Mission From the Margins: Selected Writings from the Life and Ministry of David A. Shank
ed. James Krabill. Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, co-published with Herald Press, 2010. 351 pages.
The three sections of Mission From the Margins offer a synopsis of Shank’s life and work from several sources. The first section opens with long-time associate Wilbert Shenk offering readers advice on reading David Shank, continues with Shank’s four children reminiscing about growing up as MKs, and ends with missiologist James Krabill reflecting on “apprenticing” with the Shanks in their parallel missions in Africa. Section two autobiographically details Shank’s whole “pilgrimage in mission.” The much longer third section consists of selected essays from Shank’s considerable volume of missiological output over his lengthy career. The book also includes an extensive bibliography of Shank’s writings.
When the Shanks arrived in largely secular Belgium in 1950, they found a plethora of mostly small denominations, including Catholics, the liberal Union of Protestant Churches, and various evangelical churches. Shank actively sought to work collaboratively with these churches even as he was initially rebuffed by the “respectable” Protestant state-churches for being of the Mennonite “sect” (39).
Although these involvements served as an entry into Belgian society, the Shanks’ main purpose was that “of planting congregations in post-Christian [European] society” (44). This did not mean replicating American Mennonite churches. Rather, the Shanks understood “that the Spirit works with people where they are, and that the church develops wherever Christ is present . . .” (41). In Western individualistic society, in “a people shaped . . . by modern science, technology, and media,” and “where faith and religion are seen to be strictly private matters . . .” (83), the gospel would need to meet this very culture, and Shank believed the Spirit was able to raise Christ’s church there.
Further, the Shanks consciously sought to infuse within the new churches the “four broad Anabaptist accents of discipleship, fellowship, the service of nonviolent love, and mission” (41). As they concluded their European chapter, Shank registered a considerable list “on the ‘successful’ side of two decades.” But he also names “all that failed” during their ministry there (194–95).
In 1966 Shank met with two “pacifist” Kimbanguist church leaders of an African Initiated Church (AIC) passing through Brussels (51). “I was marked for life by these contacts,” Shank would recall later (296). Belgium’s Protestant church leaders were not interested in relating to the AICs (51), as they (not unlike Mennonites) were considered sectarian at best and heretical at worst. After an interim time of studies in the United States and in Scotland, the Shanks agreed to serve in French West Africa on the invitation of the AICs (1979-89). This meant a major shift for Shank “from the dechristianizing ethos of western Europe to the christianizing context of sub-Saharan Africa” (296), its ethos being one of “African solidarity . . . , where faith is conditioned by the extended family and peoplehood” (83).
It is remarkable that at the time of a widespread moratorium on (Western) missions (300), the Mennonite Board of Missions received an invitation from the AICs to help them grow in their understanding of Christianity and God’s word. As in Europe, the Shanks, rather than seeking to make Mennonites of the AICs, trusted the Spirit’s work among them; they only wished to help them to be faithful in their context by facilitating knowledge of the Bible.
One of the best-kept secrets which is revealed in this book is the crucial contribution John Howard Yoder made from 1959 onward in devising a positive strategy for recognizing AICs as “authentic churches” and working with them. “The key,” for Yoder, “is a fundamental respect for the reality and the reliability of the work of the Spirit of Christ in the local congregation, whatever the educational level of the minister or the moral achievements of its members” (315). Thus, when other denominations still rejected them (251), Yoder saw AICs as Africa’s “free churches” whose critique of the Constantinian aspects in dominant mission churches should be heard. Most valuable is the inclusion in the book of Yoder’s extensive correspondence (311-36), which was intended to mentor African mission workers in developing a constructive strategy for respectfully working alongside AICs and responding to their requests for biblical teaching in multiple countries. Shank was often called on by the Harrists to share his vast knowledge of their founding prophet, and was frequently asked by various AICs to facilitate the pursuit of more Bible knowledge. This, in turn, led to a growing ecumenicity among various AICs through Bible conferences and increasing interaction with each other.
Mission from the Margins is indeed a missiological treasure, addressing the challenges of both missions in the secularized West and in the religiously alive continent of Africa. It will have wide appeal for missions/evangelism courses, mission and service workers, church historians, and church groups.