Saturday, February 13, 2010

Book Review: Christian Mission in the Modern World, by John Stott

Summary of Stott’s Main Arguments

John Stott’s book, Christian Mission in the Modern World, is almost prophetic in its addressing issues of defining terms and fighting to keep the meanings of the words we use, especially those words of Biblical significance. Published in 1975, Christian Mission in the Modern World actually addresses issues of perceived changing of the meaning of words, and shifting and subjective realities, and interpretations, of a postmodern world view in missions. Stott is ahead of the times in this work in how he speaks to moderns and post-moderns alike. In beginning of the book, to define his terms, and to speak about meaning to his audience, Stott asserts, along with E.D. Hirsch, that “A text means what its author meant (Stott, p. 14).” So Stott begins to define the terms mission, evangelism, dialogue, salvation, and conversion.

Stott begins his work, in the introduction, with a great sentence, which for me sets the tone; he says, “One can hardly discuss church-world relations and omit the concept of ‘mission (Stott, p. 11).’ “How does one define mission?” is what Stott goes on to explore in chapter one. He makes the point that “Mission is a comprehensive word that embraces everything which God sends His people into the world to do, including evangelism and social responsibility (Stott, p.35).” Stott wants us to see from the onset that these two go together in mission.

Stott’s main argument is for missions to incorporate both evangelism and discipleship and social action. Stott begins with addressing the definitions of the terms that he uses like mission, evangelism, dialogue, salvation, and conversion, which are important to understand in the right handling of missions. Stott begins in scripture and seeks to recapture a biblical definition, and the author of scriptures original intent, in speaking of and addressing mission. Stott asserts that “The Living God of the Bible is a sending God (Stott, p. 21).” He is Missional.

Stott argues that physical needs of people must be met in missions, but so do the spiritual needs of people. These two extreme views of mission, evangelism and social justice, go hand in hand and go together harmoniously. The biblical view of missions is one that supports this idea and this can be seen in Jesus and his disciples and how they ‘did missions.’ In scripture, we see a synthesis of ‘shalom’ and evangelism. There is an ecology of these two. Stott begs the question, “Can a distinction be drawn between God’s providential action and God’s redeeming action (Stott, p. 20)?” Stott thinks not, and I agree with him. He says that “In our servant roles (like Jesus) we can find the right synthesis of evangelism and social action (Stott, p. 25).”

In his chapter on evangelism, chapter two, the focus is again on defining terms and defining and discerning what evangelism is, and what it is not. Stott liberates the term evangelism, and us Christians, from being results based in function, where in order to be successful; we must be converting people to the faith. Stott says that evangelism is sharing the good news with others, no matter what the outcome is. It is not results based. It has been my own personal experience that I have not done evangelism out of fear of the daunting task of bringing someone to the point of conversion, I do not think that I am alone in this. Evangelism is not conversion or a set of methods, as Stott points out; it is sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, however that good news is proclaimed (p. 40).

Stott points out that evangelism is using words to describe the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for our sins (p. 54). The central message of good news that we are to proclaim, in word and deed, is Jesus. We are to send that message of Jesus to people and it should be auditory, not that Stott would totally disagree with St. Francis who said, “By all means preach the gospel, if necessary use words.” Stott might tweak this a little and say, “By all means preach the gospel, evangelize, in all the ways that you can ‘in thought, in words, and in deeds.’” The central message that we are to proclaim in word, and ‘in presence,’ is Jesus, the Word (p. 55). In short Stott says, “Our goal is to present Christ Jesus in the Power of The Holy Spirit that people may be persuaded to come to Him in penitence (p. 56).”

In his chapter on Dialogue, chapter three, Stott begins with the question, “Is there room for dialogue in the proclamation of the good news (p. 58)?” This question evokes strong opinions and polarizing views. It is met with resistance from the evangelical community. The term dialogue, no doubt, has strong negative connotations. The gospel, however, is, as Stott puts it, “non-negotiable” (p. 59). None the less, this should not limit us, or excuse us, to not be engaging in dialogue at all, like many rigid fundamental evangelicals suggest or are inclined to do. Stott proclaims that a true dialogue has authenticity, humility, integrity, and sensitivity and is a token of true and genuine Christian love (p. 80, 81).

