Foundations: No.61 Autumn 2011

Evangelical Mission Organisations, Postmodern Controversies, and the New Heartbeat of Mission

Thorsten Prill, Senior Lecturer in Missiology and Systematic Theology at Namibia Evangelical Theological Seminary, Windhoek

In June 2005 Jonathan Stephen, now principal of the Wales Evangelical School of Theology, published an article entitled The Current Crisis in Evangelicalism in the British newspaper Evangelicals Now. [1] In his article Stephen looked at a number of postmodern heresies which pose a severe threat to Bible-centred Christianity, including Open Theism, the New Perspective on Paul, and the Emerging Church, as well as the rejection of the doctrine of penal substitution. Six years on, these postmodern theologies have undoubtedly gained influence. However, they no longer pose a threat to evangelical churches in Europe, Australia and North America alone; there is another group in the evangelical constituency that is also affected: mission organisations and their partners overseas. At the same time a new understanding of mission is emerging among evangelicals, which also has an impact on evangelical organisations involved in cross-cultural mission. [2] The striking feature of this new understanding of mission is that it conceptualises mission rather broadly. [3]

Postmodern heresies and controversies in the mission field

Evangelical missionaries from North America and Europe have undoubtedly played an important part in the spread of the Gospel, the formation of African churches, and the practical support of the poor and marginalised, and many of them still do so. There are, however, also missionaries who bring with them some unhealthy theological baggage, such as Open Theism and certain Emerging Church philosophies. While the former with its denial of God’s full foreknowledge is mercifully rare, the impact of the latter is more visible. Three of the main features of the Emerging Church are a deep distrust of the institutionalised church, a disregard of Christian tradition, and an emphasis on community. [4] In some African countries these views manifest themselves in such a way that missionaries work independently of indigenous churches. [5] While in the past missionaries were involved in the planting of churches, the training of church leaders and the education of children and young people in church schools, there are an increasing number of missionaries who serve in hospitals and schools, agricultural projects or projects for orphans and vulnerable children which have no, or only little, church connection. For these people their main partners are not indigenous churches and para-church organisations, but government departments and national and international non-government organisations. [6]

A new understanding of mission

Usually this approach goes hand-in-hand with a view of mission which considers evangelism and verbal communication of the Gospel at best as optional extras but no longer as the heartbeat of mission. Some understand mission first and foremost in terms of community development; their main focus is on the transformation of society and no longer on people’s salvation from sin, death and the power of the devil. In other words, mission is no longer Great Commission mission; it has become ‘kingdom mission’. Don Carson comments

I know numerous groups that claim to be engaging in “holistic” ministry because they are helping the poor in Chicago or because they are digging wells in the Sahel, even though few, if any, of the workers have taken the time to explain to anyone who Jesus is and what he has done to reconcile us to God. Their ministry isn’t holistic; it’s halfistic or quarteristic. [7]

For others, evangelism is only one of many dimensions of mission which are equally important. Consequently, the heartbeat of mission has changed. [8] Missiologists use different terms to describe these new positions on mission. Vanderwerf, for example, speaks of the missional church approach. [9] He writes:

The primary paradigm in Scripture for this approach to understanding mission is Jesus and his incarnation… Mission is to be incarnational (“go and be” among people) rather than attractional (“come to our meeting and see“). The end result of mission is not just conversion, nor just growing a church larger nor just planting new churches, but transformation – of individuals, communities and societies. Sometimes this is expressed as impacting the community for Christ, or “building the kingdom” or helping create ”shalom”. [10]

The missional church approach has much in common with two positions which Hesselgrave calls revisionist holism and radical liberationism. Both are much broader than the restrained holism/social action approach promoted by John Stott. Revisionist holism makes ‘evangelism and social action full and equal partners’ [11] , while radical liberationism equates ‘the biblical notion of salvation from sin with the struggle of poor and oppressed people for justice.’ [12] What both positions have in common is the emphasis on the central role of the kingdom of God in mission. However, in their version of the kingdom Jesus is marginalised; mission is about the promotion of kingdom values, such as justice, peace and equality. The kingdom is first and foremost identified with social and political reforms but not so much with the king and his gospel. Furthermore, both positions stress the importance of Jesus and his incarnation as the sole missionary model. Missionaries have to do what Jesus did and say what Jesus said.

