A Light to the Nations – Preface
My primary concern in this book is to analyze the missional identity of the church by tracing its role in the biblical story. A plethora of books on missional ecclesiology has appeared in the last couple of decades. These books vary in quality, but even in the best there is little sustained biblical-theological and exegetical work. Moreover, to the degree that the authors make forays into Scripture, the Old Testament has been conspicuously neglected. I have written this book to fill this gap.
My primary audience is theological students, as well as pastors and leaders in the church. But this book is not intended for the pragmatic and impatient pastor looking for quick-fix strategies. It is scriptural and narrative theological work struggling with our biblical identity and role in the original historical context. It is not a technical book but will demand more than a reader seeking
fast answers may be willing to invest. My hope is that, on the one hand, scholars will find its substance sufficient to engage them and that, on the other, the serious layperson can read this book with profit. The reader has a right to know the context out of which this book emerges. At least five factors from my background shape this book. The first is my doctoral dissertation on Lesslie Newbigin’s missionary ecclesiology. I spent the better part of a decade attempting to get into Newbigin’s skin to understand his view of the church. My understanding of the missional church is deeply indebted to him, and this will be especially clear in the last chapter when I discuss contemporary implications.
The second major factor is several yearlong doctoral seminars on biblical, historical, and ecumenical ecclesiology that I took with George Vandervelde more than twenty years ago. Reading through what has been said by biblical scholars and theologians throughout church history as well as current ecumenical thinkers, along with George’s infectious love for the church and his keen theological mind, kindled in me a newfound love for ecclesiology that has been invaluable in laying a foundation for my continued thinking on the church.
A third significant influence on this book is my past and ongoing pastoral experience. I spent the first seven years of my professional life after seminary as a church planter and then a pastor. Even though my primary paycheck no longer comes from the local congregation but now, for almost two decades, from an academic institution, I have never been able to shake myself loose from the ministry of the Word. Just as I was finishing my dissertation on Newbigin, I was invited to take a part-time position as a minister of preaching in a struggling and shrinking urban church in Hamilton, Ontario. What spurred me to accept the invitation were these questions: Although missional church looks good in theology, in the classroom, and in the study, would it work in the urban congregation? And more specifically, would it work in an established, older congregation shaped in another era? I had once heard Jürgen Moltmann say humorously in a small meeting on missional church in Paris something like the following: “We all know what the missional church is. But the real question is what do we do with all these other established institutions called ‘church’?” Indeed, could an older institutional church take on missional coloring?
I worked with two colleagues, and we saw dramatic transformation and growth as the Spirit worked in this established urban congregation and it increasingly acquired a missional identity. When I left after six years for another academic post on the other side of the country, in British Columbia, I thought that my formal ecclesiastical service was over. But it was not to be.
I am now working as a part-time minister of preaching in a congregation in the greater Vancouver area. This pastoral experience and work with gifted missional leaders, all in the midst of committed congregations where the gospel is alive, has refined much of my theological insight on missional church. So, while much of what follows is an attempt to provide solid biblical-theological girders for the notion of missional church, it is shaped by preaching and concrete pastoral experience in attempting to put this notion into practice. The horizon of the local congregation is never far from my exegetical and theological work.
A fourth factor that has shaped this book is the opportunity I have had to teach this material to students at both a graduate and an undergraduate level for several decades. For most of my academic career I have taught in smaller Christian undergraduate colleges that require one to teach quite broadly. Teaching numerous subjects in mission has helped me to refine various aspects of ecclesiology. But my teaching has also stretched into biblical theology and worldview. Teaching biblical theology deepened my commitment to mission as I recognized the centrality of a missional hermeneutic to the biblical story. Teaching worldview enabled me to struggle with questions of relating the gospel to culture and of the church’s mission in public life. I have also had opportunities to teach this material at a graduate level and continue to do so at Regent College, Vancouver. The material of this book has been shaped by those courses and the writing and research that emerged, along with the privilege of teaching hundreds, if not thousands, of very fine students at Dordt College, Redeemer University College, Trinity Western University, Calvin Theological Seminary, McMaster Divinity School, Wheaton College, and Regent College.
