Book Review: Scott A. Bessenecker, Overturning Tables

Bessenecker Scott A. Overturning Tables: Freeing Missions from the Christian-Industrial Complex. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2014. 176 pp. Pb; $16.99.   Link to IVP

In Overturning Tables, Scott Bessenecker offers bold suggestions for new ministry models applicable to both traditional missions as well as western church ministry. The problem is what he calls the Christian Industrial Complex, where the Gospel has become the product and the unsaved the consumer. Strategies for reaching the lost are barely distinguishable from methods for selling products to consumers. As Bessenecker says, “one can barely distinguish a conference design for Protestant pastors, church leaders or mission agency executives from a commercial convention for those dealing with data management, telecommunications or selling shower curtain rings” (23). He argues the American mission movement has become enslaved to a corporate attitude, with an emphasis on privatization and individualism. He believes this corporate addiction is a rejection of the values of the Kingdom of God. While his immediate interest is “world missions,” his observations can be applied to local churches, especially as they grow larger and adopt corporate management systems to cope with millions of dollars in infrastructure.

Overturning TablesThe first several chapters of this book are a brief history of missions. Bessenecker argues the roots of the Protestant missionary movement are intimately connected with the rise of capitalism. Some of the early missionaries were viewed by their Missions boards in the same way a business might look at opening a new market. This Christian Industrial Complex guided decisions about where to open new fields and how the gospel would be presented in these new fields.

In contrast to this capitalist oriented missions movement the author describes early Christian missionaries he served in fields living alongside the poor. George Leile, for example, went to Jamaica and found several churches in the late 1700s. He was more or less uneducated and untrained, but was an effective preacher, responsible for converting over 500 slaves to Christianity. Based on this and other examples throughout the book, Bessenecker argues this model of doing missions is more scriptural then the capitalistic corporate model used in most missions. He sees unintended results from the rise of capitalism and the Protestant work ethic as a result of the Reformation. He tries hard to guard against the charge of anti-capitalism, although I am not sure he is successful. There are indeed real problems with applying western capitalistic methods for doing missions in majority world countries.

In order to remedy the situation, Bessenecker suggests re-examining the structure of mission boards, avoiding corporate organizational models. He also suggests the model found in Acts is far more biblical and ought to be adapted for modern Missions projects. For example, there are many missionaries who live in communities alongside those they are trying to reach. Often this is a missionary from another majority world country reaching into places a Westerner could not.

A serious problem for Western missionaries is the perception of wealth as missionaries move into the majority world. Compared to most of the world, the West is fantastically rich and the potential of getting money Western missions organizations is tempting. But money is not always the answer when establishing missions, Bessenecker argues, since the prosperity gospel has caused a host of serious problems in places like Nigeria. Bessenecker calls this a “syncretic, American expression of God’s kingdom on earth.” It is a fact it costs a great deal of money to put a missionary on the field so many missions organizations must function like corporations in order to deal with the very real problems of money. Instead he suggests the West ought to support majority world missionaries who are going to other majority world fields. He gives several examples of this in his fourth chapter. Is it really possible to do “missions without money”?  Once again he sounds anti-capitalist by describing redistribution of wealth and turning over the purse-strings to the excluded elements of the church.

Prosperity GospelIn chapter 5 the other challenges a common view that the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is primarily about a private exchange, sold through persuasion, making churches distributors something like stores marketing of the product. This Western, capitalist view clouds the Gospel. He bemoans the church leader pastor as a CEO as if they were presiding over a corporation. “Mission cannot be practice package as a product. He cannot be reduced to a privatized exchange. It is not a ‘mission of individual prosperity; but of communal shalom” (110). He finds the language of Christian organizations distracting from mission. Well there’s nothing inherently evil about terms CEO employee brand or market, they really destroy our efforts to preach the gospel. I would suggest this is similar to Joseph Hellermen’s When the Church was a Family (Westminster, 2009). When we use corporate language to describe relationships within the church, we run the risk of polluting the Gospel with Western corporate goals (growth and wealth). These are necessarily bad, but they were not the goals of Jesus in his ministry nor Paul in his foundational church planting.

Bessenecker is very attracted to groups like the old order Mennonites or Quakers who do ministry “like a family.” In chapter 5 he describes what it would look like for ministries to move from individualism to collectivism. Again, most western capitalist Christians cringe at the word “collectivism.” Unlike the West, most of the world value some form of collectivism highly valuing families and communities as a way of existing.  This sort of model of mission work will lead to both plurality and diversity in leadership. The Western corporate model values the “Type-A” leader: a person who is aggressive, no-nonsense, decision-maker, someone who values direct confrontation. That sort of a leader is required in a major corporation. But according Bessenecker, the “Type-A” leader is detrimental to a mission in a culture which values family. A better model is a leader who seeks consensus and community diversity.

In chapter 6 the author uses the book of Acts as a model for how to do ministry today. He examines the appointment of deacons in chapter 6 as a way of empowering the margins of the early church. In my view, Bessenecker overstates his case by using the deacons as a model for cultural diversity. The difference between Hellenists and Hebraists in Acts 6 is not as great as he makes it out to be. In addition I find his comments on Antioch Christianity troublesome. He says “Christianity sheds its Jewish wineskin and become something unrecognizable as Judaism” (146). That does not seem to me to be what is In Antioch at all, as the book of Galatians makes clear. I really don’t think “the sketchy Gentile church in Antioch” is a proper description for what is happening in Acts 11. Bessenecker is however correct that the margins of the church need to be recognized and treated with respect. He is also correct that in order to reach people in majority world countries the West needs to empower the majority world countries in order to reach their own people.

Chapter 7 briefly deals with the problem of independent churches on the mission field in endowing local churches may be a way of breaking dependence on the west. In fact in chapter 8 the author describes this is moving from “growth to flourishing” churches. A serious problem with this however is using western criteria for growth to measure growth and maturity world contexts. A growing church looks different in Southern California than it might in Central Africa. He concludes the chapter by arguing the Western church needs to break from their “addiction to growth (177). In order to do this, Western churches ought to focus primarily on their own spiritual growth and recognize there are times of “spiritual dormancy” in a ministry. These downtimes are not negative at all but can be used to enhance growth in the future.

Conclusion. This is a challenging book since it does offer a model of doing missions that is clearly different than the popular Western model based on capitalism. Most American mega-churches exist because they have copied a corporate model of “moving product” rather than preaching the Gospel of the Grace of God for all people. Bessenecker is to be applauded for this challenge to the church. If you are involved in ministry, either missions or local church work, this book is an essential, challenging read.

NB: Thanks to Intervarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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