MissionShift and Paradigm Shifts

Summary: Charles Van Engen’s essay in the recently released book, MissionShift, overviews the series of paradigm shifts in the meaning of “mission” through Western church history. He also gives some perspective for why transformation of missiology is needed, and what a more holistic statement of mission could look like. It wasn’t necessarily part of his opportunity or role to share much about the how-to’s of paradigm shifting. Yet I see that as being THE crucial topic for our moving beyond the influences and mistakes of the past toward a stronger and more holistic impact in the future.

And the subject of paradigm shifting is where I thought I could offer a critique and contribution to the discussion that doesn’t duplicate what others are emphasizing. I don’t believe our answer to the dilemmas of mission will be found in reconfiguring our missiology or even our larger theology. I argue that epistemology – how we process and organize information – dictates our theology. So, if we’re going to succeed in implementing a holistic paradigm shift, it’s got to be first and foremost at the even deeper level of epistemology.

I’m passionate about cultural interpretation, contextualization, futurist strategies, and organizational systems design and development. I’ve spent much of the past decade trying to figure out how to profile paradigms from the bottom up, and assist Christian groups in creating the constructive dynamics needed to undergo a paradigm shift to either become or remain a viable, sustainable organization. I’ve been in on mostly “epic fails,” but also a few modest successes. I hope my practitioner perspectives on holistic mission and what’s been missing, plus some of the why, how, and who of paradigm shifting, will prove helpful.

Introducing MissionShift

There is an important conversation going on via Ed Stetzer’s blog. It is based on the new book, MissionShift, a series of three “grand view” essays and responses around topics of “Global Mission Issues in the Third Millennium.” Thus far, I’ve only read Stetzer’s introduction and the first essay, which is by Charles Van Engen. (They are available to read for free on Amazon’s Kindle for the Web.) Also, as best I can while time and mental focus allow, I’ve been going through the linked posts by others commenting on the material.

Actually, this book review is highly relevant, as I’m in the midst of a major editing project with a curriculum that details how to interpret cultures and contextualize ministry without losing the biblical core of discipleship in “mission” or “missional.” However, I’ve found from experience that it doesn’t work well for either project when I’m trying to read and review someone else’s book while I’m already drowning in words that I must complete editing. So, I have no idea whether I’ll continue commenting on MissionShift, but felt like I would try to add to the feedback on the book’s first essay by adding what I could from a rather different perspective.

We bring who we are to this table, and I am not so much a theologian or missiologist or missionary practitioner, but a paradigm analyst, student of post-World War II Western subcultures and social movements, and a missional futurist. I haven’t read much in missiology or theology or church planting theory and practice for about 15 years. If anything, I’ve been studying primary materials from cultural movements outside the church to better understand cultural trends and social transformation. That’s been my missional assignment since the mid-1990s, and I’ve sought to follow that as faithfully as possible. It is what it is, and I can’t apologize for not having the academic degrees to back up what I say, or for not being up with all the last decade’s developments in theologies. I’ve been on a different providential path. So, with that background and for what it’s worth, here are some of my thoughts.

Each theology creates a distinct trajectory.

There is much in Charles Van Engen’s opening essay that is helpful. We need perspective from the past to understand what has contributed to our trajectory in the present, and foresee where a particular definition of mission and its underlying theological system will land us in the future (barring any course adjustments between now and then, that is). Indeed, every theological system moves its followers toward an inherent goal, so we can predict a theological movement’s end state by the goals its system supports. Van Engen’s essay shares key theological approaches in Western missional history, gives the definitions of descriptions of “mission” in them, and shows the points of contention and breakdown compared to a more on-target approach. But what exactly is that approach?

We do need a more “biblically holistic” theology/missiology.

After his historical survey of definitions and implications, Van Engen offers his own definition of mission – which he still considers tentative even after 40 years of developing it. (And I do believe it is generally a good thing to hold our theological language lightly, not tightly.)

God’s mission works primarily through Jesus Christ’s sending the people of God to intentionally cross barriers from church to nonchurch, faith to nonfaith, to proclaim by word and deed the coming of the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ through the Church’s participation in God’s mission of reconciling people to God, to themselves, to one another, and to the world and gathering them into the church, through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, by the work of the Holy Spirit, with a view to the transformation of the world, as a sign of the coming of the kingdom in Jesus Christ.

