Epistles of Thomas

September 18, 2009

Christian Mission in the Modern World review

Filed under: Review — Thomas @ 17:59
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missmodnJohn R. W. Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World. Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2008. 0830834117, 9780830834112.

This is a reprint of Stott’s classic with a new forward by Ajith Fernando. This book began life as the 1975 Chavasse Lectures at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. Nothing has been changed in the book so it is somewhat dated but still an excellent resource for dealing with issues of Christian mission within the context of European sensibilities. He structures his lectures around defining words: mission, evangelism, dialogue, salvation and conversion. This is valuable not just to the stated “modern” world but especially the postmodern one.

In understanding mission we need to know that “The primal mission is God’s, for it is he who sent his prophets, his Son, his Spirit. Of these missions the mission of the Son is central, for it was the culmination of the ministry of the prophets, and it embraced within itself as its climax the sending of the Spirit. And now the Son sends as he himself was sent” (36). This is certainly the heart of mission. He then goes on to explain the relationship between mission and social work. This is an area North American Christians have not explored to the same extent as Europeans. Stott is clear that “the actual Commission itself must be understood to include social as well as evangelistic responsibility, unless we are to be guilty of distorting the words of Jesus” (37). We must take on the role of servants because “it is in our servant role that we can find the right synthesis of evangelism and social action” (39). The two are partners and “the two belong to each other and yet are independent of each other” (43). This is his definition of mission which is broad enough to not just encompass both spiritual outreach and Christian service, but to demand it.

Some have argued that evangelism must have results, otherwise it is not evangelism so Stott makes it clear, “Evangelism is the announcement of the good news, irrespective of the results” (60). Still true today: “Nothing hinders evangelism today more than the widespread loss of confidence in the truth, relevance and power of the gospel” (63). He works through five elements of the gospel: events (68-71); witnesses (71-74); affirmations (75-78); promises (78-80); and demands (80-83).

He then turns to the issue of dialogue with those of other religions. He mentions that it is almost impossible to find a dialogue partner who is entering it with the spirit of dialogue. He then examines dialogue with Hindus, Muslims, and industrial Britains. He then looks at salvation and conversion.

I was most interested with his comments regarding M. M. Thomas and his book Salvation and Humanization. Currently there is a similar debate over whether Muslims have to “leave Islam” in order to be Christian. Thomas argued that Hindus could remain within the Hindu community in the social, legal, and religious sense even after converting to Christianity (176). This parallels the arguments regarding “hidden” Muslim believers. Stott first quotes Lesslie Newbigin who rejected the idea, saying that in this case the person is still a Hindu. He then argues from the biblical record that Christians must undergo a transfer from one community to another. This transfer is seen in their baptism and church membership (178f).

Although I mentioned at the beginning that this book is somewhat dated we must learn from the past or we are doomed to repeat it. The issue of “hidden” believers is nothing new and we would do well to reflect on what was said 30+ years ago and apply it to our own situation today. Of course the initial definitions and reflections on mission are just as valid today and can help inform our own, often limited, perspective.

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