Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 11 (2020)

Mark E. Powell, John Mark Hicks, and Greg McKinzie. Discipleship in Community: A Theological Vision for the Future. Abilene: ACU Press, 2020. 192 pp. Paperback. $16.99.

“There are not two histories, one profane and one sacred, ‘juxtaposed’ or ‘closely linked.’ Rather there is only one human destiny. Irreversibly assumed by Christ, the Lord of History” – Gustavo Gutiérrez

Life is characterized by tensions that exist between contending ideas, philosophies, and politics. When these tensions are brought together in a dynamic engagement, they create new, exciting, and beautiful things. Engagement with these tensions enriches theology when they are superimposed on each other to bring depth; life begins to emanate hues of color that challenge a dualistic, black and white theology. In order to achieve depth, there ought to be interdependence and sensibility in communities of engagement. Participants in the life of the church must prepare for such enriching experiences. All these diverse hues challenge spiritual journeys, and they are indispensable for moving forward into the future.

Discipleship in Community is a collaboration of three professors who have eloquently engaged the subject of the future of Churches of Christ to prepare for improved discipleship. All three are experienced theologians who teach at Churches of Christ Universities: John Mark Hicks and Greg McKinzie at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, and Mark Powell at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tennessee. These men love their heritage in the Churches of Christ. For this reason, the book proposes a theological framework that grapples with commitments arising from the Stone-Campbell Movement in order to invite readers to participate in a “life of simple, authentic discipleship” (11). Their proposals are ideal for engaging tensions as the church moves to the future.

The authors place discipleship at the core of the Stone-Campbell Movement instead of restoration. The authors take turns unpacking six theological convictions, proposing them as constructive commitments for Churches of Christ. Each author drafted two chapters with the input of the other two authors. Mark Powell wrote two additional chapters at the beginning and the end. Together, their purpose is two-fold: “to describe who Churches of Christ have been and propose a constructive vision for the future” (9). To begin, Mark Powell prompts the reader to set aside “the fundamental theological emphases of the Church of Christ” (16) and to exchange them for a “larger theological framework” (19). Indeed, this framework supports an obligation of promoting a spirit of mutuality and sensibility in church communities.

Additionally, these three authors use commitments that are not typical in the Church of Christ’s heritage, thus creating tensions with depth in the church’s tradition. For example, the use of sacraments is foreign to most Churches of Christ because of its connection to other traditions. This book addresses these types of tensions carefully to avoid causing harm to the church.

Tensions in theology characterize my life. I am a Mexican and a naturalized American who lives in Texas as a missionary of the church engaging my community. My upbringing was that of a typical Mexican-Catholic family who lived their profession faithfully. At a young age, my parents converted to Churches of Christ. From that point forward, I became a participant in the soteriological and eschatological work of the erroneous self-designation, “the one true Church.” Since then, I have increased my awareness of the type of ministry that encompasses a broader kind of work of the church, which is accurately described by Gutiérrez’s notion of “Lord of History.”1 I have lived in the middle of ideological tensions between secular history and my Hispanic heritage, unaware of the rich theologies that Latin origin contains. I have come to realize that the church ought to consider Robert Chao Romero’s Brown Church Movement.2 His call advocates a both/and versus an either/or philosophy of ministry embodied in the misión integral (integral or holistic mission) approach, rooted in Hispanic and Latino theologies like that of René Padilla and others.3 The Brown Church and misión integral provide a method for navigating tensions in belief that entail various hues of perspective, which are essential for the church to move into the future. Discipleship in Community proposes a viable framework for Churches of Christ, providing a conversation about theological tensions and emanating theological hues that enrich missiological meaning.

In this review, I wish to focus on chapter seven, “Participating in God’s Purposes: Mission,” which contains compelling arguments with substantial implications for missional theology. In chapter seven, the authors propose a renewal of Churches of Christ’s theology for authentic discipleship by moving from a restorationist to a missional reading of the New Testament for praxis. The authors pay attention to the high view of missions in the Stone-Campbell Movement. The chapter explains that the historical reading of the New Testament was bound to the colonization approach to mission of its time. But now, a missional reading must occur with others in community. In this chapter, the authors develop gospel and salvation concepts and the implications for Churches of Christ necessary to move into the future with a missional theology. They argue that the church ought to make this transition by placing mission over restoration. Indeed, it is a “powerful tension” (145) to place mission before restoration, but for Hispanics and Latinos among the Churches of Christ, this is liberating. Missionaries need to move from a rigid ecclesiology to a full contextual reflection considering their communities. In my experience, American ecclesiology is rigid in sending missionaries, who deal with intercultural stress in order to maintain this rigidity.

The chapter is logical in its approach to encouraging change. First, it places the soteriological view of Churches of Christ in contrast to the gospel’s biblical definition. By defining the doctrine this way, the authors highlight two core elements: God’s purposes and the church as participants in these purposes. These form the notion of the missional church the authors propose. Second, the authors argue that the definition of missional moves the church to its true vocation in the present world, the “fullness of the kingdom” (140). An excellent realization indeed! Third, the book correctly challenges the more traditional understanding that being senders is primarily about sponsoring cross-cultural mission work. The book argues a view that deserves attention, namely, the “return to Scripture in order to recapture the missional theology” (141). The Restoration Movement focused initially on evangelization according to a desire to restore the New Testament Church, and they missed the mission of God.

