Transcending Mission: The Eclipse of a Modern Tradition, by Michael W. Stroope (London: Apollos, 2017, £24.99, 457 pages).
This is a book about language, specifically about how particular words can be used in such a way that an idea can have the appearance of being biblically and historically sound, while being neither. The key word under spotlight is ‘mission’ but its cognates, ‘missionary’, ‘missions’, even ‘missional’ are also thoroughly implicated.
mission is rhetoric
In his Introduction, Stroope, who teaches at Truett Seminary, Baylor University (USA) and has been a missionary in Sri Lanka, England, Germany and Hong Kong, describes how the word mission is used chiefly as a noun and adjective and only occasionally as a verb, with a host of meanings. The oldest and most common use of ‘mission’ is as a political or diplomatic term (2). As we all know, mission has become ubiquitous in contemporary life, with companies, clubs, and military units employing the term to describe their purpose and activities. In the sense in which the term has been employed among Christians, however, it has generally had a narrower set of meanings connoting specialization, utility, and viewpoint: thus, “mission is rhetoric that describes specific Christian ideals and actions unique to its encounter with the world” (4).
However, much ink has been shed in recent years over what exactly mission means. Stroope engages with all the key writers on this theme: David Bosch, Andreas Köstenberger, Chris Wright, Lesslie Newbigin, Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, and others. The key point that Stroope is making, however, is not that the word has such a range of meanings but that the word itself is the problem: “Words,” he writes, echoing other scholarship, “more than represent reality; words…form reality” (10). The way we use words, then, creates conceptual frameworks for the reality they are being used to describe. Differentiating ‘mission’ and ‘missions’ doesn’t help either because the distinction is blurred and indistinct (15).
Stroope’s thesis is that mission,
birthed and developed in the modern age, is itself inadequate language for the church in the current age. Rather than rehabilitating or redeeming mission, we have to move beyond its rhetoric, its practise, and its view of the world. The task is one of transcending mission. (26, original emphasis)
In part one, Justifying Mission, the author critiques the ways that Partisans and Apologists, as he calls them, have sought to defend the use of the term. This has usually been attempted by means of biblical and historical scholarship. Defenders of the term mission as an interpretive category of Scripture argue their case by way of three methods: creating a biblical foundation, e.g. J. H. Bavinck, Peters; reading the Bible through a missional hermeneutic, e.g. Wright, Bauckham; and the identification of missionary themes, e.g. Kaiser, Köstenberger and O’Brien. Alongside these methods a lexical trail, e.g. J. H. Bavinck, or semantic field, e.g. Köstenberger, may be constructed to demonstrate the appropriate use of the language of mission. But mission in all these approaches is not just seen as a means to an end (104): “means become an end” (104-105) and in so becoming mission becomes sacred language. But mission “fills the whole horizon”, eclipsing more “theologically rich and biblical concepts such as covenant, reconciliation, witness, and love”.
The problem with all these methods is that mission is a priori
In historical studies, likewise, early and medieval examples of ministry are labelled as mission, even though the term is never used in contemporary writing. The problem with all these methods is that mission is a priori: that is, mission is assumed as a category and examples are then sought in the data (biblical or historical). But mission is a category that has a particular meaning that is rooted in the modern era. So, it is anachronistic to read the Bible and Christian history though this lens.
In part two, Innovating Mission, Stroope examines the origin of mission terminology. Exile, sojourner, and pilgrim were common terms used to describe the expansion of Christianity during the Middle Ages. Pilgrim language was then co-opted by Christendom powers for political ends and territorial expansion, most starkly in the crusades and in the founding of colonies in the Levant.
In the modern period pilgrim terminology became mission terminology as Ignatius Loyola and his band of Jesuits made a vow to go anywhere the Pope would send them to do his bidding. Mission became what they are to do and the structure to carry that out. It is only with the passage of some time that Franciscans and Dominicans, then others in the Roman Catholic church, and finally Protestants adopt the word and, with it, the conceptual framework.
