What is the best way to do missions? That is possibly the wrong question to ask. The right question could be, “What are the ethical means and goals of missions?” Or “How does missions produce virtuous Christians?”
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review “Virtuous Persuasion: A Theology of Christian Missions” by Michael Niebauer. 320 pages, published by Lexham Academic in July 2022. This book is part of the Studies in Historical and Systematic Theology series. It’s USD19.99 in Amazon Kindle and USD26.99 in Logos.
I got this book for free to review. Lexham the publisher has no input in this review.
Author and Ethics
Michael Niebauer is a pastor of Incarnation Church, Pennyslvania, a teaching fellow at Trinity School for Ministry and a podcaster for the Christian catechesis podcast, “This We Believe”. He was a church planter for 15 years in North America. He has a PhD in Systematic Theology from Duquesne University and specialises in Christian Ethics and Missiology.
You may wonder:
“Christian Ethics? That’s about abortion, or capital punishment, or the future of A.I. in war, isn’t it? How is it used in missions? Oh! Is it used when missionaries do bad things like taking away children from their families? Or when people kill twin or albinos because they believe the babies are demonic or kill widows because they believe wives should follow their husbands into the afterlife?”
That is a narrow and limited view of what ethics is. And nothing to do with this book. Niebauer quotes Herbert McCabe’s definition for ethics which is, “the quest of less and less trivial modes of human relatedness.” Don’t you want a less trivial life? Of course you do, that’s why you are listening to this podcast.
Let’s open the book.
The Critical and the Constructive Task
Apart from the Introduction and Conclusion, the book has seven chapters divided into two parts. Part I is titled, “The Critical Task: Three Models, Three Problems”.
- Chapter 1: Mission and the Missio Dei
- Chapter 2: Mission as Growth
- Chapter 3: Mission as Dialogue
Part II is titled, “The Constructive Task: Mission, Virtue and The Practices of Proclamation and Gathering”. The chapters are:
- Chapter 4: Mission as Virtuous Practice
- Chapter 5: Proclamation
- Chapter 6: Gathering
- Chapter 7: Entering into the Craft of Mission: Tragedy, Tradition and Telos
Three Attractive Yet Flawed Models
I’ll briefly, very briefly, explain what are the three models.
In the first model, Mission and the Missio Dei, the idea is mission is God’s activity. God the Father sent Jesus the Son, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit, and the Trinity sent the church into the world. So the church’s mission is inseparable from God’s mission. The problem is when the church’s mission is indistinguishable from God’s mission. Where does the work of God begin and end? Where does the work of Man begin and end? By conflating the two, we cannot meaningfully speak of Man’s role in mission. We have here a problem of distinction.
In the second model, Mission as Growth, the idea is the success of mission is measured by numerical growth and the activity of mission is to achieve that numerical growth.
For the mission as growth paradigm, the controlling image is the advancement of God’s kingdom through the increase of the number of Christians to the ends of the earth. This exerts a control over the types of Scriptures used (parable of the sower, Peter’s speech in Acts 2) and also how such missiological texts are construed. Here, because the goal of mission is the increase of converts and churches, and such goals are advanced through an understanding of the mechanics of human nature, biblical texts related to mission are construed as missional contrivances—they provide replicable models for how to produce effective mission.
You might not see a problem here. “Problem, what problem? The Great Commission means we need to go save all the souls out there. And if we are not thinking this way, the problem is not here the problem is you.”
Let me put it this way.
When a mission effort fails, how do you respond? If you are thinking: “What went wrong? What went right? How can we improve? What can we do next?”, then whether you realise it or not, you are pinning your hopes to the yet-to-be-discovered method. If only you could discover it, or tweak what you have, then you would win those souls. You just need to push the right buttons, pull the right levers, and all these souls will come tumbling out of Hell into Heaven. Niebauer points out that the mission as growth model diminishes agency, the ability to make a choice, of both the missionary and the people he is reaching out to. The problem here is agency.
