“Why do we need to learn all this?”
It’s a question that many teachers dread hearing, and it set me off on a train of thought that has led, several months later, to this blog post.
Let me set the scene a little. I was teaching a small class of 10 Ugandan church leaders in a grass-roofed hut in a medium-sized theological seminary on the outskirts of Kampala, the capital city of Uganda in East Africa. It was a diploma course for final year students on ‘mission’. I had only 16 hours for the whole course, so every minute counted. And yet for 2 of those 16 hours here I was asking my students to spend 10 minutes each to present some issues for us to discuss and pray for any non-African country of their choice (using the dog-eared library copy of ‘Operation World’). If my memory serves me right that question was asked whilst one of the students led us in discussion about church unity in Bolivia.
This was the 3rd or 4th time I’d taught this course, but I’d never been asked that question before: “Why do we need to learn all this?” The question was a fair one, and was asked with sincerity and interest and with not a hint of rudeness (such a thing would be almost unheard of in this setting). After all, not one of my students in that hut had ever left Uganda. There is a very good chance that not one of them ever will. Some of them hadn’t even visited Kampala until coming to seminary. They were from poor, rural, African village communities, and that’s the context they would be ministering in for the rest of their lives. Why on earth did they need to worry about ecclesiological harmony in Bolivia?!
The answer that came to my mind that morning went something as follows: “If we have a small view of mission, we have a small view of God, and if we have a small view of God, we have a small view of mission”
Spend even a brief amount of time in this context and it’s clear that many church leaders in Uganda (not all) rarely consider Christian mission beyond the borders of their country, or even just the borders of their the tribe or village. There are many reasons for this, including an unhelpful legacy of British imperialism that has ingrained in some here that they are merely receivers of global mission, not senders or pray-ers. However I believe that one of the main reasons for this lack of focus on global mission in the Ugandan church is due to the theological residue of traditional religion. These traditional religious beliefs mostly taught (warning: severe but necessary generalisation coming up…) that The Divine was effectively a local being, interested only in that particularly tribe who he created and revealed himself to. Purely anecdotally, it seems that very few of these traditional deities had anything to say to any other tribe group. Uganda was characterised by small, local gods that apparently showed little interest at all in anything beyond the local.
Sometimes (and please note it was a wise old Ugandan pastor who first suggested this to me) it feels like the vestiges of this sort of thinking continue inside the church. The Biblical God has been transmogrified into a local deity, only interested in local issues and local people. Given that this is written just a few days before the British General Election, please allow a political analogy: In this way of thinking God is like a local MP who refuses to leave his constituency to enter Westminster and rule for the benefit of all.
And so what happens? Well, if God is reduced only to the local, then mission inevitably suffers. If God’s creation and God’s redemption are constructed as simply local actions, then over time our theological understanding becomes narrow. God becomes shrunken and reduced, and subconsciously mission becomes a fruitless and futile undertaking. If God’s reach doesn’t extend beyond our own physical and mental frontiers, then what’s the point of trying in mission? “If we have a small view of mission, we have a small view of God, and if we have a small view of God, we have a small view of mission” It’s a self-reinforcing downward spiral and it does great damage to our missiological drive and ultimately therefore the global fame of God.
“Why do we need to learn all this?” my students asked. Well I stood my ground! And I still do…my next students this term will again be prodded into discussing youth evangelism in Sweden and Bible translation in Papa New Guinea. Why? Because it is good for all of us to be reminded that our God is God over the whole Globe. You can walk over every square-inch of the planet without ever leaving his domains that he created and sent His Son to redeem. If the Lord Jesus truly is Lord of all, then we cannot sit back content only with local evangelism (good as that is). Our eyes must look upwards and outwards as we reflect the nature of our Global God in our own passionate commitment to seeing His fame spread globally.
In Isaiah 49 God the Father speaks to His Servant, who we know from Phillips’s evangelistic encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 is Jesus Christ himself. As the Father speaks to the Son, He says something that resonates with my students, and should do to all of us:
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6)
The Son is too magnificent, too worthy, too divine, too global, to be restrained to one particular people or place. His glory must burst out and spread across all localities around the world. A high view of Jesus Christ goes hand-in-hand with a high view of global mission. Where one is lacking, look closely and you’ll usually see the other lacking too. And of course the converse is true also. After all, whoever heard of a church that truly knew the Lord Jesus as He really is, and yet cared not a jot for proclaiming His greatness all over the world?!
And so let us each ask ourselves and our churches whether we, like God the Father, are utterly and absolutely convinced that the Lord Jesus is far, far too great to have anything other than a passionate zeal for seeing his name spread all over the earth.
And if we are, why not get praying with my students for Bolivian church unity!
Chris and Ros are working full time at Uganda Martyrs’ Seminary (UMS), Kampala, an Anglican theological training institution training men and women for ordained gospel ministry in the Anglican Church of Uganda. Chris is teaching systematic theology, New Testament, mission and practical theology courses. Ros is involved in pastoral care of female students and is a full-time mum. Chris and Ros also work as Sunday School co-ordinators in their local parish church.