A few years ago a student from another seminary attended I conference where I spoke. During a break he asked me a question: “Dr. Reid, how do you deal with the fact that professors of theology or Greek/Hebrew look down on professors of missions or evangelism?” I kindly replied that he obviously did not attend the school where I taught J. I teach at a school where the Great Commission is more than a rhetorical clause or a P.R. slogan. I have colleagues in New Testament, Old Testament, Theology, Ethics, and other disciplines who regularly share their faith. I have never faced condescension by colleagues because of my field. On the contrary, I just finished a book on evangelism with ethics professor Mark Liederbach entitled The Convergent Church: Missional Worship in an Emerging Culture (release date January 2009). Yes, an evangelism professor trained in the history of awakenings and an ethicist trained as a theologian actually wrote a book together. Unheard of in my seminary days, but not unusual at all where I teach today. My dean and theology prof David Nelson is teaching a course this semester with missions prof (and philospher) Bruce Ashford which requires students to have an unchurched person/family in their home during the semester. Evangelism/missions hardly sits in the lap of the professors of those disciplines only.
But it is true that in most schools and circles of academia subjects like evangelism and missions are considered to be lower on the food chain of scholarship. And that has made an impact on the fulfillment of the Great Commission. That is not only true in higher education, but has filtered down to Christian schools and even to home schooling.
Oxford scholar Christopher Wright recalls his childhood when he attended great missionary conventions. There the walls were covered with banners declaring great missionary passages—Matthew 28:19–20; Isaiah 6; Acts 1:8; and so on. Those verses burned in his heart and mind a passion for the gospel. Something different happened when he attended Cambridge University to study theology. He found a serious disconnect between those passages from the missionary conventions and his theological studies, which ignored those texts. “Theology was all about God—what God was like, what God had said and done, and what mostly dead people had speculated on all three,” he observed. “Mission was about us, the living, and what we have been doing.” The two subjects never seemed to be linked.
In his significant book The Mission of God, Wright states that a chief reason this spiritual schizophrenia that splits theology and mission exists is because we do not read the Bible as a missiological text. He argues that we should speak less of a “biblical basis of missions” (as if the missional endeavor of the church was just one of many possible things the church can be involved in) and more of the “missional basis of the Bible.” This is a point worth pondering. Is mission one of a cafeteria of disciplines vying for the interest of ministers, scholars, and believers? Would we be right to, as some have done, make the telling of the news of redemption simply one compartmentalized part of the church, based on essentially one passage (Matthew 28:19-20), or is there more?
An Old Testament theologian, Wright states, “I wanted [my students] to see not just that the Bible contains a number of texts which happen to provide a rationale for missionary endeavor but that the whole Bible is itself a ‘missional’ phenomenon.” He adds, “The Bible renders to us the story of God’s mission through God’s people in their engagement with God’s world for the sake of the whole of God’s creation.”
Wright argues that the very hermeneutic by which we interpret the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, from creation to consummation, is mission. I think he is correct. So as we journey all too briefly through the Scriptures to see the place of evangelism in its pages, I believe the theme of redemption and the sharing of that theme is a hallmark of the Bible, not a few verses at the end of the Gospels.
Could be that the very way we have approached the Scriptures is part of our problem in regards to fulfilling the Great Commission? Could it be that the compartmentalization of our witness stems more from an institutional reading of the Word, rather than reading it as our guide for advancing the movement of God? As my friend Mark Liederbach and I put it in The Convergent Church, when the church fails to emphasize the missional thrust of its purpose, or does not connect it to the final end of glorifying God, “the result inevitably will be a loss of moral vigor, a decline in motivation for outreach, a gradual waning of passion through time, and often an increase of squabbling over nonessentials and divisions related to the trivial.” And I would add a bifurcation between theology and witness.
The Book of Genesis demonstrates our need for a Savior. The first question in the Bible demonstrates the evangelistic heart of God: “Adam, where are you?” From creation onward we see the missionary heart of God. These words from Mark Liederbach illustrates succinctly the importance of the whole Bible in understanding the Great Commission:
The Great Commission of Genesis 1:26–28 overlaps perfectly with the Great Commission of Christ in Matthew 28:18–20. The relationship with God through Christ is not only the reestablishing of the proper foundation of our personal lives but it also becomes the missional purpose of our life together and existence as the body of Christ. Every moment of our personal lives is meant to be a convergence of personal worship of the King and personal effort to expand his kingdom. Every moment of our life together as the body is meant to be a convergence of corporate worshipof the King and a communal effort to enjoy and expand his kingdom here and blossom in it in an ever increasing eternity of joy.
From Genesis, through the Pentateuch, the historical books, the prophets, indeed throughout the Old Testament, we see the redemptive plan of God unfolding. The New Testament unpacks the story in its fulfillment, as the promised Messiah comes to live, to die, to rise, to redeem. What difference would it make in your life if we read the Bible as a missional text? Perhaps that would help our congregations to become missional people.
When I taught at Houston Baptist University I taught Old Testament survey. I had the joy of leading several to Christ over my three years there from those courses. A young lady in her mid-twenties named Teresa caught me after class one day. I had been discussing Abraham and the beautiful story of redemption seen in his life, not to mention his life serving as an example of faith in both Romans and Galatians. She so wanted to know God like Abraham. What fun it was for me to explain the gospel much the way Paul did in Romans, using Abraham as Exhibit A. She was gloriously converted that day, and the missional posture of Scripture helped her see the wonder of the gospel.
We complain of compartmentalizing in the church today: we segregate families from each other, discipleship from evangelism, worship from daily life, and missions from anything other than overseas work. But do we also see the Scriptures from compartmentalized lenses? Do we minimize the Great Commission by making it only a few verses in the New Testament, when it may be central to the story of the Bible itself?
I am grateful to teach at a school whose credo is “every classroom a Great Commission classroom,” whose mission statement is gospel-focused: “Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary seeks to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ by equipping students to serve the church and fulfill the Great Commission.” Maybe that is why I keep running into so many very sharp young leaders who ask about our Dmin or other degrees. Or why so many I teach long to reach people in the hard places, from the 10/40 window to urban America. And maybe that is why I teach where I do, because the Great Commission is NOT the Great Suggestion.