Huangshan, China

Book Review: Relational Missionary: Theology, Theory, and Practice

Enoch Wan & Mark Hedinger, Relational Missionary Training: Theology, Theory, and Practice. Skyforest, CA: Urban Loft Publishers, 2017. ISBN – 13:978-0997371765. Paper. 330 pages, including 4 appendices and bibliography.

T
his book is part of the Urban Ministry in the 21st Century series edited by Kendi Howells Douglas and Stephen Burris. The editors state that the series seeks to present the results of both experience and scholarship “to help Christians strategically and creatively think about how they can better reach our world that is now more urban than rural.” A distinct feature is the integration of theology and practice: “We do not see theology and practice as separate and distinct. Rather, we see sound practice growing out of a healthy vibrant theology.” (From the Preface)

Accordingly, this volume opens with almost one hundred pages of theology, followed by a section on the theory of missions pedagogy, concluding with a solid treatment of “best practices” for relational missionary training. The authors build their case for relational missionary training on a solid biblical and theoretical foundation, but they are equally strong and practical in the section on how to apply basic principles to actual training.

Seldom have I read a book that is clearer or better organized than Relational Missionary Training. The reader is in the good hands of veteran teachers and trainers who know how to communicate effectively. Both the book itself and each chapter in it begin with an introduction stating what we are about to read, then the substance of the message, and finally a summary that tells us what we just read. Two additional strengths are the helpful summary of the views of others and the presentation of complex ideas in the form of charts.

Contents

Part One: Theology

Chapter One: Introduction

In this chapter, the authors state the purposes of the book; define key terms; make a case for the uniqueness for their approach; describe the expected readership of the book; explain the organization of the argument; and declare the results they hope the book will achieve.

Chapter Two: The Trinity and Relational Realism Paradigm

This chapter begins with a section on “understanding relationship”; then clarifies what it means to say that the Trinity is both immanent (ontological) economic (relational); describes what the Bible says about relationships within the Trinity; discusses the relationship between God and his creation; and finally presents a Christian understanding of horizontal relationships.

The main point is that God is essentially relational. As Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, there is one God, but he is tri-personal. All other relationships between God and the created order and between persons flow from this fundamental relationship. The goal of missions is to be used by God to bring people into a loving relationship with the Trinity and with each other. We do this in reliance upon God, who alone can bring people to himself, but also, by God’s grace, within loving relationships with others. Very helpful is the concept of seven key relationships, all of which must be kept in view. The rest of the book draws out the implications of these relationships for missionary work and training.

Aside from a few imprecise statements, this chapter lays a strong foundation for a relational model of the missionary task and missionary training.

Chapter Three: Scriptural Foundations

This chapter first surveys several biblical examples to elucidate how the Bible emphasizes seven key missionary relationships – Relationships within the Trinity, between God and his messenger, between God and the audience that his messengers addressed, between the messenger and his culture, the audience and their culture, and the realm of evil spirits.

Then we are treated to a helpful study of Paul as Missionary Trainer. The apostle consistently made the training of others a central feature of his missionary work. Likewise, Paul’s writings must be seen as missionary training literature, especially 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, which should properly be called “missionary epistles,” for they were intended to instruct younger missionaries “in the nature of missionary work.”

An inductive study of these letters reveals seven major themes dealing with the person and work of the missionary. A study of Paul’s oral preaching and teaching as recorded in Acts uncovers “a rich curriculum of understanding relationship, life, doctrine, skill and wisdom. Finally, we learn that Paul’s missionary training can only be understood fully from a relational perspective.

Part Two: Theory

Chapter Four: General Pedagogical Theory and Andragogy

Drawing upon a number of resources, the authors discuss educational theory, general pedagogical theory, adult education, “educational theories particularly relevant to the paradigm of relational realism,” and “transformative andragogy within a Christian context.

The last of these represents Enoch Wan’s particular contribution, and provides a comprehensive paradigm for adult education, especially missions training. The goal of training is “relational discipleship,” which is usefully described in comparison and contrast to other ideas of discipleship. Missionary training must take place in a relational setting and done in a relational manner, with the goal or preparing people for relational missionary service. This chapter is especially rich and helpful.

Chapter Five: Specialized Educational Forms

This wide-ranging chapter delves into theological education, comparative education, “explicitly Christian Philosophy of Education,” intercultural training, and specific training for missionaries. One important conclusion is that “educational paradigms by and for Chris Christians should take a different approach than the approaches seen outside of the Christian community” (167). Christian education will seek transformation of the whole person in a setting in which relationships with God and others are central, and with the goal of equipping people for godly living and effective service.

Training for inter-cultural ministry has its own special characteristics and challenges because of the cultural contexts of trainers and learners. Because “there is a close correlation between missionary retention and mission training,” proper pre-field and ongoing training are vital for long-term missionary effectiveness (189). Despite the enormous diversity of missionaries and mission organizations, there are a few “best practices of mission training” that must be observed (192).

