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Transcending Mission by Michael W. Stroope

07 July 2017

Andrew Atherstone on the idea that ‘mission’ is an over-used word


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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Bringing Down the Mighty: Church, Theology and Structural Injustice
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