A Response to a Review of ‘No Shortcut to Success’
Editor’s note: We asked Matt Rhodes to respond to the International Mission Board’s critique of his book No Shortcut to Success: A Manifesto for Modern Missions. The reader can find the review here.
I wrote No Shortcut to Success: A Manifesto for Modern Missions to emphasize professionalism in missions and the human means God uses to reach the nations. These means include Bible training, language and cultural mastery, and long-term service.
I knew the book would encounter controversy since it addresses disputed issues in today’s missions world. Yet even with that expectation, I was surprised to read the recent review by Zane Pratt, the International Mission Board’s (IMB) vice president of training, and Mark Stevens, the IMB’s Director of Field Personnel Orientation, for the Board’s missions journal. I’ll begin with the review’s final sentence:
. . . our concerns with how Rhodes misrepresents his sources outweigh the book’s benefits. These misrepresentations are so egregious that we are compelled to recommend that no one read, distribute, or teach from this book.
I am grateful to Pratt and Stevens for interacting seriously with No Shortcut and for the positive comments they make. They say the book offers “much to appreciate” and “we found ourselves nodding in agreement with many of Rhodes’s observations.” Yet the final sentence suggests this book should be banned. I do not believe I am guilty of the specific misrepresentations they allege, nor of a general pattern of misrepresenting sources as their conclusion suggests. Nor do I find any precedent in recent missions literature of calling for such bans.
As you read this article, it may be worth asking yourself, What could provoke such a strong reaction? Presumably, bans are warranted when an author denies key doctrines of the faith or advocates for immorality. Yet what about when we disagree on how to interpret an author? And when is the suppression of opinions appropriate within the church?
For the sake of brevity, I will not respond to all of Pratt and Stevens’s complaints. Since they base their call for a ban specifically on the claim that I have misrepresented my sources, I will only explore whether I have done so. More specifically, since they claim the “most serious concern with this book is how Rhodes misrepresented Mike Shipman’s work and the Any-3 evangelism method,” I will explore whether I have misrepresented Shipman. Besides, Pratt and Stevens don’t cite any other sources that they feel I have misrepresented.
Pratt kindly sent me a pre-publication copy of their review on April 24, 2023. Contrary to a public narrative that I failed to respond, I responded by email on April 26 and again on April 29 indicating my willingness to talk and suggesting areas where I believed their review is misguided or incorrect. I never received a response from Pratt, and the review was published essentially unaltered on May 1.
SUMMARIZING THE RECENT CRITIQUES
As I said, Pratt and Stephens claim I have misrepresented Shipman, and therefore the book should be banned. That all by itself is surprising because my critique of Shipman’s work is a minor theme. I mention Shipman and the Any-3 method on only eight pages—sometimes in passing—of a 259-page book. Certainly, Pratt, Stevens and I have different understandings of Shipman’s writing. But that is not unusual; I suspect we even have different understandings about parts of the Bible! While I take exception with parts of Shipman’s writings, I never attack his character. In fact, I try to assume the best about the character of those with whom I disagree (e.g. No Shortcut, 28, 51, 64). Instead, I merely critique what I feel is his lack of emphasis on language and cultural mastery and how he downplays the importance of “professional” skills in missions.
Shipman’s 2013 Mission Frontiers Article
Pratt and Stevens raise several objections to my critique. First, they object to me arguing that Shipman does not emphasize professionalism and language and cultural mastery. In my book, I make this case by quoting an article published in Shipman’s name in a 2013 missions journal which said,
Some Christian workers are taught to master the culture and religion before they share the gospel. We find being a bit “dumb” better than being too smart, as expertise in the local culture can provoke defensiveness. Asking questions lays a foundation of respect. Ask locals what they believe and share the gospel with them. As you listen and learn, you will become more effective in sharing the gospel.
In response to my use of this example, Pratt and Stevens argue that, in other writings such as Shipman’s book Any-3, he encourages missionaries to be “a bit dumb” merely in order to promote asking questions. Thus—they argue—my interpretation of the above quote is unfair.
But the article I cite above is encouraging “dumbness,” plainly, not only to push missionaries to ask questions, but also to offer a preferable alternative to cultural mastery: “Some Christian workers are taught to master the culture. . . we find being a bit ‘dumb’ better. . .” Shipman is not trying to advocate actual foolishness, but he seems eager to paint cross-cultural evangelism as far more “simple” (a term he uses very frequently to describe his Any-3 method) than I believe it is.
