It has been a long time since I have been impacted in so many different ways through the reading of one book. There are gems of wisdom and poignant challenges on nearly every page. This is a book that not only brings the reader up to date with the latest in mission theory but inspires one to get involved. After a quick overview of the book a few points will be queried and others of interest touched upon.
Goheen is theological director in missional theology at the Missional Training Center in Phoenix, and he begins by looking at the paradigm shift in Missions Studies today. He examines the great changes that have occurred in the global church with Christianity declining in the West whilst growing in the South. 1980 marked a turning point where there were for the first time more Christians in the global south than elsewhere and more Pentecostal believers than all other Protestant Christians (p. 19). He defines the new understanding of mission through four definitions (pp. 25–26). First, ‘the witness from all six continents’. He then shares Christopher Wright’s definition of mission as: ‘our committed participation as God’s people, at God’s invitation and command, in God’s mission with the history of the world for the redemption of God’s creation.’ Third, mission is no longer the geographical expansion of the gospel but its global communication, and finally, ‘mission is the whole church, taking the whole gospel to the whole person in the whole world.’
With that foundation, part one of the book reflects biblically and theologically on mission (chs. 1–2). Part two examines historical and contemporary reflection on mission (chs. 3–5) before part three reflects on issues in mission today (chs. 6–11). Here Goheen discusses issues ranging from holistic mission, contextualization, the missionising of Western culture, encountering world religions, urban mission, and mission to unreached areas.
In the first section it was slightly surprising that on outlining a biblical theology for mission, Goheen begins in Genesis 3 with the first messianic promise: ‘God announces his intention to restore the creation right after Adam and Eve’s treasonous act of rebellion (Gen 3.15)’ rather than in the creation narratives in Genesis 1–2. Later he uses N. T. Wright’s useful illustration of how the biblical narrative might fall into six acts if it were a play (pp. 69–70) but skips over Act 1. Half a dozen pages later creation is finally mentioned but only as a flashback when Goheen considers how the instruction the Israelites received in the Law led to a threefold orientation for their lives that enabled them to be a model for the nations: ‘They were oriented backward to creation: they were to be a picture of what God originally intended for human life in creation’ (p. 44, emphasis original).
Although starting with the fall rather than creation is hardly new among Protestant theologians, with Goheen’s emphasis on missio Dei it could have been more instructive to start with God’s purposes for humanity in the creation stories. He could have examined what some theologians have called the cultural, social and relational mandates, as a basis for what God expected for his people, before fleshing out how, despite the fall, God initiated covenants with his creatures to ultimately bless all nations.
Goheen rightly emphasizes the critical importance of a biblical theology of mission rather than using proof texts to support the mission task:
The Bible is a narrative record of God’s mission in and through his people for the sake of the world. It tells a story in which mission is a central thread—God’s mission, Israel’s mission, Christ’s mission, the Spirit’s mission, the church’s mission. Indeed, ‘the whole Bible is itself a “missional” phenomenon’ (p. 37, citing Christopher Wright).
There are many thought provoking ideas and quotes throughout the book. From ch. 2: ‘The formation of the church for mission should be the motivating force that shapes and energizes our theological labors in all their diversity and distinctiveness’ (p. 87, citing Darrell Guder). In looking at historical paradigms of mission (ch. 3) he quotes Adolf Harnack speaking of the attractive power of the local congregation in the first three centuries of the church: ‘we may take for granted that the mere existence and persistent activity of the individual Christian communities did more than anything else to bring about the extension of the Christian religion. . . . These communities exerted a magnetic force on thousands, and thus proved of extraordinary service to the Christian mission’ (p. 123). One of the great strengths of this book is how Goheen avoids bypassing the role of the local church to focus on paraecclesiastical mission organisations: ‘The church is not only the place but also the instrument of the Kingdom’ (p. 249). The people of God play the fundamental role in the mission of God through Christ’s church.
In the fourth chapter on an emerging ecumenical paradigm of mission, I was forced to reflect on how my local church could be more contextualized, which quickly led me to rethink our practices of worship in song, preaching, and discipleship. Although faithful to his evangelical, reformed tradition, Goheen is ecumenical in his reflection on contributions from other ecclesial traditions such as Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Pentecostal. He does very well in highlighting what can be admired in other traditions such as the Roman Catholicism, prevalent here in Latin America, with its critique of Modern Western culture, ‘especially of secularization, pluralism, individualism, globalization and consumerism’ (p. 175). He still gently critiques their weaknesses when necessary, such as the inclusivist position of the Roman Catholic Church regarding other religions: ‘It is clearly affirmed that salvation is only through Jesus Christ; however, that affirmation is held along with two other factors: salvation is possible outside explicit faith in Christ, and other religions can be a channel of that salvation’ (p. 173).
