Wednesday, January 19, 2011

MissionShift: 1.3 - On Enoch Wan's Response

At the outset of his reaction to Dr. Charles Van Engen’s essay: “Mission” Defined and Described, Dr. Enoch Wan explained the format he would utilize. I appreciated the manner in which he clarified his intent. He utilized his brief rehearsal of Engen’s essay as a means to compliment the author’s essay as well as the credentials that give weight to his writings. As I read Wan, I was impressed that his major contribution to this dialogue might be his indirect but fervent acknowledgement that could be verbalized; “How we view mission influences how we do mission.”

Wan discusses two major objections or corrections which he suggests need to be addressed in Engen’s essay:

  1. reduction of Trinitarian implication of mission to a merely Christocentric approach
  2. focus on the institutional dimension of mission at the expense of the individual dimension.

Finally, he provides an alternate definition of mission which corrects deficiencies he perceives in that provided by Engen.

With reference to the Trinitarian/Chistocentric issue, Wan affirms Engen for his citation of “key trinitarian texts” but finds him not “true to the texts.” Wan states, “Thus the richness of the theological foundation of mission being Trinitarian has been reduced merely to being Christocentric.” He also indicates Van Engen “cites trinitarian texts but unnecessarily reduces missio Dei to being Christocentric only.”

I agree that the language used by Van Engen is predominantly Christocentric, but I also perceive that he clearly identifies the import of the triune Godhead. This is evidenced in his statements, “Biblical mission is God’s mission. Mission is participation in the mission of Jesus Christ, the Lord of the church, in the power of the Holy Spirit.” (p.12) And “God’s mission works through sending the people of God…by the work of the Holy Spirit…as a sign of the coming of the kingdom in Jesus Christ.” (p.27)

In Wan’s suggestion toward enhancing the trinitarian nature of mission, he offers a diagram of “The Interactive Relationship within the Trinity and Beyond” which he suggests, “clearly portrays the complexity of the divine and human realms converging, plus the dynamic interaction of the triune God with personal human beings and the institutional church.” After reviewing the figure and reading Wan’s description, I find that what he states explicitly provides little additional clarity. Perhaps my perspective is too trinitarian to perceive the distinctions, but when I read of the work of Christ, I automatically envision the Father and the Spirit engaged in that same work. I cannot divide His essential unity.

With reference to Wan’s second objection, institutional verses individual emphasis, I deeply appreciate the author’s concern. Too often our discussion of mission almost totally revolves around the church gathered engaging people the Gospel through ministries of declaration or demonstration. Too seldom does our dialogue reflect the individual sentness of every follower of Christ in mission within his or her own sphere of influence. In addressing this issue which is a component in his diagram mentioned above, Wan states, “There is no dichotomy between the individual and institutional dimensions of the Christian mission… It is therefore not correct to leave out the individual aspect and focus exclusively on the institutional missional church as Van Engen does.” Yet Van Engen’s final section includes his working definition of mission which states “God’s mission works primarily through…sending the people of God…[for] participation in God’s mission of reconciling people to God, to themselves, to one another, and to the world and gathering them into the church.” (Emphasis added) While I totally agree with Wan’s desire to emphasize the individual role in mission, the micro level, I cannot agree with his assessment that Van Engen is “anti-individualistic.”

Regarding the “better alternative” definition of mission offered by Wan, I must object to his creation of a dichotomy between spiritual (saving souls) and social (ushering in shalom) elements in mission. Postures of dualism challenge every concept of mission with the assumption that some ministry actions are sacred while others are secular (or in Wan’s case, spiritual and social). If this is true, during His incarnation our Lord spent massive amounts of time in unspiritual activities. When our actions are compelled by the Spirit of God, those are spiritual activities, even if it appears as only a “cup of water given.” In no way am I equating the value of a cup of water with the value of a soul, but I am sure that a better choice of words is possible than the dichotomy posited by Wan.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

MissionShift 1.2: Reacting to Eitel

In reading Dr. Keith Eitel’s Response to Van Engen, I respectfully submit that the professor succumbed to the “ready, shoot, aim” school. At points in his chapter, I questioned that we had read the same essay. Again, as mentioned yesterday, the Van Engen assignment in MissionShift, was to review the historic use of the term “mission” by the Christian church through the centuries. The essay is titled “Mission” Defined and Described. Yet, Eitel casting of Van Engen’s desired outcome is “to affirm the term missional but to do so with some distinct and emphatic qualifications.” Later, “The essential focus of the essay is to dissect the historical pieces of postmodernity’s preference for the term missional and look at what is inside.” This direct miss in acknowledging Van Engen’s assignment, in my opinion, results in more of a personal rant than a response.

