This is an edited version of the 2008 EFAC Victoria AGM Dinner address by David Williams, the new CMS Australia Director of Training and Strategy

Bible and Mission

Missiology is perhaps one of the newest disciplines in the theological world, and perhaps also one of the most problematic. If you work in a theological college teaching Greek, everyone is pretty clear what your job description is. If you teach New Testament, Old Testament, Church History, even Doctrine or Ethics, there is fair degree of clarity about what your academic discipline involves. But Missiology, as a theological discipline, is a bit of a minefield. What is mission? How do we determine its boundaries? The boundaries of mission have spread wider and wider. But as Stephen Neill said, "if everything is mission, nothing is mission."

The debate about the nature of mission took a decisive turn at the Lausanne Conference of 1974. At Lausanne, the voice of 2/3rds world theologians was heard loudly and clearly, particularly speaking into the debate on the relationship between evangelism and social responsibility within mission. The 1974 Lausanne conference and the contributions made by Rene Padilla and Samuel Escobar marked a sea change in the evangelical world's understanding about mission. Padilla and Escobar argued along the following lines: an aeroplane needs two wings to be an aeroplane. Mission needs evangelism and social responsibility to be mission. Mission is an inseparable, integral, holistic blend of proclamation, evangelism, social action, advocacy, justice.

Since that first Lausanne, this understanding of what is called holistic mission has become the position of orthodoxy for the majority of the mission world. For the vast majority of evangelical missiologists around the world, mission is holistic, or in North America "integral" mission.

I am beginning to wonder whether the whole debate about "holistic mission" isn't a bit of a red herring. I wonder whether we wouldn't be better to focus on the idea of "holistic church" or "holistic community." The Bible tells us the story of God's rescue plan. The story starts at creation, with God creating the cosmos and then symbolically dwelling within it in the first temple, the garden of Eden. Eden is the garden temple where God walks back and forth to meet with Adam. The Bible story ends with the whole cosmos becoming God's dwelling place, this dwelling place being described as a temple city, but a city that sounds a lot like a garden, filled with rivers and trees. In between Genesis and Revelation we have the story of God's rescue plan – God's mission to rescue his creation from the consequences of Adam's rebellion.

And as we read the story of God's mission through the pages of the Bible, our attention is constantly on God working to build a people, a community, for himself. So God calls Abraham in Genesis 12, not just for Abraham and his family, but so that Abraham might be the father of a great nation, through whom God will bring his blessing to all the nations of the earth. So God is at work to create the nation of Israel, with the intention of blessing the whole world through Israel. We see those promises made to Abraham in various stages of fulfilment and in various stages of disarray as the Old Testament unfolds.

When we turn to the New Testament, we find that Jesus fulfils in himself all the promises and all the expectations that we have related to the temple and to Israel. He is the temple – he is where we go to meet God. He is the true Israel. And he creates the new Israel, the new people of God. First he makes that identity possible through his atoning death on the cross. Then his Spirit grows and builds these communities of Christians. Through the Lord Jesus and through his atoning death, we, the Church, are now the holy nation, the royal priesthood. In Christ we are the holy temple, the dwelling place of God.

As we read through our New Testaments, we see God's rescue plan being fulfilled in the Lord Jesus Christ and being committed to the church. What is God's strategy for mission? Is it not church? Page after page after page is the faith and life of the local church. And I don't think there's any great controversy in suggesting that the life of the local church is intended to be holistic. God does not only give gifts of proclamation to the church. He gives a wide variety of gifts that cover a wide variety of ministries. As we look at the model of church planting, church growth and church life that is demonstrated to us what do we learn? We see that both amongst the Jews and amongst the Gentiles, the apostles were eager to remember the poor as they spread the gospel. We see the very first churches ensuring that widows and orphans from different ethnic groups are cared for. We see over and over again that the holiness of God's people, worked out in the context of their day to day relationships with one another, is a matter of critical concern. We see that as God's people we are to proclaim the excellencies of him who called us, and just a few verses later we are to keep our conduct amongst the Gentiles honourable, so that they may see our good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. Above all else we are to love one another, practically, sacrificially, completely.

