Wilbert R. Shenk spends the first 20 pages of this 130-page book (By Faith They Went Out) unpacking the power of the original Anabaptist mission movement. He summarizes the key themes of the original Anabaptism theology of missions as follows:
1. “An authenticating mark of the church is its missionary consciousness, a sense of being mandated by Jesus Christ to continue his work of witnessing to the reign of God in the world.”
2. “The church must be animated by an awareness that it is God’s new creation, the community that lives in submission to Jesus as LORD, rather than being socially conformed and compliant.”
3. “Effective missionary engagement depends on the messaging being properly contextualized. The 16th century message of the Anabaptists responded to the most basic issues confronting European society at that time by providing both critique and a compelling alternative.”
4. “The power of the Anabaptist witness lay in its insistence on recovery of the whole gospel that would be worked out in a life of discipleship that reflected the reign of God in every aspect of life: lifestyle, sociopolitical relations, witness to the world. The defining mark of the church was most evident in the way the community of disciples conducted all human relationships.” (quotations taken from summary, page 29)
Reflecting on the disparity between 16th-century Anabaptists and their more modern descendants, Wilbert Shenk states that he sees a “fundamental discontinuity” between them and summarizes the emphasis of the Mennonite tradition as “self-preservation rather than mission” (page 43). By contrast, Shenk argues throughout this book that the 16th-century Anabaptist vision carried a powerful mission emphasis; the original Anabaptists clearly understood and embraced the call of the Great Commission.
What happened to the original vision?
Shenk argues that historic Anabaptism is not synonymous with what he calls “Mennonitism” and then present a critique as to what happened to the original Anabaptist vision. Do you agree or disagree?
1. “Speaking historically and sociologically, Mennonitism, as it evolved in the 17th century, was what survived the persecution of the Anabaptists in the 16th century . . . Mennonitism adopted as its primary strategy withdrawal from society in exchange for the possibility of pursuing its own agenda” (page 112).
2. “The future of the church is inseparable from the mission dynamic; where mission consciousness is extinguished, the church languishes and atrophies” (page 107).
What about the many mission efforts of the past century?
Shenk points out both positive and negative lessons learned from times within the past century that we have engaged in the mission of God. The following provide an example of each:
1. “All point to the same conclusion: an archaic and monolithic faith could not be adapted to the cultures of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The Christian faith itself requires that the mystery of the Incarnation be recapitulated in each cultural environment. Only in this way, notwithstanding the incalculable risks that vernacularization of the gospel entails, could the genius of faith be preserved” (page 103).
2. “The meaning of the gospel has taken on far richer and deeper meaning as we have observed it engaging with multiple contexts throughout the world. It is good news for people the world over. This opens up new dimensions to our understanding of the nature of the church . . . Rather than saying that the church has a missionary responsibility, we now know that the church, when true to its nature, is mission. The church without mission is discovered to be a contradiction of terms” (85).
Earlier in the book Shenk states that “traditional Mennonite theology, which evolved as a means of holding the faith community together by keeping the world at bay, had little potential as the foundation for a theology of mission” (page 43). Throughout the book he repeatedly mentions this critique and then points out that to deal with this deficiency we have been forced to borrow an evangelical theology of missions! After leveling this charge numerous times, Shenk ends the book by presenting a summary of what he believes could serve to be a mission theology rooted within the Anabaptist vision.
What would an Anabaptist theology of mission emphasize?
In addition to the points mentioned at the beginning of the book (1-4 on Anabaptist vision above) Shenk adds 10 more. These points are worth contemplating and I will summarize three of them here without further comment.
1. “The goal of mission is the establishment of the new order under the Messiah’s rule. That is, mission is the means by which God is establishing his reign in the world . . . this means that mission leads to the formation of concrete communities living out the new order which Jesus inaugurated” (page 130).
2. “Mission is an act of radical obedience and discipleship. The 16th-century Anabaptists were noted for their frequent reference to the Great Commission . . . Disciples are in the world but not of the world; disciples are sent into the world as the apostolic vanguard for the salvation of the world. Whenever the church turns its back on this commission, it loses its identity and authority, and surrenders its integrity” (page 131).
3. “The present age is the missionary age, the age of the Holy Spirit . . . Pentecost marks the inauguration of this age; Parousia will signal its ending. The Holy Spirit mediated to the church the power of the resurrection and confirmed to the church that Jesus Christ was indeed the ascended and exalted Lord. The Holy Spirit released into the body the power and grace of Jesus the Messiah. The work of the Spirit is to extend the Messiah’s reign” (page 132). Amen.