Thursday, June 22, 2017

Were They Right? Engel and Dyrness’s Changing the Mind of Missions

In their provocative, turn of the century book, Changing the Mind of Missions: Where Have We Gone Wrong? (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000) James F. Engel and William A. Dyrness suggest that the modern missions movement is on a wrong footing. They assert that “the missions momentum from North America and much of the remaining Western world is functioning within theological paradigms and resulting ministry practices dating back prior to the dawn of the twentieth century” (24).


Time for a Paradigm Shift?

They contend that Christ’s “call has been interpreted for many decades, especially in North America and parts of Western Europe, as communicating a set of biblical propositions to a maximum number of people and declaring them as ‘reached’ once this takes place” (21, emphasis in original).

They describe a crisis in the American missions movement that has resulted in a huge shortfall in funds for traditional mission projects and personnel (which is clearly also affecting many British-based missions). At the same time, there is a growing interest in mission of a different sort – especially one in which donors can have more of an immediate experience by, for instance, a short trip for themselves.

Centre-Periphery Model of Mission


Engel and Dyrness contend that the present N. American missions movement is dominated by a ‘Centre-periphery model’ that is outmoded (41). They agree with Jonathan Bonk who points out that in the last two centuries missionaries have often been allied with colonialism even if they were “reluctant imperialists.”[1]

The authors point out that in the book of Acts the first mission was not from a centre of power and influence but rather from a place where something happened and that in so being it is a parody of the modern missions project (40-43). But, “Ever since the end of World War II, and definitively since the fall of the Berlin wall, prevailing concepts of what represents the center and what represents the periphery have radically changed in political, cultural and economic terms (47)”.

They explain, “While the modern development of missions was associated with centers of power and influence, today those places where economic power resides are not important centers of Christianity, and the most vital Christian communities are found in areas of limited political and economic power”, a point since also made by Philip Jenkins in The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (2002) and Mark Noll in The New Shape of World Christianity (2009).

Because of this shift in the balance of the global church Engel and Dyrness propose that a “better model for conceiving of missions, consistent with the emerging postmodern consciousness, is multiplying centers of influence making up a network of mutual exchange and support (48)”. I don’t think any thoughtful mission leaders would explicitly have any problem with that in principle. The authors paint a scenario, however, in which N. American missions are deliberately blocking such a development. Are they setting up a straw man to knock him down? Take this for example:
What is the true motivation for missions? Appearances to the contrary, it is not about selling some spectacular product, eternal life or forgiveness of sins, however wonderful these realities are. Missions flows from the heart of a people who have been transformed by the Holy Spirit and who leave all to follow Christ. (37)
The desire to control is inherent in every fallen human being and is not confined to N. American mission agencies. There could be many different reasons why Western mission leaders may desire to hang on to the control of resources: perhaps they are merely seeking to honour the wishes of the donors; perhaps there are legal reasons. But I wonder if the situation is as bad as they paint. There may be a lot more networking with mutual exchange and support going on than they realize.

According to Engel and Dyrness, Western Christians over the last two centuries have been influenced by the spirit of the age in three ways (57):

1.     by their two crucial omissions from the Great Commission;
2.     by their reducing of world missions to a managerial enterprise;
3.     by their displacing the local church from its rightful place at the centre of world outreach.

“Contemporary missions retain,” they suggest, “a kind of structural hangover that continues to impede a genuine openness to the work of God (46)”.

Engel and Dyrness’s criticism of modern missions is damning. Too damning, in my estimation. I think they have exaggerated the problems. They have clearly identified weaknesses in modern missions, just as Samuel Escobar has done in A Time for Mission (2003).[2] But Escobar is more nuanced than Engel and Dyrness. The latter dismiss so much of evangelical ministry as corrupted by modernity. Is this a consequence of embracing postmodernism? If modern mission is too closely wedded to modernity then how will it improve things to create a model that is “consistent with the emerging postmodern consciousness”? The danger of syncretism with the spirit of the age is as great here as in the model they are so keen to throw out.

Engel and Dyrness’s ‘Kingdom Paradigm’


The authors work out their theology of mission around what they call a ‘Kingdom Paradigm’, suggesting some “strategies that better reflect our contemporary postmodern situation” (89):

1.     sensitive to the initiative of God;
2.     motivated by a vision of the reign of Christ refracted through the multiple cultures of the world;
3.     characterized by mutual sharing from multiple centres of influence;
4.     committed to partnership and collaboration.

They call for a “spirit of mutual submission and interdependency” for there to be real collaboration between partners. Those with funds must not drive the programme (96). I agree. This is an important point in the light of so many donor-driven mission programmes.

Engel and Dyrness have some good things to say about the church but it is framed in the same way as the rest of their argument, contrasting what they see as the biblical way with the worst of superficial evangelicalism. They assert, rightly, that, “…the church is no longer conceived by the vast majority as the cultural space where certain critical things happen….” because of the collapse of Christendom (111). In place of the Christendom model they propose a ‘spiritual pilgrimage’ model of church (98-107), a point recently echoed by Michael W. Stroope in Transcending Mission (reviewed here).

