Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Lucid Complexity: Review of Michael Goheen's, Introducing Christian Mission Today: Scripture, History and Issues.

Review of Michael W. Goheen's, Introducing Christian Mission Today: Scripture, History and Issues (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2014).

Michael Goheen, theological director and scholar-in-residence in missional theology at the Missional Training Center in Phoenix, among other posts, has written an excellent introduction to mission studies today. In one volume, he covers biblical and theological reflection on mission, historical and contemporary reflection on mission, and current issues in mission today.

The book has a clear, logical structure, introducing the reader to the field of mission studies, and then establishing a biblical, theological, and historical framework for mission thinking and practice. Goheen writes lucidly and brings the fruit of his immense reading to the task. Choice quotes from key students of mission adorn the pages as sidebars.

In his introduction, Goheen argues that the broadening of the concept of mission in 20th century was a positive development that challenged a modernistic mindset in the contemporary missiology that was also serious bound up with the colonial project. Keen to learn from scholars across the ecumenical spectrum this new understanding of mission has emerged by way of four definitions:
  • WCC, Mexico City, 1963—‘witness in six continents’;
  •  the mission of the church as rooted in the mission of God;
  • replacement of the paradigm of expansion with one of ‘communication’—“Mission is witness in life, word and deed” (26); and
  • the “whole Church taking the whole gospel to the whole world”, as expounded by the Lausanne movement (26-27).
This new paradigm of mission, Goheen argues, has also been prompted by significant global realities and megatrends including the collapse of colonialism, globalization—“the spread of the modern Western story of economic progress around the world” (21), urbanization, staggering social and economic problems—“The primary problem driving poverty, hunger and the growing gap between rich and poor are unjust structures—corrupt governments, inequitable global markets, worldwide arms race, structural consumerism, massive third-world debt, and more” (22), soaring population, a resurgence of religions, and tectonic shifts in Western culture. In my judgment, Goheen’s analysis of global woes is simplistic. I am not convinced that there really was much of a retreat of religion in the first place and religion may have some big part to play in the other woes of the globe, not simply unjust economic structures.

Biblical and Theological Reflection on Mission

In part one, Goheen analyzes Scripture as a narrative record of God’s mission. It is the story of God’s mission in the Bible that should drive our theology of mission today: “The church today is to carry out its mission in a manner that is consistent with the forward impetus of the first acts while at the same time moving toward and anticipating the intended conclusion” (70).

On this basis Goheen constructs both a theology of mission and a missional theology. Mission is defined in terms of the triune work of God: “The church takes its role in the loving mission of the Father to restore the creation as it is accomplished in the kingdom mission of the Son and realized to the ends of earth in the power of the Spirit” (77). “The church is missional, and mission is ecclesial” (79).

Goheen, who did his doctoral research on the missional theology of Lesslie Newbigin, agrees with the latter’s distinction between missional dimension and missional intention: “Because the Church is the mission there is a missionary dimension of everything that the Church does. But not everything the Church does has a missionary intention” (Lesslie Newbigin, One Body, One Gospel, One World: The Christian Mission Today [London: International Missionary Council, 1958], 43-44, quoted in Goheen, 82-83). There is a distinction, therefore, says Goheen, after Newbigin, between mission (without the s) and missions (with the s), the latter being “particular enterprises within that total mission of the church” (85).

Furthermore, reflecting on the work of Harvie Conn and David Bosch, Goheen concludes that Third World theologies as opposed to First World theologies may bring a dynamic to global theologizing because they are missionary theologies (88).

Historical and Contemporary Reflection on Mission

In part two, Goheen assesses various ways of viewing the history of missions. The traditional Western story of gospel spread through the Roman Empire, the Christianizing of Europe, and the expansion from Europe to the world followed by ecumenical partnership of the worldwide church and the focus on unreached peoples needs to be supplemented with other perspectives.

