Changing Frontiers of Mission


Title: Changing Frontiers of Mission
Wilbert R. Shenk
Publication Date:
Orbis Books

The main idea in the Changing Frontiers of Mission is that mission implies a continual movement and therefore is continually faced with a frontier.  Shenk opens the book by providing and overview of the basic frontiers presented to modern mission.  First, he defines mission synonymously with movement stating that, “It stands for purposeful going and doing.  Mission implies challenge to the status quo and invites changes.”  (Page 1)  Since mission is always moving forward, by definition, it must always be facing a changing frontier.  For Shenk, the frontier is where the “crucial engagement” takes place, and is defined from various angles throughout the book.  For Shenk, this crucial engagement with modern mission occurs with theology, practice, and with contemporary culture.  The final section of the book is dedicated to the discernment of the changing frontiers presented to missions.

The theological frontier is outlined as the mission dynamic and in recovering the fullness of the gospel.  In describing the mission dynamic, Shenk refers to the new order as messianic since God’s kingdom was embodied in the life and ministry of Christ.  The interaction between the Church and the world is modeled after that of a “resident alien.”  The calling of the Church is summarized as, “to glorify the Triune God by faithfully witnessing to the reign of God, and by living as sign of that reign.”  (pg 15)  To recover the fullness of the Gospel, Shenk argues that neither social service nor evangelistic preaching are adequate models of ministry on their own.  He writes that, “the only adequate symbol for the ministry is the kingdom of God as embodied in Jesus Christ.  Nothing less than this can hold together the various dimensions with integrity and coherence.”  (Page 21)  Shenk argues that not only are both indispensable, but that they cannot be separated.  It is a flaw of modern thinking.  “I submit that the flaw in the ‘word and deed’ paradigm is that it has encouraged us to focus attention on the parts rather than on the whole, which is God’s new order.  Once this partial way of looking at Christian witness was accepted, it was impossible to arrive at the whole… the whole, that is, God’s new order – is always greater than the way we add up the parts.”  (28-29)

In the second part of the book Shenk confronts the large task of describing the frontier modern mission faces with the theory and practice of mission.  He first discusses the lack of mission theory in general.  While there have been significant changes in mission theory Shenk argues that mission theory has “largely disappeared from missiological thought by 1960.”  (pg 47)  He later provides a brief overview of the three models of mission.  First is described the replication model of mission, which dominated mission thought from the beginning of protestant mission until the mid-1800s.  The replication model was followed by the indigenous church model which recognized cultural difference but continued to be based in the concept of Christendom and was abruptly replaced by the contextualization model in the 1970s.  This is followed by a discussion of “New Religious Movements.”  After an introduction to these movements, which are described as an unintended result of cross-cultural mission, Shenk discusses how these NRMs inform mission theology, and in particular how these religious movements prosper in the absence of cross-cultural missionaries.

This second section reflection on theory and practice is finished with a discussion on the “wider context of conversion” and mission strategy.  In discussing conversion, Shenk provides a framework for evaluation ones understanding of conversion and many of the shortcomings of the evangelical ideology.  In particular in the evangelical emphasis on the individual and failure to understand cultures that are community based.  Shenk’s conclusion is, “First, conversion is a considerably more complex process than is usually described… Second, this study indicates that, along with more complete descriptions of the process, we need adequate criteria for evaluation conversion.”  (102)  In discussing mission strategy, Shenk points out some of the shortcomings of mission strategy inherited from Western Culture.  In particular his criticism is the “concomitant confidence in technique” and “a linear view of history, particularly its faith in evolutionary progress.”  (pg 104)  Shenk makes a criticism similar to that made by Samuel Escobar that could be summed up as overconfidence in rationality and strategy and a lack of emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit.  He states the risk as becoming too focused on individual strategies which are partial dimensions of the gospel, and risk “choosing means inconsistent with the goal of mission.”  (pg 133)

In the third part of the book is dedicated to discussing the frontiers of modern culture.  The section comprises a discussion on the relationship between church and contemporary culture and the training needs for missiologists for Western Culture.  Shenk’s definition of this relation is of resident alien.  Of particular interest is the notion that the work of a resident alien, and therefore the missiological calling of the church, is never completed.  Shenk states directly that, “to think at some point a culture is ‘full evangelized’”
(124) is a temptation that unwarranted by scriptures.  The work of a resident alien is also that of critical syncretism which is a balance between adaptation and rejection of culture.  “An uncritical accommodation led to syncretism that diluted or denatured the gospel, while failure to adapt would have meant that the gospel remained foreign and inaccessible.”  (127)

The fourth and final section of the book provides an outline for the challenges facing modern mission.  In chapter 14 Shenk discussions the mission agency and how many have become overly institutionalized.  He states that many modern mission agencies are therefore faced with an identity crisis.  Shenk warns against the church loosing its sense of mission, and finding a way forward by trying to salvage old structures.  In the final chapter Shenk focuses on the future of missions.  While he states that the modern missionary movement has ended, “a new epoch in Christian mission is unfolding” (186)

For Shenk, the mission of the church is summed up in Acts 28:31 and comprises proclaiming (in word and deed) the kingdom of God and teaching about Jesus Christ.  This duality comprises the social service required by the enacting of the kingdom of God and the evangelism in teaching bout Jesus Christ.  For Shenk, these are not separable and not only must global mission include these, but each particular mission should also be comprised of this holistic view.  For Shenk the “goal” of mission is not world evangelism, nor would world evangelism mean that missions are over.  The goal of mission is God’s kingdom, which means that the church must constantly participate in mission.  This mission is to the world, which has a geographical, sociological and religious frontier.  It is critical that everybody participate in mission both in the organic sense of all Christians (Acts 11:19-26) but also through cross-cultural missions (Acts 13:1-3).

The questions raised in reading this book are on the continued role of cross-cultural missionaries.  The goal of missions is to see God’s Kingdom (in other words, the goal of missions is the mission Dei), but what is the goal of missionaries?  Should missionaries have an “end goal” to their ministry in a country at which point they should leave, or should they commit to a relationship with a continual change in their strategy and their work?  Will missionaries continue to participate in the acting out of God’s kingdom, or will the Church take ownership of this goal?

Shenk also seems to focus on the transformation of poor, “primitive”, or oppressed as the people who receive the Gospel and make a transformation.  If this is true, what does this teach us?  Are these people groups more likely to receive the Gospel?  Does God really have a preferential option for the poor?  What does it say about missions to upper class citizens?

Finally, one area that would benefit from further discussion would be the frontier between modern mission and reconciliation.  What might Shenk propose as a means for finding reconciliation between the Protestant and Catholic Church in Latin America?  As Christians move forward in post-genocide Rwanda what reconciliation is required by the Church when a 90% Christian population is unable to stop ethnic killings in their own country? Most importantly, how important to missions is a unified witness across denominations and what much the Church do to move towards become one body of Christ and providing one unified witness to the world?