This is one of the most comprehensive summary descriptions I’ve seen for the meaning of “missional.” I appreciate the level of wrestling with God and personal reflection that undoubtedly went into it.

Actually, I would suggest there is at least one addition needed: something about “theodicy,” on how nature and humans are not the only actors in the drama of redemption. Van Engen may imply some role for angels and demonic forces in the proclamation by word and deed to the coming of the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ, but it doesn’t show up in this essay.

I believe the search in some branches of the contemporary church to find this missing piece has led to a faulty theological overemphasis in social transformation by two groups: (1) those trying to fill this gap by engaging in spiritual mapping and so-called “strategic-level prayer warfare,” which has been critiqued in Spiritual Power and Missions by Edward Rommen as potentially leading to “Christian animism,” and (2) those immersed in the Seven Mountains Movement, where attempts at social transformation seem to have transmogrified into social control by and for the Church.

In a world that is shifting from the old dominance of rationalism from the West to the newer ascendancy of non-rationalism (which is not the same as irrationalism) and animism from much of the rest, we need to secure a more integrated and balanced approach to “spiritual warfare.” There are definite dangers to overemphasis, just as there are difficulties caused from leaving it out of our paradigm and, hence, our theology. If we fail here, we may lose the opportunity to integrate needed insights from disciples with a genuine gift of discernment and also continue to encourage grossly out-of-balance approaches like those mentioned above that continue masquerading as “transformational” and “missional.” For some thoughts on theodicy and its relationship to the third member of the Trinity, see this 2007 post and comments from Marc’s Messages blog. Is our so-called “Trinitarian missiology of missio dei” actually Trinitarian enough?

[ADDITION 01-18-2011: I wanted to continue a bit with that thought about the role of the Holy Spirit in what is emerging as missional. Based on reflections about current movements within discipleship and missions and “emerging” and “missional,” my intuitive sense is that there are two key skills featured by a future missiology that promotes discipleship and not mere conversion. These are: (1) the spiritual discipline of discernment between good and evil, and (2) the spiritual discipline of being led by the Spirit. I do not believe we can be adequately trained for cross-cultural ministry/mission if we do not become practitioners of these skills. They are necessary for taking us beyond what is merely visible and obvious to what requires God’s perspective on what is invisible and not-so-obvious but real nevertheless. Being led by the Spirit should not be left to the realms of Charismatic- and Pentecostal-type theologies, and yet, how much of intellectually oriented theologies do just that?]

[ADDITION 01-18-2011: In thinking more about Van Engen’s description of “missional,” I realized it also does not have anything explicitly about ecology and appropriate stewardship of nature. I see this as a potential “fatal flaw.” Creation care is essential to address, given the growing affinity that many people outside the Church have for a triple bottom line (benefit people, the planet, and profits) or quadruple bottom line (the triple plus personal/spiritual transformation). It is not enough to imply our concern for nature in our words about a coming kingdom, when the One who is the King also created the world over which He rules. And there are missions and ministries which use a “Creation-Fall-Redemption” narrative as core to their missiology – more on that movement another time; it deserves its own post as a significant holistic force within Christianity.]

Otherwise, it seems to me that Van Engen’s description is relatively good. However, his essay still leaves me with one crucial – and vexing – question:

How the heck do we get from where we are back to a more profound and biblical holism – whether we are theological progressives, liberals, conservatives, fundamentalists, evangelicals, charismatics, etc.?

I would suggest that a more holistic definition of mission – even one as good as Van Engen’s – is not enough. Commitment to a holistic statement on the meaning of “mission” is not the same as naturally functioning from a holistic paradigm that inherently produces a comprehensive, interconnected, and coherently holistic missiology. A mere statement without the underlying presuppositional infrastructure isn’t really sustainable, is it?

That’s why I think the deeper digging we need is NOT on our theology, NOR even on our missiology, but first of all into our epistemology. That study takes us right into the bases of how we process information and put things together. And that in turn preconditions what theology and missiology we eventually come up with. In other words, our paradigm (not our theology) is our ultimate default – because by it the very structure of our theology is shaped.

