|A Review of
Encountering Theology of Mission:
By Craig Ott, Stephen Strauss & Timothy C. Tennent
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Reviewed by Kevin Book-Satterlee.
I hold the degree title of Master of Arts of Missional Leadership from George Fox Seminary, a relatively young cohort distance program. Fox isn’t the only school starting up this MA, but many evangelical seminaries are introducing a missional leadership degree. Explored in these programs are the typical missional works by Alan Hirsch, Leonard Sweet, perhaps Leslie Newbigin, and others. Having at least one missional theology course is par for the degree. Craig Ott and Stephen Strauss with the help of Timothy Tennent have written a definitive text on an Evangelical theology of mission.
Ott and Strauss, both Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) PhD’s, teach respectively at TEDS and Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS). Both of these schools are bastions in more conservative Evangelical theological education, and I, while an Evangelical, lean more liberal in my theological studies. That said, however, I was impressed by the TEDS and DTS professors here and their work in Encountering a Theology of Mission. Published by Baker Academic, their book is a great text for an Evangelical perspective on the theology of mission.
As with any good text, the authors give a primer for the developments of a theology of mission, beginning with the Biblical foundation of mission. They take a chronological view, beginning with the Old Testament to find God’s missional character. Contrary to the popular understanding of missional, they explore that God’s missional character with His people as reflected in the OT as centripetal, where God and Israel attract people from the outside to come to the center. Outsiders must come and worship at Zion. They, however, emphasize the shift in God’s missional character as centrifugal in the New Testament where Jesus’s disciples were sent outward to the nations (44-45).
An interesting chapter is their chapter on the Missio Dei. The authors write about the development of Missio Dei thinking in theology, how it has been used and how its various interpretations have produced some significant differences in a theology of mission. More liberal Protestants and conciliar branches of the Christian faith tended to take Missio Dei thinking solely to a social level, living just as Christ did, serving others’ immediate needs. Evangelicals by in large used the Missio Dei concept to promote proclamation of God and His initiative. While Ott, Strauss & Tennent do not shy from this proclamation understanding, the true Missio Dei for them encompasses both. The separation of social service and proclamation of the Lordship of Christ is something the authors deal with throughout the majority of the chapters in the book.
The chapter on the “Purpose and Nature of Mission” heavily relies on Piper’s supposition that, “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t…” (Quoted on 84). This oft-used quote from Piper’s, Let the Nations Be Glad!, is the crux of their doxological purpose of mission. Mission is worship, and missions are not ends in and of themselves. The authors over-use Piper in this case throughout the book, however their exposition on the doxological purpose of mission in other Christian stems, such as the Orthodox and Catholic traditions (80-84) is helpful.
The historical background, the first chapter of the two “Task of Missions” chapters is a fascinating and great historical primer on missions and missional theology. Without excusing the ills of missionaries and their work in decades (and centuries) past, Ott and Strauss remind their readers that often missionaries have been the scapegoats for the global initiatives at large that have often destroyed cultures. They in fact repeatedly point out that missionaries, while colonizers with good intentions, often stood up against other and more devious colonial powers. This chapter, for a missionary in an age where missions is distrusted, is a great chapter not condoning the history of missions, but putting it into perspective.
Part 2 of the book begins a deviation from missional and focuses more on missions. The authors do not do an adequate job deciphering between mission and missions, and continually lean towards the missions side. Perhaps because of their doxological approach, where the end is worship and missions is the means, they tend to be more missions minded than mission-based or missional. Nonetheless, the remainder of the book is not just limited to the more confined view of missions, but can be applied to a missional understanding as well.
Part 2 of the book is the “Motives and Means for Mission.” They write on the motivations, both positive and negative for going into missions. They then move onto the helpful chapter of the nature of the church and mission. Here their premise, evident throughout the book, is that the church’s mission is to be a kingdom-minded community that evidences worship in word and deed amidst a not-yet-redeemed people. And thus the purpose for missions is to set up these kingdom-minded communities throughout creation.
Particularly unhelpful is chapter 10, “Spiritual Dynamics and Mission.” This chapter deals mostly with spirits, evil and Satan. While these are very important in mission, the overall lack of spirituality within this chapter, such as prayer, contemplation and other spiritual aspects is quite discouraging. The authors’ chapter was incomplete and spent too much time on spiritual warfare. It is here that their Evangelical subculture came out more than just their Evangelical philosophy.
The Evangelical philosophy, verses liberal Protestant or conciliar branches of the Christian faith, of the authors came out heavy in Part 2. While they treated other Christian views fairly and critically, they retained a strong emphasis on a personal renunciation of sin and proclamation of faith for salvation. Their primacy of Biblical text became their main focus as Evangelicals and heavily informed their constructive criticism of opposing views. In all, Christology dictated their theological suppositions, over and above ecclesiology and others. They did examine the many theological disciplines within systematic theology, but always deferred to Christology to inform them. This may not be a mistake, but certainly colors the lenses with which they do theology through.
It is in Part 3 that they carry the Christological focus further as they related to the local and global communities. This section became more of a recap on their previous chapters, and thus lengthened the book by a good 100 pages. Good information can be found, however the impact of the book tends to drop and by the last chapter it becomes a bit redundant.
With the rise of missional leadership amongst Evangelical seminaries, this could be a principal textbook. Likely it will not change the minds of many like the works of Bosch or Newbigin. Ott, Strauss and Tennent are not pioneers here, but they give fair, just and critical treatment of missional theology as it stands today and from an Evangelical perspective. As a missionary working in an Evangelical organization, I would feel comfortable for my co-workers to read this book. I would have them read some differing materials as well, particularly from a conciliar perspective, but should all my co-laborers and my fellow graduate school graduates take Ott, Strauss and Tennent’s views, I could work very well with them.
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