A Missiology for the Academy (1): The University as an Unreached People Group

Located in the heart of modern Germany is a small town called Fritzlar, which was called Geismar during the middle ages. In the middle of Fritzlar stands an ancient stone cathedral, and at the front of the cathedral is a statue of a monk standing upon a tree stump, wielding a large axe. The statue depicts a Christian missionary monk Boniface, and the stump depicts the remains of the “Oak of Thor” which served as the spiritual power-center of the pagan religion of that day.

When Boniface arrived in Geismar in the early 8th century, he found that most Germans were pagans, and the few German Christians retained their involvement in spirit worship and magical arts even after they professed Christianity. He was convinced that if he were to “fell the tree of paganism” he would need to cut out its roots.

One day he traveled to the Oak of Thor with his axe in tow, surrounded by a crowd of pagans who mocked him, cursed him, and prayed for the pagan gods to intervene and destroy him as he sought to fell the tree. As the crowd looked on in horror, Boniface began chopping down the tree. According to some commentators, a strong wind helped Boniface finish the job. After he felled the oak, many local pagans converted to Christ. The word spread and soon thousands and eventually hundreds of thousands of Germans turned to Christ.

As I’ve reflected on this story over the years, I’ve come to see an analogy between Boniface’s task in his day and our task in the 21st century. Just as Boniface “took the battle to the front lines” by striking a blow to the Oak of Thor, so we must take the battle to the front lines by striking blows to the most deeply ingrained idols in our current contexts.

Boniface served as a missionary to an unreached people group—the Hessian Germans—and had the nerve to chop down their central idol as a way of showing that Christ is Lord. In like manner, we have an opportunity to reach an unreached people group—the Academy—and chop down many of the idols that flourish in its environment.[1] The University is a teeming ecosystem of idolatry, providing a lush environment in which students may cultivate an inordinate love for sex, money, power, success, and the approval of man. These types of idols exist in a co-dependent relationship and foster the “isms” that dishonor God and disable human flourishing—isms such as consumerism, relativism, eroticism, naturalism, and scientism.

During the 20th century, the evangelical world at large abdicated its responsibility to the Academy. Although we started some fine Christian institutions, we mostly ignored the need to shape the professorate and the curriculum at major state universities and private colleges. As a result, we have little hand in shaping what is perhaps the most influential sector of American society and of many global societies. While state universities and influential private universities are busy shaping the minds and hearts of young people across the globe, evangelicals have been largely absent.

If evangelicals wish to be faithful to our Lord in the 21st century, we must find ways to proclaim him with our lips and promote him with our lives in university contexts, both here in the West and around the globe. Why do the universities matter for the Christian mission? Over the course of the next two installments, I will argue that they should matter because of (1) the universality of Christ’s Lordship; (2) the powerful influence of the university; (3) the readily receptive mindset of university students; (4) the breadth of Christ’s atonement; and (5) the danger of “split-level Christianity.” Finally, (6) I will provide three suggestions for action.

[1] The university is not a “people group” in the social scientific sense of the world, or in the normal missiological sense of the word. For this present blogpost, I use the phrase as a simile and a metaphor, taking the phrase out of its normal context and applying it in a new context (the university) in order to draw attention to our need to build a missiology for the academy.


Insider Movements and Theological Method

This past week, I posted a book notice about Doug Coleman’s fine new book, A Theological Analysis of the Insider’s Movement.[1] Because the book notice prompted some vigorous discussion, I thought it might be helpful to post an excerpt from an essay I am writing on theological method. In the essay, I try to show how significant one’s theological method is for ministry and mission in general. In the excerpted portion, below, I try to show how a healthy theological method could help correct some of the missteps of IM proponents.

“In recent days, missiologists and missionaries have become aware of ‘Insider Movements,’ which represent a new phenomenon and a new strategy in Muslim evangelism.[2] Insider Movements (IM) are movements within the Muslim world in which Muslim background believers choose to remain within Islam as a means of reaching Muslims. Some of them acknowledge Christ as their Savior only privately. IM proponents argue that this type of contextualization allows the convert to overcome significant barriers in order to incarnate like Jesus and Paul. Further, they argue that Christ does not require a convert to change his cultural identity or religion, and that the convert is free to reinterpret passages of the Qur’an so that he doesn’t have to renounce it as a whole. In addition, many IM proponents seem to see Islam as similar to OT Judaism and therefore not inherently opposed to the gospel.

