Wilbert R. Shenk

Orbis Books, 1999, 207 pp.


See more book notes at

SheChan 03-3-22

Shenk is professor of mission history and contemporary culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. The wide-ranging, somewhat technical essays in this collection were written over the past 20 years.  The book is divided into sections on theology, theory and practice, contemporary culture, and history and transition.  The chapters on strategy and history I found quite thought provoking.


“By mission is meant the effort to effect passage over the boundary between faith in Jesus Christ and its absence.”  (xi)


“But if mission itself is nonnegotiable, equally important is the demand that the form and patterns of mission be kept flexible and responsive to the changing historical situation.  Failure to distinguish between these two elements will result in paralysis or aimlessness.”  (2)


“The God-given identity of the church thus arises from its mission.”  “Yet for some sixteen centuries Christians have been taught to think of church as the prior category and mission as one among several functions of the church.”  (7)


“Mission must precede the church.  Jesus formed his disciple community for the express purpose of continuing his mission.”  “The renewal of the church as the twentieth century ends is linked to recovery of the priority of mission.” (7)


“The New Testament defines the raison d’etre of the church to be missionary witness to the world, thus at one stroke sharply focusing its purpose while subsuming all other functions under mission.”  (8)


The church has a single purpose with two aspects, witnessing to the reign of God by living as a sign of that reign.  (15)


The flaw in the “word and deed” paradigm is that it has encouraged us to focus on the parts rather than the whole – God’s new order - which is always greater than the parts.  (29)


“Mission studies were excluded from seminaries and faculties of theology until the end of the nineteenth century.”  (34)


Chapter 4 describes how some assumptions and patterns of missions have changed, from the “replication model,” to the “indigenization model” to the “contextualization model.”  Elements of the earlier models persist.  In the replication model, the missionary seeks to reproduce his own pattern of church.  Indigenization draws on the host people and culture but uses a “script” from the outside. 


“Contextualization is a process whereby the gospel message encounters a particular culture, calling forth faith and leading to the formation of a faith community, which is culturally authentic and authentically Christian.” (56)  People are still struggling to understand how to implement it.  (57)


Three principles to be learned from independent indigenous church movements:

  1. The mission organization must avoid contributing to conflict in the community over sources of power by working to enhance indigenous forms and institutions rather than introducing their own institutions.
  2. The mission should assist the community by advancing the things which they seek but are denied because of their weak position in society.
  3. The mission must avoid competing with indigenous leadership or become responsible of the welfare of the church.  (64)


In the chapter, “The Wider Context of Conversion,” Shenk describes various motivations for conversion. 

  1. Rapid cultural change or social crisis increases the likelihood of conversion.   (88)
  2. The lack of a culture’s ability to maintain the coherence of its worldview and control its destiny in the face of change increases the likelihood of religious belief change.  (88)
  3. When people experienced colonialism, changing religion often increased people’s perception or their economic or professional security. (89)
  4. “The challenge posed by the forces of modernization has called into question the adequacy of traditional cosmologies.  This has elicited several types of response.”  (89)
  5. Factors may be more complex than the missionary imagined when he focused on sin and salvation.  People may respond for social, economic, and political motives because they are pressing issues for them. 


“During the past two centuries Christianity and Islam have grown steadily through missionary action.”  “The vast majority of all conversions have taken place among small-scale ethnic societies and those marginalized by a powerful majority society….”  “First, converts were drawn almost entirely from cultures in which decision-making is communal.”  “Second, the emerging world system intensified feelings of vulnerability for whole societies.  Traditional folkways were being overrun by colonialism and modernization.  The evangelical missionary message was directed to the individual, but that message was received through eyes and ears that responded corporately, by a community that felt itself besieged.”  (101)


Ch 8.  Missionary Strategy.