Andrew Walls has noted the way the gospel has diffused across cultural boundaries through history and how this has both deepened and enriched the church. David Bosch constructed his study of missiology around a framework of six paradigms provided by Hans K√ľng . The Anabaptist Alan Kreider offers a correction based on the centrality in Christian history of Christendom. Goheen opts for a modified Kreiderite framework of four paradigms: early church, Christendom, Enlightenment, Ecumenical. I am not convinced that this is the best way to divide it up: Enlightenment is a cultural paradigm within the structure of Christendom and the ecumenical movement is surely just as affected by the Enlightenment as Evangelicalism, which doesn’t even get a paradigm suggesting that it is completely captive to the Enlightenment paradigm.

Goheen is nuanced in his handling of the paradigm of Christendom: “In Christendom the church attempted to bring the levers of cultural power under the lordship of Christ, but too often it sacrificed the critical and antithetical edge of its engagement” (131). He quotes Leiithart thus: “The church was able, through example and exhortation, to infuse the evangel into the very structures of civil order, so as to render them more just and compassionate. For planting the seeds of that harvest, we have Constantine to thank” (131). Christendom, therefore, should be viewed positively (as well as negatively), as it ensured the culture of Europe (and its offspring) were heavily influenced for good by the gospel. This is an area that demands more discussion but Goheen’s book is an introductory text so one shouldn’t be too critical.

Goheen rounds off part two with a whistle-stop tour of the global church.  An otherwise helpful chapter is weakened by the omission of the growth of the church in previously resistant environments, such as Islamic societies, and the phenomenon sometimes referred to as insider movements. The insistence on framing mission today as 'Christian' is inadequate, given that so many, especially of the world's religious mega-traditions may have a high regard for Christ but a low view of the Christian community.

Current Issues in Mission Today

In part three Goheen builds on his theological and historical foundations by turning his attention to a number of hot contemporary issues.

In chapter 6 he identifies the debate over holistic mission as “... an important thread of the historical interaction between [the ecumenical and evangelical] traditions of mission” (227), arguing as others have that “[b]etween 1865 and 1930 a ‘great reversal’ took place in the Evangelical church that reduced the missional calling of the church to verbal proclamation of the gospel” (228). “Two dimensions of the church’s mission—word and deed—were abstracted from their original context of the full-orbed mission of the church. Each was given a life of its own. This forced a choice about which of the two has priority...” (232). Goheen avoids the debate over priority (Stott), centrality (Chester), or ultimacy (Wright) presumably because he sees it as falsely dichotomistic.
In chapter seven, on contextualization, Goheen argues that in seeking to delineate the relationship of gospel and culture we need to avoid both the extremes of ethnocentrism and relativism, and those of syncretism and irrelevance.

On the translation model of contextualization Goheen argues that, “There is a problem, though, with the view of revelation: it is primarily propositional and informational. Revelation is considered to be truths or doctrines that transcend culture and history. This is indebted to the Greek view, which sees truth as unchanging ideas, as opposed to a biblical view, which sees truth as bound up in events within history” (284-85). Goheen also questions whether a kernel/husk model can be plausible: “Can the gospel be so easily separated from its cultural form?” (285). Tricky hermeneutical issues indeed.

Goheen continues his review of contextualization by contrasting the translation model with the anthropological model. In my opinion he handles this simplistically: “The translation model stresses the message to be contextualized, while the anthropological model stresses the culture into which the message is to be contextualized” (285). Can these models really be neatly distinguished in this way? In our interactions with our culture, Goheen argues rightly that faithful contextualization will both seek to find a place for the gospel within a culture and seek to critique that culture.

In chapter eight Goheen applies the issue of contextualization to the development of a missiology of Western culture, drawing heavily from the work of Lesslie Newbigin. Goheen argues convincingly that the faithful posture of the church in the West towards its culture should be that of missionary encounter and expands of three tasks as delineated by Shenk:
  • theological task that “faithfully articulates the gospel of the kingdom” (300)
  • ecclesiological task that “explores the missional identity of the church”
  • cultural task that “probes the story and fundamental assumptions of Western culture”
Do these tasks really belong to three distinct categories? Although these are three important tasks I don’t see how they can be distinguished in this way without leading to confusion.

