Featured Reviews, VOLUME 4

Featured: WALK HUMBLY WITH THE LORD – Mortensen/Nielsen [Vol. 4, #15]

“How the church can, should and does practice
her mission in a post/late modern world

A review of
Walk Humbly with the Lord:
Church and Mission Engaging Plurality

Viggo Mortensen and Andreas Osterund Nielsen, eds.

Review by Stephen Lawson.

WALK HUMBLY WITH THE LORDWalk Humbly with the Lord:
Church and Mission Engaging Plurality

Viggo Mortensen and Andreas Osterund Nielsen, eds.
Paperback: Eerdmans, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Recently, Roman Catholics, Mainline Protestants and Evangelical Protestants jointly released the document “Christian Witness in a Multi Religious World” (go here to read about it and download), a kind of global code of conduct for mission and evangelism. This remarkable collaboration testifies to the increasing importance of mission. In ecumenical discussions, mission has gradually supplanted ecclesiology, providing more fruitful soil to till for dialogue. Moreover, mission has become increasingly important as the long and painful process of the disestablishment of the church from Christendom in the West continues, resulting in the rise of ‘missional’ churches. Even as the church dwindles in the West, mission expands in both practice and reflection in the two-thirds world (for example, in Liberation Theology).

This is a remarkable turn in the history of the church, and requires a great deal of careful theological and cultural reflection to keep the disestablished church faithful and fruitful when the prevailing winds are pushing her toward ideology and marketing. A new book Walk Humbly With the Lord: Church and Mission Engaging Plurality helps to promote the kinds of reflection that we need. The book, edited by Viggo Mortensen (a Danish theologian, not a ranger from Middle-Earth) and Andreas Nielsen, is a eclectic collection of papers presented at the “Church and Mission in a Multireligious Third Millennium” conference convened at Aarhus University in January 2010. The conference commemorated the centennial of the famous conference on world mission convened in Edinburgh in 1910 and brought together such ecclesiological and missiological heavyweights as Bryan Stone, LeRon Shults, Andrew Walls, Darrell Guder, and Stanley Hauerwas (among others).

The book is divided into four somewhat arbitrary sections. In the first, the original Edinburgh conference takes center stage. Brain Stanley focuses on the event of the conference, separating history from myth. It was a significant event, argues Stanley, though not as much of a water-shed moment as it is often made out to be. The essays of Werner Ustorf and Kenneth Ross chart the changes that have come to church and mission since the Edinburgh conference. Ross focuses on statistics (reflecting on the recent Atlas of Global Christianity) and Ustorf reflects on the evolution of mission from foreign mission, which presupposes an establishment of Christianity in the West, to mission as the new ‘home policy’ of a global Christianity. Finally, Birger Nygaard offers strategic reflections for how the church can emerge from its present predicament of decline and sectarianism. He rightly argues that mission needs to advance from ‘being that which belongs to the church’ to that by which the church garners her raison d’être. To this end he approvingly quotes Emil Brunner’s memorable quip, “The church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning” (49).

The next section provides the most extended and perhaps most important exchange in the book. Stanley Hauerwas and Friedrich Graf both articulate visions for how the church should situate herself in the world given her disestablishment in late/post modernity. The editors fittingly summarize this exchange and are worth quoting here at length,

How will the mission of God contextualize in the Western world in (post)postcolonial and multireligious times? One important and inevitable choice will be between a particularistic ecclesiology like that of Stanley Hauerwas and protestant liberalism as presented in the volume by Friedrich Wilhelm Graf. … Either Christianity can seek to be appreciated as a sensitive contributor to peaceful, liberal societies or establish the church as an alternative, pacifist public. Mission can accordingly be grounded in the universality of individualized humanity (theologically: in creation) or the particularity of the catholic church (theologically: in Christology) (4).

Hauerwas takes the opportunity in his essay not only to offer a vision distinct from Graf, but also to respond to the criticisms of Nate Kerr. In his book, Christ, History, and Apocalyptic: The Politics of Christian Mission, Kerr critiques Hauerwas for (among other things) “ontologizing” the church with language such as “church as polis.” This amounts, according to Kerr, to the devaluing of the missionary and apocalyptic character of Christianity. The church’s job is not to be something, but to participate in something?the missio dei. Hauerwas here responds by asserting that the church doesn’t do mission, but rather is mission. To this end, he begins the essay with a epigraph from John Howard Yoder, “The new Christian community in which the walls are broken down not by human idealism or democratic legalism but by the work of Christ is not only a vehicle of the gospel or only a fruit of the gospel; it is the good news. It is not merely the agent of mission or the constituency of a mission agency. This is the mission” (53).

With typical Hauerwasian rhetorical flare, he dismisses any attempt to discuss the mission of the church in universalizing or abstracted realms (“the church can at once be everywhere only is she is somewhere”) which does not win him friends in protestant liberalism, and insists on equating mission with concrete embodiments of ecclesial practices which does not endear him to those (like Kerr) who argue for a dispossessed church caught in a greater movement. Kerr (who does not write in this book), Hauerwas, and Graf all represent different ways for the church to conceive of her identity and practice her vocation. This is exactly the kind of reflection that the church in a post-Christendom world needs to be doing. They should all be carefully read.

The book continues with practical and theological ramifications of each of these positions. Bryan Stone and Charles Fensham’s essays are exceptionally well done and deserving of more space than I can here allot. Fensham has a wonderful exploratory discussion where he considers creation itself to be an act of mission. This allows him to suggest a possible via media between Hauerwas and Graf. The church has a role to be the kind of creative and redeeming community in the world that offers herself as sacramental food to the world. The church therefore does not simply exist to be the church, nor does she exist for the world, but rather the church exists to be the church for the world.

The final section of the book discusses possible futures for the discipline of missiology. Not only has mission been given a bad name by the colonialistic impulses of a Christendom church, there is also no consensus as to what mission even is. It seems as though the missiology will divide between a public, secular discipline and an ecclesial, theological discipline. While all of the essays in this section are worth reading and considering, Guder’s short essay cuts to the heart of the matter. Guder draws a distinction between missiology and missional, with the former being a practice of academics and the latter being the practice of the church. If the goal of Theological formation (seminary, denominational training, etc.) is missional practice then missiology (as a discipline) must take a backseat to actual missional practice. This makes perfect sense, but it amount to a radical suggestion that seminaries should be completely re-envisioned, “seminaries have no reason to exist other than to practice the missional faithfulness they teach” (312).

Overall, this is a remarkable collection of essays, deserving of a wide readership. The wide diversity of both positions and emphasis (practical, historical, theological) only add to its quality. In many ways, one could read only this book and understand the major debates happening regarding how the church can, should and does practice her mission in a post/late modern world. Unfortunately, the book is probably too technical for those without formal theological training (though it could be fruitfully be read by most seminary students). Other than that observation, the only critique I have for the collection as a whole is that the vast majority (though not all) of the authors are North American or European males. One would have hoped to see a few more authors from the two-thirds world. Perhaps on that front this book could be helpfully paired with Mission in the 21st Century (edited by Andrew Walls and Cathy Ross), a wonderfully diverse collection of missiological essays by two-thirds world theologians and practitioners.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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