Does Scott Sundquist’s Missional Ecclesiology work?

Saint John Ethiopian icon

While studying under Scott Sundquist, his fine and qualified tutelage successfully underscored the remaining importance of mission. I personally like him as a person, and enjoyed one of his lectures once. That said, he still generally conflates the term with the notions of “outreach” or the practice of evangelism in the book Understanding Christian Mission: Participation in Suffering and Glory

I must confess, On an emotional level, any objections to “saving souls” is hard to muster and honestly most the church would do well to focus more on this area. As I’ve written elsewhere, Hell is not the lame duck threat we like to think it.

Nevertheless, Sundquist is a member of the evangelical movement. This is grounds enough to critically evaluate his claim that evangelism is THE all-important marker of a churches validity; it is natural to assume bias in such a claim.

Differentiation of the “act” and “the movement” of Evangelism

Pagan and Christian Scholars Debating before King Avenir and Josaphat, 1469,
Pagan and Christian Scholars Debating before King Avenir and Josaphat, 1469, image courtesy of Getty open project

Ben Johnson, moreover, in his work Rethinking Evangelism reports that the American church has, what he calls, historical “ghost” regarding the practice and discussion of evangelism.[1]

The main issue Johnson highlights is the cultural equivocation, and the church’s own befuddlement, of the evangelistic practice with the evangelistimovementThis weakness of our own ability to define the terms should make us doubly cautious.

            As to the movement of evangelism, Johnson defines it as one spanning the last 200 years, being highly concerned with eschatology, and “emphasiz[ing] dramatic conversion.” [2] Johnson wrote in 1987, yet topics he mentions such as “a sinner’s prayer,” altar calls, and revivalism are arguably still part and parcel of the American religious experience and find places in Sundquist work.

Johnson, in discussing the movement, makes the not all together unreasonable case for redoubled effort to separate this movement from a basic definition of evangelism as a practice the church engages in. He defines the latter practice as, “the particular task of the church to communicate the good news of God’s love to persons so that they may understand the message, place their trust in Christ, become loyal members of the church, and fulfill [Christ’s] will as obedient disciples.”[3]

Why the separation matters

The two terms better defined, Johnson contends that splitting the definitions is vital. For while the Evangelical movement, in his eyes, stressed that the sole task of the church was mission and subsumed justice, compassion, political, and other ministries to the task of spreading the gospel. Johnson contends that these aspects of the church’s work can be independent from, or at the very least not intrinsic to the narrow evangelical task. [4]

Johnson’s desires that the task be narrowly defined and separated from the movement is in part for pragmatic reasons.

Such a move allows delineation of the task.

Yet, Johnson also has deeper theological reasons that may guide his bias.

The evangelical movement for Johnson entails negative sociological and religious variables that hinder the practice of evangelism. Chief among those he lists are a focus on saving souls while neglecting real world issues, salvation formulas that historically proved manipulative, questionable theological positions such as biblical inerrancy, fear motivations, and an over focus on volitional consent, individualism, and personal belief.[5]

Johnson ultimately concludes that a corrective is needed, and he desires that such focuses on the whole person, the church as a community in the world, and a movement away from firm faith formulas based on ascent to theological positions to a view guided by the notion that faith is an ongoing process.[6]

Joseph and Potiphar's Wife, about 1630,
Sometimes you just gotta say WOOO there  Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, about 1630, image courtesy of Getty Open project

Still. I don’t like Johnson’s Solutions for today’s outlook

In addressing Scott Sundquist’s work Understanding Christian Mission my own misgivings regarding evangelism as commonly practiced mirrored those of Johnson. It must be confessed he is also of my same theological and ecclesiastical tradition.

Yet, I am slow to accept Johnson’s proposed resolution given the theological changes between now and 1987. His notions of community, wholeness, etc. already somewhat commonplace in his time, are unavoidable in ours.

These notions are in the current climate almost trite, and they exist not only in Sundquist work, many other reputable schools of thought’s works, but also probably can be found in completely questionable tracts as they have become almost mandatory jargon in the North American context.

Moreover, I worry things are politicized.

Still, it almost feels like the beginning of a partisan struggle when Sunquist’s opens his ninth chapter thus, “The church… has two basic purposes for its existence: worship and witness. All other functions point to and should aid in fulfilling these two purposes.”[7]

This is basically a claim that allegiance to the evangelical movement‘s ideals are what render a church valid.

