Models of Mission in a Pluralistic World

Charles Neff (left) surveying the globe

Over the last several years, mission and outreach have become major emphases within the Community of Christ. I must admit I often feel quite uncomfortable with this. Missionaries have a long history of collaboration with imperialism and have a record of insensitivity to cultures other than their own. I am not always convinced that we, who often have difficulty defining precisely what we are and believe, have something so much better to offer than other cultures and religions.

Indeed, stripped of all political correctness, the job of a missionary is to go tell people that they are wrong and that they must change the way they think and act. This holds incredible potential for arrogance – at its root is a belief that the missionary knows better than the potential convert how to live one’s life. Unsurprisingly, this does not jibe very well with the notion of a pluralistic society, in which diverse cultures and faiths are tolerated, celebrated and encouraged to thrive.

One way to think about this issue is to look at the different approaches to mission that were expressed in the work of Charles D. Neff, one of the Community of Christ’s most prominent missionaries from the early 1960s to 1980s. I believe his work in Japan, Korea, India, the Philippines, Nigeria, Liberia and Kenya has rich potential for teaching the Community of Christ how to interact with people of different faiths and cultures. His understandings of mission evolved over his career through at least five different models:

1. ‘One True Church’/Imperial Model: When Neff and other missionaries were sent by the World Conference in 1960 to plant the church in Japan and Korea, they went with a confidence that they represented the ‘One True Church.’ This sectarianism was a cornerstone of church doctrine at the time – all other churches, religions and cultures were considered either ‘in apostasy’ or outright heathens.

The missionaries believed they had a monopoly on the truth and that mission involved persuading people to abandonment totally their local culture and convert to the ‘culture’ of the church. However, as Neff and his staff began to interact with people and learn more about local cultures they started to feel uncomfortable with this model. They began to wonder how much of their ‘faith’ was actually simply American and Western culture.

Dale Bethel, who worked alongside Neff, said, “There was a kind of slow awakening that we were doing ineffective things. We had not been prepared to understand deeper political, cultural, and economic realities of the country where we were working. Simply talking about this great American prophet and an American church was not what people wanted to hear.”

Furthermore, through the ages, this model of imposing one religion on other people has unsurprisingly been closely linked to imperial projects. European missionaries and colonists colluded closely in the ‘Scramble for Africa’ at the end of the 19th Century. Similarly, initial Community of Christ contacts in East Asia came as a result of US military and commercial expansion after WWII.

Slowly, Neff began to appreciate how much they could learn from Japanese and Korean culture. There were concepts that were completely lacking from Western understandings of the world, which nonetheless seemed to resonate and speak truth. Moreover, certain things that were seen as so important to American members – their distinction from Mormons or other Christians, salvation, heaven, hell – did not always make sense to people of other cultures and faiths. To impose one’s faith and culture on people, and ask them to abandon their roots wholesale seemed arrogant and insensitive – particularly since much of the Community of Christ message was rooted more in modern Midwestern American culture than the faith of a first century Jewish teacher.

2. ‘Fulfillment’ Model: As he lost confidence in a sectarian approach to mission, Neff began to believe that the Community of Christ represented not a replacement of local culture and faith, but rather a ‘fulfillment’ of it. Having joined the church as a young man, he saw the Community of Christ as a fulfillment of his Baptist upbringing, not a replacement of it. As a result, just as many Christians think of their faith as a fulfillment of Judaism, Neff believe the message of the Community of Christ – particularly the worth of persons and the reality of a personal God – could fulfill and enrich other cultures and faiths.

“While recognizing that some aspects of the culture must be transformed, our general attitude should be that the Restoration gospel fulfills rather than displaces,” he said.

While this was more sensitive to the value in other people’s backgrounds, Neff eventually also became dissatisfied with this approach. There is something vaguely patronizing about assuming that one holds the key to fulfilling what are ultimately seen as inadequacy in other cultures.

3. Dialogue Model: Neff eventually began to see mission as a “two way street”, a dialogue between equals in which cultures and faiths learn from each other and enrich each others’ understandings of the world. He envisaged a day in which the Community of Christ would accept Confucius and Lao Tzu as other sources of scripture – a radical reinterpretation of the church’s doctrine of open canon.

“To assume that the gospel as understood in America can fulfill the Orient [sic] culture but that no reciprocation is possible because the Western cultures are already refined and sanctified or because the Saints of the Eastern churches are inferior Christians is arrogance of the first order,” he said.

