The Mission of the Church, Five Views in Conversation, ed. by Craig Ott

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This volume is not a dialogue among evangelicals concerning the mission of the church; it is far more ecumenical than that.  But by bringing together leading thinkers from five different theological traditions, a crosscurrent of views is well represented.  Stephen B. Bevans (Roman Catholic), Darrell L. Guder (mainline Protestant), Ruth Padilla DeBorst (Latina evangelical), Edwan Rommen (Orthodox), and Ed Stetzer (North American evangelical), all contribute chapters from their biblical perspectives, and each provides a critique of the understandings of the contributors at the end of the book.  Editor Craig Ott, professor of Missions and Intercultural Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, summarizes the various views, as well as the historical background, in his introduction.  The focus of the work is the precise missionary nature of the church.  In other words, for what purposes does God send His church into the world and how is the church to fulfill them (pp. ix-x)?

Prior to the 20th century, the answers to these questions were largely uniform—to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, disciple converts and establish churches.  But that consensus began to fade at the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910 due to the influence of liberalism and social reform (p. xi).  In 1932, the International Missionary Council of Churches published Re-Thinking Missions, which rejected the idea of individual conversion as the goal of missions, as well as most of the foundational doctrines held dear by evangelicals.  This Hocking Report (as it became known) brought deep division leading many to embrace the ecumenical Movement.  It was after World War II that three significant developments “revolutionized virtually everyone’s understanding of the church’s mission” (p. xiii).

  • Grounding of mission in the Missio Dei. Ott defines this as “participation in the sending of the Son, the Missio Dei, with its all-encompassing goal of establishing the Lordship of Christ over the entire redeemed creation” (p. xiv).  However, consensus over the meaning and implications of Missio Dei has become illusive and Ott admits, “Missio Dei became a shopping cart of sorts that could accommodate almost any pet theory or practice of mission” (p. xiv).  The shopping cart analogy is evident in this volume, as each author loads the term differently.  All would agree that it means that the mission of the church is to advance the kingdom of God both through evangelism and social action, however even the understanding of these terms is controversial.  The leaning of all the authors except Rommen (Orthodox) is to see both evangelism, and social justice, as components of the “whole gospel.”  Only Stetzer recognizes the danger of the social gospel swallowing up the biblical gospel of redemption (pp. 106, 109, 164, 165), but he still accepts the two-pronged gospel hammered out at the three Lausanne Congresses (dating from 1974 to 2010).  No one in the volume challenged the presence of the kingdom on earth now, nor the concept that social justice and earth enhancement are part of the gospel and mission of the church.  There were different ranges of understanding and development of Missio Dei but all agree that both activities encompass the mission of the church.  It is important to understand that the biblical support for Missio Dei, and a social aspect of the gospel, is lacking in the book.
  • The global nature of the church and the shift from missions to missional (pp. xvi-xvii). On the one hand, it is undeniable that the growth of Christianity has moved south.  The cultures of the West are now largely post-Christian, while Christianity in the Southern hemisphere and Africa is rapidly expanding and sending out its own missionaries.  On the other hand, stemming from Missio Dei theology, the mission of the church could increasingly be described as missional.  Missional is “seen as a movement from God to the world; the church is viewed as an instrument for the mission” (p. 22).  Missional is a term introduced in 1983 accompanied by the issue of contextualization.  It went mainstream in 1998 from a project of the Gospel and Our Culture Network which advances the ideas of Lesslie Newbigin and David Bosch (p. 96).  “Advocates believe that it constitutes the very nature of the church.  The church exists to be missional” (p. 97).  Yet, as with Missio Dei, defining missional remains illusive.  Ostensibly, however, it describes the mission of the church as both spiritual and social.  Cultures require conversion as much as individuals (p. 28).  It is not surprising then that, led by missional concepts, the World Council of Churches and evangelicals are now much closer in their views of the mission of the church than in the past (p. xvii).
  • The missionary nature of the church (pp. xviii-xx). Prior to the 1980s, missiology was a subset of ecclesiology, which determined the meaning of missiology but, as Missio Dei became accepted, “missiology would define ecclesiology” (p. xix).  That is, the mission of the church now creates one’s doctrine of the church.  In essence, culture trumps Scripture.

These three themes are fleshed out within the five theological perspectives expressed in The Mission of the Church.  Bevans reflects the Roman Catholic views which have become increasingly inclusive (p. 7), and socially oriented (pp. 8-11).  Mainline Protestants, represented by Guder, now favor unity in mission, if not organizationally (p. 36).  DeBorst, detailing Latin America and liberation theology, sees justice as part of evangelism (pp. 45-46).  DeBorst, who spoke at Lausanne III in Cape Town (2010), finds support from the Lausanne Covenant and from John Stott who showed evidence of being influenced by the social gospel (pp. 46, 54).  The fundamentalist message that was spread in the 19th and 20th centuries has now been largely abandoned (p. 50) and replaced with Chris Wright’s Lausanne slogan, “The whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world” (pp. 55-56).  In fact, the evangelistic focus of earlier missionaries, needs to be repented of (p. 136) “so that the transformation by the renewal of our minds can take place,” according to Guder (p. 136).

The Orthodox view differs from the others in its approach to missions (pp. 77-78).  To Rommen the primary task is to introduce Christ and thus begin the journey to salvation through the sacraments (p. 69), although Orthodoxy has no doctrine of soteriology (p. 79).  Orthodoxy is much more ecclesiastically-centered and churches may be established only with the approval of bishops who are seen as successors of the apostles.

Stetzer, speaking for evangelicals, differs largely in the area of emphasis.  He too accepts Missio Dei as the theological starting place (pp. 93, 96), and sees the mission of the church as advancing the kingdom (p. 92, 98-101, 105, 108, 111-112).  He promotes the Cultural Mandate (pp. 111-112, 166) and accepts the social agenda as part of the church’s mission.  However, He warns of the danger of the social prong of the gospel replacing the evangelism prong (pp. 106, 109, 164, 165).  His concern is real for, as Bevan demonstrates, the contrast between the mission theology of Lausanne I in 1974 and Lausanne III in 2011 is astounding.  In the first congress there was “hesitant endorsement of Christian social responsibility,” while the Cape Town Commitment is “filled with strong statements of support for ecological and social justice action” (p. 126).

The understanding of the mission of the church has radically changed in the last half century but few have recognized the transformation.  Missio Dei, missional and social aspects added to the gospel, dominate missionary thinking.  It is now accepted that the mission of the church is to advance the kingdom of God, not only spiritually through evangelism and discipleship, but also socially through cultural conversion.  The idea that the task of missionaries is to spread the gospel of redemption, which may often lead to social betterment, is considered Western Colonialism, which needs to be repented of and abandoned.  Missional and Missio Dei, with its gospel of social justice, which may or may not include evangelism, is now the current thinking.  The Mission of the Church provides clear insight into the shift within the modern church, including conservative evangelicalism. I disagree with all five views represented in the book, but as an overview of dominate thinking concerning missions in the 21st century, the book is helpful.  My main disappointment was that no conservative evangelical was given the opportunity to express, and defend, the view of missions held almost universally by evangelicals prior to the mid-1970s.

The Mission of the Church, Five Views in Conversation, Ed. Craig Ott (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016) pp. 181 + xxxvi, paper $22.49

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher at Southern View Chapel.

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