Book review – The Missionary-Theologian: Sent into the World, Sanctified by the Word

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Reviewed by Chris Howles
Head of Theology, Uganda Martyrs Seminary

The Missionary-Theologian: Sent into the World, Sanctified by the Word
By E. D. Burns
Fearne: Christian Focus, 2020. ISBN: 978-1527105393. 264pp.

​​​​​​​ Mission Round Table Vol. 15 No. 3 (September-December 2020): 48

Browse articles in Mission Round Table Vol. 15 No. 3

In The Missionary-Theologian, E. D. Burns argues eloquently and energetically for the stronger integration of theological rigour into applied missiological practice. Throughout a wide-ranging series of chapters covering topics such as “The Missionary in Prayer,” The Missionary as Servant of the Word,” “The Missionary as Sent-One of the Sending Church,” and “The Missionary as Pastoral Model and Church-Planter,” Burns’ basic premise remains consistent: “In this age fewer and fewer missionaries ground their missionary conviction and call in the Scriptures … they are far more fascinated with the mystical than the biblical, with the pragmatic than the propositional” (22). His book calls for Western missionaries and their sending churches to realign their values and methodologies in accordance to God’s own as revealed in the Bible.

Burns’ concerns about the increasing disconnect he sees in many missionaries between the patterns laid out in Scripture and the practices lived out in their daily lives emerge primarily from his own experiences as a former missionary in the Middle East and East Asia, and now as the director of the MA in Global Leadership Studies program at Western Seminary, Portland, Oregon. His argumentation is combative and his tone at times polemical, but his clear and irrepressible desire to see the gospel faithfully, clearly, and boldly proclaimed, and to see people respond in faith in Christ, means that his writing remains challenging and provocative without becoming disingenuous or insensitive.

However, readers must beware. Burns is not afraid to speak critically against what he perceives to be significant structural, methodological, and theological errors in contemporary missionary praxis. Readers must approach the book prepared to engage in honest and substantive self-reflection. For example, he highlights and criticises the syncretizing of evangelicalism with cultural fads; the juvenilizing of churches by replacing sound doctrine with experience; authoritarian sending-churches; a lack of biblical discernment in mission strategizing; cause-driven rather than truth-driven missions activism; the eclipsing/assuming of verbal proclamation in outreach; the “everyone is a missionary” mentality; the hazy subjectivism of the “missionary call”; casual and light-hearted methodologies that cheapen the gospel message; the tepid timidity of Westerners’ prayer lives; a lack of emphasis on godly discipline in missionary training; a prioritization of opinions, statistics, experiences, and emotions above the Bible; and a Christian culture that seeks instant gratification and ushers impatience, entitlement, and dissatisfaction into the missionary mindset, all of which result in more pragmatists than preachers and more anthropologists than apologists.

At times, the critiques can feel relentless but, more crucially, Burns consistently remains grace-filled and scripturally-anchored, always conscious of God’s free offer of redemption in Christ as both message and motivation. As he says, “Gospel truth is not just the message missionaries should promote: it is the heart that pulses blood through their veins” (35). Nowhere is this clearer than in his outstanding chapter on Christ’s victorious work on the cross (33–50), which spotlights the rest and peace that fruit-driven, success-seeking missionaries receive from knowing that. His aim in the book is not simply to pinpoint problems, but to identify necessary corrective responses according to God’s word. No one could read and subsequently doubt his passionate desire to see Christ-centred, Spirit-empowered, biblically-informed, theologically-equipped, missiologically-astute, long-term Christian workers mobilized, trained, and sent into the world. These persuasive convictions saturate every page and energize and excite the reader.

Burns writes clearly and engagingly to senders, supporters, thinkers, and goers in the modern missions movement. He engages deeply with a number of key biblical texts (e.g., a chapter on Paul’s apologetic methodology in Acts 17), key theological concepts (e.g., a chapter on Luther’s teaching on righteousness), and key historical figures (e.g., a chapter on Adoniram and Ann Judson), all of which strengthen his arguments in a readable and relatable manner.

Those wishing for a gentle and smooth ride through their next book may wish to avoid this one for now. But those who want—or need—to carefully evaluate their own missiological principles and practices would be well-served by reading The Missionary-Theologian slowly and prayerfully with a pencil in hand, before then sharing it with others in their teams for discussion. It may not always be a comfortable experience, but this book will almost certainly provoke thought, precipitate change, produce growth, and—most importantly—refresh and encourage readers in the perfect worthiness of Jesus Christ and the privilege of knowing him and making him known to the ends of the earth.

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