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Spring 1999 · Vol. 28 No. 1 · pp. 101–12 

The Priority of Mission for Renewal of the Church

Wilbert R. Shenk

Renewal of the church is an urgent priority for churches the world over. Among Protestant Christians the theme of reformation, revival, or renewal is common coin. Indeed, “reformation” is integral to Protestant identity historically and theologically. But in the late twentieth century all ecclesiastical traditions in the West recognize the need for renewal. Furthermore, most churches in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, founded as a result of the modern mission movement, are now several generations old. The vitality and commitment of the first and second generations are not being reproduced in the third and fourth generations, and these churches now face the numbing effect of nominality.

Authentic renewal will only come with a return to the theological roots of the church in Scripture along with missionary engagement of its culture.

This should not surprise us since the model and practice of church taken to Asia, Africa, and Latin America was that of Christendom, and nominality has cropped up wherever Western missions have gone. Describing the situation in East Africa at the turn of the twentieth century, scarcely a generation after the first Christian missionaries arrived, Roland Oliver noted that “if missionaries found that belief in Christian doctrines came easily to Africans, they soon discovered also how difficult and foreign was the practice of Christian morality.” 1

It made little difference whether the message bearer was Roman Catholic or Protestant. German Pietists and British Evangelicals, who {102} emphasized personal conversion, were no more successful than Catholics and Scottish Presbyterians, working with a pedagogical model of mission, in preventing African converts from lapsing into culture Christianity within the first generation after the coming of the missions.

What is not well established is the linkage between mission and renewal. Historians are familiar with the way the Evangelical revival of the eighteenth century was seedbed for the modern mission movement; but these are generally treated as independent variables. The one has to do with revivifying the spiritual life of the individual whereas the other is concerned with motivating individuals to offer themselves for cross-cultural ministry.


For churches in the historical heartland of Christendom, the challenge of renewal is enormous. A fundamental question that must be answered at the outset is how we are to conceptualize renewal. The typical reaction when the subject of the renewal of the church is broached is that the urgent need is to stanch the widely reported decline in membership, boost sagging contributions, or make worship more engaging. I submit that these are all secondary considerations—possible symptoms but hardly the root cause.

Genuine renewal is concerned with something more fundamental: Renewal becomes a priority concern when the church has ceased to engage its culture missionally, so that its presence in society no longer invites people into a reconciled relationship with God, and it has ceased to witness against injustice and unrighteousness.

To begin to envision a church renewed and prepared to face the future is to do so in relation to a particular cultural context and the missional challenge posed by that context. The church does not exist in the abstract or in general. It is always situated in particular cultures. Neither was the church instituted to pursue its own interests. Renewal that is not linked to the raison d’etre of the church lacks rootage and will wither. In North America and Europe this means we must take stock of the relationship of the church to modern culture and how the church can engage this culture missionally.

Here I will argue that renewal will not come by way of incremental revisions of structures and liturgies inherited from the past, nor will renewal be realized by modulating dissonances between culture and church. And neither can it be achieved by urging the restoration of the original New Testament pattern or by appealing for the reinvigoration of tradition, regardless of how noble that particular variety may have been. {103} All of these are important but each falls short of what is required. Authentic renewal will combine a return to the theological roots of the church in Scripture with missionary engagement of its culture.


The rise and flowering of modern culture coincided with the decline and disintegration of historical Christendom. The unfolding relationship of the church and modern culture is of great importance if we are to understand where we are today. Not only is the church in crisis; modernity itself increasingly shows signs of aging and of being superseded by a new stage in culture. In other words we face a double crisis: ecclesial and cultural. 2

Modernity began as a European phenomenon, but it has become global. No part of the world today remains untouched by the forces of modernization. Modernity marks the breakup of traditional society and its displacement by the new. The hallmark of modernity has been its relentless drive for innovation. Due to the extensiveness and intensiveness of modernity, traditional societies have been unable to insulate themselves against the forces of modernization. Neither at the societal nor at the personal level has a shield of protection been found.

