Friday, November 17, 2006

Missions: Where have we gone wrong?

Book Review

James F. Engel and William A. Dyrness, Changing the mind of missions: Where have we gone wrong?, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000).

In Changing the mind of missions, James Engel (founder of Development Associates International) and William Dyrness (Dean of the school of theology and professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary) seek to present their findings on the crisis that has arisen pertaining to the North American and Western missions.
The book was divided into seven chapters and begins with a case study on a fictitious scenario of the Global Harvest Mission (GHM) and First Church of Rolingwood to illustrate the dilemma faced by a typical Western church. The first three chapters dealt with the present crisis in missions and where missions have gone wrong. They recognised there is a shift of missions initiative to have moved to the two thirds world. The reason for the closing door on the Western influence of missions in the world was due to their failing in understanding the ‘mission statement’ of Jesus Himself (Luke 4:18-19) and downplaying the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20) to just proclaiming and winning souls rather than making disciples worthy of the Lord Jesus Christ. The way modern missions continuing in their past practices to evangelize are arguable as they were perceived as not moving with time (we are living in a postmodern world!).They are also guilty of reducing the world missions to a managerial enterprise, evangelism void of discipleship and local churches have lost their role in reaching out, and are exiled to just being the fund provider and missionaries’ sender.

In the remaining chapters, the authors call for a ‘gracious revolution’ in missions, which is desperately needed in the postmodern world. Managerial Missiology was criticized as not having foundational biblical truths, and the authors urged a paradigm shift in modern missions thinking, seeing and acting from a kingdom’s perspective. Social transformation need not be abandoned in the pursuance of evangelism, but it should be partnered fully with the evangelism. The emphasis of change is doing things the ‘community’ way where mutuality and accountability of individuals must take place. Only through the community’s life and its obedience to the gospel can “members minister to each other and to the world under the lordship of Jesus”. The authors believed living in the postmodern times have seen the increase in the interest of many in spiritual things. The church therefore is urged to take advantage of this situation, and rise to the challenge to creatively influence the current culture. Missions should therefore be the utmost outcome from the lay people’s initiatives and local church should be restored to its central role in the reign of Christ. All in all, missions need to be reengineered to become relevant in the changing world to respond to the needs of a generation hunger for an experience of God.

This book presents us a fearless critique of Western missions. It is true that the scientific strategies and numerical success were adopted as part of parcel of mission work across the world. For example, most churches in Malaysia that was once planted by missionaries from the Western world are pre-occupied with numbers and methods to win souls. This eventually leads to unhealthy outlook and questioning when a church fails to meet a certain target of conversion. All would agree with the authors on the notion that Western missionaries have done a poor job in making disciples, fulfilling only half the truth of the Great Commission and even worse in bringing social transformation together with our gospel proclamation. The highlight of the need for global partnerships to form between sending mission agencies and the receiving churches are to be commended as we are living in a world of communities where cooperation is much needed between both sides, both to touch lives and to work out discipling process contextualized to a particular cultural context.

In exhorting readers to come back to biblical fidelity, I feel their treatment of the Scripture lacks the balance and objectivity. For example, the authors make Jesus’ messianic statement in Luke 4:18-19 the paradigm for ours as well. This quotation has a messianic nature portraying Jesus as the only one fit to fulfil the Scripture (Luke 4:21), thus the ministry listed could only be fulfilled by our Lord Jesus, and indeed He did. No doubt Jesus was concerned with the physical sufferings of his people such as poverty, leprosy, imprisonment and blindness, but He was clearly more concerned with their spiritual state of poverty and blindness as indicated in John 9:39. Andreas Kostenberger has also demonstrated that the followers of Jesus are not necessarily called to do the same works He did.

