Rethinking Christian Mission Witness in the Middle East

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March 4, 2021
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March 18, 2021

By Mike Kuhn

That strikethrough of the word “mission” in the title is intentional. I imagine that for most readers of this blog the word “mission” evokes positive connotations of self-sacrificial giving and heroic exploits of missionaries of a by-gone era. Early Protestant missionaries to the Middle East established schools, hospitals and churches that continue to impact society for good. Some risked their lives against fierce opposition. Today Christian mission, alongside its evangelistic concerns, is active in education, relief and development. It is right that we celebrate the good fruit these efforts have borne.

Nevertheless, there is another point of view. I was struck recently in reading Artillery of Heaven by Ussama Makdisi (Rice University Arab Historian) by how starkly different the other perspective is. Makdisi relates the martyrdom of As’ad Shidyaq—the first Protestant convert from the Maronite (Roman Catholic) community of Lebanon. Shidyaq died in confinement in a monastery in Mount Lebanon. Protestant missionaries celebrated him as the first Protestant martyr. Makdisi’s view, however, is that the Protestant missionaries’ reckless inability to understand the culture and worldview of Middle Eastern Christianity led to Shidyaq’s tragic and pointless death. In fact, he locates the impetus for the early missionary zeal of the Protestants in their relentless efforts to Christianize native Americans. He underscores “a fundamental conceit of mission work: those to be saved were the objects of unilateral transformation, their culture disparaged, their history ignored, their equality consistently denied” (Makdisi, 2011, p 57). Makdisi’s perspective is that American Protestants, having failed to civilize native Americans, turned their conversionary zeal abroad and engaged in a worldwide mission with the same reckless disregard for other peoples and cultures.

Which is it? A noble history of self-sacrifice in the service of God and humanity or the imperialistic conceit of religious bigots?

I confess it is grueling to listen to the critique of Makdisi. I am deeply invested in the pursuit of Christian mission in the Middle East and the Muslim world broadly. Nevertheless, I want to hear what he is saying. I want to consider his critique, asking myself and you if we need to make significant changes.

Makdisi is not the only voice criticizing Protestant mission. More sympathetic voices are also coming to the fore. One is Michael Stroope’s book Transcending the Modern Mission Tradition. Stroope dives deeply into the history of “mission” and proposes that there are serious flaws including an enmeshment with political exploitation, military occupation, and colonialist assumptions. He suggests that the word “mission” must be abandoned. It is irredeemable and can no longer represent the global church of Christ in her pilgrim witness to a crucified and risen Lord (See this summary and response from Martin Accad).

Supposing the global church listens to this critique, what could we do differently? Is stopping our global witness the only alternative? Sending all the cross-cultural missionaries home? Given Jesus’ great commission, throwing in the towel is probably not the best course of action. But what do we do? How do we pursue our witness in the Middle East and the Muslim world?

Before attempting to answer that question, consider the season of precipitous change that the region, even the world, is passing through. First, the church itself is now global and multi-cultural. If we are thinking of mission as originating in the West, we’re already decades behind the movement of God’s Spirit and likely stuck in a colonialist mindset. The voice of witness from this global church is as likely to originate from Korea, Brazil or Nigeria as from the UK, US or Canada, a fact that has led scholars of world Christianity to declare that mission is now polycentric—from everywhere to everywhere. In fact, as the Western church declines, developing world nations are revitalizing the global church.

Secondly, Muslim nations are also going through paradigm shifts of historic proportions beginning with the dissolution of the Caliphate by Ataturk in the early 20th century. Since then, Muslim nation states have battled to gain independence, cast off occupiers, and fought among themselves. An attempt to resurrect the Caliphate has failed. Though the Arab Spring has faded, the yearning of the Arab youth remains unrequited. Regressive religious movements compete against a global media incursion bringing societal tensions to a boiling point. Sunnism and Shiism are increasingly at odds. In the midst of it all, Muslim clerics voice their opposition to militant and Salafist (reformist) expressions of faith, even inviting Christians into a dialogue centered on the two great commandments of Jesus (A Common Word)! In today’s Muslim world, it appears the only thing that is constant is change itself.

Third, there appears to be a unique response to Christ’s gospel by Muslim peoples in diverse settings. David Garrison’s A Wind in the House of Islam documents movements of new followers of Jesus in the Muslim world. In historical terms, these kingdom movements of simple, reproducing churches are unprecedented. It may be the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the gospel’s spread to the nations.

Though the critique of the history of “mission” should be heard and heeded, it is not time to withdraw from the arena of global witness to Christ. As a conversation starter rather than a prescription, here are a few suggestions, condensed from a recent article, for a more positive way forward.

First, our witness must depoliticize, especially in the United States where evangelicalism’s current association with the far right of the political spectrum is disastrous. Caleb Hutcherson’s article on Christian nationalism strikes the right tone. A politicized expression of the faith pervades mission due to the predominance of US missionaries and media. Muslims see it as a new iteration of a Crusader mindset. Ultimate loyalty belongs only to the Kingdom of God inaugurated by Jesus. As we wait its consummation, we must resist uncritical affiliation with any earthly, political power.

