The gospel is supposed to change lives, and cultures

The church newsletter now comes out by email. In this week’s the office highlighted a link to a new website for the denominational missions agency, the New Zealand Baptist Missionary Society. Foreign missions – and NZBMS in particular – have been a big part of my life and faith (three relatives have been presidents of NZBMS, my mother and mother-in-law were both presidents of the Baptist Women’s Missionary Union (for support and prayer for missions), the first foreigner I really recall meeting was a leader from the Tripura Baptist Christian Union who stayed in our home on a visit here for the annual Baptist Assembly back when I was 5 or 6, and so on). I grew up with the work of the St Paul’s School in Argatala, we’ve had NZBMS missionaries from our own congregation, and every Baptist church I’ve been part of has had a strong commitment to mission, and to NZBMS in particular.

So, of course, I clicked the link. On the home page there was a prominently displayed section “We answer your big questions”. There were six questions. It wasn’t entirely clear quite how “big” some of them questions really were (“Do I have to be Baptist to be involved with NZBMS?” – are any church agencies really reluctant to receive donations or prayer from other Christians?) but the one that caught my eye was this one:

mission colony

To which the response was this.

colony missions 2

And that was it. One of the “big questions” people are thought to be asking, at least according to the NZBMS. And remember, these “people” are visitors to the denominational missions agency website, which might be presumed to be a fairly small minority, mostly (I’m guessing) people already with some commitment to cross-border mission. No attempt to define terms. No links to more substantive treatment of the thoughts of those responsible for this statement. Just a generalised slur – for it is quite clear that that is the intent of the first sentence, this “reality” they wish to “lament”.

Now, of course, every movement that involves human beings is going to fall short of perfection, and to be tainted – as all of us are – by sin. But that doesn’t seem to be the point NZBMS wishes to make. The question isn’t “is mission tainted by sin?” to which the only possible answer would be “Yes, of course. As all human endeavour is. That is why we need God’s grace and redemption, and why we work, witness, and spread the good news everywhere, all men and women, all nations, all lands”.

But there seems to be some particular bogeyman in view here – particular, but very ill-defined. Interestingly, they focus on “modern mission” which, at a guess, probably covers the period since the late 18th century (but not, we presume, Charlemagne and the forced conversion of the Saxons), if only because Baptist foreign mission – beginning with William Carey – dates from then. And whatever specifically they mean by “colonialist”, as the period since shortly after World War Two has been great age of independence from Western empires, it seems unlikely they mean anything very recent. Most likely, to the extent they have anything specific in mind, I’m guessing they mean primarily the period from the late 18th century to the early 20th century (for good or ill, the British Empire was at its greatest physical expanse in the years just after World War One).

And that, of course, includes the evangelisation of the Maori, the coming of the gospel to these islands. The first sermon was preached on these shores on Christmas Day 1814, at Oihi in the Bay of Islands, by Samuel Marsden. The first CMS mission was established there, under the protection of the chief Ruatara. And the gospel began to be taught, and spread, in New Zealand. Initially by English missionaries, but increasingly by Maori converts and evangelists. It is an inspiring story of courage, sacrifice, and transformation. There was no British (or other European) political presence in New Zealand at the time, but there were other European influences – sealers, whalers, and of course, musketry. It was 26 years later, and not with a great deal of enthusiasm on the part of the British government, that the islands of New Zealand became a British possession (through some mix – emphasis contested – of agreement with tribal chiefs (the Treaty of Waitangi) and annexation. No one claims that the history of CMS – or the other Protestant and Catholic missions that began the evangelisation work – was perfect (repeat, all human activity is tainted by sin). But is this what today’s NZBMS is embarrassed by, or wishing to disown? It wasn’t as if missionaries opened up New Zealand – technology, opportunity, and enterprise were going to do that anyway. Disease – that drove down Maori numbers further – was going to arrive anyway. It wasn’t as if missionaries led to the large scale settlement of New Zealand by (mostly) British migrants over subsequent decades. That would have happened anyway (or perhaps not if the British government had taken a different approach). So one is left wondering what NZBMS laments? Surely not evangelisation? Presumably not the introduction of literacy (evangelicals in particular emphasising Scripture)? Or the ending of slavery, or cannibalism, or of the Musket Wars themselves?

Of course, perhaps it is the history of the NZBMS itself they have in mind. But it isn’t obvious they have any real grounds for whipping themselves on that score either. NZBMS was founded in 1885 by a Baptist denomination that at the time had only about 2500 members in its congregations scattered around the country. That in itself is a story that deserves to be retold – a reflection no doubt of the times, the great age of the evangelical missionary movement. People like Rosalie MacGeorge – the first NZBMS missionary, probably the first female missionary sent from New Zealand – and the (gloriously named) Hopestill Pillow should be heroes of the denomination, people to inspire us to pray, to give, and to be willing to go. These women went, and never came back – one is buried in Calcutta, one in Sri Lanka. I went back and read yesterday some of Towards the Sunrise, the 1985 centennial history of the NZBMS, particularly on the founding of the mission and the early years of the mission in Bengal. And there was, of course, not a hint of some “colonialist” agenda – there is, instead, a passion for the extension of God’s kingdom, and liberating and transforming power of the gospel. The local newspaper reported Hopestill Pillow’s farewell: we read of the plan to witness especially to women (zenana missions were a significant missions priority at the time), and not a hint of empire, colonial settlement, or even turning Bengal into some larger-scale Christchurch.

