The Book of Revelation and the call of the church to mission (Dean Flemming)

Sometimes Christians find it hard to understanding the Book of Revelation in the Bible. At the same time, the followers of Jesus don’t always know how to embody the mission of God in their lives. But in his book, Recovering the Full Mission of God, Dean Flemming helps us to read Revelation (and other New Testament books) and understand God’s call for the church to participate in his mission, especially in the Western world.


Here are a few excerpts from Flemming’s book.

[The] church is to come out of Babylon—“to be a godly community in the midst of the ungodly empire.” (Page 238; emphasis added; see Rev 16:19; 17:5; 18:2, 10, 21.)

From Revelation’s perspective, the church lives out its missional calling in a world dominated by a Roman Empire that had declared its power to be absolute. Rome had hijacked the claim to sovereignty over the world from the one true God. This idolatrous order was demonstrated above all in the emperor cult, which thrived in the cities of Asia. (page 238)

It is a call for God’s people to abandon Babylon-like living. Practically, it means distancing themselves from such ordinary cultural practices as eating food sacrificed to idols (Rev 2:14–15, 20–21). Christians could encounter idol food in a whole variety of settings. These included public festivals, social dinners at the temple, and meetings of the trade guilds, all of which involved honouring the emperor and the traditional pagan gods. But although this might be a “normal” activity in the culture, in John’s prophetic eyes, it is a compromise with state-sponsored idolatry. Leaving Babylon would also involve forsaking unjust economic practices. And, as Christ’s message to the church in Laodicea reveals, it is a departure from self-indulgent consumption, along with the arrogance that fuels it. “I am rich,” boast the Laodiceans, “I have prospered, and I need nothing” (Rev 3:17). In short, exiting Babylon entails leaving behind whatever values and practices support the idolatry of the empire and oppose the claims of the true and living God. (page 239; emphasis added)

God’s people must live as a holy, distinctive community in the public square. Loyalty to the Lamb is no private affair. They have “his [the Lamb’s] name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads” (Rev 14:1; cf. Rec 22:4), for all to see. In Revelation’s symbolism, they bear a divine “seal” (Rev 7:3–8; 9:5) as an outward, visible sign that they belong to God, not to the beast (cf. Rev 13:16–17). The church’s life is not hidden, but on parade before a watching world. As God’s people “Follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4), they become a public embodiment of the narrative of the crucified Lord. And this draws others to the Savior.[1] (page 241; emphasis added, except for “in the public square”)

What would it mean for Christian communities to “come out of Babylon” today? In the first place, we must seek to discern, by the Spirit’s guidance, where “Babylon” is to be found. It may be nearer than we think. Where in the world do governments or corporations increase their own wealth and security at the expense of powerless people? Where do nations use political, military or economic force to promote self-serving policies? Where do political or economic powers act in ways that demand idolatrous allegiance? Where do individuals and societies cuddle the culture-god of consumerism? And in what ways are Christians drawn into being an accomplice to Babylon, whether actively or passively? (page 241; emphasis added)

Source: Dean Flemming, Recovering the Full Mission of God: A Biblical Perspective on Being, Doing and Telling (Downers Grove: IVP, 2013).


A quick reflection on reading Romans missionally

I spoke at a mission event recently. Here is a thought I shared, based on Romans 8:3–4, 29; 12:2, 9, 13.

A missional reading of Romans urges us to see God’s purpose of creating a Christ-community that has given its allegiance to Jesus because of his self-sacrificing death. This community seeks to be conformed to the image of the Son, so that it may be transformed into a Christ-centred, love-motivated and stranger-loving missional church.

Holistic mission of CIM

This year OMF International celebrates their 150th anniversary of participating in the mission of God in East Asia.


As an Asian, this passage from their new book brought me to tears.

Along with perhaps a thousand independent churches planted, and many more embryonic small gatherings of believers, the CIM started schools and Bible colleges, hospitals and clinics, and refuges for opium addicts to detoxify. CIM workers cared for orphans and abandoned babies. They brought love to abused women, to rejected leprosy sufferers and to the outcast. They challenged every power of darkness, the breadth and length of the vast country of China. They often buried their children, their spouses or their colleagues, as so many diseases simply treated today were then beyond the scope of contemporary medical knowledge. Some died a martyr’s death, such as during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, when many Chinese Christians also lost their live. Many served year after year, trusting that God who is faithful would one day bring a harvest, whether or not they lived to see it.