The Enlightenment shaped the modern worldview with its strong emphasis on human rationality, a historical watershed which redefined the way all other aspects of modern culture, including religion, would henceforth be understood. “The Enlightenment is the high point at which the integrated religious worldview is confronted with an integrated secular worldview, the presuppositions of which are mutually exclusive,” argues Wolfgang Schluchter. 3

The Enlightenment was imbued with a strong sense of missionary purpose and the philosophers believed the fruits and benefits of this movement would redound to the improved wellbeing of all humankind. Although some intellectuals early saw that modernity had a dark side, they believed the promise of open-ended scientific and technological progress outweighed the baleful effects of industrialization, urbanization, the factory system, and mass production—all fruits of modernity. After World War I the tide turned. The ambiguities of modernity became a major theme in intellectual discourse.

Three salient factors have characterized the dynamism of modernity: (1) the separation of time and space, (2) the disembedding of social systems, and (3) the reflexive ordering and reordering of social relations. 4

Separation of Time and Space

Peoples have always had ways of measuring time, but each ethnic {104} group had its own method. The concept of time and how it was measured were linked to a particular place and people. All time was “local”; it was “our” time. “When” was tied to “where.” The introduction of the mechanical clock changed all this. Time and space could now be separated at will and deployed instrumentally. The mechanical clock could be used by anyone anywhere.

This innovation was soon augmented by the introduction of the calendar and standardized time zones worldwide. Time and space were thereby emptied of their traditional meaning and separated from one another. Human activities could now be conducted without reference to place. Abstract and distant forces were now able to act upon the local without any apparent relationship. Time and space were instruments of production.

Disembedding of Social Systems

Similarly, modernity has severed the traditional connection between social relations and the local contexts in which they were formed and embedded, restructuring social relations without reference to particular time-space. This signifies not simply “differentiation” and “functional specialization.” The relationship between time and space has been fundamentally disrupted by the use of key mechanisms. Money and expert systems are two such mechanisms that have been used to disembed social systems. The modern monetary system enables international trading between multiple parties who will never meet. 5

Transactions are conducted without regard to the social dimension. Similarly, modern life is highly dependent on a host of expert systems—delivering everything from high-speed air travel to mass communications to pharmaceuticals—any one of which is understood by only a small number of experts. Systems of professional ethical codes and consumer protection regulations intervene to guarantee a measure of safety to users of these goods and services; but it is assumed these systems of expertise require anonymity rather than face-to-face relationships typical of traditional societies.

Reflexive Ordering and Reordering

At no point is the shift from traditional to modern society more apparent than in the changed locus of authority for making decisions. Traditional cultures value the past and decisions are made in light of how the present can be made to conform to historical precedent. Modernity reverses the perspective. It demands continual reflection and evaluation with an eye to bringing actions into line with the future. The future {105} is the source of authority. New information and projections into the future become authoritative. But this is inherently destabilizing. Facts are continuously scrutinized and treated with skepticism until “proven.” Nothing remains settled; new possibilities are always being canvassed.

These powerful forces have shaped the modern consciousness that has displaced traditional ways of understanding and interpreting reality. People look to the future rather than tradition. Doubt and skepticism have been institutionalized. Knowledge grows through a process of continual revision, insistently discarding what seems not to have worked, incorporating new data. The dynamics of modernity are centrifugal, ever moving outward. Culture is in continual flux.

Apart from the far-reaching and fundamental changes modernity has introduced into the modern economy and production processes, it has also resulted in extensive changes in human relations and institutions, including religion. What effect has modernity had on the church? How has the church responded?


The present crisis cries out for a courageous and prophetic response on the part of the church. One example from which we can learn is that of Karl Rahner. In the 1960s Rahner began speaking of the church of the future in light of the European context. 6

He spelled out his vision of the church of the future bearing in mind (1) present Roman Catholic reality, especially its hierarchical structure and elaborate institutionalization devised to ensure control, (2) the main trends in modern culture, especially the growing suspicion of authority and institutions, and (3) the expectation that increasingly moribund traditional ecclesiastical institutions and patterns would be replaced by the emergence of new forms of church appropriate to the evolving context, namely, “little flocks” of lay people in local communities. Rahner regarded traditional hierarchical superstructures to be increasingly irrelevant to actual ecclesial life. 7

Rahner’s discussion points up two key issues which must concern us: (1) the changed social location of the church in modern culture, and (2) ecclesial institutionalization and the need for reform.