Strategy is a military term, whose military meaning is appropriate for missions neither in goal or means.  “The term suggests calculation: a careful weighing of alternatives, searching for the most efficient means based on empirical data.  How does such a stance relate to the work of the Holy Spirit?  If missionary obedience involves discerning and following God’s will, then a considered tentativeness ought to mark our most carefully laid plans.”  (103)


Modern mission strategy has been molded by two outstanding features of Western culture:  the philosophy of pragmatism and a confidence in technique.  (104)


“The starting point for thinking about a biblical approach to strategy must be a consideration of God’s missionary initiative.  Genesis 1-3 forms a prolegomenon to the rest of scripture tying together creation, mission, and redemption.”  (105)


“God’s strategy may be summarized in terms of three stages: (1) The election and sending of Abraham so that ‘by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves” (Gn 13:3), along with the covenant binding Israel to be the instrument of salvation for the nations. The sending of Jesus Christ (Jn 1:14), the divinely appointed Messiah,…  (3) the sending of the church as an extension of the mission of Jesus Christ (Jn 17:18; 20:21).  Each ‘sending’ is from a position of vulnerability and weakness in obedience to God’s call to bring healing and salvation to all peoples (…).  (105)


The theology of strategy.  God’s Redemptive Mission is the source. Jesus Christ is the embodiment.  The Holy Spirit is the power.  The church is the instrument.  Cultures are the context.  (106-107)


 “Mission has its source in the nature and purpose of God.”  (106)


“The Old Testament introduces the notion that God’s redemptive strategy is tied to the coming of the Messiah (Is11:1-9, 42:1-4, 53; 61:1-3).” 


“The strategy of Christian mission is nothing more – nor less – than participating in carrying out God’s own strategy.  Its shape is that of a cross. (quoting Shank).”  (106)


“Strategic thinking based on master plans far removed from a particular context must be treated with great suspicion.”  (107)


“The life of the spirit cannot be measured or described in terms of arithmetic.” (quoting Oldham.) “The aim, then, of foreign missionary work is to plant the Church of Christ in every part of the non-Christian world as a means to its evangelization.”  (112)


Our culture is dominated by scientific rationality.  A missionary, surrounded with technological equipment may seem powerful but alienated from people who life in poverty.  This power may be contrary to the vulnerability of the cross.  (113)


“There is growing evidence that the Christian faith is most vital, both in quantity and quality, in those countries and regions where martyrdom has been visited on the church.  Conversely, the faith has been co opted by culture and has become flaccid in those parts of the world where there has been maximum freedom and affluence.”  (113)


The Church and Contemporary Culture

“Some historians have said that the Judeo-Christian tradition provided the oxygen that fed the flame of modernity.  The coming of the Enlightenment in the 17th century put church and religion on the defensive.  Religion was increasingly excluded from public life….”  (117)


“The church is being called to rid itself of timeworn habits of thought and engage in the demanding work of rethinking its relationship to contemporary culture through the lens of mission.”  (117)


“The church in the West is … a church without a clear sense of mission in relation to its culture.  But a church without a mission is an anomaly, a caricature of what it was intended to be.”  (118)


The argument of this chapter: (120)

  1. We need to reclaim a biblically informed metaphor for the church-world relationship
  2. Consider ‘missionary encounter’ as the normative role of the church
  3. Learn from the substantial missions experience of the past 200 years.


“A primary metaphor for describing the status of the people of God in the world is that of ‘resident alien.’”  Not withdrawal from the world, but critical engagement. (121) 


In Christendom (where it was assumed the host culture was Christian), no place was given to mission.  The church has lost an awareness of itself as essentially a missionary body.  We urgently need to recover a vision of the church as being in missionary encounter with the world.  The church has no purpose apart from mission.  (122-3)


“Mission work does not arise from any arrogance in the Christian Church.  Mission is its cause and its life.  The church exists by mission, just as fire exists by burning.”  (quoting Brunner).  “Church without mission is a contradiction in terms.”  (124)


“A church fully alive to the missionary encounter with culture must take seriously the need for thorough and sensitive training in cultural understanding wherever the church is located, but especially when seeking to relate to neighbors who are in physical proximity but culturally distant.”  (126)