When I wrote No Shortcut, I thought this much would be clear. But in an unusual twist, Pratt and Stevens explain that the passage I have quoted from misrepresents Shipman’s thought. Why? Because the paragraph above comes from a summary of Shipman’s book which was originally published in the journal Mission Frontiers under his name but was not actually written by him (see footnote 5 of the review). They report that Shipman had the attribution of the article changed because “parts of the summary do not accurately reflect what Shipman writes and teaches.”
Fair enough. Editorial mix-ups happen. Unfortunately, Pratt and Stevens do not report key parts of the story, despite the fact that their review claims I have misrepresented someone and that this deserves extreme censure. First, they never mention that the article bore Shipman’s name for approximately nine years and that the name was only changed after No Shortcut was published. Second, they neglect to mention that while the article still bore Shipman’s name, a reader asked in the comments section,
“May I use part of this article in a teaching I am doing? Of course I will cite you and the book Any 3. Thanks in advance.”
Shipman responded in the comments: “Feel free to use this article for teaching purposes. May the Lord bless your efforts to train more people to share the gospel.”
At that time, he took no issue with being cited as the author, nor did he disavow any of the article’s contents. Pratt and Stevens—who include communications with Shipman as part of their review—also neglect to address whether or not the article was originally published with Shipman’s permission. Indeed, without his permission, it would be an almost unthinkable violation of copyright practices for a journal to publish an article in Shipman’s name or to publish an article almost entirely composed of direct quotes from his book.
To summarize: for nearly a decade, Shipman took no action to clarify that he had not authored this article that allegedly misrepresents his views. During that time, he acted as if he were its author, giving others permission to teach from its contents and allowing them to cite him. It seems Shipman himself may have contributed to this confusion, and he didn’t clear it up until after my book released.
Shipman’s Personal Reports of Emphasizing Language Competency
Second, Pratt and Stevens cite Shipman’s personal level of fluency in order to purport that I have misrepresented him. They also cite private email communications with him in which he claims to endorse the importance of language and cultural learning in his trainings.
What an unusual argument. Books typically address what people have published, not what they have said or taught in informal or unpublished settings, unless an author happens to have received the email himself. Public discourse has little value if we cannot expect authors’ writings to accurately represent their true beliefs. Thus, a good-hearted and fair-minded reader takes published work at face value and therefore has no reason to expect dissonance between the published and the private, the formal and the informal.
I’m glad to hear Pratt’s and Stevens’s report of Shipman’s high level of personal fluency. It’s certainly possible that Shipman values language and cultural mastery more fully than his published works indicate. I’d even be happy to add a footnote that I’ve been told as much should I ever do a second edition. Still, such a fact is irrelevant from the standpoint of his published work, which is what people read. I cannot tell what authors value in their hearts. No reader can! I remain convinced that Shipman’s published work places inadequate emphasis on language and cultural mastery. After all, his writing—which has been read by thousands—is far more influential than his living, which is only observed by a few. That’s my concern. Further, if his personal practices are different than his writing, then he is responsible to clarify that in writing.
So, as it relates to the charges of misrepresentation, the question isn’t, What does Shipman privately practice or believe? The question is, What do Shipman’s books publicly say?
WHAT DOES SHIPMAN ACTUALLY SAY?
Pratt and Stevens assert that I misrepresent Shipman. I am unconvinced.
As I explain in No Shortcut, my concern with fluency is that “most missionaries see language learning as ‘important,’ but not vital. Useful, sure, but not essential.” Thus, all missions leaders “probably would acknowledge that language acquisition is important. But lip service is not enough. Because of the intense drudgery involved in learning language, nothing short of whole-hearted, sacrificial support for language learning—making concrete plans and expecting intense commitment until high-level mastery of the language is achieved—will enable new missionaries to master their languages of ministry.”
This concern provoked me to refer to Shipman as an example of “widely published missions thinkers [who] happily tell stories of ministering with ‘limited language’ and working through translators, but never stress the importance of language learning in normal situations.”
