Practices of Mission: Witness and Proclamation
Posted by Inagrace Dietterich
This post contains the third of four presentations from the 2013 Missional Church Convocation in Chicago in July by featured speaker Steve Bevans.
Constitutive “elements” or “practices” of mission are rooted in Trinitarian mission practice. A first element to be considered is that of “witness and proclamation.” The church is called to live by its very life as a sign or sacrament of the Reign of God at the individual, communal, institutional, and ecumenical levels and to proclaim the Christian message both faithfully and effectively.
“Mission,” writes Pope John Paul II in Redemptoris Missio, “is a single but complex reality and it develops in various ways. Mission is a multifaceted, complex reality. In our book, Constants in Context, Roger Schroeder and I talk about mission as having six elements: (1) witness and proclamation; (2) liturgy, prayer, and contemplation; (3) justice, peace, and the integrity of creation; (4) dialogue with women and men of other faiths and ideologies; (5) inculturation; and (6) reconciliation. In this posting the focus is upon witness and proclamation. In the November posting, the focus will be on interreligious and secular dialogue.
Witness and proclamation really belong together. As Paul VI wrote, “The first means of evangelization is the witness of an authentically Christian life.” As the new document from the World Council of Churches says, “If our words are not consistent with our actions, our evangelism is inauthentic. The combination of verbal declaration and visible action bears witness to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ and of his purposes.” The two really go together.
Jesus’ mission was one of both words and deeds. The words explain the deeds, and the deeds explain the words. As Christians we need to do the same. John Stott declared: “If…there should be no presence without proclamation, we must equally assert that there should be no proclamation without presence.” Again, the two really go together.
At its Sixth General Assembly in 1983, the World Council of Churches described witness as “those acts and words by which a Christian or community gives testimony to Christ and invites others to make their response to him.” Thus witness involves proclamation, for neither can really be separated from the other. For our purposes I speak of witness more in terms of lifestyle and presence, which is sometimes referred to in Evangelical circles as lifestyle evangelism. As Paul VI says, “Modern women and men listen more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if they do listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”The emphasis is upon embodying what one is about, embodying what one proclaims.
The church’s missionary witness is of at least four kinds. At a first level, there is the personal witness of individual Christians. Some of these may be quite public and acclaimed, like the witness of Albert Schweitzer or Mother Teresa. But most Christian witness is given by Christians in their ordinary lives—in the patience of parents, the honesty of Christians in business, the dedication of teachers, the choices made about where to live, where to shop, how one is entertained.
Second, there is the witness of the Christian community. LesslieNewbigin speaks persuasively of the local Christian community as a “hermeneutic of the gospel.”1 Thus community itself can be witness. Just seeing a community that is loving one another and trying to live inter-culturally, trying to do justice by one another. Such a witness just reverberates. Indeed, the life and witness of the community may be the only gospel that many people will read. As Pentecostal missiologists Byron D. Klaus puts it: “One might ask how the gospel can be credible and powerful enough that people would actually believe that a man who hung on a cross really has the last word in human affairs. Undoubtedly, the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of people who believe it and life by it “(Phil 2:15-16).2
A third aspect of witness is institutional in nature. Such moments of institutional gospel witness—like the emergence of the Confessing Church in Hitler’s Germany, the issuing of the Kairos Document by the churches of South Africa, are examples of powerful institutional witness. Or church sponsored institutions like schools or hospitals are certainly great witness to what faith is all about. Many young people have been attracted to Christianity through the witness of dedicated teachers in Christian schools throughout the world, particularly in those places where institutions of learning were almost nonexistent. Christian hospitals that are more than places of physical healing offer a witness to the healing power of love in Jesus’ name.
Fourth and finally, we can speak of common witness, that is, the witness that various Christian traditions can render by working together. While full communion among these communities is still in the future and will only come about by God’s grace, it is already possible to witness to the unity that we share as Christians. Churches witness together when they pray together, work together for justice, offer common counter-cultural witness, and help support each other’s worthy efforts. As the Manila Manifesto pointedly stated: “If the task of world evangelization is ever to be accomplished, we must engage in it together.”3 That common engagement itself will be an eloquent witness to the gospel’s power to unite and reconcile Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, Asian and African, rich and poor.