Stott notes that dialogue is okay when it is properly understood and that dialogue and discussion are two different things altogether (p. 59). Stott provides for us a simple definition for dialogue which is, “A conversation in which each party is serious in their approach both to the subject and to the other person, and desires to listen and to learn as well as to speak and instruct (p. 61).” He notes that this definition is to be understood within the context of the Living God entering into dialogue with humankind. God himself modeled dialogue with His people throughout scripture from the foundation of the world, should we not emulate Him in dialoguing with the world in an effort to introduce the world to Jesus? Stott argues that “True Christian dialogue with a non-Christian is not a sign of syncretism but is fully consistent with our belief in the finality (and the supremacy) of Jesus Christ (p. 71).”

Chapter four of Christian Mission in the Modern World addresses salvation. “What does salvation mean?” Stott asks (p 82). The very name of Jesus means: “God is salvation.” and “God the Saviour (p. 83).” Yet this concept of salvation can be a difficult one to grasp to the point that other words or concepts are introduced to facilitate understanding. Stott says that he would almost like to refer to salvation as “Salvation yesterday and today,” but cringes at the idea that we may not have a firm understanding of salvation to begin with to understand its implications for us today, not that they are different, but our understanding could be different. We must understand our salvation and live lives as if we were indeed saved. Stott states that “Our message of salvation is bound to fall on deaf ears if we give no evidence of salvation in a changed life and lifestyle (p. 108).” Our actions must line up with our words and our belief.

Lastly, in chapter five, Stott addresses conversion. Stott asserts that salvation is not possible without conversion preceding it. He says, “Conversion denotes the response which the good news demands, and without which, salvation cannot be received (p. 109).” While conversion is an unpopular word in some instances and in some circles, it is very necessary. Conversion can be differentiated from regeneration, as it can be differentiated from salvation. Conversion is best defined and understood, however, in light of regeneration and in light of salvation.

Stott defines conversion as being faith plus repentance (p. 114). Conversion is our response to the gospel message; while regeneration is God’s act in us (p. 114). Conversion is a conscious act on our part, where regeneration is unconscious, and is propelled by God (p. 114). Conversion is more of a process than an event, while regeneration is a complete work of God (p. 115).

Stott asserts that conversion has implications for the believer and the church and that repentance and evangelism, and repentance and conversion go hand in hand (p. 117). Conversion is also necessary to join the church, for church membership (p. 119). Bringing the whole message full circle, that mission goes hand in hand with social action, or shalom, Stott asserts that conversion also has social implications, in that it demands social responsibility (p. 121).

Without the power of the Holy Spirit, missions are doomed to failure from the start. Stott states that “nothing more is needed for the Christian mission in the modern age (and I would add our post-modern age) than a healthy fusion of humility and humanity in our reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit (p. 128).”

Assessing the theological and practical relevance of Christian Mission in the Modern World

I believe that we have lost the essence of our Christian faith in many ways due to biblical ignorance and a relativistic postmodern culture where words have lost their meaning. When you combine these two issues, Biblical ignorance, and relativism and postmodernism, what you have is uncertainty, and a lack of clarity in believers as to what it is that they actually believe. Again, Stott is ahead of his time in Christian Mission in the Modern World. We almost need a book like this for other areas of our faith, along with this one on mission that defines our terms.

Though Stott would say that, “Mission is a comprehensive word that embraces everything which God sends His people into the world to do, including evangelism and social responsibility (Stott, p.35).” However, there are other areas of our faith other than mission that can be explored in this way, like discipleship. I have been particularly interested in studying and teaching discipleship, and what I have discovered is that I have to begin with defining the term for people. Most believers do not have the grasp they should on basic Christian terms and beliefs. This is what makes this book so relevant for today. Though it was written for a modern audience, by a modern thinker, it fits with today’s postmodern culture and speaks to biblical illiteracy by going back to scripture and being re-rooted in God’s word and God’s definitions.

Stott goes to scripture and he defines the terms that are essential for us understanding mission, evangelism, dialogue, salvation, and conversion. This book is simple and practical and theologically sound in presenting its arguments. Stott emphasizes mission and the Great Commission, but he balances it with the Great Commandment. As the saying goes, “You cannot ask for a hand until you touch a heart.” or as Stott quotes, “A hungry person has no ears.” Evangelism and shalom go together in mission. As Stott points out, scripture does not make a divide between evangelism and shalom, nor should we.

© 2010, Robbie Pruitt


Stott, John. Christian Mission in the Modern World. Inter Varsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. © 1975

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