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.

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