Book Review: We Evangelicals and Our Mission, by David Hesselgrave
David J Hesselgrave, We Evangelicals & Our Mission: How We Got to Where We Are and How to Get to Where We Should Be Going. Cascade Books, 2020. 137 pages.
David Hesselgrave, who passed away between the writing and publishing of this book, was an influential voice in missiology for decades. A former missionary to Japan, professor of missiology at Trinity Seminary, and author of numerous books on missions, Hesselgrave’s voice carries significant weight in the world of missiology. This short book is a follow-up to his influential Paradigms in Conflict, which lays out some of the competing theological and methodological differences that affect the work of missions. This book, however, lays out what he sees as evangelical missiology in crisis and how evangelicals can be faithful and effective in the future.
EVANGELICAL MISSIOLOGY IN CRISIS
So what is evangelical missiology crisis? Hesselgrave explains:
The fundamental problem in evangelical churches and missions is a weakening of the faith—objective faith, revealed faith, the historic Christian faith, the faith of the church fathers. (111)
This weakening of the faith emerges from the failure, in many evangelical corners, to fend off the “storm” of theological liberalism. This failure can be seen in the myriad attempts to build missiological cooperation without clear theological like-mindedness, as was seen in the Edinburgh 1910 conference and decades later in the World Council of Churches. It is also evident in rise of “meliorism,” the elevation of subjective experience alongside objective truth, which dominated the Lausanne Conference for World Evangelization.
Hesselgrave also analyzes “how we got to where we are.” He shows that the roots of evangelicalism lie in the “great tradition” passed on from creeds and confessions of the faith. Those roots grow into the great tree of the reformation understanding of salvation by grace alone through faith alone based on Scripture alone. He then shows how the modern missions movement grows out of the revivals of the 18th century in Europe and the US.
All of that may seem a bit dry and historical, but Hesselgrave shows how surprising it should be that evangelicals are jettisoning that “great tradition.” He points out three powerful examples:
- The prayer and praise movement: Beyond debates over instrumentation and classic hymns vs. modern songs there is a great amount of subjectivism that defines modern worship music. “The problem is not so much the guitars, keyboards, and commercial tunes as it is the lyrics created on the spot from biblical texts that pop into the minds of adepts who may be sincere but are often immature in their Christian faith.”
- The small group Bible study movement: Though intended to be places where the Bible can be applied to our lives, small groups often become a place where an anti-theological mood can dominate and sound hermeneutics are rare.
- The short-term missions movement: While acknowledging that the effectiveness of short-term missions must be evaluated by the missionaries themselves, there are some clear ways that evangelical practice reinforces a questionable theology of missions.
MISSIONS, PROTESTANT LIBERALISM, AND THE SOCIAL GOSPEL
Personally, I found some of the stories of evangelical missiology’s slide towards liberalism sobering. Ralph Winter was a giant in the world of evangelical missions, but in his later years he developed a “deeper understanding of missions.” In the place of merely preaching a “simple gospel of saving souls and planting churches,” Winter began to argue that endeavoring to combat evil in all its forms (including the eradication of disease-bearing microbes!) falls under the category of missions (105). It is hard to see any real difference between that position and the social gospel that wreaked havoc on the mission field in the early 20th century.
Hesselgrave presses on us the connection between theology and mission. Pastors and missionaries sometimes think that reaching others is a good reason to downplay doctrine. Who would be against cooperation in the gospel? What if our willingness to broaden ourselves doctrinally leads to soaring levels of gospel fruitfulness? Perhaps especially on the mission field, where overwhelming needs meet limited resources, shouldn’t we find a place of broadened cooperation? The problem, as Hesselgrave shows so well, is that the opposite is true. The missionary, who lives in heightened tension with the syncretizing pull of those they are trying to reach, needs even greater clarity on the limits of orthodoxy. Especially when it comes to the doctrine of Scripture, there is no effective cooperation with those who have a “broader view.” Hesselgrave quotes John Stott:
[The liberal] seems to me to resemble (no offense meant!) a gas-filled balloon, which takes off and rises into the air, buoyant, free, directed only by its own built in navigational responses to wind and pressure, but entirely unrestrained from earth. For the liberal mind has no anchorage; it is accountable only to itself. The Evangelical seems to me to resemble a kite, which can also take off, fly great distances and soar to great heights, while all the time being tethered to earth. For the evangelical mind is held by revelation. Without doubt it often needs a longer string, for we are not renowned for creative thinking. Nevertheless, at least in the ideal, I see Evangelicals as finding true freedom under the authority of revealed truth, and combining a radical mind and lifestyle with a conservative commitment to Scripture. (xvi)
This book will help convince you that we need to evaluate our missions strategy, partnership, and candidates with greater rigor.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
The main weakness I see in “We Evangelicals and Our Mission” is that he doesn’t give much attention to the “how to get to where we should be going” part of his subtitle. I agree with Hesselgrave that “evangelicals must work and pray together in resubmission of their ways of thinking and working to the ministry of the Holy Spirit” (121). How is it that we can make sure that we remain a kite and not become a hot air balloon? What is it that will tether us in our missiology to the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints? Perhaps that is beyond what was intended here, but it is an urgent question that evangelicals must answer.
We could begin answering that question by asking our missionaries to show similar theological understanding and make similar theological commitments as do the pastors of our local churches. Why do we often assume that because someone is young and zealous that they are also orthodox? I’m not suggesting that every missionary needs a theological degree before they go to the field, but their life and doctrine need to be evaluated well before they are sent.
Equally as pressing, we need to remember that good churchmen make good church planters. Those we send should understand the priority and practice of the local church so that they can disciple others in like fashion. Too often the church leaves it to parachurch organizations both to reach the lost here and to send the missionaries out. The local church becomes merely a funding mechanism in the process. These missionaries tend to either not plant churches or to plant churches that exist only to further fuel their ministry.
It is not enough for us merely to identify the problems in the evangelical understanding of mission. With God’s help we need to take steps to strengthen churches at home so that we can plant stronger churches abroad.