Mike gave an introductory paper, telling us a little of his ministry story as well as informing us of the thesis of the book and of the reactions it has received. I was fascinated to hear that he had had a significant part to play in the SBC International Missions Board's leadership in the 1990s, a story told by Keith Eitel in Paradigm Wars. I had been in Nepal at that time and had seen some of the fruit of the machinations in the organization that Eitel documents. (I asked Mike about it at the end of the day but didn't have enough time to really interact. Suffice it to say that those events had a significant impact on the development of my missiology so I do hope I can interact further before long.)
Mike spoke graciously and humbly, admitting that he had had some pretty strong negative reactions to his argument. That is to be understood as the book really calls much of the modern missions movement into question.
David Smith's Mission after Christendom was a tremendous help to me when I arrived back in the UK after 20 years in Asia. David was asked to prepare a response to Mike, which he did ably and winsomely. Sometimes there can be a hard spirit in such gatherings, where egos seem to count more than truth and the good of the church and the glory of Christ. Not so here. David expressed his admiration for the book, situating it in a line of very significant works such as Cragg's The Secular Experience of Christ, Bosch's Transforming Mission, and the work of Andrew Walls (David's mentor), and suggesting that Stroope's book extends the long-running disputes of those authors.
He then highlighted three issues that the book throws up:
1. The relationship between mission and colonialismThe modern missions movement had an ambivalent relationship with the colonial project. There was significant overlap without a doubt, though this is often overplayed. David then argued that Mike's book misses out on the very important role that missions had in the emergence of World Christianity and even of the revitalisation of cultures in places such as Africa.
Furthermore, Protestant mission movements were not monolithic. Many early pioneers, such as William Carey (1761-1834), were dissenting Baptists. Far from being at the centre of power, they were at the margins. Carey's approach towards Hinduism was respectful: hardly a colonialist attitude and very different from the high period of colonialism of a later generation.
2. The relationship of terminology and concepts of mission and the Bible
Stroope argues that mission, missions, missional, etc have become sacred rhetoric with no biblical foundation. Smith challenges this main assertion of the book in two ways:
a) How, if we cannot employ such a concept as mission, can we explain what Paul had in mind when he instructed the Roman church to support him in his vision to go to Spain, a challenge that would have necessitated a two-step process of translation to Latin and Iberian languages (Rom 15:23-24)? Paul was a model for what might be done by other disciples of Christ. How do we talk about that? What language should we use? Furthermore, Paul, as has been pointed out before, was reaching out from one marginal position to another, not from a position of power.
b) Is the 'pilgrim witness' language that Stroope argues for, the most appropriate? And what do we mean precisely by the 'kingdom of God'? [My notes are a bit incoherent here!] David questioned whether the missions movement was really subverting the kingdom of God, as seems to be suggested. There are clearly examples of unrighteous acts done by some missionaries (and here Smith mentioned the missionaries of one particular country, who are the subject of a PhD dissertation which he recently examined). But there are very many examples of good work going on too. Moreover, we need to note the emphasis on human agency that Carey asserted in his Enquiry, in the face of a hyper-Calvinistic challenge.
3. The use of 'transcendence' - what might it look like?
Are we now moving beyond Bosch's liminal stage? Smith here mentioned Wall's recent Crossing Cultural Frontiers and his discussion of migration. Surely both persuasion and demonstration are important in the work of witnesses. Here David also referred to an article on 'Theological Method' in the Global Dictionary of Theology and Terry Eagleton's Culture and the Death of God.
Two shorter presentations were also given - by Rosalee Veloso Ewell, giving a female and global South perspective, and by a Redcliffe College student, Aaron, giving a Millenial perspective. Short opportunities for interaction were given after each presentation.
Mike Stroope gave a final reaction to the day in which he informed us he was working on a follow-up book expanding on the epilogue of Transcending Mission.
The audience gave a sympathetic and respectful hearing to the argument and responses. I found the day very stimulating indeed. I was heartened at the spirit of interaction, especially by the two main speakers. I think the concerns with the book that I expressed in my review were shared by others. Although I think Mike's thesis is basically correct, I continue to believe he overstates his case. I find it difficult to see how vast chunks of humanity will be exposed to the glorious person of the Lord Jesus without a more intentional approach.
One concept that seemed to have achieved virtual consensus in the papers and discussion is that of World Christianity. I whole-heartedly agree that we need to be learning from each other across the cultural and continental divides. However, there seems to be little or no awareness of the fact that there is a growing body of followers of Christ who do not identify themselves as belonging to World Christianity. We may listen to Christians in their countries and still be way off really understanding our other brothers and sisters. And we will remain just as handicapped in our efforts to reach out to the vast numbers who, while open to considering the person of Christ would find World Christianity far too alien.
On a personal level this book challenges me to reflect on my words, my actions, and my character, as I continue to seek to work out how the Lord would have me continue to use my gifts, experience, and energies for his glory.