The authors discuss all aspects of missionary training, always with the relationships in view. For example, Enoch Wan believes that, though the Internet can be ‘used to build existing personal relationships,” it “can never replace personal face-to-face relationships” (198). Trainers must not be “recent graduates of academic programs, but have extensive cross-cultural experience. They will be marked by spiritual maturity, highly developed interpersonal skills, a good reputation and a healthy family life,” as well as being gifted in teaching and mentoring adults (199).

Like its predecessor, this chapter is so rich that it is impossible to summarize. Let me say only that the main thesis – that missionary training must be relational in every way – challenges much of what goes on in academic institutions dedicated to preparing people for either domestic or cross-cultural ministry. The authors do their best to propose better ways of doing things. Based on my experience as a missionary since 1975, I agree with most of what they say.

Part Three: Practice

Chapter Six: Seven Missionary Relationships with a Relational Paradigm of Intercultural Ministry Training.

Here the authors work out in great detail the implications of the seven missionary relationships for ministry and therefore training for ministry. Once again, the wealth and depth of their discussion defy any attempt to summarize. I’ll only mention a few points that seemed especially important to me:

Marriage: “Ministry of all kinds needs to respect the deep lessons that God has woven into the marriage relationship. Ministry training and ministry practice – both within one’s own culture, and in intercultural situations – must include healthy, growing relationships between married partners” (224-225).

Authority: “Egalitarian cultures . . . perceive inherent injustice in situations where one Person or Person is in authority over others. . . The evangelical church of the West, with its context of individualism and egalitarianism, has a particular difficulty in serving under the leadership of any structure or person” (227) Because of the hierarchy within the Trinity, however, with the Son eternally and willingly subordinating himself to the Father, we have a model for the godly exercise of authority and submission to authority.

Abiding in Christ: “[T]he first priority is the relationship between God and the messenger. . . Learning to abide, learning to pray, learning to hear the voice of God. . . “ are essential aspects of ministry and training for ministry (229).

Biographies of missionaries can be helpful in several different parts of training. As the editor of the online Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity, and one who has benefitted greatly from the biographies of missionaries, I fully agree!

Culture: We need to understand our own culture and that of the people whom we serve, and we must seek to change culture from the inside out, rather than primarily pursuing superficial changes, such as in health or government. Cultural considerations should be prominent in all aspects of missionary training.

Chapter Seven: Training Methods and Relational Paradigm

The subjects treated here are: human relationships in the training context, human relationships and learning styles, human development and training styles, illustrations of methods for the seven key mission relationships, and the training environment as all these are seen in light of the relational paradigm.

To take one example: The best training environment “will align with the cultural preferences of learners”; “prepare people for the kind of work that they will be doing”; and foster interactive relationships between students and teachers” (254-255)

Chapter Eight: Training Content and Relational Paradigm

Moving from methods to content, the authors closely examine what Paul taught Timothy, and “what Timothy heard in the presence of many witnesses.” Their integration of the Bible with all that has gone before is brilliant.

Chapter Nine: Summary

Theological foundations, educational principles, practical implications. As good teachers, the authors remind us of what they have told us in the book.

Chapter Ten: Conclusions

The authors bring their entire argument together as they answer the question, “What does it mean to train missionaries from a paradigm of relational realism?”

Four appendices and a twenty-five-page bibliography conclude this very rich study.

Evaluation

The major weakness of this book is the authors’ repeated contrast of what they call “Western theology” to their model of relational theology. They write as if all “Western” theology ignores the fundamental reality of relationships, and as if Western missiologists have ignored the importance of relationships also.

For example: “The Bible teaches with propositions, and it deals with relationships. Western theological reflection has tended to focus on the propositional to the exclusion of the relational” (61).

To be sure, it is true that relational thinking comes more naturally to writers from some other cultures, and that Western theological education and missionary training have often neglected the essential relational nature of Christian truth and the necessity of attending to relationships in training Christian workers. Western theological education is especially guilty here.

Still, we must ask, what do you mean by “Western” theology? This is a very large category, with dozens of major theologians and hundreds, even thousands, of less well-known theologians and Bible scholars. How can one generalize about such a wide array of thinkers? Further, which ones actually ignore the relational nature of the Triune God’s desire for intimate relationships with us, and the teaching of the Bible that emphasize our relationships with others? I can think of none, though there may be some.

Indeed, especially in the past forty years or so, Western Christian literature has focused more on relationships than on the classical doctrines. Most of the major theologians and biblical scholars have written about relationships. One thinks of Carl Henry, for example, who, though a strong advocate of propositional revelation, wrote a seminal work on ethics in which the biblical teachings on various relationships were carefully examine. In the 1970s, Lawrence O. Richards wrote books on relational theology and Christian education, for example.

