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Thursday, February 23, 2017

"The Mission of the Church" (various contributors)

TITLE: The Mission of the Church: Five Views in Conversation
AUTHOR: Stephen B. Bevans, Darrell L. Guder, Ruth Padilla DeBorst, Edward Rommen, and Ed Stetzer
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017

What is the mission of the Church? Surely it is more than just setting up a mission department within the Church organization. It is also more than mere sending of missionaries to some faraway land. Others would say that all ministries of the Church have a mission, albeit in unique ways. What do we then make of the terms often thrown about like 'missional,' 'missio Dei,' 'missiological,' and the work of the Church? Knowing the plurality of opinions and perspectives out there, this book brings together five persons representing the different faith persuasions.

  • Stephen B. Bevans shares from a Roman Catholic viewpoint, the "Prophetic Dialogue" approach.
  • Darrell L. Guder shares from a mainline Protestant point of view, the "multicultural translation" approach.
  • Ruth Padilla DeBorst shares from a Latina evangelical view, the "integral transformation" approach
  • Edward Rommen shares from an Orthodox view, the "sacramental vision" approach.
  • Ed Stetzer shares as a North American evangelical, the "kingdom community" approach.

All of the five contributors seek to interact with one another with regard to the different perspectives of missions. Editor Craig Ott sets the stage by sharing the historical development of the Church and the mission. He observes the gradual erosion of consensus among the different Church quarters and summarizes each denominational perspective in general terms. Part One of the book contains all the five different perspectives of missions while Part Two offers a fascinating responses to each of them by the other contributors. Briefly, Bevans's "Prophetic Dialogue" approach prefers an openness toward a platform of dialogue without been bogged down by dogmatic considerations. At the same time, there is a sense of direction in which these dialogues take place in. Bevans defines his perspective as follows:
"Mission is about preaching, serving and witnessing to the work of God in our world; it is about living and working as partners with God in the patient yet unwearied work of inviting and persuading women and men to enter into relationship with their world, with one another, and with Godself. Mission is dialogue. It takes people where they are; it is open to their traditions and culture and experience; it recognizes the validity of their own religious existence and the integrity of their own religious ends. But it is prophetic dialogue because it calls people beyond; it calls people to conversion; it calls people to deeper and fuller truth that can only be found in communion with dialogue’s trinitarian ground."
The two thrusts of mission according to Bevans is dialogue and prophecy. He admits that the Roman Catholic Church has historically erred on the side of prophecy above dialogue and believes that a corrective is in the works. In fact, this book of five perspectives offers a great opportunity for Bevans to practice exactly the art of dialogue.

Following Bevans's work is Darrell Guder's "Multicultural and Translational" approach which is that of Christian witness that transcends cultures and languages. He highlights the missional movements and sees that as a manifestation of this mission. He infuses the hallmarks of Protestant faith as in sola Christus, sola Gratia, sola Fide, and sola Scriptura in his understanding of the Missio Dei. Mission is about God bringing people back to Him as the people of God witnesses the gospel throughout the world. Guder is a retired professor of missional and ecumenical theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. Unity in the Church is to be practiced in a multi-cultural and ecumenical fashion. Witness is the same even though cultures are different. 

Ruth Padilla DeBorst (Latina Evangelical, and general secretary of the Latin Theological Fellowship in San Jose, Costa Rica) argues from a "Integral Transformation" approach that sees disciples of Christ as embodying and proclaiming the good news for all creation. This integration is dependent on God's reconciling purpose to heal the world, the injustice, the poverty, and the flaws of society, in the hope that one day, all will be well. Christians are to participate in this holy endeavour. The starting point is the internal transformation of the soul. As one recognizes the brokenness of self and the world, one becomes open to true reconciliation that only God can bring about. This weaves together the other aspects like ecclesiology, eschatology, and social ethics. She moves on to describe the extent this integral transformation means for social programs, justice, cultural appreciation, nature, care for creation, and the fostering of hope.

Edward Rommen (Orthodox, rector of Holy Transfiguration Church of America) advocates the "sacramental vision" approach that sees all witness as the presentation of the Person of Christ. All liturgies begin and end with Christ. Just having this new path set before us is no guarantee that we will remain on the path. We need the Church as guide and context to live out our faith. There are three unique ways in which Orthodox Christians approach mission. First, it is personal which means people don't just share the gospel as information but as persons who have been transformed by the gospel. Second, salvation is understood in terms of theosis, which is union with God. In contrast, many Western Church formulations of salvation tend to be based on sin/redemption while the Orthodox sees the divine life in Christ that is over and beyond such proclamation. Third, the role of the Church is central to the mission front, and that there is little support for independent offshoots for individual church planting initiatives. All mission needs to be sent from the Church as a formal authority. The gospel is not about information but about the Person of Christ.  

