A Feature Review of
The Mission of the Church:
Five Views in Conversation
Craig Ott, Ed.
Paperback: Baker Academic, 2016
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Reviewed by Joe Davis.
In The Mission of the Church, Craig Ott facilitates an energizing, informative, and mutually enriching dialogue on how the church participates with God’s work in, for, and with God’s creation. Five contributors participate in this dialogue: Stephen Bevans representing a Roman Catholic tradition, Darrell Guder representing mainline Protestants, Ruth Padilla Deborst representing Latin American evangelicals, Edward Rommen representing an Eastern Orthodox tradition, and Ed Stetzer representing North American evangelicals. Each contributor provides their own perspective and then responds to the other four perspectives. I write this review as a North American evangelical raised in Stetzer’s tradition, but trained academically in Padilla Deborst’s tradition. I was familiar with the work of Bevans and Guder, and am least familiar with Rommen and the Eastern Orthodox tradition. In this review, I briefly summarize each view, discuss the common themes of Trinity and contextualization, and explore how Christological nuances lead to missiological differences.
For Bevans, mission is a “dance… originating in the dance of the Trinity through history” (9) which steps into humble dialogue with cultures of every time and place while stepping back in prophetic witness that leads the dance towards its fulfillment in the coming reign of God. For Guder, mission is the Spirit-empowered formation of witnessing communities which solely exist to translate the gospel with and for every culture in ways that keep Jesus central amid diversity (27), sanctify believers for God’s healing mission, and unify the multicultural body of Christ through acts of “visible, practiced, intentional love” (34). For Padilla Deborst, mission is the wholistic expression of a “community of… radical discipleship” which joins the Spirit to comprehensively transform every context towards the reign of God inaugurated by Jesus, the “model of solidarity and service to the poor” (48), so that “all people may enjoy the life in abundance that God intends” (52). For Rommen, mission begins and ends with the church where non-believers are personally introduced to Jesus Christ through the practice of the sacraments. The church must strive to maintain its “ecclesio-sacramental integrity” (84), develop mature believers, and extend into “pre-ecclesial fields” with proper church authorization (85). For Stetzer, mission is “sharing and showing the gospel of God’s kingdom in Jesus Christ” (92) by a community of Spirit-empowered believers who go into all nations proclaiming salvation, serving the hurting, and creating outposts for God’s kingdom which make “the world more like [God] wants it to be” (112).
Several common themes are woven throughout each of the perspective essays. The first is a solidly Trinitarian foundation for mission. Four of the five contributors refer to the work of missiologist David Bosch, particularly Transforming Mission, to ground the mission of the church in the missio dei. Mission does not belong to the church, but to the being of the triune God who is relational and missional. Therefore, the church’s identity is inseparable from mission and not just another program of the church. Rommen, writing from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, actually provides the most in-depth Trinitarian foundation for mission but follows a different line of thought with a significantly more ecclesiocentric understanding of mission. Instead of utilizing missio dei, Rommen connects mission with a Trinitarian conception of personhood in which the church exists to lead humanity into personal communion with the triune God, i.e. theosis. Even still, all five contributors seek to ground their perspective on the church’s mission in Trinity.
In addition to a Trinitarian foundation for mission, the necessity of contextualization – the complex process of embodying and practicing the good news differently in each context – is another prominent theme in all five perspective essays. Bevans’ and Guder’s essays rely heavily on this idea. For Bevans, mission as prophetic dialogue creates “communities of hope” whose life together give a particular, contextualized “witness to how the gospel message can give life to women and men in every situation” (8). Guder’s approach to mission makes an even stronger case for contextualization by interpreting Pentecost as an event which “initiates the apostolic mission as an empowered process of cultural translation” so that no one culture can make “claims to universal validity and normativity” (24, 22). Padilla Deborst also relates her integral transformationist approach to contextualization by emphasizing the indivisible nature of “the Jesus of history” and “the Christ of faith”, which entails a commitment to learning “to discover Christ’s real identity in particular historical situations… for the transformation of the present situation” (48). Stetzer does not specifically discuss contextualization but his approach assumes it, especially as he discusses the church’s mission “to the nations” (107). Rommen once again differentiates his approach by directing contextualization away from the “communication of a message about a person” and radicalizing it to the “facilitation of a personal encounter with the Lord of life” (78). When it comes to mission of the church today, clearly contextualization is central to how the church engages with the world.
On the whole, the points of harmony far outweigh the points of dissonance across these five perspectives. However, this is not to suggest there are no significant distinctions. The contributors provide an intriguing discussion of these differences in their response essays. One of the most striking differences not directly addressed in the dialogue comes to light when reading the essays through a Christological lens. The question of where Christ is most present in the world seems to be of critical importance. One the one hand, Rommen claims that Christ’s presence is found most especially in the sacraments administered by the church even while acknowledging how Christ is “generally present everywhere.” On the other hand, Padilla Deborst looks to Matthew 25 and locates Christ amid the poor, suffering, and marginalized. These Christologies serve as interpretive keys to Rommen’s and Padilla Deborst’s missiologies: Rommen’s view of mission is all about the church “being the church” by practicing the sacraments while Padilla Deborst’s perspective challenges the church to join God’s transformative work in every context by seeking justice, mercy, and shalom. Bevans’ Christology is most similar to Padilla Deborst’s and draws on Luke’s Emmaus Road story to describe the God who is present with all people “on the way” (16). Stetzer and Guder present the most thoroughly Christological missiologies which provide a middle ground between Padilla Deborst and Rommen. Noticing these Christological nuances can help the reader understand the source of other missiological differences across these five perspectives.
In this volume, Ott has created a truly dialogical space for each contributor to present their views on mission and respond to each other in helpful, respectful ways. While it is a great model for dialogue, I was disappointed to find only one female, non-North American voice. Still, this text can serve as a great resource for scholars and pastors in the study of missiology, especially since each contributor discusses the historical development of missiology over the past 50-60 years within their traditions. It is a highly theoretical discussion, and left me wanting to hear concrete stories of churches which embody each of the perspectives described. This would help readers, especially pastors, see the nuances between these perspectives. I hesitate to recommend it as an introduction to missiology because its breadth and scope may be overwhelming for newcomers to missiology. Still, this is a book I will revisit often as I consider how to more fully participate in God’s mission and serve as a missional leader in my own context.