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"So what?"--Dutch responses to the new mission statement.

As a young mission enabler working with the board of mission of the Netherlands Reformed Church, I assisted numerous local mission committees in their efforts to reflect on the World Council of Churches' (WCC) 1982 affirmation on mission and evangelism. Many a committee did serious work to not only read the affirmation, but to integrate its content in the actual missional task at hand. Now, some thirty years later, a new official mission statement has been adopted by the WCC central committee. The landscape, both politically and ecclesiastically, has changed. This is also the case in the Netherlands. The debate about religion in the pubic square has gained surprisingly sharp edges, church membership is rapidly declining, congregations tend to focus on their survival, yet new missional initiatives are emerging as well.

How will Together towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes (TTL) be received by the wider constituency of churches and mission organizations? Looking at some early indicators, it appears that the reception of the new affirmation will be different from the welcome the 1982 statement received. The landscape has perhaps altered more than we realize, also in terms of the support for mission. It is likely therefore that many in the Netherlands will respond to the new affirmation with a brief "So what?"

That implies, of course, that an in-depth discussion of the mission statement is all the more necessary. The challenge will be to discover how the new affirmation is relevant for our local context and, vice versa, how the context gives colouration to the mission statement.

Discussing the new statement

The central question in this article is how Dutch churches and mission organizations have responded to TTL. The answer can at this moment only be tentative, as the mission statement has not yet been presented to the upcoming assembly and as only the first rounds of discussion have taken place. Yet the contours of the response are clearly visible. Let me write a few paragraphs about the engagement with the new mission statement thus far.

For the Netherlands Mission Council (NMC), the first phase of engaging with the new mission statement was co-authoring' "Churches in Ecumenical" Transition: Toward Multicultural Ministry and Mission," one of the seven preparatory study documents for TTL. (1) The process of drafting and discussing this study document in itself provided an excellent opportunity for NMC to reflect with its members (churches and mission organizations) on framing "new" ecumenical convictions on mission, from the perspective of multicultural ministries.

Secondly, NMC took initiative to discuss the eleventh draft of TTL during the yearly meeting of the European Ecumenical Mission Councils. During its three-day gathering in February 2012, in Bossey and Geneva, representatives of the councils talked at length about the paper with staff of the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME), Faith and Order, as well as Just and Inclusive Communities. The depth and quality of these conversations served as a good preparation for the third phase, namely discussing TTL with members of NMC and the Council of Churches in the Netherlands.

This was done on several occasions. In May 2012, two months after the CWME pre-assembly in Manila, the members of NMC discussed the draft of the mission statement in a plenary meeting. A year later, in April 2013, NMC organized another meeting about the mission statement in close cooperation with the Council of Churches in the Netherlands. Both meetings--attended by member churches, mission organizations, and pests--were lively and constructive.

For the meeting in April 2013, NMC prepared an integral Dutch translation of TTL. A reader-friendly introduction to the statement and guidelines for discussion were added. Comments by a selected group of readers were inserted in text boxes as direct and lively responses to the mission affirmations. This resulted in an 84-page booklet, which will be used in discussing TTL with local congregations.

Appraisal of the new statement

It is fair to say that Dutch churches appraise the new mission statement in a critical manner. The effort to redefine mission in a context of change, to provide an overview of ecumenical missional convictions and to redefine the work of the Spirit in mission is much appreciated. But TTL evoked critical responses as well. Louise Ho (missiologist and member of the Dutch Assemblies of God) and Ad van Nieuwpoort (pastor of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands) both critiqued the pneumatology in the mission statement. They welcomed the accent on the Spirit as such, but were critical of the "limping exegesis." Let me elaborate on these responses in some more detail.

Mrs. Ho (2) was encouraged by the way TTL shows the increasing recognition of the role of the Holy Spirit in the church and the world. As a Pentecostal she affirmed that life is a defining characteristic of God's nature and work. Yet she did not agree with the categorical assumption in TTL that life is "the core purpose and motivation of mission." Rather, she stated, life "is the consequence of the proclamation of the gospel, of belief in and discipleship of Jesus as the 'Son of God' (John 5:24; 20:31) as well as the result of people turning to God, reconciliation with Him, and the result of His continuing or redeeming love and grace," Mrs. Ho underscored the centrality of the restoration of the covenantal relationship with God: "The Scriptures clearly support the view that the heart of missions is the reconciliation and restoration of humankind's relationship with God our Creator from whom we are alienated as a consequence of the Fall." It is in "that covenantal relationship with Him that life in all dimensions is experienced and realized to its fullest potential."

She furthermore critiqued the document for its failure to make a qualitative distinction between spiritual life through the Holy Spirit and physical (human) life in the created order. She couldn't evade the feeling that TTL at times appears to ascribe to the Holy Spirit features that the Bible does not affirm, or, on the other hand, that important aspects of the work of the Spirit were not discussed in the mission statement. In this context she explicitly referred to key eschatological concepts, such as the purifying fire of the Spirit, in relation to judgment and the second coming of Christ.