From his unusual opening paragraphs, which introduce an anonymous “missionary” bowing before a Shiva, the author sets out without regard for the essay to which he was supposedly responding. Five paragraphs into his “response” before referencing Van Engen’s work, Eitel writes: “Missional methods or models used to engage a given culture with the gospel reflect an underlying set of assumptions about what missionaries are commissioned to do. Something seems awry with the Shiva sham described above. Are there limits to what Christians can say or do when being relevant? How does being relevant translate into being missional or even just doing missions?”

Interestingly Eitel consistently uses the term “missions” rather than “mission.” Based upon his use of phrases like “or even just doing missions,” one might assume that missions is an operation originating from human cause. That is, “missions” is something man does, rather than an attribute of God in which the church is invited to participate. He warns, “Unless believers set hermeneutical measures in place that will safeguard the integrity of the gospel message itself, missions will falter.” While I certainly agree with the importance of hermeneutics, I doubt that God’s capacity to accomplish mission will falter based upon man’s initiative. Is the purpose of the Sovereign God really that fragile? Not only do I view Eitel’s perception of mission as reductionist, his understanding of missio Dei is similarly limited, “…that Jesus alone is the Sender and the Church is sent out into the world” in his words “comprises the missio Dei.” There is more breadth to God’s reign, and depth in His creative and redemptive work than Eitel indicates as “comprising” the missio Dei.

I affirm Eitel’s concern that methods employed in mission need to operate within biblical boundaries; the means employed in mission must be compatible with the desired end. “If the outcome undermines, destroys, threatens, or contradicts the message we wish to communicate, then we have surpassed biblical boundaries and lost touch with Christ’s mission entrusted to His Church.” But I do not agree with his assessment that Van Engen “…concludes that David J. Bosch and others …shifted the mission world’s focus” that “set the stage for the current identity crisis among those who are engaging in missions or claiming to be missional.” Eitel appears to distrust new methods, reflective thinking, and creative tension regarding mission, “We live in a time of dangerous creativity in missionary circles.”

He subsequently identifies the work of Alan Hirsch, as an example of what Eitel calls “a bipolar attitude” that affirms the truth of the Bible while also encouraging relativistic flirtation with cultural modes of thought and action. Eitel quotes a familiar Hirsch passage warning of the threat of any mission expression that blends “religious pluralism and philosophical relativism” saying “the challenge must drive us closer to our original message, not further from it.” Immediately following this quote Eitel dismissively concludes, “…while the sentiment is right, the DNA will breed theological error.” Interestingly, this section of his “response” to the Van Engen essay introduces subject matter which was totally absent from the essay.

My experience with missional church practitioners, those seeking to be the Body of Christ expressed with relevance through a missional posture, does not match the characterizations afforded by Eitel. He writes, “Leadership is suspect if they claim to know truth especially if it is deemed biblical since truth is personally derived. Highly individualized theological opinions are each considered valid and real even if they may conflict with the Bible.” And concludes, “If being missional means relationships that entail little or no intentional and verbal proclamation of the gospel, service without concern for eternal destiny of human souls, or finally relevance without responsibility for truth, then let us simply reaffirm the Great Commission and be willing to keep on telling the old, old story to everyone that wills to listen. The result may be godly disciples and New Testament churches…”

My heart aches when I read those words and reflect on brothers and sisters who are seeking to live as authentic disciples of Jesus interacting with cultures of people who have no knowledge of that old story. Through serving, loving, and listening; through investing deeply in the lives of those without Christ, they seek opportunity to be heard. Their lives validate the message that their lips profess. I would rather affirm a generation which lives with the tension of “dangerous creativity” than to live in pernicious malaise.

Monday, January 17, 2011

MissionShift Week 1

Today at the invitation of Ed Stetzer, I join a host of others in a dialogue built upon essays from the book MissionShift: Global Missions in the Third Millenium, by David Hesselgrave and Ed Stetzer (B&H Academic, 2010).

This week we were asked to react to Charles Van Engen’s contribution“Mission” Defined and Described. Each day this week, I intend to provide brief comments about his article (today) and responses to that article by various authors which are presented as subsequent chapters in the book.


The task which Van Engen accepted is certainly ambitious, a rehearsal of the historic use of the term “mission” by the Christian church; to be capsuled in twenty-three pages. I found it somewhat humorous that other writers responding to his essay identified numerous omissions from his history. Clearly, space confines history. I regarded his treatment as effective within the limitations of an essay rather than a tome.

In fact, I question the value of attempting to define mission. While it can be described, in fact indefinitely so, it cannot be confined to a single definition. I do not propose that there are no clear characteristics for mission, but the totality of assigned characteristics or descriptors still do not define the term. There will always be more facets to be illuminated than any definition can portray. It is like defining love; virtually impossible.

