If you want to start a fight among missionaries, start discussing methodology. It makes sense. When you are dealing with a vision as precious as Revelation 7:9, most of us come to very strong convictions about how to best bring that vision to pass. But there are many pitfalls when it comes to missionary methodology.
1. Traditionalist: Methodology ends up being almost exactly what I saw done back home. VBS was effective in Ohio, so I will do it here.
2. Reactionary: Methodology is decided upon based on a reaction against traditional Christian and missionary methods. Whatever we choose, I know I don’t want it to look like 1950’s Christianity or missions.
3. Pragmatist: Methodology is discerned by what seems to work best. As long as I sign a doctrinal statement, then all methods are fair game.
4. Relativist: Methodology is based on the idea that all forms are neutral, therefore everything can be redeemed and filled with Christian meaning. Why not focus on the Christ “within Hinduism” and work for followers of Jesus that stay within Hinduism?
5. Silver-Bullet: Methodology is chosen based on what is currently popular in missiology circles. If the research claims it led to 700,000 new churches in that other country, then of course, let’s adopt it for our people group as well.
6. Pet Passage: Methodology is chosen based on one preferred passage of scripture to the exclusion of others. Jesus said taught his disciples a certain model and I don’t want to be against Jesus, so I’m not going to worry about when the apostles’ methods in Acts or the commands in the epistles seem to differ.
7. Biblicist Denial: Methodology is ignored in favor of focusing exclusively on doctrine and theological frameworks. If I have my biblical and theological ducks in a row, why do I need a methodology? Just preach the gospel!
Instead of falling into these traps, missionaries on the field need to work toward a proper orientation toward biblical methodology. This proper orientation admits that the Bible really does inform our methodology, though in diverse ways. Some methods are prescribed strictly, tied tightly to a biblical principle (e.g. the ordinances). Other methods are left more open, with a clear principle, but a much broader range of possible applications (e.g. eating meat or not, musical worship). All of scripture needs to be considered when discerning healthy methodology, not just certain parts. Genre also plays a crucial role in discerning how and if a certain text is to be prescribed.
Furthermore, this orientation admits that having a methodology is inescapable, whether we admit that we have one or not. Everyone has a way that they preach the gospel. Will we study the scriptures, our former contexts, and our new context to make sure that our methods are both biblical, contextual, and intentional?
To help myself get greater clarity on healthy methodology, I’ve written seven questions to assess the methods I use. Here they are:
1) What are the biblical commands and examples that inform this topic?
2) What is the biblical principle that holds true given a right interpretation of the sum of these commands and examples?
3) How specifically does the New Testament tie this principle to a certain form or method?
4) What are the ways this form or method has been faithfully applied in other contexts globally and historically?
5) What are the worldview and culture aspects of my focus people group/area that inform faithful applications or methods – positive or negative?
6) What is my default method and what is my plan for executing a faithful and contextual method as soon as I have the opportunity to do so?
7) How does the range of faithful application for this method inform my partnership with others? (e.g. is this a method to die for, divide for, debate for, or personally decide for?)
We don’t want to be broader than the scriptures when it comes to our methodology options. But neither do we want to be narrower. The goal should be a clear understanding of a biblical principle hand in hand with a clear view of its spectrum of application. When this is in place, we can then apply other filters, such as issues that are unique to our own people group or context. Crucially, we can also keep methodology in its proper place, rightly discerning whether or not a given issue is a hill to die on.
If your time on the field is anything like ours, you will be faced with methodological issues you never anticipated. Questions like the seven above can help us as we seek to avoid the pitfalls many missionaries can fall into. Further, they can help us be confident that the methodology we are using is actually biblical – and that is no small thing in the setbacks that tend to accompany pioneer church planting.