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Review of John G. Flett and David W. Congdon, eds., Converting Witness: The Future of Christian Mission in the New Millennium

Author: Greg McKinzie
Published: Winter-Spring 2021
In:

MD 12.1

Article Type: Book Review

John G. Flett and David W. Congdon, eds. Converting Witness: The Future of Christian Mission in the New Millennium. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2019. Hardcover. 254 pp. $110.00.

When I began the Masters of Divinity program at Harding School of Theology in 2004, the course “Introduction to Graduate Studies,” then taught by the eminent theological librarian Don Meredith, served as the gauntlet through which incoming graduate students had to pass. In a course full of discovery, one of the numerous delights was my introduction to the Festschrift, that relic of nineteenth-century German dominance in theological scholarship.1 In short, a Festschrift (“celebration writing”) is a volume of collected essays published in honor of a senior scholar, typically written by the scholar’s students and colleagues.

A Festschrift typically engages the contributions of a scholar who has done outstanding work in his or her field, and one often finds therein consequential essays written with unique enthusiasm. Lamentably, the Festschrift fell out of fashion in the latter half of the twentieth century, undoubtedly due in part to their commonly exorbitant price tag—as the volume reviewed here exemplifies.2 The practice has not disappeared, however, and I am happy to report that Converting Witness: The Future of Christian Mission in the New Millennium, published in honor of leading missional theologian Darrell Guder, is a remarkable exemplar of the tradition.

Of course, Festschrift or not, books of collected essays are notoriously difficult to review. First, there is no single thesis developed; the book does not offer itself, as a whole, for review. A reviewer is inevitably forced to critique individual essays on their own merit, which usually proves unwieldy. The second difficulty is the predictable unevenness of the contributions. The best Festschriften are replete with useful essays, but this is too often the exception. While the first challenge necessarily persists for this review, I commend editors John Flett and David Congdon for midwifing a volume that is multidimensionally generative. Here are contributions that, I predict, will become significant points of reference for missional theology going forward.

Another characteristic of the Festschrift is the variety of approaches to the honoree’s work that contributors may take. Some of the essays in Converting Witness scarcely make reference to Guder, contributing instead to an area of study related to his work. In “Catholicity: A Missional Mark of the Church”(ch. 2), for example, Stephen Bevans develops a rich account of a traditional mark of the church in terms that resonate with the missional ecclesiology Guder helped pioneer (without engaging Guder per se). Eberhard Busch’s “The Sending of the Whole Christian Church: Reflections after Karl Barth” (ch. 3) is an exercise in Barthian scholarship in keeping with (but without reference to) Guder’s own attention to the German luminary. And “Christian Mission and Globalization: Current Trends and Future Challenges” (ch. 13), by Henning Wrogemann, simply offers a broad argument in service of “an adaptable theology of mission today” (200; emphasis original).

Other essays engage more directly with Guder’s work, exploring or extending it in some way. Benjamin Conner’s contribution “For the Fitness of Their Witness: Missional Christian Practices” (ch. 8), for one, dialogues with Guder throughout, relating his “incarnational” theology to contemporary discussion of Christian practices. Conner contends that “what unites Christian practices is that they are Spirit-enabled means through which congregations participate in the life of God, which is missional” (127). Wilbert Shenk intriguingly argues in “Can These Dry Bones Live Again? The Priority of Renewal” (ch. 14) that the Gospel and Our Culture Network, with which Guder has been intimately involved, needs to retrieve a theology of renewal. He compellingly suggests “the Continuing Conversion of the Church that Darrell Guder calls for hinges on a deep conversion to God’s mission as the foundation on which new structures and practices can be developed. Such transformation will only be experienced through life-changing encounter with the Word that leads to repentance and covenant renewal” (217).

Perhaps the chief strength of the volume, as such, is the pairing of complementary, or in some cases contrasting, essays. No overt thematic structure guides the reader, but it is evident that, where possible, the editors organized the contributions in order to place the authors in conversation with each other, so to speak. Four pairs stand out in this regard. First, Christine Lienemann-Perrin and Samuel Escobar’s chapters address the thorny conception of Christendom in distinctive ways. Lienemann-Perrin’s “European Christianity Put to the Test: Observations Concerning the Use of the Term ‘Christendom’ in the Study of World Christianity” (ch. 4) compares Kwame Bediako and Karl Barth in order to argue that the term Christendom is ambiguous, in part advancing a more sympathetic hearing for some of its uses than is common in missional theology. Escobar’s “From Praxis to Reflection: The Development of Integral Mission in Latin America” (ch. 5), in contrast, maintains a vision of the fortuitous end of Christendom from the holistic, Christological perspective for which he is well known.

