The dream of fulfilling the Great Commission has been with the church ever since Christ first gave it on a Galilean hillside 2,000 years ago. Statisticians David Barrett and Todd Johnson estimate that 250 world evangelization plans had been proposed by the year 1900, and another 1,150 more were advanced in the 20th century.

After the late John R. Mott's famous challenge, "The evangelization of the world in this generation," went unmet in the 19th and early 20th centuries, missionary interest declined drastically, thanks in part to the spread of theological liberalism and the horrors of the Great War. Missiologists, missionaries, and agency leaders have wondered whether the worldwide evangelical missions community is facing a similar loss of public interest now that the goal of the ad2000 and Beyond Movement—"a church for every people and the gospel for every person by A.D. 2000"—has also failed.

Finding more respected and influential thinkers than James Engel and William Dyrness in the evangelical missionary enterprise would be difficult. So when they say that the missionary movement is badly off track and needs to rethink its core assumptions, the rest of us can't help noticing. Engel is a missions marketing expert, founder of Development Associates International, and creator of the Engel Scale describing the process of evangelism. Dyrness, of Fuller Theological Seminary, has written Learning About Theology from the Third World and other books.

Rethinking "Reached" Nations

The authors call for a "gracious revolution" in missions, warning of dire consequences for those who fail to climb aboard the postmodern bandwagon. "When the Great Commission is properly conceived as making disciples, it should then become apparent that disciple-making is a process that will continue until Christ returns," they write. "In other words, the Great Commission can never be fulfilled, and we are doing a great disservice when we declare any part of the world to have been reached" (authors' emphases).

They are, of course, right about the slippery topic of "reached" nations. According to Patrick Johnstone, only 2.8 percent of the 515 million people of Europe, historically a "Christian" continent, are evangelicals. Thus, if Europe ever was reached, it certainly is not now.

Or take Rwanda, where 80 percent of the people claim to be Christian but where discipleship was little in evidence during the genocide of April 1994.

There is much to commend Engel and Dyrness for in this book, although much of the content seems to be a restatement from earlier Engel works. They rightly caution churches and missions not to be seduced by a modernistic mindset (although, curiously, they do not display the same fear of postmodernism). They decry the West's penchant for "managerial missiology," which for them boils down to measuring spiritual outcomes, as the ad2000 and Beyond Movement has been accused of doing in its eagerness to present the gospel to the approximately 1,500 people groups considered unreached.

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Overstating their case, however, they charge that "the redefinition of the Great Commission to a measurable objective of maximizing numbers of converts and church members has emasculated Christ's imperative to make disciples in all nations."

Yes, the ad2000 Movement undoubtedly cut corners in the race to meet its artificial deadline, but who can fail to rejoice over the millions of people mobilized for world missions and brought into Christ's kingdom as a result?

Changing the Mind of Missions could have used more editing. The warmed-over and fictitious scenario of the enlightenment of Global Harvest Mission and First Church of Rollingwood in abandoning the old missions paradigm in favor of the new adds nothing. A case study of real people and organizations would have been much more convincing.

Engel and Dyrness argue that missions today must be centered in the local church, saying the church "is both the message and the medium expressing the fullness of the reign of Christ."

Yet this is not as easy as the authors imply. Missionaries, ideally, are sent to places where there is no church, and inexperienced churches that send people to these areas without the help of experts do so at their peril. At the Lausanne Congress in 1974, Ralph Winter argued that 2.7 billion of the world's people could not be won to Christ by "near-neighbor evangelism."

In short, some areas simply do not have a Christian presence by which their inhabitants might be won to Christ. Thus, missionaries (even Western ones) are still needed.

While rightly highlighting the key role of God in salvation, Engel and Dyrness seem to downplay the difficulty of the task. "In this kingdom paradigm of world missions, those we consider to be unreached are not viewed as candidates or customers for the gospel," they write. "Rather, our objective is to invite others, believers and nonbelievers, to join us in a pilgrimage to discover the reality of a risen Lord." Does this seem a viable approach to reach millions of resistant Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists?