We believe that IM strategy is fundamentally flawed for various reasons, but for now we will seek to show why theological method matters in adjudicating this issue. As we see it, the fundamental methodological flaw in many IM advocate’s strategy is their starting point-the existential reality of a Muslim background believer. IM proponents appear to begin with the lived existential tensions of being a convert in a Muslim context. In such environments, there are many barriers, including the strong aversion to “changing religions,” which is tantamount in those cultures to changing ones ethnic, national, and familial identity. Further these environments are also persecution-heavy, a convert faces the very real possibility of losing his job and family and perhaps even his life. Proceeding from such a difficult starting point, some IM proponents find a way to those converts. In order to do so, some IM proponents hold to an overly privatized and reductionist view of salvation in which a person gives mental assent to Christ as Savior, but does not fully embrace or implement the doctrines of repentance and Lordship. Second, some IM proponents do not recognize the importance of the redeemed community for the working out of one’s salvation (although others, such as Kevin Higgins, strongly emphasize the role of believing communities meeting together separate from the mosque for the purpose of Christian community and discipleship). Third many IM advocates misunderstand Islam, which exists as a religion custom-built to subvert and overthrow Trinitarian Christianity. Its Aryan Jesus and its doctrines of tawhid and shirk make clear that the worst possible sin for a Muslim is to believe in the Christian doctrines of Trinity and Incarnation. In sum, these three doctrinal missteps occurred in part because of a flawed theological starting point-the existential reality of Muslim converts.

We argue that if IM proponents began with the entire canon of Scripture as their starting point, and took into account what can be learned from church history, they would arrive at a different conclusion while still caring deeply for, and being sensitive to, the existential burdens and challenges facing converts in a Muslim context. In taking into account the entire biblical teaching, we respond to the first misstep by offering the biblical teaching concerning Christ’s Lordship (Col. 1:13-23) and the necessity of human repentance (2 Pet 3:9; Lk 14:25-33). Indeed, believers in any global religious context must turn their backs on false saviors; they must repudiate tribal gods and witch doctors; they must reject their belief that the Qur’an is God’s revelation and that Muhammad is his prophet; they must cease to worship in spirit temples and ancestral shrines; they must turn their back on the worship of sex, money, power, and other metaphorical idols. This is a fundamental tenet of Christianity. We respond to the second misstep by offering a robust ecclesiology in which we are not only saved from our sins, but are saved for discipleship in the context of the believing community, a community that clearly distinguishes itself from other communities of worship. Indeed, God’s church is a sign of the kingdom and an instrument of the kingdom in a way that individual converts never can be (especially if those converts are still identifying themselves as Muslims and attending mosque services). The body of Christ, working together, bears robust and powerful witness to Christ. We respond to the third misstep by offering the biblical teaching on idolatry (Rom 1:14-32), in which Islam must be viewed as idolatrous and antithetical to Trinitarian Christianity and to the doctrines of grace.

One should note that the persecuted believers of the New Testament faced a similar situation in which they worshiped in the midst of rival religions. In particular, they found themselves in direct opposition to the cult of Caesar. Instead of blending in with the cult, they found appropriate ways to make clear their allegiance to Christ. They baptized, gathered together for worship, and refused to recognize Caesar as a god. Theirs was a faith which was forged the midst of strong Christian churches which clearly distinguished themselves from rival religious communities, such as the cult of Caesar. Although the (commendable) aim of IM proponents is to help new converts maintain familial and communal connections, IM unintentionally undermines the role of the church in nurturing faith, building community, and bearing witness to the kingdom, and it undermines the robust nature of the doctrine of salvation, which includes Lordship, repentance, and discipleship.

In summary, a healthy theological method recognizes the entire biblical canon and brings its full teaching to bear on any situation; further it allows the canon to be provide the framework and parameters in which we craft our ministry strategies, methods, and literature, rather than allowing a lived existential scenario to provide the framework and parameters.”

[1] For an exemplary biblical-theological assessment of the issues surrounding Insider Movements, see Doug Coleman, A Theological Analysis of the Insider Movement Paradigm from Four Perspectives: Theology of Religions, Revelation, Soteriology, and Ecclesiology, in the EMS Dissertation Series (WICU, 2011).

[2] For two insider descriptions of IM, see Kevin Higgins, “The Key to Insider Movements: The ‘Devoted’s’ of Acts,” IJFM 21 (Winter 2004): 155, and Rebecca Lewis, “Promoting Movements to Christ within Natural Communities,” IJFM 24 (Summer 2007): 75. IM advocates note that some IM believers have indeed been killed for their bold witness.mobile game online rpg

Idolatry in the Pentateuch

For pastors, seminary students, and scholars who find themselves studying the concept of idolatry and/or the Pentateuch, Southeastern prof Tracy McKenzie’s recently released Idolatry in the Pentateuch: An Innertextual Strategy is a helpful and informative read.

Idolatry in the Pentateuch lays the foundation for exploring a significant strategy within the composition of the Pentateuch: In the last days, God will provoke Israel to jealousy by embracing another nation-a Gentile nation!

In the book, McKenzie begins with a concise history of interpretation and the state of Old Testament studies. He addresses both the manner in which the Pentateuch was produced and how theological intentions can be discerned from the its texts. Next, he reads the final shape of the Pentateuch, using a compositional approach to interpretation, while also keeping an eye on the diachronic complexities within its pages. Finally, he analyzes several idolatry-related texts and traces the theological intentions through an inner-textual compositional strategy.