Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Does Mission Matter?

Review of Mission Matters: Essays on the Theory, Practice and Contexts of Mission by Keiran Beville (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2014).

Mission Matters is a two-part collection of essays and reports that have been published before in magazines and journals over a number of years. The author is a pastor in Ireland and a visiting professor at Tyndale Theological Seminary in Amsterdam. In Part 1 Beville covers a number of missiological topics such as the nature of mission, the role of the local church in mission, and issues focussing on the Western context.

Beville roots his theology of mission in the mission of God (missio Dei) (149) and argues that mission should be defined broadly and holistically while retaining the central place of evangelism. He ably discusses contemporary movements such as ‘Aggressive Atheism’ and ‘Militant Secularism’ and suggests ways that the church should respond to these.

Beville argues, rightly I think, that ‘postmodernism presents a new frontier situation’ (94, though not perhaps so new now) and expresses concern that some Christians have sold out to the spirit of the age. Though I agree that that has indeed happened I think that Beville’s choice of the ‘missional church’ to direct his fire at is problematic. Without referencing any writer or public figure he describes the missional church as if it is one neatly defined movement and then sets about challenging this straw man. Pastors and other leaders from a broad range of doctrinal and missiological positions advocate reforms to church life that are characterized as missional so such a critique is too blunt an instrument for the job.

In reflecting on ‘false religions’ (130) Beville argues that there are ‘commonalities’ with the truth that can be used as ‘a fertile place for the true gospel of Jesus to take root’. He wants to distance himself though from the idea that ‘people throwing themselves on God’s mercy in response to natural revelation necessarily leads to salvation’, which suggests that, nevertheless it might be possible. The author goes on to argue that ‘where [the Scriptures] are not available or where a person has not had access to Scripture we may be sure that God knows how individuals would have responded if given the opportunity to do so’ (136). I wonder on what basis we may be so sure.

Part 2 is a collection of reports from trips the author has taken to various far-flung places such as India, Romania and Serbia. I would have been very happy to read these in their first incarnation but in a book they come across as dated and out of place, viz., for example, a photo of parking problems in Romania! Furthermore, although he acknowledges that he is ‘very new to the Indian scene’ (310), his makes forthright statements about the dalits that suggest that careful research of the missiological context is optional. Sadly, the factual errors presented demonstrate sociological and political naiveté. Is this inevitable when pastors travel overseas for short-term ministry? I hope not, but it is all too common.

Although the author has a number of good things to say, as a whole the book disappoints. It would have been better had the author used the stories in part 2 to illustrate the points he was making in Part 1 rather than divide the book in two. As it is, the book lacks cohesion. There are presentational issues, too, that drag the book down: poor printing (several pages have lines running through photos and text) and, in places, poor punctuation.

Although the reader can gain a good deal of helpful insights from this book, more reliable alternatives would be John Piper’s Let the Nations be Glad! The Supremacy of God in Missions (3d edition; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010) or, the recently published book by Michael W. Goheen, Introducing Christian Mission Today: Scripture, History and Issues (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2014).

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