  • Do we embrace an abstract and systematic theology, or a concrete and systems theology?
  • Do we integrate our theological categories around concepts, or around narrative, or both?
  • If both, in what relative emphasis?
  • If neither, what do we arrange all our categories around?

These are the very aspects of “worldview” and “theology” that our paradigm dictates to us. And ultimately, we all function according to our paradigm. If we stretch our practices for a while without actually changing our paradigm, we eventually snap back to that default. It’s part of the (unrenewed) human condition. But, thankfully, paradigm change is possible, just as character change is possible.

Meanwhile, is there a sufficiently holistic paradigm underneath Van Engen’s holistic statement of “mission”?

I may be misreading Van Engen, but there seem to me to be a few clues that all is not well in the presuppositions underneath his holistic statement of mission. As I see it, what we need is a paradigm shift, not a “new mission synthesis” – a term Van Engen used that raised my “Hegelian Dialect Hackles.” I see the series of Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis as a very linear and abstract/philosophical view of social transformation processes, but I believe history shows itself as a far more layered and concrete/culturological process.

(Sidenote: See my post elsewhere on the epistemology differences between philosophists and culturologists. A culturologist perspective is that cultural change drives the production of new philosophies. This is based on finding systems patterns in a dataset of concrete experiences. A philosophist perspective is that philosophical changes drive the production of new cultures or cultural changes. This is based on assuming the primacy of the abstract world of thought over the concrete world of experience. The culturologist’s approach to cultural interpretation and social transformation is more in tune with the ascending world culture and global Christianity. The philosophist’s approach is more in tune with the declining Western culture and Christendom. This critical difference helps explain some of the conflict between the missional-incarnational-contextual paradigm and the conventional-attractional-universal paradigm as to what constitutes appropriate strategies and structures for churches in our era.)

Also, I don’t think that new definitions for the terms mission or missional will accomplish what I see that he hopes for and that the Church needs. I remain unconvinced that we can find our way to a holistic paradigm merely by gluing back together what the liberal/conservative “theological split” of the 19th  and 20th centuries put asunder. What happened then was, in my understanding, a split in a modernist, Enlightenment paradigm, and the liberals inherited the social side of things and the conservatives inherited the individual side of things. Attempts just to kiss and make up haven’t re-fused the paradigm, and surface add-ons won’t bring a permanent change to return it to a biblical base. Van Engen is correct, methinks, in saying that we have to get back to biblical understandings.

However, a genuine paradigm shift is very VERY hard to do, and it takes both current intentionality and a long-term commitment. Plus it probably requires a chain of multiple generations living into it and living it out to make it viable and sustainable. In my few epic-fail experiences of the last decade in attempting to assist church leaders in making that radical of a paradigm shift, I’ve seen up close and personally that if we change our theology without reintegrating our paradigm, at best we can stretch toward the “new wineskin” for a while, but we’re still filling it with old wine and it will burst. In technical terms, anyone can mimic change for a while, but it doesn’t stick unless it has become a meme – i.e., a cultural value that is integrated at such a deep level within one’s paradigm that it is a permanent component and not just a surface style or behavior.

This is why I found rather unsatisfying Van Engen’s suggestion to Gloria for her group to hash out their own description of “mission” so they could use that term again. Yes, it may help in the short run to get some collective wisdom through processing their principles and practices of “mission.” However, could that process just as easily set up Gloria’s church to have to face the same crisis yet again, within one or two generations? Is a redefinition just an incremental shuffling around of their theological concepts and terms, or does it drastically restructure their entire way of organizing and living out their theology? I’m not seeing it happen – again, that’s for the long run, regardless of how it may help in the short run. Which leads me to another question:

Can a holistic paradigm even be synthesized by a composited group?

Well, perhaps. But it may take a multi-generational group that includes at least some participants who already represent the holistic paradigm that we are aiming for. These rare individuals function intuitively in ways that assume the interdependence between people and the planet; the interconnectedness of church, kingdom, and culture; the integration of personal/social and individual/communal. As intuitive practitioners of that new-wine paradigm, they may not always be able to express exactly why they are the way they are, but they still demonstrate for us what it looks like.

