Mission as Transformation and The Church

The understanding and expression of Christian mission as Transformation developed among Evangelicals since the first Lausanne Conference on World Evangelization in 1974. A mission movement of theological, missiological reflection and practice developed around that way of understanding and engaging in mission.

This paper attempts to explore the impact of the Mission as Transformation movement on Christian institutions particularly churches. It will study how local churches and denominations committed to a biblically faithful theology responded to this understanding of mission and the energy of the movement around it. It will suggest that the mission as transformation movement (MTM) had little impact on churches in the area of motivating and shaping the church’s engagement with the world, the cultures in which they existed and operated. This is particularly true of non-western churches. A weak engagement with the world means there is little evidence of the transforming power of the Gospel in changing cultures and society.

The paper will suggest an agenda for the future.


In exploring the impact of mission as transformation on Christian institutions/Churches, we need to examine the central aspect of transformational mission: engagement with the world. Dr. Rene Padilla prepared a paper for Lausanne 74 and titled it “Evangelism and the World”. 1In this seminal and influential study he drew out the biblical perspective of the ‘World’ and asserted that “the world is claimed by the Gospel” not abandoned by it. In my view this identified the “turn to the world” that began among Evangelicals concerned about relating the Gospel to addressing poverty and bringing social change. The key leaders of this turn were Latin American Evangelical leaders like Rene Padilla, Samuel Escobar and Orlando Costas.

Much of the Evangelism of the 1950s’ and 1960s’ was shaped by a fixed gaze on heaven which in practice meant “This world is not my home, I am just a passing through” words from a popular song sung at most evangelical gatherings ‘rallies’ at least in the non-western world. It is not that evangelicals turned away from the world, but their relationship to the world was to declare the Gospel to people; individuals and communities. The world was seen primarily as a world of human persons – with common features and needs. The need for Salvation was universal and that need was addressed through proclaiming a universal Gospel.

Many evangelicals did not take serious note of the cultures in which humans are embedded. The Gospel is declared to people with a universal need but their identities and world views are shaped by the cultures in which they live. These cultures have institutions, customs, traditions, artefacts, social systems and moral frameworks that regulate peoples’ lives and from which they draw their meaning.

The mission as transformation movement while affirming the necessity of proclaiming the good news of Christ’s kingdom, the need to invite people to accept Christ’s Lordship and become citizens of heaven also stressed that believers continued to be part of the world in which they lived and must relate their faith to its culture.


The understanding of transformational mission as addressing the spiritual, social and economic needs of persons and communities gained wide acceptance in the past three decades. 2Its impact on churches is not significant. The wider acceptance of ‘wholistic mission’ would encourage and possible enlarge existing social ministries of churches but had little effect on motivating and enabling churches to engage with the cultures of which they are a part. They declare the truth to the world but are weak in engaging the world with the truth believing their main mission task is to declare the truth.


Many non-Roman Catholic churches in the non-western world are committed to biblical authority and are evangelical in mission commitments. Yet in the areas of action for culture change their record is poor. Democracy is more than a political system. It is founded on values of equality, justice and rights of all persons. A study done by Freedom House, Washington .D. C., U.S.A. of 24 democratizing countries in Africa (between 1972 – 2009) found that only in 6 countries the church played a leading role in advocacy and action for democracy and human rights. More often than not it was the Roman Catholic Church which was at the forefront of action. In 8 countries Evangelicals were implicated in anti-democratic activities. Dr. Tim Shah in a paper presented at Yale University in March 2010 concludes from the study that “the church lacked institutional independence from power and did not have incentive or capacity to resist power; it lacked a theology of power”3

In Kenya which I have some personal knowledge of, there is widespread acceptance of the understanding of Mission as Transformation promoted by courageous church leaders like Archbishop David Gitari. 4The failure of the church to prevent the widespread ethnic violence in 2008-2009 and to engage vigorously with it during the upheaval demonstrated that deeply held ethnic animosities were not dealt with at any depth by churches which have experienced significant church growth. The lessons of Rwandan genocide where enthusiastic church life did not translate into dealing with ethnic prejudice appeared to have little influence.