“The church enters a danger zone when it is no longer self-consciously critical of its relation to culture and is no longer asking what is the path of faithful discipleship.  The church must always adapt to its culture in such a way that it lives and communicates the gospel credibly.  That is constructive syncretism.  If the church becomes merely the religious reflection of its culture, it has sold its birthright.”  (127)


Ch 10.  Training Missiologists for Western Culture

“The Great Commission institutionalizes mission as the raison d’etre, the controlling norm, of the church.  To be a disciple of Jesus Christ and a member of his body is to live a missionary existence in the world.  There is no doubt that this was how the earliest Christians understood their calling.”  (132)


We must rigorously examine the fundamental presuppositions of our culture.  (134)  We are a culture driven by the quest for self-esteem.  “The temptation to ‘be as God’ in modern culture has taken the form of making the self the goal.”  Our preoccupation with self has also reduced our sense of what makes a viable society.  And we must reconsider the meaning of Christian conversion in the light of the impact of modern culture on Christian thought.  (135-6)


Technology is based on technique and techniques results in alienation.  “If the church relies on technique to carry out its witness, what it to guarantee that it will note result in alienation?”  (136)


Ch. 11.  The “Great Century” Reconsidered.  (from 1800 to eo. WWI)


The British dominated missions until around 1900.  The Great Century meant “the formative impact the movement had on the Christian world,” i.e. the way the 19th century shaped the 20th.   


Christendom means the understanding of the Christian church after Constantine, Christianity identified with the political power structures and struggles of the world.  This mentality remained intact in the 19th century.  “Christian nations” stood in contrast to “the heathen.”  But by mid-19th century, Western culture had made a fundamental shift.  Religion lost its authority and modernity took over.  British evangelicalism was largely a spent force.  The church became increasingly preoccupied with defending itself against the assaults from science. (143)


The 19th century missionary movement was powered by volunteerism (vs. church sponsored missions); it was sustained by committed individuals.  “The vision that spurred mission supporters to action was firmly grounded in the Old Testament prayer, ‘that thy way be known upon  earth, thy saving power among the nations’ (Ps 67:2).  It was a vision reinforced by Isaiah’s promise that ‘the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’ (Is 11:9b).”  (144)  


“In the popular mind, missions in the Great Century sailed under the flag of ‘Christianity, Commerce, and Civilization.’”  (147)


Christendom depended on a close integration of the political, religious, and cultural.  Westerners expected to take western civilization and commerce along with the Gospel.  But the rising expectation of non-Western peoples was toward freedom, not subservience to Western political powers!  (149)


Ch. 12.  The Modern Missionary Movement  (since 1792)

“The whole of the modern period is overshadowed by the Enlightenment….”  (154)


Science (the source of authority) and technology were indispensable; religion was increasingly consigned to the realm of superstition.  Life was divided between the public (rationality and facts) and the private (sentiment and subjective values).   Other cultures refused the Enlightenment meta-narrative.  Theology became rationalistic and formal, a cerebral affair.  (155)


 “The modern missions project sought to hold together, on one hand, fidelity to the command of Jesus Christ to disciple the nations in his name and, on the other, a commitment to modernity.”  “Indeed, the possibility of taking the benefits of modern culture to other peoples was one of the main motives for mission in this period.”  (156)


“Mission is intrusive and disruptive.  Sooner or later, either explicitly or implicitly, it questions the status quo, calls for change, and proposes an alternative allegiance.  Missions are a fundamental threat to accepted values and standards of the cultures into which they are inserted (cf. Acts 17:6f).  Let it be noted that the secular development movement since 1945 has been as disruptive of traditional societies as any religious mission.”  (157)


“Throughout the modern period the Industrial Revolution provided an economic basis for worldwide activity by the Western nations, including missions.  The entire period cannot be understood without taking this into account.”  (161)


“By the end of the nineteenth century there were growing signs of fundamental conflict between the universal rationality of the Enlightenment, allied as it was with Western imperialism, and the universal reach of the kingdom of God.”  Indigenous movements emerged and religious independence from Western missions grew, resulting in thousands of new Christian denominations worldwide.  (161)