Finally, in the third model, Mission as Dialogue, the idea is missionaries of the past did terrible wrongs: colonisation, Westernisation, forced coercion. That’s not what the Bible teaches. According to this model, rather than trying to convert unbelievers into Christianity, Christians should be having respectful dialogues with unbelievers. The purpose is to self-convert, to be a better person at the end of the day.
How can this model be Christian? Where is the Great Commission? How can its criticism of persuasion stand in light of Peter’s sermon to convert thousands, Stephen’s defiant speech or Paul’s testimony before kings. King Agrippa recognised Paul’s attempt to convert him. He asked, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” Paul did not reply, “I am just having a dialogue.” Paul said, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am — except for these chains.”
Since persuading unbelievers to convert is obviously part of missions, why did Michael Niebauer include this model? At first, I thought he needed a foil to contrast with his definition of mission, which includes proclamation. I just cannot see Christians accepting the mission as dialogue model.
Which got me thinking. Instead of trying to locate ourselves in one of these models, it may be better to see how these models have influenced how I think of missions.
Because Mission as Dialogue seems to be what most Christians are doing. Many think it is better to dialogue than to proclaim. Better to delay proclamation indefinitely.
So we profess the Great Commission and are righteously indignant when it is set aside but we set it aside in practice. So just because we don’t recognise the name of the model, we don’t know the people who invent it, teach it or promote it and we would never identify ourselves with the model, it doesn’t mean the model is not in us.
For instance, everyone agrees that everyone is created equal but many don’t know that this from the Bible, Man are created in God’s image. People who would never describe themselves as Christian nevertheless take that Christian concept and have made it their own.
So if you do read this book, it is not helpful if you think tribally. You will not see yourself in any of these models. And reject them. And thus, not hear what Niebauer has to say.
Perhaps you can think of it this way. We can describe models of government in Ancient Rome, or Israel, or the Byzantium Empire. It should not be difficult for us to admit that our system of government may be influenced by those models. And we can critique those models.
And that’s what Niebauer helpfully does. He uses theological ethics to criticise models that may simultaneously influenced at varying degrees our understanding of missions.
Begin With Aquinas
So that’s Part I: The Critical Task. Now we move to Part II: The Constructive Task.
In highlighting the ways in which the problems of distinction, agency, and persuasion perpetually recur throughout these various models of mission, I am suggesting that the potential solutions to these issues lay outside of dogmatic and anthropological approaches to mission, and that the field of missiology lacks the resources to adequately solve them. While the discipline of theological ethics has provided the primary critical tools for identifying the perpetual problems of mission, it also provides the resources for solutions.
The answer, and main takeaway from this book, is this: Mission is a virtuous practice. Mission is a virtuous practice. It sounds axiomatic, “Of course! Mission is virtuous! What can be a more virtuous practice than missions!”
Stop. Stop. We can’t just assume things. We need to unpack what mission is a virtuous practice means and then what are the implications. Niebauer does that in four chapters. Along the way, he addresses the problems in the three models.
Just taking one example (because we don’t have a lot of time to do the rest), in the Missio Dei model, we had the problem of distinction because we conflate, we merge, the mission of God and the mission of the church. In missions, where does God start and end? Where do I start and end?
Niebauer shows us how Thomas Aquinas, that really smart guy from 800 years ago, how he would resolve that tension. Aquinas saw the relationship between God and creation as asymmetrical. That is the key.
God is not in space or time and, as such, can act in created things without displacing created things. God’s agency is thus not competitive with human agency: “Because of God’s infinity, the two agencies are not competitive, as if God acts 75 percent and the creature 25 percent.” The activity of God is differentiated from the activity of human beings: God is able to send himself in ways that human beings cannot. God’s agency functions in a way that human agency cannot. God can go to where he already exists; humans go to where they do not exist. God can act without displacement; human beings act through displacement.
As I reflect on this answer, I thought about breathing. We breathe. We say God sustains life. Without God, there would be no air, no oxygen. But when we say God sustains life, we mean more than God providing the air we breathe. We believe that without God, we cannot breathe. Not that God and I are taking turns to work my lungs like a ventilator but in a way that I don’t yet understand, God’s work is differentiated from my work, so that I can say I breathe yet it is God who makes me breathe.