Ed Stetzer (Evangelical, executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College) shares the "kingdom community" approach and argues the coming of the Kingdom in Christ that marks the unique mission of the Church. He proposes that "God’s people are to participate in the divine mission to manifest and advance God’s kingdom on earth through the means of sharing and showing the gospel of God’s kingdom in Jesus Christ." He begins with defining the meaning of "evangelical," using David Bebbington's classic definitions as a guide. While Orthodox Christians emphasize the theosis, he emphases the Trinity, that the mission of the Church comes out of the very essence of the Triune Godhead. God has a mission. God's mission is for the Kingdom. The people of God are to live out this kingdom. This mission is tied to the Person of Christ. 

What then follows is an interactive portion of counter-arguments where each contributor gives his response to each article. In books of this nature, there are often overlaps of arguments which make it quite repetitive for individual contributors to respond to each article separately. This is one advantage in this book's format which allows each respondent to consolidate similar thrusts without unnecessary replication.  Bevans comes across as conciliatory and encourages more dialogues like this. On Stetzer, he articulates on the Trinitarian mission in terms of a priority of different members of the Godhead. On Missionary Ecclesiology, he reverses Guder's traditional order of the marks of the Church. On Eschatology, he takes issue with Rommen putting the ecclesiology above eschatology.

Darrell Guder helpfully reminds us not to see everything as mission, otherwise we will not understand what is mission. He responds with an emphasis on how the multicultural and translational approach can benefit. Recognizing the diversity of opinions, he urges the continuation of such dialogues that would teach one another to "argue Christianly" as a common witness for Christ.

Ruth Padilla DeBorst, the only lady in the list of contributors reflects on her own cultural upbringing as well as her interactions with the Western society. She argues that there are First and Third world cultures within all of our nations, so there is little benefit in restricting our contextual arguments on the basis of geography. Instead of responding individually to the articles, she summarizes our existing contexts in three ways. She makes three interesting observations about our cultural contexts. First, the rise of the modern scientific endeavour has made society less tolerant of ambiguity, paradox, and dissent. Second, power and privatization is strong and pervasive. There is no running away from the presence of such power paradigms because they dictate and limits the state of missions. Third, we need to do missions in a context of rising individualism and pragmatism.

Edward Rommen encourages the need to "complement, affirm, and illustrate" instead of opposing or critiquing. The way forward is to overcome self-love; to take on self-emptying love; and to be free to engage others in the way God has intended for us. After highlighting some of the other contributors' key points, he comes back to the Church as the central position with regard to mission.

Stetzer's response essentially summarizes the main points of each person, and then to showcase his key concern: Clarity and Conviction about Evangelism.

My Thoughts
Books like this cannot truly spell out all viewpoints about any one denomination or doctrinal positions. Within each major segment of Christendom represented by each of the five individuals, there are also multiple perspectives and articulations. Not everyone within each denomination would agree with the things said by the representative. Moreover, this book is simply an invitation from the publisher to the selected individual to provide a unique perspective of the mission of the Church. Having said that, many of the things said would fairly reflect the general positions. It is also difficult also to tell apart the personal and the organizational. Barring self-disclosure, it is not easy to tell whether the opinion piece or thought is different individually and corporately. Ideally, it should be the same, but nuances may differ. For example, there are some rather complex terms thrown about that could easily derail the reader's interest, like the frequent use of theological terms such as "ecclesiology," "eschatology," "missional," etc, and the amalgamations of the various terms. Clarity is important in order for us to understand the differences. This is one reason why this book is more suited for the academia. The lack of practical examples on how the mission of the Church can be practiced ultimately brings down the effectiveness of this work. The reader would need to do the heavy lifting of integrating the theological concepts and to articulate it in their own contexts.

On the positive side, the way the book has been arranged is a fresh approach that allows the respondents to avoid re-inventing the wheel for each response. For a work of this nature, there are bound to be similarities and it can be a mundane exercise repeating oneself ever so often. One could argue that the duplication of opinions could very well be the fault on the choices of individual contributors. This makes me wonder if the five chosen branches of Christendom are adequate. What about the rising Asian and African perspectives? Isn't it true that North America is increasingly a mission field in itself? How about cross-cultural mission perspectives? What about having various missionaries, both present and retired, to give their points of view? This book has instead stuck to an academic and theological treatise that indeed limits the usefulness. Perhaps, this book is not meant to be a practical handbook but a conversation to kick start the dialogue about mission in the Church. If that is so, maybe a part two is in the works?

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Baker Academic and Graf-Martin Communications without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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