White.

2) The second shift, Hill contends, is towards an integral understanding of mission where social justice and gospel proclamation are united within a holistic framework.

It is in the Majority world where missional growth is happening – and, Hill argues, it is also in these contexts where there is a passion to bring healing, justice, freedom and transformation to individuals and communities. Frequently that includes the poor and most vulnerable.

Hill does not quite put it this way, but the implication is that rather than a flow of knowledge, expertise, resources from ‘the West to the Rest’, it is the rich West that has much to learn from the majority world.

It was René Padilla who first coined the term ‘misión integral’ and it carries a sense of reaction against Western theological atomisation that artificially split apart the gospel and its social implications. You can get a sense of his rejection of common Western priorities in this quote from Padilla:

‘Integral mission … understands that its goal is not to become large numerically, nor to be rich materially, nor powerful politically. Its purpose is to incarnate the values of the Kingdom of God and to witness to the love and the justice revealed in Jesus Christ, by the power of the Spirit, for the transformation of human life in all its dimensions ..’

What Does Integral Mission Look Like in Practice?

It begins not with what the church is doing, but what the church is.

The church has integrity when it brings together ‘being’ and ‘doing’; the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘physical’; the ‘individual’ and the ‘social’; the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’; ‘justice and ‘mercy’; ‘witness’ and ‘unity’; ‘preaching truth’ and ‘practicing truth’ and so on.

Hill quotes from the Micah Declaration on Integral Mission that local churches as ‘caring and inclusive communities are at the heart of what it means to do integral mission’

Hill argues integral mission reflects the character and action of God:

“Our God is a missionary God who cares deeply about the well-being of whole persons, whole communities, the whole world. Integral mission arises out of this missional nature of the triune God. Since God is missional – his church is also missional, and must care about the same things.’ p.9

Mission that is integral is always transformational. It moves towards God’s vision of restoration being actualised in all relationships – social, political and economic. It is therefore, Hill argues, attractive to people who are marginalised, poor, suffering and oppressed.

Such mission needs resilience and long-term commitment to people and communities. It will involve confronting evil and injustice as it seeks to cultivate hope, justice and dignity for all. It is a vision of mission that involves partnership, humility in sharing in Jesus’ reaching out to the despised, the marginalised, the powerless and the sick.

It leads to engagement ‘outside the gate’ of comfortable and secure Christianity.

What Integral Mission is Not

As noted earlier, such a vision has a polemical or reactive edge against abstract or detached (Western) theologies of the gospel

“When the church ignores issues of justice, peace-making, poverty, and reconciliation, it denies the call of God and refuses to reflect the image of Christ. We can never allow our gospel to become so compromised and disfigured that it becomes ‘a conscience-soothing Jesus, with an unscandalous cross, an other-worldly kingdom, a private, inwardly limited spirit, a pocket God, a spiritualized Bible, and an escapist church [whose] goal is a happy, comfortable, and successful life, obtainable through the forgiveness of an abstract sinfulness by faith in an unhistorical Christ.’” (Hill p.9. Quoting Costas, Christ Outside the Gate: Mission Beyond Christendom (1982, p. 80).

And again

“The gospel should never be reduced to a privatized individualistic gospel that is only about God dealing with personal sin and pain. God redeems us from the power of sin and death … But the full gospel of Jesus is much more expansive and cosmic than mere personal and individual forgiveness of sin.” p. 10

Hill quotes Simon Leigh-Jones

‘“I’m bored of a gospel that’s only about me, my soul, and I. I’m bored of a gospel seemingly offering no good news about a dying planet. I’m bored of a gospel almost silent on issues like racism, gender inequality, and global injustice.” The gospel Leigh-Jones describes is common in the West, but it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.’ (p.11).

TWO Observations

  1. The first is an observation on ‘What Integral Mission is Not’.

I’m still thinking about Ruth Graham’s NYT article on the Hillsong USA and the story of celebrity pastor Carl Lentz. I haven’t been able to get something she said in passing out of mind.

Hillsong’s “great innovation was to offer urban Christians a religious environment that did not clash with the rest of their lives.”

Think about that for a moment. It’s a devastating little sentence. It locates Hillsong squarely in the type of Christianity described above in ‘What Integral Mission is Not’. The contrast between a ‘cool’, wealthy, celebrity enamoured Western megachurch and the ethos and priorities of integral mission could not be sharper.

I am not sure they can even fit together within something called Christianity.

[And I have absolutely no axe to grind with Hillsong or Carl Lentz. I hadn’t heard of him until reading the article and I know very little about Hillsong. I mention the story because it is in the news and it speaks of a much larger problem.]

2. The second observation relates to ‘What Does Integral Mission Look Like in Practice’.

Theologically, the emphasis within Integral Mission on the integrity of the church, and on what the church ‘is’, finds deep parallels in the NTs emphasis on love as the ethos and goal of the Christian life. Love as an end in itself and not as the means to something else.

Thomas Jay Oord has written much on love (not without controversy but that’s another day’s discussion). He defines love like this

‘Acting intentionally, in sympathetic response to others … to promote overall well-being.’

Love, so understood, describes well how the Micah Declaration, René Padilla and Graham Hill talk about integral mission as a concern for the whole person and whole communities.

I’m not a missiologist and don’t claim any expertise when it comes to the extensive literature of integral mission, so I may be missing something here. But I find it intriguing that love is not front and centre when it comes to framing a theology of mission. Kingdom of God, justice, gospel are prominent themes but love seems marginal at best.

Is this, perhaps, another example of the curious marginalisation of love within much Christian theology and praxis? (For more on this see The Message of Love)

In other words, I’d like to see love itself more integrated within theologies of integral mission.

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