Unsurprisingly, conservatives in the church found this very threatening. They felt, with some justification, that Neff was becoming a cultural relativist. They argued that if all cultures were equally valid then one opened the doors to ‘anything goes.’

4. Social Service Model: In the 1970s, Neff began to work in the developing world – the Philippines, Liberia, Nigeria and Kenya – and started to feel his understanding of mission had lacked an attention to the real material problems faced by the majority of the world. He believed Christianity meant little if it didn’t speak to issues of massive poverty, disease and suffering:

“When I think of the mission of the Church,” he reflected, “I recall the face of the poorest person and ask: Will it restore the dignity that every man should enjoy? Will it set him free? Will it heal his broken heart?”

As a result, he set up a series of humanitarian and community development organizations to provide aid and empowerment to the poor. The culmination of these efforts was Outreach International, a small international development NGO loosely affiliated with the Community of Christ.

While the earnestness of his social service efforts was widely respected, many members worried that Neff was moving away from religious mission toward secular humanitarianism. They felt a church could not simply become a social service provider; rather a church is an expression of faith.

5. Prophetic Witness Model: Toward the end of his life, Neff started to move away from the Social Service model for a different reason – he felt it inadequately dealt with the root political and social systems that caused poverty and conflict. Influenced by liberation theology, he became increasingly radicalized and felt the mission of a religious leader must be to denounce as heresy those human institutions that oppress, kill and steal.

He acknowledged that many would “not agree that it is appropriate for church leaders to be involved in the secular world,” but stressed that he felt “I not only have the right but the duty to speak out on the concrete issues of the day as they affect the well-being of God’s Creation.”

Within the church, he condemned the limitation of priesthood to men as exclusive, even calling for the abolishment of priesthood offices altogether. He publically criticized the construction of The Temple in Independence, arguing that the money would be better spent in helping the suffering.

His opprobrium was not limited to the church. He used a sermon to the World Conference in 1982 as an opportunity to forcefully condemn the nuclear arms race. He joined marchers in Washington protesting against US support of right-wing paramilitaries in Central America.

“I try to be a voice for the cause of human rights,” he said. “I believe God is a respecter of all persons, concerned for their well-being and that I should be also. If Christians don’t take the lead in advocating peace, liberty and justice, who will?”

He thus felt the church must be prepared to risk everything to be a prophetic witness of God’s justice in a world repressed by sinful structures. This meant the church could not avoid engaging in the political arena – it had to play the role of Nathan to the world’s King Davids.

“The call of Jesus to the cross was a call to love God and one’s neighbor in so direct a way that the authorities in power could only regard it as revolutionary and also subversive,” he said. “‘Taking up the cross,’ ‘losing one’s life,’ meant being willing to die at the hands of political authorities for the truth of the gospel, for that love of God which encompasses all humans.”

Obviously this approach angered many people, who felt Neff was using his position as a church leader to forward his political agenda. Ironically, the Prophetic Witness Model is similar to the One True Church Model in that it firmly believes in its own truth.

Which Model for Contemporary Community of Christ Mission?

Given the above five models, which is the most appropriate for the Community of Christ’s mission in a pluralistic world? Personally, I find the first two – the One True Church and Fulfillment models – to be imbued with an unacceptable cultural superiority and parochialism. The Dialogue model, while not a bad approach to pluralism is a little wishy-washy for my tastes. There is a great deal we can learn through cross-cultural dialogue – indeed in a globalized world I believe we are called to engage with ‘The Other.’ However, I believe religious institutions are also called to arbitrate and determine the difference between right and wrong.

Much of my own career has resembled the Social Service model. I work in the secular world, within the humanitarian and development sectors. The last thing I want to be called is a missionary. But nonetheless I think that the church is called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the imprisoned. However, I recognize that simply providing social services is not sufficient – it can even be paternalistic. To give the poor food without asking why they are hungry and who is to blame, is an exercise in irrelevance.

Therefore, I think the most powerful model of mission for the Community of Christ is that of Prophetic Witness. As a church we must emulate Jesus, standing with those who are suffering and speaking truth to power. We must work to transform those systems of oppression that prevent each person being valued as an image of God – no matter their culture, religion or background. We must be ready to risk the very life of our institution to be relevant to the world’s needs – to speak with authority and vision, calling for the fulfillment of the dream of the lion and lamb lying together with the child, where all can live in peace and unafraid.

Matthew Bolton.

To read Matthew’s previous blog postings on the mission and direction of the church, click here to read his article ‘Managed Decline or Rejuvenation’, or click here to read “The Community of Christ is Not a Peace Church.” To read his biography of Charles D. Neff, Apostle of the Poor, click here.

