Michael Goheen on Christian mission today

I am always interested in mission, because without missionaries going to my home country more than a hundred years ago, I would never have known Jesus.

Recently I have been reading Michael W. Goheen’s Introducing Christian Mission Today (Downers Grove: IVP), 2014. I bought this book because of the recommendations by quite a few missiologists and scholars. Christopher J. H. Wright, for example, says the following about the book.

Very few people can combine multiple areas of expertise in their own thinking, let alone in a single book. Mike Goheen is one of those few. This wide-ranging survey is the fruit of a true teacher’s passion for the whole scope of his discipline. We are led steadily to understand mission from its biblical foundations, in theological reflection, through millenia of historical practice, across multiple cultural and ecclesial contexts, to the most urgent issues facing the church in mission today and tomorrow. Theologically enriching, reliably informative, and both conceptually and practically challenging.

A quick look at the table of contents and the first few chapters will show that Christopher Wright is right here. In the following I will cite a few things I have read so far.

Goheen starts with a brief summary of his understanding of mission (pages 25–26). First, he says that mission is not so much about “witness in six continents.” Also, it is not from Europe and North America to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Rather, it is “from all six continents.”

Second, Goheen thinks that mission is not primarily “what the church does.” Instead,

the church must understand its mission as participation in the mission of the triune God. And this mission has a communal nature: it is a mission of God’s people. Often evangelism and cross-cultural missions are understood in individualistic ways. However, mission is the calling of a people. Finally, the scope of mission is as broad as creation because God’s mission is the redemption of his whole world. (Pages 25–26)

Third, mission is not mainly about geographical expansion. Rather,

[mission is] the task given to God’s people everywhere to communicate the good news not only with their words but also with their lives and deeds. Mission is witness in life, word and deed. Putting “life” before “word” and “deed” is intentional: the gospel is first of all communicated in the lives of believers, both in their communal life together and as they are scattered in the world. (Page 26)

Finally, Goheen seems to agree with The Lausanne Covenant in 1974.

Mission is the whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole person in the whole world. (Page 26)

Cultural (suburban) captivity of the church

Tim Foster, vice-principal of Ridley College, Melbourne, has written a book, The Suburban Captivity
of the Church: Contextualising the Gospel for
Post-Christian Australia (Melbourne: Acorn, 2014). (The price of the Kindle version is AUD$6.64 today.) Tim Foster studied at Moore College, Sydney, Australia, and did his DMin at Fuller Seminary, US.

I am very interested in this book, but haven’t got the time to read it yet. But I am delighted to read a number of reviews on this book. I will highlight a few things from those reviews and then offer some reflections. Please note that I haven’t read the book myself, and hence the following is not a review of the book as such. Rather, it is a reflection on my observations on the Australian church and the implications to mission in the non-Western world.

Here are the authors of the reviews. Click on his/her name to read his/her review.

Philip Hughes

Tess Holgate

David Burke

Simon Holt

According to Tess Holgate, Foster moved from a suburban parish to an urban one, and there his understanding of the gospel was challenged. Not surprisingly, then, in his book Foster provides the profiles of suburbanites, urbanities, and battlers. I haven’t got the book myself, but I find the following diagram from Philip Hughes’ review helpful. Note that the information in the diagram is from Hughes’ review, not directly from Foster’s book.

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Here is Hughes’ summary of Foster’s understanding of suburban values and how evangelical Christians in Australia may fit into that.

The suburban vision, says Foster, is ‘the pursuit of a comfortable, secure and settled life, in an ordered domain, with one’s family and closest friends, where each individual is free to pursue those interests that will bring happiness with minimal disruption’ (p.75). However, he notes that consumption is conspicuous and functions as a sign of upward mobility in the suburbs. Competition is also inherent in the suburban ethos, not only in consumption, but in spectator sports, cooking and parties, and even giving one’s children private education (p.76). The evangelical churches are strongest in the suburban areas as the values they espouse may be closest to suburban culture in terms of their emphasis on family life. Yet, God often has little place in the suburban vision, Foster says, except to bless the aspirations and assist in their fulfilment (p.77). People sometimes turn to God when things go off the rails.

I haven’t read the book myself. But whether Hughes’ summary reflects accurately Foster’s book, I think the above observation of suburban life is not surprising.

The following from Hughes’ review is also noteworthy. It won’t be new to anyone who has spent some time in an urban church.

Foster notes that, in Australian cities, the working class has diminished as the middle class has grown. Some of the other groups who are at the bottom of the socio-economic range, such as refugees and some non-Western immigrants, some people with disability and mental illness and some on long-term social benefits, share some characteristics of the battlers, but each of these sub-groups is distinct in their own ways (p.116).

In the following I want to offer my own reflections.

