Review of Alan Johnson’s “Apostolic Function in 21st Century Missions”

Those who are interested in grappling with Christ’s command in Matthew 28:19 to make disciples of all ethne and how obedience to that command should look in the current, global realities of 21stcentury missions should take the time to read Alan Johnson’s “Apostolic Function in 21stCentury Missions”. Dr. Johnson is an Assemblies of God Missionary who has served in Thailand for over 20 years planting churches, training in formal and informal settings, and recently “has begun pioneer work among the urban poor through developing a house church network.in the slum communities of Bangkok.” Dr. Johnson has a wealth of experience and has a Ph.D. from Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, so he’s definitely worth the time!

The reason for the writing of this book is what Johnson calls a “problematic”: that a disproportionate amount of mission funds and personnel are going to equip and send missionaries to places where the church already exists, rather than to preach the Gospel and plant churches where the church does not currently exist or exists in an extremely small way. Additionally, he states that the current conversation regarding missions has led to much confusion, with some churches seeing missions as everything that the church does and regards “everyone as a missionary”, while others view missions as primarily crossing geographic or cultural boundaries to share the Gospel. In response to this empirical reality, Johnson proposes a new understanding of self-identity for the missionary, which he believes will help focus the mission community in all of its work and facets on the apostolic task. He calls this the “apostolic function”.

Surveying the work and the self-understanding of those called apostles in the New Testament (not only being the disciples of Jesus, but the Apostle Paul and others who seemed to be understood within that role), he points out that there is a distinction between the office of an apostle and the function of an apostle. The office of an apostle was only fulfilled by those in the first generation after Jesus and is now closed. In contrast, the function of an apostle is to be present in the church of all ages (Ephesians 4:11, 1 Corinthians 12:28). For Johnson, apostolic function means that “there is a focus on the apostolic task of preaching Gospel where it has not been heard, planting the church where it does not exist, and leading people to the obedience of faith so that they, too, will express Jesus Christ in their social worlds and participate in God’s global mission.”(page 75). Therefore, missionaries, mission teams, and mission agencies with a prioritizing an apostolic function see everything that they do through the lens of the apostolic task, whether that be teaching at a Bible school within a national church or church planting among an unreached people group.

That premise, for many in the mission community, may already lead one to dismiss the book as a plea for missionaries to go and mission agencies to send or re-deploy workers onlyto places and among people groups that are considered unreached. This may sound like white noise in the ears of those who feel disenfranchised, discredited, and/or discouraged by arguments from those whose only concern is for the unreached as defined by Joshua Project and other researchers. Let me strongly urge you to not rush to conclusions and give this book the time, attention, and energy that someone of Dr. Johnson’s credibility and experience deserves.

While understanding the heart of Jesus’ command to make disciples of all ethneas a call for the church to be concerned and focused on those people groups who do not have an adequate witness of the Gospel among them, Dr. Johnson takes pains to urge those reading that he does NOTadvocate for redeployment of all existing missionaries not currently serving among unreached people groups, nor does he believe that the call of God and work done among people groups that do have a church to be less noble or second-tier to the work of those among unreached people groups. Rather, Apostolic Function appears to be an attempt to form a missiology that reclaims the biblical function of an apostle in the midst of a messy missions world. Throughout the book, Dr. Johnson continues to emphasize this point even while critiquing the “frontier missions” movement and the damages that unreached people group thinking and strategies have caused in the church and the mission community.

However, this does not mean that Christ’s command to make disciples of all ethneand the corresponding apostolic calling is any less convicting to the work and strategy of current missionaries and mission agencies. There still exist numerous people groups throughout the world in which no church planting effort exists. It is the missionary self-identity of apostolic function that Dr. Johnson believes has the potential to lead and guide the understanding of the roles of individual missionaries for both the missionary and their supporters today. In his view, missionaries who view themselves as fulfilling apostolic function do everything they do for the purpose of planting the church where it does not exist. This means that whether a missionary is in Latin America or Europe or Asia or wherever God is calling them, they understand their calling as to those among whom that Gospel has not been preached and the church has not been planted.

Dr Johnson emphasizes that in apostolic function, this calling is not limited to those who are directly working with what are termed “unreached” peoples, nor is it limited to those who are serving in geographic areas that are considered “unreached”.Rather, every missionary, in every and any context, should see their missionary calling as the apostolic function of preaching the Gospel and planting churches among people groups where it does not exist(italics mine). Therefore, missionary who is working with university students, the missionary who is training pastors, the missionary who is feeding children and the missionary who is building schools understand their missions calling through apostolic function which changes the way the ministry is approached and accomplished in any given context.  To that aim, Dr. Johnson explores the implications of the self-identity of apostolic function, reviews insights, problems and contributions from frontier mission missiology, and comprehensively attempts to bring all mission work under the understanding of apostolic function. This includes compassion ministries and outreach, church planting and growth, and leadership training, along with work among unreached people groups.