According to Engel and Dyrness the modern ‘institutional’ model of church encourages, by its structure the following traits (113):

1.     individuality;
2.     programme orientation;
3.     a preoccupation with numbers;
4.     passivity;
5.     resistance to change.

This model is contrasted with one which sees the church as an organism than an organization, based on six theological realities (117):

1.     its nature as a living temple for God;
2.     its ministry through gifts of the Spirit;
3.     its nature as a society of mutual love and service;
4.     its servant leadership;
5.     its community;
6.     its outward focus.

Again, here, the authors are attacking the worst of evangelicalism. For sure there are many churches that reflect their ‘modern model’. But there are also many that do not. Engel and Dyrness set up a tale of two models, one ‘modern’ and the other ‘theological’. Organization is modern, something to be repented of. What do they make of Acts 6, Ephesians 4:11-13, 1 Timothy 3, and Titus 1? Their binary opposition proves to be simplistic.

Engel and Dyrness’s Model of Mission


According to Engel and Dyrness, local churches must be at the centre of mission. Here they cite Bruce Camp’s typology of church-mission involvement.[3] Churches fall into three categories with respect to their commitment to world mission:

1.     Supporting – passive;
2.     Sending – active, initiating;
3.     Proactive – synergistic, initiating, partnering.

The church, they assert, should be proactive, and take its rightful role at the centre of mission. Sounds good in theory. But their argument is not practicable for much of the world for the  following reasons:

1.     Host churches may not exist, as in many Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist communities;
2.     Where they do exist, host churches may not be capable of mature partnering;
3.     Large groups of short-termers parachuting into a community that does not have an indigenous church may have an adverse impact through its lack facility in the local language and its lack of cultural sensitivity;
4.     It is very difficult to avoid dependency within this paradigm.

Engel and Dyrness seem to contradict their own hatred of ‘modern’ mission activity by insisting on accountability from mission agencies that most likely “will be a description in numerical terms of what was done…” (126). They then compare mission agencies to businesses which have had to go through a painful process of change to compete in the postmodern world. Like businesses, mission agencies “require an organizational transformation that encompasses five essential steps”:

1.     Restoration
2.     Convergence
3.     Regeneration
4.     Adaptation
5.     Reengineering

The authors say they advocate a high degree of field autonomy but they insist this should be only within the parameters of a definitive mission statement and with accountability based on clearly defined outcomes and objectives (158). Their view of mission agencies, therefore, is very strongly oriented towards the home base – the very view they censure. Their solution to the problem is to bring about organizational change from the centre. But surely cross-cultural ministry teams should be largely free from a high-handed home ‘board’ that wants to ‘reengineer’ their identity and ministry. Such talk of ‘reengineering’ seems to me to be as much modernistic as the mentality they have condemned.

More solid, however, is their insistence that agencies establish a relationship of mutual respect and esteem with established indigenous churches. Furthermore, agencies, must initiate a sensitive dialogue with their supporting churches on how they should use their resources. Should their personnel and material resources be available to serve already-established churches while there are people and communities still unreached by the gospel? It takes great tact and sensitivity to discern the best way forward in such a situation. Thankfully, the Lord has not left us alone to make such decisions as he has promised us the resources we need at the proper time (James 1:5).

So, Were They Right?


Yes: much of what Engel and Dyrness said was surely right. No doubt in some circles the book has had a beneficial effect. If only others had read it and taken its criticisms on board!

And no: this book ultimately fails to satisfy for four reasons:

1.     They overstate their case, pitting their remedies against the worst forms of Western evangelicalism;
2.     Their approach is too receptor-oriented towards the postmodern context and not enough to the Bible;
3.     It is inconsistent, as some of their solutions suffer from the same modernistic assumptions that they criticize;
4.     Their approach assumes that biblical and contextually-sensitive churches are globally ubiquitous, which they are not.

I am thankful that Engel and Dyrness wrote this book. Truly the mind needs to be changed in some important respects. But the book would have been better had it been more rigorous and consistent in biblical theology, hermeneutics, and global realities. David Smith’s Mission After Christendom (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2003) and the aforementioned Transcending Mission by Michael W. Stroope (London: Apollos, 2017) are more reliable guides.


[1] Jonathan Bonk, “All Things to All Persons: Missionary as a Racist-Imperialist” Missiology 8 (1980): 285-306.
[2] Escobar argues along the same lines in Evangelical Missiology: Peering into the Future at the Turn of the Century” in Global Missiology for the 21st Century - The Iguassu Dialogue (W. D. Taylor, ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000), 101-22.
[3] Bruce K. Camp, “Three Ministry Paradigms for Local Church Involvement in Missions” International Journal of Frontier Missions 11 (July/August 1994), quoted in Engel and Dyrness, Changing the Mind of Missions, 121.

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