Goheen asserts that, even though the church in the West has lost its pivotal position in society, it “is not as marginalized as the early church; in fact, it holds a great deal of cultural power. This cannot be dismissed as Christendom” (313). In the books of Romans and Revelation we see different angles on the way the church should respond to its context – both Roman Empire but different times. The Anabaptist and Liberation traditions are more in line with the Revelation tradition than the Romans tradition. Goheen’s concern with these movements is that the church is not yet as marginalized as the church was in Revelation (315). It is a pity that more was not said here by way of biblical critique of these movements.

In seeking to analyse the relationship of religion and culture, Goheen reports four ways that this has been attempted. Working on Conn’s religious core paradigm, he offers a diagram that is identical to one that I have come up with independently (319). This is an area that demands much more work. I think Goheen is on the right track but perhaps still too heavily influenced by Enlightenment views of religion.

In chapter nine Goheen moves on to discuss a missionary encounter with world religions. Goheen’s book came out too early to include interaction with Dan Strange. Like Strange, Goheen argues along the lines of ‘subversive fulfilment’, but in arguing for “an uncompromising call to conversion” he clearly does not appreciate the social dynamics within which many people and communities of the world would understand this (338). Contra Strange,  Goheen has a better appreciation of the difference between religion and religions: “God’s revelation + a corrupted response + various historical circumstances = particular religion” (354).

Goheen shows a lack of appreciation for the particularities of empirical cultures in his contrasting of ‘Allah’ with the ‘God of Abraham’ (358). How is it that a fine scholar can be ignorant of the fact that the God of Abraham in Arabic is, in fact, ‘Allah’! Such blunders undermine the value of a book like this. It is hoped that evangelical missiologists would work harder to catch up with scholars in religious studies. The latter may well be working in an antithetical paradigm but the better ones have at least done their empirical homework better.

In chapter ten on urban mission, Goheen covers the importance of cities for mission and outlines a theology of mission for the city. Some references in this chapter are surprisingly old and there is no reference to Keller’s Center-Church or Conn and Ortiz, Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City & the People of God, the latter of which is over a decade old. Goheen argues for a careful use of social sciences: “The church’s use of the disciplines of social science that will equip the church must not be held captive by the secular bias of today’s sociological and anthropological disciplines. Instead, faithful Christian study of the city will take seriously the category of religion as a foundational, integrating and directing power” (392).

In chapter eleven Goheen covers, in short compass, a number of important issues relating to missions (with the s), which, argues, should be focussed on witness to the gospel where there is none or where it is weak (402). He points out that by the mid-20th century the “cross-cultural task of taking the gospel to places or peoples where it had not been heard was in danger of being obscured” (401) by the expanding understanding of missions. Drawing on the work of Newbigin again Goheen argues for a careful distinction between mission, missions and cross-cultural partnership: Mission “is a comprehensive term that is synonymous with the way many use the term ‘witness’” (402). But not all cross-cultural mission work is missions. Rather, after Newbigin, he contrasts missions with cross-cultural partnership (403). “Thus, we define missions not by its cross-cultural nature but rather by the focus of creating a witnessing presence to the gospel in a place or among a people where it is nonexistent or weak” (ibid.). This distinction avoids two mistakes (404): 1) the colonial idea of equating missions with geography; and 2) the missional church movement idea of diminishing the need to take the gospel to places where it is unknown, in which “mission has swallowed up missions”. I think this is the weakest chapter in the book betraying, perhaps the author's lack of significant cross-cultural missions experiences. Here are a few of the issues:
  • On UPGs Goheen is ill-informed on India. He recognizes that the situation is complex but likens it to China (416). In fact, it is a lot more complex than China due to caste and religion. He also points to K. S. Singh’s volume on the Scheduled Tribes as if this represents the people of India whereas in fact it is but one of many volumes.
  • On non-Western ‘national missionaries’ Goheen is dreadfully naive: they “carry no Western baggage, are often more effective at evangelism, and know the culture and language of the people they are trying to reach” (430). (See my blog posts on this issue here and here.
  • On tentmakers Goheen recognizes their advantages and comes close to realizing the categorical confusion the concept expresses—“they establish a Christian presence as a professional and a witness to the gospel in life and word, which should be the reality of all Christians”—but doesn’t pursue it (431). Surprisingly nothing is included on the phenomenon of business as mission (BAM)—another confusing concept (see my earlier post here).
  • On short-term missions Goheen adduces some very old statistics (1979) (432) and while recognizing some of the pitfalls is not nearly cautious enough (434).
  • On mission structures, Goheen follows Engel and Dyrness, Changing the Mind of Missions approvingly (422-25). Although the latter helpfully highlights some important issues in missions today it is ultimately far too crude to be helpful. (See my article on missions structures here.)
Overall, this is a very good introduction to mission thinking. Though not without issues, Goheen's book is to be commended for its lucid handling of some often complex theological issues and for doing so in a way that does not dampen missionary zeal.

