THE Church is currently absorbed in the language of “mission”: mission statements, mission action plans, missional communities, bishops’ mission orders, the Anglican “five marks of mission”. . . But, in this provocative study, Michael Stroope asserts that mission is a modern invention, which blinds us to the gospel and its full implications.
Taking his lead from David Bosch’s classic Transforming Mission (1991), he goes much further. Stroope has no desire to rehabilitate or reimagine the language of mission, but wants to abandon it altogether: “it is not that mission has a problem, mission is the problem.”
The modern Church is guilty of anachronistically reading “mission” back into our founding texts, Stroope maintains. It was unknown in the Old and New Testaments — even Paul’s famous “missionary journeys” is a description invented in the 1740s. It was also unknown in the Early Church. St Augustine, St Columba, and St Patrick were not missionaries, he insists, though the concept is smuggled by recent English translations back into Bede’s Ecclesiastical History.
Even the doctrine of missio dei, presumed to be ancient, Stroope dates to Karl Barth in the 1930s. Mission rhetoric, he argues, was created by the Jesuits in the 16th century, in the crusading spirit of Spanish and Portuguese colonisation, before being borrowed by Protestants in the 18th century. By the Victorian era, it had become thoroughly entrenched, a “regulating ideology”.
Stroope wants us to throw off these blinkers, and return to an older vision of Christians as “pilgrim witnesses”, who are “liberated to live alongside and love those we encounter along the way”, spreading the gospel informally, almost accidentally.
The author was himself a missionary in Sri Lanka, and is now Professor of Christian Missions at a Baptist seminary in Texas, but confesses to years of “dissonance” with his calling. It is a stimulating book that stops us in our tracks, and forces us to question basic axioms about mission which are universally taken for granted.
Nevertheless, Stroope’s argument is ultimately unpersuasive. He relies on special pleading and enjoys slaying straw men. His cartoons of current mission thinking are exaggerated, and he loses credibility by repeatedly overstating his case. Yes, the global spread of the gospel is often ad hoc, for example as Christian migrants tell their stories where they have been dispersed.
But Jesus also commands the Church to go and tell, which requires deliberate decision and personal sacrifice. The apostles may not have been “professional missionaries”, but proclamation of the Kingdom of God was their top priority.
The Revd Dr Andrew Atherstone is Latimer Research Fellow of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.
Transcending Mission: The eclipse of a modern tradition
Michael W. Stroope
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