SCM Studyguide to Christian Mission: Historic Types and Contemporary Expressions – Book Review

SCM Studyguide to Christian Mission: Historic Types and Contemporary Expressions
Author:  Stephen Spencer
Publisher:  SCM Press, 2007
ISBN:  0334040191

Book Review by Chris Ducker, working with Breadline in Moldova.

This volume introduces the undergraduate-level student to different theoretical forms of Christian mission, with each “type” representing one of six distinct paradigms that Christianity has historically expressed. Spencer, a tutor in mission studies and historical theology, is in his element here, combining an appreciation of Christianity’s historical contexts with a sound understanding of two millennia’s developments in Christian theology and mission practice.

This book owes a large (and acknowledged) debt to Hans Küng’s elucidation of six stages of Christianity – from the early Christian apocalyptic to today’s postmodern pluralist paradigm, via the Greek-influenced early church, medieval Roman Catholicism, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment. Spencer follows David Bosch’s argument that each paradigm was typified by a particular form of mission. He successively describes each type: setting its cultural and religious background, exploring its distinctive characteristics and providing case studies.

What sets this book apart from history of mission textbooks is that Spencer then shows how each historic type is continued into the present, even if his examples of contemporary expressions are sometimes doubtful. Chapters also contain a summary of each form of mission, which will certainly benefit those encountering these types for the first time. They can be summarised as: filling the Ark; radiating eternal truth; establishing Christendom; conversion of souls; building the kingdom on earth; and finding hope in local communities.

Many authors would be content to merely identify and describe the various types of Christian mission, but Spencer (quite rightly) wants to evaluate them too. He establishes five criteria for continuing the mission of Christ derived, somewhat arbitrarily, from his exegesis of Mark 1. These “Galilean principles of the missio Christi” are: contemplative listening; addressing society as a whole; pointing to the inaugurated yet still awaited kingdom; calling for a personal response; and collaboration.

Each paradigm is judged against these five criteria – for example, apostolic mission underperformed on the second and third principles, deemed by Spencer as insufficiently political or concerned with society’s needs. On the other hand, mission during the Enlightenment performed well in these areas but placed insufficient emphasis on a personal response to the Gospel. Significantly, this is also regarded as the greatest weakness of our own postmodern mission type.

Spencer is at pains to stress that such evaluation is intended to help the reader appreciate the relative strengths and weaknesses of each mission type. There is no one type that is “better” than the others; rather, each will be the most appropriate response in specific situations. His own recommendation is that, rather than being split between different mission types, each church should focus on a single type, based on their local context, needs and opportunities – and with an alertness to how God is already at work.

First-year university students – especially those without the experience (or stamina!) to work through Bosch’s authoritative Transforming Mission – would benefit most from this book. It is a useful corrective to history of mission courses that tend to commence with William Carey or the Moravians. Whilst “stages of history” models are nowadays somewhat unfashionable, the typology presented here has the twin benefits of having theoretical coherence and being demonstrably relevant. This book is aimed squarely at the university student, for whom the modular nature of degree courses tends to fragment or compartmentalise their understanding of both history and theology. Against this background, it is refreshing to see a framework attempting to cover the entire history of Christian mission and to consolidate its major forms.

As Spencer himself admits, however, by utilising Küng’s model he inherits its weaknesses. Do we sincerely believe that there are only the six major types of mission outlined above? Is it reasonable to define one type as lasting a single century, whilst another lasted a millennium? The types presented are distilled generalisations, and there comes a point when the insight gained by observing commonalities fails to outweigh the insight that would be gained by observing more tightly-defined, geographically-distinct or time-restricted phenomena. This last point should remind us of the value of local and specific mission case studies – not for how they ‘prove’ or ‘represent’ a type, but for what they uniquely demonstrate.

Other weaknesses of the book are Spencer’s own. He seems unaware that his five stated criteria for authentic, Christlike mission are themselves rooted in a historical, social and theological context: they are his choice of criteria, not Christ’s. It may well be, therefore, that subsequent generations (or missiologists in other contexts) will choose different criteria – and consequently vindicate forms of mission he finds wanting, or criticise types he seemingly favours. A second criticism is that, despite writing extensively on the missio Dei since the creation of the universe, Spencer restricts himself to a specifically Christian history of mission, when the introduction of an Old Testament ‘type’ or understanding of mission (e.g. as light to the Gentiles) would have been a helpful addition.

Despite these quibbles, I would recommend this book to anyone wishing to develop a broad understanding of mission. By outlining six historical types of Christian mission, this ‘Studyguide’ provides us with a sense of perspective, as well as a comparative framework. By relating those types to contemporary expressions, Spencer avoids the trap of historicizing what is an ongoing and vital plurality of mission forms around the world. Along the way, he encourages us to ask: which mission types, based on Jesus’ example, are the most appropriate? – a question the missionary must unfailingly pose in each new context he finds himself in.

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