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.

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