Since Jesus is seen either as God’s agent of socio-political reformation, the transformer of individuals and whole societies or the saviour of the world, missionaries must become exactly that, i.e. liberators of society, transformers of culture, or saviours of needy people. The traditional evangelical view which argues that the apostle Paul and his fellow apostles are our models in mission is rejected. Postmodern evangelical missionaries no longer see themselves as witnesses (Acts 1:8; 22:15; 1 Pet. 5:1) and ambassadors of Christ and his gospel (2 Cor. 5:20; Eph. 6:20) whose core business is evangelism (Acts 6:4,7; 1 Cor. 9:16-23; Col. 1:28-29; 2 Tim. 4:1-2) and the establishment of churches (Acts 14:21-23; Acts 18:1-11). The result is missionaries who are involved in a kind of ‘churchless mission’.

Theological ignorance

What are the reasons that have led to such a development? As so often, there are various reasons. One of them is theological ignorance or shall we rather call it theological naïveté? It is hard to understand how the leaders of an evangelical mission organisation, whose aim is the establishment of Christ-centred churches, can declare that they have no official position on the Emerging Church. However, it is alarming when an evangelical mission organisation, in an attempt to promote a holistic view of mission, teaches a model of the atonement which claims that Christ died so that people can be reconciled with their self and non-human creation. How do these mission leaders arrive at such conclusions? Again, there is more than one answer.

The obvious one is a lack of theological training and a limited understanding of biblical teaching. Most evangelical mission organisations require some kind of formal Bible and cross-cultural training from their missionaries. In a number of mission agencies, however, the standards in this field have been lowered in recent years. Instead of one or two years full-time training at a Bible college it is sufficient for mission candidates to attend a six-week residential course or to complete an online course in cross-cultural mission. Of course, that does not mean that these courses have no value. On the contrary, they often help future missionaries to gain a deeper understanding of culture, the importance of team-work and the biblical basis for mission. However, it can be problematic when missionaries with a background in medicine, nursing, education, business or law who have undergone only very basic theological training are appointed as team or field leaders or given other leadership responsibilities within the mission organisation that require theological discernment. But even missionaries with a good theological knowledge might not always feel able to respond to new theological trends. Day-to-day ministry can be so demanding and at times frustrating that all some missionaries feel they can do is to concentrate on their own ministries and to keep the work going. [13]

Act of defiance

However, not all missionaries who promote Emerging Church ideas, Open Theism or the New Perspective on Paul are theologically ignorant. Sometimes it is their particular church background that makes them receptive to certain postmodern heresies. In his book Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church Don Carson suggests that Open Theism is very appealing to those who come from an Arminian background while the New Perspective on Paul finds its advocates predominantly within the Reformed wing of the Church. [14] It is interesting that missionaries who promote Emerging Church views tend to have grown up in conservative evangelical circles. For them to align themselves with the Emerging Church feels like an act of liberation, while in reality it is probably more an act of defiance. What Carson writes about the leaders of the Emerging Church movement seems to be also true for these missionaries:

One of the striking commonalities among its leaders is the high number of them who come from intensely conservative or even fundamentalist backgrounds… The passage of time has moved these churches farther and farther from the very different directions being pursued by the broader culture, and sensitive and concerned individuals within such traditions finally make a break, not least for the gospel’s sake. It becomes a mark of freedom to have a glass of wine and watch some movies that our former ecclesiastical friends wouldn’t approve. Understandably, the pendulum may continue to swing quite a long way. [15]

Similarly, it seems that it is missionaries with a conservative evangelical or fundamentalist church background who are willing to accept certain paradigm shifts in mission and to swap traditional prioritism for the missional church, revisionist holism or radical liberationalism approach. These missionaries seem to forget that the traditional view of mission, which Keith Ferdinando calls the making disciples of all nations approach, [16] does not rule out Christian engagement with the world in general and social concern in particular. Ferdinando reminds us of this when he writes:

Social change occurs through those who have been transformed by the gospel – through transformed communities of God’s people who become salt and light in their societies. It is fruit rather than substance of mission. Communication of the gospel in its richness is the most significant “social action” that missionaries can undertake. [17]

