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Shifting Narratives of Missions
The story is powerful
Happy July 4th.
Each year, when this time of the year rolls around, we are treated to news stories about waning patriotism in the US. It is probably true. I have observed that my adult children seem to have less of the patriotic attitude than I had at their age. There is massive shift going on in so many areas of our culture and patriotism is one of them. It is a fight over the narrative that governs our attitudes about history and the American experiment.
A similar narrative battle is being waged over our understanding of missions. Narratives have more power in the church, I believe, than they do in popular culture. We in the church infuse spirituality and righteousness into these narratives. They become morally powerful.
The current deconstruction of missions is attempting to unseat the ideas that Ralph Winter proposed in 1974. Winter suggested that the world was divided into discreet cultures which are the object of mission. He recast the focus of missions from nation states toward people groups. Furthermore, he suggested that the priority for missionaries should be on those cultures without a Christian presence. This “unreached people group” (UPG) focus has been the overriding paradigm of missions for the past fifty years.
The current deconstruction is working hard to disassemble this view of missions. Why? One reason is UPG missiology is the product of Western missiologists. Because there is a questing for non-Western missiology, the old must go. Detractors are also conflating the UPG paradigm with colonialism. Painting UPG missiology as "colonial / Western / enlightenment influenced / etc." is a powerful way to derail it in the hearts and minds of younger people. Probably the most damaging polemic is that Western missions is a product of “the doctrine of discovery” and tainted by white supremacy. Since UPG missiology is Western, it too is tainted with this original sin.
Yet, the narrative for UPG theology can be changed. It is pro-indigenous. At its core, UPG missiology sees culture as primary delimiter of the boundaries of the missionary challenge. It reflects issues of justice. Why should an entire culture be cut off from the Gospel while others have significant numbers of churches and missionaries? It preaches cultural sensitivity having given birth to contextualization, orality, and similar missiological emphases. It is inclusive, emphasizing the need for all UPGs to have a witnessing church.
Narratives matter and the UPG narrative needs a little help right now.