Source: Rose Dowsett and Chad Berry, God’s Faithfulness, pages 24–25.

Dimensions of incarnational missiology

Some time ago I read the late Ross Langmead’s The Word Made Flesh. I really enjoyed reading it. Here is a summary of the three dimensions of incarnational missiology that he mentioned.

(1) Following Jesus. “This vision of incarnational mission emphasises costly discipleship which involves a whole-of-life response in Christopraxis. It pursues holistic mission . . . It sees mission as being patterned on the life and teaching of Jesus, including solidarity with the poor, a life of vulnerable love, and a socio-religious challenge to the status quo which is likely to lead to suffering (the way of the cross).”

(2) Participation in Christ. This emphasises the “continuing presence and initiative of the risen Christ through the Holy Spirit, without which discipleship is impossible. . . . If mission as following Jesus emphasises the cost, mission as participating in Christ (or conforming to Christ) emphasises grace. Eastern Orthodoxy expresses the transformation which occurs as Christians live in Christ in terms of being drawn into the likeness to God or deified (theosis).

(3) Joining God’s incarnating mission. This dimension, as Langmead understood it, sees “God continually reaching out to the universe and becoming embodied in many ways in it, particularly in the life of humanity . . . The incarnating dynamic of God, therefore, is seen to begin in creation. It is also seen definitively in God’s redemptive self-emptying in Jesus Christ. It moves toward eschatological consummation, when the creator will fully indwell creation. God’s mission of enfleshment, meanwhile, is revealed to be the basis for inculturation . . . In considering this emphasis we [note] . . . that it would be a narrow view of incarnation if it referred only to God’s ‘turn to the world’ and it neglected the challenge to culture represented in the cross and Jesus’ prophetic teaching. Overall, this third dimension provides the basic view of reality in which the incarnation is a natural expression of God’s outgoing and incarnating nature.”

Source: Ross Langmead, The Word Made Flesh: Towards an Incarnational Missiology (Lanham: University Press of America, 2002), 270–1.

Cultural (suburban) captivity of the church

Tim Foster, vice-principal of Ridley College, Melbourne, has written a book, The Suburban Captivity
of the Church: Contextualising the Gospel for
Post-Christian Australia (Melbourne: Acorn, 2014). (The price of the Kindle version is AUD$6.64 today.) Tim Foster studied at Moore College, Sydney, Australia, and did his DMin at Fuller Seminary, US.

I am very interested in this book, but haven’t got the time to read it yet. But I am delighted to read a number of reviews on this book. I will highlight a few things from those reviews and then offer some reflections. Please note that I haven’t read the book myself, and hence the following is not a review of the book as such. Rather, it is a reflection on my observations on the Australian church and the implications to mission in the non-Western world.

Here are the authors of the reviews. Click on his/her name to read his/her review.

Philip Hughes

Tess Holgate

David Burke

Simon Holt

According to Tess Holgate, Foster moved from a suburban parish to an urban one, and there his understanding of the gospel was challenged. Not surprisingly, then, in his book Foster provides the profiles of suburbanites, urbanities, and battlers. I haven’t got the book myself, but I find the following diagram from Philip Hughes’ review helpful. Note that the information in the diagram is from Hughes’ review, not directly from Foster’s book.

Screen Shot 2015-02-15 at 5.47.58 pm

Here is Hughes’ summary of Foster’s understanding of suburban values and how evangelical Christians in Australia may fit into that.

The suburban vision, says Foster, is ‘the pursuit of a comfortable, secure and settled life, in an ordered domain, with one’s family and closest friends, where each individual is free to pursue those interests that will bring happiness with minimal disruption’ (p.75). However, he notes that consumption is conspicuous and functions as a sign of upward mobility in the suburbs. Competition is also inherent in the suburban ethos, not only in consumption, but in spectator sports, cooking and parties, and even giving one’s children private education (p.76). The evangelical churches are strongest in the suburban areas as the values they espouse may be closest to suburban culture in terms of their emphasis on family life. Yet, God often has little place in the suburban vision, Foster says, except to bless the aspirations and assist in their fulfilment (p.77). People sometimes turn to God when things go off the rails.

