Acts 29 just published my new article on Conversion and Contextualization: Re-examining our Expectations of Gospel Change
Okay, here are my thoughts on the so-called Missional Tree (I surprised no one has commented on this). The idea of a missional tree is pretty cool and potentially helpful; however, this tree is an incomplete, second generation tree. I realize that these books are practitioner oriented, with the exception of Guder, but there’s not one biblical theology of mission listed. What about Chris Wright’s landmark The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative or Stetzer and Hesselgrave’s forthcoming Mission: God’s Initiative in the World?
All the books listed here were published within the past ten years (and we need fresh publications like these). Missional theology has been in existence much longer. Look no further than Ed Stetzer’s fine historical work on the Meanings of Missional to uncover some of the missional greats. But before there was Stetzer and Guder there was Bosch, Walls, Hiebert, Kraft, Van Engen, etc. These missional redwoods tower over many of the books features in the missional tree, both in history and content. Consider this rich description of the missional church from Andrew Walls first published 20 years ago:
Christian faith is missionary both in its essence and in its history. At the heart of the Christian fiath lie assumptions about the Lord and the Ground of the uinverse and the common nature of humanity and affirmations about Jesus Christ that forbid its appropriation to any person, group or community as a private possession. The conviction that Jesus is Lord and the testimony that Christ is risen cannot mean that much unless they are to be shared. But both the faith of Christians and the nature of the church are missionary in a much deeper sense, more closely related to the “sending” idea from which the word “missionary” came…The mission of the church is not simply to add to itself but to bear witness that by his cross and resurrection Christ brought back the whole creation and defeated the powers that spoil it. In this sense all Christian life is missionary, as is the work of Christians and their commerce and habits of life, their art and music and every activity that demands choice.
If that isn’t deep and wide missiology, then I don’t know what is! Walls has influenced many missiologists. His first-hand experience in Africa outpaces the missional wisdom of many popular missional authors. We do well to get under the shade of such missional redwoods, to think their thoughts after them, and plant churches that sink strong missional roots into the soil of our cities, towns, and churches.
According to Andrew Walls, the word “conversion” has been used in two main ways throughout Christian history. One way denotes “an external act of religious change” that is a movement to Christian faith, individually or collectively. The other way refers to “critical internal religious change” within the Christian community. I am concerned with the latter. Walls notes that Western missionaries exported their understanding of conversion and made it the norm among non-Western peoples. For many, this included moving from “nominal” to “real” Christianity, “issuing in a holy life typically marked by a period of deep consciousness of personal sin followed by a sense of joyous liberation dawning with the realization of personal forgiveness through Christ.” Missionaries expected a similar pattern from those they evangelized.
What missionaries encountered “on the field” then is beginning to occur on our turf, now. Many church planters have a pre-Christian past that is quite Christian, and quite pietistic, informed by mid to late 20th century evangelicalism. Similar to the missionaries of the 18th and 19th centuries, our conversions relied heavily upon a prevailing Christianized culture, upon a certain basic knowledge of the faith.
However, in regions such as the Pacific Northwest and New England and in spiritually similar cities of the U.S we are now encountering a very dissimilar cultural climate. No longer can we assume a basic level of evangelical capital upon which the Spirit of God may act. Instead, we are engaging un-churched and resistant peoples who have either forgotten more than they know or have, in fact, never known Christianity. As a result, the conditions of conversion have changed, and like former missionaries we must reconfigure our understanding and expectation of how people convert, how disciples are made. Our goal is not to make converts and disciples of our 20th century Christianity, but rather, to allow for new conversions—new creations—born by the Spirit in a 21st century, post-Christian context. We must heed the failures of the past and call people, not to our experience of conversion, but to the experience of the Spirit’s converting, whatever that process may entail.
 Quotations taken from Andrew Walls, “Converts or Proselytes? The Crisis over Conversion in the Early Church,” IBMR, Vol. 28, No.1.
We’re called not to mere soul-winning, but to distinctive discipleship: heralding a worldly gospel of a fleshly Christ who humbly accommodates human culture and understands the human condition.