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

By James F. Engel and William A. Dyrness
Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity (2000). 192 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Cecil Stalnaker
11.2 (Fall 2000) : 247-248

Changing the Mind of Missions will disturb the comfortable (Western mission workers), but comfort the disturbed (probably non-Westerners). The intended audience of this work is Westerners who are highly committed to missions—missionaries, future missionaries, mission executives, pastors, and mission committees—but it is specifically aimed at leaders who are determining the future direction of their particular mission.

The writers feel that North American commitment to the evangelization of the world is in retrenchment and that North American missions are not functioning as they should—contrary to what God intended. Therefore, they attempt to diagnose what has gone wrong with the harvest, calling God’s servants to biblical fidelity. For them, missions has become entrapped in modernity, resulting in many negative consequences. Thus, in an exhortative, sometimes pleading challenge, they maintain that missions must be carried out differently.

The book starts by stating three trends in missions: (1) missions being caught in American culture with its economic and pragmatic emphasis; (2) a shifting away of the initiative in missions from the Western world to the younger churches of the two-third’s world; and (3) the loss of theological roots in missions in making the gospel merely proclamation. The most provocative section is Chapter 3, where the writers maintain that meager harvest results are due to a Westernized approach to missions and its deviation from biblical roots. The writers enumerate several problems in Western missions—influence of modernity, evangelism void of discipleship, pragmatic evangelistic strategies, and the church’s having been replaced as the primary sending agency. In chapters four to six, suggestions are presented to counter the above trends. Engel and Dyrness advocate a break from modernistic mission assumptions, a desire to discern where God is at work and an effort to join Him, a need for the local church to recapture its organic, that is, missional nature, and that mission agencies make the necessary paradigmatic changes, even to the extent of eliminating their programs entirely if necessary. The book terminates with seven statements that clearly indicate the route that missions should take if they are to guarantee their future.

Needless to say, Changing the Mind of Missions is challenging, having many significant ideas that need to be considered. It is a relevant book in light of today’s changing mission context. Its critique of rationalism and pragmatism in missions is justified.

Negatively, the writers’ desire to eliminate any distinction between evangelism and social transformation. But does this accord with the Scriptures? After all, Jesus did appear to place a priority on evangelism when he said: “For what will a man be profited, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul?” The writers’ disdain for denominationalism in reference to church planting is clear; yet, has not God blessed and used denominational efforts in advancing His kingdom? To disregard denominational distinctives may sometimes do more harm than good. Structurally, the book is clearly laid out, with section and sub-section titles and the major points clearly emphasized. However, unfortunately it has no subject index.

Indeed, these capable writers will accomplish their purpose—to disturb the comfortable Western mission worker. Whether one agrees with them or not, minds will be challenged, especially those of mission executives and of missionaries responsible for field operations. This is a book that mission decision-makers should study and discuss chapter by chapter.