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Book Review: God's Missionary People - Charles Van Engen

Van Engen’s thesis of the book states the reason for calling the local church God’s missionary people most succinctly: “…as local congregations are built up to reach out in mission to the world, they will become in fact what they already are by faith: God’s missionary people” (p. 17). The entire book lays out and supports this thesis, namely, that God’s people, the church, are by very nature a missionary people – founded by mission and existing for mission.

My review of this book has led me to pursue the following ideas, concepts and questions:

  1. Why does Van Engen call the local church “God’s missionary people”?

Van Engen makes the point that the local church is in essence a band of missionaries, and that church and mission are interwoven. In fact, he quotes the International Missionary Council in saying that “…there is no participation in Christ without participation in his mission to the world” (p. 29). He continually makes this link by adding that “only as congregations intentionally live out their nature as the missionary people of God will the Church begin to emerge to become in fact what it is by faith” (p. 44).

He draws on Scripture to make the case for the link between church and mission, therefore making the Body of Christ, by nature, a missionary venture. In commenting on Acts 1:8 he poses this question:

“Could it not be that Jesus is telling his disciples that they are a certain kind of fellowship which in its essential nature is an ever-widening, mushrooming group of missionary witnesses?” (p. 42)

Van Engen is intentional about drawing the line between the exclusivity of many other organizations, and the inclusiveness of the church. He goes on to say that,

“The Church is not an exclusive club of privilege, neither is it a place to rest from our labors. We have been brought in so that we can gather others into this Kingdom of grace.” (p. 56)

He also makes the case that our identification with historical and universal Christianity necessitates a belief in the interconnectedness of church and mission by the very fact that ‘universal’ implies mission by its very nature. He states that “by the very act of confessing our faith in ‘one holy catholic Church, the communion of saints,’ we intentionally and unavoidably commit ourselves to participate in God’s mission to the world.” (p. 57)

Van Engen goes on to posit that the nature and essence of the church cannot be separated or distinguished from mission itself, therefore supporting his claim that God’s people are a missionary people. At one point he poses this question and answer:

“What is the Church? It is the unifying, sanctifying, reconciling, and proclaiming activity of Jesus Christ in the world. Mission cannot be something separate from or added to the essence of the Church. The essential nature of the local congregation is, in and of itself, mission, or else the congregation is not really the Church.” (p. 70)

  1. What does this book say it looks like for the local church to be God’s missionary people?

Van Engen articulates what it looks like for the local church to be God’s missionary people. Choosing to hover at the vision level, he doesn’t offer detailed and practical advice on what it looks like for a congregation to be moving towards a missional perspective, but he does give a good overview that can be fleshed out in a contextualized manner. He mentions several key indicators including love and fellowship / koinonia (p. 90-91), being for the world (p. 74), identification with the oppressed (p. 76), mission (p. 78), proclamation witness (p. 80), and yearning for numerical growth (p. 81). He also quotes W. Douglas Smith by mentioning the activity of a missionary people as being made up of “going, teaching, equipping, sending” (p. 42).

Confession and commission are seen as vital to the warp and woof of a missional congregation, and he notes that as Jesus’ disciples, we “cannot confess Jesus is Lord without at the same time proclaiming his lordship over all people. The implication of this intimate, inseparable connection between confession and commission is that the fulfilling of the commission to the world over which Christ is Lord is itself a mark of the missionary Church (see Phil. 2:9-11)” (p. 94). He also fleshes out what it looks like for this missionary congregation to fulfill its role as servant through witness, service and suffering (p. 95). As was noted, there cannot be detailed practices that can be immediately drawn out of Van Engen’s advice, but it would not take much to extrapolate golden gems of practice and patterns from this vision.

  1. According to this book, how can we become God’s missionary people?

In order to become a missional people, Van Engen recommends that “the church becomes mission in following the Lord as an apostolic community that is… proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom…” (p. 78). It is in proclaiming and being a witness that the church can live out specifically its calling to be a missional people. Practically speaking, a congregation can incorporate missional goals and plans (p. 143-144), have a biblical perspective of the church as the people of God (not laity) (p. 152), identify and develop missional leaders (p. 166-176), and have missional administration (p. 178-180). According to Van Engen, these all work together to support the missional infrastructure needed for both the implementation and evaluation of the church as mission.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it best when he noted that “the church is the church only when it exists for others” (p. 74). This is most prominent when the church is engaged in mission, for being engaged in mission the church lives out its very nature and essence – the called out people of God calling out others to join them in the mission of God. Mission is both impetus and goal. And as Johannes Blauw rightly noted, “it is exactly by going outside itself that the church is itself…” (p. 79). Van Engen’s book was helpful in that he supported well his arguments both from a historical perspective and a biblical/theological perspective.

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