The Story that Chooses Us: A Tapestry of Missional Vision
George R. Hunsberger (b.1944), professor emeritus of missiology at Western Theological Seminary, has woven ten previously published essays into a “tapestry of missional vision” for The Gospel and Our Culture series. Hunsberger has contributed two other volumes in this series, which aims to foster what Leslie Newbigin terms the “missional encounter of the gospel with North American culture.” These volumes include Bearing the Witness of the Spirit: Leslie Newbigin’s Theology of Cultural Plurality (a revision of his Princeton dissertation), as well as a volume edited with Craig Van Gelder, The Church between Gospel and Culture: The Emerging Mission in North America.
Turning briefly to form before content, Hunsberger is to be commended for his effort to merge these essays using more than a preface. There are clear marks of internal coherence, including foot- notes directing us to discussions in previous chapters and a thematic, rather than chronological, arrangement of his material. It is also notable that the tapestry he weaves from articles published between 1991 and 2006 does not appear strained by divergence or development. We are reaping here the harvest of a scholar personally invested in his subject matter and mature in his thinking.
Despite the fine effort at integration, however, these ten chapters contain the thematic overlap that is inevitable with a book of this type. Rather than present the content of each chapter, therefore, this review summarizes Hunsberger’s project under themes that “gently recur and echo throughout” [ix]). Hunsberger identifies these themes himself by highlighting the commitment of The Gospel and Our Culture Network, of which he is the founding coordinator, to “the integral relationship between...cultural analysis, theological reflection, and congregational mission” (102). His book can be engaged under these three heads.
“Cultural analysis” for Hunsberger is a focused enterprise. He is not tracing the “Enlighten- ment-Modernity-Postmodernity” gamut, but investigating “the fundamental missiological chal- lenge [for the church]...in view of that sociocultural heritage” (75). Standing on the shoulders of Leslie Newbigin, whose categories and priorities are regularly appropriated across the book, Hunsberger identifies three facets of this missiological challenge. First is the collapse of Christen- dom, so that the church no longer serves as an esteemed “cultural chaplain.” Second is our satura- tion with the Enlightenment assumption that religious conviction cannot lay claim to truth in any factual, public sense. Third is a pragmatic confidence that truth can be measured by success.
The challenge occurs when the church either fails to recognize, or unthinkingly adopts, these cultural shifts. In the first category, the church in North America still defaults to the assumption that we speak from a position “over” culture rather than “with” it. The missiological implication of this failure to reckon with the collapse of Christendom is that we work from an “exodus” model of social engagement that hopes to reshape societal structures rather than living out of an “exilic” model where we offer ourselves, submitted first to the authority of an invisible kingdom, for the good of society (148).
In the second category, Hunsberger points to mission statements and popular modes of speaking to illustrate that the North American church “thinks about church the same way we think about ev- erything else.” Thus “the church” has grown distinct from “the congregation,” for whom it exercises its primary role as provider of religious services. This corporate, disembodied mindset has led to the abandonment of theological thinking, which means we have lost the ability to justify ourselves as a distinct organization. What is needed, therefore, is not the methodological tweak we so often attempt, but a deep rethinking of the fundamental identity of the church.
Hunsberger’s cultural analysis leads him to the conviction that we need a missiological agenda for the church in North America. Though it comes late in the book (p. 102-103), Hunsberger acknowl- edges that this way of talking runs the risk Stephen Neil has identified as, “if everything is mission, nothing is mission.” His answer, which serves as the justification of his book and his work, is that our current lack of a “domestic, contextual missiology for our own North American setting” is a greater danger still (9). This conviction, turning on the issues of identity and integrity, draws deeply on the fund of his own theological reflection.
In terms of identity, Scripture presents us with a church that is missiological in its essence. It is “a body of people sent on mission,” to use David Bosch’s oft quoted phrase. The church is “spawned by the mission of God and gathered up into that mission” (47). From the missionary significance of our election (6) to the welcome and warning of our eschatology (159), the church is in the world for the sake of the world.
If the church is going to walk out this identity with integrity, therefore, its entire character must be shaped by this mission. In a wake-up call to a church that tends to compartmentalize mission as “over there,” Hunsberger rejects the idea that missional character is received by boarding an air- plane. If this leaving is to be genuinely missional, he insists, it must arise from a prior disposition that “takes leave of cultural loyalties alien to the gospel” and swears allegiance to Christ (104). The missiological agenda of the church at home is to cultivate this habit. “For us who are in the place from which so many cross-cultural missionaries emanate, our most fundamental calling is to live the same way in our own culture that we counsel others to live in theirs” (103).