Even though I don’t understand the mystery of how God and I come together for me to breath, my ignorance doesn’t stop me from breathing. In a similar way, I don’t understand the mystery of how God and I come together for missions, but my ignorance doesn’t stop me from doing missions. With that I echo what Niebauer says here:
God exercises divine agency in a way that is different from and only analogous to human agency. For Aquinas, God exists in all things: “God exists within all things and intimately so.”
And that’s not all Aquinas has to say.
A key assertion by Aquinas is that the ultimate goal, or telos, of the human being is the vision of God. God is the greatest good, and since the good is that which is desirable and the terminus of desire, God is what human beings are created to desire, as well as where their desires terminate: “Final and perfect happiness (in Latin beatitudo) can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence.” Aquinas here quotes St. John: “When He shall appear, we shall be like to Him; and we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2)
I am shortcutting the discussion to reach the conclusion, if you want to see how the argument unfolds, you have to read the book. So from 1 John 3:2, we get our goal which is to see God, to know Him, to glorify him. In this life, we are moving towards that goal and so what we do today, what we do now, matters because we are moving towards that goal.
All activity that is deliberate bears a moral character, providing the opportunity for human beings to act according to their good and move toward their final end.
This is a big claim. Read the book to see how he substantiates it. We will assume it’s true, that all deliberate activities bear a moral character. This thus leads us to Niebauer’s next step to show that mission is a virtuous practice.
Stir In Some McIntyre
And that next step is the definition of a virtuous practice. Alasdair McIntyre defines it as:
Any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definite of, that form of activity.
Sounds like gobbledygook. Niebauer breaks down each part of that definition, but I’ll only pick out one because it’s the most striking.
A virtuous practice is an activity through which goods internal are realized. Not external. Money is external. When people commend you for your good deeds. That commendation is external. When many people come to church, get baptised and be faithful Christians, as good as that good is, it is external.
What is an internal good? Niebauer gives examples of temperance, prudence and faith. And so a virtuous practice is one in which goods internal are produced.
Do you see how that unanimously agreeable description of mission as a virtuous practice is not so agreeable now? It clashes with the mission as growth model?
There are still missing pieces, and so we come to the next point.
Proclamation and Gathering
Niebauer adapts Kevin Rowe’s analysis of the Book of Acts to conclude:
mission is proclamation with the hope of confession of Jesus as Lord, and mission is the gathering of those who confess into Christian community.
My assertion is that proclamation and gathering are the two essential missional practices because the removal of either renders mission (particularly as it is portrayed in Acts) incoherent.
And that’s it. We put everything together. This is Niebauer’s thesis: Mission consists of proclamation and gathering, activities that produce virtue in the missionary that orients him toward the goal of his life, God.
And this definition makes an impact. It’s not just another entry into a dictionary. It guides us on how to think of missions. He unpacks them in one chapter on proclamation and one chapter on gathering.
Even the most anti-intellectual would appreciate what Niebauer does here.
Proclamation start with prayer. Can I get an amen to that? Then preparation, communication, the response and finally a return to prayer. Niebauer takes everything we have talked about, the models, the problems, Christian ethics, and shows us how proclamation should be best understood as a virtuous practice.
And if my review so far gives you the impression that this book is very dry, listen to this:
And so the missionary actively delights in what God has done through the act of proclaiming the gospel. They delight in the opportunity to speak about the resurrection, they delight in convincing others of its validity to the best of their ability, they delight in the responses to the affirmative, and they even delight in their fidelity to the gospel in the face of its rejection.
To participate in God’s mission is to participate in the fullness of God. Delighting in the act of proclamation sediments God’s goodness in the soul of the missionary, and because God’s goodness is an infinite and inexhaustible plenitude, it spurs the missionary on to further proclamatory actions.
Do you hear in that joy, delight, doxology, the echoes of everything we have been talking about?
And that theology climaxing with doxology can also be seen in the next chapter on gathering. Niebauer writes:
The joy is not in seeing simply a community established, but a community that is in communion with God and each other, a community that is growing in their love and knowledge of God through Jesus Christ, and a community that has been given every spiritual gift needed to thrive.