Favourite Quotes

“If we see that the breakdown of education stems from the lack of a compelling narrative to give it meaning, and we believe that only the Bible can offer that kind of narrative, then our participation in education cannot help but refer to the gospel” (245).

“The ’acids of modernity’ have had a destructive impact on the Christian faith in the West, and there is no reason to think that the same thing will not happen in non-Western churches. ... [e]ven though the Western church has slipped in terms of its global influence, it still maintains a significant leadership role in the global mission of the church. It seems that ‘”modern” Western culture will continue to strengthen its grip on the life of human communities everywhere and—therefore—Christian churches that have so long accepted a syncretistic co-existence with the “modern” worldview will continue to bear the prime responsibility for articulating the Christian message for this particular culture. That remains a task which calls for the best intellectual and spiritual energies we can bring to it’” (297, quoting Lesslie Newbigin, “The Christian Message versus ‘Modern’ Culture,” in Mission in the 1990s (eds. Gerald H. Anderson, James M. Phillips and Robert T. Coote; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 26.)

“The faithful posture that the church must take within any cultural context is that of a missionary encounter” (298).

“... the myth of a neutral secular or pluralistic society is powerful. A neutral culture poses no danger to the gospel but supposedly offers a level playing field for all faith commitments. However, this recognizes neither the deeply religious foundational beliefs of the West nor the threat that they pose to the public witness of the faith. ‘The idea that we ought to be able to expect some kind of neutral secular political order, which presupposes no religious or ideological beliefs, and which holds the ring impartially for a plurality of religions to compete with one another, has no adequate foundation.’ The humanistic faith of the West is a powerful religious faith that brooks no rivals. But it has a smiling face: it offers peace, privilege, prosperity and a place in the sun to those who will accept its terms for life in the public square. In this way it domesticates al other religious claims and simply relegates them to a private sphere with the promise of tolerance” (299, quoting Lesslie Newbigin, Trinitarian Doctrine for Today’s Mission (1963; repr., Carlisle: Paternoster, 1998), 46).

“The empirical religions are the historical answers that certain communities collectively give to God’s creational revelation” (353).

“[E]ach religion is a total unity with a pulsating and orienting core. This central religious impulse throbs in every aspect of a religion and binds it together in organic unity. An orienting core is a directing religious motive that animates a religion and gives shape and meaning to all of its elements. It is like a heart that pumps its religious lifeblood into each part” (355).

“... a missionary approach will involve both a sympathetic, insider approach to religions and a critical, outsider approach” (356).

“[M]issions is not simply another aspect of the total mission of the church, standing alongside others. Rather it is the ultimate redemptive-historical horizon of the whole missionary task that provides perspective and direction. The horizon of missions ensures that the whole life of the church is missional. Mission without missions is an emaciated and parochial concept” (405).


  • ‘growth of about 1.8%’ should be ‘annual growth rate of about 1.8%’ (24)
  • ‘religions’ should be ‘religious’ (24)
  • ‘not’ should not be there (120)
  • phenomena should be phenomenon (149)
  • reference to Gary Ginter without a citation (431).