Taking Mission Beyond Privilege: a book review

We live in a divided America: Republican and Democrat; haves and have-nots; Caucasians and minority communities; Christians and Muslims (or really anyone else), educated elites and the illiterate. We are divided by politics, religion, race, economics, and culture. And you don’t have to look too far for evidence of how deep the divide. We’ve witnessed the public debate over who’s lives matter whenever someone gets killed and have heard the startling statistic that three-quarters of white Americans are without any minority friends.

y648What Makes D.L. Mayfield’s memoir Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith so good is the way she opens up about the challenges of living in the divide.  Raised on a steady diet of missionary biographies and dreams of heroic self-sacrifice she began living and working with Somali-Bantu refugees with hopes of winning converts and gaining significance from her missional efforts. Instead she found her Somali friends eyed her with suspicion and treated her presence with benign neglect. Committed to friendship with her Somali friends, her attitude gradually shifts to one which is more reciprocal and mutual than that of mere missionary. Her mission field transforms as she learns to give and share the love of God with her Somali neighbors.

When Mayfield begins her mission, she is full of privileged assumptions and believed-expertise. She confronts her own privilege, her  need for recognition, and she makes the shift from expert/sage to that of listener. Here are a couple notable quotes I underlined as I read (chapter titles in parentheses, the electronic copy I read didn’t allow me to specify location) :

I am not poor. I drink lattes during droughts, eat hamburgers during famines. I profit off the world I was born into, an economic system that crushes and oppresses. The problem was that I was born at the top, and so all of those troubles at the bottom used to seem so hazy to me. This is the real problem of being rich and happy and healthy and popular: it becomes easy, oh so easy, to forget about the rest. (Wade in the Water)

The longer I knew my refugee friends, the more ignorant I became. Or at least, this is how it seemed to me. I started off so confident, so sure of my words and actions. Over time, I became immersed in their problems, falling headfirst into a crash course on how hard it is to make it on the margins of the Empire, and I ended up becoming overwhelmed, overworked, and slightly bitter. I went from feeling like an expert to a saint to finally nursing the belief that I was a complete and utter fraud and failure, and this was the best thing that ever happened to me. It’s the only way I could ever start to learn to be a listener. (Part 4, The Life-Changing Magic of Couch Sitting)

I liked Mayfield’s book a lot. In part because I could relate to it. I spent two years in ‘urban mission,’ prior to going to seminary, with organizations that required me to raise personal support. In the early days of my mission I found it easy to write ‘support letters’ telling friends back home about what good work I was doing in the inner-city. However these letters became harder to write farther into my tenure as missionary. It became harder for me to ‘pimp the poor’ and as I was confronted daily with the cycles of poverty, addiction and racial inequities, I wondered what good we were doing. Prayer became difficult for me as I watched neighbors and homeless friends gain one small victory only to hit with an insurmountable roadblock (or get sucked back into an addiction).

Mayfield names a similar sense of disillusionment as the missionary romance wears off for her, but she comes out the other end, hopeful, if chastened. Books like this are necessary because they image for us what it looks like to learn to lay down our privilege, rights, and delusions of grandeur in order to join in relationship with the other. In a divided nation like ours, this is sorely needed. I give this book five stars and recommend it to anyone, especially those of us on the privileged side of the divide.

Note: I received this book from BookLookBloggers in exchange for my honest review.

Roll Up Your Sleeves: a book review

Following Jesus involves getting your hands dirty. So argues David Nowell, author of Dirty Faith: Bringing the Love of Christ to the Least of These. Nowell is the president of Hope Unlimited For Children, a Christian ministry which ministers to ‘sex-trafficked children, street kids and child prisoners in Brazil.  Nowell’s book is brimming with heart breaking stories of ministry on the margins. But this book is also full of hope. Nowell and Hope Unlimited have been able to help kids transition from the hard life of the street to a place of security. They have also brought these kids to freedom in Christ.

Dirty Faith is about our willingness to enter into the suffering of those who society throws away. Nowell’s ministry context takes him to the streets of Brazil and he shares the stories of the kids he’s ministered to there–his successes and his failures. He makes the case that Christians have the responsibility to stand against injustice and minister to those who are hurting (i.e. the ‘widowed and the orphaned’ see James 1:27).  This doesn’t mean he isn’t passionate about proclaiming the gospel. Nowell advocates concern for both the physical and spiritual well being of the kid’s in his care. He also urges a thoughtful approach to ministry which is mindful of systemic problems  and ongoing behaviors that aggravate the person’s suffering.