John Paul II has spoken of proclamation—the explicit proclamation of the Lordship of Jesus and of his vision of the Reign of God—as “the permanent priority of mission.” The task of evangelization would be empty, said Paul VI, without proclaiming “the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the Kingdom, and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God.” Nevertheless, proclamation needs always to be done dialogically, taking into account the situation of those to whom the gospel news is addressed. The late Archbishop Marcello Zago once pointed out: “Proclamation presupposes and requires a dialogue method in order to respond to the requirements of those to be evangelized and to enable them to interiorize the message received.”4
Thus when we proclaim, it has to be connected to witness. “The deed,” wrote David Bosch, “without the word is dumb; the word without the deed is empty.”5 Proclamation must always be aware that God is present before the missionary arrives. God is present in the youth culture before we set up a youth group. God is present in secular culture before we try to make inroads in some aspect of that culture. God is always present and we have to be aware of that when we proclaim the gospel. What we want to try and do is say, here’s some words to help you understand what you are experiencing. Or here is a challenge that is going to help you go further in what you are seeking. That’s what really proclamation should be all about.
Moreover, proclamation is always to be given as an invitation, respecting the freedom of the hearers; it must never be done in a manipulative way. “The church proposes,” insists Pope John Paul II, “she imposes nothing.” Finally, authentic proclamation is the answer to a question. Alongside the Great Commission “Make disciples of all nations,” we need to place 1 Peter 3:15, give “the reason for our hope.” The first task of evangelization, mused Cardinal Francis George on a visit to the school where I teach, is to listen. We must stop doing mission with a “crusading” mind and do it with a “crucified” mind. Move away from military language and adopt a humble, open, and receptive approach.
Qualities of Proclamation
There are definite qualities that should characterize missionary proclamation. (1) It must be confident proclamation, not because it is our word, but because it is testimony to God’s Word and to the Spirit’s continuing presence in all places and at all times. (2) It must be faithful to the message transmitted by the church, that is, one that is deeply ecclesial. (3) It must be humble, both in the sense that those who proclaim have been chosen to do so by grace and in the sense that those who proclaim are imperfect vehicles in every sense of the word. (4) Proclamation must be respectful and dialogical, especially in the realization that God has already been at work before the missionaries’ arrival. And (5) It must be inculturated not just to make the gospel intelligible, but to show how it corresponds to people’s deepest desires.
Proclamation, as Mortimer Arias has pointed out, is the act of communicating the gospel about Jesus and the gospel of Jesus. It tells the story of Jesus, his life, ministry, death, and resurrection, and it introduces this man whose life and person were so transparent of God. This is the gospel about Jesus. But proclamation also tells of the gospel of Jesus—how his parables called his disciples to be forgiving, how his miracles called them to be agents of healing and wholeness, how his exorcisms called them to be opposed absolutely to evil in every form, how his inclusive lifestyle called them to be inclusive. Believing in Jesus is stepping in Jesus’ shoes and viewing the world like Jesus viewed it. So that’s the gospel of Jesus that we proclaim.
In conclusion, D.S. Niles once described proclamation as: “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” This is what mission is all about. This is what witness and proclamation are all about. We always need to take the context into account. Every time we preach, every time we teach a class, we need to realize to whom we are talking. What are the issues that are going on in various congregations, in various situations?Our goal is to bring the gospel to them in such a way that the gospel can illumine and challenge those particular situations.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Why do witness and proclamation belong together? How do they inform each other?
- When you hear the word “witness” what comes to mind?
- What is meant by “lifestyle evangelism”?
- In what ways can the Christian community itself be a witness?
- What is the relationship between proclamation and dialogue? Why is it important?
- Read 1 Peter 3:8-16. How does this text inform a “crucified” mind?
- What is the difference between the gospel about Jesus and the gospel of Jesus? In what ways are both important?
1 LesslieNewbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Eerdmans, 1989), 222-223.
2 Byron D. Klaus, “The Mission of the Church,” in Stanley M. Horton, ed., Systematic Theology, rev. ed. (Logion Press, 1995), 573.
3 Manila Manifesto, 9, in Scherer and Bevans, New Directions in Mission and Evangelism I, 301.
5 David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigms in Theology of Mission (Orbis Books, 1991), 420.
Steve Bevans is an internationally acclaimed scholar and friend of the Center community. He has contributed significantly to a theology of mission in the 21st Century, which he immediately describes is more a ‘spirituality’ than a ‘strategy,’ a “prophetic dialogue” — a bold yet humble engagement with today’s cultures and contexts. Steve is Professor of Mission and Culture at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, USA. He is a Roman Catholic priest in the Society of the Divine Word, an international missionary congregation, and served for nine years (1972-1981) as a missionary in the Philippines. His publications include: Models of Contextual Theology (2002), Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (2004, with Roger Schroeder), Evangelization and Freedom (2009, with Jeffrey Gros), and Introduction to Theology in Global Perspective (2009). Steve’s most recent publication with Roger Schroeder is Prophetic Dialogue: Reflections on Christian Mission Today (2011 Orbis Books).
The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.