I began my ministry years ago with the notion that Adventist evangelism implied teaching Bible doctrines. After my first year of engaging people at this level, I realized something was amiss. I was ministering to a people who had heard only tidbits of the gospel story, yet I was attempting to engage them in Adventist theology. It dawned on me that I neglected to first address people’s misunderstanding of God and how they may connect to Him. I was schooled to teach the truth. My ministry experience, however, challenged this mission theology. In this article I would like to share my personal journey as I wrestled with what constitutes evangelism and what it means to communicate the gospel.
Mission’s missing link
The Bible declares that God created human beings in His “image” (Gen. 1:26). “When Adam came from the Creator’s hand, he bore, in his physical, mental, and spiritual nature, a likeness to his Maker. . . . Face-to-face, heart-to-heart communion with his Maker was his high privilege. Had he remained loyal to God, all this would have been his forever.”1 This “image of God” enabled our first parents to be in community with Him, to live in a harmonious and loving relationship, and connect closely with the Creator. Although the image was marred by sin, the connection between God and humanity cannot be fully obliterated.
However, when humanity separated from God, the peaceful community was interrupted (Gen. 3). Indeed, there came a spiritual void in the original community established at Eden. Humans seek to fill this void, and their search is conditioned by their social and cultural patterns. To the extent those patterns are defective and far removed from biblical pattern, the connection with God remains a bridge too far away. Lack of connection and community with God leads to a more difficult journey in understanding God. This is the theological tension in which Christian missions have to operate.
For example, some societies perceive God as entirely the other, far removed from where society is. Such a concept may reflect the hierarchical structure of the society where one can approach someone in authority only through a known intermediary. Even children cannot approach their father freely and without fear, and they often make their wants known through an intermediary. Such a posture is transferred to a relationship with the Creator God. He is perceived as approachable only through a mediator known to the family. I discovered this peculiarity while working with the Himba tribe found in northern Namibia and southern Angola. They are largely nomadic herdsmen. They acknowledge the Creator God but believe Him to be approachable only through a spirit being. Thus, a family ancestor becomes the mediator. One author refers to these mediator ancestors as the spirit of the dead.2 Being known to the family and trusted, the spirit is able to best represent the family to God.3 Mission to the Himba must, therefore, lead to a true link with God that will restore their community with Him. He is a God who longs to live with them.
Paul Hiebert suggests another example, drawn from modern anthropological trends that characterize some people groups.4 This modernity emphasizes individuality within a group (or subgroup). Although subgroups may be formed and remain active, the focus is on the individual and whether his or her needs are important. If individuals are not served at their level, they will leave and find another group. Thus, an unspoken contract is entered between group members. This understanding of the world is often transferred to a relationship with God. They “allow” God to be in their lives for “personal gain.” When their desires or needs are not met, they withdraw from God. That is to say, people expect God to be always the source of meaning and victory in their lives. If that does not happen, God has broken the contract. This contract cannot fill the void in their lives any more than an ancestor intermediary can.
What can we learn from these two examples? Primarily this: our humanity has this innate desire to connect with the Creator. Yet our propensity is to distance ourselves from Him. This paradox wars within us as we wrestle in our daily decisions. We are incomplete without a connection to God but do not realize this connection will fill the void.
Jesus our Example
Jesus understood the need to connect people with God. The purpose of His ministry was captured in these words: “ ‘I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world’ ” (John 17:6).5 His task was to reveal the person of God to the world. He accomplished this through various methods; He taught, preached, and healed. In each method He took time to focus on the individual rather than the masses. Ellen White states that when He spoke to the crowds, He always addressed the individual in the crowd.6 He wanted to complete their humanity. He took time to be with them. He listened to their heart-cry and invited them into a new relationship with God. He desired to help them see that God is present. He connected with each person. People, in turn, shared with their network their experience. The mercy and grace they received from Jesus illustrated God’s desire to connect.
Consider two instances from the ministry of Jesus. The demon-possessed man of the Gerasenes (Mark 5:1–20) lived among the tombs, and he felt isolated and alone. The isolation from society resembled his disconnect from God. Banished from society, he felt the full wrath of God, or so he thought. Perhaps he did something to anger God? The separation from family and his childhood friends gnawed at him. How could he be reunited with society and God again? It was not his choice to live among the tombs. Neither was it his choice to do the things he was doing, for there was a power that controlled him. Then he met Jesus.
Jesus met this man calmly. He was not flustered by his anger or insults. Notice in the passage how he harassed people, but Jesus would not be harassed. Jesus saw the man. He would not allow the demon to distract him. The demon recognized that One with authority was present and appealed to Him not to destroy him. In casting out the demon, Jesus was saying to the man, God wants you to be part of His family. Jesus not only restored peace to the man’s life but connected him with God. This enabled him to reunite with society. He also experienced reunion with God. It is this experience of restoration with God that he takes throughout the Decapolis.