The Robust Model
And that brings me to my next observation. To me, a model is robust when you can take that model, put it under conditions it was not designed for, burn it, freeze it, throw it into space, and if that model survives, it is robust.
Niebauer convinced me on the power of this virtuous model because it is robust enough to answer questions that other models can’t. How should the missionary learn his craft? Are there professional and amateur missionaries? How does a missionary handle being simultaneously a citizen, a son or daughter, a parent and a pastor?
Can you hear the tension in that last question? Well, if you reflect on the virtuous model, you can actually come up with an answer yourself, the models gives you the tools to answer it. And I suspect your answer will not be too far off from Niebauer’s here.
Among all the implications of this virtuous model that Niebauer has written here, the one that jumped out to me was this. I quote:
… my conception of mission and virtue calls for a recovery of a now faded literary genre, that of the missionary biography.
When I read this, I was so happy. I imagined for myself, “What would the other models say about missionary biographies?”
The Missio Dei missionary would say, “These stories show God’s sovereignty and purposes coming to pass. They are a call to worship God. Stop looking at the missionary, he didn’t do much.”
The growth missionary looks at these books and say, “These guys, were great guys, but they did what they did a 100, 200, 500 years ago. The world, people, technology, culture, has changed so much since then, that there is little we can learn from them. Stick to the mission guys.”
The dialogue missionary is aghast at these books. He will either hide them or apologise for them.
The virtuous missionary he looks at these stories. “Oh! How they honoured God!”
John Allen Chau died alone on a beach because he wanted to share the gospel to the Sentinelese in India. Jim Elliot was speared to death by the Huaroni tribe in Ecuador. He wrote these haunting lines, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”
Their lives, their stories, can only resonate, call us forward, because Christians share the same goal, and we should recognise and applaud that virtue that is in their lives.
Virtues that all the other models are blind to.
In the Hands of Everyone
If you are a missionary or a serious student of missions, you must read this book. And if you are reluctant because you like what you are doing in missions and you don’t want Niebauer giving you grief, don’t think that way. These are all models, they are not tribes. Nobody is asking you to change citizenship, and I honestly think mission is important enough that does who can, should reflect on the theology of missions.
But other than missionaries, this book is also for you. Let me ask you: “Are you a virtuous person? Do you see what you are doing now, right now, whether you are driving, drinking coffee or getting ready for bed, do you see your actions as moral actions?”
These are alien questions. And here I recall that Socrates quote, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
That’s a bit much but the point stands. And here is the beautiful part. The offer in this book is saying, you should live a virtuous life. You can live a virtuous life.
This book applies Christian ethics into missions but as I read it, you and I can, with some effort, apply this robust virtuous model into our non-missionary work. My recording this podcast episode for a book review, is a virtuous practice. And that is an eye-opening, soul-enriching realisation of Colossians 3:17: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus…”
Let me end this book review with this quote.
D. Stephen Long, Cary M. Maguire University Professor of Ethics, Southern Methodist University wrote an endorsement for this book, it goes like this:
Virtuous Persuasion is the most important work on moral theology and missions that currently exists. It should be in the hands of everyone, scholar, clergy or lay, involved in missions.
That is an outstanding endorsement, one I heartily echo.
This is a Reading and Readers review of “Virtuous Persuasion: A Theology of Christian Missions” by Michael Niebauer. 320 pages, published by Lexham Academic in July 2022. This book is part of the Studies in Historical and Systematic Theology series. It’s available in Amazon Kindle for USD19.99 Kindle and USD26.99 in Logos.
I got this book for free to review. The publisher has no input in this review.
Announcement. The free books for Logos and Faithlife are out. We have two commentaries from Logos, the Preacher’s Commentary on Luke and Jon Courson’s Application Commentary on the New Testament. That commentary is 1824 pages and I won’t be reviewing that.
Instead I will be reviewing a discounted book from Faithlife. The Counselor: Straight Talk About The Holy Spirit by A. W. Tozer.
So if you like Tozer or have never heard of Tozer, be ready to listen to my review of his book in the next episode of Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Bye bye!