Furthermore, as the authors are clearly against a single minded focus on evangelism or ‘just preaching the good news’, their zeal to prove otherwise was not justified with these verses, as ‘preaching’ and ‘proclaiming’ the good news are also mentioned. Using Jesus as the missionary figure in their book was clearly justified but unfortunately, his purpose to call back those who are His to return to Him was not just done merely with setting people free from their diseases or demon possession. Jesus Himself preached (Mark 1:38) and commanded His disciples to do the same (Luke 9) so those who are lost would be saved (Luke 19:10). One would understand the authors’ call for stronger emphasis on making disciples, but not making evangelism as a priority in our mission clearly dismiss all understanding of ‘winning souls’ for Jesus and expanding His kingdom. This also contradicts with the apostle Paul whose primary focus was on preaching the good news. (1 Cor 1:17, 2:4-5; Rom 1:9, 10:14-15). If social ministry is to be the priority of all that Christians should endeavour, we would not be in any way prioritizing the Great Commission which the authors clearly use to argue their case. The priority should always be on souls, as these souls are whom we want to build as disciples!

Engel and Dyrness also said that “the existence of a need in and of itself does not signify a call to ministry”. I think this point is missing the core of Christianity and will effectually undermine, if not terribly misleading to the non-missionary reader. By and large more and more Christians think they need to have and develop some sort of ‘spiritual gifts’ FIRST before serving God. If we are to follow the authors’ proposal to join God where He is working, all Christians are called to ministry as God is working all the time! The world is in dire state of needs spiritually, and if we see an existence of need and do not emulate Jesus’ compassion in loving them enough to minister, we are definitely overlooking Christ’s command to pray for workers to be sent into a field ready for harvest (Matt 9:37-38). In all the technicality of ‘ministry’ and ‘spiritual giftings’, we forget that every Christians are called to evangelise, harvest and be builders of His kingdom.

Engel and Dyrness also points constantly to the differences between the modern and postmodern world and lump all issues raised under the reproach of modernity. There is seemingly an uncritical acceptance and accommodation to postmodern values and realities. But in reality, every era has its own challenges and difficulties just as modernism has. I believed post-modernism can also prove to be dangerous to the health of the church, and not just benefits. Among other things, post-modernism has allowed music to pre-empt the place of theology in defining true Christian worship. Christian rock which adopts its trends from the secular rock n’ roll style are creeping into the church worship service, often goes unchecked of its source and its motivation. Does this kind of worship revolution lead us to greater revelation of the truth, or further away from the genuine worship from the heart, sung through classical hymns and choruses of adoration and thanksgiving? In the name of postmodernism, I think the authors are guilty of redefining mission too broadly thus justifying a compromise of faith and sound theology because of cultural inclination towards ‘feeling’ and relativism.

The authors advocated a paradigm shift of the Western mission thinking to ‘kingdom paradigm’ where they return to biblical fidelity and doing missions the way God initiated. As apostle Paul rarely did his missions work alone, the mission agencies should characterize themselves as modern equivalents of biblical model of teamwork. Discussion on partnership between churches and mission agencies are greatly emphasized. Just like ‘no man is an island’, collaboration among Christian communities of different specialisation and skills should be highly exhorted. This book signifies the importance of ‘making disciples’ of the next generation of believers in order to raise up more Bible-based, Theology-sounded and Word-grounded believers for Christ. This notion will disturb the comfortable Western mission worker. I believed the world of missions is not as dim as discussed as changes and challenges mentioned are not entirely new. Some agencies and local churches are continuing their labour of love, and they are thriving and experiencing record growth in financial support and also in their reaching out to unreached people groups. Whether it is a model based on modernity approach, or model in response to postmodernism- as long as accountability, stewardship, strategic planning and a continuance in following the biblical model of teamwork with fellow saints around the globe is firmly established, the concept of mission will not be obsolete and will continue to flourish from one culture to another. Whether one agrees with the authors or not, it will challenge the minds of mission workers and all those who are connected with them. Maybe a case study of real people in real organisation would have sounded more convincing and compelling to read.


Post a Comment

<< Home