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October 1977 · Vol. 6 No. 4 · pp. 32–38 

Book Review

Gemeindewachstum als missionarisches Ziel

Hans Kasdorf. Bad Liebenzell, Germany: Verlag der Liebenzeller Mission, 1976.

Reviewed by Peter M. Hamm

Here are two volumes on missions, written by Mennonite Brethren, that deserve careful attention. From the outset these books have found a readership far (and perhaps primarily) beyond the denominational boundaries of their authors. Peters’ work is uniquely his own, a product of years of studying and teaching missions. Kasdorf’s work is the result of his concern to transmit the views of a new school of missionary strategy, which he has unapologetically espoused, to a German audience. Both volumes wrestle with theology of missions—Peters’ explicitly so and Kasdorf’s more by way of background to facilitate an understanding of church growth as a goal of missions. Both volumes deal also practically with the task of missions. These recent, readable additions to mission bibliography have placed Mennonite Brethren into the heart of the discussion of mission theology and practice during the last quarter of this century. The one represents the seasoned scholarship of a veteran of missions, the other the debut into a world of growing missionary literature. Despite their common elements, the books will be found in distinctly separate shelves in one’s missions library—one in theology, the other in strategy.

As Jack Shepherd states in the Foreword to Peters’ work, probably no specifically missionary book has ever undertaken as profound and comprehensive a treatment of the subject as this one. The author’s unapologetic stance within the evangelical conservative position makes his contribution all the more significant. Peters makes clear his own view on the centrality and authority of the Bible. Peters prefers not to engage in polemics. Instead, he allows his own distillation of theology, biblical saturation, and missionary passion to filter through these pages. His own inimitable style repeatedly comes to the fore. One wishes, though, that the reader could have been spared some of the unnecessary repetition and lengthy and choppy sentences such as this description of the plight of man: “His maimed, paralyzed, blighted, darkened, blinded, enslaved, fearing, dreading, hating, {33} fleeing, scheming, and plotting condition and attitude make man the most miserable and the most dangerous of all creatures” (p. 77).

In keeping with his view that the Bible must be interpreted christocentrically, Peters discusses in part one the “Biblical Foundation of Missions,” averring that “Christ, indeed, has world significance—not because Christianity has made Him such, but because biblical Christianity incarnates Him.” Having portrayed the universality of Christ and shown Him to be missionary, Peters proceeds with “missionary theology and the nature of God” to demonstrate the theocentricity, rather than anthro-cosmo-ecclesio-centricity, of missions. God the Father is depicted as a God of relationships—not mere deist and isolationist, but spirit, light, and love. This has missionary implications. Again, Peters focuses strongly on God the Son as “outgoing or missionary,” especially in the “incarnation-cross-resurrection event.” He views this as one of the principles of salvation rooted in eternity and actualized in time. God the Holy Spirit is also outgoing in a uniquely soteriological way and transcends the “cloak and escapism” of other religions. At the very heart of Peters’ “biblical theology of missions” are the chapters on missionary theology and the Old and New Testaments. Dividing revelation into three rather arbitrary blocks—racial (Gen. 1-11), national (time of Israel), and ecclesiological (time of the New Testament church), Peters elucidates the missionary themes which are implicit in these divisions. After rightly showing the universal missionary strains in the protoevangelium (Gen. 3:15) and the Noachian covenant, he accentuates the new epoch in the history of salvation introduced with the particularism of Genesis 12. The overarching universality continues in patriarchal, Mosaic, Davidic, and prophetic eras which followed. Having begun his theology with the Christ event, Peters’ chapter on missionary theology and New Testament is limited to a discussion of the apostolic motivation and vision, but he does restate his over-arching theme of universality in Paul’s life and writings. It is not clear to this reader, however, why he views Acts as “horizontal” and the epistles as “vertical.” Is it another convenient typology which confuses more than clarifies?

In the “Biblical Delineation of Missions,” which constitutes Part Two, Peters defines the missionary task as spiritual (“a battle in the realm of the Spirit”) and as biblical (“a sound Bible teacher will also be a missions teacher, for missions is embedded in the total thrust of the Word of God”), but also as a task of faith (one must believe the “absoluteness, finality, exclusiveness, universality and individuality of the Gospel of God”) and a human task (man lives in society and within a culture—the “Evangelical Christian to a great extent has underestimated this vital fact”). The task is embodied in a twofold mandate, the cultural and the spiritual. Central to Israel’s mandate is {34} “evangelization, discipleship training, church-planting, church care, and benevolent ministries.” Lest he be charged with a truncated gospel, Peters acknowledges the church’s concern for the whole man, but makes the priority of the spiritual mandate unambiguously clear. No doubt, there are those who will view Peters’ statement of the twofold mandate as too dichotomous.

Peters deals with the interpretation of the Great Commission at length, endorsing its authenticity, declaring its scope, affirming the need for balance between “preaching” and “discipling,” and appealing for obedience to it. Yet he correctly guards against rooting missions in the Commission itself. “The Great Commission does not make Christianity a missionary religion; it is such because of the character and purpose of God.”