Dr Ad van Nieuwpoort, during a joint meeting of NMC and the Council of Churches in April 2013, also specifically addressed the use of pneumatology in TTL. Speaking as a former missionary pastor in the posh business district of Amsterdam South, he reflected critically on the difficult distinction between Holy Spirit and our own spirit, asking: Do we know, biblically speaking, what the Spirit is? If not, it will be very hard to distinguish between Holy and other spirits. TTL suggests that the Spirit of the marginalized knows best what affirms or denies life. Does that then imply that wisdom from the margins is, per se, an uttering of the Holy Spirit of God?

In answering that question he stated that mission is deeply spiritual. It is sensitive to the leadings of the Spirit of life, while being rooted in the tradition of the synagogue and the Messianic movement. This tradition teaches that the Spirit is the one who spoke through the prophets and through scriptures. Word of God and Spirit of life go together. Distinguishing the Spirit therefore always implies returning to the scriptures, stated van Nieuwpoort, Listening to the voice of the marginalized--who indeed have a deep knowledge of what affirms or threatens life in its fullness--is necessary, but it is not enough. The gift of discernment is rooted in a continuum of investigating and rethinking the words of the prophets and apostles. Intense listening to scripture is the prerequisite, without which we cannot understand the yearnings of the Spirit of life.

Two concerns

From the Dutch perspective we would like to highlight two more issues that need careful consideration. This concerns firstly the missiological significance of TTL's prominent concept "life affirming," and secondly the absence in TTL of personnel in mission. I will briefly turn to these two issues before making some concluding remarks about TTL in comparison to the former 1982 mission statement.

Life affirming

The emphasis on life-affirming mission is of crucial significance for TTL. The mission statement claims that the Spirit of God is at work where life is affirmed and blossoms. As such the affirmation of life is a criterion to distinguish between the spirits of this world. It serves as an instrument to observe where God's Spirit is at work. The affirmation thereby also establishes a theological bridge between Christian faith, secular worldviews, indigenous religions, and wisdom traditions.

This instrument for discernment in mission is not found in the 1982 mission statement. Of course, the world missions conference of 1989 (San Antonio, U.S.) referred to this very issue, when it stated that Christians cannot point to any other way of salvation than Jesus Christ, but that they at the same time cannot put any limit to God's saving power. TTL provides a clearer idea of this unlimited saving power and relates it to the affirmation of life. It is in the affirmation of life that God's purpose to save us from death becomes visible.

This new criterion for discernment in TTL seems to have evoked little debate. Yet in Dutch responseS, many made clear that theologically, something significant is at stake here. Or to put it less mildly, a critical step has been taken without sufficient theological debate about its implications for mission. In the Dutch discourse some doubts were uttered whether this criterion is indeed an ecumenical conviction. They suspect that those who disagree on biblical and theological grounds may have simply overlooked the significance of this point or failed to raise their voice. Or should we conclude that doctrinal issues don't move the church masses any longer?

Missing missionaries

Secondly, concern has been expressed about the issue of personnel in mission. Why is a reference to missionaries absent in a total of 112 articles, with a possible exception of article 76, which refers to mission trips? In the mission statement the word "missionary" is frequently used, but only as an adjective, such as references to "missionary churches," a "missionary endeavour," and a "missionary God." While recognizing that mission is the task and responsibility of the local church, the simple fact that the number of "foreign missionaries" has risen from 240 000 in the 1970s to a surprising 426 000 in the year 2012 should be given due consideration. (3) The development as such deserves to be assessed theologically as well as practically, including some thoughts about sending countries, types of employment, finances involved, and developments in the partnerships of sending and receiving churches (or agencies).

An ecumenical mission statement that ignores this issue runs the risk of making itself irrelevant for mission praxis. The tens of thousands who are employed in missionary service, as well as the sending churches and their agencies, are in need of critical reflective accompaniment.

TTL and the 1982 statement

The new mission statement provides a wealth of observations, but it doesn't sum up what new insights we have gained since the 1982 affirmation and what this means for mission praxis. In the Dutch discourse on TTL this was somewhat regretted. Some wondered, for instance, whether the new pneumatological focus replaces the Christological approach of the 1982 statement. What is in the background of this new approach? If the new approach is complementary, how then do they converge? Others wonder why the new mission statement contains no significant reference to church planting, as was the case in the 1982 affirmation.

In the discussions about the new and the old mission statement, many references were made to the development of missionary thinking in the Netherlands. It may therefore be prudent to provide a few thoughts on these developments, as it is the background of the current responses to TLL. We will therefore look briefly at the "great Dutch debate" of the 1980s and the changed image of mission.