(1) Let us not allow the suburban culture to shape our lives. In the Gospels and in Paul’s letters we do not find Jesus or the Jesus-followers living an upwardly mobile life. Middle-class prosperity and aspiration were not the focus of their lives. Rather, the disciples were called to follow Jesus, take up the cross, and embody his life, suffering, death and resurrection in their everyday life. Our value system should be shaped by the cross, not by the values of suburbanites or urbanites, or any other belief or ideology. (It doesn’t mean that we should feel guilty if we were born into a middle-class family, or if we happen to have a high income. What matters is that we live a cross-shaped life.)

(2) We should read the Bible carefully. Anyone who reads the Scriptures carefully would find that individualism, consumerism, and materialism are incompatible with the values of God’s kingdom. We must learn to critique our culture with the Bible.

(3) Let us make the move. It is interesting that Tim Foster’s view of the gospel was challenged when he moved from a suburban parish to an urban one. I am not proposing that we should all move to an inner-city church. But it helps to spend time with people there, so that we can give ourselves the opportunity to discern whether we have unwittingly allowed a suburban mindset to shape our lives. It is important to spend time with the urban poor, the marginalized, the asylum seekers and refugees, and allow their lives to speak to us. There are Christian communities and churches that can assist us to do that. They are not hard to find.

(4) Make sure that we do not export a distorted gospel to the rest of the world. It seems to me that a “gospel message” that is held captive to our culture of materialism and individualism (“me” as the centre, not Christ) is incompatible with the gospel in the Bible. A “gospel message” held captive to the pursuit of upward mobility is not based on the Scripture. A suburban lifestyle that keeps us from the plight of the poor and marginalised is deceptive. It actually keeps us from seeing the Jesus in the Gospels, who identified with the suffering of humankind, not least the pain and affliction of the poor and oppressed. My concern is that western Christians spread a distorted gospel to people in other parts of the world. (I am worried that this may have already happened!)

The best way to avoid this is for western Christians to spend time with the poor and needy in their home country. It is a great preparation for anyone in the West who wants to serve God overseas. This is particularly the case if they spend time in an urban church. Inner-city churches—if and when they are truly missional—are often multicultural, with not a few people coming from low socioeconomic backgrounds. What a great training for those who feel that God may have called them to overseas cross-cultural mission!

Christ-centred (covenant) leadership (Sherwood Lingenfelter)

Recently, I came across the Sherwood Lingenfelter’s Leading Cross-Culturally: Covenant Relationships for Effective Christian Leadership (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008). Although the book is about leadership in cross-cultural contexts, it has many insights that are relevant to every context. In fact, given our increasingly global and multi-cultural (and postmodern) world, the book’s insights are really worth considering. Here is a great quote.

Every community has its own standard of accountability, and the issues and structures of accountability vary significantly across cultures. Some societies and particularly Western industrial nations, insist on accountability structures that require extensive documentation and eternal structures and processes. Others insist on accountability as a product of relationships and emphasize that people are accountable primarily to the groups to which they belong and to the standards the groups hold for their members. As a consequence building a community of trust is always a major challenge for cross-cultural leadership. (p. 21)

Acknowledging his indebtedness to Max DePree’s Leadership is an Art (2004), Lingenfelter says that leadership “is not achieved through structures or social processes.” (p. 99) For Lingenfelter, “the critical factors for leading cross-culturally are Christ-centered learning and trustworthy covenant-centered leadership.” (p. 101) Lingenfelter also says the following, which, I think, is very insightful.

[L]eadership need not be power focused or governed by the tyranny of consensus. Rather, a leader defines the rules of participation to reflect inclusiveness in the body of Christ, commitment to the work of the kingdom, and effective communication among team members that understands the essence of mutual submission, weakness and forgiveness. That kind of leadership is not driven by results but rather is focused on mobilizing people to concentrate on mission and work effectively together to achieve the very best impact for the corporation or the ministry. (p. 100)

For those who are involved in cross-cultural leadership in particular, the following example is really worth reading.

The expatriate mission director, who adamantly opposed Thai corporate culture, expressed certainty that his vision of “servant leadership” was the correct biblical “form” that must replace the distortions of Thai cultural leadership. He used his role and resources to drive the team members toward his “transforming” form of empowerment and decision making. Such leadership behavior distorts and destroys the very teamwork and community relationships that the leader aspires to achieve. (p. 100)

This distortion resides first in the assumption that there is only one kind of servant leadership: that which is expressed in an individualist, egalitarian vision of social life. Most of the Westerners on these Thai multicultural teams have embraced the individualist, egalitarian vision and define servant leadership in terms that fit their social values. They are free to do what they “feel called” to do and to “fulfill their dreams.” They do not bring to the table a commitment to relationship over self-fulfillment or a willingness to submit to others with a priority for unity. They do not see building trust in covenant community as a greater priority than their ministry focus and calling. They assume that “exercising my gifts,” and “doing ministry tasks” are more important than “being the body of Christ.” (p. 100)

I think what we should consider here is not only that there are different forms of leadership, but also what a Christ-centred leadership truly looks like from a biblical perspective. In other words, is our leadership shaped by an individualistic culture? Or is it community-focussed and shaped by Christ’s self-giving way of life?