by David Hesselgrave
I am honored to be invited to present my perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of the “revolution” in mission as so forcefully proposed by James Engel and William Dyrness in Changing the Mind of Missions: Where Have We Gone Wrong.
I am honored to be invited to present my perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of the "revolution" in mission as so forcefully proposed by James Engel and William Dyrness in Changing the Mind of Missions: Where Have We Gone Wrong. My reflections grow out of responses by Jim Engel and Bill Taylor to evaluations of this book by several colleagues and me as expressed in their letters to the editor and included in the July, 2001 issue of EMQ. With respect to my evaluation especially Engel (writing on Bill Dyrness’s behalf as well as his own) expresses disappointment and Taylor professes puzzlement. All three of these men are astute and respected colleagues and therefore deserve this effort to dispel puzzlement even though it may not be possible to even diminish disappointment.
I should make it clear to Jim Engel and Bill Dyrness and all concerned that, in large measure, my evaluation of their admittedly challenging book grows out of the problems I have with the so-called "new paradigm of mission" itself. The more "traditional paradigm" with which I basically concur gives priority to evangelizing and discipling the nations, and to gathering believers into responsible churches. According to that view, of course, evangelism/ church development and social/humanitarian efforts are held to be partners in mission, but not equal partners. The former is primary. The latter is secondary and supporting. New paradigm proponents, on the other hand, maintain that both evangelism and social concern are essential to mission. Neither has priority. To engage in one is as important as to engage in the other. They are full and equal partners.
Of course, the differences between the two paradigms are more numerous and complex than that. Characteristically the new paradigm maintains that Jesus’ messianic ministry (Luke 4:18-19) rather than Paul’s apostolic ministry is the biblical model for our mission and prefers an economic to a spiritual understanding of the "poor"; is dedicated to Kingdom building in preference to church planting; promotes the establishment of shalom on earth as much if not more than individual peace with God; holds- to "incarnational" missiology as distinct from "representational" missiology; emphasizes partnership rather than proclamation; speaks in terms of the transformation of culture as much or more than the transformation of persons; and so on. These dualistic formulations are not really new nor are they mutually exclusive, but the new paradigm emphasis on the former component in each case does represent a marked change from traditional priorities-at least from traditional conservative-evangelical priorities. The exchange of the new paradigm for the traditional paradigm almost invariably predicated on the need to change in accordance with changes in the world around us, though in a few cases proponents insist that their position is first of all based on a re-reading of Scripture.
So my evaluation of Changing the Mind of Missions grows out of a larger disagreement with the premises and propositions of new paradigm in mission and therefore should be neither disappointing nor surprising. As for the book itself, all of us should be able to find much there that is extremely helpful and merits careful consideration and implementation. We can readily agree with those sections that encourage increased recognition of the role of the local church, an understanding of the importance of non-Western churches and missions, and sensitivity to Christian leaders and laity of other nations. We can also agree that American missions of the twentieth century were overly influenced by "modernity." Western elitism, a managerial approach, uncritical acceptance of mission strategies, the resort to marketing techniques, a preoccupation with numbers, disregard for the local church-such criticisms are valid if not new. At the same time, wholesale criticism of missions in an era that included Ralph Winter’s "unbelievable years" and gave rise to those amazing statistics on world evangelization and church growth compiled by David Barrett and Patrick Johnstone may not be warranted or helpful. What would be more helpful is an united effort to examine that history carefully, deal with its weaknesses one by one, and make those changes that we agree would be both Christian and appropriate.
In all honesty I should mention several specific misgivings with Changing the Mind of Missions. First, in my estimation the book treats relevant Scripture rather cavalierly. For example, the few pages devoted to the Great Commission are presumed to be sufficient to support a holistic understanding of mission, whereas the New Testament scholar, Andreas Kostenberger devotes over 200 pages to mission in the Gospel of John alone and comes up with a very different conclusion in The Missions of Jesus and the Disciples According to the Fourth Gospel. Again, the book repeatedly indicates that the Great Commission will not be fulfilled until Jesus comes again. This has tremendous implications for reviewing the past and planning for the future, but, as far as I can see, the book lacks sufficient biblical support for this far-reaching contention.