In part three, Revising Mission, Stroope argues that during the nineteenth century there developed the “rhetoric of a modern tradition” (289). The author engages with the debate over whether the Reformers had an interest in mission. Apologists for mission argue that they did, based on their evangelistic zeal and the odd foray outside of Christendom. It has been argued that the massive work of reforming the church, the political troubles that dogged their efforts, the lack of missionary structures (in contrast to the Roman Catholic orders), and the late involvement of Protestant powers in the colonial project delayed full-blown Protestant entry into mission. But Stroope points out that mission language is absent among Protestants during the early years of the Reformation: “Mission and missionary were not adopted until the early eighteenth century and did not become stablished, common rhetoric until the nineteenth century” (294, original emphasis). Though Calvin did indeed have a desire that the gospel might be preached to Turks, Jews and ‘heathen’ and had a part in commissioning two pastors to travel with the dozen Huguenots to establish a colony in Brazil in 1557 it is not clear whether they went to evangelize the South American Indians or to pastor of the Huguenots or both (295). These facts “do not represent a programmatic commitment to a mission or mission strategy” (296). The Reformers’ lack of mission rhetoric “has more to do with the absence of the conceptual framework of ’mission’ at their time than their understanding of the gospel as universal in scope” (ibid.). One reason for this was that the term was used by the Jesuits in their programme against the Reformers. So, in fact, the Reformers actively opposed ‘mission’.
The high point, as others have also noted, was the Edinburgh Mission Conference of 1910. “The modern mission movement…represents a set of historical occurrences imbued with religious, social, national, and emotional connotations” (318). The phrase “functions as rhetorical device…of a tradition…. In this way, the modern mission movement structures reality…” (318-19). The tradition gave validity and significance to mission. Missionary language at Edinburgh was militaristic and reminiscent of the distant memory of the Medieval Crusades. There was a language of conquest and occupation and Christianization “akin to the Latinization of the Levant following the First Crusade and the subjugation of peoples in Spanish and Portuguese colonizing efforts” (336).
After Edinburgh, however, attitudes toward mission began to change rapidly. From the International Missionary Council meeting in 1928, and especially with the publication of the Layman’s Enquiry (Re-thinking Mission) (the full version of which was published in 1933) attempts were made to revise mission. Now, argues Stroope, we live in a “post-foreign mission situation” and that requires us to reconceive the church and world encounter, not redefine or reform mission” (352-53). That, the author attempts to do in the Epilogue.
Central in the Bible’s storyline, says the author, echoing other writers, is the kingdom of God. This brings Stroope to his central proposal:
Embracing the kingdom of God does not remove us from the world but transforms our encounters within the world. Orientation to and formation in the kingdom of God readies us for engagement with the world by transforming us into witnesses to the kingdom and pilgrims of the kingdom. As pilgrim witnesses we participate in the coming reign of God. (370, emphasis in the original)
this is a brilliant book
I think this is a brilliant book. It is meticulously researched, cogently argued, and utterly convincing. It should become a standard textbook in mission courses, though those courses will probably now need be called something different! It must surely take its place as one of the seminal arguments in the rehabilitation of a truer form of gospel living as the church emerges out of modernity.
Without wanting to sound too critical, however, I think in places the author overstates his case. In writing of Paul, for instance, Stroope argues that the apostle supported himself as a leatherworker and “thus did not become a full-time religious professional of any kind” (95). This is surely going too far. He certainly worked with his hands to support himself. But it is also clear that he was not averse to asking those he had brought to Christ to help him out so that he might be freed from having to do so (2 Cor 11: 8-9; Phil 4:14-18). Some pilgrim witnesses in the NT were clearly reliant on contributions of the Lord’s people. Absolutizing tentmaking, which Stroope apparently is keen to do, does not do the whole text justice.
Furthermore, one is left wondering what part, if any, organizational structures might have in the pursuance of pilgrim witness. Clearly, if people who are beyond reach of pilgrim witnesses at present, because the latter do not naturally wander into their neighbourhood –as is probably the case for three billion of the world’s population – some urgent thought is called for. Urgent thought will surely result in intentionality, which then asks questions about stewardship and, yes, even strategy. I share with the author his apparent allergy to a reliance on management in gospel witness. But, ultimately, some level of organization is called for to enable disciples of Christ to carry out their pilgrimage in the company of people who are presently outside its scope.
It must surely take its place as one of the seminal arguments in the rehabilitation of a truer form of gospel living as the church emerges out of modernity
The following are minor errors that should have been eliminated by the proof reader: ‘illusions’ should be allusions (110); ‘affect’ should be effect (311 & 369); ‘work’ should be world (351); there is an extraneous ‘can’ (372) and ‘that’ (385). There also seems to be a problem with the arithmetic in the account of the Portuguese ambassador requesting Ignatius for ten men to be allocated for their interests in the East. From Ignatius’ reply it seems only six were requested (283). Finally, there are a few typos: insisit (158); pereginantes (171); is is (175); ecclesical (296).