The Dutch debate on mission

As in surrounding countries, the 1970s and 1980s were a time of fierce debate between ecumenicals and evangelicals. Before the 1970s, those with an evangelical mission spirituality easily found their space within existing mission structures of the mainline churches. But the dissatisfaction of evangelicals with the vision and policies of mainline mission organizations led to the founding of the Evangelical Missionary Alliance (1973) and the Evangelical Alliance (1979). This must be understood as a significant and direct response to what was going on in the ecumenical movement. Evangelicals reacted against the consequences of WCC's merger with the International Missionary Council in 1961. In their understanding, from that point forward a more radical and revolutionary understanding of mission gained prominence. The path that was followed seemed to exclude traditional missionary work, with its emphasis on conversion and the call to discipleship. Evangelical Anglo-Saxon mission societies therefore found easy access through dissatisfied Dutch evangelicals. This created deep conflicts within existing mission organizations. The difference of opinion on how the missionary task should be fulfilled even at a national level led to a "schism" and the founding of evangelical alliances. This marked a decade of polarization.

In the Dutch setting, WCC's 1982 mission statement, with its clearly Christological perspective, provided the missiological framework that served as a valuable instrument in the dialogue between ecumenicals and evangelicals. Evangelicals clearly recognized the affirmation's emphasis on witness and could accept the well-known "double criterion" for authentic mission ([section] 34). In the late 1980s a breakthrough occurred when some evangelical mission societies unexpectedly requested membership in the ecumenical NMC. Guidelines for cooperation between evangelical and ecumenical societies were then established and are still in use.

Evangelical mission societies generally do not identify themselves with the theology contained in TTL. In spite of the biblical-theological emphasis on the Spirit in mission, and in spite of references to evangelical statements on mission, evangelicals search in vain for a clear Christological perspective to more easily identify with. A mission statement that would have incorporated clear references to personal conversion, repentance of sin, and Christ's saving grace, as was the case in the 1982 mission statement, would have resulted in more evangelical support for TTL.

Image of mission

The support for mission in Dutch society and in its churches has rapidly decreased since the publication of the 1982 mission statement. Since the early 1980s, the membership of the churches is diminishing rapidly. Last week, newspapers reported an announcement by the Protestant Church in the Netherlands that in the next five years cutbacks in personnel of up to 25 percent are to be expected. (4) The Protestant Theological University now offers a course called "After theism," as according to research one out of six Protestant pastors no longer believes in God. (5)

Political and financial support for development cooperation by Dutch non-governmental organizations is sharply decreasing. Severe cuts in government funding are visible and the co-financing scheme seems to have come to an end. This also affects diaconal work of the churches, as they have programmatic partnerships with Christian development organizations. Moreover, development organizations have experienced a loss of support in general society for "aiding" people in far-away regions. Some favour a new business approach: trade ethically in order to raise the well-being of others. Many feel that in a time of economic crisis and severe budget cuts, government funds for development cooperation should be used for domestic problems. In this context, the Dutch government recently decided that it would no longer uphold the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's 0.7 percent norm for development cooperation.

In the churches, contributions for foreign mission have decreased. Mission in the postmodern era has to fight the image, also in its congregations, that it makes people "un-free." At the same time, church officials call for a new articulation of the Christian identity. A gradual shift from supporting mission abroad to doing mission at home is visible. Entrepreneurial young pioneers experiment with new ways of being church and they create new Christian communities. Churches have developed a keen desire to witness to Christ in a society that is increasingly secular, yet becoming multicultural (and therefore multi-religious) at the same time.

It is this complex context that largely determines Dutch responses to TTL. Criticism is heard that TTL doesn't sufficiently address the changed landscape in the West and fails to instil a new vision. Others, however, are very thankful that there is a new ecumenical affirmation that unequivocally calls the churches to take their missional nature and task seriously.

At the end of this year, TTL will be presented to the churches. The cynic may say, "So what?" We prefer to say, "Now what?" The rich text of the mission statement urges us to identify the next step and to discuss how it challenges current mission praxis and thought.

Based upon discussions in the Netherlands, a word of advice for the presentation of the mission statement may be appropriate. The text of TTL is lengthy and some wonder how they can distinguish the missiological choices that were made. The content and structure of the text don't quite answer that. It is therefore recommended that CWME, in its guidelines for the use of the mission statement, will provide a clear indication of what is at stake in TTL, both in theology and in praxis of mission. What was the debate about and what choices were made in the text? That may help to identify the next step in the process and enable us to find the missional footprints of the God of life, justice, and peace.

(1) This study document was prepared by ENFORMM (Ecumenical Network for Multicultural Ministry), of which the author is a group member. The Study document was published in International Review of Mission 101:1 (2012), 170-194.

(2) Mrs. Louise Ho was invited to respond to TTL at the May 2012 meeting of the NMC.

(3) Christian World Database, 2012, Brill Leiden. See also International Bulletin of Missionary Research 1(2013), 33.

(4) Nederlands Dagblad, 26 April 2013.

(5) Nieuwsbrief PAO, PThU, May 2013.

Rev. Dr Gerrit Noort is the director of the Netherlands Mission Council.
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Author:Noort, Gerrit
Publication:International Review of Mission
Geographic Code:4EUNE
Date:Nov 1, 2013
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