This is a shot across the bow of all non-evangelical churches, alternative ecclesiologies, etc.

While I am sure other theological battleships are much larger and have heavy guns can make more convincing forays, even a humble ship like myself must put up some fight in the face of being bombarded and so stripped of all validity save its ability to convert people.

Worship and Witness in Sundquist

It is pertinent then, to probe what Sundquist means by worship and witness, the two things under which he subsumes all eschatology.

Can so doing stave off the impending partisan debates?


Pentecost, about 1340,
Pentecost, about 1340, image courtesy of Getty open project

Regarding the first, worship, he defines as, “[flowing] out of gratitude or thanksgiving”[8] he relates then that sinners’ tears, biblical witness, sacraments like the Eucharist, and a need to remain focused beyond the local congregation are the marks of good worship.[9] Yet, he places all these historically diversely understood categories which belie multiple theological conflicts under the canopy of “acts of thanksgiving.”

Careful or unsympathetic readers may, however, not be generally satisfied with the notion of worship only as “thankfulness.” Such typically precludes any idea of worship as an act of sanctification, a sacramentology like Romanist views that the “imputation of grace” in sacraments, or many other historically established views on the multiple subjects Sundquist puts under the single canopy.[10] It is hard, however, to lay such a charges directly against Sandquist; if only by reason of his general nebulousness as an author and his allusions to Orthodox, Catholic, and other thinkers. These may by no means agree with him or each other theologically, yet his inclusion of mixed citations lends an air of great diversification to his presentation that is tentative at best. [10]

As stated, these parties believe very much in transformative worship and ideals of holiness; moreover, they formally believe with the weight of anathemas in very firm sacramentologies as specific instances of the infusion of grace, reception of pardon, etc.

It is hard to be picky at a Buffet…

Sundquist, by way of footnotes, has then so widely sampled that one can neither agree nor refute him on this point. His silence on historically explosive differences, with no small actual body counts, between high and low church outlooks. This tends to shows Sundquist as either insensitive to these debates, or perhaps more interested in quoting sources to back a position than enriching an argument.

Or it could simply be that he sees his own evangelical agenda as over-ridding conflicts he by way of either a bias towards very low sacramentology or in an attempt to make a subtle argument, seeks to present as superfluous. At the very least, this coolly ignores the importance others attach to these issues and strips down all the subheadings of worship to bare bones that serve only as general “thankfulness.”

Sundquist though, makes it clear elsewhere that he is not even particularly vested in this already low view of worship when he issues the proclamation, “Worship without witness is a vain human invention.” [12] This only serves to raise even more questions on how Sundquist truly sees worship; it seems the sanctification of evangelism is what renders worship capable to be even just a means of thanksgiving, let alone grace, at this point.

Will he only accept sanctification as proved by mission?

I wish I had more of his works at this point

A Monk Preaching, about 1505
A Monk Preaching, about 1505, image courtesy of Getty Open Project

One would be tempted to close or ignore the Pandora’s boxes opened by such a broad remarks as rhetorical, yet Sundquist is simply too unclear throughout this particular work and lacks any other “firm” dogmatic statements to allow such charity.

There is little room here to see his position as anything other than one that holds proselyting almost as holiness itself and all other activities or tasks of the church as being sanctified by it. This not only supports Johnson’s before mentioned critique of the evangelistic movements that over emphasize witness, but my previous observation that Sundquist does not struggle with theological issues in bringing various experts to his flag using them without proper qualifications to serve his viewpoint.

It also levees its own unique charges; the cross is in Sundquist shifting further and further behind the pulpit as surety of salvation, the means of sanctification, and maybe even we could claim by his high view of it’s role in validating the church, justification.

Hit me up in the comments below, what do you think about a 6th Sola Mission?

Worship as transformation?

It would be fair here to ask if witness apart from worship (and in my thinking personal sanctification) is worth anything anyways? The amount of terms we can reverse on Sundquist proposition is huge, “Is witness without: sanctification, conviction, sacrament, etc.etc.etc.” Beyoned just theological terms vying for primacy are practical concerns. Is witness ever limited by time and place? What about those that cannot witness? Is witness now such a divine imperative that one led not to witness in the spirit of Matthew 7:6 is under judgment? Sundquist was silent questions, and it only weaken his position or made it seem like it was not fully pondered; sadly, at the same time Sundquist repeatedly denigrated and impeached churches that do not measure up to his own, less than clearly delineated, ideals.[13]

Witness’ stories don’t always match

Because Sundquist hammers us so on witness, it needs be very clearly delineated. If we are going to say all churches that don’t are illegitimate, it’s the stand up thing to do!

