Saturday Book Review: B.T. Conner

Benjamin T. Conner, Practicing Witness: A Missional Vision of Christian Practices

Reviewed by Wesley Vander Lugt

The burden of this book is to explore how missional theology might impact Christian practices. At present, these two academic areas have not sustained much conversation, and so Conner has his work cut out for him.

He begins by tracing the contours of missional theology, covering both the thought of George Hunsberger, leader for The Gospel and Our Culture Network, and the theology of Darrell Gruder at Princeton and several of his influential forerunners: Leslie Newbigin, David Bosch, and Karl Barth. This section is packed with information and reads like a dissertation (it is, in fact, based on Conner’s dissertation), but provides a worthy roadmap for beginning to understand the development and characteristics of missional theology. Skipping over these meaty details, I’ll head straight to Conner’s juicy definition of missional theology and quote it in full:

“Missional theology is a kind of practical theology that explores in every aspect of the theological curriculum and praxis of the church the implications of the missional nature of God with the purpose of forming congregations to better articulate the gospel and to live faithfully their vocation to participate in the ongoing redemptive mission of God in a particular context.” (11)

What you will notice about this definition is that it locates missional theology within practical theology, since the stated purpose of missional theology is formation and not just information. This assumes (wrongly, in my opinion) that other branches of theology are not practical and care only about information. Perhaps rather than attempting to locate missional theology within another branch of theology, which automatically limits its scope and purpose, it would have better to stick with Guder’s articulation of missional theology as a way of doing theology that can be biblical, systematic, and practical simultaneously. Missional theology connects the deepest mysteries of theology—God’s mission in Christ by the Spirit—with the most mundane matters of Christian discipleship, and in this sense, Conner is absolutely right that the goal of missional theology is both grasping the gospel and faithful performance of the gospel in daily life.

The second part of the book gives a rapid rundown of the “practicing our faith” conversation that arose out of the Valparaiso Project, led by Dorothy Bass and Craig Dykstra. In one of their first publications, Bass and Dykstra define Christian practices as “things Christian people do together over time in response to and in light of God’s active presence for the life of the world [in Jesus Christ].” Conner breaks down this definition into historical, social, universal, local, transformational/conversional, and witnessing elements, but is critical of this approach because it fails to account for critical themes of vocation and contextualization, and is only missional in a latent sense. To correct these weaknesses, Conner offers his own definition as influenced by missional theology: “Christian practices are the Spirit-filled and embodied signs, instruments, and foretastes of the kingdom of God that Christian people participate in together over time to partake in, partner with, and witness to God’s redemptive presence for the life of the world in Jesus Christ.” (94)

In other words, by bringing missional theology into the conversation, Conner makes Christian practices more overtly oriented toward witness, so that Christian practices do not merely result in witness to the world, but are themselves performances of witness. To compare the Valparaiso Project on Christian practices with his own missional perspective, Conner provides a helpful diagram outlining the differences (99). For example, he shows how Christian practices are not just a way of life in the world, but a way of witness in the world, and that these practices are not only a means to perceive God’s presence, but a means to perform it. In addition, Conner agrees that worship is a “master practice,” but rightly insists that there is no worship with mission and no mission without worship. To summarize, Conner believes that Christian practices are performative, not just formative. Christian practices do not merely prepare people for mission; they are a performance of and participation in God’s mission.

In my view, Conner has helpfully expanded the conversation of both missional theology and Christian practices, making missional theology more practical and Christian practices more missional. Given my interest in theatrical theology, moreover, I was thrilled to see how these themes converged around the concept of “performance.” With such an emphasis on Christian practices, however, I was disappointed to see a mere seven-page epilogue on how this works out in practice. Conner’s example—his involvement in Thru the Roof, a ministry for adolescents with disabilities—is poignant and moving, but it remains quite academic. The introductory chapter on Conner’s “crisis in ministry” does set a practical context for “practicing witness,” but I was left longing for more examples of how Christian practices can form individuals and congregations “to better articulate the gospel and to live faithfully their vocation to participate in the ongoing redemptive mission of God in a particular context.”

Another potential danger of the whole Christian practices discussion is the emphasis on doing to the (potential) neglect of being. In other words, focusing on what we do and practice could easily eclipse the importance of who we are and the power of simply being with people. In their recent book Living Without Enemies (IVP, 2011), Sam Wells and Marcia Owen emphasize identify two critical modes of witness as working with and being with, partnering with others to work alongside them and simply to be with them. It seems to me that the ministry Conner practices with disabled adolescents is a prime example of both working with and being with, and highlights the value not just of practicing witness, but being witnesses.

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  • A Ph.D. thesis from Princeton Theological Seminary I presume? It looks good. Thanks for letting us know about this book. It is similar to what I and others at Duke are interested in–and people at St. Andrews, Fuller, Luther Seminary are also exploring–good to see!

    I also found this at Google Books:
    Benjamin T. Conner is visiting assistant professor of Christian education at Union Presbyterian Seminary and director of the Capernaum ministry for adolescents with developmental disabilities in Williamsburg, Virginia. This is his first book.

    Info about Wesley Vander Lugt from his blog:
    Currently I am working on a PhD at the University of St Andrews and the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts . . . My dissertation, “Available Actors, Appropriate Action: Theotheatrical Preparation and Performance,” explores theatre as a model for theological ethics, looking particularly at the dynamic interplay between preparation as disponibility and performance as fittingness.

  • Glad this review is posted as I have studied under George Hunsberger and now call him friend. I’ll be sure to give this a read.

    As for the criticism of missional theology falling under practical theology, there is a reality that few evangelical seminaries want to think of missiology as part of their field of study. Systematic theologians in particular, and certainly the overriding voices of evangelical seminaries, often don’t care about missional theology.

    On a day in which I may be wanting a fight, I could argue that many evangelical systematic theologians don’t really care about the missio dei — since it may either mess up their categories that define God, or it may become problematic for some other reason.