Sunday, July 6, 2014

Theology of Mission by John Howard Yoder: A Review Howard Yoder is most known for his theological work in ethics and non-violence. However, from 1964-1983, Yoder taught a class on theology of mission. This book is a editorial revision of the recorded lectures from that class. While the content pre-dates the current missional conversation initiated by Lesslie Newbigin and furthered by the publication of Missional Church, edited by Darrel Guder, et al., it’s message is a prophetic and welcomed voice to the missional conversation.

Yoder’s theology interprets mission through the perspective of what he calls “believer’s church.” As is consistent with the rest of Yoder’s body of work, he works through his chosen topic from an Anabaptistic perspective.

His contributions add considerable weight to the conversation of mission in the North American context. Some of these contributions include the following. First, Yoder emphasizes the importance of the dynamics of the church as faithful covenant partners to mission in the world. In other words, it confronts the idea that missional is simply a shift from an internal focus to an external focus (318).

Secondly, he espouses what he calls a “long view” of mission. Instead of focusing the church on visible growth factors that can be manipulated to produce church success, he offers a point of view that focuses on the way the church lives and the long-term impact that this way of life can have on redeeming the world. He writes, "In the long view there have been rises and falls in the church's visible success and faithfulness and mission. There were times when there seemed to be success and it turned out to be hollow. There were other times when there seemed to be failure and persecution, and it turned out that there was still vitality. It is not for us to reckon these things; we know that God will conquer and that God will take up into the fulfillment of our ministry of presence. We do not have to figure out when or how soon this will happen. In fact, one of the things that God uses for divine purposes is our patience, which means our willingness to take the long view." (318)

Thirdly, he challenges the pietistic emphasis on internal renewal and private morality while accepting the external factors of a given culture as neutral. The church is called to be a prophetic presence in the midst of the culture, calling into question public patterns that undermine the kingdom.

Fourthly, he emphasizes the call of mission for presence and servanthood in the midst of culture. Within this, he challenges the notions of church growth theology, which focuses primarily upon the conversion experience and propositional beliefs. Evangelism for the sake of getting people to convert put church success at the center, not the mission of God.

Finally, offers a concrete method for mission—an alternative to popular methods—which he calls “migration evangelism,” a strategy he espouses as a missions strategy whereby Christians move as a group into an area and take on jobs within the culture and live as embodied witnesses to the way of the kingdom (408). This is an excellent alternative to the professional minister who sets out alone to be on mission. While he does to apply this method to the modern Western context, this could be easily adapted today.

As one critique, the exact focus of the mission of God—one that he clearly grounds in the Triune sending of the Son and Spirit—is not as clear as it could be. He does not address how the church which embraces the long view of mission and seeks to faithfully live in covenant relationship with the Father, Son and Spirit actually engages a culture on mission and for what end this engagement occurs. While he does confront the “enclave mentality of the church,” (284) and recognizes that salvation is historical, it is not clear what it means for the church to engage the culture on mission that offers an alternative to the pietistic and church growth mentalities that he challenges. How does a church think about engaging a society that has been dominated by Christendom systems and offer a prophetic challenge to it? This question is left largely unaddressed in a satisfactory way.

If you are at all interested in the questions around the church and mission, this book is worth your time. Even if you are not from an Anabaptist background, it will sharpen your understanding about what it means for your church to participate with God in God's mission. 

Yoder, John Howard, Edited by Gayle Gerber Koontz and Andy Alexis-Baker. Theology of Mission: A Believer’s Church Perspective. Downer’s Grove, IL Intervarsity Press, 2014. 400 pages 

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