I haven’t interacted with specific passages from the book in this review.  I don’t think that Nowell says much new about injustice or our responsibility; however I think he is thoughtful in his approach. One standard critique of missions-type-books is their  focus on global issues, sometimes obscure issues and ministry opportunities here.  Nowell speaks from his ministry context, but nowhere does he expect his readers to have the same calling and experience as him. This is a book meant to motivate and move us into action on behalf of the marginalized in this country or abroad. It is meant as a way of lighting a fire underneath us and moving us to action. This is good stuff.  I give this book 3½ stars.

Notice of material connection, I received this book free from  Bethany House in exchange for my honest review.

Extreme Missions?: a book review

When I read the introduction of Dangerous by Caleb Bislow, I thought I was going to dislike this book. He talks about dirt-bikes and extreme sports and living a risky Christian life. I was afraid that this was just another version of testosterone-infused faith.  I didn’t feel like reading another ‘tough guy’ talk about the need to reach out to people with an MMA level intensity.  Thankfully, there was more to it than that.  Bislow does talk about danger and living a ‘risky’ Christian life, but he isn’t describing risk for the sake of risk (even if he is a bit of a daredevil).  Being ‘dangerous’ is about reaching out and engaging people in places where no one else is willing to go–the dark, dangerous, despised places. Bislow describes this as the ’13th floor,’ referencing both the places we avoid (many high-rises do not have a 13th floor) and Hebrew 13:13 which says, “Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.”

Bislow issues the challenge to go to the unreached, the broken, the war-torn, the sick and the dying.  His desire is to shake us free from our complacency. He wants us to have a Christianity that is more like William Wallace than Fred Rogers.  And he has experiences that testify to the sort of risky witness he’s advocating. The book is chock-full of stories of places he’s taken profound risks in sharing the love of Jesus with others.  Many of these are abroad on mission in Africa. But you do not need to go abroad to take gospel-sized risks. He also has stories of evangelism and service at home.

There are several things I like about Bislow’s approach. He runs a missions training program in Nebraska called Stranded where he strands people in the wilderness in teams, recruits local farmers to play the part of a harassing tribe and helps missions-minded people begin to take some personal risks which parallel some of the dangers they’ll face abroad.  It is sort of like Survivor but no one gets voted off the island. Secondly, I like that Bislow comes across as a regular guy. He shares about places he’s taken profound risk (i.e. sharing the gospel in villages where they beat the last evangelist who came to town); yet he also shares how fearful he was at the prospect. This isn’t a book about how courageous he is, it is about how faithful God when we take risks in faith. Third, I appreciate that he upholds the need for evangelism and social-justice. He wants us to share our faith, but he also wants us to serve the outcast, the broken and downtrodden.

There are things I could criticize about this book. As I heard story after story of missional encounters in different settings, I wondered if Bislow’s approach was more hit-and-run evangelism, than long-standing-commitment to a particular place.  Moving from dangerous place to dangerous place, is exhilarating and exciting.  Standing with people for the long haul is hard, mundane and, sometimes, boring.  Sometimes standing up for the vulnerable and committing to a people and a place looks more like Mr. Rogers (the late ordained Presbyterian minister who dedicated his life to advocating and nurturing children) than it does William Wallace. I like what he says about risk, but had questions about other aspects of his approach.

But this book is not the sort of book that is designed to impart a vision for ministry in the shape of Caleb Bislow’s ministry. This a book that is designed to challenge others to step out and do something. Questions about ministry approach are important, but these questions can also be excuses for in-action (i.e. I don’t like his approach, so I won’t do anything).  I think the prime message about stepping out and going ‘outside the camp’ to share the love of Christ with others, is a commission any follower of Christ needs to hear and act upon. This is the kind of book that you give to high school graduates and college students who you are  encouraging to stake their lives on what really matters. To that end, I recommend the book. There are still too many Braveheart quotes and extreme sports analogies for my taste. I give it 3.5 stars.

Thank you to Bethany House for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.


Learning to Love: a book review

I first became aware of the ministry of Heidi and Rolland Baker through a class I took in seminary. My professor (Bob Ekblad) is an activist who works with people on the margins and is passionate about the work of the Spirit.  He held up the Bakers as exemplars because of their tireless work in mission and their passion for supernatural ministry. I had seen video clips of interviews of Heidi Baker  but knew little about her (and Rolland’s) mission organization or their work in Mozambique. So I was excited to read Learning to Love: Passion, Compassion and the Essence of the Gospel

Heidi and Rolland take turns narrating  their work in Africa and around the world.  Learning to Love tells of their experience  entering into the suffering of Christ, loving people, responding to God’s leading and seeing Him work in often incredible ways. The passion and zeal the Bakers have for sharing the gospel is infectious.  While many charismatic authors in the United States preach prosperity, the Bakers have given their lives sacrificially to see the people of Mozambique and around the globe come to saving faith in Christ. They speak of miracles and God’s provision but they also have really entered into the suffering of the nations they’ve served. This book is their story of ‘loving God and the person in front of you.” There mission has involved them in caring for children and orphans, planting churches,  leading bush revivals, prayers of healing, digging wells, launching schools, providing needed physical care and more.  Through it all they have sought to be faithful to God’s call on their life.

