FOUR MECHANISMS OF MISSION
Some years ago Dr.Ralph Winter analyzed four mechanisms of mission in scripture. I have always found these helpful and was again reminded of their importance on learning that the biggest concentration of Arabs outside of the Middle East is in Detroit, and that in Queens in New York, the public schools operate in over 30 languages. This is typical of many cities around the world, but we would be remiss if we simply saw it as a symptom of globalization, and failed to identify it as a mechanism of mission.
As you might know, the four mechanisms highlighted by Dr.Winter are: 1) an apostolic mechanism. 2) A catalytic mechanism. 3) A magnetic mechanism, and 4) a migration mechanism. The first two he categorized as “go” mechanisms and the second two as “come” mechanisms.
The Arabs in Detroit and the schoolchildren in Queens obviously fit into the fourth, the migration mechanism, but to help us locate ourselves on the landscape of God’s redemptive purposes, I will briefly mention them all.
The first mechanism, the apostolic, is perhaps the most familiar to us with the advent of the modern missionary movement. Whether we go back in scripture and find Abraham leaving his kindred and country, or Jonah going to Nineveh, or the disciples fanning out across the Mediteran world, or William Cary heading to India, this mechanism is simply a response of commitment and obedience to the great commission. Perhaps the most encouraging dimension of this mechanism in our day is the massive mobilization of Christian national missionaries from the Third world to unreached people groups, a development that we could not have imagined, at least on this scale, even fifty years ago.
The second mechanism, the catalytic, is also a “go” mechanism, but the dynamic behind it is not commitment and obedience, but tribulation and persecution. Joseph did not volunteer to go to Egypt; the catalyst for his cross-cultural ministry was betrayal and slavery. However, as we know, when talking to his brothers many years later, he recognized that behind his displacement and suffering was the hand of the Lord. His words “You sold me, but God sent me” are a simple statement of a mechanism of mission at work that he clearly came to recognize [and by the way, the Pharaoh Akhenaten, one of the pharaohs in power during Israel’s stay in Egypt, became a monotheist and sought to cleanse Egypt from idolatry and he was obviously influenced by Joseph and others like him.
The same mechanism can be seen in the life of Daniel, who ends up in Babylon, and like Joseph, so influences Nebuchadnezer that a decree is issued that all peoples in his dominions should worship the God of Daniel. Daniel never volunteered to go to Babylon. Like Joseph he went as a slave, but in the providence of God an important mechanism of mission to the Babylonian empire was at work through his life.
Examples could be multiplied, but Paul’s companions, Aquila and Priscilla, should not be forgotten. As we know, they were Jewish Christians and were expelled from Rome along with all the other Jews in the city by the emperor Claudius. They end up in Corinth and there become co-laborers with the apostle Paul, started house churches, and end up being mentioned in the NT no less than six times. The catalyst of their ministry was exile but the result was an advance of the kingdom.
The third mechanism, which Winter called “magnetic”, unlike the first two, is a “come” rather than a “go” mechanism. Israel’s compassion and provision for the poor, its passion for justice, its Sabbath and Jubilee years were all to act as a witness and a magnet to the surrounding nations. The prophets repeatedly spoke of the magnetic attraction that the covenant people would exercise over the nations. Isaiah 60 is a typical example: “Arise shine for your light has come and the glory of the Lord had risen upon you, and nations will come to you light and kings to the brightness of your rising.”
Most OT scholars recognize, the primary mechanism of mission in Israel was centrifugal, drawing people in as the nations heard of the justice, prosperity, and peace in Israel (the queen of Sheba, Naman the leper, and the Ethiopian eunuch would be examples).
By way of contrast, the primary New Testament mechanism is centripetal, spinning people out (so to speak) in a proactive missionary initiative. However the centrifugal, or magnetic mechanism, that was so primary in the Old Testament, has continued to be a powerful factor in world mission. This is, of course, what happened at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit fell on the disciples, which resulted in the immediate conversion of 3,000 onlookers. This mechanism of attraction has continued to characterize revival movements in the history of the church. Benjamin Franklin recalls walking home through the streets of Philadelphia after George Whitfield had visited the city and hearing hymns being sung in virtually every home. If the police found a man prostrate in the street and not smelling of alcohol they would leave him lying there, declaring that he had the Whitfield disease and would wake up a reformed character. As we know, the Great Awakening resulted not only in multitudes being saved in Britain and North America, but also had a profound effect on global mission. The Azusa street revival, the Welsh revival, the Hebradian had a similar impact in the twentieth century, and many such examples could be given of the magnetic power that visitations of the Spirit have exerted on multitudes of people.
The final mechanism described by Dr.Winter is migration mechanism. This is also a “come” mechanism and brings me back to Arabs in Detroit, schoolchildren in Queens, and even Afghans in Omaha. History of course abounds with the accounts of peoples migrating from one geographic location to another. This might be in search of land, for political freedom, or for economic gain.
However, behind such movements of people we can often see the hand of the Lord, particularly when a migration has resulted in their coming into contact with the gospel. A biblical example can be found in 2 Kings 17. The North had gone into exile and the king of Assyrian imported five pagan people groups to fill the vacuum left behind in the North. In addition he sent back a Jewish priest to teach them the ways of the Lord and while initially syncretism ruled the day,
later in Israel’s history they became faithful followers of Yahweh. However it was their forced migration that opened the door to repentance and faith.
With the political upheavals of the twentieth century, the migration mechanism has now assumed proportions that would have been unimaginable to previous generations. Those of us who live in large cities regularly come in contact with those from remote people groups around the world. And we would fail the Lord if we didn’t recognize that this is divinely orchestrated to bring them into contact with the Gospel.
Forty percent of the current prime ministers and presidents around the world received their university education in the USA. Tragically, since 9/11 thousands of Arab students are no longer coming here for their education, as they fear intimidation and reprisals in the wake of the terrorist actions. Once released from the intimidation from their own cultures many in the past have responded to the gospel. The probability is that these bright young people with open minds and hearts will now possibly never have an opportunity to hear the Gospel, as most of them come from closed countries. If we close our heart to the strangers in our midst, even if they do speak Arabic, we will only multiply the tragic consequences of 9/11.
While we want to continue to thrust people out into the harvest field, we also need to alert our congregations that they might even now be caught up in a mechanism of mission without even recognizing it. The immigrant next door is not there by chance, neither are the Arabs in Detroit, and the Afghans in Omaha. They are sent by the Lord. And we only frustrate the purposes of God if we fail to recognize it.