Craig Ott, The Church on Mission: A Biblical Vision for Transformation among All People. Baker Academic, 2019. 144 pages.
Defining the church’s mission has been a perpetual source of debate. While all evangelical Christians would agree that the church’s mission entails the Great Commission, there is an abundance of disagreement over the nuances of that mission, such as the relationship between gospel proclamation and social action. Craig Ott, who served as a missionary in Germany for 21 years and currently serves as the ReachGlobal Chair of Mission at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, ventured into the fray in his book, The Church on Mission. While most books that try to offer a comprehensive definition and explanation of the church’s mission end up being long and cumbersome, Ott packs his treatment into less than 150 pages—an ambitious goal.
Using the mission statement of the Evangelical Free Church of America, Ott argues that the mission of the church is “to glorify God by multiplying transformational churches among all people” (2). Structurally, each chapter unpacks one aspect of this overarching thesis. The first chapter argues that the goal and source of the church’s mission is God’s glory. The second chapter explains that the local church is God’s ordained institution of carrying out his redemptive plan. In the third chapter, Ott argues that the Word of God is the means by which the Lord accomplishes his redemptive transformation. The fourth chapter addresses Christians’ relationship to the broader community, using the biblical metaphors of salt and light to argue that Christians should seek to counter evil by preserving communities, as well as being a light of good in their spheres of influence. The book’s fifth chapter addresses the global scope of the church’s mission, and the final chapter addresses the concept of multiplication. This multiplication, though, is not merely quantitative; Ott stresses the importance of quality in multiplying churches and leaders. In other words, the goal is high-quality leaders and churches who multiply. This is how the glory of God fills the earth, how the kingdom of Christ expands.
There’s much to commend about Ott’s definition and approach to the mission of the church. First, Ott does an exemplary job of properly situating the mission’s goal and source in God. There are no shortcuts or lifehacks in carrying out the mission. There’s simply faithful and humble obedience. What does that obedience look like? It looks like proclaiming the Word, and depending on God to reap a harvest. Instead of allowing sociological or anthropological insights to steer the ship, Ott’s insistence on following the testimony of Scripture shows a refreshing lack of innovation.
Additionally, Ott’s emphasis on the local church deserves recognition. Too often, books on the mission of the church struggle to balance the different spheres of responsibility when it comes to individual Christians and individual congregations. Ott unashamedly argues that “the church is the only institution on earth entrusted with the message of transformation” (19). Thus, he indirectly combats the individualism that so thoroughly pervades many Christian churches. Mission is primarily meant to be done in the context of one’s local church. While he doesn’t equate the kingdom of God with the local church, Ott argues that the church is the focal point of God’s redemptive activity in the world. This is particularly helpful in a day when many missionaries live disconnected from local churches.
Some readers may see “transformation” in the subtitle and instinctively label the book as one more book in the neo-Kuyperian stream that emphasizes transforming culture as a key component of the church’s mission. However, Ott does an admirable job of stressing the church’s role in caring holistically for the people and issues around them, while also holding to the primacy of addressing spiritual needs through the proclamation of the gospel.
While I’m not convinced that “transformation” is the best term to describe our role toward the broader society, Ott shows a careful balance as he explains the church’s social action.
Readers will likely finish the book with some lingering questions. Ott admits in the preface, “It neither provides a full theology of mission nor offers practical steps in applying it” (ix). However, the author’s purpose is simply to point leaders back to the Scriptures as they seek to define the church’s mission. As churches wrestle with the core of Ott’s argument, they will be able to fill in the blanks of what it looks like to implement this approach in their particular context.
Overall, The Church on Mission is an excellent introduction to the subject. For pastors who want to open their congregation’s eyes to God’s mission to the nations, this short book would help. It’s neither too long nor too dense. Likewise, this book would be helpful for potential church planters, missionaries, and mission committees as they seek to sharpen their own understanding of the church’s mission.