In this seventh chapter, the authors use the metaphor of a journey to explain how to implement the proposed change. At the end of the chapter, the suggested engagement includes six consequential practices: contextualization for a particular location, self-emptying of our traditions and preference, questioning not as an interrogation but as a tool to collect stories, translating as a way of continual recontextualization, participation for new experiences, and mutuality that challenges the presumption of who possesses the truth. In these practices, the implication is that God does not discriminate in regard to context. Ergo, the church should not discriminate either. We see these practices in Jesus’s ministry of the preference for the poor. The authors say, “Mission is not limited to but inseparable from the margins” (157). In this regard, adding more about these practices of not being limited to the poor would strengthen the discussion by adding necessary hues for a real community. I would recommend this book to others because of this proposed change.

The chapter closes by referring readers back to the journey metaphor they suggest to help the church move into the future: “the Father’s direction, in the Son’s way, by the Spirit’s guidance” (157). So, raising the bar in mission as a precursor for missional praxis is a tension that this book addresses appropriately for our tradition. As a Churches of Christ missionary, these concepts are like water for a thirsty pilgrim on this journey.

The book’s organization is well-designed and structured to fit the themes of intentional commitments for moving into the future. At the center of these commitments, there is a call for the church to value more highly and engage with “good theology,” setting the church “on mission” (23). The authors demonstrate an appropriate appreciation of the heritage and legacy of Churches of Christ’s tensions. Discipleship in Community seeks to lessen the traditional tensions within our churches and allows for more hues that further conversation integral to the mission of the church, considering the Lord of history with a sense of interdependence and sensibility in our community.

The Restoration Movement sought a method of interpretation that focused narrowly on the New Testament church’s markers. However, this book’s assertion of a more comprehensive framework is what Churches of Christ need for better engagement. I sense Hispanic churches will profit from this framework; the book ought to enrich conversations about the theological tensions found in Hispanic churches. For decades, elders and preachers have followed the narrow interpretation of the New Testament’s restoration that these authors note and has been a defining characteristic of Hispanic Churches of Christ. Following this narrow interpretation creates unnecessary tensions for Hispanic churches who unknowingly pay a high cost in developing this same interpretation. The spirit of collaboration (en conjunto) is negatively affected and devalued. One example of this high cost is that the rich history of God’s presence in Latin America has been obscured by the omission of nearly two thousand years of church history, typical of Restorationism, creating a gap between the first century and the twenty-first. The authors’ proposed commitments are useful for a new conversation that must occur in the community in order to be better disciple-makers. These conversations must happen because Churches of Christ must develop a healthy theology.

The book closes with three colorful responses gathered from experts in various fields addressing the topic of discipleship. Considering the book’s intention, a Hispanic reply would have brought another hue to the community proposed for the future. The work of the Holy Spirit to provide gifts as “he wills” (1 Cor 12:11) is essential to encourage community, and Hispanics are so gifted. Hispanic giftedness is vital for moving to the future of the church. Hispanic members of Churches of Christ know that there are considerable exigencies in current communities, such as ethnic tensions, that are relevant to a constructive vision for the future. Once again, some tensions deserve a both/and approach for integral mission under the lordship of Christ—instead of one-sided, either/or colonizing methodologies. Hispanic giftedness is a hue in absentia if restoration alone is at the core of discipleship.

Missionaries from the Restoration Movement have missed or ignored the gift of integral brown theology found in Hispanic churches. Different hues have existed with a potential that Churches of Christ theology has prevented from emerging. It is necessary to lessen tensions of mission and restoration under the lordship of the historical Christ and make discipleship genuinely sensible “betwixt and between”4 communities. Discipleship in Community is a valuable tool for Churches of Christ because it presents a framework that wills a simple life of discipleship grounded in theological commitments. These commitments are biblical and authentic. As life requires dynamic engagement, this book provides a framework that enriches missional theology in-depth with the hues necessary to move into the future. For me, the Brown Church perspectives on liberation and integration are essential for discipleship, and this book invites us to such a community of discipleship.

J. Omar Palafox

Ashrei (https://ashrei.online)

Lubbock, TX, USA

1 Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, trans. Caridad Inda and John Eagleson (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2018), 86.

2 Robert Chao Romero, Brown Church: Five Centuries of Latina/o Social Justice, Theology, and Identity (United States: InterVarsity Press, 2020).

3 See René Padilla, Misión integral: Ensayos sobre el reino de Dios y la iglesia (Buenos Aires, Argentina: Ediciones Kairós, 2019).

4 Robert Chao Romero, Brown Church: Five Centuries of Latina/o Social Justice, Theology, and Identity (United States: InterVarsity Press, 2020), 14, 21, 215.