However I felt he was too generous toward the Jesuits. He glosses over their role in the Counter Reformation and in general avoids a critique of the Spanish and Portuguese methods of ‘doing mission’ in the sixteenth century conquest of the Americas. He rightly highlights the Jesuit radicalism in contextualization (a precursor perhaps to the efforts of Hudson Taylor in the protestant mission to China centuries later): ‘they sought to indigenize the faith in those non-Western cultures with various experiments that adopted cultural customs, employed vernacular languages, and utilized the religious concepts and books of the people’ (p. 275). This is contrasted with the Dominican efforts, with Goheen concluding, ‘Unfortunately, after a protracted battle for over a century, the Roman Catholic Church finally sided with the Dominicans and suppressed the creative efforts of the Jesuits’ (p. 276). It could be strongly argued, however, that they went too far down the route of syncretism, for example in encouraging the emergence of the Virgin of Guadalupe-Tonantzin in Mexico.
Whilst not feeling competent to comment on the development of the church’s mission in the rest of the world as outlined in ch. 5, since I know something about the situation in Latin America, it seems clear that Goheen has done his homework. His overview is very good, although a few small details have escaped him. Missiologist René Padilla is actually Ecuadorian and not Argentine, although he spent around four decades living in Buenos Aires. Goheen goes on to quote Padilla saying that the Ecclesiastical Base Communities [usually called EBCs in English and CEBs in Spanish and Portuguese rather than BECs, as Goheen mistakenly has] ‘may well become the most powerful challenge to the Church of Jesus Christ in the next few years’ (p. 201). Goheen makes it appear as if this was said recently and is still applicable to life in Latin America today, even though the footnote makes it clear that Padilla wrote those words almost thirty years ago and this was an example of where he was simply wrong. There is a well-known aphorism that says that whilst the Catholics opted for the poor, the poor opted for Pentecostalism! Here and in a few other places Goheen’s apparent reliance on course notes put together over a twenty-five year career teaching on mission becomes apparent. Conversely we see the advantage that he is not a slave to only recent missiological writing; in fact part of the richness of this book are the quotes from historically wide-ranging sources.
Goheen astutely analyses the strengths and weakness of church growth in Latin America (mainly Pentecostal) and indigenous theological systems such as liberation theology. Their contribution to the world church often tends to be praised uncritically or rejected completely without understanding the context in which they arose and their impact (or lack of) to society today. Both extremes are well avoided.
The highlight of the chapters on current issues was the one on urban mission. With plenty of stats Goheen shows that ‘if the church is to reach the people of the world, it must be in the cities where they live’. Amid engagement with Tim Keller’s address to the third Lausanne Congress in Cape Town, ‘Why God Loves Cities’, Goheen stated that, ‘The strategic importance of urban mission is apparent when we see that there are four kinds of people in the cities: the next generation, the unreached, the poor and the shapers of culture’ (p. 374). Throughout the book we are challenged to rethink our deep belief in mission as a movement from the ‘civilized West’ to the rest.
One final quibble. On occasions Goheen does not critically engage with some of his sources such—e.g., Lesslie Newbigin (on whom he did his doctoral research) and David Bosch. On the one occasion when he slightly critiqued Bosch it came as somewhat of a surprise. However, Goheen nowhere claims to provide an original analysis of missiology, but rather a survey of World Christianity which aim he fulfils admirably. Indeed, one of the great strengths of the book is precisely its introduction to many of the great names in missiological thought.
Many are familiar with the aforementioned Bosch and Newbigin, along with old practitioners Roland Allen, Stephen Neill and recent writers like Samuel Escobar, Andrew Kirk, Alan Kreider, René Padilla, and Lamin Sanneh. There were also several new names such as Hendrikus Berkhof, J. H. Bavinck, Hendrik Kraemer (all Dutch), Harvie Conn and Ross Hastings (from or teaching in Canada) who were added to my reading list.
Through perusing the pages of Introducing Christian Mission Today: Scripture, History and Issues, I was convinced that I am not a missionary but a cross-cultural worker. Goheen argues that ‘what defines missions today is not exclusively the crossing of cultural or national boundaries with the gospel, but creating a gospel witness where it is absent or weak’ (p. 403). I struggled to argue the point before conceding that he is probably right and that part of my role in Latin America now is to raise up non-Western missionaries to reach groups that traditional Western missionaries will struggle to reach.
The urban challenge along with that of the 1.6 billion unreached Muslims, 1.3 billion Chinese and almost 1.6 billion Hindus (p. 416) highlights the huge task the Christian church is still faced with. As Jesus stated (p. 52): ‘the harvest is’ indeed ‘plentiful but the workers are few’ (Mark 9:37–38). This excellent book by Michael Goheen will be widely used to challenge the next generation of Christians to encourage, support and even be part of the ‘few’.