Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile. Participating in God’s Mission: A Theological Missiology for the Church in America. The Gospel and Our Culture Series. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018. 384 pp. Paperback. $35.00.
Craig Van Gelder has been a key contributor to the missional church conversation in North America over the past two decades. Stemming from his initial involvement in the seminal book, Missional Church,1 Van Gelder has dedicated his academic career to developing church leaders who can help churches participate in God’s mission in the American context. This new book, coauthored with his Luther Seminary colleague and protégé Dwight Zscheile brings together much of his work and thought.2
Their main thesis is clear: it is time for the American church to view its ecclesiological identity through a missiological lens. The Western world—once assumed to be Christian and, thus, the launching point of foreign missions—is now largely secular. The orienting question now is not, they contend, how the church should adapt to changing culture. Rather, it is how the church should bear witness to the gospel within the American context (5). It is this shift that moves the missional conversation from ecclesiology to theology. God is at work in the world in creative and redemptive ways, bringing the good news of the kingdom into the world. The church is called to participate with God in this redemptive movement. Led by the Spirit, the church seeks to join God in incarnating the gospel within its local context.
To begin this conversation, Van Gelder and Zscheile argue that America is experiencing a great “unraveling” in several cultural areas. Rapid and unsettling change is happening within population trends, demographic shifts, economic realities, family makeup, and church attendance (13–20). White Christian America is on the decline, according to the authors, while the majority church is now in the Global South (21–24). This has created great disruption for established churches in America, particularly those descending from European roots. These massive shifts call the church to live out of its missionary identity.
The authors deepen their analysis through a historical overview of the church in America over five periods: colonial experience, expanding frontier, the church in the city, suburban success, and late modern success strategies. They highlight key historical moments within American culture and trace the church’s development in response to these moments. They sketch “public missiologies,” or attempts of the church to missiologically engage its American context, and they demonstrate the various aspects of the gospel that these missiologies represent (63). These engagements, they argue, illustrate the church’s effective and ineffective attempts at contextualizing the gospel in America. The authors also outline the historical trajectory of theological leadership training and formation.
The book ends with an analysis of current contemporary culture followed by a theological reflection on the life and love of the Triune God. They emphasize themes flowing from the mission of God, such as the communion of God, resurrection hope, a community of promise, reconciliation, cruciform mission, and others that can be helpful frameworks for churches as they imagine their future of bearing witness to the gospel in the American context. The authors also offer some critique and guidance on church organization and leadership training for moving into the future.
This book delivers in many ways. The description of the unraveling in American culture is accurate and helpful. The authors note such disrupting cultural trends as technology, loss of community, and the feeling of insecurity. Church leaders feel the effects of these trends, but the authors articulate the deeper societal currents behind them that help the reader understand the disruption more fully. The historical overview of the church in America is the bulk of the book. Their synthesis of American history, church development, and missiological actions is excellent. Heirs of the Restoration tradition will see much that rings true in their description of the evolution of local church identities and various missiological engagements of the American church, as similar evolutions and engagements have happened in Stone-Campbell churches (e.g., from neighborhood churches to “attractional” churches, from evangelistic revivals to church growth methods). Finally, their contemporary critique and theological reflection offers faithful and responsible pathways into the future.
The authors emphasize that the American church does not need to do better or try harder (a theme found often in popular church literature). For decades churches have tried to organize programs better, staff smarter, and market more strategically. In contrast, the authors argue that a deep disruption has happened in our culture, and it is time to revisit our theological roots found within the missio Dei. It is this theological foundation that will help the church bear witness to the gospel in America.
I have a few quibbles with the book. I wish their theology sections (chs. 2 and 9) were more biblically robust. Most of the biblical discussion is taken from Acts and the Gospels. The authors could have bolstered their case if they would have incorporated Paul more in talking about the triune life of God.3 Their critiques are fair-handed throughout. The authors write from a mainline perspective, but they try hard to be equitable in their analysis of both mainline and evangelical churches. They deconstruct may of the American church’s ecclesiological assumptions, but this is done for a hopeful purpose: to live into God’s missional life and imagine a new future of bringing the gospel into the American context. For church leaders serious about joining God in his mission of bringing the gospel to the North American continent, this is a must-read.
Southside Church of Christ
Fort Worth, TX
1 Darrell Guder, ed. Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, The Gospel and Our Culture Series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).
2 This book builds off of previous works of Van Gelder and Zscheile, including Craig Van Gelder, The Essence of the Church: A Community Created by the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000); Craig Van Gelder, The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007); Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile, The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011).
3 The missional church conversation has been critiqued for leaving out Paul. For example, see James Thompson, The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015), 14–20.