Christian Mission in the Modern World - Book Review



Mrs. Rachel Lynde is an outspoken character from the Anne of Green Gables series who has a knack for saying what the populace is thinking. “I don’t believe any but fools enter the ministry nowadays…he says he doesn’t believe all the heathen will be eternally lost. The idea! If they won’t all the money we’ve been giving to Foreign Missions will be clean wasted, that’s what!” John Stott and Christopher J. H. Wright disagree in Christian Mission in the Modern World that if you give those in mission work a certain amount of money it will yield a predetermined outcome.

Christian missionary work is not to be understood vocationally or geographically, nor should it be perceived as successful as equivalent to the amount of money received per foreign convert. Stott found the very idea of ministry, in any form as a profession only, to be "damagingly unbiblical". Wright is quick to point out that a more holistic understanding of missions has always been central to Stott’s message, as demonstrated in his 1992 book The Contemporary Christian. Missions is a lifestyle that we are to understand because it is God’s “overarching purpose for his whole creation and is constantly ‘on mission’ to accomplish it.” This causes us to comprehend hermeneutics as being missional driven.

For many Christians, the Bible is central to our lives. The life of the people of God is to go, tell, and show the world, not only what the Lord is doing, but what He has done. The thought-provoking quote from Andrew Kirk's book, What is Mission? Theological Explorations, is one to be seriously considered. “For example, what a difference it would make to biblical studies if full justice were done to the bible as a book about mission from beginning to end, written by missionaries for missionaries! Given its content and intent, how could one study it any other way?” This profound question leads Wright to examine the Bible in this way, and from there he penned two works, The Mission of God and The Mission of God’s People.

In addition to these works, Wright also began to change his language. While teaching at the All Nations Christian College (ANCC), the wording was changed from "Theology and Mission" to "Theology for Mission.” This is a rather telling change of mindset. By making this slight word change, the emphasis is now that mission flows naturally from theology. Stott and Wright make it clear that good theology leads to good mission work.

The fullness of the gospel message is the complete story of the redemption of all creation. The Old Testament believers lived in this story as did the New Testament believers. We today seem to have disassociated ourselves from the story overall. Our collective perception is that the grand plan of God is a means to an end. Preaching the Kingdom of God is now, leads to faith; this faith produces a change in the form of good works; good works show the evidence of saving faith received. We were created for good works, which is missions, which is the gospel, which is the total redemption in Christ articulated.

In no way should we take this to mean that missionary work is to be formulaic. The idea of missions being holistic is that it is to be eclectic. Having genuine discussions with people of different faiths will have a destination, but must be lead by the Holy Spirit. Gentleness and respect for the other person’s views are not to be the end goal though. While, as important as this is, we must be equally vigilant in our arguing, explaining, proving, proclaiming, and persuading.

We need to be mindful of some of the pitfalls in regards to such witnessing. Evangelism is not the same as proselytizing since we are to point to Christ as truth and not to the benefits of that tangible reality as a means of conversion. We should also be wary of some of the -ism's that follow. We are to reject pluralism because it is claiming all gods are equal to God and that all religions are equal in claim and results. Inclusivism and exclusivism need a finer toothed comb to understand how they are to be used in discussing salvation. Inclusivism starts with the understanding that all truth is God’s truth. Therefore, any religion whose truth lines up with God’s truth is to be understood as having an element of truth in them, but Christ is the only salvific truth. Exclusivism affirms that all truth is God’s truth and that only Christianity is true. All other religions are therefore wrong based on this axiom. People may know truth peripherally because of our ability to reason. As the imago Dei, we have a predetermined sensitivity to the concept of absolute objective truth. Debates continue based on the understanding of Christ's death and resurrection as ontologically necessary, but knowledge of this reality may or may not be required. Within the exclusivism understanding, you would have both restrictivists (knowledge of Christ is necessary) and inclusivists (only Christ is needed).

To engage in the framework of this argument Stott and Wright both put forth negatives of what salvation is not. Within this contrast, we can see more clearly by what is meant when discussing salvation. Understanding salvation as justification, sanctification, and glorification is to understand that salvation is bigger than a moment in time. Salvation is also not to be recognized as deliverance from being uncomfortable regardless of social, political, economic, or environmental stresses. All of these things matter considerably, and we should be engaged in them, but we need to refrain from using the word salvation when describing this kind of deliverance. We are saved from the ultimate effects of sin and death by the grace of God through faith in Christ.

Salvation walks hand in hand with conversion, but how should this conversion look? Conversion is to orthopraxy and orthopathy as salvation is to orthodoxy. A focus change to what now? has the distinct drive of wanting to do something. Anything. We want to look like Christians, but this may differ from culture to culture. Stott says it well here:

All down its history, the Christian church seems to have oscillated from one extreme to the other. At times it is so worldly that it goes to the extreme of self-confidence as if evangelism were merely a question of business efficiency and human technique. At other times it becomes so otherworldly that it goes to the opposite extreme of self-deprecation, as if evangelism were entirely the work of the Holy Spirit and we had nothing whatever to contribute.

Cultural sensitivity should be a priority when examining the conversion evidence of fellow believers.

We find a good example from Stott’s interaction with Dr. M. M. Thomas’ work regarding the Christian community in India. To say you are a Christian can be to claim agreement with the “legacy of the Crusades, colonialism and the feeling that Christianity is an alien, ‘Western religion’ imposed by missionaries and imperialists.” Should someone have to defend and apologize for the behavior of the church historically, which is an offense culturally, or not take that baggage and only defend and contend with the offense that is Christ? I sympathize with this understanding. Many times I am hesitant to tell people I have faith in Christ because of the connotation the word faith has today. Faith is understood in popular culture as "devoid of evidence" whereas biblical faith does not carry that meaning. The Reformed church of today has lost this understanding to the culture, which has infiltrated the church body. This becomes obvious in chapter eight as Wright struggles to articulate that faith is not a work while simultaneously making it an essential work that we exercise for justification. The same has happened with the understanding of mission and our responsibility to God’s commission to us.

I’m in agreement with Stott’s musing “I wonder if anything is more needed for the Christian in the modern age than this healthy fusion of humility and humanity in our reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit.”