Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Book Review: Christian Mission in the Modern World

I'll admit it: when I saw Christian Mission in the Modern World on the "Future Books" section of IVP's website awhile back, I thought Dr. Stott had come out with something new. Apparently I failed to notice that it was being released in the "IVP Classics" series, which would have been a remarkable prediction for a new book, to say the least.

Soon I discovered that CMitMW was originally released in 1978 at the tail end of a worldwide flurry of ecumenical councils on the subject of, well, Christian mission in the modern world. Included in these was the truly evangelical Lausanne Covenant (whose third council, now headed by Christopher J. H. Wright, will be meeting in 2010 in Cape Town). Many of our readers will already know that Dr. Stott chaired that document's drafting committee when it was released in 1974.

So CMitMW was written in the wake of all of this with the express purpose of biblically defining five key missions-related terms:
  1. Mission is the comprehensive term for what God sends His people into the world to do, including both evangelism and social action.
  2. Evangelism is the church's missional priority (i.e. ahead of social action, though social action is absolutely part of mission), carried out when Christians preach the gospel (i.e. the good news about Jesus). Evangelism is necessarily verbal.
  3. Dialogue is what happens when multiple parties not only speak, but sincerely listen to one another despite opposing views. Note well: Stott does not advocate dialogue that does not include verbal proclamation at some point. In fact, he says, that would be disingenuous.
  4. Salvation is neither psychohysical health, nor sociopolitical liberation, though both may be related in certain senses to salvation. Rather, salvation is personal freedom from sin and to a life of service to God.
  5. Conversion is the human response to the salvation that God works, in which a human repents and places faith in Christ, thereby turning from the life of slavery to sin to that new life in Christ.
If any of these definitions seem either unbalanced or unbiblical, it is likely from poor summarizing rather than poor defining from Stott. Indeed, Stott's biblical rigor is the greatest strength of CMitMW, and likely the reason that it has achieved "classic" status.

While Stott moves through biblical texts with typical ease, almost equally impressive in this book is his remarkable knowledge of seemingly every contemporary conversation about Christian mission in existence. The sheer number of documents from world councils and books on mission that Stott cites is incredible. Stott is a master of both biblical content and contemporary opinion, thus qualifying him as a true expert on the subject.

This is not to say the work has no weaknesses. For one, while Stott rightly argues that salvation is not psychosocial health, one wonders exactly how psychosocial health in fact does relate to Christian salvation. Perhaps having a father who is especially interested in this subject makes me acutely aware of this, but Stott seems less clear than usual on this important subject.

Second, while what Stott says about "dialogue" is actually quite helpful, I wonder if by now, the battle for the term has been lost. Stott quotes Bishop Stephen Neill, who suggests that anyone who reads Plato knows that dialogue vigorously pursues truth as its only goal. Perhaps a few philosophers can still use the term that way, but where tolerance is the heart of religio-cultural orthodoxy, we may as well give up. In the context of religious discussion, dialogue is what happens when multiple people with differing views put on sweaters, drink cappuccinos, and amiably tell each other how great it is that none of them believe in anything worth arguing for. Again, note well that Stott means nothing of the sort when he commends dialogue. But "dialogue" simply has too much baggage to go on using the term so long as we actually care to change anybody else's opinions, let alone their hearts.

Which leads to my final thought: while "dialogue" may no longer be a salvageable term, most of Christian Mission in the Modern World is remarkably relevant for current discussion, despite now being over thirty years old. I picked up this book specifically to try to sort out the biblical relationship between evangelism and social action and I was not disappointed. So I wonder, for example, how the Emergent discussion would have changed if more people would read this book. For those who are still committed to the Bible as God's Word, my guess is that they would find, like I did, that Stott's definition of "mission" is nearly incontrovertible.

Because here is this bottom line: if you are interested in sorting out the foundational theological issues in Christian missions, you will be hard-pressed to come up with a better starting point (especially since the 2008 "IVP Classics" release is available for less than 7 bucks from IVP) than Christian Mission in the Modern World. For this reason, I pray that this book remains truly classic.

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