John G. Flett and David W. Congdon, eds., Converting Witness: The Future of Christian Mission in the New Millennium, Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, Lanham, MD, 2019. 240 pages. $110.00. ISBN: 978-1-9787-0840-2.
Converting Witness is a festschrift edited by two of Darrell L. Guder’s former PhD students at Princeton Theological Seminary. John Flett and David Congdon honor Guder’s influential role in the development of missional theology and missional hermeneutics, giving voice to an international array of scholars who appreciate Guder’s work as a catalyst for new insights in their diverse fields. The work is soundly these authors’, not a summary of Guder’s thought with a few reflections. Beyond the introductory first chapter, the chapters are not a close reading of Guder’s published works; rather, authors in their own scholarly perspectives expound on themes that Guder engaged. The authors share Guder’s commitment to scholarship for the Christian church, enabling scholars and practitioners to find something of relevance in this academic volume, even if only a single chapter.
Flett and Congdon open with a robust yet concise summary of Guder’s life and work. With careful footnoting, they trace the influences, primary themes, and trajectory of Guder’s theology. A reader not already familiar with Guder can become acquainted with the person behind the work and grasp the scope of his scholarship.
Eberhard Busch is one of three Swiss or German authors in the volume, appropriately so because Guder holds Swiss citizenship, spent his early career in Germany, and is an avid English translator of German theology. Busch, Karl Barth’s former assistant, expounds upon Barth’s gathering, upbuilding, and sending functions of the church. Busch insists on the missional task of every member of the Christian church. Christine Lienemann-Perrin, of Basel, explores the etymology and history of the term “Christendom,” surveying its different uses by Christians in Europe, North America, and the Global South. Believing the concept stifling for missiological discourse, she calls for a global movement to transcend the binary split between Christendom and post-Christendom, “to avoid altogether that term [Christendom] at least for a while and replace it by describing the intended phenomena as precisely as possible” (73). Henning Wrogemann of Germany assesses current trends in the globalization of mission, observing an increase in mission efforts worldwide, diversification, and surprising directions in missiological movement. He proposes an adaptable theology of mission that is both doxological—with dimensions of “prophetic criticism, power, communal-physical experience, and [invoking] the name of Jesus Christ”—and oikumenical, “with aspects of solidarity, plurality, cooperation, and ecology” (206).
From a distinctively Roman Catholic perspective, Stephen Bevans explores the missional mark of catholicity as one of four Nicene marks of the church. Though he relies heavily on Vatican II, Protestants will also find much relevant material in his chapter.
From Fuller Theological Seminary (Pasadena, CA), Richard Mouw recommends conceptualizing the church as an organism rather than an institution, as distinguished by Abraham Kuyper. Interestingly, Mouw offers the only direct and sustained critique of Guder in the entire volume, judging Guder’s emphasis on the parish context as “unnecessarily restrictive” (143). Also from Fuller, Wilbert Shenk emphasizes Guder’s call for the church to experience ongoing renewal through “life-changing encounter with the Word” and “deep conversion to God’s mission as the foundation on which new structures and practices can be developed” (217). Drawing on Ezekiel’s prophetic vision of dry bones, Shenk points out that renewal begins on the margins of the church and results in mission.
Three Western Theological Seminary (Holland, MI) faculty are featured. George Hunsberger offers a theological reflection on church planting—affirming its importance, clarifying its nature and telos, and exploring its biblical foundations. He recommends “a church spawning imagination, recognizing our midwife relationship to what the Spirit is birthing” (161). This and Benjamin Connor’s feature on missional Christian practices are likely the most relevant chapters for ministry practitioners. Regarding Christian practices as inherently missional, Connor translates two of Guder’s core concepts—incarnational witness and communal formation for walking worthily—into a practical theology of Christian practices within congregations. New Testament scholar James Brownson briefly examines two challenges emerging for missional hermeneutics since its development in the 1990s: the universality/particularity tension and missional hermeneutics as primarily an academic movement of rational discourse.