Yet Learning to Love was a difficult read for me. To me, the book reads like a series of support letters for Iris Ministries (their organization). They are passionate and expound on where God is working in their midst, but there seems to be little cohesive organization to their chapters.  I also found that I still know very little about their mission philosophy (other than an expectancy to see God at work). I like that they are listening to the Spirit and expect miracles and are driven by a concern for the people of Mozambique, but because this book tells you the breadth of all that they do, you don’t get a sense of what their long term commitment to one place, or one group of people is like.  There is more to their story which I would like to hear.

I do respect that these charismatic missioners have seen God bring healing and new life in their mission and have come to expect God’s supernatural ministry. This is the experience of the global church and too often us educated Americans seek naturalistic explanations instead of the God of Grace.

I am not sure that I can say I loved this book, but I did like Heidi and Rolland and what I heard from their story.  I give this book 3 stars and am interested in hearing more about their work.

Thank you to Chosen Books for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Missions in Context: a book review

Contextualization has long been a buzzword for Evangelical missiologists. It denotes the process by which the gospel (our timeless, Biblical message) is transmitted to a particular people group in a way which speaks into that culture. Yet when evangelical missionaries talk about ‘contextualizing the gospel, what practices and philosophical approach do they have in mind? In some of the foundational literature on contextualization, it was assumed that evangelicals simply labored at ‘translating the message’ for a culture but did little else. However this does not do justice to the variety of approaches which evangelicals have taken as they share their faith with the world.

Contextualization in World Missions: Mapping and Assessing Evangelical Models by A. Scott Moreau

A. Scott Moreau, professor of Intercultural Studies at Wheaton College has written a comprehensive resource which identifies and analyzes the landscape of evangelical contextualization. As someone who teaches Intercultural Studies at an evangelical institution, Moreau is no dispassionate academic. However the chief value of Contextualization in World Missions, is Moreau’s ability to describe what it is we evangelicals do on the mission field.

Moreau divides his book into two parts. In section one he discusses the foundations of evangelical contextualization. Evangelicals were not the first to use the term and have built on the work of other thinkers/practitioners. In chapter one, Moreau summarizes the work of Stephen Bevans and Robert Schreiter, both of who mapped various approaches to contextualization and evangelical missiologists have built on their work; however evangelical approaches differ from more mainline approaches in that evangelicals are committed to the necessity of conversion, activism, Biblicism and crucicentrism (Bebbington’s characteristics of evangelicals). In chapter two and three, Moreau further explores the constraints on evangelical approaches based on their understanding of revelation and interpretation.  Chapters four through six look closer at the good and bad in contextualization, conceptual frameworks and describe Moreau’s analytic approach.

In section two, Moreau sets about mapping the variety of evangelical contextual approaches. He maps six approaches to contextualization, drawn from his research into what 249 contextual initiators are doing (i.e missions organizations or ministries working on a multinational scale).  From his research, he uncovered six distinct approaches. That of facilitator, guide, herald, pathfinder, prophet and restorer. He closes this section by imagining future trajectories of evangelical mission and the work of contextualization. Additionally he includes several appendices which evaluate other evangelical attempts at mapping contextualization.

If you are looking for a book that provides a comprehensive overview of evangelical understandings of contextualization, this is really the best book. It is accessible and Moreau does a very good job of evaluated various approaches and summarizing the debates.Each chapter begins with a summary and outline and ends with a list of keywords from the chapter and questions for reflection.  This will be a helpful resource for the classroom, or for missions preparations.  Readers who are interested in the philosophical underpinning of various missional approaches will also find this worthwhile. I highly recommend it. I give it five stars. ★★★★★

I received this book from Kregel Academic through the Kregel Academic and Ministry Blog Program.

The Missional Apostle: a book review

When Robert Plummer and John Mark Terry started gathering contributors for Paul’s Missionary Methods: In His Time and Ours, two figures loomed large in their collective imagination. The first was Paul of Tarsus whose mission and writings helped shape the early Christian movement. The other figure was Roland Allen, the 20th Century Anglican missionary to China. One Hundred years ago Allen wrote  Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? (1912). Allen had been a missionary to China and critiqued the missionary culture of his day for being too closely linked to imperialism. From a fresh reading of Paul’s mission, Allen emphasized church planting, indigenous leadership of national churches, and reliance on the Holy Spirit.

