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Urgently wanted: modern day ‘reformissionaries’
There is a sense on the university campuses of South Africa, that it is just a matter of time before the next protest arises, and that student activism is now an ongoing feature of the university landscape. Having discussions with students in the wake of the most recent protests, I was challenged by how best to respond in the long term.
Church history provides some helpful pointers. Many of the missionary heroes and heroines could more aptly be described as ‘reformissionaries’. In essence, they saw their mission as two-fold: the first being to preach the gospel, the second being to reform the culture in some way for good, depending on the context they found themselves in.
Cyril therefore preached to the Russians but also introduced them to an alphabet, thus opening up a world of literature to them, beginning with the Bible. William Carey preached salvation, fought against the practice of widow burning, made learning available to men and women, improved agricultural practices and much more. Mary Slessor similarly preached the gospel and transformed a culture that believed that twins were cursed. So they did not only preach the heart of the gospel; they also shaped the culture for good. Our modern day cultures, including the university campus, desperately need both. As with anywhere else, our higher learning institutions urgently need the message of salvation. But in addition, they need ‘reformissionaries’ that shape the culture of activism and the marketplace of ideas.
This presents a challenge for how we do church. In addition to the basics and core truths of our faith, as churches, we should be raising people who will grapple with the ideas in the marketplace and bring Christ and His Kingdom into that space. We should be giving a vision for our students of what godly activism looks like, including in it the virtues of love for one’s enemies and ‘opponents’ and respect and honour for authority, all people and property.
The apostle Paul provides us with a picture of how to bring Christ into the marketplace of ideas in Acts 17. Under normal circumstances, the apostle’s modus operandi went something like this: go the synagogue of a key city, present his Jewish credentials such as tribe, cultural practices and educational background, followed by a systematic illustration of how the old testament prophets pointed to the Messiah, culminating in revealing Jesus as the Messiah and a call for repentance and faith in Him. But Athens in Acts 17 was different. Here, he did none of these things when speaking to the Greek philosophers. Rather, he took time to study the culture, then preached and quoted Greek philosophers, finally pointing to how Christ was the fulfilment of the unknown God they had heard something about.
As the apostle Paul took the time to study the culture he found himself in, we too should do the same, asking the following questions and more: How do we bring godly change? How do we speak in the public square? How can we provide for the common good? What are the key ideas vying for our attention and how do we evaluate them in the light of God’s Word?
Where will all this lead? It should not lead to apathy or blind acceptance of the values, ideas and actions on our campuses. Tim Keller points out in his book “The Prodigal God”, that Christianity is not conservatism or liberalism, but a new way, a third way.
Blessing the world
Similarly, Daniel did not defile himself with food sacrificed to idols, but neither did he alienate himself from the culture. Somehow, he was meaningfully involved without defiling himself. Somehow, he was able to be a tremendous blessing to pagan kingdoms without ever defiling himself or compromising his devotion to God. This should challenge both the Pharisee and Barrabas within us, who are either too self-righteously pious to get involved in culture or too presumptuous to think that their humanistic ideas and actions can save the world.
I say all of this because of what is at stake. What is at stake is a generation of young people who, if they are sufficiently swayed, may either turn to another gospel completely, or simply give Jesus Christ a token acceptance, while their hearts, minds and energies are given over to a saviour incapable of bringing true and lasting righteousness, peace and joy. May we be like the Men of Issachar who understood the times and know what South Africa must do.
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