The Changed Social Location of the Church in Modern Culture

Until about 1970 sociologists had a ready explanation of secularization and religion. The process of secularization was irreversible and immutable. Religion had no future; the future belonged to secularization. {106} 8

In the years since, a new generation of studies has attempted to explain the surprising persistence of religion in spite of secularization. The earlier straight line linking the inevitable triumph of secularization to the demise of religion got lost in the thicket of empirical evidence. The effects of secularization were clearly visible in modern culture, but religion continued to survive, and even thrive.

Nonetheless, the institutional church has steadily lost status over the past several hundred years. The church no longer plays an authoritative and prominent role in public life, and millions of people in the West, particularly in Europe, have formally disaffiliated themselves from the church. What is more, the way the church functions in the lives of those who remain members has also been changing.

Robert Wuthnow has elucidated the changing role of religion in the United States. Wuthnow summarizes his main findings:

Many religious beliefs and practices remain much in evidence, contrary to simpler predictions that have envisioned a sheer decline in religious vitality. These beliefs and practices may have retained their vitality in fact by accommodating to the contemporary cultural situation. In becoming more oriented to the self, in paying more explicit attention to symbolism, in developing a more flexible organizational style, and in nurturing specialized worship experiences American religion has become more complex, more internally differentiated, and thus more adaptable to a complex, differentiated society. 9

The wider social forces noted above have deeply affected religion with the result it has adapted to prevailing cultural trends, and the interest in symbolic representation has led to greater subjectivity and individualism in religious experience. Consequently, “religious expression has become increasingly differentiated from traditional religious institutions.” 10 Denominational loyalties continue to erode and ecclesiastical traditions are losing significance for many people. A growing group of people describe themselves as religious but are not active in a church or synagogue.

Furthermore, it is taken for granted that in the public realm, in view of the growing cultural and religious pluralism of modern national societies, only a secular ethos is appropriate and viable. Secularism may have lost much of its appeal, but the secularization process has fundamentally changed society by claiming the dominant place for the secular and relegating religion to the backwaters.

The church in modern culture has been on the defensive for several {107} centuries, grieving its loss of social position and power. Whether it was ever in the best interest of the church to have had this role is not under debate here. We only note that this changed social location in the modern period has taken its toll in terms of loss of morale and identity. If we are to think constructively about renewal of the church, we need to recognize the gravity of this historical development.

Ecclesial Institutionalization and Reform

The issue of institutions (understood as major structures and organizations) in society was moved to front and center of public life in the turbulent 1960s. It is still there. Modern society is an endless complex of institutions. A widespread perception is that institutions are not serving society well because of inefficiency and bureaucratic red tape. One aspect of our situation that ought to be understood better is the way in which institutions come into conflict with one another—contradicting and working at cross-purposes—rather than relating in mutually-reinforcing ways. Although government institutions bear the brunt of this public censure, the church shares in this blame.

Modern culture raises two issues in relation to institutions. First, a central value in modern culture is the autonomy of the individual. Increasingly, this value has been equated with individual rights. The modern response has been to challenge and throw off all constraints on the individual, especially institutions of society. Second, modern people have misunderstood what an institution is and does. At every level, from membership in a family to being citizens of a nation, all members of modern society depend on a wide range of institutions. As Robert Bellah puts it, “we live through institutions.” 11 To some extent, the widespread hostility to institutions is misdirected and self-defeating.

The institutionalization of an activity is of critical importance. If a form is appropriate, it will undergird group goals. But if an institutional form is archaic or dysfunctional, it will thwart participation. For example, organizations or groups that insist on hierarchical structures in late modern culture are communicating a clear message: the priority is protecting and preserving authority in order to maintain control. In a culture where these values are suspect, such a group is likely to attract and hold only the minority who share these values.

Accordingly, Karl Rahner assumed the church of the future would be institutionalized largely by lay people who would take a great deal of responsibility for the life of the church at the primary level. The issue here is not that the church ought to reflect cultural values in order to gain acceptance. Rather institutional forms are needed that undergird the life {108} and witness of the church. Institutionalization ought to be appropriate to the activity it is intended to enable.