The final influence on this book that should be mentioned is the opportunity I have had to present material on missional church to pastors in many different confessional traditions and in many different locations around the world. Pastors are often justly impatient with ivory-tower theology. But sometimes church leaders are too practical and too quickly impatient with necessary theological reflection. Yet speaking to and dialoguing with pastors about this material has kept me from spinning out a theology that doesn’t touch the ground. Along the way I have incorporated many good insights from these leaders. Thus it will be clear that I come to this book as a missiologist and as a pastor. I am not first of all a biblical scholar, nor is my primary audience biblical scholars. Although this book will engage the world of biblical scholarship, I have not entered into many critical questions that lie below the text. I have leaned on the exegetical conclusions of many fine biblical scholars whom I trust. I am writing for pastors, theological students, and educated church members who want to be faithful to the gospel as the people of God.
A website has been created to accompany this book that provides more resources on God’s mission and the mission of the church: www.missionworldview.com. Further resources that may be helpful to the reader are also available at www.biblicaltheology.ca, www.genevasociety.org, and http://www.allofliferedeemed.co.uk/goheen.htm.
It remains for me at the end of this preface to thank those that have contributed in one way or another to this book. I think first of two men whoseinfluence on this topic was most significant but who are now with the Lord: Lesslie Newbigin and George Vandervelde. I occupy the Geneva Chair ofReligious and Worldview Studies, which is governed by a board called the Geneva Society, and I am deeply grateful to these men and women for their time in giving direction to my work. They generously granted me a full year sabbatical during the 2008 calendar year, during which time much of this book was written. Along with the Geneva Society, I am thankful for Pieter and Fran Vanderpol and the Oikodome Foundation, whose continuing vision for Christian scholarship leads them to fund the Geneva Chair. Jim Kinney and his colleagues at Baker Academic have been very helpful as usual. I am thankful for my wife, Marnie, who is always supportive of my work and always enters into it fully with me. I am also grateful for the association and sometimes friendship with other scholars whom I consider fellow travellers on this same road, who have shaped my thinking through conversations (sometimes in faraway places) and writing. I think here of Darrell Guder, Jurgens Hendricks, George Hunsberger, David Kettle, Alan Roxburgh, Wilbert Shenk, Craig Van Gelder, and Chris Wright. A number of people have taken the time to read this manuscript and have offered helpful comments. David Fairchild and Drew Goodmanson, Kaleo Church, San Diego, California; Andrew Zantingh and Tim Sheridan, First Christian Reformed Church and New Hope Christian Reformed Church, Hamilton, Ontario; David Groen, New West Christian Reformed Church, Burnaby, British Columbia; Tyler Johnson, East Valley Bible Church, Phoenix, Arizona; Johannes Schouten, Nelson Avenue Church, Burnaby, British Columbia; Mark Glanville, Tregear Presbyterian Church, Sydney, Australia; Howard McPhee, Springdale Christian Reformed Church, Bradford, Ontario; and George Hunsberger, Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan. They have made many valuable suggestions that have helped the book. Unfortunately, I was unable to incorporate some suggestions that would have made this a better book because of limited time or ability. It is a delight to be able to say further that David Groen and Mark Glanville are not only pastoral colleagues but fine sons-in-law.
I want to express my appreciation to Doug and Karey Loney. Doug has been a good friend and an invaluable colleague who has now generously shared his writing gifts on three books. Both Doug and Karey read the manuscript and helped me to express myself more clearly with their editing, and the manuscript is much better because of their sacrificial work. I have been deeply blessed by being part of the congregations of First Christian Reformed Church, Hamilton, Ontario, and New West Christian Reformed Church, Burnaby, British Columbia. Serving and being part of these wonderful communities has taught me much about what the New Testament teaches about church. The love and generosity, as well as the commitment to God’s mission in Canada, of so many in these churches have nurtured me.
For the last two and a half decades, I have had the privilege to work with several fine colleagues in pastoral ministry. I am grateful for what I have learned about missional church from each of these men. In my first pastorate I worked for a short time with Howard McPhee, who was also an early mentor and from whom I learned much, including something of what it means to preach Christ. During my seven years in Hamilton, I labored with two very gifted men, Andrew Zantingh and Tim Sheridan. Andrew has a keen sense of what mission means for the structures, worship, discipleship, leadership, and, in general, the internal life of the congregation. Tim’s ability to understand the urban setting, to recognize its needs, to network for diaconal purposes, and to build unity among churches for the sake of God’s mission are a gift to the church. In Burnaby it has been a joy to work with David Groen, who is committed to the difficult task of developing youth and young adult ministries in a missional way. For a short time God provided Peter Sinia, a gifted pastor and administrator, as my colleague in Burnaby, and most recently I have begun to enjoy pastoral collegiality with another senior pastor who is committed to a missional vision, Andrew Beunk. To these dear and dedicated pastoral colleagues in the ministry of giving leadership to a missional church I dedicate this book.