Van Engen quotes Sidney Rooy, “There does not exist, nor has there ever existed, only one definition of the mission of the church. … Each definition and all understandings of the biblical bases of that mission are tentative and are subject to new evaluation and change. Truly, each generation must define mission anew.” While acknowledging these words, Van Engen positions any construct of mission as requiring a foundation in Scripture. Biblical authority is paramount. While some may cite the limited number of biblical references cited in his essay, I perceive the author to have clarified this foundational assumption so that an extensive reference to particular Biblical passages is not required.

Further, the author identifies mission as originating in God rather than the church, but advocates the centrality of the church as God’s agent sent to “invite all peoples to become Jesus’ disciples and responsible members of Christ’s church.” While he addresses the dialogue between ecumenical and evangelical concepts of mission, Van Engen is clear, “This basic understanding of the word mission is most basic and should never be lost or eclipsed by subsequent discussions and refinements.” And “Mission is not merely church extension, not is it merely doing good works of compassion.” He concludes with a ringing Christological statement, “The Sender is Jesus Christ, whose authority defines, circumscribes, limits, and propels Christian mission.” One senses that through His use of compounding synonyms, the author is evidencing the depth of personal emotion with which he views this matter.

After describing the Constantinian era, actually quoting an extensive section on this subject from Sidney Rooy, Van Engen reflects on colonization as not being inherent only to that era. He cautions, “In today’s mission activities, when denominations, mission organizations, or mega-churches set out to “plant” new churches that are essentially identical branch offices of the sending organization, the parallels to the medieval view of missions are quite troubling.”

When giving attention to the development of indigenous churches built upon the “three-self” formula, stressed by some as the goal of mission, Van Engen provides personal commentary on that which has also been adopted as the administrative philosophy for church planting by many within the US. In that commentary, Van Engen returns to his familiarity with Latin America, stating that many “three self” churches started there by Western European and North American mission endeavors now tend to reflect a forth “self” component, “self-centered and selfish.” He includes a footnote comment stating strong personal opinion, “I believe the “three self-formula” is one of the major reason for [the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico’s] lack of missionary vision and practice.”

The author deals with the tension that has long existed between Gospel proclamation and demonstration in mission. He reflects historic rhetoric that has surfaced around this issue, “when everything is mission, nothing is mission.” Some of the various verbal framings of this ongoing debate are woven throughout the essay. In this matter I continue to opt for the breadth of meaning in the scriptural term “evangelization” rather than the reduced form “evangelism.” The latter tends to be overseen by the guardians of evangelicalism who understand the term as the verbal proclamation of the Gospel about Christ. The broader word has room for both proclamation and demonstration, the message about Jesus and the message of Jesus.

I respect Van Engen’s conservative word of caution, not that of an alarmist, but of an informed authentic mission practitioner, “In the twenty-first century Evangelical mission agencies are becoming increasingly committed and involved in humanitarian and compassion ministries, children-at-risk movements, and so on. Given these new emphases in Evangelical mission activism, it behooves us to consider carefully how Evangelical views of mission today may be tempted to repeat the same errors made when mission was redefined…” in a previous era. Let us hear the caution and continue with feet solidly grounded in both components of the Gospel of the Kingdom.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Crescent Project Event in DFW Metroplex

I hope to see many of you at FBC Arlington for this important event offered by our colleagues at Cresent Project. We can be more Christlike in how we view and respond to our Muslim neighbors; an incarnational perspective on a global issue.

For more information visit

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

New Songs

Sing to Him a new song…Psalm 33:3

Every experience of God’s love and kindness should give melody and words to a new song. The oft repeated phrase “Sing to the Lord a new song” is more than a trite statement. It is the expectation of God for praise appropriately erupting from grateful hearts that are aware of His provision and interaction on behalf of His creatures.

Only those who have eyes to see, who don’t just pass through life but who truly observe are capable of composing new songs. Whenever one is conscious of God’s lovingkindness in the minutiae of the moments their heart yields line upon line of music in praise.

We sing the songs of those who have gone before us, joining our voices with theirs to remember what God has done in history. So the victors of Revelation 15 sing the song of Moses. But it would be a tragic silence if the people of God were only to sing again the song of others, failing to give voice to their own products of praise. In fact, “praise is becoming to the upright” (Psalm 33:1). A waiting soul will produce a rejoicing heart when God is the focus (Psalm 38:20). It is the soul that actually sings when the realization breaks upon us that God has done for us that which we could never do for ourselves (Psalm 30:11-12).

Every nation and people should join in singing the historic hymns of the ages. At the same time, every nation and people should be scripting its own indigenous chorus of praise; their own “new song.”

Note: The photo was borrowed from the blog of Kathleen Mower, who says “being the Primary Chorister is the very best calling in the Church.”