How does this relate? Shipman has written multiple articles and full-length books on missions. In all those books and articles, I cannot find one place where he promotes the need for long-term, arduous study. I cannot find him arguing for language and culture mastery to effectively share the gospel. Pratt and Stevens cite a section of Any 3 as a counter-example. But this section does not, as the review implies, “advocate knowing the language and culture” of the people with any mastery. It is only three paragraphs long. The first paragraph never says we need to know people’s language and culture—only that we must adjust our communication so people can understand. The second paragraph gives an example of how this can be successfully done by short-term missionaries who work through interpreters. Shipman never suggests long-term workers should do any differently. In fact, here’s how Shipman closes the section they cite: “It is far more important that a lost person hears and understands the gospel than it is for you to understand all the things that make this person’s religion and culture unique.”
Framing these options against each other—a lost person hearing the gospel; a missionary understanding that lost person’s culture—actually downplays the importance of cultural fluency. It certainly does not uphold mastery as normal or necessary or even all that useful.
Shipman repeatedly advocates that we can share the gospel effectively with anyone, anywhere, at any time (these three “any’s” form the core of his “Any-3” method). Does this include people whose languages and cultures we are unfamiliar with? Absolutely! As we saw above, he promotes the use of short-term missionaries who work through interpreters.
Pratt and Stevens seem to think that Shipman’s frequent promotion of short-term missionaries working through translators could be overlooked, as they suggest that he advocates a higher standard for long-term missionaries. They write: “Mike Shipman never suggested that career missionaries should use translators.” But they’re incorrect. In fact, Mike Shipman never suggested career missionaries shouldn’t use translators. And he shares the following appreciatively, as an example of how his Any-3 method worked well: “On a different occasion, a missionary and his translator traveled with two mission volunteers to the place where they intended to practice Any-3.”
A face-value reading shows that the “translator” not only helps the two short-term volunteers but is also the missionary’s translator. Have Pratt and Stevens just overlooked some of what Shipman has written?
When Shipman does mention cultural or language study, he often does so in ways that underscore its insufficiency, as soft warnings not to rely too heavily on it. For example, Shipman writes, “It is not unusual for volunteers with minimal training to lead Muslims to faith and even start churches.” In this case, “volunteers” are short-term missionaries who rarely speak the local language. Here are two other examples:
One of our colleagues named Luke had mastered the local language. . . Despite these advantages, Luke saw very little obvious evangelistic fruit.
Often missionaries seek to become part of the community by adopting the local culture and language. This is well and good, but can also become an endless pursuit of acceptance as a prerequisite to gospel witness.
No Shortcut is premised on my belief that most missions leaders nominally support language and culture mastery as a bonus, but they are unconvinced of its necessity. As I have argued above, Shipman’s writing does not break this trend. Again, I can’t know what Shipman believes about language learning in his heart, and I’m not responsible to know what he personally practices. But if I have misunderstood his true ideas, then his own published writing may be the primary reason why.
A LIKELIER POSSIBILITY
There is, however, a likelier explanation for my disagreement with Pratt and Shipman than misrepresentation: I haven’t misunderstood and misrepresented Shipman’s beliefs. Rather, Pratt and Stevens simply disagree with my evaluation of Shipman’s beliefs.
Shipman’s core message is that we can share the gospel effectively with anyone, anywhere, at any time. Thus, as we saw above, he normalizes even untrained short-term missionaries planting churches.
In contrast, I believe that missionaries are severely limited in ministry until they achieve language and culture mastery. I believe that they should usually devote their first years on the field to full-time study.
To put it quantitatively: No Shortcut mentions “language” 270 times and devotes an entire chapter to advocating language mastery. Any 3 mentions “language” ten times (Shipman’s book Plan A mentions it seven times), often while downplaying the importance of language mastery. Shipman and I are telling very different stories about the missions endeavor.
So of course people like me will find his comments about language and cultural mastery inadequate. And of course people like Pratt and Stevens who support Shipman’s position will feel that he adequately promotes language and culture acquisition. We evaluate his teaching very differently, and to conclude where we differ that I have misrepresented him is to paper over the vast differences in the missions community that need to be discussed and resolved.
PLAN-A OR ANY-3?
Additionally, Pratt and Stevens complain that No Shortcut cites Shipman’s book Any 3 but never cites his later book Plan A. Pratt and Stevens suggest this is inappropriate because Any 3 is an “evangelism book” and not a “missionary strategy book.”
Again, this is a curious complaint. When we feel sympathetic to an author’s views, we rarely have the luxury to specify which of their works should and should not be included as others offer critique.