The Scribe Petros and his Pupils, 1386,
The Scribe Petros and his Pupils, 1386, Image courtesy of the Getty Open Project

Here Sundquist frustrates by denies us a singular thesis or similar “easy” definition. Even in chapter ten titled, “Witness!”

Sorry, but at the premium he is putting it… the index pages should go right to an underlined definition.

It is hard to quote an author on what is not written; he shares in the chapter a hodgepodge of a Roman Catholic[14] views, a view that combines witness (act) with evangelism (movement), discusses community growth (jargon), and other church functions (confussing categories).[15]

He even teases the reader with a subtitle in the chapter “Clarity about Witness” yet even then he does not provide a plain definition but instead an allegorical antidote.

So we have to say it for him, and I doubt it’s accurate to his opinions

While this conversation may not be satisfying, it at least serves to define Sundquist as an evangelical, as meant by one in the movement.

He stresses a dramatic conversion experience that is remembered[16] and given his subsumption of worship under witness discussed, there are enough hallmarks to identify his theological affiliations.

Given his general looseness with terms, and his presentation of evangelism as defined by the movement of evangelism, Johnson’s critique presses firmly here.

Harsh to state, but necessary, when Sundquist says things along the line of “evangelism is the validity of the church” it seems the most accurate interpretation of the statement is “the evangelical movement, and agreement with it, is the validity of the church.”

It is rough business to put words in someone else’s mouth like this. And I might not have to if I examined his whole body of work. But because he makes it a “core-issue” I should not have too.

Yet, it seems hard to picture Sundquist objecting to the statement to firmly. For in a moment of self-criticism, he at one point even ponders upon the wide genus of Johnson’s criticisms.

His conclusion though it that such people as Johnson who criticism him, and by extension us who seek to firmly understood what is being said, where “[relying] on human technique rather than [trusting] the spirit.”[17]

Sundquist almost gives the impression that he cannot countenance that his views may be faulty. And when they have appeared faulty… it is more likely to say it is because someone else did something else wrong than any fault in the evangelical movement itself.

Devil is in the details.            

This makes Sundquist position ultimately a problem for the integrity of the whole theological enterprise.

The evangelical movement is interdenominational and loosely can exist in any tradition that promotes proselytizing.

As a classic protestant, I find more specious some of the ideas Sunquist puts forward such as the idea that Catholics have a joint place in spreading a Gospel our understanding of which they anathematized.

As a semi-ex-Catholic, I could find his notion that converting others and not focusing on sacrament is to strip the priestly orders and neglect the importance of the impartation of grace found only in the Eucharist. 

While protestants should accept the non-violent rapprochement of the Romanist in the spirit of Christian forgiveness, Vatican II does nothing to repudiate Trent; moreover, most Catholic periodicals present ecumenical meetings as one more step towards the protestants returning to Rome.

Sundquist, however, so prioritizes mission to the extent that such theological and political concerns are secondary to missiological concerns.

Solomon's Idolatry
The Idolatry of Solomon, 1622, image courtesy of Getty Open Project

500 years fighting and it didn’t matter…

It would be pertinent to ask if he can really practically make such an application; he needs to clarify which doctrinal or historical precedent guides the decisions and to “which Jesus” we are going to convert people.

If he was a theologian of firm definitions, very boring but plain, he may have bested some of these task; he has shown none of the requisite inclination or dullness.

He is too active and on the move towards reaching his laudable goal of evangelizing the masses. Let us not begrudge him his earnest, his good works, or fail to praise the Lord working through him.

His view of even worship being secondary to mission though, leaves the more pedestrian of the church “panting to evangelize” at all times, and to pretty much halts all theological enterprise if the resources have any ability to be diverted to mission.

The only way available to back off such a claim, would be to dull down all his previous statements with a dissembling qualification.

