Jonah and the Centrifugal Missions

As a high school student I am certain that my missions strategy was completely absurd. In retrospect, “come play video games at my church all night” just doesn’t seem like a compelling call. I can remember the first time I encountered a classmate honest enough to say so. I remember inviting him to an all-nighter with our youth group with the stressed emphasis being on our playing video games at the church building. He was nice enough in his response, but also rather blunt: Why would I want to play video games at your church when I can just stay home and do that? It was a great question and I honestly didn’t have an answer. In fact the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to stay home and play video games too. Part of the failure of this approach is of course the absurdity of assuming that people want to play video games all-night in a church building. But the other failure is the centripetal nature of the strategy. “Come to us” is simply not the best evangelistic method.

By centripetal I mean an approach that calls people to come to us, instead of turning outward and taking the message of the gospel to them. Usually, though not exclusively, the response to this strategy means people will either come and take advantage of your offerings and then bail, or they simply won’t come. People will come to your church to get your free hot dog, but they aren’t interested in anything more than that hot dog. And once they’ve had their fill they will leave. Furthermore, if you do try to draw them in with your hot dog and then trick them into hearing a gospel presentation too they will feel cheated. The bait and switch model is often dishonest, even if it isn’t intended to be so. Many missiologist and church growth strategists have been turning readers away from the “come to us” model of missions and instead have been advocating a missional strategy that says “go to them.” But long before the likes of Ed Stetzer and Tim Keller the prophet Jonah was foreshadowing Centrifugal Missions.

Jonah is, of course, not the most willing participant. Like many in the contemporary church he doesn’t want to “go to them.” Going and telling is, after all risky, dangerous, and involves getting to know a people who are not like you. The “come to us” model is safe. It allows us to remain within the confines of our Christian enclave and for non-Christians to come into that safe-zone where we can present the gospel to them. The only problem is, of course, that people aren’t going to the church to find spirituality anymore. For Jonah, God knew that Nineveh was not going to cross borders and come seek salvation from Israel. For one, Israel hated Nineveh, and Nineveh hated everyone. So God sent his servant to take the Gospel to them.

But the other reason this was so difficult for Jonah is that it simply was not the way missions had been done in Israel. The strategy of the nation, and one both sanctioned and blessed by God, meant being a distinct nation in the center of a trade route. It meant doing life so remarkably different that the sojourner or traveler would have asked, “Why do you do this?” And Israel, in turn, would have told them about their God. In Exodus 19:6 we read that Israel is to be a “priestly kingdom.” The idea is that the nations would see God through is people, but only as they came into contact with the nation of Israel. But in Jonah, God is calling a single prophet to go and take the message of His coming judgment and offer of grace “to them.” That’s a dramatic change. The difficulty Jonah has with obedience here is one that resonates with the contemporary church.

Much of the church’s difficulty in abandoning the “come to us” model is that it has been used for so long, and often very effectively. In previous generations of the church the model was effective precisely because of the church’s esteemed role in the culture. In the past the church was the keeper of spiritual realities, so to speak, and if someone desired to know them they went to the church. Of course we have always used the “go to them” model in foreign missions, but in domestic missions the church has insisted on maintaining the “come to us” approach. Today, however, the model is dying. Many churches who simply think that by unlocking the doors and having a cook out once a month they will draw the masses are finding empty seats on Sunday morning. We must adopt a missional strategy, which means following the model of Jonah, and more precisely the model of Jesus, and going to where sinners are.

Much of the church feels the pressure of change and like Jonah they resist it for the obvious reasons of tradition and comfort. But in our postmodern context sinners no longer see the church as the bearer of religious truth. They will rarely come to us for answers. We must go to them. The point that Jonah illustrates for us best, however, is that this was the way God had always intended it. What we took and applied to foreign missions we must begin again to apply to domestic missions. We must make the church once more a Centrifugal operation. Like the early church we must scatter to gather. Jonah is a model of our own frustrations and even sometimes our own disobedience, but he is also a model of the style of missions we need to adopt today! Centrifugal is the way forward.

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