GENESIS 12: Mission with Clans Today

by David Edwards

One of the difficulties we face when we talk about mission is a tendency to think of people unlike us who live “over there” somewhere. This has its origin the KJV translation of the Bible, where in Matthew 28: 19 Jesus tells his followers to go and make disciples “of all nations”. The Greek is panta ta ethne and it is generally agreed that a better translation is “all people groups”. One of the reasons this was more apt for the days of Jesus is that the idea of nation state did not really exist. As we see from Acts 2:9f on the Day of Pentecost there were many peoples, but they would have been connected by region, ethnicity or culture, rather than a line on a map. In fact at that time the world was in transition, in places there was something we might recognize as civic society, whereas in others it was still very tribal, particularly at the edges of the Roman Empire.

From this it is possible to conclude that Jesus was certainly not thinking about mission in the way the church has tended to in the last few hundred years, since the days of von Zinzendorf and William Carey, where it is often seen as seeking to bring nations to Christ. Within any geo-political nation there are differing people groups held together in different ways and requiring different approaches in order to penetrate their culture with the Gospel.

In 1974 at the Lausanne Congress a seismic shift occurred in the understanding of mission, largely as a result of a paper by Dr. Ralph Winter. He challenged the idea of Gospel to the nations with the concept of bringing the Good News of the Kingdom to all people. This has led to a shift in the way mission is undertaken by overseas mission organizations, but has had little impact upon mission at home.

If we pull back the lens  further we may see a little more, Winter has only taken the argument so far, Genesis 12 : 3 leads to a deeper level. In that verse Abram is told that through him all the mishpachah, families or clans, of the adamah,, earth or ground, will be blessed. This is the seminal mission statement blessing  will come from this one man to all the people on the earth. We should note that this does not happen in large national groups, but families or clans; and it is for the people on the ground, which is very inclusive.

Winter is credited with coining the phrase “unreached people groups” and there is no doubt that he meant people from ethnic groups who have yet to hear the Gospel of Jesus in an understandable way. To that end he was thinking about overseas mission. Yet it is easily possible to identify many people who have yet to have received a comprehensible presentation of the Good News of the Kingdom in New Brunswick, Canada or any other Western country.  In our current culture it seems  that we in the West, at least in part, need to redefine God’s mission through the church  in terms of mishpachah rather than ethne.

Even then it is probably necessary to push beyond Genesis 12 in order to be able to apply mission to our context. In what is often called the post-modern era it is nearly impossible for us to take Biblical categories of people groups and easily identify them in our time or culture. In Western society we generally do not have clans, families, either nuclear or extended no longer make sense in their traditional forms. Society has become much more mobile and to see people siloed into relatively static groupings is unrealistic.

In addition we are told that we live in an individualistic culture, which to a degree is true, but not entirely accurate. Individualism implies we stand alone and few do that. A better description is heliocentric. We tend to sit at the centre of our own solar system and around us others orbit. Even that is too static an image, because we often exist in multiple systems where we still see ourselves as the centre and we easily move from one to another without necessarily taking anything, other than ourselves, from the former system with us. An obvious example of this fragmentation is the separation between home life and work life.

How then might mispachah be aligned within our context to enable us to be more effective in mission? Although by no means water-tight the following might help. There are relational and non relational people groups. The former is made up of those joined by kinship or friendship and the latter those joined by function (eg they work together, go to the same gym or bar) or geography (eg live in the same neighbourhood). There is plenty of crossover between these groupings.

We have to remember that these mishpachah are unreached by the Good News of the Kingdom, in other words the Christian message has not been received by them in a way they can understand. This is an important distinction they many have had the Gospel presented to them in word or action, but not understood it for what it is. Perhaps the idea of the need for salvation from sin was described to them, but they do not understand the concept of sin; or maybe an act of kindness was shown to them, but they were unaware it was from Christian love that the action originated.

Consequently these mishpachah fall into two broad categories. The first being those which have been penetrated by Christians. In other words followers of Jesus could be members of the family, friendship group or club, but for whatever reason they have not presented a comprehensible account of the Good News. The second group is one which has not been penetrated by anyone who could present the Gospel to them.

One of the big questions is how do we even begin to do this? From Roland Allen (Missionary Methods, St. Paul’s or Ours) onwards two principles have emerged for the mishpachah described earlier: there is little point inviting their members to come to us and a Gospel which does not work at incorporation and sanctification will not hold them. Therefore before we begin there is a need to appreciate that we are not solely dealing with people giving their consent to a set of beliefs, but to something more holistic in the sense of their being applied to the shaping of every aspect of life.

The basis for our action is that God is alive, well and at work in the world. The church is God’s partner in displaying his Kingdom, working as a force for “the good” in creation. If God is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent there is nothing in the whole of creation which is unknown to him, including all mishpachah. There is also nothing which is not the object of his love. The question for the church is how do we enable that love to be revealed in order for it to be understood and responded to?

In his very important little book The Isaiah Vision Raymond Fung suggests a three-fold path to working with some mishpachah.. Firstly, work with people of  “good will”, those seeking to make a positive difference , secondly, seek opportunities to invite them to worship and thirdly, provide opportunities for them to become disciples of Jesus. Fung makes a good point, but it needs to be more broadly applied. What about people of what might be called “neutral will”? Those who belong to something, but it is just for their benefit or for the benefit of the group. Pushing Fung even further, is it the church’s role to interact with those who are of “ill will”?

The first part of the journey for a congregation seeking to follow this path to mission is to decide to do so. This sounds obvious, but it has implications, because it requires us to identify mishpachah within our community which involves reaching beyond ourselves. He groups we might eventually work alongside will generally fall into two categories: established organizations, such as the school or the Rotarians or ad hoc groupings such as single parents or disaffected teens. Congregation members will know about some of these groups, but in order to have a complete picture it will be necessary to consult with local agencies and schools to understand your community needs.

Once you have what might best be called a mishpachah map of your community it is then time to decide which one(s) you are best able to work alongside. For a service club such as the Lions it is a matter of joining. The important thing to remember with such groups is the purpose of belonging is to work towards Fung’s three points. If you are looking serving a school the vital thing is not to go in with an agenda, rather to ask them how you can help. With the more ad hoc groups the issue is discovering who belongs and finding ways of making contact (my experience with families and individuals on or near the street is a meal is a good way of making contact, this has to be done consistently over years).

Essential to the mishpachah is authentic relationship. A family or clan is not the place to pretend.

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