In his view, a healthy missiology will be comprehensive and integrative in nature. This means that it will seek to address the global, 21stcentury realities of the world and the major issues that this entails. It will also seek to integrate insights from various “paradigms” of missionary activity (compassion ministries, unreached peoples, and church planting) through the lens of apostolic function, rather than seeing these as competing paradigms. Admitting that the hard work of integrating these paradigms still remains to be done, not only on the conceptual level of missiology, but also in the practical realm of mission praxis, Dr. Johnson calls the reader to the task. Whether he has been successful in accomplishing that goal is left to the reader to wrestle with and conclude. Regardless of that conclusion, the struggle is worth it! The overwhelming reality of groups of people that do not have access to a hearing of the Gospel because no church exists that speaks their language or that does not require them to cross cultural barriers to understand and receive it, is and should continue to be sobering and mobilizing for those who seriously desire to obey Christ’s commands.

Dr. Johnson does an incredible job of presenting this simple reality, while seeking to remain true to the revealed commands in Scripture, and at the same time not jumping to uncritical conclusions of how this should be accomplished in terms of placement of missionary personnel and funds. He presents an overarching, biblical understanding of the missionary task and calling that allows for the sovereignty of the Spirit and yet remains focused on the empirical realities of unreached people groups. As missionary educators who are seeking to train and equip leaders across Latin America, this book is a great resource for understanding the missionary task for ourselves and communicating that to leaders who are wrestling with how to hear God’s voice and respond in obedience to fulfilling Christ’s command to make disciples of all ethne.

Much work still remains in building upon some of the foundations that have been argued in this book and I pray that missionary educators and missiologists from Latin America will undertake the task of praying through and adding their voices to of Dr. Johnson’s calling for a comprehensive, unifying missiology that can be truly global in affirmation and application and can mobilize the missionary force and the church of Christ to be in wise, fervent obedience to His commands to reach the ends of the earth.

7 Replies to “Review of Alan Johnson’s “Apostolic Function in 21st Century Missions””

  1. Good review and stimulus. Johnson’s time pushes the missionary and the mission agency to stop, turn around, and do some introspection on current AG trends. Thanks for your review and your application.

  2. It’s refreshing to hear a point of view that is broader than just the UPG focus. If we all go to the UPG only, soon a good number of us will be martyrs. And we will not be fulfilling God’s purpose, which includes empowering a generation of passionate evangelists that will go anywhere, even to places that half the population heard, accepted, began to grow and has become disenchanted with the trappings of the Gospel.

  3. Hi Noah, so good to hear you will be serving in Oaxaca. I look forward to getting to know you better.
    Thank you for calling our attention to Alan’s book on the Apostolic Function or emphasis that should be a dimension in all of our ministries. I had read the book few years ago, but after reading your excellent article, I took the time to read a couple of other reviews and abstracts of it. Whatever the sphere of our missionary service, may be never lose sight of the Misseo Dei…to seek and save the lost in every ethnic group. May this heartbeat of God to save a lost world be our heartbeat. May we seek to relate all that we do to telling the untold, caring about the overlooked, and giving everyone the opportunity to hear the gospel at least once.

  4. Great book review! I’m interested to read it and will put it on my short list… In the meantime it leaves me thinking about integrative issues in ecclesiology and missiology… the principle strategy behind our own missions movement has been the institutional endorsement of Spirit-directed vocation and location. While healthy self-reflection and healthy institutional allocation of missionaries will always be encouraged, it is the Superintendency of the Holy Spirit himself that guides the functioning apostle (small a) to the unreached and sustains ministerial effort and fruit.

  5. The Call of God to serve as a missionary can never be reduced to a man-made institutional directive. It is quite personal. As a vision for the needs of the Unreached is sown, God will touch hearts to respond. But this response should not put those whose call is to another more evangelized area of the world into a place of seeing themselves as second-tier missionaries. By UPG missiology definition any area over 2% evangelized has been reached and does not need missionaries. My justification for serving as a missionary overseas is not to present the needs of the UPG’s, it is to do what God has called me to do. As I share the Gospel and the great commission I expect God to call others to the work of the world-wide harvest. Yes, awareness of the unfinished task needs to be shared, but disseminating the knowledge of Christ is the primary purpose of our calling whether it is through teaching, preaching, planting churches, helping with social programs. Pressure to have the missionary justify his calling and every action directly and primarily to how it supports the UPG vision is unnecessary. A simple personal inventory relating to UPG’s is enough without the additional institutional pressures. I expressed these views in an article in a blog I have written at http://dominicanmissions.blogspot.com/2013/05/pitfalls-of-unreached-people-groups.html Still relevant to what I see happening today.

  6. Thanks to each of you for the feedback and comments. There is definitely a lot to process in the book, especially for us in Latin America. But I believe we have an important voice in the conversation too.

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