Book Review: Encountering Theology of Mission
Craig Ott, Stephen J. Strauss, and Timothy C. Tennent, Encountering Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010). Paper. 383pp. $29.99.
Encountering Theology of Mission, a comprehensive work in the field of missions written by Craig Ott, Stephen J. Strauss and Timothy C. Tennent, is the perfect remedy for a discipline often diseased by shallow theology. Instead, it situates a discussion of mission within the context of redemptive history and in relation to the role of the Church and the Spirit who empowers her. The result is an admirable resource for all those who seek to understand the mission work they engage in or support.
In the first part of the book, the authors explore the biblical foundations of missions. In the process, they provide a beautiful landscape of God’s redemptive work throughout human history. They also offer a helpful nuance to the traditional centripetal (gathering in) – centrifugal (sending out) model of missions used to describe the Old Testament and New Testament, respectively, by pointing to the ebb and flow of the missions movement in Scripture. For example, the nations not only came to Israel in the Old Testament, but Israel’s exile resulted in the Word of God going to the nations. Likewise, the decentralization of the Gospel to the nations in the New Testament anticipates the centralization of one, blood-washed people in the New Jerusalem.
The second part of the book is particularly timely in addressing the motives, and especially the means, of mission work. The chapter on “The Church and Mission” is especially engaging because of the preponderance of weak and twisted views of what the Church is and what the Church does in this world. While the chapter provides a robust defense of the Church as the primary means of missions, it falls short in addressing other related issues. For one, there is little to no discussion of the distinction between the visible and invisible church. In an age where the visible Church, the authority of the elders, and the primacy of the Word and sacraments are frequently derided, a discussion of these issues as they pertain to missions would be useful.
With a brief discussion of the role of parachurch agencies, the authors provide a helpful dictum: “Mission agencies retain their theological justification only to the extent that they serve the church in the fulfillment of its missionary calling” (211). This is a refreshing reminder in light of contemporary trends to pursue Christian work apart from the Church. There is a place for parachurch agencies, but only as a servant, and not a competitor, of the Church for which Christ died.
As a side note, there does seem to be a Baptist bent to this discussion of the church, as denominational mission work seems to get short shrift alongside ecumenical organizations and the local church (cf. 212-14). Ecumenical organizations can become “too cumbersome, self-justifying, and overly professionalized” (212) while “no single congregation has all the wisdom or resources necessary” for mission work (213). As a result, “congregations must continue to find ways to cooperate with and learn from one another” (213). Not to betray my own convictions, but that statement seems to provide a pretty good pragmatic justification for Presbyterianism. Local churches should indeed band together and share their wisdom and resources while resisting the compromising effects of ecumenical agencies.
The final part of the book deals with mission in the local and global context and helpfully delves into a number of thorny practical issues. A careful treatment of contextualization and syncretism is especially valuable in weighing how best to proclaim the Gospel in culturally comprehensible terms without compromise. Missionaries feeling the syncretistic pull should find this section enlightening as they seek to draw these lines.
While accessible to believers to all walks of life, this wonderful resource will be most useful to ministers, elders, deacons and missionaries. Its fairly comprehensive scope—alongside its careful exegesis and thoughtful consideration of difficult issues—makes it an indispensible resources for those who wish to justify, describe, and advance the role of the Church in the spread of the Gospel.