In a further chapter on “The Church and Missions,” Peters’ Anabaptist heritage helps him to view the church as a living organism, rather than a “visible, hierarchical, institutional structure.” Its supreme and primary task, according to Peters, is the preservation, interpretation and communication of the good news; the pietistic notion of being a Christian is insufficient. The free church tradition has, moreover, enabled a view of the church as independent of the state. “Christian presence” has true relevance only in its biblical context and cannot be divorced from Christian proclamation. While the Bible does not prescribe or proscribe a given type of sending agency, Peters finds biblical principles which bear upon the mission organization. He rightly cautions against missionless churches and churchless mission societies. Finally, in church-mission relationships, Peters espouses the idealistic approach of a partnership of mutuality and equality between sending and receiving churches.

In a final section on “Biblical Instruments and Dynamics of Missions” Peters applies the theology to the realm of the practical. Based on careful word studies of the New Testament mission personnel, Peters views the evangelists as the contemporary successors to the apostles and the pastor-teachers as successors to the prophets. He reserves the noun “missionary” for evangelists or pastor-teachers sent across national and/or cultural and religious lines to occupy new frontiers for gospel proclamation and church planting. He is persuaded of the permanency of the missionary order and holds to a unique call to the ministry of the word. Readers may not agree with his rather restrictive view of those “called” to the ministry, but they will appreciate the guidelines for discerning one’s gifts and God’s will for one’s life and his understanding of the biblical qualifications of a missionary. In treating the practical dimension Peters’ own involvement in missions, both as researcher-teacher and administrator-Board member, enables him to wrestle with the current issues which confront {35} pastors, missionaries, and especially young people who wish to consider missionary service as a vocation.

His final, more theological chapter, roots missions in the historical Pentecost event yet illustrates the dynamics of contemporary missions in its existential consequences. The Holy Spirit initiates, motivates, and superintends world missions and gives the gospel of God its distinctive supracredal and supracultural character. Only in conclusion does Peters engage in what is to missions the most crucial theological debate: the relationship of the gospel to non-Christian religions. Beyond summarizing a variety of approaches to the question and merely stating a “biblical ideology,” his actual treatment is disappointingly meagre and leaves unanswered the urgent questions posed by the rival religions and theologies. What is important to Christian missions, however, is the urgency of his final appeal, a proclamation he chooses to designate as “an emergency.” His theology has fired rather than smothered his missionary zeal. Peters effectively succeeds in further kindling the flame of missionary passion in the process of developing a comprehensive Biblical theology.

When I next teach a course on the theology of missions, Peters’ work will be on my required reading list, not only to honor a Mennonite Brethren missiologist, but because the book, in a unique manner, sheds inspiring light on this inquiry.

Kasdorf’s Gemeindewachstum als missonarisches Ziel blends a fair articulation of the unique thrust of a particular school of thought with his own missionary vision and theological corrective. In the two introductory chapters, where Kasdorf outlines the church-growth movement, he provides a fine summary of McGavran’s and Tippett’s theses, though with virtually no reference (except for Charles Kraft) to other members of the institute. Demonstrating that this movement is rooted in the conviction that both quantitative and qualitative church growth are necessary, Kasdorf traces the beginnings of the movement at the Eugene, Oregon and Pasadena, California campuses and singles out three of the most fundamental theses of McGavran: 1) that the church grows most rapidly through sociologically homogenous units, 2) that most responsive areas are the ripened harvests, and 3) that the Christianization process occurs through discipling and nurture. While developing the perspectives of the church growth school, Kasdorf carefully distinguishes between the supracultural God and culture-bound man. He pleads for a balance between proclamation and presence, and calls attention to the essential instruments to measure empirically the components of growth.

In Part Two Dr. Kasdorf skillfully weaves his own theological understanding into the McGavran thesis of quantitative and qualitative growth. Writing in his mother-tongue, Kasdorf eloquently—almost in {36} sermonic fashion—exegetes the familiar Great Commission passages and articulates an Anabaptist understanding of the church. He remains silent, however, on the fundamental contradiction between McGavran’s truncated “discipling” and the 16th century Anabaptist understanding of holistic discipleship, spelling out a concept of missions reflecting more his own thorough acquaintance with German missiologists (especially Gustav Warneck) than his identity with McGavran’s thesis. Kasdorf recognizes not only the misconceptions of the term “mission” but also the subtle changes which pluralistic ideologies impose on mission slogans of today. Perhaps Kasdorf reads more into these slogans than is warranted, since some of the pursuits of these “liberal” theologies are also legitimate concerns of a biblical theology of missions. Through this discussion, though, Kasdorf makes emphatically clear his own evangelical stance with a priority on conversion and redemption over humanization. This is reflected in his review of the classical understanding of mission and his analysis of the Biblical notion of mission. Kasdorf views the mission societies of the ecclesiola in ecclesia as second best; the ideal is to have the church carry out the mandate of missions. In a separate chapter he distinguishes evangelism from missions, traces the recent renewal in world evangelism in post-Edinburgh (1910) conferences, and sides with Packer and Moffatt rather than with Hoekendijk in enunciating an adequate understanding of evangelism—evangelism that leads to conversion rather than merely expressing itself in service. Such evangelism mobilizes laity, energizes church life, and leads to the church’s growth. No doubt Kasdorf’s sharp separation of evangelism and mission will find its opponents. Whereas his own view of Biblical conversion cannot be faulted for its radical demands of change, Kasdorf fails to demand the same radical change, accompanied by a true knowledge of God, awareness of self, and consciousness of sin, in McGavran’s notion of discipling and the fruits of conversion.