A second example is the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1–10). This story is very different from that of the demon-possessed man. Zacchaeus was rich and powerful but had a questionable life and lifestyle. Zacchaeus heard about Jesus and admired His simple lifestyle. He heard the manner in which He served and treated people. He knew Jesus as a well-respected religious teacher whose teachings and miracles were known throughout Palestine. So, Zacchaeus wanted to meet Jesus. To his astonishment, Jesus desired to visit him at his home. Notice that Jesus was not ashamed to associate with this despised man. We do not have the conversation between Jesus and Zacchaeus, but we can imagine that they talked about economics. In God’s understanding of economics, giving is a core value, for in giving one receives (Acts 20:35), and in treating people honestly, an increase will be realized. These principles of economics may have been discussed at length. Zacchaeus learned that in giving he was receiving. He was giving not to receive the blessing but that he may be the instrument of the blessing. This was a paradigm shift for Zacchaeus. The fact that Jesus took time to be with him and talk to him helped him realize God is magnanimous. For him to experience such a magnanimous God implied that he needed to show generosity. In connecting with God, Zacchaeus was reunited with his community. Herein is our humanity made complete—where we find true peace.
Doing God’s mission in the twenty-first century
To do God’s mission, at home or abroad, it is vital to know the goal. The goal defines who we are, what we do, and how we plan to do it. The book of Revelation defines the final eschatological goal: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people’ ” (Rev. 21:3). Here the goal is God dwelling with His people. This suggests that the goal of our mission is to ensure people understand God’s desire to be present with us. He wants a relationship that will develop and grow to the point where He can meet face-to-face with us. This is important to us as Seventh-day Adventists—we are Adventists in that we anticipate that Christ will come soon to dwell with us; and we believe in the Sabbath that we experience now and will experience forever when He returns. That is, we show that God has come to be part of our lives today. No matter our circumstance, He is present now and He will be with us through eternity. There is that permanent connection with God.
The mission task assigned to us today, therefore, is no different from that assigned to Jesus. We are to reveal God as being One with all people. He is present with the urban person and the rural person. He connects with the healthy and the physically ailing. He is the God who calls Himself Immanuel; that is, He is with us in all our circumstances. No situation exists that He will not step into and be involved. He is present. Hence the psalmist says, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1).
Serving the Himba was a transforming experience to me. Initially, I focused on teaching doctrines, for I wanted to improve their Bible knowledge. However, God spoke to me and helped me understand that this is not what His people need. Being a student of mission, I tried to contextualize the message of salvation. Being an outsider,
I struggled with this because I had little knowledge about being Himba. I grew up in a city. I was now living among seminomadic farmers (cattle rangers). They are always on the move, seeking grazing and water for the animals.7 Upon my arrival, I was cross-examined. One of the first questions I encountered was, “How many farms do you have?” I did not understand the significance of this question until years later. I thought of this question in terms of wealth. But the Himba were curious to know whether I could speak to their circumstances. They understood far more about my mission than I did. My training focused on disseminating information, sharing the truth. I spoke about the Trinity, the Bible as the Word of God; I spoke about a day of worship, and other topics. These are theological topics that are unrelated to their nomadism. I was not addressing their questions. They needed to know about a God who is present with them as they travel and face the many dangers of the wilderness.
The biblical story that jolted my mission understanding was the story of God meeting Moses at the burning bush (Exod. 3). In this story I learned numerous mission principles. Two are significant: God has a special name He calls Himself, “I AM.” In this name God demonstrates His desire to be with people. That is, He wants to incarnate Himself into each human circumstance. He is not a distant God or One who is uninvolved in our circumstances. He desires to be involved in our daily lives. He wants to commune with us.
The second principle I discovered is that God commissions Moses to rescue Israel from Egypt for the purpose of bringing them to a place of worship. That is, He desires them to enter His very presence. This is later symbolically represented by the tent of meeting (Exod. 25). God wants to establish a connection, not only in our lives; He desires that we connect with Him in worship. Thus, the relationship we establish with God is an intertwining one. God wants to be present with us and desires us to be in His presence. Thus, mission consists of preparing people to be with God in worship.
The Sabbath is a weekly reminder of both these principles. Raoul Dederen proposed that the Sabbath affirms our connection to God—a time when we can recognize His presence in our lives and worship Him. The Sabbath is God’s invitation to all people to “participate in his rest.” 8 “God has come into man’s world and he has come to stay.”9 Thus, the Sabbath is a symbol of our reestablishing community with Him.
Even though mission is so often perceived as taking place in a foreign land, Jesus’ ministry demonstrates that people everywhere need to connect with God at a personal level. And they need to experience God connecting with them. Living among a nomadic people, I needed to understand what it meant for God to be present among nomads. I needed to live a nomadic lifestyle (as best an outsider could) so I could know how best to reveal God’s way of being with a nomad, modeling how God can be present as they travel from pasture to pasture. That God is beside them as they face life. I needed to help them worship God under the tree, around the fire at night, and as they walked the dusty cattle tracks. The foundation of Christ’s ministry was that to be fully human, we need to be connected to God. The image of God must be restored in each person. I needed to help them embrace God so that His image could be restored in them and they could be truly themselves. In doing this, I was preparing the Himba to live with God today and into eternity. That, I believe, shows what God sent me to do—to prepare people to live in His presence.
1 Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1952), 15.
2 John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (New York: Anchor Books, 1969).
3 H. G. Luttig, The Religious System and Social Organization of the Herero: A Study in Bantu Culture (Utrecht, Netherlands: Kemink, 1934).
4 Paul G. Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008).
5 All Scripture passages, unless otherwise stated, are from the English Standard Version.
6 White, Education, 231.
7 David J. Phillips, Peoples on the Move: Introducing the Nomads of the World (Carlisle, UK: Piquant, 2001).
8 Raoul Dederen, “Reflections on the Theology of the Sabbath,” in The Sabbath in Scripture and History, ed. Kenneth A. Strand (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1982), 295–306.