Words matter. This is the fundamental conviction of Michael Stroope in his major new book, Transcending Mission (published by IVP Academic in the USA and IVP/Apollos in the UK). Stroope has written an important call for linguistic precision with respect to ‘mission’. In fact, Stroope makes the case that the term ‘mission’ (along with related terms such as ‘missionary’) is so compromised by its history and is used so imprecisely in modern literature that it should be abandoned in favour of language more firmly rooted in the Scriptures and in the history of Christianity.
I think it is fair to say that this is a bold and provocative thesis, but Stroope makes his case with great care and clarity. This book should be read by everyone who is concerned about precise and appropriate use of language in ‘Mission Studies’.
After a prologue reflecting on personal experience and perceptions of mission, Stroope begins his work with an introduction, showing how ‘mission’ has been used in many different ways. He identifies seven different meanings of the term (10-11), and recognises that there might be others. He then discusses the related terms ‘missions’, ‘missio Dei’ (Latin for ‘mission of God’), ‘missional’, ‘missionally’, noting that the language is used in ways that are confused, confusing, indeed ‘murky’ (27), so that there is a fundamental problem with the language. He states,
Mission, birthed and developed in the modern age, is itself inadequate language for the church in the current age. Rather than rehabilitating or redeeming mission, we have to move beyond its rhetoric, its practice, and its view of the world. The task is one of transcending mission. (26)
The first part of the book is composed of four chapters. In the first chapter, Stroope identifies different stances towards mission, namely ‘partisans’ and ‘apologists’. Partisans are, he says, ‘activists for mission’ (35).
The aim of the Partisan is to convince and move people toward commitment to or support of contemporary mission activities and missionaries. They proclaim mission and missionary as biblical without qualifying statements or accompanying evidence (35).
Apologists, on the other hand,
recognize the obvious absence of mission in Scripture and seek to establish justification for the term. These interpreters acknowledge that the use of mission and missionary cannot be assumed, so they mount a defence of their use. Unlike Partisans, Apologists do not rush past terminology without giving some definition to their use or making a case for mission and missionary (37).
Stroope then evaluates the various ways in which people justify their use of the category of mission. He claims that they ‘either construct a biblical foundation for mission, interpret the whole of Scripture via a missional hermeneutic, or identify mission themes’ (37). In each case, though in different ways, Stroope regards these approaches as inadequate.
The second chapter looks at ‘mission interpretations’ of Scripture (73).Stroope cites statements from many recent scholarly publications that employ the language of mission. He argues that this is not helpful because the terminology is anachronistic, suggesting a modern concept with its various connotations, and because mission language ‘diminishes the place of more theologically rich and biblical concepts, such as covenant, reconciliation, witness, and love’ (105).
In chapters three and four, Stroope proceeds to consider studies of the history of early Christianity. He notes that while ‘mission’ and ‘missionary’ are frequently employed by authors to describe the life and work of figures such as Columba, such terminology is entirely absent from the early sources. Much more typical are descriptions such as ‘bishops, pilgrims, servants, and apostles‘ (107). Stroope further claims,
The retrospective reading of mission into Scripture and history as described in these first four chapters presents difficulties, but these are not the critical problem. These are the symptoms that point to a more serious malady. The decisive issue is not an anachronistic reading of mission into Scripture and history but the mentality, worldview, or framework this reading imposes (174).
In the second major part of the book, Stroope traces the development of the use of ‘mission’ terminology, considering the way that the church’s understanding of pilgrimage developed from a personal spiritual exercise into a call for corporate, invasive expansion of Christendom, prompted particularly by the preaching of Pope Urban II (1042-1099) with respect to the ‘pilgrimage to liberate Jerusalem’ (181), otherwise known as the Crusades (chapter five). In chapter six, Stroop discusses the absence of mission language with reference to Francis of Assisi and Ramon Llull, arguing that ‘mission’ is not the appropriate category for their activities. ‘Mission’ is first employed, according to chapters seven and eight, in the writing of Ignatius of Loyola, with respect to the Society of Jesus and the expansion of Christendom.
The final part of the book recounts how the language of mission used by the Jesuits was adopted by Protestants. In fact, initially, according to chapter nine, it was not adopted, but due to various influences ‘in the course of two centuries, mission moved from questionable language to an established tradition’ (316). Chapter ten examines two significant twentieth-century events, the 1910 Edinburgh Missionary Conference and the commission which published Re-thinking Mission, to identify changing attitudes to mission. Stroope notes growing unease with the associations of the language of mission.
The final ‘epilogue’, ‘Toward Pilgrim Witness’, presents Stroope’s constructive proposal for alternative language, drawing on biblical terminology that was also employed widely in the church.
This is an impressive book. Stroope writes clearly and draws on a wide range of important scholarly literature. Stroope’s concern for precision in our use of terminology is a crucial issue. How can we talk about engaging in mission if we have not yet come to a clear understanding of what ‘mission’ is? And does this terminology come with baggage that we may not appreciate or accept, but that nonetheless affects the way the terminology is heard? Stroope’s careful linguistic and historical study helps us to appreciate better the possible unintended connotations of ‘mission’ language.
I have a great deal of sympathy for Stroope’s argument. I think that there is a strong case for using biblical and ancient terminology as much as possible and his suggestion of ‘pilgrim witness’ seems promising. I must give it more thought. But, in the meantime, I also want to ask whether the widely used vocabulary of ‘mission’ can at least be made more serviceable by ensuring that each person that uses it takes particular care to define it as they use it, and to explicitly reject the negative connotations that the language may suggest to others.
Quite apart from whether one agrees with his conclusion or not, Stroope’s work has made a very important contribution to the study of ‘mission’ and his book should be required reading for serious students of ‘mission’.
I am grateful to IVP Academic for a free review copy of this book.