Theology & Practice of Mission: An Interview with Bruce Ashford

Recently, our own Bruce Ashford published an edited volume, Theology and Practice of Mission (B&H, 2011), which embodies the Great Commission resurgence we are seeking here at SEBTS and in the broader SBC. In the post below, I’ve interviewed Bruce about the book, its unique format structured around the biblical narrative, and its unique collection of authors (missionaries, theologians, church planters, pastors, and missiologists). Below are the seven questions I asked him, followed by his responses.

First of all, tell our readers a little bit about yourself.

I serve as the Dean of the College at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where I also serve as Associate Professor of Theology & Culture and Senior Fellow at the Bush Center for Faith & Culture. I am also a Fellow in Theology at the Paideia Center for Public Theology.

Over the years, I have served as a pastor, an evangelist, and a church planter. At present, I have the great privilege of being one of the directional elders at The Summit Church, where we have a vision to plant 1,000 churches in the next 30 years.

I am married about 51 feet over my head to Lauren, who is mother to our two beautiful little girls, Riley and Anna.

OK, now tell us why you put together this book, Theology and Practice of Mission?

Together with 18 other contributors, we wanted to put together a unique book that we hoped would accomplish four things: (1) address this thing we call “mission,” in light of current debates; (2) to do so in a theologically-driven manner, rather than a pragmatically- or social science-driven manner; (3) to do so w/ contributors who are both theologically- and missionally- credible, many of whom are younger voices who have not yet been heard, and (4) to contribute to the Great Commission Resurgence arising out of the SBC, and other similar missional movements in the broader evangelical world.

In my mind, the uniqueness of this volume lies in its unique attention to the biblical narrative, and in the unique backgrounds of its authors. Would you focus in on those aspects?

All of the essays are built around the creation-fall-redemption-restoration rubric, and around a few common themes (e.g. the need for a theologically-driven missiology). Each chapter is written in conversation with that narrative. The first chapter launches our discussion of mission by telling that narrative so that it can be a framework for the rest of the book. The other chapters flow directly from it. For example, the chapters on Islam, Postmodernism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Animism give a blow-by-blow exposition of the ways in which these worldview-religion complexes fail in light of that narrative.

As for the authors, they are a wickedly savvy collection of theologians, church planters, pastors, and missionaries. The reader will notice that several of the names are pseudonyms, in light of the fact that those authors work in security sensitive areas around the world. In fact, most of our authors live and work in the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, the Pacific Rim, and Africa. Other contributors are church planters, pastors, and professors here in the USA. For example our USA-based contributors include J. D. Greear (pastor of The Summit Church and author of Gospel), Danny Akin (President of SEBTS and editor of A Theology for the Church), Sean Cordell (founding pastor of Treasuring Christ Church), George Robinson (professor at SEBTS and author of Striking the Match), Zane Pratt (Dean of the Billy Graham School at Southern Seminary), David Sills (professor at Southern), and Keith Whitfield (a brilliant polymath who works for Ed Stetzer and teaches at New College Franklin).

What did these authors write about? In other words, give us a concise overview of the chapters and the topics that are covered.

This book is about mission. It is about the church’s call to live as a witness to Christ, drawing the nations into worship him. This mission, as we see it, does not begin in Matthew 28 or in the book of Acts, but rather all the way at the beginning of the biblical narrative.

Part One, “God’s Mission,” argues that any discussion of the church’s mission must start with a discussion of God’s mission to glorify himself by redeeming his image-bearers and restoring his good creation. Our first chapter tells the “story of mission” by unfolding the biblical narrative in four plot movements-Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration. The second chapter, “The Triune God,” investigates what it means to say that God is the agent of missions, arguing that God’s nature is both the foundation and the pattern for the church’s mission to the nations.

Part Two, “The Church’s Mission,” treats the church’s mission in light of God’s mission. The church’s mission is to glorify him by participating in the redemption of his image-bearers, and by living as a sign of his kingdom and of the restoration of all things. The church’s mission is framed by God’s mission, seen upon the backdrop of God’s mission, and understood in light of God’s mission. This part of the book includes chapters on core doctrines related to the church’s mission (humanity, salvation, and the church) and on hot-button issues related to the church’s mission (evangelism, social responsibility, culture, and lifestyle).