Second, our witness must contextualize. It is unfortunate that a binary polemic concerning contextualization has arisen in relation to Bible translation (especially the familial phrases “Son of God” and “Father”). Superficial techniques employed by some expatriate mission practitioners have also discredited attempts to practice proper contextualization. Nevertheless, to bring the gospel to a new culture requires an awareness of the cultural trappings which necessarily attach to our gospel witness. Lesslie Newbigin was correct in saying that every expression of the gospel is “culturally conditioned.” With the incarnation as our model, our gospel will exclude some elements of the receiving culture and include others. We must walk with indigenous disciples as they discern, and assist us to understand, the Biblical balance in their culture.

Third, our witness must be integral or holistic. The priority of proclamation of the evangel and the planting of churches must remain central in our global witness.  Nevertheless, it must also integrate engagement with poverty, displacement, exploitation, discrimination, and myriad other injustices. Robert Woodberry’s research on the impact of “conversionary Protestant mission” demonstrates that a focus on evangelism has historically resulted in significant social amelioration, a fact that is also evident in the history of evangelical spiritual renewals.

Fourth, our witness must re-center the church. The sowing of gospel seed is intended to give birth to the local church which becomes the expression of Jesus’ kingdom in the new context. The church in the book of Acts was adaptive, meeting in Solomon’s portico (of the temple) and breaking bread from house to house. The professionalization of ministry including some expressions of mission impede the viral spread of the church. Paul’s method was to appoint elders in each city as he moved on to new urban centers. The challenge then is to provide adequate ongoing training for those appointed to ministry while entrusting them with the pastoral care of small, non-traditional, reproducing gatherings of new believers—churches.

Fifth, our witness must be in unity. Two aspects of this unity come to mind. The first is a global unity of the church. Westerners must join hands in reciprocity with non-Western witness. Implicitly, this requires releasing the reigns of fiscal control and other forms of dominance while ensuring accountability in mutuality. The second aspect is a serious attempt to repair the historical fragmentation of the church. It is a tall order, to be sure, but the reality that there is but one body of Christ must ever be before us. In the words of David Bosch, “the Church’s first missionary responsibility is not to change the world but to change herself” (Witness to the World, 246).

In summary, the critique of “mission” should be heard, and important changes need to be made. However, rather than returning home demoralized, we should learn the lessons and persevere in a humbler obedience to the Great Commission. That obedience must look different in the coming decades as we take stock of past mistakes and engage with an awareness of new global realities.

Mike is a Christian author and educator who spent most of his adult life in the Middle East and now lives in the U.S. More writings and presentations can be found on his personal website.

6 Comments

  1. Jim Mcakonney says:

    Mike, great article. The implications are global and maybe just as important, local in our understanding the life of the Church. Thanks for this!

  2. Jonathan Andrews says:

    Dear Mike
    Many thanks for this insightful and thoughtful contribution, I’d like to see continuing reflection and discussion on this subject.
    One observation made to me by a mission historian is that most conversion arises from near-culture encounters. So in Africa, yes probably Westerners introduced the faith, but the majority of the subsequent spread was by one group (tribe in a positive sense) telling their neighbors. The role of those of us from far (i.e. not near!) cultures is support roles, equipping indigenous peoples for witness.
    Another critique of the term mission is the use of the word in military and business contexts where it has a strong element of competition.
    My thanks again
    Jonathan

    • Mike Kuhn says:

      Hi Jonathan. That’s an interesting observation about conversions resulting from near-culture encounters. It corresponds to my observation and experience. And, yes, “mission” does carry, for many, connotations of business ventures and military operations. Unfortunately, our mission agencies have also adopted corporate nomenclature and values. We also use military terminology without sufficient consideration of the implications. I think this is done unconsciously, probably with the assumption that it is the most efficient way to operate. The current climate forces us to reconsider the way we talk about mission/witness and, hopefully, that will also lead to reform in the way we live our witness.

  3. Elias Ghazal says:

    Thanks for the healthy critique. I, too, was challenged by Makdisi’s book. How could Christians that played an instrumental role in spreading the good news across the Middle East, established many respectable institutions, and acted as a catalyst for the Arab Renaissance be at the root of so much damage?

    I find that the mission/missionary jargon pushes us to think of Christian witness as a calculated task that yields predictable results. It does not process human limitedness and shortcomings well. It leaves no room for God to exercise his grace and rework any situation for his glory.

    As a community of believers, we should continually examine our thoughts and actions in light of Scripture and against their impact on the ground. Thank you, Mike, for helping us do that in an encouraging manner.

    • Mike Kuhn says:

      Good to hear from you, Elias.
      Your point about mission jargon rings true with me. It took me quite a few years living outside my homeland to realize how much my power and privilege played into my witness in Muslim lands. Truth is, I’m still realizing that. Slogans like “finishing the task” or “a church for every people group in this generation” smacked of a corporate mindset powered by an economic engine. We often used military terminology such as “spiritual warfare” or “taking the territory” or “establishing a beachhead.” I was part of the community that employed the jargon, so this is a self-critique more than a critique of others. The point is, as you say, we used the language unaware of how unbecoming it was for a community that claims to follow a crucified Lord, that serves the other by dying to self, that offers self-giving love to the poorest and neediest of the world. I often think of the medieval monastic movement that spread the Christian faith across much of Asia through establishing monasteries along the silk road. Though much of their methodology strikes us as strange, they succeeded to incarnate the gospel by living as an integral part of the community, producing food for themselves and others, offering services to those outside their walls and inviting others to engage in their communal prayers. Maybe an historical perspective can teach us to be suspect of our contemporary methodologies.

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