Craig Van Gelder, Dwight J. Zscheile Baker Academic 2011-05-01

While books on the emerging church are clearly waning, works on mission theology and the missional church are gaining ground in both popular and academic writing. At least two evangelical publishers now have imprints specifically addressing missional ministry. Baker Academic, for instance, has their Missional Network Series, edited by Craig Van Gelder, primarily devoted to the scholarly study of the missional church. And Baker Books also has their Shapevine Series which is “devoted to embracing the missional life.” The Shapevine Series addresses popular missional concepts that are easily applied to culture. In the past several years books with missional in the title or subtitle have abounded. The most prolific authors today are Alan Hirsch, Alan Roxburgh, Michael Frost and Craig Van Gelder.

Moreover, serious theological literature now features entire sections on the Missio Dei: the mission of God. Mission theologian Lalsangkima Pachauau, writing in the Dictionary of Mission Theology, claims that “Since the middle of the twentieth century, this understanding of Christian mission as Missio Dei has enjoyed such popularity that it has come to be recognized as a theological consensus.” This is a movement with no signs of abatement.

However, as with any movement that gains popularity, definitions and boundaries become blurred, and this has certainly been the case with the missional church movement. The common claim among serious missional practitioners is that many talk about missional ministry, but few can define it concisely, and still others engage in ministry practices that are labeled as missional but lack the biblical and theological foundation for such engagement.

This is why Craig Van Gelder’s new work The Missional Church in Perspective is such a welcome addition to the missional literature. Because Van Gelder was a member of the team that wrote the seminal book Missional Church (edited by Darrell Guder in 1998), the book that seems to have launched the current iteration of the missional movement, he is a trustworthy analyst of the current status of the movement. 

The Missional Church in Perspective is divided into two parts. In part one, Van Gelder and Zscheile present the history and development of the missional conversation. This is undoubtedly the best analysis of the history of the missional church in print, and anyone interested in the background of the conversation will benefit tremendously from their assessment. What makes this section particularly interesting is Van Gelder’s story of how the original book Missional Church was written, and his personal considerations of its strengths and weaknesses. He also analyzes why the book sold surprisingly well (in excess of 35,000 copies).

Van Gelder then maps the missional conversation as a tree with roots, a trunk and branches. After mapping the conversation, he then categorizes various missional works and shows how they fit into the broader conversation. This review of the literature is a gold mine of information for anyone seeking to know the breadth of the literature currently in print.

The remainder of the book is devoted to how the missional conversation might be extended in the future. The authors deal with 1) mission theology, 2) the praxis of missional ministry in a globalized culture, and 3) how the missional mindset can be applied to the church.

The best feature of part two of The Missional Church in Perspective is the notion that common grace leads to opportunities to converse of God’s saving grace. These are not the precise words they use, but it is the concept they espouse. They champion the notion that we often have opportunities to build collaborative relationships with those who are far from Christ, and these relationships can provide opportunities to share the gospel story about Jesus in non-threatening ways.

Moreover, they remind the readers that in our globalized world many people are dislocated and lonely. This provides opportunities for followers of Christ to enfold them into communities that model the grace of God through service. Another strength of this book (and Van Gelder’s writings in general) is his admonition to depend on the power of the Holy Spirit and then engage in humble conversation.

While this work does make a valuable contribution to the literature on the missional church, there are several notable weaknesses to the book. First, the section on mapping the missional conversation presents categories that are often vague and unhelpful unless you are well acquainted with the breadth of the literature. Providing more clearly defined categories could have strengthened this book for those who are new to the conversation.

Second, an overly simplified and pessimistic view of strategic planning is presented in the sixth chapter on missional practices of church life and leadership. It is understood that some Christian leaders may make mission and strategic planning an end in itself, isolated from the community of believers, and independent of an abiding relationship with God. However, is this always the case? The authors neglected to illustrate from Scripture how God worked in and through a process of strategic planning. For example, Exodus 18 records a compelling picture of Moses as community leader who struggled to provide strategic, organizational leadership. It took Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro to help redirect Moses to think and act more strategically in fulfilling God’s call. In addition, John 13 demonstrates Jesus’ sacrificial ministry that was deeply rooted in a clear sense of identity and mission from the Father, and a strategic plan to love his disciples to end.

Third, from time to time the tone of the book suggests the need to “de-Europeanize American Christianity,” as if Western Christianity was inherently flawed. A sub-theme that sometimes shows up in the missional literature is the vilification of Western Culture. Certainly Western culture has had its weakness, but at the very time that secular historians (Charles Murray and Jacques Barzun to name a few) are praising the legacy of Western culture on Judeo-Christian grounds, it seems jejune and sophomoric for Christians to criticize it. As reviewers, we are personally thankful for the explosion of Christianity in the majority world, but we do not need to denigrate the remarkable legacy of the West at the same time.

In sum, this is an outstanding assessment of the current status of the missional conversation, both where it has come from and where it is headed. But even more, there is a wonderful spiritual component to this work. In his forward to the book Alan Roxburgh gives this praise: “In truth, [this book] has changed my mind and attitudes. I have heard the Spirit of God in these pages.”