Similar judgements can be made of Churches in Asia. 5There are always exceptions but the gap between the acceptance of the rhetoric of mission as transformation and the practice of it by churches is still wide.

It is not just in the sphere of politics but also in areas of marriage, family life, gender relationships, human sexuality, corruption and economic performance the record  of the churches  engagement with the world, with the culture in which the church live and operates is weak. There is no lack of declaration about what the Bible teaches about these areas of society but little evidence of engaging with the systems, institutions, cultural drives of the world.


In his recent book “To change the world: the irony, tragedy and possibility of Christianity in the late modern world” 6(2010) James Davison Hunter assesses the impact of evangelical action to change culture in the United States of America. He concludes that in spite of significant numbers, financial resources and vigorous engagement to change American culture to reflect Christian values and truths, the result is a failure to bring such change. It is a controversial conclusion and has produced a lively debate, but the polls do show the increasing spread of anti biblical values in public life.  Biblical values are increasingly labelled as oppressive and bigoted.

Hunter’s key insight is that evangelicals have a view of culture “that fails to take into account the nature of culture in its complexity and the factors that give it strength and resilience over time”.  In my view, this is true of evangelicals in the non-western world, Hunter asserts that institutions are fundamental to cultural change as they produce, distribute and administer culture. He writes “constituted by powerful ideals, truths and narratives, patterns of behaviours and relationship, social organisation and a wide range of resources, institutions are a social reality that are larger than the sum total of individuals that make them up”. Today media institutions exert enormous influence on peoples’ social and moral formation.

As institutions and networks are the more powerful instruments of change, it is important to examine the acceptance and role of the movement in Christian institutions, particularly the church.


Mission Institutions that rapidly adopted the understanding of mission as transformation were evangelical relief and development agencies. In the 1970s’ and into the mid 1980s’ there was some resistance from the leadership of evangelical development agencies and significant push back from evangelical mission societies. Not being indigenous Institutions but cross cultural ones makes their relationship to the cultures in which they operate provisional rather than permanent and can lead to resistance to a missiology  that sees culture change as essential.

Evangelical relief and development agencies soon saw that the mission theology that best justified and strengthened their work in relief and development was the understanding of mission as transformation. World Vision International drew on the reflection of MTM networks and developed its own theology and understanding of transformational development. The appointment of one of the non-western founding architects of Mission as Transformation as President of one of the leading Western evangelical development agencies confirms that MTM found its most effective home in Evangelical Development organisations.

Mean while, historic mission organisations primarily engaged in cross cultural mission were slow to receive and adopt transformational mission perspectives. Emerging missions particularly from the non-western world used the language of transformation but gave it their own content. Most of them have little place for engaging with the world. They combined evangelism with response to social and economic need among poor communities and regarded it as transformational mission. Church planting continued as the main and sometimes the only end of mission. In the past two decades historic western evangelical mission agencies are not uncomfortable with the language of mission as transformation but their practice is largely to support proclamation of the Gospel and church planting.


Two models of Christian engagement with the world shaped MTM in its formation. One was the model of cultural transformation i.e., shaping society according to Christian values. John Stackhouse in his book “Making the best of it” 7identifies it as the model promoted by Kyperian Calvinism and Pope John Paul II. The other model is “Holy Distinctiveness”.  Stackhouse describes it as Christian Community living in contradiction to the rest of society and offering an alternative way of life. John Yoder and Stanley Heurwas are leading scholars and activists of this view.

The movement of Mission as transformation incorporated both models in an often uneasy tension. Several streams developed. One drew on an older tradition of the Christian mind championed so ably by John Gresham Machen in the early 20th century and later by John Stott. It affirmed the primacy of changing minds and hearts to bring culture change. Chuck Colson is the prominent contemporary leader of this approach in the United States. The consultation on “The Churches’ response to human need” (Wheaton 1983) popularized evangelical engagement to address poverty, developing responses like emergency relief, community development, enterprise solutions to poverty, advocacy for national debt relief, fair trade and greater flow of aid from rich to poor nations. Relief and development efforts defined engagement with the world in this stream.

