Transcending Mission: A review

Over the last couple of months, whilst back in the UK, I’ve been reading a number of books. Michael Stroope Transcending Mission (IVP academic 2017) is one. It’s a serious, well-argued book that sets out to show why we should abandon the word mission (as well as missions, missional and the rest).

Anyone involved in ‘mission’ needs to grapple with this for three reasons:

  1. Mission isn’t a Biblical word; if we use it in place of biblical ideas or as a lens to read the Bible we are distorting the faith.
  2. Mission language involves echoes of the past; of people travelling from christian land to non-christian land; from ‘our’ culture to ‘yours’ with the implicit notion that ours has a higher status (because we are the ones sent to do God’s work). We may not recognise it in ourselves, but we easily fall into an imperialist mindset.
  3. Missions often use the language of business or of warfare rather than being based in theology or in the kingdom of God.

So what is Stroope’s argument?

Stroope begins by noting how the word mission is imprecise and used in a wide variety of ways before getting to the heart of his argument. First, that the word is not a biblical word, and not a word that Jesus, Paul or the Apostles use to describe what they are doing, which means that using mission terminology clouds the faithful interpretation of Scripture. Second, mission and missionary were not words used by the early church to describe the activities they were engaged in; rather those who spread the faith as bishops, disciples, pilgrims, martyrs; their activities were apostolic but not missionary. Third, that using mission language to describe the history of the church is not only anachronistic but distorts our understanding.

In the second part Stroope explains how mission language came to the fore with Ignatius and the Jesuit mission, building on the background of the crusades and the Portuguese & Spanish territorial conquests around the world. This Ignatian innovation of mission resulted in mission being understood as the ‘particular activity of sending ecclesial agents to foreign lands’. Although hesitant, in time, Protestants used the term mission and developed it so it became connected with the work of the new societies that were being formed for the propagation of the gospel. By the end of the nineteenth century these ideas and activities coalesced into the notion of the modern missionary movement and described the way in which modern Christians spoke of the encounter with the world beyond Europe and America.

Stroope argues that ‘missions’ is a modern tradition and the phrase ‘modern mission movement’ as become a way of ‘organizing reality’; like a belief it connects people and organisations to a defining ideology which serves to prescribe beliefs, values and behaviours. But this is not without problems; it set up Christianity as being in a struggle over other religions and world forces, looking for the advancement of Christendom over non-christian lands and saw other religions and societal ills as problems to be overcome with mission rather than by the church. Commenting on the Edinburgh missionary conference of 1910 he notes the air of optimism that was based on “what mission societies were doing and could do. When the church was mentioned, it was usually in regard to its laxness and unwillingness to shoulder the mission cause” (p337).

Stroope argues that changes in the world mean that mission language should be abandoned. Waning Christendom means that the centres of Christianity are no longer in Europe or US – mission is no longer from Christendom to heathendom. The colonial legacy of mission can’t be dismissed and has deep roots within the language of mission. Pluralism means that it is no longer intelligible to talk of a missionary as being sent from the place where Christianity is, to another place where it is not. In its place Stroope wants to refocus on the language of the Kingdom of God, of revelation and of hope, with people living as witnesses and pilgrims to the kingdom.

My reflections

Stroope is not the first person to note the limitations of mission language, nor to note its history largely begins with Portuguese and Spanish Conquistadores. But mission is not the only word used in Christian circles whose meaning has been given a distinctly modern twist; consider how the breadth of uses of the word ‘worship’ or how ideas of being ‘left behind’ of dispensational premillennialism have become common place (even though they owe their origins to JN Darby in 1800’s rather than Scripture).

Like many authors his analysis of the problem is perhaps stronger than his proposed solution. His proposal of kingdom language, whilst having a stronger biblical pedigree, does not eradicate issues of power or colonialist overtones (as can be seen by the desire in some quarters to speak of the kin-dom of God). His preference for pilgrim language is also an introduction of non-biblical language, and opens him to accusations that his ideas are overly individualistic rather than the work of the church community.

There is an outward focus in the Scriptures and in the history of the church and while Stroope is right to call our attention to the limitations of mission language the problem is not simply the concept of mission but the way that this element of the Christian faith has been separated from others. Rather than downplaying Barth’s introduction of missio Dei into contemporary discussions (and rather ignoring that the sent-ness of the Son was an important part of patristic understanding of Jesus) he might have noted the presence of important themes such as this in the history of theology because it is in these themes that resources to re-envision the church’s place in the world lie. For the church has always had an apostolic calling to proclaim the scriptures and witness to God. An apostolic call which was seen in Paul’s commission to make the word of God fully known (Colossians 1:24ff) and in Jesus’ words to Peter (Matthew 16) that he will build his church; a call arising from God’s relationship to the world and from our role as ambassadors of the message of reconciliation through Christ.

The wrong turning in Protestant mission may not have been the appropriation of mission language so much as the separation of mission from the life of the church and of missiology from the great doctrinal themes of the person and work of Christ, the Godhead, the Holy Spirit, creation, and the church, etc. Changing the language of mission without changing our engagement with these will not provide the lasting reorientation that is required.

Overall this is a great book; it makes its points well and raises some discomforting questions for mission, missionaries and mission agencies. For agencies in particular it raises questions about how they understand themselves and the task they are engaged in, for how they relate to local churches in countries where they work. Its call for linguistic care is timely but the real fruit will not just be in our choice of language but in the degree to which we rethink how to be faithful communities, proclaiming and demonstrating the good news to all creation. If you are a student of missions, a teacher or trainer of Christian disciples or a leader in a church or mission setting you need to read this book.

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