This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2012 vol. 169 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s MissionZondervan, Grand Rapids July 23, 2010
Wright is international director of the Langham Partnership International (John Stott Ministries in the USA) and chair of the Lausanne Movement’s Theology Working Group. Formerly he served as a missionary (to India), pastor, and principal of All Nations Christian College, Easneye Ware, England. In many ways Wright has assumed the mantle of his mentor John Stott, providing a thoughtful, exegetically based foundation for mission theology in general and the Lausanne movement in particular. This book is more than a shorter, simpler version of Wright’s magnum opus, The Mission of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006), but the earlier work certainly lays the foundation for this more recent one. The thesis of The Mission of God was that God’s mission is what unifies the entire biblical narrative, and so the entire Bible should be read through a missional lens. In The Mission of God’s People Wright extends that conclusion to examine the consequent response of God’s people. He asks, “What does the Bible as a whole in both testaments have to tell us about why the people of God exist and what it is they are supposed to be and do in the world? What is the mission of God’s people” (p. 17).
One of the strengths of the book is the strong Old Testament foundation it lays for a theology of mission. The foundation for the mission of God’s people is God’s own mission: “It is not so much that God has a mission for his church as that God has a church for his mission” (p. 148). Wright uses the word “mission” to describe “all that God is doing in his great purpose for the whole of creation and all that he calls us to do in cooperation with that purpose” (p. 25). Some have been critical of this definition of mission as being too broad, citing Bishop Stephen Neil’s famous warning that “if everything becomes mission, nothing is mission.” But Wright specifically rejects this criticism, stating that the purpose of all of life is mission.
What, then, is the mission of God’s people? In highly readable, exegetically well-grounded chapters Wright discusses the biblical evidence in thirteen chapters (after an initial overview). To fulfill their mission, God’s people must be people who know they are part of a story that extends back to creation, people who care for creation as God Himself does, people who are a blessing to the nations, people who walk in God’s way, people who live redemptively by keeping the cross central in every part of their lives, people who represent God to the world through holy living, people who attract others to God, people who make known their personal encounter with the one living God and Savior, people who bear verbal witness to the living God, people who proclaim the gospel of Christ, people who send and are being sent, people who live and work in the public square, and people who praise and pray.
In most of these chapters Wright starts with a discussion of Old Testament foundations for missional thinking and practice, and then examines New Testament texts that underline and continue thoughts that are rooted in the Old Testament. This results in less analysis of traditionally emphasized New Testament texts, such as the various New Testament Great Commission passages, and Wright has been criticized for not giving enough attention to these key New Testament passages on mission. He does give careful attention to many key New Testament texts (e.g., his study of 3 John as a model for the sending church), but his strength is clearly in the Old Testament.
Wright’s well-known emphasis on holistic mission is clearly articulated throughout the book: “We need a holistic gospel because the world is in a holistic mess” (p. 110). But this book is no defense of a “deeds-of-compassion-are-enough” approach to mission. Wright clearly asserts that to fulfill the mission of God, ministries to human need are never adequate by themselves; evangelistic proclamation is always essential. “The mission of God’s people is to bring good news to a world where bad news is depressingly endemic” (p. 179). Wright’s discussion as to whether evangelistic proclamation has “primacy” strongly affirms the report issued by the Lausanne Consultation on the Relationship between Evangelism and Social Responsibility. While admitting the centrality of evangelism, Wright stresses that “in missional practice, the distinction is hardly, if ever, a real one” (p. 276), a perspective this reviewer shares.
Wright’s reflections on ministry in the public arena provide encouragement and direction for fulfilling the cultural mandate and give dignity to the often-overlooked work and ministry of lay people in the public arena. His chapter on mission as sending and being sent is a model of breadth, depth, and poignant summary in biblical theology, and it will keep thoughtful readers meditating for days after they have read it.
Wright occasionally uses language that overly collapses the church’s identity into Israel’s. He is correct that in the present dispensation the church assumes much of Israel’s role in carrying out the mission of God and representing God to the world (1 Pet. 2:9). However, national Israel retains its own identity in the New Testament era. More careful distinction as to the limits in the way in which the church assumes Israel’s identity would have been helpful.
The value of both The Mission of God and The Mission of God’s People extends far beyond those whose full-time ministry is cross-cultural mission. Both books provide fresh lenses for reading Scripture that will provide depth and vigor for ministry of all kinds. Everyone engaging in full-time ministry should read either The Mission of God or The Mission of God’s People. The daunting length of the former will make this recent volume the choice for many.
—Stephen J. Strauss