Another stream that developed is the Gospel and Culture track. This track focused on enculturation of the Gospel in cultures and developing culturally appropriate and contextual tools and strategies for evangelism. There was little interest in cultural change except in that part of the movement that developed in the west under the leadership of Leslie Newbegin. James Hunter’s assessment applies to this movement in the west. Its achievements in culture engagement are not substantial, most definitely in the United Kingdom. In the non-western world the stress was on cultural translation rather than on cultural transformation with the conviction that cultural translation will inevitably lead to culture change.

Prof. Lamin Sanneh’s work 8showed that the translation of the Bible into indigenous languages of Africa resulted in preservation and recovery of cultures threatened by insensitive forces of modernity unleashed by colonial powers. Sanneh also contends that it provided the basis for dealing with the forces of modernity and building modern societies and states. However, it is also true that while strongly affirming the translatability of the gospel to every indigenous culture churches have failed to resist cultural forces that are manifestly unjust and oppressive. Fuelled by cultural prejudices and stereotypes such movements have destabilized and even destroyed families and communities. Churches may have fought colonial oppression in several nations but have been found incapable of initiating cultural transformation in those contexts. Corrupt governance, caste,

Tribal and ethnic conflict and varieties of social oppression continue to be deeply embedded in cultures and exert dominating influence. The rhetoric of recovering, protecting and promoting traditional cultural identities often masks the unwillingness of the church to engage in cultural transformation. There are exceptions to this picture but the overall reality is one of failure to engage.

One of the key assumptions of MTM is the agency attributed to individuals and faith communities. It is assumed that as primary agents of transformation, individuals and communities would be empowered by a wholistic understanding of mission, by a piety shaped by biblical discipleship and the experience of spiritual empowerment by the Holy Spirit. That empowerment would lead to engaging the world and initiating transformation. The critically important role of cultural institutions in culture change was not taken into consideration. In the recent past reflections on power from a biblical and missiological perspective suggests a greater awareness of the role of institutions and cultural systems of power. In time it is hoped this will translate to mission strategy and action.

The implicit ecclesiologies of MTM are another possible cause for its inability to impact the church. A long tradition among the evangelicals sees mission as the bloodstream of the church. “The church exists by mission” is stressed. This defines the church in mission terms.  In practice it means that any group in mission is an ecclesial entity. The church as God’s chosen kingdom presence in the world, the body of the Lord Jesus Christ living its life in the world institutionally, its life ordered by a revealed faith, guarded by a community of obedient disciples is God’s primary agent for claiming the world for Christ. Such a view of the church did not have a significant influence on MTM. The church is the institution that is called to be in the world and not of it. It prays daily “Your kingdom come on earth as in heaven”, lives out its life seeking God’s Will for the world. It engages with the world to see God’s Will come, in however provisional fashion and awaits its consummation.

Another key understanding that shaped MTM is the view that social transformation is effected from bottom up. Most mission action for social change was invested in empowering the poor. 9 Theological basis for such a view was the missiological conviction of the preferential option for the poor. It was based on biblical themes of God’s relationship to the poor but was also shaped by a social analytical framework of centre and periphery. Space does not permit an extended analysis of this approach theologically but the following may be noted. In spite of four decades of significant engagement in empowering the poor by many religious and non-religious actors, large scale social transformation has eluded us though there are some fine examples of localized social change. It is also worth noting that eminent development scholars happen to be arriving at similar conclusions.

The priority to empower the poor at the heart of MTM facilitates the development of movements and networks for social change. It does not develop institutions from bottom up as institutions are generally created from the top. The theology and strategy of MTM did not see the significance of institutions and found the institutional nature of churches irrelevant and often an impediment to mission action. Churches, particularly large bodies like church denominations have a strong institutional character. They are led by leaders but run by bureaucracies whose default position is maintaining and growing the institutions activities by competent and effective management of its assets and resources. Bureaucracies are wary of movements and do not know how to provide space to movements and harness their energy. It is here the role of networks, particularly the networks of elites is critical. Elites know how to harness networks and movements and embed them in institutions. It means adding a top down dimension to the bottom up one if MTM is to be embedded in church institutions and become a resource to churches. Our ecclesiologies should embrace both – bottom up and top down.

