Christian Mission in History: Interacting with Charles Van Engen and his reviewers.


As I stated in my recent post entitled MISSIONSHIFT: The Conversation Begins on January 17, the book MISSIONSHIFT: Global Mission Issues in the Third Millenium offers essays “written by three of the foremost missiologists of our time” (Charles Van Engen, the late Paul Hiebert, and the late Ralph Winter). The first essay was written by Charles Van Engen and is entitled “‘Mission’ Defined and Described.”  Interacting with him in subsequent chapters are Keith Eitel, Enoch Wan, Darrell L. Guder, Andreas Köstenberger, and Ed Stetzer.

David Hesselgrave added his response on Ed Stetzer’s blog. The preceding link includes a comment section full of links to participating members of this blog tour.

 I highly encourage my readers to check out the responses of the participating bloggers. My goal for this blog post is not to try to repeat everything that Van Engen and his original responders have argued. Neither will I try to offer thorough scholarly affirmation or rebuttal, although I will highlight specific areas of concern or interest. Likewise, I will offer my feedback based on my spiritual and missional journey.


CHARLES VAN ENGEN helpfully points out the prevalent ambiguity about the word mission, and what it means. This could explain much of the confusion about its cognate missional. Businesses draft mission statements and churches have followed suit. Even individuals have thrown their contributions into the mission statement hat. Military troops go on missions, as do astronauts, church youth groups, parents shopping for their families, and church planters seeking to impact a new neighborhood. Where does that leave us now? Confused, no doubt, to a large degree. Concerning the concept missional church, Van Engen writes that “the term has now been used in so many ways as to become almost meaningless” (9). I appreciate his honesty, for this confusion about mission has characterized my journey throughout and after my doctoral studies, much of which focused on missional concepts! He goes on briefly to trace the history of the word mission, both in the Bible and in church history. It is a helpful synopsis, but it is met with a mixture of admiration and resistance by his responders. Nevertheless, I found his historical survey, and his list of missional church characteristics which he defines in the book to be very helpful: contextual; intentional; proclaiming; reconciling; sanctifying; unifying; and transforming (24-25).

For his part, Eitel believes Van Engen editorialized the influence of Constantine on Christian mission, noting that not all Christian mission was given over to state controlled interests (32). I think that Eitel makes a valid point here. Too often Constantine’s name is evoked to describe the perceived evils of the institutional church, and to dismiss any good that may have come from such endeavors. Guder, however, is alarmed by Eitel’s response, calling it more problematic than Wan’s (52). He cites Eitel’s

“anxiety about the dangers of too little regard for ‘biblical boundaries or safeguards’ in the ongoing task of Gospel translation or contextualization. But there is also an uncritical emphasis on the importance of structure, strategy, and organization, which links with a defensive posture with regard to ‘denominationalism, traditionalism, and modernity [?].'”

Guder cuts to the heart of the gulf which separates traditional institutional churches with emerging ecclesial expressions (I refer here not simply to the emergent church, but to any church expression which looks different from traditional evangelicalism). I spent part of a recent Sunday at HomePDX, a church for the  homeless in downtown Portland. It is not traditional by any means. But show me another church in Portland which is more of a leader in touching the lives of 100-150 homeless people on a regular basis by entering their world and showing them Christ’s love. Yes, there are other very fine traditional (Portland Open Bible, Clear Creek Community Church, among others) and post-modern churches (e.g.  the Bridge, Imago Dei) which do a wonderful work in their communities. Anawim is another example, but I do not know where they land in terms of being either traditional or otherwise. HomePDX is different in that it is homeless itself, and it does not follow the typical conventions of what we think of concerning how church should function, particularly in terms of a Sunday service (they really don’t have one in that sense).

Wan affirms Van Engen’s description of mission in history, but writes that he “fails to define mission holistically and realistically” (46). Wan offers his own suggestion for an evangelical missiology which deserves some careful attention, but seems harshly dismissive of Van Engen, writing that his definition 

“is a better alternative for several reasons. First, it is shorter in length but more comprehensive in scope. Second, it is holistic (i.e., spiritual and social) and balanced (i.e. not anti-individualistic) instead of being reductionistic. Third, it is enriched by the trinitarian orientation rather than impoverished by being merely Christocentric in emphasis” (46).

For the sake of space, I will forego responding to Köstenberger because I believe Stetzer does so admirably in his concluding response to Van Engen and the four responders. Indeed, Stetzer’s content summarizes nicely Van Engen’s work, while interacting critically with Eitel, Wan and Köstenberger, and sympathetically with Guder.


This conversation has given me opportunity to explore my own life and ministry calling at a critical point. For years I have been feeling the tug toward frontline mission where I may live alongside and interact with the lost, the marginalized, those who as Jim Henderson so aptly puts it, Jesus misses most. I teased the borders of such an experience with intentional outreach to low income apartment communities in the last couple of years. So, it is fascinating to read the insights and sharp disagreements between various missiologists, Bible scholars and theologians. I only wish there could be a greater representation in the book from women on the mission field, and from thinkers who originate outside of the Western Hemisphere. However, I am hopeful that the blog tour will offer a glimpse into a broader perspective.

I am most challenged by the unnecessary, but seemingly inevitable, pendulum swing between gospel proclamation and social justice. It is a false dichotomy, in my view, which has hampered the witness of ecclesial communities on either extreme. Holistic balance is a better way forward, although it is easier said than done. It cuts to the heart of where I now struggle. How can I enter into community with others in a way that holds dear the mutual vitality of gospel proclamation and practical service? Furthermore, how might I do this in a way that does not exclude the marginalized by requiring them to believe before they belong in community, yet also maintains the exclusivity of Jesus Christ as the way, the truth and the life? This cuts to the heart of contextualization. That is, how do we embody the Kingdom of Jesus Christ in culturally relevant ways while remaining faithful to Christian orthodoxy so as to live out a resulting Christian orthopraxy? As the conversation continues I hope to discover helpful points of practical and theological insight which will provide clarity and traction to move forward into a biblically missional way of life.


4 thoughts on “Christian Mission in History: Interacting with Charles Van Engen and his reviewers.

  1. Great thoughts man. I struggled with the separation of social justice and personal salvation as well. It sounds like you are about to under go a fantastic journey. My wife and I left professional ministry a few years ago with a small group of leaders to figure out how to be the church differently in the urban setting. It has been a wild ride. Be careful what you pray for. = )

  2. Thank you for the affirming words, Jeff. I truly appreciate it! Do you blog your experiences re. urban mission? I would be curious to take a look. I agree about being careful what I pray for. I never expected to find myself at this age to be in this particular space in life, essentially starting all over again with no idea what the future might hold.

  3. I blog about our trail and error approach. If you go to our blog click on the sidebar entitled “Stories from the Thingy.” There are some random posts there. Or here is one of our most recent reflection ones –

    I think one of the biggest hurdles we faced was that we felt alone (and a little crazy). But the more I’ve been in this world the more people who are looking for a different way to be the church than the current models. It is a silent growing tide. So know you are not alone. If there is anything we can do to help, let us know.

    And write about. I would love to hear your journey.

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