Called to Witness (Darrell Guder) -- A Review

CALLED TO WITNESS: Doing Missional Theology (The Gospel and Our Culture Series). By Darrell L. Guder. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015. Xvi +203.

It would seem that every church has gotten on the missional band wagon. Whether we know what this means or not, we like the idea that we’re a missional people. My congregation deemed itself missional, though it continues to learn what that means. Even my denomination wants to see itself as missional. At our most recent General Assembly a new concept of life together was offered. Thus we are putting "Mission First." Just google the word missional and you will find dozens of conferences, books, and even degree programs.  As with most terms that become popular the meaning of the word "missional" is in the eye of the beholder.

Of course the word has an origin. In fact, it is of fairly recent vintage. So what did the originators of the term have in mind when they coined it? One of the key figures we might want to consult is Darrell Guder, an emeritus professor of missional and ecumenical theology at Princeton Seminary. In fact, Guder may have been the very first person to hold an academic position in missional theology. He is counted among the founders of the movement, so he’s a good person to consult. In Called to Witness, Guder gathers together recent essays and speeches that share his own vision of a missional theology. In the book, Guder attempts to re-engage with the roots of the movement. Therefore, the book allows us to revisit the concerns that led to the emerging of the movement, as well as seek to reconnect mission and theology. Because the book is a collection of previously produced materials focusing on a specific theme, there is considerable overlap/redundancy from one essay to the next. Nonetheless, as one reads through the essays (and readers might want to pick and choose which ones to read), one gets a good sense of what was intended by the creators of this movement.

By training and profession Guder is a theologian, but he is a theologian with a strong concern for mission and evangelism. This focus has led to his being classified as a practical theologian, a division within theological education focuses more on “how-to” than on why. As a missional theologian he wants to reconnect the how and the why. Indeed, Guder rues the fact that much of the theology done since Constantine's embrace of Christianity has been done with little attention given to mission. It doesn’t appear in the creeds or most systematic theologies. Because of the Constantinian embrace, it was assumed that the world was “Christian.” But in recent years we’ve discovered that the world isn’t nearly as Christianized as we once thought. He would like to see that change. Missional theology is, according to John Franke, editor of the Gospel and Our Culture Network series in which this book appears, an attempt to "repair this divide and restore the inherent relationship between mission and theology" (p. ix).

What we seem to discern from reading this book is that mission and theology belong together, and that much of our theological work has been impoverished by the fact that they have been set apart with mission being set off on the margins. We also are reminded that the catalyst for this reengagement of theology and mission was Lesslie Newbigin, who wrote a series of books that addressed the increasingly secularized nature of his homeland, after return to England from India where he had served as a bishop of the Church of South India. Newbigin had noticed that the church seemed unable to make sense of this new reality or speak to it. The challenge given by Newbigin was taken up by a cohort of persons who formed the Gospel and Our Culture Network in the late 1980s. The first published work that came from this effort emerged in the mid-1990s, and Guder was among the leaders.

The Book is composed of eleven essays. The first essay was delivered at Princeton Seminary and seeks to bring mission and theology together in a missional theology. He discusses the idea of Missio Dei, the Christological formation of missional practice, the church as missional community.

There is a chapter on the "Nicene marks of the Post-Christian Church," in which he reads the Nicene marks backwards. By beginning with apostolicity, we are reminded that the church at its heart is missional. He comes back to this point in the final chapter on the connection of mission to the ecumenical movement. He writes that “apostolicity is the foundational and definitive characteristic of the missional church. The church is defined by its "sentness” (p. 198). From there we affirm its catholicity and holiness.  Our vocation as church then is to be witnesses to the gospel (Acts 1:8).  

 There are two chapters dealing with Scripture, and two on the "Worthy Walk" of missional community. The chapters on the “worthy walk” were delivered as the Payton Lectures at Fuller Theological Seminary. He returns to Missio Dei as he explores theological formation for an apostolic vocation.

The final chapter looks at the missional dimension of ecumenism or the ecumenical nature of mission. He offers a reminder that the ecumenical movement has its origins in the church’s mission efforts in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The ecumenical vision, which was demonstrated in efforts like the Church of South India, emerged as those engaged in mission recognized that disunity and sectarianism undermined their work. Guder insists that this unity needs to be visible, but it needn’t be visible in the form of a large organization.

There is both diversity of focus and overlap in this book. In my reading of the book I found it helpful to be reminded that it is easy to overlook mission. It is good to be reminded that as Christendom dies away, and a post-Christian world emerges we will need to reevangelize our own communities—including the church. That is, as Lesslie Newbigin sought to make clear—the church in the west needs to regain its missionary calling.

While denominations from across the theological spectrum have embraced the missional idea, Guder roots it in the Reformed tradition. The overwhelming emphasis on the Reformed roots of the movement that is present in the book may have something to do with Guder’s primary audience, but one is hard pressed to find a person engaged in the essays who is not Reformed.  While John Wesley gets a passing nod, the key figures here are Newbigin and Karl Barth. Indeed, Barth plays a major role in this book, for Guder sees him as the first missional theologian. Barth is the first to understand the connection between mission and theology in a way that can engender a missional movement.

It is a good and important book that has a scholarly focus. If you’re trying to get your feet wet in the missional idea the works of people like Alan Roxburgh and Craig Van Gelder might be a better starting point.  Nonetheless for those who have some idea of what the movement is about might find this a helpful opportunity to engage the movement theologically. I would have liked to see Guder engage persons outside the Reformed tradition, and persons outside the European and North American context. With a few exceptions the conversation is held with white men from the first world. Maybe greater engagement with those outside this context -- at least persons of color as well as more women—would be helpful. Having said this, his thesis offered up in the book is an important one. That thesis, which he makes clear in his chapter on “Integrating Theological Formation for Apostolic Vocation,” is stated in this way: “we only understand the calling and purpose of the church correctly when we do so in terms of the calling, forming, equipping, and sending of the witnessing church” (p. 170). The church is truly the church when it is engaged in mission. Who this church is in its being can’t be separated from what it does. Theology must be done in conversation with mission. Unless we grasp this, then we will fail to engage the increasingly secular context of our age.   


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