A Feature Review of
Overturning Tables: Freeing Missions from the Christian-Industrial Complex
Reviewed by Amy Peterson
I’d say that this book is a game-changer, but it’s actually far more important than that. After all, the mission of the church in the world is not a game.
In Overturning Tables: Freeing Missions from the Christian-Industrial Complex, Scott Bessenecker examines the unquestioned assumptions undergirding American ideas about how missions and the church should work. Perhaps that makes the book sound dry, but it isn’t; while meticulously researched and packed with insight, the book is eminently readable. Bessenecker draws on his decades of experience with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, where he currently serves as an associate director for missions, and shares compelling stories from people around the world to illustrate his points. Fueled by a prophetic imagination, he critiques the structures, questions the “norms,” and offers stories and suggestions for a way forward as we “drive the market out of Christian mission”.
The first few chapters tell how the missionary movement began in America. In the late eighteenth century, the “industrial revolution fed the rise of capitalism as a major world force,” centralizing wealth for the first time in corporations rather than in individuals or states. The birth of the modern American missionary society around that same time was indelibly marked by these social and economic convulsions.
Adoniram Judson, often referred to as the first American missionary, graduated as valedictorian of his class from Brown in 1807. He and a few other collegians formed a secret missionary society. The clergy who supported them determined that to succeed, they would have to form a foreign missionary organization- a corporation – and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission was born. To send the first missionaries to Asia would require raising $6,000 for each one – roughly $168,000 in today’s dollars. When, en route to Burma, the Judsons decided that the Congregationalists were wrong on the issue of baptism, a second corporation had to be formed, the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination.
But Adoniram (and his wife Ann) were not the first missionaries from America; freed slaves George and Hannah Leile were, and in their rarely-told story Bessenecker finds another paradigm for missions. George Leile, freed by his master before the start of the Revolutionary War, preached to slaves in South Carolina and Georgia, winning to faith the early patriarchs of black American Christianity. In the early 1780s, Leile indentured himself to Colonel Moses Kirkland, obtaining passage to Jamaica for himself and his family, spurred on by the vision of fighting slavery, both spiritual and physical, in that country. Seven years later, he had converted over 500 Jamaican slaves to Christianity, and a few decades later, that number had grown to 8,000.
Bessenecker suggests that because American missions has grown up in concert with industrialism and capitalism, we’ve created bulky, expensive structures that work for people from the middle and upper classes, who have large networks of generous and wealthy friends, but that don’t allow the poor to serve as missionaries. In recent years, as the center of Christianity has shifted from the Western world to the global south, though, we’ve seen more and more missionaries who follow the Leile’s paradigm, finding imaginative ways to spread the gospel without raising thousands of dollars in support.
And even those of us in middle-class American culture are finding it increasingly difficult to raise support. “The era of the missionary corporation is drawing to a close,” Bessenecker claims, and “what we need now are refreshed forms of mission.” Throughout the rest of the book, Bessenecker looks at Scripture and at stories like the Leile’s, very old models and very new models that move away from a product orientation and a patron-client model towards a more holistic, interdependent model. While these chapters are a bit repetitive in some places, it’s as if Bessenecker is holding the diamond of missions up to the light, turning it a bit each time, so that a different aspect is highlighted.
First, he offers ways that existing corporations can move into more locally-owned models, using grassroots ministry rather than demanding that all missions look the same. He suggests creating bi-vocational job descriptions, and allowing time for sabbaticals, even when they don’t make “financial” sense. He explains why boards ought to be diverse, staffed by people who understand the local situation, and why they ought to serve more as “spiritual advisors” than financial directors. What if we could cut costs by creating more local partnerships – rather than raising foreign money for support, for example, partnering with a local restaurant which would provide one free meal per day?
In chapter three, he critiques a profit-based mentality, arguing that “ breaking out of our resource-driven forms of church and mission may allow us to break free of the gravitational pull that turns the gospel into a product, the church into a business and people into consumers.” That language of consumerism, he argues in chapter four, alters the way we present the gospel. Instead of pushing a “privately-owned salvific experience obtained through a business-like transaction,” what if we presented a cosmic story of the reconciliation of all things by the grace and governance of a good God?