Over the past generation a wide range of studies of the condition of the church in modern culture have been produced. Parallel to these studies various strategies for church renewal have also been offered. These renewal strategies fall into essentially four groups: (1) reaffirm tradition, (2) restructure the church, (3) “mainstream” the church, and (4) restore the primitive model of church. I will characterize each option in terms of the assumed primary source of renewal and its goal and then evaluate briefly. Finally, (5) I will propose an alternative strategy of missionary engagement.

Reaffirm Tradition

The source of renewal for this strategy is ecclesiastical identity, while the goal of renewal is the preservation of the church. The strength of this option is its clarity and logic. It calls for the church to be renewed by recapturing the genius and integrity of its tradition. It appeals to the past for authority in adjudicating change. While the church is semper reformanda, reformation means recovery within the tradition. 12

Renewal is necessary to preserve the church but this is primarily a matter of spirituality. The thrust of this option is inward and ecclesio-centric, defending and promoting tradition. Historically, fresh thrusts in mission have occurred at those points where traditional patterns have been breached in order that new possibilities might be attempted. Indeed, tradition has been a great inhibiter of missionary obedience.

Restructure the Church

For this approach, the source of renewal is efficient and effective ecclesiastical organization, while the goal of renewal is a streamlined church. This option is sensitive to the fact that structures do become sterile. In a culture that values efficiency, ineffective structures discredit the church. To be a credible and effective witness in society, the church needs to maintain up-to-date structures.

Experience indicates that restructuring per se, however, is not sufficient to bring about renewal. The past fifty years of restructuring can, in fact, be correlated with decline. Restructuring does little to stimulate vision and commitment in the church. Most people recognize that the church is not simply an organization competing for a share of the market. {109}

“Mainstream” the Church

The source of renewal here is culture, while the goal of renewal is the church actively participating in culture. In its heyday, a key commitment of Liberalism was to cooperate fully with the culture, undergirding and supporting social uplift and advance. In this view the church was most effective when it adapted itself to the cultural mainstream. Renewal of the church meant finding the place of the church in culture. Today “mainstreaming the church” is taking other forms. In a culture where religion is one among many commodities, the church is being packaged and marketed in socially acceptable terms.

Dean R. Hoge has revisited the Kelley thesis (1972) and confirmed that “denominations most embedded in the surrounding culture are most subject to favorable or unfavorable shifts in that culture.” 13 In other words, the “culturally embedded” church is reactive and lacks the motivation to be a distinctive presence in society.

Restore the Primitive Church

The source of renewal for this strategy is the primitive/apostolic model, while the goal of renewal is replication of the original church. The restorationist option has played an enduring role in Christian history. Rather than focusing on an ecclesiastical tradition, restorationist movements seek to return to the pristine model of the apostolic church. Many so-called “free church” movements have been based on this vision of a restored New Testament church. 14

A fundamental problem with this option is its ahistorical stance. It attempts to bypass historical contingency. It ignores or denies that God the Holy Spirit has been active in the church in the past, regardless of how imperfectly the church has responded. We can never escape our historical situatedness by returning to an ideal past. Instead we must come to terms with our present under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Missionary Engagement

Finally, a fifth strategy takes as its premise that the church has been constituted by Jesus Christ for mission. The source of its renewal is missio Dei—God’s mission—while the goal of renewal is an intensified witness to the reign of God. It understands the latter as a recovery of the church’s raison d’etre. But this is not simply to return to the past. The founding of the church was linked to its purpose in relation to the world in which the church was located. The church exists for the missio Dei on behalf of the world. Authentic renewal will be manifested in intensified witness in the world to the reign of God. This must be the clue that guides {110} the (re)institutionalization of the church at a particular moment in history.

We make this assertion at the outset in order to counteract the prevailing ecclesio-centric understanding that Roger Haight has described as the “established” church. 15 By “established” Haight means “a theological category which characterizes a church whose mission has ceased; an established church is at peace within society and content with and in its own forms and inner life.” 16 Haight argues that “mission” is the constitutive symbol for the church. The “mission” symbol is not to be equated with concepts such as model or image. “The symbol ‘mission’ is not a type, not a paradigm, not simply a disclosive image. It is not a theology or a description of a theology but the basis for a theology.” 17 Models, images, and paradigms must be validated in light of their responsiveness to this constitutive symbol.

