The Rise, Reduction, and Recovery of Kingdom Mission (Part 2 of 2)

Winter reminds us that “the First Era” of Protestant missions (from 1800 to 1910) was “Kingdom Mission” focused, as the wonderful first chapter of The Legacy of William Carey by Ruth and Vishal Mangalwadi so powerfully illustrates. The “Second Era” (from 1865 to 1980) “introduced a distinct polarization between those concerned about personal salvation and those eager to see “the Kingdom come on earth.”

Winter’s insights on the causes of this shift are one of the more fascinating aspects of the paper. In the First Era, evangelicals were prominent amongst the cultural elite. For example, the founders of Yale, Harvard, and other Ivy League universities were Christians with a distinctly Kingdom Mission commitment. The Second Era, however, was characterized by a waning number of Evangelicals among the ranks of the cultural elite, replaced by those with a decidedly secular worldview. According to Winter,

“The limited influence of Evangelicals in the professions, universities and civil governments in the United States tended to prevent these Evangelicals from spawning expansive ideas about changing the world. Alternatively, they developed detailed concepts of Biblical prophecy, the “end times,” the return of Christ and the Millennium, and tended to de-emphasize, almost to the point of total exclusion, ideas of social reform in the here and now. Among them even the word Kingdom was for years suspect as evidence of “liberal” thinking.”

John Nelson Darby’s highly influential “dispensational theology” involved a “secret rapture” that removed believers from a hopeless world, a perspective championed by Hal Lindsay (among others) and his Late, Great Planet Earth.

Winter links this growing evangelical pessimism with a larger mood of pessimism that was growing in the West during this same period —essentially a sanctified version of secular pessimism. The Enlightenment project of the late 18thcentury had great hopes for the ultimate perfectibility of human society through reason, technology, and science, but this hope was dashed during the course of the 20th century, victim of a string of tragic events starting with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and continuing through the First and Second World Wars, the Great Depression, and the Cold War. This loss of hope gave rise to nihilism, existentialism, and today’s postmodernism.  This same pessimism and loss of hope in reforming society began to characterize evangelical missions during the Second Era. Saving people out of the world (likened by D.L. Moody to a “sinking ship”) became the priority.

Today, we are, according to Winter, in the “Third Era” (1935 to present) which is marked by a halting, unsteady, yet definite recovery of Kingdom Mission. He cites three early leaders of this recovery. The first is Carl F.H. Henry, who in 1947 came out with his historic The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism and later founded Christianity Today magazine. The Second is Professor Timothy Smith who in 1957, produced his pivotal Revivalism and Social Reform; and finally, Professor David O. Moberg, who produced a book titled The Great Reversal in 1967, which detailed the decline of Kingdom Mission.

In this Third Era, Winter sees “a better understanding of the earlier, somewhat artificial and damaging polarization between Church Mission and Kingdom Mission.” He then urges that we not be “defeated by pendulum swings between the two poles.” This better understanding sees

“The 40-hour week of lay people (beyond evangelism on the job) as a sacred calling. Could not lay people deliberately choose a different career based not on its salary level but on its strategic contribution to the will of God on earth? Many urgent problems and evils still cry out for solution, but are often totally outside the theological box of those who are content with Church Mission.  But when every believer is expected to be consciously and deliberately “in mission,” does that then mean nothing is mission? No, it just means that there are different types of mission. There will always be the fearsomely difficult cross-cultural pioneer missions. But those of us who have been championing that as the highest priority have not power to restrict the world mission to that urgent type of mission.”

The last two sentences are a fascinating confession from one of the great leaders of missions in the late 20th century.

The recovery of Kingdom Mission has profoundly influenced the DNA, as is evident in our Core Beliefs, and also accounts for the surprising interest in our teaching and messages worldwide.  For us, the rejection of pessimism and the recovery of hope – hope for “substantial healing in all areas that were affected by the Fall” (in the famous words of Francis Schaeffer, himself a key figure in the recovery of Kingdom Mission) – is a source of incredible excitement and energy.

-Scott D. Allen

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About disciplenations

Equipping the Church to transform the world
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