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Taking a New Look

In their recent book, Changing the Mind of Missions (InterVarsity Press, 2000; 192 pp, $12.99), James Engel and William Dyrness provide a challenge to the Western missions movement that is timely and on-point for all involved in seeking to advance the kingdom of God, and especially relevant to those of us whose focus is on China. The authors pull no punches as they incisively analyze the shortcomings of “Missions, Inc.,” as they dub the Western missions establishment. At the same time, they offer helpful suggestions to both agencies and churches on how to adapt to the changing realities of the world in which we live and minister.

“North American Christian commitment to world evangelization is in sharp retrenchment. . . . . The purpose of this book is to help you understand why this crisis has arisen and what it will take to reverse the dangerous sag and decline now so disturbingly evident.” (p.17)

Three trends that threaten to derail the North American missions movement are identified:

  1. The captivity of the movement—and much of the evangelical church—to American cultural realities, especially economic and political pragmatism.
  2. The shift of missions initiative and leadership to the two-thirds world, while Western missions continue to launch initiatives and maintain programs conceived in the West that are often inappropriate and even harmful in other contexts.
  3. The loss of our theological roots through the reduction of the Great Commission to proclamation.

The authors view the latter trend as the most serious of the three and urge a return to the discipling of the nations as the goal and the re-integration of evangelism and social action as the means to this end.

“There is no question that the Christian presence indeed is being expanded globally. But is evangelism the outcome Christ intended when he said, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations . . .’? Making disciples involves much more than encouraging people to accept certain truths about God and to begin attending church. It involves a total transformation of the heart and life that involves a righteousness that impacts not only individuals but families, communities and nations.” (p.22)

The book also analyzes the other two trends, and challenges the church in the West to examine its methodology in the light of both biblical patterns and the changing realities of our time. The authors charge that Western churches and mission agencies are captive to outmoded paradigms, dealing at length with the extent to which modernity has impacted us.

Dyrness and Engel contend that the goal of missions should be not to reach the world, but rather to discern and respond strategically to the leading of the Holy Spirit.

“It is time to flesh out what world missions might look like if it is (1) initiated and empowered by God, (2) motivated by a vision of the reign of Christ, (3) characterized by mutual sharing from mulitiple centers of influence, and (4) committed to partnership and collaboration.” (p.97)

Engel and Dyrness devote time to both the Church in Missions and Missions Agencies. Dealing with the latter, they call upon agencies to carefully reevaluate every aspect of their ministry, from core values to procedures. Indeed, agencies are called to an entirely different approach to ministry than most have pursued in the past:

“For decades Mission, Inc., has tended to move from the Western center to the periphery, ablaze with technological firepower, large-scale programs, and a visibly Western worldview. . . . Becoming Galilean means adopting a very different outlook and approach.

“Galileans are pilgrims with a message that must be visibly incarnate to other seekers of the truth, and being Galilean is not defined by geography, wealth, education, or technological sophistication. Pilgrims do not possess a ‘religious product’ that must be marketed by skillfully persuasive firepower to an unreached world. Strategy, technology, numerical growth and resources are not driving considerations, because the pilgrim model is characterized by an unfailing commitment to place people before programs.” (p.166)

An intentional approach to leadership development is urged, and donor-driven strategies are eschewed. The authors also offer some specific suggestions for re-engineering agencies to operate more effectively and efficiently. The book closes with a helpful summary that encourages churches and missions agencies to respond positively to the challenges facing us. Not all readers will agree with either the diagnosis of the problem or the prescriptions for correction offered by the authors. However, the issues they grapple with are critically important, and we all need to wrestle with them.

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Jim Nickel

Jim Nickel was vice president of ChinaSource from 2000 to 2004 and was involved in promoting work among the unreached Chinese peoples for many yearsView Full Bio