Paul’s Missionary Methods: In His Time and Ours edited by Robert L. Plummer & John Mark Terry

Published on the centennial of  Allen’s original publication,  Paul’s Missionary Methods: In His Time and Ours provides a detailed reading of Paul’s Missionary activity and build on Allen’s insights for a contemporary context. While various contributors critique Allen’s work in several respects,  generally they all see Allen’s book as justly influential and seek to carry some of his emphases forward.

The book divides into two sections: part one focuses on Paul’s message  while part two focuses on the implications of Paul’s mission for today. These sections were written by two complementary sets of scholars. Part one is written by Biblical scholars; part two is composed by missiologists, church planters and practitioners.  Thus while each author tries to suggest what the implications of their topic are  for today, the second section is more practical and the first section remains more theological.

In Part 1, Michael Bird sketches the cultural and historic milieu of Paul’s mission, placing it in context. Eckhard Schnabel examines what  we know of Paul’s missionary journeys. Robert Plummer discusses the nature of Pauls gospel (especially in reference to 1 Cor. 15:1-8). Benjamin Merkle ‘s and Christoph Stenschke‘s chapters explore Paul’s ecclesiology and the nature of his mission for the life of the church. Don Howell explores Paul’s theology of suffering while Craig Keener looks at Paul’s understanding of Spiritual warfare.  Each of these authors presents their topic in conversation with Allen’s work.

In Part 2, David Hesselgrave and Michael Pocock flesh out Paul’s missional strategy and discuss its value for today, John Mark Terry explore Allen’s reading of Paul’s mission and the implications for the indigenous church, Ed Stetzer and Lizette Beard write about Paul’s emphasis on church planting. M. David Sills  discusses contextualization and Chuck Lawless explores Paul’s ongoing  emphasis on leadership development in the churches he planted.

Finally J.D. Payne has a postscript on the legacy of Allen’s work and its abiding influence 100 years after its original publication.

This collection of essays provides a good introduction to Roland Allen and his influence on missiology.  Aspects of Allen’s work are critiqued in these pages (see especially Hesselgrave’s chapter), but each of the authors displays deep admiration for Allen and follow his summons to conduct missions in the Spirit of Paul’s mission.

As with all multi-author works, some essays are stronger than others and there is a certain amount of topical overlap between chapters. However each chapter stands on its own merit. Too much of the modern missional literature is rootless and lacks Biblical grounding. These authors (and Roland Allen) call us to see Paul’s mission as integral to proper missional theology and praxis. I am inclined to think they are right and would recommend this book to a broad range of pastors, church planters.

Thank you to IVP for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my fair and honest review.

Go Then: a book review

Sent by Hilary Alan

“The two greatest moments of your life are the day you were born and the day you discover why you are born.”

Curt Alan heard those words at a conference and came back and shared them with his wife Hilary. The two of them felt that despite the fact that they lived the American dream–two kids, comfortable income, security, they were not doing what they were put on this earth for.

Curt  got involved in community ministry at their church and Hilary tried to support her husband as the pressed into God’s calling for their family. In 2004 after the Tsunami which decimated South East Asia, Curt took six weeks off work to help with the relief. This led to a course change for Hilary and Curt and their two kids Jordan and Molly.  The Alans moved to a Muslim province in South East Asia to continue to help with the relief. This is the story of their three year tenure there. Hilary Alan tells the story of how they risked everything to follow God, overcame obstacles and culture shock and sought ways to be good neighbors there.

From this book I know very little about the organization that they went with or what the Alans did while they were there.  Instead Hilary Alan shares about the significant relationships they built there and where she saw God at work in their lives. She tells the story of Lee an injured doctor friend, Natalie their housekeeper, Glen a shy friend who is drawn in by the community in their home, Adele a Muslim woman who believes in Jesus but has not become a Christian because of a promise she made to her dying mother. Hilary and her family are able to share the love of God with all these people and more through prayer, conversation and acts of compassion.

I liked this book a lot because it is honest about the struggles of following Jesus when it costs you something.  I would recommend this book to those who love a good story of God’s faithfulness when we step out on what He’s calling us to. I find stories like this encouraging and Alan is honest about where it has been difficult. She trusts God, but she also struggled with the effect the culture had on her kids and the ways God doesn’t always seem to answer prayer.

I received this book from Waterbrook Multnomah in exchange for this review.