Discussing the practice of mission often starts with sociology. Reversing the trend, this book gets it right by approaching mission from a theological foundation. The result is a refreshingly non-anthropocentric analysis of missions, written by Southern Baptist authors working in various ministries throughout the world and published by a Southern Baptist publishing house, which attempts to connect with important topics in the practice of missions.
To that end, the book is divided into three parts. Part one argues that the key to understanding the mission of God’s people is understanding the mission of God. It pays special attention to the biblical themes of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. These four themes highlight God’s purpose in promoting his praise and in bringing about a gospel-people to share in the kingdom.
Part two connects God’s people with God’s mission. The church’s job is to bear witness to the gospel, in word and deed, throughout culture. The book offers a theologically driven approach to social justice, church planting, and evangelism. It emphasizes the primacy of the local church, but it lacks a broader discussion of the role of non-church entities in the business of evangelism, social services, etc. There is also little to direct the reader in regard to engaging public policy, which is surprising since Southern Baptists have been very vocal in the public square. This oversight may imply that engaging public policy is not a critical part of the church’s mission.
Chapter seven, “The Gospel and Social Responsibility,” rightly argues that caring for the poor is the job of all Christians, but it could do more to explain how the gospel informs social responsibility. For instance, it would benefit from discussing how the gospel should inform the government’s role in social services or how local churches might work with non-profit organizations to care for the poor. It advocates a 60/40 approach to caring for the poor, prioritizing those inside the church over those outside the church; it makes a further distinction between the guilty and guiltless poor. These distinctions unfortunately oversimplify the concepts of guilt and guiltlessness in terms of poverty, and under this umbrella it unnecessarily dichotomizes believing communities from non-believing communities. Furthermore, the idea that the church should prioritize a member who is poor due to his own mistakes over a non-believing community member (i.e., neighbor) who is poor through no fault of his own seems ethically counterintuitive.
In chapter eight, “The Gospel and Culture,” Bruce Ashford provides a gospel-centered strategy for culture engagement. He shows that the biblical narrative from creation to restoration is essential to properly understanding culture (pp. 112–18). The rest of the chapter explains how the church proclaims and embodies the gospel in culture and brings theology to bear on “all dimensions of human society and culture” (p. 124). Christians are called to practice contextualization, Ashford argues, that is both faithful to scripture and meaningful in the socio-cultural context (p. 121). The church must be able to critique the culture and avoid the temptation to “equate the gospel with a cultural context” (p. 122). Ashford exposes the reader to significant voices on this subject, including Kevin Vanhoozer, Calvin, Luther, J. H. Bavinck, and Abraham Kuyper. In order to proclaim and embody the gospel, Christians must live faithfully to Christ in the workplace (vocatio) and act “Christianly” (possessio) in all cultural endeavors (p. 125).
The third part of the book (“The Church’s Mission to the Nations”) applies the mission of God and the church to specific issues (discipleship, church planting, suffering, and unreached people groups), to religions (Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Animism), and to western culture (postmodernism). It shows that the mission of God is broad in scope and pertinent to both national and domestic missions. Chapter twenty (“Mission to Postmoderns”) would better serve the reader by thoroughly critiquing postmodernism. Part four concludes with two chapters seeking to further implement a theologically driven concept of mission and cultural engagement.
One contribution that I especially appreciate is J. D. Payne’s chapter, “Mission and Church Planting.” Payne argues that church planters should strive for simplicity (p. 204) and that the church’s simplicity is what makes it adaptable in various cultures (p. 206). He refers to “the biblical parameters” (p. 207) of the church but fails to define what constitutes a church. A discussion of essential church offices and practices would help support the thesis that ecclesiology is the foundation of missiology (p. 60). Payne thought-provokingly defines biblical church planting as “evangelism that results in new churches” (p. 203), an important definition because many church plants seem to grow by transplant rather than conversion. Payne also sounds a much-needed caution against models of church planting that simply copy other “successful” church models (p. 203).
This book is well-written and accomplishes its stated intent of providing a “biblical-theological framework for understanding the church’s mission to the nation” (p. 1). I appreciate that it sees the local church as the primary vehicle for kingdom advancement and the center of cultural engagement. Theology and Practice of Mission does an excellent job tracing major themes and showing how they relate to missions, and for that reason it could serve well as a supplemental text in a missiology, theology, or intercultural studies course, and its biblical approach makes it suitable for wide evangelical audience. As someone ministering in a multicultural environment, I think that this is a helpful book for those seeking to connect the gospel to culture.