In 1975, InterVarsity Press published Christian Mission in the Modern World by John Stott. It recently reissued the book as part of the IVP Classics series. Like almost everything Stott has written, the book repays careful reading.
Stott, who is British, is the type of evangelical Christian that we do not often see in America. In America, evangelicals generally work outside the structures of the so-called mainline churches. Stott is a priest of the Church of England and a participant in ecumenical dialogues. He is a pastor, theologian, activist, bridge-builder, and public intellectual. American evangelical leaders tend to specialize in one or two of those areas. Indeed, I cannot think of a precise American counterpart to Stott.
Christian Mission in the Modern World grew out of the 1975 Chavasse Lectures in World Mission that Stott delivered at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. It investigates the meaning of five words in conversation with then-current trends in both evangelical and ecumenical missiology: mission, evangelism, dialogue, salvation, and conversion. As should be expected in a book published more than thirty years ago, some of the persons, events, and documents Stott discusses are no longer current. Even so, however, Stott’s insights into the meaning of these words still provoke thought. Let us briefly take a look at them.
First, mission: What is the mission of the church? It is common to distinguish evangelical and ecumenical missiologies by saying that the former is concerned with evangelism and the latter with social action. There is an element of truth in this, although Stott points out that evangelicals are concerned with social action and ecumenicals with evangelism—at least according to the leading documents of their respective movements. Turning to John 17:18 and 20:21, Stott argues that Jesus sends the church into the world to do the same kinds of things the Father sent him into the world to do. Stott therefore defines mission as “Christian service in the world comprising both evangelism and social action.”
Second, evangelism: If Christian mission comprises both evangelism and social action, is there nonetheless a priority between them? Stott argues that there is, specifically, that evangelism takes priority over social action. But what is evangelism? Stott defines it as “announcing or proclaiming the good news of Jesus.” This proclamation centers around five things: (1) the facticity and significance of certain events, namely, Christ’s death and resurrection; (2) the reliability of the witnesses of these events—both the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apostles; (3) the affirmations that Jesus is both Savior and Lord because of these events; (4) the promises Jesus makes to those who come to him in faith; and (5) the demands of repentance and faith that Jesus requires of those who come to him in faith.
Third, dialogue: Given that evangelism is announcement or proclamation, is there any room for religious dialogue in evangelical missiology? That all depends on what you mean by dialogue. As an evangelical, Stott argues that entering into dialogue with others is a mark of authenticity, humility, integrity, and sensitivity. Dialogue neither requires us to abandon Christ or our faith, but it requires us to identify ourselves as sinners and the people we are evangelizing as the image of God. The goal of dialogue is “mutual understanding,” but for the Christian dialogue is also “a necessary preliminary to evangelism.”
Fourth, salvation: The crucial issue in both evangelism and dialogue is salvation, but what is salvation? Stott begins by stating that it is not psychophysical health or sociopolitical liberation. These options were common among non-evangelical theologians in the late 1960s and early 70s. Rather, salvation is “personal freedom” along the following three spectra: “from judgment for sonship,” “from self for service,” and “from decay for glory.” I think it appropriate to use the theological terms justification, sanctification, and glorification as synonyms for what Stott is talking about when he uses the words salvation or personal freedom.
Fifth, conversion: Pluralism is the religious attitude of both modernity and postmodernity. Such an attitude has, as Stott puts it, a “distaste for conversion.” But the message of Jesus was conversionist in nature. He preached, “Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). Biblical conversion, according to Stott, has five elements: repentance, church membership, social responsibility, cultural discernment, and reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit.
As an Assemblies of God pastor, I find Stott’s discussion of Christian mission useful as a corrective to missiological tendencies within my own fellowship that privilege evangelism at the expense of social action. Moreover, the theology that underlies Stott’s missiology refuses to accommodate itself to a narrow understanding of conversion that focuses on decisions for Christ at the expense of discipleship in Christ. God’s grace requires a two-fold response of faith and works, for authentic Christian belief produces changed behavior.
By the same token, however, I believe that ecclesiology is the missing element within Stott’s formulation of Christian mission. It is not merely the individual Christian’s mission to serve the world through evangelism and social action; it is the church’s. It is not merely the individual Christian who practices evangelism and dialogue; it is the church. And when individuals receive the gift of salvation and choose conversion to Christ, they do so within the context of a church. The church, in other words, is God’s mission. It is both the effect of God’s mission to the world through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit and the agent of Christ’s continuing mission in the world.
Ecclesiology was not as prominent an issue in the early 1970s when Stott wrote Christian Mission in the Modern World. Thirty-four years ago, the church was still a quasi-Constantinian institution in both England and America; in other words, it was a respectable pillar of society. In 2009, we can no longer make that assumption about the church’s role. Consequently, we must focus on the churchly character of mission, evangelism, dialogue, salvation, and conversion. But of course, no one should anachronistically fault Stott for failing to take into account these new conditions.