I haven’t read the book myself. But whether Hughes’ summary reflects accurately Foster’s book, I think the above observation of suburban life is not surprising.

The following from Hughes’ review is also noteworthy. It won’t be new to anyone who has spent some time in an urban church.

Foster notes that, in Australian cities, the working class has diminished as the middle class has grown. Some of the other groups who are at the bottom of the socio-economic range, such as refugees and some non-Western immigrants, some people with disability and mental illness and some on long-term social benefits, share some characteristics of the battlers, but each of these sub-groups is distinct in their own ways (p.116).

In the following I want to offer my own reflections.

(1) Let us not allow the suburban culture to shape our lives. In the Gospels and in Paul’s letters we do not find Jesus or the Jesus-followers living an upwardly mobile life. Middle-class prosperity and aspiration were not the focus of their lives. Rather, the disciples were called to follow Jesus, take up the cross, and embody his life, suffering, death and resurrection in their everyday life. Our value system should be shaped by the cross, not by the values of suburbanites or urbanites, or any other belief or ideology. (It doesn’t mean that we should feel guilty if we were born into a middle-class family, or if we happen to have a high income. What matters is that we live a cross-shaped life.)

(2) We should read the Bible carefully. Anyone who reads the Scriptures carefully would find that individualism, consumerism, and materialism are incompatible with the values of God’s kingdom. We must learn to critique our culture with the Bible.

(3) Let us make the move. It is interesting that Tim Foster’s view of the gospel was challenged when he moved from a suburban parish to an urban one. I am not proposing that we should all move to an inner-city church. But it helps to spend time with people there, so that we can give ourselves the opportunity to discern whether we have unwittingly allowed a suburban mindset to shape our lives. It is important to spend time with the urban poor, the marginalized, the asylum seekers and refugees, and allow their lives to speak to us. There are Christian communities and churches that can assist us to do that. They are not hard to find.

(4) Make sure that we do not export a distorted gospel to the rest of the world. It seems to me that a “gospel message” that is held captive to our culture of materialism and individualism (“me” as the centre, not Christ) is incompatible with the gospel in the Bible. A “gospel message” held captive to the pursuit of upward mobility is not based on the Scripture. A suburban lifestyle that keeps us from the plight of the poor and marginalised is deceptive. It actually keeps us from seeing the Jesus in the Gospels, who identified with the suffering of humankind, not least the pain and affliction of the poor and oppressed. My concern is that western Christians spread a distorted gospel to people in other parts of the world. (I am worried that this may have already happened!)

The best way to avoid this is for western Christians to spend time with the poor and needy in their home country. It is a great preparation for anyone in the West who wants to serve God overseas. This is particularly the case if they spend time in an urban church. Inner-city churches—if and when they are truly missional—are often multicultural, with not a few people coming from low socioeconomic backgrounds. What a great training for those who feel that God may have called them to overseas cross-cultural mission!

N T Wright on image-bearing in the world

I just came across this good quote from N T Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013).

To put it in shorthand: in a world whose icons had been reflecting non-gods, the renewed iconography which informs and sustains the material symbolic universe of the Messiah-people begins with renewed human behaviour. And this dovetails exactly with the ‘new Temple’ vision … The spirit’s indwelling enables the Messiah’s people to be a dispersed Temple-people, the living presence of the one God launching the project of bringing the true divine life into the whole cosmos.

I often think that the “idols” (the “non-gods,” if you like) of our world today manifest themselves in terms of consumerism, materialism and individualism. It seems to me that the vocation of Christ-followers is to bear God’s image in the world through the empowerment of the Spirit. I would add that this image-bearing is indeed about cross-bearing—to live a life that is shaped by the suffering and death Jesus. As we do so, we bring life into the world. Our “temple” is not so much the physical church buildings per se, but the embodiment of God’s presence in a hurting world.

The mission of the church (Jürgen Moltmann)

What is the mission of the church? To some, it is obviously about evangelism. For others, there are different dimensions of the gospel according to the Bible. It seems to me that it has to do with declaring the lordship of Jesus, and making disciples who are willing to embody the crucified Christ and risen Lord in their lives and communities. It is about participating in the mission of God. What do you think?