Furthermore, Relational Missionary Training quotes dozens of Western theologians and educational writers in support of virtually every part of their argument, demonstrating that at least some Westerners are also aware of the relational dimensions of theology, ministry, and training.

This kind of caricature diminishes the authors’ credibility as theologians and greatly weakens the positive value of their otherwise superb discussion of relational missionary training.

Sadly, some evangelical theologians are guilty of a similar misrepresentation of “Western” theology, including that of Carl Henry, who is regularly and wrongly charged with rationalism, as I have shown elsewhere. Perhaps their error has seeped into the general theological atmosphere and has influenced the authors of Relational Missionary Training.

Likewise, the authors claim that the “Western” church “often equates comfort with God’s blessing,” and “sees suffering as evidence of some disruption with one’s relationship with God” (271). Now, it is true that many American Christians have almost no understanding of suffering. On the other hand, I ask, how can you generalize that way about the “Western” church? When my wife and I joined OMF in 1975, we were told to make out our wills and to expect suffering and even death, even though we were going to a relatively “safe” place. In our first term, we were taught by senior missionaries that missionary “success” must come through “hard work and suffering.” Our daughter, who is a “Millennial,” frequently tells me of books and blogs by her contemporaries on how to deal with suffering.

Second, Chinese Christians are equally prone to see comfort and prosperity as expected outcomes of believing in Christ. A few years ago, a prominent observer of the church in China said, “Millions of Chinese Christians are one unanswered prayer away from losing their faith.” This may be even more true in Taiwan and the Diaspora. I’ve seen it many times.

This kind of generalization occurs again in the claim that “Western thought patterns revolve around finding the right program, technique, or method” (216). I’m sure this is true in many cases, but I also know of many exceptions.

Another false dichotomy: Quoting Colin Gunton, the authors posit a contrast between “a logical conception of the relationship between God and the world with a personal one.” 33 Though this statement sounds appealing to post-modern sensibilities, it makes no sense when examined closely. It mixes categories. We need not put logical and personal in opposition to each other. The opposite of logical is illogical, and of personal is impersonal. After all, the authors use countless logical – and very persuasive! - arguments to propound their “relational” paradigm!

There are other statements that posit distinctions that aren’t apparent or convincing, such as an alleged distinction between “reality” and “truth” (119-120) and the sharp contrast between communication that imparts information and communication that “carries experiences” (184). The problem here is the “experiences,” though not limited to language and information, are “carried” largely through information, such as – to use their example – the “newest slang” of a group.

Lack of theological precision shows up also in the statement that “the pre-eminent truth is God’s unity.” 36 This is an attempt to avoid tri-theism, apparently, but in doing so it makes an unnecessary choice. Actually, the pre-eminent truth about God is that he is three in one.

The survey of philosophy is necessarily brief and not necessary for the overall argument. The definition of “realism” is too simple to be useful.

The chart on page 126 puts the fruit of the Spirit and trusting God in obedient lifestyle in the “hope” column; these would seem to go better under “faith.” “Hope” in biblical terms refers to our future hope.

The authors repeat the increasingly common view that “the Gospel can just as accurately be described as taking away our shame and replacing it with the honor of being adopted into God’s household” as through the forensic model of forgiveness of sins for those who have broken God’s law (269). Though honor and shame are mentioned in the Bible, the so-called “forensic model” lies at the heart of the biblical doctrine of salvation, as many studies have shown; it cannot be just one of several ways of communicating the gospel. It must be are pre-eminent “model,” if we are to honor the consistent testimony of Scripture.

I have critiqued the “honor/shame” model advocated by Jackson Wu in a two-part review that can be found at http://www.globalchinacenter.org/analysis/reviews/saving-gods-face-a-chinese-contextualization-of-salvation-through-honor-and-shame.php (Strengths); and http://www.globalchinacenter.org/analysis/reviews/weaknesses-in-general-wu-makes.php (Weaknesses).

Conclusion: This is a must-read book

Despite these weaknesses, Relational Missionary Training should be required reading for all those engaged in teaching or training people for same-culture or cross-cultural ministry. That would be all faculty and administrators in all seminaries, especially those engaged in missiology and training future missionaries.

As I have said several times, this brief review only hints at the complexity, depth, and brilliance of this comprehensive treatment of an essential part of the ministry of the church. I have only highlighted a few points out of several hundred that deserve careful thought.

In particular, the way the authors have synthesized and outlined the results of the best scholarship on almost all aspects of both ministry and training for ministry is a matter for profound admiration.

If the argument of this book was seriously pondered and the implications applied to theological and missionary education at all levels, I believe that we would see dramatically better results, to the glory of God and the building of the Church of Jesus Christ.