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Comprehending Mission: The Questions, Methods, Themes, Problems, and Prospects of Missiology. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2012. 240 pp. $30.00..
The American Society of Missiology has just completed the second year of a three-year evaluation of the future of missiology as a discipline. The publication of Stanley Skreslet’s Comprehending Mission could not come at a more opportune time. His book is published as part of the prestigious American Society of Missiology Series.
Skreslet, Dean of the Faculty of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, was asked in 2001 by editor Jonathan Bonk to survey a decade’s worth of dissertation research in English for the International Bulletin of Missionary Research. The result is this volume, which one reviewer predicted would be “the standard introduction to the field of missiology for the next decade, and every student ought to begin right here” (back cover).
Chapter one poses the question, “Who studies Christian mission, and why?” Missiology is defined by the author as “the systematic study of all aspects of mission” (12), and he notes that those who study mission include those who do mission (practitioners) and the university academics. He posits the following constants that distinguish missiological study from other academic activities: (1) the processes of religious change; (2) the reality of the faith; and (3) an integrative, multidisciplinary approach (13–14).
The bulk of the book is a survey of the literature through history in which the author notes various trends and directions. Skreslet identifies six themes and devotes a chapter to each: Bible and Mission; History of Mission; Theology, Mission, and Culture; Christian Mission in a World of Religions; The Means of Mission; and Missionary Vocation.
Through the past century, mission theology stopped at numerous way stations: missio Dei, shalom, liberation, reconciliation, and universalism. Mission in the postmodern era needs to be multidimensional and has to embrace “witness, service, justice, healing, reconciliation, liberation, peace, evangelism, fellowship, church planting, contextualization, and much more” (36, quoting David Bosch).
The History of Mission chapter is not intended to provide a summary of mission history, but a discussion of the subject from the point of view of historiography—“how history has been and could be studied or portrayed” (43). The section on Critical Ethnography is illuminating. These mission historians use “the techniques of microhistory, interpretative anthropology, historical anthropology, and sociology of religion. Ideas and influences from semiotics, feminist studies, and postcolonial literary criticism permeate these approaches to mission history” (59). Past mission history has to be deconstructed and then rewritten since much of mission history was written from the point of view of the male missionary, as if the local believers—and his wife—made little contribution.
The use of the social sciences in mission history is the subject of chapter four. Some of the headings include linguistics, cultural analysis, and religious and cultural change. How the social sciences are used in mission studies is informing and being informed by theology: “missiology poses to theology an implicit cross-cultural challenge that is getting harder and harder to ignore” (95).
One of the key themes in missiology over the past thirty years has been the reality of pluralism. How does Christianity interface with other religions? Is dialogue a valid approach? Does it lead to syncretism? Is prophetic dialogue possible? Some have suggested that the interreligious issues bearing on mission indicate that the theology of religions has become the “essential integrating principle” or “hub” of missiology (123).
If the “why” of missions must be discerned, then the “how” of missions is also deserving of study. Skreslet treats The Means of Mission under the headings of Tactics and Strategies, Methods and Modes of Mission, Organizational Structures for Mission, and Financing Mission Endeavors. He concludes that “today, it appears that the means of mission is no longer the dominating subject that it once was within missiology” (166).
Regarding the missionary vocation, the author highlights several themes: (1) professional missionaries and the work they do; (2) missionary spirituality and the call to mission; and (3) probing how the missionary has been, and is, depicted. Within this third approach the missionary is seen in history writing, in biography, in fiction, and in film.
Skreslet brings his research together in his final pages, entitled “Missiology Reconfigured.” We are reminded that it was his intention “to present a representative sample of such research, in order to indicate the broad scholarly landscape [he believes] the field of missiology now encompasses” (195). He claims that missiology does not have a central concern comparable to that of theology of mission. His final conclusion is that the field is distinctive in its foci of “study on religious change, respect for the vocation of mission, and a desire to integrate knowledge about mission gathered from many sources and viewpoints” (197).
Comprehending Mission is much more than a survey or review of the literature. Yes, many authors and their contributions are noted (itself worth the price of the book). But where Skreslet shines is in the way he elicits themes before providing the outlines for the vast body of material he has studied. Any serious student of mission should have this book.