In a final section Kasdorf seeks to implement a practical application of the theoretical framework provided by McGavran’s notion and his own theological base. Unfortunately, while the examples of church growth taken from Cook’s Historic Patterns fit the quantitative dimension of McGavran’s thesis, they do not adequately measure up to the qualitative ideal which Kasdorf himself has outlined in the previous chapters. Neither is there ample empirical data to verify such qualitative growth for his examples of American churches. Nonetheless, the principles of growth are not to be denied, even though the paradoxes have not been resolved. Questions such as, “Is a simple ‘exchange’ of tribal religion for Christianity an adequate explanation of growth in the face of the threat of another outside religious force?” remain.

Kasdorf’s model of growth in the primitive church is not only {37} more familiar, but also quite acceptable. Using the functionalist model of an organism, Kasdorf provides a diagnostic instrument to measure both the normative ideal (measuring up to the Anabaptist and Bonhoeffer models) and the empirical real. The survey questionnaire could be a useful tool for every North American church. Finally, Kasdorf applies the broader diagnostic technique to the local church, emphasizing the need to define membership, keep a statistical record, calculate rate of growth, determine the biological increase, compare the gains and the losses, and arrive at an analysis of the trend of growth. In a concluding chapter, he deals with hindrances and encouragements to church growth. On a personal level, growth is restricted by the desire for popularity, blinding sentimentality, and distorted priorities; on an ideological plane it is restricted by antiquated missionary ideals, humanistic preoccupation, an overlooking of the lostness of humanity, preoccupation with a minority complex, or the development of an imbalance in the “quantitative-qualitative” debate.

Kasdorf ends his work by reaffirming the underlying theme of his book—how to accelerate church growth. Once again he cites McGavran, whom, for all intents and purposes, he has ignored since the initial chapters. This (possibly intentional) omission confirms my strong suspicion that McGavran has spoken neither the first nor the last word on church growth. In fact, it appears to this reader that Kasdorf’s elaboration of McGavran’s notion, and a refusal to deal critically with it, suggests that his own thesis is more convincing than McGavran’s. By avoiding polemics, however, Kasdorf has allowed his own theological understanding and methodological application of church growth to predominate, in keeping with his primary theme: church growth is a goal of missions. In this he has eminently succeeded.

One might assess the contribution of these two works as follows:

1. Both authors, Peters and Kasdorf, provide a solid, Biblical-theological base for their understanding of the church’s mission. They firmly test their theology in the ongoing work of the church in a local or cross-cultural setting. Neither of their works, however, deals critically with current issues in mission theology or strategy. Despite this reluctance to enter into dialogue with contemporary spokesmen, the authors demonstrate a general awareness of current issues.

2. The writers, instead, eloquently present their primary concerns, namely, to demonstrate the strongly Biblical base for on-going missionary activity (Peters) and to argue forcefully that missions must have church growth as its goal (Kasdorf). Perhaps, in the end, their works will have more lasting impact because of their persistence in developing these specific emphases. {38}

3. In both instances, these authors convey an optimism and a hope for the Christian church. Their broad acquaintance with the history of Christian missions and their deeply-rooted faith in the God of missions has guarded them from the distortion and defeatism brought on by the demoralizing pessimism and the faulty myths that so rigorously tested missions in the last few decades. Their works add a lustre to the growing body of persuasive literature for this new social science—missiology.

4. On a practical level, these books offer solid information, wholesome inspiration, and practical orientation for prospective and seasoned missionaries, pastors and teachers, those interested in missions generally and in evangelical missions particularly. Though these works stand on their own, if they were supplemented by such a symposium as Wilbert Shenk’s, The Challenge of Church Growth or Orlando Costas’ analysis, The Church and Its Mission: A Shattering Critique from the Third World, their use would be balanced and enhanced.

5. Finally, these two works have again placed Mennonite Brethren spokesmen into the centre of the worldwide discussion of theology and strategy of mission, making a contribution comparable to that of Jacob Loewen and Paul Hiebert in missionary anthropology. We owe a debt of thanks to these trailblazers in missions. The smallest token of thanks would be to read their works.

Peter M. Hamm
Asst. Prof. of Contemporary Ministries and Sociology
Mennonite Brethren Bible College

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