Models of Holistic Church

I'm suggesting that God's model of mission in the New Testament is holistic church. There are all sorts of examples that I could point to try and give some 21st century illustrations of this. For the big churches, you might want to look at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, where Tim Keller is the senior minister. Redeemer has two social programmes. The diaconate programme is specifically for members of the congregation. The Hope for New York programme is specifically focused as an outreach from the congregation to needy people within Manhattan. Redeemer offers a big church model. If you're looking for a smaller church model of holistic church, have a look at The Crowded House in the UK. You'll find their model explained in the book Total Church by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis. You can read up about Redeemer and The Crowded House for yourselves. I want to focus instead on the experience of the Centre for Urban Mission in Nairobi, where my wife Rachel and I have been working for the last nine years.

Nairobi is a city of four million people, 60% of whom live in informal settlements or slums. These slums are full of churches. One slum in Nairobi is said to have more churches than toilets. These churches are mainly independent Pentecostal or indigenous churches. Many have been influenced by prosperity theology. Almost all are fully committed to proclamation. If you walk through the slums on Sunday mornings you are bombarded by a cacophony of noise – churches meeting in buildings that seat less than 100 people, but nonetheless have a PA system so that they can place the loudspeakers outside of the buildings. The message in pretty much all of these churches is that you need to get saved and be born again. The message in many churches is that if you are born again, God promises to rescue you from sickness, poverty, hunger and distress. One consequence of this kind of theology is that many pastors are engaged in only limited ways in the lives of their congregations. The Centre for Urban Mission, was an classroom in the middle of one of the slums, aimed at training and equipping the pastors of slum churches for ministry. We found that many pastors denied that their churches had a problem with HIV/AIDS, because they assumed that Christians could not be cursed like that. When we actually challenged them to go and ask the question, many were terribly shocked to discover that as much as 50% of the church were HIV positive.

Slowly, carefully, gently, often painfully, we tried to unpick the prosperity theology that underpinned the ministries of many of these pastors. But we needed to replace it with something else. Prosperity theology had been the solution to the problems that church members were facing. Are you sick? – repent, trust God sufficiently and he will bless you with good health. Are you poor? – repent, trust God sufficiently and he will bless you with an income. But if a slum pastor stops preaching a prosperity message, he must find other ways of addressing the challenges of poverty, sickness, hunger, malnutrition.

The answer that we tried to offer from the Centre for Urban Mission was the answer of holistic church. We focused on trying to train churches and church leaders to work together as common communities of Christians, to seek together to solve the problems that they face. Christians living in informal settlements are often pitifully poor. But they have something. They have the gifts that God has given to them, they have few resources, but they do have some. Our focus was to try to engage with churches to work together as genuine communities.

One church, having previously denied that the possibility of anyone in the fellowship having HIV, started a home based care programme to provide practical care for people suffering from AIDS. Another church worked with a group of single mothers to start an income generating project, making soap. The same church also started a homework club for school children, giving them somewhere to go where there was enough light, from hurricane lamps, for them to study by. Another church worked with a group of women from the fellowship who were already running small businesses to scale them up and grow them further. The Centre for Urban Mission's role in all this was to offer training in discipleship, training in understanding the bible, training in micro-enterprise skills, training in the facts about HIV.

One of the abiding lessons for was of the extraordinary power of the Bible to transform people's lives, when taught faithfully and lived out in the community.

Let me finish by drawing some lessons for us in Melbourne from the examples I've given in Nairobi.

Lessons from the Slums

Church leaders cannot afford to be distant from church members. We must understand, deeply and intimately, the needs of our people. It's staggering that church leaders in the slums did not know how many of their congregation were struggling with HIV. But do we know how many of our congregation are struggling with subjects that are taboo for us. Pornography or prostitution, for example. Do we really know much about the prayer lives of the Christians in our fellowship? How deep is our knowledge of our people? Do they perceive us as distant and remote, or close and concerned?

Related to the first point, do we take any time to analyse the social needs and concerns of our congregations?

We need to mobilise the resources of our churches, especially the human resources – but not limited to those – to caring for one another within the congregation.

We need to find ways for the outside world to "see how we Christians love one another."

David Williams is CMS Australia's new Director of Training and Strategy based at St Andrew's Hall. David, Rachel and their three teenage sons moved from Nairobi to Melbourne in late 2007.