Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 6, no. 2 (August 2015)

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Scott A. Bessenecker. Overturning Tables: Freeing Missions from the Christian-Industrial Complex. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014. 201 pp. Paperback. $16.00.

In his challenging book Overturning Tables: Freeing Missions from the Christian-Industrial Complex, Scott A. Bessenecker confronts what he sees as the “corporate, culturally white, individualist paradigm” from which the modern missionary movement operates (185). He desires to see a new day in missions, creating different attitudes and approaches, which include those traditionally marginalized by what he calls the “Christian-Industrial Complex.” The author is the associate director of missions for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Therefore, he is not standing on the outside of the system offering disconnected criticism but rather he speaks out of his own ministry’s struggle in “deconstructing the industrial complex and reconstructing the ancient, lighter form of church and mission” (185). Bessenecker provides historical context for modern missions by showing the corporate, market-driven environment in which it was birthed. He is bold in critiquing the present situation while providing biblical teaching and examples from those who are seeking to live out alternative approaches.

Bessenecker sees Adoniram Judson’s story as the birth of the Christian-Industrial Complex’s influence in missions. Judson is often presented as the first American missionary to serve overseas, first arriving in India in 1812 and later ministering in Burma. Judson, along with three other “boys,” sought counsel from clergy and Christian business leaders of the day. Having been influenced by the developing colonialism and capitalism around them, the Christian leaders formed the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) to finance and oversee the new mission. He contrasts this approach with a relatively unknown earlier missionary, George Leile. George, a former slave, was given his freedom before the beginning of the Revolutionary War and began to preach to the slaves in South Carolina and Georgia. George and his wife, Hannah, were called to the mission field of Jamaica. In order to pay for his family’s passage to Jamaica, Leile indentured himself to a wealthy landowner. With this sacrifice, Leile began a long ministry as the first American missionary to a foreign land. He was self-educated and self-supporting. He served for all of his life as a bi-vocational missionary, supporting himself, his wife, and four children through any work he could find. Bessenecker points out that Judson and his colleagues were perhaps the first college-educated American missionaries sent out and supported by a mission society. However, he emphasizes that Leile and his family served in the spirit of the early disciples, who were “ordinary and unschooled.” The first three hundred years of Christianity spread across Europe, Asia, and North Africa through the efforts of the marginalized with very little money or structure. This tale of two missions sets the spirit behind the author’s call for a new paradigm for missions today.

Overturning Tables is well researched and written in a style accessible to both missiologists and practitioners. It offers both a description of missions greatly influenced by capitalism and suggested practices to bring about healthy change. This pattern of exposing the problem and offering ideas to promote new approaches is woven through each chapter. The chapter titles provide insight into both the problem and the principles for change. For example, “From Corporation to Locally Owned,” “From Solitary to Solidarity,” “From Mainstream to Margin,” and “From Independent to Interdependent” reveal a description of missions freed from the corporate structure. The author exposes the problem of limiting mission involvement to only the middle and upper classes because of access to financial resources through the corporate system. He illustrates that in his own ministry they seek to foster indigenous expressions of ministry and provide access to poorer or less-connected people. He advocates a move away from a product focus and a patron-client model toward a more holistic, interdependent model. He challenges the assumption that solutions to missions problems must involve a large infusion of cash by encouraging the return to a more biblical model of gathering in both public and private spaces as the church sharing a meal, teaching each other, praying, singing, and addressing the needs of the body of Christ. The book exposes the rise of a Western individualism influenced by capitalism and advocates the practice of interdependence involving both the mainstream and the marginalized on an equal plane of communal leadership. Bessenecker envisions people rooted in the dominant culture walking alongside of, advocating for, and ministering together with those on the fringes of the mission and societal community.

Perhaps the most challenging shift that has to take place as mission liberates itself from a corporate-style capitalist paradigm is determining how to measure success. Overturning Tables exposes the difference between solely measuring numerical growth and recognizing the signs of kingdom health brought about by the reign of Christ. As a consumerist culture began to invade the work of the church, the primary measurements of success became the counting of attendance, baptisms, and contributions. Through a study of biblical texts and the nature of God, Bessenecker concludes that God is not as obsessed with productivity as we are. He offers some ways to measure kingdom health, such as evaluating co-laborers’ growth in spiritual maturity, recognizing times of Sabbath rest, evidence of growing disciples and transformed lives, focusing on long-term growth as opposed to immediate results and accountability in the use of financial, material, and human resources.

Overturning Tables is a prophetic and challenging read yet greatly needed among all those involved in shaping the future of modern missions. Scott Bessenecker gives a gift in the form of a prayerful and prophetic critique of our present mission practices. He attempts to start a discussion by asking his readers to question whether our structures are overly influenced by what works in the capitalistic kingdom of this world but are damaging to the good new of the kingdom of God. He challenges his readers to create fresh structures and new ways of understanding money, people, the church, and missions in the kingdom of God.

Jay Jarboe

VP of Ministry Operations

Missions Resource Network

Bedford, Texas, USA