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Jesus' mission or Maslow's needs?

by Jaynan Clark Egland (WordAlone president)

April 4, 2008

photo of Pastor Jaynan Clark EglandIt doesn't take too long or too deep a study into human psychology, sociology, anthropology or any of the other studies of human beings and their basic needs and desires before one realizes that there is a plethora of opinions out there regarding human behavior and what drives us.

Maslow set up an entire hierarchy of needs. Freud seemed a bit obsessed by our sexual needs. Skinner understood much of our behavior to be conditioned. All, however, acknowledged that there are basic human needs that drive an individual and are necessarily met if one is to survive.

Agreeing on whose list is best is not important nor is the order of needs primary for my question to be asked: Is the church's mission defined as meeting the basic needs of the individual or is there something more specific, a different—even higher—calling that defines the work of the church and sets out it's very reason for being?

Is a social agenda that defines the gospel in terms of justice and rights and development the basic mission of the church?

These are not hypothetical questions asked to amuse or infuriate, these questions and how they are answered determine and already have determined the meaning of the word "mission" across the institutional churches. How denominational leaders answer these questions reveals their basic understanding of missionary work and what evangelism is, what mission outreach is and who is sent out to do what for whom and where.

In other words, if one decides that the "greater" commission of the church is not the "Great Commission" of Jesus that sends us out to make disciples, baptizing and teaching in his name but rather it is to feed, clothe and build up, then there is a major problem.

Practically speaking, we have the people in the pews funding through their offering dollars a mission program that they believe exists to evangelize the unbelieving world and bring one person at a time the story of Jesus so He can give them the gifts of forgiveness and life eternal.

The people in the pews probably know that a mission program also is concerned that the persons the missionaries are reaching aren't physically starving, have access to clean water and other basic needs. However, the people in the pews still believe the primary mission of the church is to tell the story, Jesus' story. After all, it has been referred to as "The Greatest Story Ever Told" but many are surprised when they find out that actually telling it has been cited in more than one denomination as not necessarily the proper thing to do in some cultures and contexts, and, in fact, telling the story is no longer considered the primary mission work of the church.

How did this happen?

Years ago, when the merger that birthed the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was happening, I was serving in Tanzania, East Africa, as a missionary among the Maasai. I was sent, as many others before me, to tell the story, to start churches and to make disciples through baptism, preaching and teaching. At the time of the merger the news came that the ELCA was changing the paradigm for mission work. Instead of evangelism's being the primary mission work, we were now going to engage primarily in the ministry of "accompaniment." You can read about it:

The primary mission positions to now be filled were jobs such as teachers, counselors, accountants, computer consultants, community developers and health care workers. Pastors and evangelists, one by one, retired or left the field, not to be replaced in many positions. In 1988 the ELCA churchwide budget funded 471 full-time missionaries in the field and the current number of the same classification of missionaries as the 471 is less than half that number.

Recognizing that Jesus himself was concerned about people's basic needs of being fed, clothed, given a drink, visited in prison and so on, we must not ignore those charitable works. But there are a number of corporations and non-government agencies that dedicate themselves to those charitable works and who want, need and deserve our support. Those agencies are set up to meet needs and many do it very well and efficiently.

These same agencies are not called to name the name of Jesus, to make disciples or to teach the faith. Their primary calling is to serve basic human needs and care for those who have no voice. That is "their" primary mission. But, if the church adopts their mission as its primary mission, whose responsibility is it to tell the story? Who sends out the evangelists? Who spreads the Word and tells the story?

During the season of Advent, the Roman Catholic Church released an important document entitled, "Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization." In this document and in the notes from the press conference held Dec. 14, 2007 , the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church clearly rejected the notion that the primary mission of the church was to engage in a social gospel that was based on development work and the meeting of basic human needs. The document once again honored the "Great Commission" of Jesus that directs and even "commands" the church to engage in evangelism primarily.

The document confronts those who oppose evangelism about Jesus and say that it limits human freedom and is often intolerant of other ways of salvation. The Roman Catholics address in detail the anthropological, ecclesiological and ecumenical implications of the commitment to evangelize with the Good News in these times of relativism and religious pluralism.

Two different homilies of Pope Benedict XVI are quoted in the document, "The relativism and irenicism [seeking similarities in religions] prevalent today in the area of religion are not valid reasons for failing to respond to the difficult, but awe-inspiring commitment which belongs to the nature of the Church herself and is indeed the Church's 'primary task.'" And again, "Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel! (1 Cor 9:16; cf. Rom 10:14). Thus it is evident how every activity of the Church has an essential evangelizing dimension and must never be separated from the commitment to help all persons to meet Christ in faith, which is the primary objective of evangelization: 'Social issues and the Gospel are inseparable. When we bring people only knowledge, ability, technical competence and tools, we bring them too little.'"

To that and the "more" that the 13-page document states I say, "Amen." For even if I don't agree with all things regarding their views of the nature of the church and other items included even in that document, I express my sincere thanks to the Roman Catholic Church for holding the line on the true meaning of Christian mission and evangelism. My many evangelical catholic friends should enjoy reading my assent to this Roman Catholic statement.

This old Lutheran missionary is quite happy to align with the Roman Catholics on this issue of Gospel evangelism. For, to do otherwise is to dismiss the centrality of Jesus' commission "to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love." Rather we agree to tell the story as part of a band of Jesus' disciples, no matter the affiliation.