So focused on the mission, everything else is lost

The Angel Taking Leave of Tobit and His Family, 1649,
The Angel Taking Leave of Tobit and His Family, 1649, image courtesy of Getty Open Project

As it is Sundquist leaves little room for either “shaking dust off the feet,” chides even charismatic impulses that they wait for the Spirit to lead the church towards its own inward renewal, and totally ignores sacramental, sanctification, holiness, moral-improvement, community, spirituality theologies, if they do not have an external use for converting the masses. So far outside on the periphery of the church are the typical concerns that no Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, or most Calvinists have half their theologies left them. But he never gives them a voice to level a complaint, but rather almost skims them for sympathetic speaking points.

This may seem an obtuse over-reading of Sundquist intents; it is his argument reduction ad absurdum. He has obsolesced the older churches and bids us follow.

What is most disturbing about this aspect in Sundquist is that the evangelical movement has not and is not inherently blind or trapped by the negative tendencies Sundquist displays.

Evangelicals typically try to avoid this partisanship

Against this type of theology many have taken pains to seek to correct this fault internally to the evangelical movement. Stanely Grenz, in his work Revisioning Evangelical Theology almost chides Sundquist, “For some time the doctrine of the church has been the neglected stepchild of evangelical theology.”[18]

Grenz cites multiple reasons for this movement, mostly common theological issues pertaining to occidental culture like individualism; but what seems the most pertinent is his observation that the church has to widely accepted the notion of running the church like a for-profit business.[19] For an observer sensitive to the notion of “evangelism” as sales turning the whole enterprise into a business that exist solely to win new customers is Sundquist’s thesis in harsh terms. Grenz additionally makes many corrective statements, proscriptions, and observations that Sundquist sorely lacks.

I am forced to conclude then, that the evangelical movement as defined by Sundquist still resists a definition of evangelism outside of the evangelical movement.

Mincing no words, the missionary searching for funding in Sundquist’s world cannot be denied as no other enterprise is as important as mission. But if this is not enough, the radical claim that a “non-evangelical church is of no validity,” a back-handed Anathema, sweetens the pot.

The Punishment of a Heretic, about 1400 - 1410,
The Punishment of a Heretic, about 1400 – 1410, image courtesy of Getty Open project

But what happens after we convert them?

A theologian with an eye towards nurture can spot quickly see many issues arising from such a position. First, there is the possibility of all sorts of breaks in ecclesiastic governance. For example, the deacons traditionally are a separate office from the ministers (Acts 6:1-6), and they have duties to care for believers not spread the word. No more, deacons preach. Second, it seems emotionally questionable and abusive. You who mourn, preach! Convert people or be damned.

Yet, the pragmatist will come into the debate from an entirely different angle and levy perhaps the single most powerful objection to the evangelical movement. That is what has recently been its repeated failures despite what I would hold to be comparatively successful implementation and popular support. At the end of the day, evangelicals must taste of the fruit this tree has borne; namely, shrinking churches, irrelevance, secularism, and all the joys faced by modern western clergy, over and above a spread in a new form of works gospel and theological materialism that puts attendance numbers above depth.

Sundquist is right on target a lot more than off.

As stated in the opening of this paper, none of this is meant to degrade the business of evangelism as practice. Nor do I hope to try and discredit the rest of the good in the book. Evangelism has lead vast numbers or diverse peoples to Christ, and every Christian has been enriched by this book’s gifts.

I think you would do far better to learn under Sundquist who I only disagree with in regards to how a Church should be structured and run, than under Gerald McDermott who I found to run far more afowl of serious theological issues while trying to make the same or similar points. Both display a tendency in mission to neglect the finer points of dogmatics

George Whitefield preaching
George Whitefield preaching, no Known Restrictions

Sundquist is completely correct in stating that the church must honor and want the gift of evangelism; however, the body is made up of many members of different functions (Romans 12:4, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31) and the gifting of all are different.

Tyndall was never an evangelist, but a bookish reformer in a lonely room. Yet he put English Bibles in the hands of missionaries and his disciples put Bibles of other languages into the hands of nations where conversion happened with no ministration save the Spirit’s.

Sundquist must answer, “Would Tyndalls time have been better spent looking for unbelievers?”

To claim such is almost to impeach the Lord that ordered his life and deny our benefit from that personal relationship with Christ. The key objection to all the talk of conversion, is that it lacks the self-reflection and preparatory warnings of the Pentecost, and ignores Paul’s, Peter’s, and the other biblical author’s admonitions for self-reform and preservation in correct doctrine.