Part Three, “The Church’s Mission to the Nations,” exposes the comprehensive reach of God’s mission, a reach that extends to all tribes, tongues, peoples, and nations. Although the church’s mission to the nations has often been relegated to international missions, we now are recognizing that those who minister in the United States often must cross cultures and sub-cultures and overcome linguistic barriers in our efforts to proclaim the gospel. This part of the book includes chapters on the OT and NT in relation to “the nations,” on the church’s mission in relation to hot-button topics (unreached people groups, discipleship, church planting, and suffering), and on the church’s mission in relation to various belief systems (Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Animists, and Postmoderns.)

Part Four, “Concluding Challenges,” consists of two chapters. The first concluding challenge, “A Theologically-Driven Missiology,” challenges evangelicals to craft a truly theological paradigm for missiology, particularly in relation to some of today’s contested missiological issues. The second concluding challenge, “A Challenge for our Churches,” encourages our churches and mission agencies to do whatever it takes to build a powerfully biblical and culturally strategic mission strategy for the 21st century.

Your book covers a great deal of topics. Why the breadth?

We cover a lot of topics because we think the church’s mission is comprehensive. We are called to glorify God and bear witness to him by participating in the redemption of his image-bearers, and by living as a sign of his kingdom and of the restoration of all things. When the church gathers, we do so through teaching, fellowship, worship, and witness in word and deed. When the church scatters, we also bear witness in word and deed, but do so in every realm of society and culture. The fact is that sin has ravaged every square inch of the fabric of society and culture, and therefore every square inch ought to be brought under submission to the Lordship of Christ.

There is a great struggle between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness, Christ and Satan, and between truth and error. This great struggle manifests itself in different ways in human history, and right now it manifests itself in the challenges posed by modernism, postmodernism, Southern fried moralism, Islam, Eastern religions, etc. Christians should resist this totalitarian assault on spiritual, moral, social, cultural, and political life. We should fight it tooth and nail, not only from the pulpit, but in the university, business, arts, sciences, public square, etc., and we should resist it in an openly and robustly Christian manner. I see this as part of the church’s mission.

The longest section of the book is the section on the church’s mission to the nations. Why the priority?

Revelation 5 is perhaps the most breathtaking and powerful vision in all of Scripture, and it serves as the climax of a major thread that runs throughout the Scriptures-God’s determination to make himself known to the nations so that they may worship him. In this vision that God gives to John, all of heaven bursts forth into praise of the Lamb who was slain. Among those represented are worshipers from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. This is the vision that drives us-that our Lord will be worshiped from all corners of the globe.

And yet there are almost 2 billion people who have little or no knowledge of Christ. In many corners of the globe there are no churches, no Bibles, and no Christians to bear witness. I repeat, there are hundreds of millions, upwards of 2 billion people, who could leave their homes and search for days and months, and never find a church, a Bible, or a Christian.

Our great privilege and responsibility is to bequeath to them the treasure that was given to us-the faith once for all delivered to the saints. I hope that the recent movement towards church planting and revitalization leads toward an equally powerful movement to take the gospel to every corner of the earth until there is a church within walking distance of every house on this planet.

You also write about the church’s mission in our American context. What are some things that you address in the book?

Yes, I think our churches in here in the US are realizing that ministry in our home-context is a lot more like international missions than we once thought. Let me mention four things our SBC churches can do, and which many of our churches are already doing:

  • 1. Confront the brutal facts about our racially monolithic legacy: Our convention built its legacy on reaching white people. But we’ve got to do whatever it takes to change this legacy. The gospel demands that we do so. God the Father sacrificed his son to reach the diverse peoples and tribes, and to bring them into gospel unity. As the USA becomes increasingly diverse, our all-white churches increasingly appear as a contradiction to the gospel. If we are not careful, public perception will be along these lines, “If you want racial integration and unity, rely on the US government. But if you want all-white gatherings that are bizarre anomalies in a diverse culture, go to a SBC church.”
  • 2. Confront the challenge of reaching the dizzying variety of sub-cultures that our churches must deal with. We must take our USA contexts as seriously as international missionaries take theirs. This means that we take the time to learn a little bit about the lives of the people around us. We learn what they believe, how they live, what music shapes their lives and emotions, etc. In our sermons we avoid tribal language, we-them language, sentimental pompous pep talks, and talking as if unbelievers are not present.
  • 3. Equip our people to bring all of their lives under the lordship of Christ, using every facet as leverage for the gospel. We want to equip our people do view their workplace and their leisure pursuits as arenas that are ordained by God, ordered by God, and are arenas in which we can work out the implications of the gospel.
  • 4. Encourage one another to reach the cities, the suburbs, and the rural and remote areas of our country, rather than just one or two of those.
  • 5. Focus on church planting, church revitalization, and cooperation.