And, in my experience, at least some can analyze and translate it for others so they can become intentional about reintegrating into a new paradigm. These I’ve termed “interpolators,” people who tend to be interdisciplinary and intercultural. Many interpolators are also “futuristic” in the innate perspective. Watch for both interpolators and futuristics, as they can prove uniquely gifted to help lead in shifting paradigms by pulling a community toward the future by concrete example coming straight out of their innate paradigm, rather than by pushing it toward the future by some theoretical concept about what should happen.

And, if the observations of Helen Haste on how to measure deep change are accurate, a sustainable strategy must figure out ways to carry the paradigm changes into at least the next full generation:

In the long run, what counts is how the next generation thinks. How far new ideas permeate culture is not measured just by attitude change during one generation, but by what is taken for granted in the next. ~ Helen Haste, The Sexual Metaphor: Men, Women, and the Thinking that Makes the Difference

All of this is why I was grateful to see some poking and probing at that deeper level of assumptions from MissionShift co-editor David Hesselgrave. In his essay, “Back to Basics,” quoted in Ed Stezter’s post, Hesselgrave used two postulates from Carl F. H. Henry to critique various aspects of Van Engen’s essay. How Hesselgrave works those postulates make for essential reading to understand MissionShift and paradigm shifts.

[ADDITION 01-18-2011: Even though I appreciate Hesselgrave’s use of some logical postulates from Carl Henry, I am also a bit jittery about it. Is Henry’s paradigm system still too far into rationalistic presuppositions to get us to a holistic mission system? I was not the only commenter who had some qualms about using Henry’s postulates … Attacking the problem of missiology from the same conventional rational Enlightenment-leaning paradigm will never ever lead to a unconventional holistic pre-/post-Enlightenment paradigm that can naturally lead to the kind of comprehensive missional outlook that we need.]

Ooops, the time I allotted to create this post is more than gone. Oh well … sometimes when you’re in a writing “flow,” you just have to keep going, as if it may be the last most important thing you get to say. Anyway, just one last cluster of thoughts:

Paradigm shifts bring with them new systems, strategies, and structures for how we operate our social organizations.

During my own intensive course of training in futurist skills, my trainer showed how each paradigm shift in Western civilization resulted in a substantial change in the kind of organizational structure for churches/denominations. (The historical overview of mission shifts that Van Engen provides is fairly similar to the timeline of the Western paradigm shifts in the larger society.)

We are in the middle of what is arguably the fourth or fifth such change in 2,500 years – this time, not just for the West, but for the whole world. A new “operational system” for organizing church/kingdom functions is emerging. However, being in the eye of this global hurricane does not give us the calm needed to separate ourselves fully from the chaos swirling around us to see exactly what will emerge. I suspect we can expect the wrestling over the meaning of “mission” to continue for quite some time. But, eventually, a new and far more holistic paradigm will indeed settle itself out and, with it, a long-term change in both principles and practices, in strategies and structures, for ministries in church, kingdom, and communities.

To those reading these words soon after I’ve posted them: We ourselves may not live long enough to see that day when the paradigm has sufficiently settled, but perhaps those we disciple may. And I trust that our faithfulness to pursue a holistic paradigm will indeed lead to a missional paradigm that will resolve the missiological problem raised in one of the essay’s quotation from James Scherer: “how to accomplish a successful transition from an earlier church-centered theology of mission to a kingdom-oriented one without loss of missionary vision or betrayal of biblical content. … The fuller implications of this changeover for our missionary practice still lie in the future.”

For some readers, all this talk of paradigm shift is likely a mystery. I know it’s a difficult topic to wade through, and that this post may have been discouraging because of its density. But we desperately need to think through paradigms carefully if we want our ministries and churches to become sustainable past the current global chaos.  I’ve done some extended blogging on issue of paradigm upheaval and change in my futuristguy[1] blog categories on Paradigm Profiling and Paradigm Shifting. There are also some important posts elsewhere in this futuristguy2 blog on Paradigm Shifting and Sustaining the Shift.

I do apologize that much of the material is technical and dense. That’s just how it left my brain and went through the keyboard, and I have not yet had the opportunity to do the extensive editing it needs. But perhaps you’ll find at least some of the illustrations and practical case studies are accessible enough to be of help. And I have to trust that this may bring some hope …