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Then again, Engel and Dyrness seem to be in no hurry. They say that "The existence of a need in and of itself does not signify a call to ministry" (authors' emphasis). Perhaps that is why the book makes no mention of the eternal destiny of the lost, or why the authors advocate an "eternal timetable" for setting ministry priorities, apparently overlooking Christ's command to pray for workers to be sent into a field ready for harvest. Seeing a need may not determine one's call, but it is often a critical element.

Perhaps this blind spot has occurred because they have started on the wrong foot. Engel and Dyrness write that Jesus' words in Luke 4:18-19 (which quotes Isa. 61:1-2) constitute his personal "mission statement":

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has sent me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

"If this defines his agenda, it also must define ours," they write. Jesus clearly was concerned with physical blindness, poverty, and imprisonment, but even more so with their spiritual manifestations (see John 9:39). As Andreas Kostenberger demonstrated in The Missions of Jesus and the Disciples According to the Fourth Gospel (Eerdmans, 1998), the Lord's followers are not necessarily called to do the same works he did. And is a socially slanted focus on Luke 4:18-19 really warranted, since "preaching" and "proclaiming" are integral parts of the text, and since Jesus himself described the purpose of his coming in various ways (see, for example, Mark 1:38, 10:45; Luke 19:10)?

Engel and Dyrness decry the "specious dichotomy" drawn today between evangelism and social transformation, overlooking the many hospitals, orphanages, and microenterprise programs founded by missionaries and evangelists down through the centuries. The gospel has been the greatest force for social transformation in the history of the world. It was William Carey, the "father of modern missions," who two centuries ago translated the Hindu classics, started India's first newspaper, and stood against the Hindu practice of sati, or widow-burning.

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Body and Soul

Engel and Dyrness are correct in their call for a stronger emphasis on discipleship. But they seemingly dismiss as an old, modernistic paradigm any understanding of missions that gives evangelism first priority. The authors, however, say comparatively little about the apostle Paul, whose primary focus was on preaching good news.

No one will dispute that God calls us to love our neighbor in practical ways, but what could be more loving than sharing news that can change a person's life, both now and for eternity?

Jesus certainly would put evangelism ahead of social ministry, if a choice must be made—and he did. To a crowd of people seeking a meal, he gave a sermon instead (John 6). "What good will it be for a man," he asked, "if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?" (Matt. 16:26a)

Sometimes that painful choice between body and soul must be made. Meredith Long of World Relief has acknowledged that evangelism can upset the trust that development professionals try to build when introducing projects in non-Christian areas.

"When a group of untouchables declare themselves as followers of Christ, trust within the community often begins to dissipate, especially where conversion is a highly charged political issue," Long says. In that case, then, shouldn't the priority be on souls?

It's not only what Engel and Dyrness say that causes concern, but what they don't. Advocating their "kingdom paradigm" of mission, they seem unaware how much they sound like the liberals before them, for whom mission is "everything the church is called to do"—everything, that is, except evangelism. Liberals did not start out that way, for the most part.

No, Engel and Dyrness have not given up on the need for spiritual regeneration, but their followers might. Doing evangelism along with other good works has been a perennial struggle for Christian relief and development agencies. Let us hope it does not become one for missions agencies.

Stan Guthrie is associate news editor of CT and author of Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century (Paternoster, 2000).

Related Elsewhere

Changing the Mind of Missions is available at and other resources.

Stan Guthrie's Missions in the Third Millennium is hard to get a copy of—it's not even on the U.S.—but you can order it through the U.K. Amazon and Paternoster Publishing.

In his newsletter, Rick Warren called Changing the Mind of Missions "a major disappointment. What's wrong? The authors' misperceptions about missions! I agree with Ralph Winter that this is one of the worst missions books ever."

InterVarsity Press, meanwhile, offers the book's table of contents, an excerpt, and endorsement "blurbs."

The Evangelism and Missions Information Service of the Billy Graham Center offers several excellent publications about missions.

David Barrett's Global Evangelization Movement site has a fascinating page on the "Status of Global Mission, 2001, in context of 20th and 21st centuries."

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Changing the Mind of Missions: Where Have We Gone Wrong?
Changing the Mind of Missions: Where Have We Gone Wrong?
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