Second, the book builds on a very selective reading of its own sources. For example, if D. L. Moody’s alleged de-emphasis on social concern is to be criticized, should the criticism not take into account his special calling as an evangelist and also the challenge he faced emanating from the social gospel of W. Gladden, G. D. Herron, W. Rauschenbusch and others? Again, if John Wesley’s emphasis on social concern is exemplary, should the discussion not deal with the significance of Wesley’s insistence that the church’s business is first to save the souls of those who belong to it as well as with his charge to preachers in which he said that they have "nothing to do but save souls" (Coleman 1990)? And yet again, if the appeal to new paradigm holism is to be reinforce by reference to the holism newly embraced by John Stott in Christian Mission in the Modern World 1975, should it not be mentioned that Stott retained a priority for evangelism in its relationship to socio-political action?
Third, the book seems to overlook some very important and relevant lessons that should be learned from a study of missions history. For example, at a very early stage in missions from America the well-known missiologist, Rufus Anderson, took note of the pronounced tendency of social institutions founded by missions to gobble up the human and financial resources required to raise up viable churches. Subsequently Anderson became one of the framers of indigenous church principles. The histories of mission after mission reveal the same tendency even when evangelism/church planting is held to be their number one priority.
Fourth, I get the distinct impression that Engel’s and Dyrness’s revolution argument does not ultimately rest on either biblical revelation or missions history. Rather it seems to rest on their firm belief that the postmodern world (including postmodern churches and Christians) has undergone such a sea-change that a sweeping repudiation of twentieth century missions is fully justified and a thoroughgoing missions revolution is absolutely essential. I therefore fail to understand why, for example, anyone who enthusiastically and even sacrificially embraced the goal of world evangelization (the gospel and a church for every people group) by the year 2000 (and beyond!) would find it possible to accept a completely new missions approach overnight. The world indeed has changed dramatically and changes are necessary. But has everything changed so dramatically and rapidly that, with the tick of a clock or the flip of a calendar, we should risk throwing out the mission baby along with the methodological bathwater?
Finally, in his letter Jim Engel tries to reassure us by writing the he and Bill Dyrness "… are in the tradition of the best evangelical thought (especially the writings of David Bosch and Lesslie Newbigin) since the 1970s." These are indeed eminent missiologists, but, frankly, some of us would breath easier if the book were in the tradition of evangelical thinkers such as Harold Lindsell, George Peters, J. Herbert Kane, Donald McGavran, Peter Beyerhaus and Ralph Winter.
With my colleague, Bill Taylor, I sincerely hope that Stan Guthrie’s concern for the future of evangelization is unfounded. And I hope that my concern that some evangelicals may be on a slippery slope is likewise unfounded. But it is significant that these very days the Evangelical Theological Society finds it necessary to focus on the boundaries of evangelicalism. I wholeheartedly agree with Taylor when he says that Changing the Mind of Missions should not be recommended to everyone. Only, as he says, to thoughtful leaders, field missionaries and students of mission. At the same time, I cannot overlook the obvious. First, the book was published just in time to enjoy a wide distribution among thousands of young people at Urbana. Second, the book will appeal to many who are culturally predisposed in the direction of its "missions revolution," few of whom will seek out a recommendation (or receive needful cautions) from astute missiologists such as Taylor himself.
Let us not close the book on these discussions as some proponents of the new paradigm would like to do. Rather, let us keep the door wide open to frank and constructive dialogue.
Coleman, Robert. 1990. Nothing to Do but Save Souls. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Francis Asbury Press.
Engel, James and William Dyrness. 2001. Changing the Mind of Missions: Where Have We Gone Wrong? Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Kostenberger, Andreas. 1998. The Missions of Jesus and the Disciples: According to the Fourth Gospel. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
Stott, John. 1975. Christian Mission in the Modern World. London: Fallon, Intervarsity Press.
David J. Hesselgrave is professor emeritus of Missions, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and co-founder and first director of the Evangelical Missiological Society. He is also author, co-author or editor of twelve books on mission theory and practice.
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