Again, I’m not suggesting that all NZBMS has ever done was perfect – sin, and all that, pervades – but it seems like a society that we (Baptists in the pews, those who support and pray) should be perhaps a little proud of, and grateful for the privilege of, being part of, not something to whip ourselves for. And yet the apologetic tone of the website seems more interested in the non-specific whipping, than in lives touched and changed, schooling provided, churches built, and the increasingly self-sustaining work and witness of those congregations. Mission – here and abroad – is the call and lifeblood of the church. And it is about upending lives, opening them to God’s grace and the transformation that the Holy Spirit prompts and empowers in lives, and in communities. Cultures transformed by Christ.

And often that is the sort of thing that too many people today – including some Christians – seem quite uncomfortable with. The Jews were shaped by God’s call and God’s law – distinctively different to the peoples around them or their Roman occupiers. Rome itself was transformed by the Christianisation process, England was, the Saxons were, 19th century Maori were, and so on. Is there stuff lost in the process? Of course, but in a sense that is the point. It will be the challenge if/when/as the West (or New Zealand) is ever re-won for Christ, to slew off what isn’t of Christ, and to embrace, and form, something new, distinctive, and more Christlike.

Of course, every missionary brings with them their own pre-suppositions and experiences. Those coming from cultures that had long been influenced and shaped by Christianity will bring their presuppositions too. And – as all of us are but flawed vessels – some of what they passed on then (and might pass on now) may be a reflection more of the specifics of their own background than of the gospel. But what of it? That is true of every human interaction, and every encounter any Christian has with another person. And yet the gospel challenge remains one of making disciples, and that those new disciples might, in time, be formed and transformed more into the likeness of Christ- in actions, behaviours, and thought forms. And how shall they hear unless someone tells them – whether at home or abroad.

If we step back to the era in which NZBMS was founded, the great age of evangelical mission coincided by the peak of the modern age of imperial expansion. But even within Britain and the colonies of settlement (like New Zealand), imperial expansion was not universally regarded as good or desirable, whether the motives of individuals involved were highminded and laudable or not. Perhaps we might assume that members of Baptist churches, active supporters of the NZBMS, and even their missionaries reflect some of that range of sentiments. But it wasn’t as if Baptist missionaries (from the larger British society) went only to work in British territories – the small New Zealand society was exclusively in Bengal – and a recent book on the history of Protestant missions from New Zealand up to World War Two records that 10 per cent of New Zealand Protestant missionaries worked in Latin America, where the British Empire barely reached. And it shouldn’t perhaps surprise us that the first great age of globalisation – movement of people, goods, and capital – also involved fresh energy behind the transmission of ideas and belief (in this case the gospel). The church would have been remiss if it had not been reaching out that way.

In the current enfeebled state of the church in New Zealand, we might pray and long for a fresh reviving wind of the Spirit, and perhaps that might be accomplished in part through an influx of foreign missionaries to New Zealand (the New Zealand CMS until recently had a Kenyan director, who is now the Anglican Bishop of Nelson). When they come and witness sometimes they will bring ideas and practices that are purely of their home culture too. But we might long and pray for a transformation of this country’s culture too, as more and more men and women were confirmed – by witness, formation, and discipleship – into Christlikeness. A New Zealand sold out for Christ would be a very different place than New Zealand today. And that would be a good thing, something to celebrate, not something for Christians to regret or be ashamed of.

If anyone is interested in reading further on the question, a good book on the wider issue by Andrew Porter, a professor of imperial history at King’s College London, is Religion vs empire? British Protestant missionaries and overseas expansion, 1700-1914, and a recent New Zealand book by Hugh Morrison, Pushing Boundaries: New Zealand Protestants and overseas mission 1827-1939 also has quite a bit of relevant material.

UPDATE (22 March)

A comment on this post prompted me to check the relevant NZBMS website page. The answer to the question now reads as follows:

In short, God’s mission is never colonialist. However, this is a question that all mission agencies must address. Sadly, we know that much modern mission has been colonialist. We lament this reality and with a humble posture know we are transformed in our engagement with Christians cross-culturally. What we seek is mutual transformation in the life of the Kingdom. We also know that Christ has done incredible and invaluable things through those with missional hearts, and that there is certainly much to celebrate from the past.

It is a step in the right direction, although of course now there are tensions between the first and third sentences, and the third sentence is still not justified.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “The gospel is supposed to change lives, and cultures

  1. Andrew Bollen

    Hi, as a previous chair of NZBMS council I was concerned by your comments of NZBMS and wondered what the response was from NZBMS when you asked them why they had written what they did?

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    • I don’t have any particular contacts among NZBMS staff, and when I looked up the Missions Council couldn’t find any names/contact details either.

      I’m guessing that someone there must have seen this post as – just checking a few minutes ago – I see that the response to the question has been changed, in a somewhat helpful and appropriate way.

      “In short, God’s mission is never colonialist. However, this is a question that all mission agencies must address. Sadly, we know that much modern mission has been colonialist. We lament this reality and with a humble posture know we are transformed in our engagement with Christians cross-culturally. What we seek is mutual transformation in the life of the Kingdom. We also know that Christ has done incredible and invaluable things through those with missional hearts, and that there is certainly much to celebrate from the past.”

      Like

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