False teachers

While lack of theological knowledge and interest or rebellion against one’s church background and upbringing might explain some of the unbiblical positions held and promoted within mission organisations, we must not forget that the Bible also warns us against false teachers who infiltrate the church and damage the believers (e.g. 2 Cor. 11:3-4, 2 Peter 2:1-3; Rev. 2:20). If things like this can happen to a local church, why should evangelical mission organisations be spared? When mission leaders argue that the cross of Christ might have been only ‘God’s plan B’, because the Bible does not give us God’s total perspective on his plan which would allow us to know what he was thinking at creation, they clearly go against the teaching of the Bible. The apostle Peter, for example, assures us that Christ ‘was destined before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the end of the times for your sake’ (RSV, 1 Peter 1:20). Also, when mission leaders argue that the Bible’s teachings on the church and church leadership are not prescriptive for us today but only descriptive of the early church, it raises some serious questions about their view of Scripture and their agenda. The same is true for those who claim that evangelism does not work in certain countries, that all we need to do is to get alongside people and sort out their problems, or that the Gospel is an invitation to live in a relationship with ourselves. [18]

Pragmatism and organisational culture

Sometimes theological ignorance goes hand-in-hand with a strong pragmatic approach to ministry. One example is the appointment of mission leaders. There are various reasons why missionaries are promoted to leadership positions. In some mission organisations, the percentage of former missionary kids (MKs) among both membership and leadership is noticeably high. One reason is that these adult missionary kids (AMKs) are considered to have a better understanding of African culture and the church scene, significant cross-cultural and linguistic skills, a broader worldview and a higher degree of mobility and are therefore better qualified than those without this background. [19] ‘They know what it’s all about. They know the walk and they talk the talk’, so goes the argument. However, this is not necessarily the case when AMKs have grown up in a mission-owned boarding school where they have been taught an American or British curriculum by Western missionary teachers. [20] Neither is it helpful when, later in life, they enter the mission field in Africa because they long ‘to go home’.

In long-established mission organisations this tendency of appointing AMKs to leadership positions is sometimes supported by an organisational culture whose motto is ‘We are family’. As a result the same family names appear again and again on the mission’s membership list. ‘Family bonds’ can be so strong that it takes a long time before leaders are, if at all, disciplined for false teaching or other inappropriate conduct. Because people’s common history goes back a long time, sometimes even to missionary boarding school, relationships can easily become more important than biblical truth. Loyalty to the organisation, i.e. ‘the family’, has priority over sound doctrine. Such an attitude is even strengthened when doctrine is viewed as something divisive and seen as a potential threat to the organisation – according to the postmodern motto doctrine divides, but love unites.

Being an AMK is, of course, not the only qualification for a leadership appointment. Other mission leaders may get appointed because they have been part of the organisation for a long time and it is felt that they cannot be overlooked. [21] Others have had a successful career in their secular business before they joined the mission, suffer from ill-health and are no longer fit for front-line mission work, or are known to be people who will not oppose what their team members or superiors want to do. All these are, of course, the wrong reasons and the wrong criteria for appointing a mission leader. The right criteria can be found in Scripture. Passages such as Titus 1:5-9, 1 Timothy 3:1-13, 2 Timothy 2:1-13 and Acts 6:1-6 apply not only to church leaders who are involved in God’s mission in London or Sydney but also to those who are involved in cross-cultural mission work in Africa or other parts of the world. However, as David Hesselgrave has pointed out, mission organisations tend to be rather selective when it comes to these leadership criteria. [22] While they emphasise qualifications for leadership such as ‘husband of one wife’, ‘blameless’ or ‘self-controlled’ they tend to pay little attention to a qualification that was extremely important to the apostles, i.e. the ability to ‘give instructions in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it’ (Titus 5:9).

Such a pragmatic approach to ministry can also be seen when it comes to biblical doctrine in general. Hesselgrave writes: ‘Many missionary leaders seem to feel that, once they have subscribed to an orthodox statement of faith, they can “bank it”, “bank on it” and get on with pressing practical issues. This assumption is not usually thought through, however.’ [23] Hesselgrave is right. Most evangelical mission organisations have a robust evangelical statement of faith to which all missionaries have to subscribe. But this does not necessarily guarantee that all their theological views and their ways of doing mission are actually in line with biblical teaching. To assume so would be short-sighted.