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16 comments on “Models of Mission in a Pluralistic World

  1. Matt,

    Great post. Neff’s passage resembles the passage of many others in the same time period as America woke up from its imperial position as WWII victor. Of course, some have not woken up. But, each model described here is alive and understood by many in the church. This is a very helpful scheme for thinking about mission.

    I have a comment on this one sentence: “Ironically, the Prophetic Witness Model is similar to the One True Church Model in that it firmly believes in its own truth.” If this is true, I believe it is only in appearances. True, both hold a trait of sectarianism – meaning a particularist view on what is right and the claim to have a handle on that truth. However, in the end, I think the Prophetic Witness Model gives up much more.

    Much more could be said, but I want to remain brief.

    It is ironic. Last night, I began a post about Zion and asking the question, “What happened to God’s historical project?” In other words, there was a day when the fulfillment of CofC/RLDS faith was in something concrete. We saw ourselves in some sort of fulfillment of history. Our faith had an impetus. While I understand the deconstruction of the problems with some of those ideas, so much has been lost in the process. What is our historical project? What is God doing, now, in history? Principles? Offices? Initiatives?

    Mission is a great idea. It is a step back to where we need to head. But, I want to see the Community of Christ claim a project, or several projects. The cause of Zion strives fro the concrete. As it fails, it must again be rebirthed in history.

  2. bewarethechicken says:

    Individually, witness or mission, is the outward response to one’s experience with the divine. If one has truly come in touch with the divine within her, then one cannot help but express that through witness, mission, action.

    A church, in my opinion, is the corporate expression of individual mission. That is to say, it should be an effort to exploit the synergies of people who want to express their understanding of the divine.

    I don’t think this needs to be limited to any one of the models set out above. I belive that corporate expression of divine love is accomplished by sharing presonal experiences with the divine, while living a Christ-like life.

    In the end, as missionaries, we are selling something. We are selling our idea of what God is. If this idea is that God loves some more than others or that God loves a particular group more than others, then our mission will reflect that. If this idea is that God loves all equally and that we are all called to give and receive divine love, then our mission will reflect that. We have to decide what we’re selling first, I think, before we can decide on the best method to sell it.

    Good post.

  3. Lyle II says:

    Thakyou for your thoughts and reflections… they have been flowing through my head since reading them. Words churning in my head as I try and find the ways to phrase the thoughts they evoke in me. Thoughts of this past weekend when I and 50 some others celebrated the end of of journey together as a class of seminarians and entering the next phase of our journey of life to the theme “Reimagining Ministry, Transforming the world” being reminded by the Dean in his address to “speak truth.”
    The prophetic model has much to share, though like any model there are ways it can be misused, and things which perhaps are needed that it may miss.
    Yes, “We must work to transform those systems of oppression that prevent each person being valued as an image of God – no matter their culture, religion or background. We must be ready to risk the very life of our institution [and our own?] to be relevant to the world’s needs – to speak with authority and vision, calling for the fulfillment of the dream of the lion and lamb lying together with the child, where all can live in peace and unafraid.” but we must also in doing so be true to who we are a Christian tradition that is inspired by the testimony of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, and the continuing presence of the Living Christ. A testimony that provides us with the understandings and convictions to share the truth that all are of worth, that all are loved. And a testimony of the need for peaceful, loving, sportive community that seeks to uphold, honour, recognize, and celebrate the worth of all and finds unity within the amazing diversity of the Holy’s creation… Not to say “we are the only” or “we are the best” or “you must do so for the same” but just “this is why we do, this is where we draw our wisdom, our insight, our… This is how we encounter the Holy and are transformed, healed, restored”
    I think somewhere in those mess of words is what I meant, and probably some I didn’t :)

  4. Rick Collins says:

    To me, the most important part of any approach to mission is to focus on being the church. That is, being the body of Christ/bringing the ministry of Jesus to life for people.
    This is perhaps the fullest expression of the prophetic model, in that it provides prophet witness in word, action and in all aspects of our lives.
    Of course this is a very difficult thing to live up to.

    In doing that we are not only bringing people into the experience of God, we’re also providing needed social ministry, and speaking prophetically all at the same time. After all, Jesus’ ministry contained elements of all these things.

    Just some thoughts.