Last month (10th Feb 2014) Joel Willitts cited in his blog the following from Jürgen Moltmann’s book The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology. It is about the mission of the church and I think it’s insightful.

In many Christian churches, similar polarization have come into being between those who see the essence of the church in evangelization and the salvation of souls, and those who see it in social action for the salvation and liberation of real life. But in Christian terms evangelization and humanization are not alternatives. Nor are the ‘vertical dimension’ of faith and the ‘horizontal dimension’ of love for one’s neighbor and political change. Nor are “Jesuology’ and christology, the humanity and the divinity of Jesus. Both coincide in his death on the cross. Anyone who makes a distinction here, enforces alternatives and calls for a parting of the ways, in dividing the unity of God and man in the person, the imitation of and the future of Christ.

These alternatives are equally absurd from the point of view of practice. Evangelization would lead either to a crisis of relevance or to an inevitable involvement in the social and political problems of society. Beginning with preaching, one is then faced with questions of community organization, the education of children and the work for the sick and poor. The humanization of social circumstances leads either to a crisis of identity, or inevitably to evangelization or pastoral care. Beginning with the improvement of social conditions in the poverty-stricken areas and liberation from political oppression, one is then faced with the question how the wretched and oppressed can be removed from their inner apathy and given new self-confidence, that is, with the question of how to arouse faith and conquer the structure of servility in their minds. Of course one cannot do everything, but at least everyone must recognized the other charismata in the body of Christ and the necessity for other work by other people to relieve misery.

‘Change yourself,’ some say, ‘and then your circumstances will also change.’ The kingdom of God and of freedom is suppose to have to do only with persons. Unfortunately the circumstances will not oblige. Capitalism, racism and inhuman technocracy quietly develop in their own way. The causes of misery are no longer to be found in the inner attitudes of men, but have long been institutionalized.
‘Change the circumstances,’ other say, ‘and men will change with them.’ The kingdom of God and of freedom is suppose to be a matter only of circumstances and structures. Unfortunately, however, men will not oblige. Breakdowns in marriage, drug addiction, suicide and alcoholism continue undisturbed. Structures which make people unhappy can be broken down, but no guarantee is attached that men will be happy.

Thus both must be done at the same time. Personal, inner change without a change in circumstances and structures is an idealist illusion, as though man were only a soul and not a body as well. But a change in external circumstances without inner renewal is a materialists illusion, as though man were only a product of his social circumstance and nothing else. (22-23)

Source: accessed on 8th March 2014

A life-giving world-changing community envisioned by Paul (Part 3)

[This following is the second part of the series of posts about the community Paul envisioned. The last post can be found here.]

Modern and ancient perspectives

Reading this passage from our perspective in Australia can be misleading, because the majority of us are not poor. Many of us have sufficient resources (in terms of income, skill set and intellectual ability) to flourish in life. The reverse was true for Paul’s audience. Those with ample resources were the minority. Often we don’t have to spend time with the poor. But it was highly likely that in every house church in Rome there were slaves, unskilled workers and homeless people.

For us, showing honour to people living in poverty would mean something like not looking down on those living in the slums in Asia or Africa. To put into practice “crying with them” would be to give financially, like sponsoring a child through a Christian organisation. But for Paul’s audience it would be totally different. If they were to love without pretence, those with better financial resources would find themselves sharing their wealth sacrificially with the community. If they want to follow Jesus wholeheartedly, they would be compelled to help someone on the verge of selling himself/herself into slavery. For them, to associate with people with no status meant to eat with them, allow their children to play with them, and share their menial tasks whenever they gathered together.

What does a Jesus-community look like in Melbourne?

What would this Jesus-community look like in Australia? I live in a suburb in Melbourne about 20km east of CBD. But God led me to a little inner-city Christian community some years ago. It is there that I have come to realise that a measure of Paul’s vision can be realised in Australia.

I have been immensely blessed by people whose circumstances are exceedingly difficult. I have met asylum seekers who have spent months or years in detention centres. Their stories break my heart. I have come to know refugees who were persecuted because of their Christian faith. But their determination to overcome obstacles is amazing. I have heard stories of people living with a disability when they are bullied at work or treated unjustly by the society at large. But I have come to understand that they are people full of dignity. Their tenacity is inspiring. Their ability to look to God in the worst of times is extraordinary.