If this book has a theological center of gravity, it is chapter 5, “Representing the Reign of God.” Here Hunsberger takes up the task of definitions. Three are vital. First, the church is to be “apostol- ic” in the sense that the apostolic writings (Scripture) serve as its foundation and the apostolic task (re-presenting Christ) serves as its commission (48). On this note, Hunsberger devotes a separate chapter to an intriguing interpretation of the purpose of the Great Commission texts. He sees the pastoral purpose of Jesus’ words not primarily to motivate a silent church to action (the “com- mand-obey” model we often use) but to provide warrant and validation for the witness they were already engaged in, in the face of cultural protest (91).
If the church spreads the gospel out of its essence, and not primarily in obedience to a command, what is “the gospel”? In a significant move, Hunsberger reminds us that the gospel is not only “Jesus himself” but also includes what Jesus said. “Proclaiming a gospel about Christ that is not
shaped by the gospel Jesus preached distorts the gospel” (53). The subject of Jesus’ gospel preaching, as Hunsgerger takes it, is the “reign of God.” In a third definition the reign of God is in short, to quote Romans 14:17, “justice, peace, and joy” through the New Covenant gift of the Holy Spirit. It is the way the world will be when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. It is what God has inaugurated through Christ, and what He continues to bring as the church receives it, enters it, and welcomes others to do the same.
Here the impulse of our essential identity has transitioned us outward from theological reflection into congregational mission. The church expresses its essence as a “sent community” as we are en- gaged by the gospel of God’s reign, and as we engage our culture with this gospel. Here Hunsberger cautions us against assuming that “we sit on God’s side” in the gospel/culture encounter (104). Following Newbigin, he adds a third pole. We are first encountered ourselves by the gospel, and then are able to encounter our culture with the same. This is the way not only to missional integrity, but also to the “challenging relevance” gospel ministry demands with (instead of “at”) our culture.
The term Hunsberger prefers for the church’s mission, in our home culture and any foreign cul- ture, is “representation” of the reign of God. This representation has both a passive and an active edge. Passively, we are the sign and the foretaste of the kingdom. That is, we bear the shape of the gospel in such a way as to show our culture that life lived according to the pattern of commitment to Jesus is possible and relevant. In this way, the church becomes the “hermeneutic of the gospel,” the only lens through which people can see and interpret what it is about and how it is embraced (99). Actively, the church is also the agent and instrument of the gospel. Hunsberger takes repeated umbrage, rightly in my view, at the language of the church “extending” or “building” the kingdom. Not only must the church and kingdom remain distinct (if inseparable), but the church’s own encounter with the gospel of God’s reign, which we have received, entered, and in which we serve, chastens us to speak (even of repentance and faith) with humility and welcome.
It is in his discussion of the gospel that Hunsberger is perhaps at his most provocative and most disappointing to Evangelical convictions. Of all his definitions, sin is noticeably absent. He seems to define sin inside the church as a wrong understanding of our identity, and outside the church as a lack of participating in the welcome God has extended. There is no talk of rebellion against a holy God worthy of eternal condemnation. This perhaps explains why there is also so little talk of “heralding” the gospel. Instead, the gospel is embodied and sinners are welcomed. His stress on speaking “with” rather than “at” our culture, and avoiding triumphalistic language is important. So too is his conviction that the gospel is a public truth for the whole world. But there is perhaps too much stress on cultural relevance and not enough space for the kind of prophetic relevance that would herald the King’s gracious offer of amnesty. One reason for this shyness may be an over-appreciation for the situatedness of our knowledge and the perspectivalism of our language. His commendable attempt to avoid hubristic ways of knowing and to appropriate postmodern ways of speaking would benefit from a robust embrace of God’s design for human language not only to point to the truth (who is Christ), but also to carry it. Andrew Walls and/or N.T. Wright would have provided him some useful conversation partners in this regard. His (chronologically) later articles seem to grow less and less certain that humble dialogue does not exhaust the biblical options for a church on mission.
Overall, this book bears the marks of seasoned reflection and a refusal to think about significant challenges superficially. For this we should be grateful. There is much here to appreciate. And much that should challenge us to repent, and to learn.