(IVP Academic, 2017)
***Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.***
This book reminds readers that language matters. Language can be specific or broad, repressive or liberating, restrictive or enabling. Ultimately, though, language shapes identity. For these reasons, Michael W. Stroope of George W. Truett Theological Seminary puts the word mission under the microscope. His investigation leads him to make the bold statement that “the rhetorical problem of modern mission is a barrier to faithful witness to Jesus Christ,” (27).
During the book, he takes readers “beyond the symptoms mission presents to a diagnosis of the source and cause of its problem,” (174). His illustration for this point is that people have been trying to revise the use of the word mission in a way like people who have bad water in their home using a filter to make it not taste as bad. Instead of just trying to put a bandage on the real problem, they need to check if the source or pipes are contaminating the whole water supply, and if so, be prepared to find a new solution. For modern missions, that may mean abandoning the problematic word mission.
After that controversial introduction, Stroope uses Section I, Justifying Mission, which is about 150 pages, to account for the absence of the word mission in the self-assessment and description of activities undertaken by both biblical figures and those of the church’s early history. This section belabors the point that early witnesses did not use language of mission nor consider themselves missionaries, although both are words ascribed to them in modern-era chronicles of history. Instead, they self-describe and are described by contemporaries with terms such as pilgrims, martyrs, disciples, saints, monks, nuns and their action is described as witnessing, preaching, and evangelizing.
In Section II, Innovating Mission, Stroope directs readers to the emergence of the word mission. He finds terms that will be later co-opted in the language of mission and the intermingling of political and ecclesial aims. Ignatius’ famous “missionary” vow was essentially to do whatever the pope asked of him, which meant preaching, hearing confession and serving the poor.
Section III, Revising Mission, begins with a brief chapter showing how Protestant mission was analogous to Catholic mission, albeit beginning a couple of centuries later. In the final chapter, Stroope shows how mission and modernity have grown up for too long together. It is time to recognize waning Christendom, mission’s colonial legacy, pluralism, the growth of previously marginal Christianities, and the decline of modernity as signs that mission language needs to go.
In the Epilogue (in my opinion the most important section of the book), Stroope gives us a new vocabulary for the era in which we find ourselves. All believers should consider themselves pilgrim witnesses. Stroope’s reasoning for selecting these specific words as a “new vocabulary” is they are from the biblical world and the entire sweep of Christian history. They are not new, but have been right under our noses the whole time! Stroope reveals to us that this book is ultimately about the kingdom of God. All believers have the message of the kingdom of God, which he expects believers can share with a language of revelation and hope. As witnesses, we behold the vision of the kingdom of God and tell others how that is transforming our encounter with the world. He hopes the new language will open new possibilities and help us shed many Christendom assumptions. As a reader, I couldn’t help but share that hope.
Readers will appreciate Stroope’s clarity and accessibility, but should expect to encounter some more technical missiology language with which they may not be entirely familiar. In the book, Stroope makes clear he is not using a straw-man for his argument. His examples are specific and abundant, almost to the point of being excessive. He had multiple audiences in mind when writing this book, and while a work of this volume cannot please all readers, I can foresee it being a useful undergraduate or seminary textbook, as well as a necessary resource for all church leaders as they cast vision for how they see their calling and help members of their churches recognize their callings.
Some may disagree with Stroope’s proposals made in the epilogue, but the buildup in Section III gives readers the NEED for a “fresh expression.” I would not be surprised if many who have a vested interest in the “modern missions movement” give this book a critical reception. It takes the rallying cries of modern missions and deconstructs their purposes and the language by which they operate, ultimately finding them unsatisfactory for the current context.
Michael Stroope has ignited a discussion with a way forward in a conversation that needs fresh life. It is time to transcend mission, taking with us what we have learned in modernity and relearning from ages past so that we may best provide a faithful pilgrim witness to the post-Christendom globalized world.
Rory Jones is a student at George W. Truett Theological Seminary and a co-editor at Words About God. He enjoys cooking with his wife, Elise, and playing board games.