Chris Flanders is Associate Professor of Missions at Abilene Christian University (Abilene, Texas).
What are the most important works in English literature? If I asked you this question, no doubt you could immediately begin constructing a list. Surely, you would include something from Charles Dickens. Perhaps you would consider works from Brontë, Poe, and Melville. Oh, and don’t forget Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Robinson Crusoe? Absolutely. Your mind would scan countless options and you would make difficult choices about which to include and which to exclude. You would likely change your mind as you recall a book you had forgotten, taking some off your list and including others. Exercises like this are fun and typically produce energetic debate. To be included in such a list is to become a part of a canon, a measuring rod by which we judge other works. It is to become a classic.
Have you ever thought about what makes a particular work a “classic”? It seems that for a book to become a classic, it must have enduring value and be noteworthy for reasons a particular community has judged significant. Therefore, classics are rarely recent works, as they must pass the test of time to demonstrate they are not simply riding the crest of a trendy wave of popular sentiment. A classic also must have broad impact. It must be generally thought to “matter.” It is weighty. To be a classic means that the work cannot be ignored—it must be taken into account when discussing the particular area it addresses. There are likely other important criteria, but these suffice to demonstrate that to become a classic is no small feat and is to a great degree a matter of reasoned judgment and debate rather than scientific precision and attaining an absolute standard of some kind.
So, what are the classics in missions? What would be your list of required reading, your Top 10, your canon for mission literature? To construct such a list would require the same discernment, debate, and deliberations as is necessary for English literature. There is no absolutely certain answer that would satisfy every person. Yet, in the area of mission studies and missiological literature, it is certainly possible to construct a canon of important works that have influenced mission theory and practice. Though not absolute, this canon of classics is discernible, albeit debatable.
In this issue, we highlight ten works we have deemed “classic.” These selected works we see as part of the missiological canon, particularly those works that have been written during the past fifty years. By doing so, we are not claiming these works are an all-time Top 10 of the most important missions texts. We are not attempting to be exhaustive or normative. There are many significant missions works we did not select. Rather, those we have selected we believe to be acknowledged classics—texts whose profound impact on mission practice and theory no informed missions educator or practitioner would question.
For each of these ten classic mission texts we have invited an esteemed missions expert and educator to reread and reevaluate them. Rather than simply note them, we wish to reengage these missions classics. We have asked our reviewers to dip back into a missions classic and help us take a fresh look, providing compelling commentary on the history and enduring significance of each classic work.
To reengage classics in such a way is a critical part of the ongoing work of any vibrant community. The passage of time means the changing of contexts. And, if missionaries and missiologists are about anything, it is our developed capacity to pay attention to context and culture. We, above all guilds and all communities of practitioners, are attuned to how changing environments impact our own evaluations.
No work is perfect, even if it has become an established classic. Indeed, it is often the passing of time and a new set of eyes that allows the imperfections of an important work to become more obvious. This is why, for any community of scholarship or practice, it is critical to occasionally engage in the self-reflective act of reengagement.
As missiological debate ensues, we recalibrate our assumptions and commitments, and we often see much more clearly both the glory and the warts of any book. By bringing into focal attention those texts and works that have significantly shaped our discipline, we can examine the assumptions, arguments, and conclusions of those classical texts and see if they stand the test of time, or we might instead find them wanting. That is, in this act of reengagement, we sometimes come to see that some of our critiques may have been based more on caricature than an actual close reading. Similarly, we may find how we now consider inadequate, or even patently wrong, the grounding assumptions that made a work popular and important at a particular time.
To reengage classics is also an act that reminds ourselves that we have a history—our mission theory and our mission practice do not exist ex nihilo but emerge out of a long-standing conversation that has been shaped by many works, including these ten we highlight here. So, we think this practice of going back to the wells of seminal works to reengage those texts is a necessary and healthful practice.
Such a practice is especially important for those of us who work within Stone-Campbell churches. Our history as a restoration movement has, by definition, made us religiously reactionary, seeking to reset what we have deemed deficient in the surrounding religious environment. Such a reactionary posture, coupled with our strong attention to Scripture, has often led us to be extremely reticent to pay attention to what other Christian groups were reading or writing. This has been less so among Disciples of Christ but has often been a characteristic of Churches of Christ and Independent Christian Churches. While this has certainly kept our fellowships grounded in Christian scripture, it has often meant that we have paid insufficient attention to the significant scholarship from those around us. Indeed, until only recently, it would not be uncommon for some Church of Christ or Christian Church missionaries not to have read nor heard of many of the texts that we highlight in this issue. To reengage the mission classics is also, therefore, a call for us to remember that much missiological wisdom exists outside of our smaller fellowships.
So, let the reengagement begin.