I now know that Paul’s command to honour one another is a mutually enriching experience for everyone. Both the rich and the poor benefit from it. Those at the lower end of the social ladder receive the rare honour that they would not otherwise get. But it is in honouring others that those at the upper end of the social hierarchy learn that indeed everyone deserves their respect. The faith and resilience of the marginalised and disadvantaged are profound.

In fact, there is no such a thing as the rich helping the poor in the Christian community that we are part of. It is true that the well-to-do may assist others financially in private. But we all know that this community is about mutual giving, for the haves and have-nots are equally generous. Some years ago we provided accommodation for about a dozen asylum seekers. These folks held temporary visas that did not allow them to work, even though they wanted to. They did not have their families with them and would not know when they would be reunited with their loved ones. Then Victoria experienced the worst bush fire in memory a few years ago. On hearing this, these socially disadvantaged and financially poor people showed us their exceptional generosity. They ran a fund-raising dinner to support our church’s effort to assist the victims of the bush fire. Those who suffer are often the ones who love most.

My experience in our community has convinced me that sharing lives with the poor and marginalised will help us come to a better understanding of the Scripture and God’s heart. Paul’s vision is that we will associate with the lowly – the outcast, the poor and needy (Romans 12:16). It is not about the rich reaching down to the poor. Instead, it is about learning from them and realising the grace of God that has been poured out into their lives. It is about crying with them and standing in solidarity with them.

Paul’s mission and ours

I wonder what a Jesus-community in Taiwan would look like? Without being there myself I hesitate to comment. But here is my imagination of what a church in my home country looks like. People from all walks life gather regularly to worship God. Both the educated and unlearned partake in discussing the biblical stories when the Scripture is read aloud in their gatherings. Outreach programs are organised to welcome new migrants from rural areas. The elderly do not feel lonely or abandoned. The factory workers do not feel that they are second-class members of the church because of their lack of education or economic resources.

Where did Paul get his vision of the church from? I suspect that he has been inspired by the love of God that is found in the sacrificial death of his Son (Romans 8:3, 31-39). In his letters Paul repeatedly talks about the grace of God that has been accomplished through the death and resurrection of Christ (e.g. Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 1:22-24; 15:1-8). He urges us to participate in his suffering, death, resurrection and glorification, so that we may be conformed to the image of the Son (Romans 6:1-11; 8:17, 29; 2 Corinthians 3:18). The outworking of this renewed image-bearing is that we, as a Jesus-community, should love one another (Romans 12:1-15:13). Likewise, in the Book of Acts we find that Paul proclaims Christ with great perseverance despite immense persecution and danger (e.g. Acts 26:19-23). Importantly, wherever the gospel is preached, he establishes Jesus-communities and exhorts them to follow Christ wholeheartedly (e.g. Acts 20:13-38).

I believe that Paul reckons that his mission is to proclaim Christ and form Christ-centred, love-filled and life-transforming communities everywhere in the Roman Empire, for that is God’s way of turning the world upside-down. May our lives be so transformed by the life-giving gospel that we will give our lives totally to participating in God’s community-forming project. [e]

[e] Parts of this article appeared previously in Sight Magazine. See

A life-giving world-changing community envisioned by Paul (Part 2)

[This following is the second part of the series of posts about the community Paul envisioned. The last post can be found here.]

The make-up of house churches in Rome

But I find hope and comfort in Romans 12:9-16. In this passage Paul shows us his vision for the house churches in ancient Rome. To understand this passage we need to first take a look at what life was like for the Christians there. The Roman society was strongly hierarchical. People’s social status determined their identity, place in the society, and their prospect of life. Within such a social system, economic exploitation and social oppression were common. The vast majority of Rome’s inhabitants were non-elites. Slaves consisted of around one third of the population. Children of slaves and female slaves were often subject to sexual abuse. Many residents were war-captives or their descendants.