A second set comprises essays on missional hermeneutics by James Brownson and David Congdon. In “Gospel and Culture Conversations about Biblical Interpretation” (ch. 6), Brownson advances the role of experience and emotion in contrast with rational analysis in biblical hermeneutics. He believes intimacy with others—for example, LGBTQ persons—is a necessary disruption that “does not replace Scripture; it drives us back to read Scripture more deeply” (100). Congdon’s “Demythologizing as an Intercultural Hermeneutic” (ch. 7) fruitfully exegetes Rudolf Bultman’s infamous demythologization in terms of culture and worldview. He concludes, “The missionary task—as redefined within an existential, intercultural framework—is always a conversion of oneself to the other, and never a conversion of the other to oneself” (115). As a keen reader in the realm of missional hermeneutics, I note that these two essays are substantive contributions.

Of equal significance is the pair of essays by Richard Mouw and George Hunsberger. Each, in its way, stands on a major fault line in missional theology. Mouw, in “Missional Ecclesiology: Proposing Some Friendly Kuyperian Amendments” (ch. 9), astutely identifies the critical differences between Reformed and Anabaptist perspectives in missional theology. With an admirably irenic pen, he argues from a Reformed stance that “the extra-ecclesial workings of the Spirit” (149) call for a more expansive understanding of the missional church than has commonly been the case. Setting sights on another dimension of missional ecclesiology, Hunsberger discredits the prolific language of “church planting.” As the title of his essay “Church Spawning: Reimagining New Church Development” (ch. 10) suggests, Husberger is in search of a better idiom for the reproduction of the church. Accordingly, he endeavors “to start with a more thorough critique of the mental models operative in the language and then seek an alternate imagination of what we are talking about and what we think we are doing” (154). Whatever one makes of his alternative terminology, the argument proves worthy of careful consideration.

In a fourth pairing, Seong Sik Heo and Deanna Ferree Womack offer complementary discussions of interreligious engagement. Heo’s “Revisiting Newbigin’s Ambivalence toward Interreligious Dialogues: How Can We Reengage in Interreligious Dialogues in Asia?” (ch. 11) confronts Lesslie Newbigin’s limited engagement in interreligious dialogue. The chapter offers a generous reading of Newbigin’s motivations, giving special emphasis to his context, but ultimately argues that the situation has changed. Now, thinks Heo, missional theology should reengage in interreligious dialogue. In sum, this particular aspect of Newbigin’s approach to “pluralism” needs rethinking—a gentle but significant challenge to one of missional theology’s darlings. Similarly, Ferree Womack sees “interfaith engagement as essential to the church’s missionary nature” (183). “Converting Mission: Interfaith Engagement as Christian Witness” (ch. 12) advances this claim by building on John Mackay’s incarnational principle, Newbigin’s view of the gospel as public truth, and Guder’s idea of the continuing conversion of the church. This final component serves to suggest, more forcefully than Heo’s argument, that missional theology should repent of the failure to prioritize interreligious dialogue. Together, these articles signal a significant agenda for missional theology in the coming decades.

Finally, I should mention the editors’ brief biographical introduction “Darrell L. Guder: A Life of Continuing Conversion” (ch. 1). The essay outlines Guder’s framing of missional theology, his Barthian scholarship, and his particular interest in missional hermeneutics. The titles of both this chapter and the book capture the extent to which “continuing conversion” is chief among the concepts that the Festschrift’s authors celebrate but also the sense in which Guder exemplifies it personally and methodologically. In my estimation, Converting Witness is a tribute worthy of one of missional theology’s greatest exponents.

Greg McKinzie

Adjunct Faculty

College of Bible and Ministry

Lipscomb University

Nashville, TN, USA

1 I will not belabor the history here. The curious can learn more at “Festschriften,” https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/festschriften.

2 After years in scholarship and publishing, it remains incomprehensible to me why this is the case. My thanks to the publisher for a review copy!

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