The experience of major evangelical relief and development agencies illustrates the above contention. In the past two decades these agencies have turned to elites from the corporate world of business and government to fill their senior executive positions replacing seminary/ Bible College trained leaders (based on the untested assumption that business leaders can pick up theology quicker than seminary trained picking up institutional leadership and management skills!). This is not just the corporatization of Evangelical development agencies but also recognition that elites are trained and equipped to operate in networks, run institutions which engage with the world. They are also essential to build substantial institutions which scale up rapidly and become a presence that the world notices and is open to engage with.

Church bureaucracies are a different matter particularly in the non-western world. They are often a mirror image of their government bureaucracies with all the attendant weaknesses.


The main home today of MTM is the evangelical relief and development organization. The movement needs to be more deeply involved in churches, particularly church denominations in the rapidly growing churches of the Global South. That will enable it to deepen and mature to meet the challenges of fast changing societies.

There is need to develop theologies of culture that are biblically faithful and draw on the significant research on culture available to us today. James Hunter writes “Culture is first and foremost a normative order by which we comprehend others, the larger world and ourselves and through which we individually and collectively order our experience.” He asserts “Culture is a system of truth claims and moral obligations.” 10A biblically faithful approach and understanding of culture must be developed in the non-western world. Significant work is being done in the west but much of it is not translatable to non-western contexts yet.

South Africa illustrates the urgency of the need. The strong drive to recover and privilege African traditions and traditional customs in church life is driving individuals, local churches and denominations to perform traditional ceremonies and engage in traditional social practices without adequately interrogating them against biblical norms. Any suggestion that such an interrogation is necessary is often dismissed as a western neo-colonial opinion. In the past two years of my involvement in South Africa, I am surprised to find even biblically faithful Christians intimidated by this aggressive cultural agenda and reluctant to challenge it. It is encouraging to see a different picture in Nigeria. The challenge needs to be strengthened by carefully thought through biblical and theological reflection.

There is need to develop biblical approaches to understanding institutions. Institutions use cultural capital as power and a key component of dealing with institutions is through developing theologies of power. A biblical understanding of social order that is sensitive to the way social order developed and is being shaped in the non-western world is a critical need.

Another need is to revisit the implicit social analysis in mission as transformation theologies. Terms like agency, empowerment, participation, freedom, capability, equity, and rights are at the heart of approaches to social change 11and are used regularly by those reflecting on mission as transformation. Much of the analysis assumes that systems and institutions are part of the oppressive centre and see change coming only from the periphery.

Most churches in the non-western world rarely see themselves as part of the periphery. They eagerly seek to relate to the centre, align with it and do not have the tools to influence it, even if they have the will. The elites who belong to these churches are part of the centre and are not discipled and equipped to address the centre with kingdom values and convictions. We need to move from the ideological cage of received social analysis and examine our societies and cultures afresh.

John Stackhouse 12asserts that in engaging with the world we need to recover Christian Realism. He suggests Christian realism means learning about the world from the world, i.e., take its self description seriously and not just look at the world through what the bible says about it. We must ensure a biblically informed mind and world view but develop an epistemic humility to understand how the world describes itself, aware that cultures are rapidly changing.

We must also be aware that the evil one blinds people to be the real state of their situation and God is active in all cultures and biblical revelation provides us tools to identify God’s providential action in cultures.


The Church, particularly in the non-western world is still largely faithful to the authority and teaching of the Bible. It is committed to the uniqueness of Christ and the necessity of sharing the Gospel. It needs to turn much more to the world; to the cultures in which it is placed and engage with them. The missiological resources of MTM are an essential resource for such engagement.

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  1. N, Transformation after Lausanne”, Oxford, Regnum, 2008
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  1. D., Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in Asia”, N.Y. OUP, 2009
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  1. J. , Making the best of it: Following Christ in the Real World, N.Y. OUP 2008
  1. L. , Translating the Message: The missionary impact on cultureN.Y. Orbis books 1989
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  1. cit, Pg 33
  1. S., Valuing Freedoms: Sen’s Capability approach and Poverty Reduction, N.Y. OUP 2002
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