Finally, we must not forget that a pragmatic approach to mission work can also be financially motivated. In times of economic crises and tight finances, when raising money for their general fund is getting more and more difficult, there is a great temptation for mission organisations to ignore particular doctrinal issues or to compromise on them. And all of a sudden issues that were generally considered primary only a few years ago, such as the doctrine of penal substitution or the primacy of evangelism, become secondary or non-essential issues, i.e. issues that ‘good’ evangelicals can disagree over. Phil Johnson comments:

It is no longer safe to assume that someone who calls himself an evangelical would even affirm such historic evangelical non negotiables as the exclusivity of Christ or the necessity of conscious faith in Christ for salvation. Recently, it seems that the evangelical movement’s standard response to that kind of slippage has looked like nothing else than cynical insouciance. Yet such trends represent nothing less than the abandonment of true evangelical principles. [24]

A low view of the local church and a lack of accountability

Sometimes it is a low view of the local church and its role in world mission that fosters unhelpful strategies and even heretical views in the mission field. For many years mission organisations have been reminding local churches in the West of their responsibility for world mission. Local churches, they rightly argue, must be mission-minded. However, there is also a need for mission organisations to be church-minded. [25] Unfortunately, there is still an attitude among mission organisations that sees local churches first and foremost as a source of new missionaries and financial means. [26] Local churches and their individual members are seen as supporters of mission agencies and their missionaries, rather than as mission partners. This is especially true for interdenominational mission organisations which have no formal link with any particular church body. One reason for this is obvious: a lack of understanding of the biblical view of mission.

The biblical model of mission, as it can be found, for example, in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, is not a support model but a partnership model. This model stresses a fourfold partnership between local churches and their mission workers: a partnership in praying (1:4; 1:19), in serving (1:27; 4:14), in giving (2:25; 4:15-18), and in sharing news (2:19; 2:25). The role of mission organisations must be to support these partnerships. Hammett speaks of a servant-partnership model. [27] He writes:

This model combines a positive appreciation for the ministry of parachurch groups with an emphasis on the theological priority of the church. Parachurch groups are seen as partners, or helpers, raised up by God to aid the church, but possessing a status subordinate to that of the church. Thus, the parachurch group should defer to the group, honor the church, accept its ministry under the authority of the church, and “find justification for its existence only in the mission of the church”…Still, the relationship is a partnership in which each has something to offer to the other. [28]

Instead, many organisations tend to see themselves as mission specialists whose job it is to fulfil the Great Commission. They forget that the ‘Great Commission is a church-centered mandate’. [29] As a result they are in danger of mobilising the local church for their own mission which is not necessarily God’s mission. [30]

Such a low view of the local church and its role in mission often has implications for the accountability of mission organisations – not only in the mission field in Africa but also back home in Europe or North America. While most mission organisations have councils to which the senior leadership is accountable these councils do not necessarily consist of official representatives of local churches, church fellowships or denominations. [31] Instead, they are often made up of former long-term or short-term missionaries, representatives of other mission organisations, Christians with a special interest in world mission and perhaps the occasional church minister. In some cases, the general mission council consists exclusively of serving missionaries which means that there is no external accountability at all. [32] Because of this lack of external accountability there is little sense of ownership among local churches, [33] but even more important, mission organisations receive only little or no advice and correction from churches when it comes to theological issues and mission strategies.

Complex organisational structures

When faced with heresies it does not help that many mission organisations, especially the larger ones, have a rather complex organisational structure, which makes it difficult to hold missionaries and their leaders accountable. These structures can lead to bizarre situations where, for example, mission leaders are directly involved in appointing their own supervisors every year or where missionaries, mission leaders and their supervisors are all members of the highest decision-making body of the organisation. In both cases real internal accountability is hardly guaranteed. Also, it is not unusual that missionaries working together on the same team are affiliated to different national mobilising offices of the same mission organisation or have been seconded from different agencies. While working under the same umbrella these national branches and agencies might have very different approaches to mission or take very different views on some theological controversies. [34] Put differently, what the UK branch may consider as heretical may be perfectly acceptable to their Canadian colleagues. A situation like this becomes problematic when, for the sake of unity and harmony, these theological issues are not addressed.

Some recommendations

What can we do about all this? Well, let me give a number of recommendations which missionaries, local churches and mission organisations may want to take to heart.