Homeless people were not uncommon in Rome, and many others lived in crowded apartment blocks or even slums. Bruce Longenecker estimates that roughly 65% of Christians in Paul’s churches lived at or below subsistence level. [b] Just under half of them would be struggling significantly because they are the unskilled day labourers, widows, orphans or people with a disability. About 25% of Christians would have “some minimal economic resources,” but they “would clearly have been conscious of their economic vulnerability and their proximity to poverty.” People like Priscilla and Aquila would probably belong to this group. It does not, however, mean that the followers of Jesus in Rome were all destitute. Longenecker estimates that about 10% in the Christ-community would have “moderate surplus”, although not without economic risk.

In a separate study Peter Oakes provides us with an informative analysis of the social make-up in Rome. Using the archaeological findings in Pompeii, Oakes carefully constructs a hypothetical social description of a house church. [c] It might have about 30 people. There might be a craftworker who rents a fairly large workshop, with accommodation for his wife, children, a small number of slaves and perhaps one dependent relative. There would be other householders who could afford to rent, but with less space for their families, slaves and dependents. In the same house church there would be a couple of slaves from other households, a few free or freed people, and a couple of homeless people. It is remarkable how this social make-up fits into Longenecker’s economic profile. The craftworker and other householders would have moderate surplus. Not a few others, especially the householders, would have reasonable resources to make ends meet. Others, including skilled and unskilled workers, widows and beggars, would be living at or below subsistence level, with various degrees of vulnerability.

Paul’s vision for the Christ-Community

It is to Christians in house churches like this that Paul outlines his vision for them in Romans 12:9-16, which says,

Let love be sincere. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be heartfelt in your love to one another, like members of your family. In honour, go ahead of one another. In zeal, do not be lazy. Be set on fire by the Spirit. Serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope. Bear up under tribulation. Be devoted to prayer. Participate in meeting the needs of the saints. Pursue hospitality. Bless those who persecute you. Bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice. Weep with those who weep. Think the same thing toward one another. Do not think highly of yourself, but associate with the lowly. Do not become proud in your own estimation. [d]

This passage speaks of some amazing characteristics of a Jesus-community. It is a love-filled fellowship where people share life together. They love without pretence (12:9). They rejoice and cry together (12:15). There is profound healing power when a community shares their joy and sorrow in sincere love. They welcome strangers into their homes (12:13; CEB), which is immensely life-giving for a city with lonely people needing shelter and love.

It is also a life-transforming community, where people are honoured regardless of their social standing. They show honour to one another (12:10). They consider everyone as equal, and associate with people who have no status (12:16; CEB). One can imagine that in this community the relatively well-to-do craft-worker embraces the slaves and homeless. Generosity is a by-product of genuine affection for one’s siblings in Christ, rather than simply an act of goodwill. People can be a leader or minister by virtue of their God-given gifts, regardless of their social or economic positions (cf. 12:3-8). This community is most countercultural – and at the same time life-giving – in an intensely hierarchical society where slaves are not honoured and unskilled workers are despised. Thus Paul envisages a community that practises status-reversal and hence redefines people’s identity according to their intrinsic value in Christ.


[b] References for the following discussion can be found in Bruce Longenecker, Remember the Poor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), pp. 57, 246-9, 295.

[c] Peter Oakes, Reading Romans in Pompeii (London: SPCK, 2009), p. 96.

[d] This follows the translation by Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), pp. 796-70, with some changes to the punctuations. I have also changed the first half of Rom 12:10 from “In brotherly love, be heartfelt in your love to one another” to “Be heartfelt in your love to one another, like members of your family”.

[To be continued here.]

A life-giving world-changing community envisioned by Paul (Part 1)

[The article below was originally published in Zadok Perspectives, Spring, 2012, pages 19–21. I will post the article as a series in this blog. The article is used with permission from the editor of Zadok Perspectives. I have slightly edited the article.]


I love the Scripture. I also believe that God loves the poor and that we are called to proclaim Christ as the king and Lord of the cosmos. For nearly seven years I worked in an overseas relief and development organisation. My job was to engage with Australian Christians about issues of poverty and injustice. To be honest, I found it a very difficult job. There are two main reasons. The first is that theologically there seems to be a polarisation of views between those who put emphasis on evangelism and those who believe in social justice. The second reason is that socially many Christians have little contact with the poor and it is hard for them to understand what it means to be living in poverty.