Church is too broad to be so narrowly boxed

Ecclesiology is also in the end too diverse and wide a subject to be subsumed under or subjugated to mission, evangelism, and even to other disciplines like nurturing, healing, or community. Like the Trinity is a description and not “an answer,” the Church retains its core mystery, at the very least, as a body of believers that by all rights should not exist in this world. We even go so far as to call it invisible at times due to its still partially unknowable charterer and guide. If one attempts to pin it down firmly, at the very least they need to have a clear voice, clear reasons, and clearly account for differing views. Sundquist in over-pushing evangelism as the missio deo fails that litmus test.

He, Grenz, and Johnson, however, all show agreement on a core thread that evangelism and an understanding of the church go together. Sundquist in his nebulous manner does evidence that there are wide and firm bases for possible agreement across denominational lines. His movement has awakened many evangelical impulses, and has caused the church to re-evaluate how it defines itself against the world.

In that Sunquist succeeds. Only his position that evangelism is the most important end of the church dissatisfies, and should dissatisfy. For at the end of the day the purpose of the human race is beyond this world, beyond this life, and beyond the current struggle in communion and glorification beside Christ our Lord. If the church really is to be eternal, then any singular goal for it pertaining only to this life is not nearly lofty, holy, diverse, or even difficult enough.

The covenant and hope we have is always, “No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest (Hebrews 8:11).


Grenz, Stanely. Revisioning Evangelical Theology.Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1993

Johnson, Ben. Rethinking Evangelism: A Theological Approach. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987.

Sunquist, Scott. Understanding Christian Mission: Participation in Suffering and Glory.Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013.

Torrence, James. Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace.Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1996.


  1. Ben Johnson, Rethinking Evangelism,(Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987). pg. 16
  2. Ben Johnson, Rethinking Evangelism, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987). pg. 16
  3. Ben Johnson, Rethinking Evangelism, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987). pg. 12
  4. Ben Johnson, Rethinking Evangelism, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987). pg. 12
  5. Ben Johnson, Rethinking Evangelism, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987). pg. 17-18
  6. Ben Johnson, Rethinking Evangelism, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987). pg. 22-3
  7. Scott Sunquist, Understanding Christian Mission Participation in Suffering and Glory, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013). pg 281.
  8. Scott Sunquist, Understanding Christian Mission Participation in Suffering and Glory, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013). pg 297.
  9. Scott Sunquist, Understanding Christian Mission Participation in Suffering and Glory, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013). pg 297-99.
  10. James Torrence Worship, Community & The Triune God of Grace, (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1996) pg 14-17 – One can further take Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:3 and elsewhere, that worship is a sign of grace working out actively through the church at the moment of worship. So it is not passive thanksgiving but active growth of transformation. What I really desire is the trans formative be held equal with the thanksgiving.
  11. I recognize this is a sticky issue regarding Catholic and Orthodox theologians especially. They will personally be as diverse as protestants; at the same time they must conform to blanket statements by their institutions. I am of the opinion that if they consent to the binding of the councils the charge of hypocrisy should only be on their own person. Nevetheless, without a full description of how the person is NOT towing the catholic line, any Catholic expert should be presented as conforming to the general party line.
  12. Scott Sunquist, Understanding Christian Mission Participation in Suffering and Glory, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013). pg 282.
  13. Scott Sunquist, Understanding Christian Mission Participation in Suffering and Glory, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013). pg 295, 285, etc.
  14. Scott Sunquist, Understanding Christian Mission Participation in Suffering and Glory, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013). pg 314.
  15. Scott Sunquist, Understanding Christian Mission Participation in Suffering and Glory, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013). pg 315, 316.
  16. Scott Sunquist, Understanding Christian Mission Participation in Suffering and Glory, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013). pg 326.
  17. Scott Sunquist, Understanding Christian Mission Participation in Suffering and Glory, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013). pg 314.
  18. Stanley Grenz, Revisioning Evangelical Theology: A fresh agenda for the 21st century, (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1993), pg. 165.
  19. Stanley Grenz, Revisioning Evangelical Theology: A fresh agenda for the 21st century, (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1993), pg. 168.

Post Author

Paul is the founder of and a life long Christian with a childhood interest in systematic theology. He holds an M.Div. from Fuller Theological seminary and hopes to use his education to better his fellow man. He also operates an automotive blog, has worked at Google, and has diverse life interest.

reformedmonk – who has written posts on Religible.

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