  5. Doug Gregory says:

    Wisdom is the beneficiary of time, and that which survives for extended periods of time (hundreds or thousands of years) cannot be summarily dismissed by any of us. To throw away the thoughts of a Plato or Confucious or a tribe from some remote region of the world is to perhaps not understand how God works through that person or people to reveal himself. Just as God may reveal himself differently to me than to any one of you, basing our perspective on God solely on the recorded stories of one tribe is probably a bit limiting. We must be open to hear God through whichever voice he is speaking.

    When going through the We Share document, there are phrases that will touch some number of people: reconciliation, restoration of wholeness, a freedom to become who God calls us to be. These things we believe to be available through relationship with Jesus Christ, and millions of souls around the world are in need of them. If a soul is well, to use a line from Jesus, he has no need for a doctor. We are sent to those who need healing, and to them, it may not be so much the model we use as it is that we are willing to share with them what has been shared with us – the free gift of grace as expressed in Jesus Christ.

    I must agree that conversion by sword is not something to celebrate, but at the same time, I honor all of those who have shared the message of reconciliation out of the love and freedom placed in their hearts. We are not sent to all, but to those whose cries have not yet been heard or stilled.

  6. FireTag says:

    The words that caught Matt Frizzell’s attention caught mine as well. Replacing a 20th Century mid-Western American view of Jesus Christ with a 20th Century “blue state” interpretation of a 1st Century Eastern Med view of Jesus Christ doesn’t solve the fundamental problem. I think that problem is trying to shoehorn the Christ of the cosmos into the view of ANY single culture (and that’s on only one planet! ;>))

    The problem really becomes even more complex if we ever let the maintenance of the institutional role get in the way of completing the mission as we understand it. I think a lot more individuals are ready to sacrifice than the CofChrist as an institution may be ready to do.

    All in all, Matt B., a very illuminating post.

  7. As I understand the mission of Jesus, it was to teach people that all people had the right to be thought of as people of worth. he actually died for that position because it would have required the Imperial Roman government to either change or capitulate.

    Therefore, I think we are called to stand against all the facets of our government that are unjust. The poor need to be offered the opportunity for education either in the university or in the trades. Education is the only path out of poverty. A handout is insulting. A hand up is appreciated.

    And that’s just the start of our responsibility. I think it is our responsibility to be vigilant in criticizing all areas of our government where vice and waste are obvious. I could go on and on.

  8. John Hamer says:

    It seems that many of the problematic aspects of these models arise when mission is seen almost exclusively as an internationalized export, (which apparently became the norm in the church in Neff’s day). If your mission is outreach within your own neighborhood and community, isn’t it easier to avoid the traps of paternalism and imperialism?

    • FireTag says:

      And I think John’s position can be reconciled with Margie’s if we are open to the idea that influence at the national or international level may NOT always be best realized through faith-community-based organizations.

  9. It could be. At least in small communities, people know you and know your motives. But we all need to be aware of the world in which we live and do everything within our power to have an influence for good.

    I used to write my congressmen and women until I learned that the interns answer their mail using position books. Then I began to write letters of my concerns to the local newspapers, realizing that they employ a clipping service and all concerns for good government are saved and brought to the attention of the representative.

    I get answers for the representative in answer to my letters to the editors.

  10. Joanne Chapman says:

    Is there are drop down menu on this site where we can be linked to all topic or at least a variety..



  11. 4854derrida says:


    I’ve just uploaded two rare interviews with the Catholic activist Dorothy Day. One was made for the Christophers [1971]–i.e., Christopher Closeup– and the other for WCVB-TV Boston [1974].

    Day had begun her service to the poor in New York City during the Depression with Peter Maurin, and it continued until her death in 1980. Their dedication to administering to the homeless, elderly, and disenfranchised continues with Catholic Worker homes in many parts of the world.

    Please post or announce the availability of these videos for those who may be interested in hearing this remarkable lay minister.

    They may be located here:

    Thank you

    Dean Taylor

  12. Matt,

    This an excellent post that really makes one think. The church has changed so much in my lifetime. Much of that change has been good but it has a long way to go in peace and justice issues to be a signal of community.

    I still think each of us is called to build community in our own communities first and from that improvement, the influence will grow. There is so much important work that can be accomplished in each community…working to improve them and to counter waste and corruption. We people in the pews have very little influence in Washington DC but we can have much influence in our own communities…if we don’t simply sit on our hands and wait for someone else to act. ..which is often our tendency.

    Thanks so much for helping me think these things through.

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  14. […] part, because the church was trying to move into the developing world, and leading apostles like Charles Neff became convinced that the developing world did not care about the traditional Restoration story […]

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