1. Missionaries: choose your mission organisation wisely!

How do future missionaries learn about mission organisations? Well, some are recommended to them by church leaders, Christian friends or missionaries sent out by their church. Others attend mission fairs organised by Bible colleges, visit the stalls of mission organisations at Christian events such as New Word Alive, or study helpful brochures, such as Mission Matters published by Christian Vocations. Whatever organisation they finally decide to join, their decision needs to be an informed one. The selection process of mission organisations can be quite rigorous. [35] Enquirers and candidates have to fill in questionnaires, provide several references and undergo a number of interviews.

Such a thorough process is undoubtedly helpful and necessary, but it must not be understood as one-sided. While it is important for the mission organisation to find out if someone is right for them, the candidate must seize the opportunity to find out if this particular agency is also right for him or her. It is the time to find out more about the agency’s character, beliefs, ministry philosophy, strategies, values and policies. It is the time to ask the agency some tough questions: What exactly is your view of mission? Is this view also shared by your leaders in the field? What do you mean when you speak of partnership? How closely do you work with local churches? What role does relief work play in relationship to evangelism, church planting and leadership training? What is your leadership style? What are your structures like? How would you describe your organisational culture? How do you deal with false teaching in your organisation? What happens when things go wrong? Not to ask such questions and to join a mission organisation just because it is well-known and long established can be dangerous. Let’s not forget: what is true for individual Christians is also true for mission organisations; they cannot live on their glorious past. What counts is not their past achievements and missionary zeal, but their present faithfulness to God’s truth as it is revealed in God’s Word.

2. Sending churches: choose your missionaries wisely!

The idea that missionaries are Christians who are called to go without the support of their local church cannot be found in Scripture. [36] The biblical pattern is that missionaries are sent out by their local churches and remain responsible and accountable to them (e.g. Acts 13:1-4; 14:27). [37] Usually, churches have known the missionaries they send out for some time. The future missionaries have been members of the church, served in different areas, and shown an interest in cross-cultural ministry and world mission, and the church leadership has had enough time to test and confirm their missionary call. But their responsibility does not end here. They need to actively accompany their future missionary in the process of finding a suitable mission organisation which recognises the God-ordained role of the local church in mission. This may include pointing them to particular mission societies which are clearly Gospel-driven and church-minded and directing them away from others which are not. Sometimes it happens that church leaders are approached by other churches or mission organisations asking them to partner with a new or serving missionary who lacks the necessary funding. While there is nothing wrong with this, the church is still obliged in such a case to test the call of this missionary and his character, as well as his theological convictions in general and views on mission particularly.

3. Mission organisations: choose your leaders wisely!

When a large evangelical mission organisation started the process of seeking to appoint a new international director its officers drew up a list with gifts and qualities they wanted to see in their future leader. They were looking for a truly spiritual person, a careful thinker, a visionary and effective communicator, someone who was able to delegate work and exercise fiscal discipline. What was missing on this list was the ability to teach sound doctrine and to correct those who don’t. If this is the case for an appointment at senior leadership level it is very likely that this quality will not be an important criterion when it comes to choosing leaders for other positions within the organisation.

To choose mission leaders wisely surely means to make sure that they are committed to Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, that their lifestyles are Christ-like, that they have a serving spirit, love for their fellow workers and for those they serve, a good knowledge of the Word of God, appropriate gifts of the Holy Spirit, and biblically-informed convictions about the nature of God, human beings, the church, the work of Christ and God’s mission. In other words, what is required of them is commitment, character, conviction and competency. [38] The latter also implies that evangelical mission leaders do not hold unorthodox views. On the contrary, they should be able to grapple with heresies and controversies, such as Open Theism, Emerging Church and the New Perspective on Paul, as well as the hot issues of mission theory and practice, i.e. holism, incarnationalism, contextualisation, and professionalisation.


Mission does not belong to the Church, but to God, or as Peter Lewis once said: ‘Mission is not an activity of the Church but an attribute of God. It is God’s activity in which he includes the Church. The Church is thus caught up in a missionary movement for God. It is caught up in his flow… There is Church because there is mission, not mission because there is Church.’ [39] The Bible tells us that at the heart of God’s mission is his desire to see ‘a great multitude that no-one can count, from every nation, tribe, people and language’ standing before his throne in worship (Rev. 7:9). It also tells us that his Church is entrusted with his mission to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19). What is needed for the Church to be faithful to her commission globally is mission-minded local churches, church-minded mission organisations, and theologically-minded missionaries who have a passion not only for people but also for God, his word, his truth, his glory, and the advancement of his kingdom.