Because the church was constituted for mission to the world, the criterion by which we will evaluate its vitality is whether the church remains missionally engaged with the world. Mission focuses on the primal alienation between humankind and God, and between humans. At the heart of mission is the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:11-21) and witness to the reign of God. The church is that community earnestly seeking, albeit imperfectly, to embody the justice/righteousness of God’s new order.

Missionary engagement acknowledges the priority of context over structure. In the apostolic model of witness the “other” is invited to set the terms of interaction—whether it be an appeal for healing, exorcism, or the solution to a perplexing issue. The presence of the ambassador is essential in making such an exchange possible at all; but whether it takes place depends on the attitude and initiative of the other. Giving priority to context in contemporary culture implies two things: (1) that an agenda reflecting the heart-cries of this culture will emerge, drawing us into compassionate response to the world, and (2) that reading Scripture in light of the angst of contemporary culture will draw us into the Word along new lines.


  1. Roland Oliver, The Missionary Factor in East Africa (London: Longmans, 1952), 208. {111}
  2. See Peter L. Berger, “From the Crisis of Religion to the Crisis of Secularity,” in Religion and America: Spirituality in a Secular Age, ed. Mary Douglas and Stephen M. Tipton (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983), 14-24.
  3. Wolfgang Schluchter, “The Future of Religion,” in Religion and America, 68.
  4. This section follows Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 1990), chap. 1.
  5. In a review of Jack Weatherford, The History of Money (New York: Crown, 1996), Robert Heilbroner quotes the author: “Coin and paper account for about eight percent of all the dollars in the world. The rest are merely numbers in a ledger or tiny electronic blips on a computer chip . . . . The current electronic revolution in money promises to increase even more the role of money in our public and private lives, surpassing kinship, religion, occupation, and citizenship as the defining element of social life. We stand now at the dawn of the age of money” (Los Angeles Times Book Review, 16 February 1997, 12).
  6. See Karl Rahner, The Shape of the Church to Come, 2d ed. (New York: Crossroad, 1983).
  7. The Base Ecclesial Communities of Latin America have come the closest to fulfilling Rahner’s prediction. Such a reformation has yet to come to Europe.
  8. See Harvey Cox, The Secular City (New York: Macmillan, 1965).
  9. Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 305.
  10. Ibid., 301.
  11. Robert N. Bellah, et al., “Introduction,” in The Good Society (New York: Vintage Books, 1992).
  12. See John Bolt and Richard A. Muller, “Does the Church Today Need a New ‘Mission Paradigm?’ ” Calvin Theological Journal (April 1996), for an effective illustration of this traditional thrust: “The problem with the church’s evangelistic inadequacies is not the fault of an inadequate ecclesiology at all. It is a spiritual problem, not a structural one, and must be addressed not by reframing the church’s ecclesiology but by prayerfully seeking spiritual revival through forthright, bold evangelistic preaching. God’s people must have a change of heart and only the Word and Spirit can renew the church” (208; emphasis in original). Anyone who has struggled with the range of theological issues raised by cross-cultural ministry or who has knowledge of the social construction of reality will be less {112} confident than these authors of the immutability of historically-conditioned ecclesiastical forms, both conceptual and structural. In Matt. 9:16-17 Jesus warned against relying on old wineskins to hold new wine while it undergoes the necessary process of fermentation. The implication is that an old wineskin has served its generation but now lacks the suppleness to cope with the ferment the new generation must undergo to reach maturity. A new wineskin is required.
  13. Dean R. Hoge, Benton Johnson, and Donald A. Luidens, Vanishing Boundaries (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1994), 180-81.
  14. We lack an adequate label for these movements that include the Waldensians, Czech Brethren, Radical Reformation, Baptists, Campbellites/Restorationists, and Pentecostals. They have had in common the desire to throw off an ecclesiastical system they regarded as apostate and spiritually barren and to recover New Testament ecclesial reality.
  15. Roger Haight, “The ‘Established’ Church as Mission: The Relation of the Church to the Modern World,” The Jurist 1:2 (1979): 4-39.
  16. Ibid., 10, fn. 16.
  17. Ibid.
Wilbert Shenk is Professor of Mission History and Contemporary Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. He and professor Kasdorf have a lengthy association, including work together on the journal Mission Focus.
This essay was first published in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research 21:4 (Oct. 1997): 154-59, and is reprinted by permission in this revised form.

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