Four authors address intercultural and interreligious engagement. Congdon overlays Rudolf Bultmann’s program of demythologization with the framework of intercultural hermeneutics at the intersection of the biblical text’s ancient culture and that of contemporary readers. He examines Bultmann’s categories of preunderstanding and self-understanding, concluding that an intercultural hermeneutic simultaneously translates the proclaimed message from one historical context to another and eschatologically “transpropriates the kerygma to ever new contexts” (114). Peruvian scholar Samuel Escobar points out that Latin American Evangelical missiology has understood the church as missional from the beginning. He highlights the complicated and problematic missiological relationship between European and American Christians and the peoples of Latin America, and recommends a new approach of Integral Mission that incorporates evangelization. Seong Sik Heo interrogates Lesslie Newbigin’s reluctance to engage in interreligious dialogue. From his perspective in Korea, he reviews Newbigin’s writings on religious pluralism, considers Newbigin’s cultural context, and proposes steps toward engaging in interreligious dialogues in Asia as “a way of Christian pilgrimage” (179). Deanna Womack—in conversation with Guder, Newbigin, and John Mackay—explores from the American Protestant context how a commitment to mission might be reconciled with the Christian “calling to live as loving neighbors alongside people of many faiths” (184). She calls for the conversion of American mission so that Christians do not privatize their faith, reduce it to a simple truth for converting souls, or clothe it in the garb of white supremacy.
Coincidentally, Converting Witness was published the year Princeton Theological Seminary temporarily closed Stuart Hall for renovations—the 1876 Venetian Gothic academic building where Guder taught as Professor of Missional and Ecumenical Theology from 2002 to 2015.1 As Guder enlarged students’ imaginations for the apostolic, missional vocation of the church, it was as if the conversation occurred within a stone monument to the very Christendom Guder critiqued.
In 2019, scaffolding was erected around Stuart Hall. Guder uses the metaphor of scaffolding to describe theology and ministry’s need to become “missional.” “We would not need that scaffolding if our theological work were shaped by the missio Dei,” Guder writes, “truly focused upon the formation and equipping of the church for its apostolate.”2 The term “missional” has become wildly popular among Western Protestants, yet some scholars now call it into question. The same day Guder was formally presented with this festschrift, scholars at a Gospel and Our Culture Network Forum on Missional Hermeneutics debated—with Guder in the room—dropping the term altogether.3 Some wondered, Is the term so tied to vestiges of colonialism that it can only issue a partial diagnosis of the church’s underlying problems?4 Is it so offensive and misunderstood that different scaffolding should be erected?
Though the title might suggest that Converting Witness would interrogate the current and ongoing function of missional scaffolding in the new millennium, it hardly does so. With a few fleeting exceptions, most authors build upon Guder’s accomplished critical work—and indeed, he has done much—and proceed with the already-defined missional task without deeply interrogating it. A tribute worthy of Guder might better critique these theoretical starting points, as Guder himself demonstrated in his own scholarship.
Rev. Sarah Ann Bixler is an instructor in formation and practical theology at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, Virginia. She is completing her PhD in practical theology at Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS). After earning her MDiv at PTS, Sarah worked with Guder to launch and administer the Center for Church Planting and Revitalization at PTS from 2016 to 2019. She has a BA from Eastern Mennonite University and has worked as a middle school teacher, youth minister, curriculum writer, and Mennonite conference administrator. Sarah is ordained for teaching ministry by Virginia Mennonite Conference. She and her spouse, Benjamin Bixler, along with their three school-aged children, are the latest stewards of the historic Lincoln Homestead in Linville, Virginia.
“Princeton Historic District,” nomination form, National Register of Historic Places, United States Department of the Interior National Park Service, May 15, 1975, https://npgallery.nps.gov/GetAsset/8ef7085f-a375-4f72-827c-2acc409f972f, accessed January 6, 2020, 5.
Darrell L. Guder, Called to Witness: Doing Missional Theology, The Gospel and Our Culture Series (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2015), 168.
The festschrift presentation occurred on November 24, 2019, during Princeton Theological Seminary’s reception at the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in San Diego, California.
Drew Hart, respondent, “James Cone, Blackness, and Missional Hermeneutics,” Gospel and Our Culture Network Forum on Missional Hermeneutics, American Academy of Religion annual meeting, San Diego, CA, November 24, 2019.