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Review of Gregg Okesson, A Public Missiology: How Local Churches Witness To A Complex World

Author: Mark Barneche
Published: Summer–Fall 2021
In:

MD 12.2

Article Type: Book Review

Gregg Okesson. A Public Missiology: How Local Churches Witness To A Complex World. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020. Paperback. 288 pp. $18.79.

In this multidisciplinary work, Gregg Okesson, former missionary in East Africa and Dean of the Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism at Asbury Theological Seminary, affirms local Christian congregations as the “basic unit of a new society” (143), called and gifted by God to witness to the world from within. Yet, he laments that many local congregations manifest a “thin” soteriological witness, focused primarily on individual conversion and transformation, insufficient to address the complex, “thick” realities found within the public spaces in which people actually live. Okesson argues that, to offer a more complex, “thicker” witness that addresses the concerns of the world, congregations must understand the power and ubiquity of the public realm and ground their mission in the “movements” of the Trinity.

While I reserve some criticism for the way Okesson employs certain Trinitarian concepts, this extensively researched book manages to balance specialized theological reflection with concrete ecclesiology in ways that are suitable for a wide audience. The book is constructed in two parts: the first establishes a theological framework for a thicker public missiology, while the second provides examples of this kind of thick public missiology at work in three ethnographic case studies.

Within the book’s opening chapters, Okesson attempts to give readers a sense of the vast, complex nature of the public realm. He offers a concise overview of the history of “publicology” through the major historical, sociological, and philosophical movements which shape contemporary public life. Although the public realm evades easy categorization, we are ultimately given a broad definition of publics as “spaces both real and imagined, where people participate in life together and form opinions based on the circulation of texts” (41).1 These spaces are so ubiquitous and closely woven together that it is impossible to speak of the public realm using any singular term. It is a tapestry of human communities which “interpenetrate” one another, distinct enough to be identifiable but with borders that are porous and often difficult to distinguish. Nothing in the public realm is truly independent of anything else. Therefore, strict distinctions between public and private, secular and religious, or ways of categorizing various “cultural domains as discrete wholes” (51), must be abandoned. For Okesson, this idea should dispel any illusions of isolation from or separation within the public realm. Congregations exist as one of many alternative publics which are constantly in a state of dynamic exchange with other surrounding publics.

This exchange between congregations and publics, which Okesson refers to as “movement,” “weaving,” “dance,” or “engagement,” is fundamental to his argument. It connotes a wide spectrum of interactive activities in public spaces which result in a greater awareness of complexity, understanding, or thickness. Such movements could consist of virtually any interaction in which Christians engage the public realm– joining a school’s parent association, participation in civic culture or politics, or participation in online social networks. In short, the amount of movement a congregation experiences within the public realm directly correlates to the thickness of its soteriological witness. On the surface, this seems like an obvious affirmation of the need to contextualize the Christian witness, but Okesson goes further. Movement thickens witness, not only because it allows congregations to orient the resources of the Gospel to the contextualized needs of the world, but because such movement finds its inspiration (and power) in similar movements found in the persons of the Trinity (106).

In Okesson’s work, the Trinity is presented as an essential element of the Christian faith that must lie at the heart of any missiological approach to the public realm. Drawing on scriptural narratives and Trinitarian theologies from Moltmann, Newbegin, Tennant, and Volf, he suggests the immanent and economic movements of the Trinity are both inspiration and source for thick congregational missiology.2 As the Trinity achieves a “thick oneness” through internal movement between its distinct, yet interconnected, persons, and moves outward into all of creation, congregations should similarly develop a “thick witness” via the worship of the persons of the Trinity (71) and movement into the public realm.

Okesson’s use of the Trinity as a model for good missiology is in keeping with current trends which assert that the Trinity is well-understood and that its nature should be authoritative or exemplary for the Church. The parameters of a book review do not allow for a thorough critique of this approach to contemporary theology/missiology; however, I believe that Okesson overstates, and ultimately undermines, his case by founding aspects of his theological argument on aspects of the immanent Trinity that cannot be truly known. The doctrine of the Trinity may allow us to affirm the triune nature of God and (most importantly) Christ’s place within the Trinity, but it does not allow us to assume we have some intimate understanding of what this three-in-oneness is like or how it relates to itself.3 Furthermore, even if we could know something about the internal divine relationship, it does not mean that any lessons derived from the Trinity should be considered normative or directly applicable to human beings.4 Even setting these theological concerns aside, in appealing to vague, inherently mysterious, Trinitarian concepts, Okesson fails to give his lay readers concrete conceptual footholds for orienting Christian missiology. Ultimately, these arguments frustrate Okesson’s laudable attempt to provide a compelling missiological vision which is accessible to a wide audience.

The final chapters indicate that Okesson may be aware that his Trinitarian approach could be too esoteric for some readers. He turns from the theoretical/theological to the concrete, offering three ethnographies that illustrate thick witness in churches in Kenya, Canada, and the United States. These churches model Okesson’s missiological vision by naming and mirroring the distinctive persons of the Trinity in their doxology, by expanding their notion of salvation beyond the mere forgiveness of personal sin on the cross, and by deliberately engaging the complexity of the public realm in their teaching and ministries. In Okesson’s words, these are examples of churches that employ his notion of movement to “save people in and for their publics” (254). These chapters, along with Okesson’s conclusion, are helpful insofar as they allow readers to see where the author identifies “thick witness” at work in the actual, lived reality of Christian ministry. Although I remain critical of the immanent Trinitarian models employed, Okesson’s book certainly has value and is certain to spark critical dialogue in the church and in the academy regarding how congregations understand and witness to the visible and hidden publics outside, and inside, their church walls.

Mark Barneche

Associate Director of the Lausanne Program

Pepperdine University

Lausanne, Switzerland

1 Okesson sources the term “texts” from Karin Barber’s work, The Anthropology of Texts, Persons and Publics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), which gives a spacious definition encompassing oral, embodied, and written materials.

2 “Movements between the persons of the Trinity result in the creation of the world. And if this is true for the Trinity, we must later reflect on how the church reflects the inner life of the Trinity through public witness, sowing seeds of new creation into the present” (75).

3 For a more thorough critique of uses (and misuses) of the Trinity, see Karen Kilby, “Is Apophatic Trinitarianism Possible?” International Journal of Systematic Theology 12, no. 1 (2010): 65–77.

4 See Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key, Current Issues in Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 207–46.

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