Introducing Christian Mission Today: Scripture, History and Issues
In his seminal work Transforming Mission, David Bosch created a snapshot of mission studies in his day by uniting biblical theology, mission history, and current issues in missiology to snapshot the mission studies of his day. A quarter-century later, a different world and a mushrooming amount of missions literature call for a similar e ort in this generation. Michael Goheen answers this need with his book Introducing Christian Mission Today (henceforth, ICM), a new introduction to mission studies, organized according to Bosch’s tripartite structure of Bible and theology, history, and current issues.
Goheen, scholar-in-residence at Missional Training Center in Phoenix, is a master synthesizer; boiling down a vast amount of literature to introduce the key conversations, contributors, and concepts. In many cases, ICM offers the most succinct presentation I’ve read on these issues (e.g. on changing global realities, 20–24; on developments in mission theology, 76–77; on evangelism, 238–47). Goheen is more current, more accessible, and more evangelical than Bosch; therefore, I believe that ICM would be a worthy replacement in most curricula.
Unfortunately, despite an attractive cover the publisher’s effort in this volume is slipshod. Formatting issues in the table of contents set an unseemly tone, extended by the absence of serial commas anywhere except on the back cover. The binding is of poor quality, releasing whole sections afterr a single reading. IVP could have done better.
ICM is even-handed. In fact, it’s not always clear when the author is expressing his own opinion and when he’s summarizing someone else’s view. Goheen presents both sides of an issue, o en moving on without showing his colors (e.g., inclusivism, 346–349). Other times, he splits the baby (1 Kings 3:16–28). This can oversimplify things, as in the case of calling for evangelicals who em- phasize the Word and ecumenicals who emphasize deeds to return to the gospel and mission in the way of Jesus (236). Yes, but both think they’re already there. So what to do?
The chapter surveying the global church is the weakest, with Goheen seeming less at home than elsewhere while moving region by region with signi cant omissions (e.g. a longer discussion of Africa with no mention of prosperity gospel) and imbalance (e.g. twice as much material on the Pacific Islands as all of Asia). On the other hand, I loved the current issues section at the end, especially the chapter on urban mission, which I pray is used to further mobilize the church to engage today’s burgeoning global cities.
The best section is the first, where Goheen lays a biblical-theological foundation by tracing the biblical story with a missional lens. His approach will be familiar to those who have read conversation partners Christopher J. H. Wright and N. T. Wright, or Goheen’s own A Light to the Nations. Mission is not about proof texts or geography, but is at the very center of the church everywhere. Goheen then applies his biblical theology to a missional systematic theology, critiquing the concepts of mission separate from the church, or theology separate from mission.
The definition of “mission” is a perennial challenge, and ICM hasn’t solved it. Sometimes Go- heen’s de nition is specific, the “task given to God’s people to communicate the good news” (26, cf. 236–37). More often, his concept is expansive, with the church participating “in God’s mission to renew the whole creation and the whole lives of all its peoples and cultures” (117, cf. 26, 248). So, everything is mission, which Goheen nuances (82–83) by using Lesslie Newbigin’s distinction between missional intention (e.g. evangelism) and missional dimension (everything else). How this distinction guides the church’s priorities and resources is not clear; perhaps maintaining the more speci c de nition of mission and evaluating activities as “more direct” or “less direct” would help.
With a standard historical approach—basically, the rise and fall of Christendom—ICM misses an opportunity. Who, wonders the reader, is our mission with? And who is our mission to? Goheen’s sociological answer to the first question (any professing Christian identity or heritage) demands a gospel-agnostic answer to the second question, which is at odds with the biblical theology Goheen has already o ered. Goheen’s gospel emphasizes the person and work of Christ and the reign of God (94), but Christendom often prefers politics, popes, and prosperity. The progress of Christendom and the progress of the gospel are two different stories; Goheen chooses the former but the latter would have been more interesting and more consistent with his biblical theology.
A key argument in ICM is that “the faithful posture that the church must take within any cul- tural context is that of a missionary encounter” (298), a process whereby the gospel story is put in contrast to the foundational beliefs of the idolatrous cultural story by a church faithfully living the gospel story. Goheen develops this concept with provocative chapters on missionary encounters with Western Culture, and with other religions. These are helpful, as far as they go. But where, one wonders, is the missionary encounter with global “Christianity?”
We have plenty of confrontations with evangelicals here, but where is the confrontation of the non-evangelicals, the non-Protestants, and the non-orthodox? Contextualization is essential (and the chapter on the subject is quite good), but hasn’t it gone too far when Roman Catholics and all manner of Ecumenical Protestants and Pentecostals are partners in mission (e.g. 20, 136, 158–59)?
When is Liberation theology seen as positive contextualization (157, 311)? When African independent churches incorporate animism, pursue healings, ordain untrained leaders, spiritual rituals, sacrificies, and pursue direct revelation as opposed to Scripture are considered “contextualized expressions of Christianity” and defended against criticism (192–3)? Goheen is actually spot on in his caution against relativism: “the situation where no cultural expression can be judged good or bad by Scripture or by the church from another culture” (268). But it’s not clear that he’s heeded his own warning.
A response to this criticism might be to mention the nature of the book, with its intention to sur- vey and introduce mission to a wide audience. Even so, ICM’s spirit of generosity to the heterodox would be diffcult to explain to my brothers and sisters laboring to bring the gospel to “Christians” in some of the hard places of the world: Egyptians among Coptics, Italians among Roman Catholics, Nigerians among AICs, and so on. I know many such faithful servants of Christ, and I suspect if they heard of ICM’s implicit dismissal of their e orts as misplaced Western enlightenment expressions against legitimate contextualized expressions they might seek a “missionary encounter” with Dr. Goheen.
Did I mention I really like this book? I do, and I recommend it to you. It might make you shout “hallelujah” one minute and shout something I can’t print here the next, meaning Goheen has succeeded marvelously in engaging the reader in the study of mission. The book ends abruptly with no conclusion. It’s a little jarring on first reading, but upon reflection it makes sense. Goheen isn’t taking his readers on a tour through Bible, theology, history, and contemporary culture so that they will accept all of his conclusions, but so that they will write their own. With its combination of ambiguity, detail, survey, insight, readability, and provocativeness, ICM would be it a very fruitful catalyst for discussion in a classroom, or perhaps among a session of elders, a small group, or a missionary team.
 David Jacobus Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shi s in Theology of Mission, American Society of Missiology Series, Ed. James A. Scherer, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991).
 Michael W. Goheen, A Light to the Nations: The Missional Church and the Biblical Story, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011).
 For this view, see, e.g., Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, What Is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 235.