“When Everything is Missions” – A Review (Part III)

“When Everything is Missions”
by Matthew Ellison and Denny Spitters
Copyright 2017 Pioneers-USA & Sixteen:Fifteen
(A review by Dave Shive and Joe Steinitz)

This is the third of eight posts that will examine the ideas and analysis found in Ellison and Spitters fine volume. We are posting a review of a new chapter every week or so. In this third post, we take a close look at Chapter 2: What is our mission? (by Denny Spitters)

Noted missiologist, J. D. Payne, states of Ellison and Spitters’ book: “Brief, powerful, and provocative book that should be read by every North American pastor in the next 12 months. Spitters and Ellison write, ‘When every Christian is a missionary and every ministry is missions, I contend that we gut the mandate to reach all nations.'” We heartily concur with Payne’s opinion!

If you have read our first two reviews, you should be on the edge of your chair in anticipation of this third post. Will the authors finally get to the heart of the issue in chapter two? The simple answer is “yes,” but that answer calls for clarification. The topic of defining missions is no small thing in the current climate. That may explain how we end up with a chapter that is twice as long as either the introduction or chapter one. And we will try to avoid being simplistic and yet attempt to simplify things here!

On p. 36-37 Spitters lists and defines five terms: (1) Missio Dei; (2) Mission; (3) Missional; (4) Missions; and (5) Frontier Missions. (We wonder if a definition of the oft-abused term “missionary” wouldn’t be helpful, as well. And indeed, we are pleased to note that the title of chapter 4 is: “Is Ever Christian a Missionary?” Can’t wait!) However, rather than attempting to deal with all five definitions in a short review, it would be easier to boil this chapter down to essentially the two primary models of missions to which Spitters devotes the bulk of the time. The first would be what Spitters would call the “Missio Dei” (36).

Echoing God’s declaration in Num. 14:21 (“All the earth will be filled with My glory”), Abraham Kuyper once declared: “There is not one square inch of the creation over which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine! This belongs to me!'” The model of the “Missio Dei” points our thinking to this grand scheme of God’s intention to ultimately see that “everything is summed up in Christ” (Eph. 1:10) and “all things are placed under the feet of Jesus” (I Cor. 15:25).

The “Missio Dei” focuses on the overarching narrative of Scripture that portrays mission as the very center of God himself. It is comprehensive in scope because it includes everything God has ever done and ever will do to elevate and display his glory. It signifies that “all that God does in the world and all that He is doing to accomplish His objective is the complete exaltation of the fame of His name: ‘I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth’ (Psa. 46:10)” (Spitters, p. 36)

Spitters sees authors Christopher J. H. Wright, author of the volume, “The Mission of God,” and David Bosch as representatives of the “Missio Dei” model. He is clearly concerned that these two authors (in particular) advocate the “Missio Dei” model to the minimizing of biblical cross-cultural evangelism. [However, we maintain that a broad reading of the writings of these two authors can alleviate any concern about the trajectory of their missiology. More about these and other authors in “For further reading and review” below.]

The fact that (in our experience) American churches’ seem to rely solely on an over-simplification of the “Missio Dei” model leads Spitters (and Ellison) to their concern that once everything (ie., “Missio Dei”) is missions, nothing is missions. That is a valid concern.

In chapter two Spitters emphasizes a second model as a corrective to what he perceives as a philosophical imbalance. Our experience with coaching church missions committees lead us to agree that such an imbalance exists, a corrective is necessary, and we are grateful for this emphasis.

So it is that we encounter what Spitters would simply call “missions” (p. 36-37). This is the endeavor of the church to bring the Good News to the nations to address the problem of human rebellion against God and the subsequent lostness of humanity.

The biblical mandate that requires the church to cross cultural barriers to penetrate ethnic groups beyond the reach of the Gospel with the Word of God is a vanishing aspect of missiology in evangelicalism today. We are profoundly grateful that Spitters makes the case for the biblical basis of “missions” as the proclamation of the Gospel across cultural barriers to penetrate unreached people groups. This kind of thinking is rarely found in many evangelical churches and amongst most believers today.

For further reading and thinking…

Concerning Christopher J. H. Wright: We feel that the quoting of Wright from the writings of Ferdinando, instead of going to Wright’s original writings, inadequately represents Wright’s missiology. While Spitters is concerned that Wright “…blurs biblical distinctions about the mission of God and the mission of the church” (p. 42), a broader reading of Wright’s voluminous writings can alleviate such worries.

Also, a careful reading of “The Mission of God,” especially the 40-page section in which Wright develops a full-blown comprehensive biblical hermeneutic for missions, would lay to rest the suggestion that “…Wright gives little biblical hermeneutic to support his case…” (p. 43).

Wright’s writings also indicate that, while “Missio Dei” includes traditional mission efforts designed to evangelize, make disciples, plant churches, or penetrate unreached peoples, the “Missio Dei” also transcends the traditional view of “missions” to include creation care, social justice, ethical conduct of God’s people, and compassion ministries without neglecting the proclamation of the Gospel. For example, in his volume, “The Mission of God,” Wright tackles the danger of “social action without evangelism” on p. 286f.

Again, on p. 316 in “The Mission of God,” Wright states: “Even if we agree that biblical mission is intrinsically holistic and that Christians should be involved in the whole wide range of biblical imperatives – seeking justice, working for the poor and need, preaching he gospel of Christ, teaching, healing, feeding, educating, and so forth – isn’t it still the case that evangelism has primacy in all of this?”

And in his companion volume to “The Mission of God,” “The Mission of God’s People,” Wright addresses on pp. 273-278 the “wholeness” of evangelism and social action. To Wright, it is not a case of “either/or” but “both/and.” Every whole, healthy, balanced, biblical missiology must integrate the “Missio Dei” with “cross-cultural ethnically-focused missions.” We are positive that Matthew and Denny agree with this assessment.

Another fabulous wealth of material for further exploration of the focus of chapter two and the authors quoted can be found in the text for the course “Perspectives on the World Christian Movement.”

For example, ch. 5, p. 27-33, titled “Mission and God’s Earth,” gives a fuller explanation of Wright’s “Missio Dei” missiology

Again, in the Perspectives text, Steve Hawthorne (ch. 8, p. 49-63), in an article titled “The Story of his Glory,” suggests that a resolution of the ongoing tension between social responsibility and proclamation of the Gospel is gained by focusing on God’s glory: “Glory comes to God by Gospel declaration or a kind deed done in his name.” (p. 62)

Finally, David Bosch’s, also in the Perspectives text (ch. 12, 78-82) titled “Witness to the World” reveals his sound biblical thinking on the issue of the Christological foundation of missions.

As a closing suggestion and tangentially related to this chapter, we would recommend the interested reader consider taking the course “Perspectives on the World Christian Movement” (www.perspectives.org). We know that Ellison and Spitters are familiar with this course and would highly recommend it as well. We (Dave and Joe) have not found any one tool that is quite as effective as this 15-week course to help the budding missiologist begin formulating a biblical missions hermeneutic.