I have come to realise that it is far better to use real examples to illustrate what poverty and mission look like in practice. In this article I will first outline a contemporary mission challenge in Taiwan. I will then share stories about my own personal experience in poverty overseas and what I have learned in an inner-city community in Melbourne. It is also vital to study the Scripture and allow the biblical texts to speak to us, rather than allowing polarised theological presuppositions to dominate the discussion. I have, therefore, selected Romans 12:9–16 for our discussion below. In doing so I will draw our attention to some recent research on the social condition of early Christianity, and see how it may bring fresh insights into Paul’s theology and mission.

Working class in Asia

My involvement in mission has alerted me to a phenomenon in Taiwan. The working class in Taiwan makes up two thirds of the population. They are factory workers, taxi drivers, shop workers and small business owners. They are mostly uneducated. Most of them are involved in Taoism, Buddhism, ancestor worship and other folk religions. Despite more than 100 years of missionary activities in Taiwan, less than 0.5% of the working-class people are Christians. But there are many churches in Taiwan, except that their members are typically middle-class and educated. It is recognised that working-class people find it hard to fit into these churches. About 2.6% of the overall population in Taiwan are Protestants, and 1.3% Catholics. This means that not a few non-working-class people are Christians. Realising the needs of the working class in Taiwan, missionaries from organisations like OMF live among them, seek to identify with their struggles, and endeavour to reach out to the most marginalised people in their midst. [a]

I have not undertaken research into why there are few churches among the working class in Taiwan. But the situation reminds me of my own working-class background in another Asian country. I was born in a relatively poor urban neighbourhood. As a child I had to work in a factory so that we could make ends meet. Everyone in the family worked long hours in order to survive. We didn’t have a bedroom and the whole family slept in one bed. I find that people can understand these facts intellectually, but it is harder to recognise the anxiety and fear that are associated with these living conditions.

Working long hours for the sake of survival is not only tiring but also emotionally draining. When children have to work they don’t have time to play with their friends, and are deprived of a normal childhood experience. When a teenage girl has no bedroom she doesn’t have any privacy. Then there is the constant fear that the whole family will go further into the downward spiral of poverty. Indeed life in that situation is very stressful. Depression, mental illness and family breakdowns are all too common. I can say from my own experience that it was a life that I would rather forget, for it brings back horrifying memories.

[To be continued here.]

[a] Source: (accessed on 10th June 2012).

Participation in a community hammered by poverty: Story of a New Testament scholar

I am always encouraged when a biblical scholar spends time with those living with poverty. This means that the scholar engages with both the Scripture and God’s world at the same time, which enriches her/his own understanding of the Bible and the people whom God loves dearly.

Here is the story of Timothy Gombis, Associate Professor of New Testament at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. (I posted this elsewhere last year, and I think it’s worth re-posting.)

“In the 90′s, my wife and I were in a doctrinally oriented church in which being Christian meant having the right mental furniture, having our doctrine sorted out right, and getting others to think the way we did.

During my doctoral studies in the early 00′s, we became convinced that being Christian was communally-oriented and needed to be lived out through service to one another and others. When we moved back to the States in ’04, we looked for a church that exalted Christ and reached out the poor and marginalized to absorb them into a thriving community life of flourishing. We found that church, an urban church plant that served a community hammered by poverty. We read the Gospels and sought to put many of these challenging texts into practice–learning to forgive one another, invite poor people to our homes, receive invitations to enter their homes (not easy for middle class people!), share the ministry load with “others” who didn’t do it like we did, etc. Those were wonderful years–hard, but so rich. Lots of other things to add here, but that’s just a sampling…

We recently moved to Grand Rapids and participate in a ministry that provides shelter for homeless people. We take up concrete service opportunities to participate in the ways our church proclaims the gospel and participates in it.”

The following is an excerpt of a separate correspondence I had with Tim. I really like what he says here.

“What changed everything for me was the day-in, day-out exposure to what it meant to live in poverty.  We recognized the power-differentials in our relationships when we just handed out money.  We invited others to minister alongside us in relationships of reciprocity and mutuality rather than top-down relationships of power-inequality.  It was tough, but it completely transformed us.

So many other lessons, too, but our eyes need to be opened through the actual experience–incarnational experience.” (Used with permission.)

(Click here for Tim Gombis’ blog post, and his story above can be found in the comment dated 30th April 2012.)