Monday, December 27, 2010

Vinoth on 'real' missionaries and 'real' mission fields. And why I think he is wrong on both counts.

Vinoth Ramachandran recently blogged about his critical sentiment over the emphasized role of the "pastors or "fulltime" workers in para-church organization." He perceived such emphasis as a weakness of churches in general, the recent Lausanne Congress’ speakers in particular.

He sees this weakness as a cause of the mistaken notion of polarizing and prioritising between the verbal preaching of the gospel and Christian social work:
"All the plenary speakers at the Congress were either pastors or "fulltime" workers in para-church organizations. They are not representative of the vast majority of Christians around the world who serve God as artists, engineers, lawyers, farmers, mechanics, biologists and a host of other "secular" occupations. They are the real "missionaries" of the Church, engaging with non-Christians on a daily basis, and whose work raises ethical issues that are at the cutting-edge of mission. As long as their voice is marginalized at such conferences, we shall continue to have such meaningless debates about "priorities"."

We see clearly here that Vinoth thinks that the Christians in "secular" workforce are "real" while the "pastors or "fulltime" workers" are less-real in term of carrying out God’s mission in the world.

In an earlier post, Vinoth wrote about this same point in his reflection on the Edinburgh 2010 conference:
"Perhaps the most divisive barrier we face is the one between pastors/clergy and the rest of us so-called "laity". All the speakers who addressed us during this conference were Bishops and senior pastors, seminary professors or leaders of Christian institutions. This perpetuates the massive "blind spot" concerning mission in our churches. Surely the primary way the church impacts the world is through the daily work of Christian men and women in offices, schools, factories, village councils, research laboratories, company board rooms, and so on. These are the contemporary sites of Christian mission." (Emphasis added)

Here, Vinoth identifies himself as part of the "laity", the group that is at the real mission field.

Three observations here:

First, to Vinoth, everyone who are serving fulltime in church or para-church organization are less-real missionaries as compared to the laity because they are not impacting the real mission field (the "offices, schools, factories, village councils, research laboratories, company board rooms, and so on").

Second, as reflected in the first point, we know that Vinoth assumes that there is a clear distinction between the real mission fields and the less-real ones. Therefore those who serve in the real mission fields are the real missionaries, while those pastors and fulltime workers are less-real missionaries.

Third, as reflected in the second point, Vinoth assumes that he knows who are the real Christians and who are not the real Christians. Therefore those "Christian men and women in offices, schools, factories, village councils, research laboratories, company board rooms, and so on" are the real ones. They all have their theology, personal struggles and issues sorted out, and are always ready to impact the world in the 'real' mission fields. While those Christian "pastor and fulltime workers" are not 'real' Christians because they still have not sort out their theology, personal struggles and issues (such as they have no idea where is the "real" mission field). The 'realness' of the missionary work is dependent on the 'realness' of the mission field.

My critique on Vinoth’s critiques is simply on the third point which grounds his second point, of which grounds his first point.

Vinoth’s clear distinction between those who are the real Christians and those who are not is highly questionable. No one knows for sure, according to the Parable of the Weeds (Matthew 13). Until Christ comes back again, we will always have the weeds and the wheat together. Augustine has expounded this in his City of God, Book 18.

That means the churches will always have weeds, that is the non-Christians who profess to be Christians, around. This applies to both the clergy as well as the laity. Therefore the internal politics at some churches are as challenging as secular organizations, if not worse. And there are laities who profess to be Christians but behave like pagans out there.

In a world where weeds and wheat cannot be distinguished, how then can we say that those who work in the churches are not facing issues that are common in the secular organizations? I have heard pastors and fulltime workers who said that their office politics are exactly like the secular workforce. I have heard of professing Christians who have indulged in nonsense like non-Christians in their offices, schools, factories, village councils, research laboratories, company board rooms, and so on. There are even clergies who do all kind of nonsense within the churches!

Vinoth highlights only those laities, like John R. Mott, who did great missionary works. But such an one-sided view seems more likely invoked just to elevate himself (a laity) as superior (more real) than pastors and fulltime workers.

The fact that he negates the highlights of those in the latter group who contributed as much as, if not more than, laity in missionary works is telling. It is too short-sighted of him if he couldn't think of any. Or, Vinoth has an inferiority complex or some sort of ego problem where he constantly need to justify himself, a non-clergy, as more superior than clergy so that he is in the position to teach the clergy since they are less-real?

Perhaps, Vinoth has not yet come across these situations. If that is the case, then it is not Vinoth’s fault that he came to such an incorrect perception about the world and missiology.

In such a world, the churches and the rest of the world is a mission field, where missionaries are needed to constantly reach out to people regardless of those who profess to be Christians or not. We need missionaries to reach out to missionaries in many cases. Of course, to those who are already professing, the outreach to them is slightly different from those who have not. But the point is that there is no such thing as the secular world is the real mission field while the churches are less-real.

When we don't fall into Vinoth's mistaken category, we will have a clearer picture of God’s mission in the real world.

As for the prioritizing of preaching over social works, I think Vinoth is right that there should not be a hierarchy. But saying that this hierarchy is due to the inferior position of the "pastors and fulltime workers" as compared to the laities is unfounded. Both preaching and social works go hand-in-hand.

I am, like Vinoth, against (1) preaching without social works, and (2) social works without preaching. But the difference between us is that I think in certain context, prioritizing is needed to balance the two. For instance, in context of scenario (1), social works need to be prioritized, while in scenario (2) it's the other way around. These adjustments do not mean one is more important than the other, but to balance the two, making sure they go hand-in-hand.


Israel Lee said...

Really wise words in the last paragraph! ;-) Blessed Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Kar Yong said...

I think this discussion of the sacred-secular; clergy-laity divide has gone too far. While Vinoth may be reacting to this unhealthy and unbiblical dichotomy, I think he may have taken his debate to the extreme almost to the exclusion of the clergy/full-time worker. Let's not forget that whether one is a lawyer, accountant, politician, pastor, biblical scholar, theologian, seminary professor, one is still called by God to be in one's respective vocation to serve God. I still like Paul's body imagery in 1 Cor 12 - we need one another. Let's celebrate diversity in the body of Christ.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Israel, thank you for your interest in the post. Happy Christmas and Blessed New Year to you too! :-)

Hi Kar Yong, you are right that Vinoth is reacting by swinging to the other extreme. Not sure if all this while is he trying too hard to proof himself as more 'real' than clergy and fulltimers who went through formal theological training, which he does not.