Additionally, it doesn’t appear Shipman agrees with their categorization of his books. The back cover of Any 3 reads, “Having experienced firsthand a multiplying movement of new believers in his Muslim unreached people group, Mike trains others to implement productive field methods.” Its ISBN is listed to be cataloged by libraries not as an “evangelism book” but as “1. Missions 2. Church Planting 3. Discipleship.”
I liked parts of Plan A, but it actively promotes the Any-3 method without walking back any of the ideas that concern me. It does not, for example, issue strong calls for language and culture mastery, and it normalizes Any 3’s narrative of new believers planting churches. Since Any 3 is a founding document of the Any-3 method and is often more concise than Plan A, it seemed appropriate to me to use Any 3 as a source where possible.
SHIPMAN’S HERMENEUTIC AND ECCLESIOLOGY
Lastly, Pratt and Stevens say that I fail to note Shipman’s “biblical foundation and careful hermeneutics.” Shipman’s love of Scripture is clear. I’m confident he strives for carefulness and faithfulness in all his exegesis. But, intentions aside, that doesn’t mean I must agree with his exegesis or method for applying Scripture. Further, I am not the only one to take issue with his “reductionist hermeneutics” or to imagine that Shipman has a “truncated view of discipleship and a minimalist view of the church,” to borrow language from another author.
Perhaps my evaluation of Shipman is incorrect, but part of proffering ideas, as both Shipman and I do, is inviting people to evaluate them—sometimes critically—as they search for the truth.
For example, Shipman shares a report of a newly baptized believer whose ministry resulted in 175 churches in less than three years. Many of these churches, he says, were at least four generations deep. Such an unsubstantiated claim should raise hermeneutical and ecclesiological concerns for many evangelicals. Furthermore, his assertion that obedience to the Great Commission involves brand-new believers going, baptizing, and teaching “in order to disciple and plant churches” also warrants cautious reflection. Shipman’s views may be widely held throughout the missions world, yet evaluating them negatively is not the same thing as misrepresenting them.
I have to admit, writing this rejoinder makes me a little uncomfortable, because it has required me to critique the writing of Mike Shipman in more depth than my book does. I take no particular joy in critiquing Shipman. I trust he is a wonderful Christian and that we share all the most important things in common. We simply disagree on a few crucial points of missiology; I have said so; and I don’t believe my book misrepresents him in saying so. Unfortunately, by claiming my book should be banned for my failure to understand Shipman rightly, Pratt and Stevens have left me little way to respond without explaining my critique of Shipman in greater detail.
In summary, then, I do not believe I have misrepresented Shipman. Instead, Pratt and Stevens wish in some cases that I had not chosen to cite the specific works I did. In other cases, they even seem unaware of parts of Shipman’s writings or fail to notice and acknowledge highly relevant facts. Most fundamentally, however, I critique Shipman’s work because my outlook on missions and Shipman’s are different. Pratt and Stevens never notice these differences, nor do they ever acknowledge that any part of my critique of Shipman could be more than outright “misrepresentation.” Such a response entirely avoids engaging in discussion about the places Shipman and I differ.
Fair enough! Not everyone has time to discuss the things that I think are important. But Pratt and Stevens haven’t just declined to discuss things with me further. They’ve suggested no one else should take part in that discussion either. This brings us back to the larger issue I began with. I understand that No Shortcut contests strongly-held ideas, ideas that people hold with highly-felt emotions even. That’s what makes these conversations so important. Nevertheless, I’m saddened that Pratt’s and Stevens’s conclusion goes as far as it does. Their call to ban or at least suppress No Shortcut is, in a word, inappropriate.
Critiquing books we don’t agree with has a noble history. But when denominational leaders call on people not to read, distribute, or teach from a book they don’t agree with? That practice has a far more checkered history, particularly when the sanctions aren’t due to heresy or blatant immorality. Indeed, we rarely go so far as to call for the suppression of even heretical opinions. How much more, then, should we welcome the exchange of ideas within the bounds of orthodoxy? If we believe in the importance of missiology, then we must be very slow to silence discussions or put certain opinions on “no-read” lists.