“The dominant understanding of mission these past two centuries has been that of sending specially commissioned people to do specified tasks in the name of the gospel.”  This valid but too limited.  The church must realize that in its entirety it is to be in continuous forward movement in mission.  (162)


Western theology hasn’t yet discovered the modern missionary movement.  (163)


Panikkar’s critique of modern missions.  It was weakened by

  1. an attitude of moral and religious superiority
  2. association with aggressive imperialism
  3. an attitude of European/Christian superiority toward other cultures
  4. the divisions among Christians   (164)


“Every sign points to the fact that with the end of the modern period in world history has also come the end of modern missions.”  (165)


Ch 13.  Mission in Transition: 1970-1994  (how geopolitical and socioeconomic features have shaped the Christian missions and thrust it into a state of flux)


“Crisis is the mother of change.”  “One ought to say that the Church is always in a state of crisis and that its greatest shortcoming is that it is only occasionally aware of it.”  (166, quoting Hendirk Kraemer)


In the 1950s and 1960s several centuries of European world dominance ended as remnants of European empires were dismantled. (166)  It was the application of scientific technology that enabled Europe to rise to preeminence in the late 18th and 19th centuries.  “Europeans became imbued with the idea of a manifest destiny that called them to be directors and protectors of the weaker peoples of the world.  This included not only serving as guardians of other peoples but schooling them in the ways of true ‘civilization.’  On the other hand, the recipients of European beneficence began reacting with growing intensity to this unwelcome imposition.”  (168)


“It was in this milieu that the modern missionary movement was birthed and its theoretical and practical underpinnings were worked out.”  The theory of mission is heavily indebted to the British colonial experience.  (168) 


“Measured by its ability to survive and even grow, the Christian movement has managed to adapt to all kinds of political systems.  What has not changed is the negligible penetration of the Christian message in communities loyal to one of the great world religions.  Political ideologies and systems have proved unable to command either the depth of loyalty or to have the staying power of religion.”  (170)


“What may prove decisive is that the locus of power has shifted irreversibly away from its longtime Western base to multiple centers on all continents.”  (175)


Ch. 14.  about mission agencies

Every organization bears the marks of its leaders.  In the early stages there is a keen sense of vision.  Programs reflect clarity of purpose.  As the world changes, institutions adapt.  “What is crucial is whether, in the course of making adjustments, an agency maintains fidelity to its founding purpose as its organizing principle or allows itself to be co opted by other matters.”  (177)


“Three institutional precedents stand behind the missionary society: the monastic movement, the trading company, and the voluntary principle.”  (178)


“”But its historical character must be emphasized.  It was developed as a means for missionary action beyond Christendom, following the trading company pattern….  It has neither direct sanction nor precedent in scripture.  It was a strategic expedient.”  “Regardless of the particular organizational arrangement adopted, conceptually, theologically, and ecclesiastically the mission of the church has remained as specialized activity of a minority of Christians.”  (179, bf mine)


“Hendrik Kraemer insisted that we distinguish between missions as expressions of human response and the mission of God.  The former, said Kraemer, will bear the mark of a particular era—in this case the modern period now hastening to its end.  The latter transcends historical epochs.”  (183)


“It is in the nature of mission always to seek the frontier where the struggle between faith and unfaith is most clearly and urgently drawn.  The first essential of leadership, the one above all others with regard to mission, is to see the vision of the reign of God being established in these frontier situations and then to hold that before the church.  All else is secondary.”  (183)


“…the center of Christian vitality today is precisely where the missionary energies of the church have been focused over the past two hundred years.”  (184)


“Western culture is one of the major mission frontiers of the next century….”  The present danger is that in the West the church is succumbing to the rising tide of isolationism and chauvinism.”  “To be fully the church, we must maintain commitment to world mission…”  (both the world that doesn’t know God and the geopolitical world)  (184)


“The church exists for mission to the world, and its identity is authentic only when it is worked out in genuine missionary encounter.”  (189)