The world does not need us to show it how to draw sharp lines and refuse to engage with those who don’t understand our work. Instead, it may need to see us reaching across such disagreements—even those that really hurt—and pursuing hard conversations. If what I have written seems ill-intended to Pratt and Stevens, and if this is the reason for their censure, many other Christian reviewers disagree with them. There is surely room, then, for the benefit of the doubt where my motives are concerned. Here, too, we can set an example for a world which is often quick to ascribe character stains or poor intentions in the midst of disagreement.
* * * * *
 Zane Pratt and Mark Stevens, “Book Review. Matt Rhodes. No Shortcut to Success: A Manifesto for Modern Missions. Wheaton: Crossway, 2022,” Great Commission Baptist Journal of Missions, 2 / 1 (2023). Accessed May 06, 2023 at https://serials.atla.com/gcbjm/article/view/3273/4358.
 Pratt and Stevens, Book Review, 2.
 Pratt and Stevens, Book Review, 4.
 Mission Frontiers Contributor, “Any 3: Lead Muslims to Christ Now!,” Mission Frontiers July/August 2013: https://www.missionfrontiers.org/issue/article/any-3, accessed 6 May 2023.
 Even in Shipman’s book, he does not advocate being “a bit dumb” only to promote learning through asking questions, as Pratt and Stevens suggest. Rather, he also seems to use it to suggest that we should not overvalue cultural mastery. Shortly before his “a bit dumb” quote, he explains it is a dangerous “Be-e Sting” to think that “I must deeply understand my people group’s culture and religion before I share the gospel with them” (Shipman, Any 3, 50). Afterward, he warns against imagining “that Christian workers must master their host culture and religion before they can share the gospel” effectively (Shipman, Any 3, 50). He seems to believe that merely asking questions in the moment will provide adequate expertise for effective cross-cultural missionary work.
 Pratt and Stevens, Book Review, 6.
 Per archive.org, the article was still attributed to Shipman on June 28th, 2022, after No Shortcut was published, https://web.archive.org/web/20220628161358/ http://www.missionfrontiers.org/issue/article/any-3.
 Stacey Ware, Comments, “Any 3: Lead Muslims to Christ Now! Nov. 30, 2013: https://www.missionfrontiers.org/issue/article/any-3, Nov. 30, 2013, accessed 6 May 2023.
 Mike Shipman, Comments, “Any 3: Lead Muslims to Christ Now!,” Mission Frontiers July/August 2023: https://www.missionfrontiers.org/issue/article/any-3, Nov 30, 2013, accessed 6 May 2023.
 Indeed, the actual author of the article—who is clearly sympathetic to Shipman’s method and compiled the article almost entirely by quoting directly from his book—believed that it summarized his book accurately.
 Rhodes, No Shortcut, 143.
 Rhodes, No Shortcut, 143.
 Rhodes, No Shortcut, 147.
 Pratt and Stevens, Book Review, 6.
 Mike Shipman, Any 3: Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime (Monument, CO: WIGTake Resources,
 See also Shipman, Any 3, 66, 77 ff, 108, for other instances where he promotes this.
 Pratt and Stevens, Book Review, 5.
 Shipman, Any 3, 77.
 Shipman, Any 3, 76.
 Per Pratt and Stevens, Book Review, 5.
 Shipman, Any 3, 53.
 Shipman, Any 3, 54.
 Mike Shipman, Plan A: Abide in Christ, Disciple the World! (Mount Vernon, WA: Mission
 “He is a strong proponent for extensive language and culture acquisition.” Pratt and Stevens, Book Review, 5.
 Pratt and Stevens, Book Review, 8.
 For example, Shipman helpfully quotes Zane Pratt in order to distance himself from some of the excesses of obedience-based discipleship (Shipman, Plan A, 95).
 See, e.g., Shipman, Plan A, 28-30.
 See, e.g., Shipman, Plan A, 36-37.
 Pratt and Stevens, Book Review, 8.
 Elliot Clark, Any 3: Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime, Training Leaders International, https://trainingleadersinternational.org/jgc/100/any-3-anyone-anywhere-anytime, accessed May 6, 2023.
 Mike Shipman, “What’s Missing in Our Great ‘Come-Mission?’ The Role of Reproducing Evangelism, Disciple-Making and Church Planting for Ordinary Believers,” Mission Frontiers, July-August 2012.
 Mike Shipman, “Fostering Multi-generational Movements by Equipping Believer-Priests,” Mission Frontiers, Mar 2014.