Book Review: The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission by John Dickson

Greetings all. I can hardly believe that the summer is almost gone already. But its hot and humid where I live (Houston) so I won’t mind when the fall gets here. We’ve had a busy summer at our place and its been a while since I’ve posted a blog (yes, I know was in the middle of series on postmodernism that I haven’t completed…I promise I’ll get to it). We are also moving Monday so we have been packing. But I’m breaking my blog fast and putting packing on hold long enough to review a book.

John Dickson has a new book out called The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission: Promoting the Gospel with More Than Our Lips, published by Zondervan. I entered a contest for a free giveaway (all one had to do was blog a review) of the book and I was fortunate to get a copy. I find that Dickson’s Best Kept Secret is not only very accessible and readable to a general audience as well as simultaneously refreshing and reorienting for those concerned about the mission of the church. It is my pleasure to recommend it!

Before going onto the review, here is here are the chapter divisions. The subtitles give indication what each chapter is about.

1)      The One and the Many: Why Get Involved in Mission?

2)      The Many and the One: The Challenge of Pluralism.

3)      Following the ‘Friend of Sinners’: The Missionary Mind of the Ordinary Christian.

4)      The Hidden Mission: Promoting the Gospel with our Prayers.

5)      Partners for Life: Promoting the Gospel with our Money.

6)      Being the Light of the World: Promoting the Gospel through the works of the Church.

7)      Being Beautiful: Promoting the Gospel through Christian Behavior.

8)      What is the Gospel?: The Message we Promote.

9)      The Few and the Many: Evangelists and the Local Church.

10)   Heralds Together: Promoting the Gospel through our Public Praise.

11)   The Apt Rely: Promoting the Gospel in Daily Conversation.

12)   A Year in the Life of the Gospel: Bringing It All Together.

From the time I was in the youth group at church I was trained in all the latest evangelistic methods – everything from the Roman Road to Evangelism Explosion. But I have to make a confession: I have never felt the least bit comfortable using these methods, nor using the cold call door to door type evangelism that seemed to be the preferred method where I grew up. And this was a particular problem, because this is how evangelism was supposed to be done and (as we were told) we are all to be evangelists. The problem here is that whatever is meant by ‘evangelism’ became reduced to a totally verbal activity designed to get the proper content about human sinfulness and the need for Jesus as savior conveyed. Now I can understand why folks would say that we are all evangelists. By this they mean simply that we are to witness for Christ, but if we take our cues from Dickson here this may miss what the New Testament means when it speaks of evangelism and evangelists. I also think that by equating evangelism and ‘witnessing’ with a solely verbal activity we give the impression that those who do not have great speaking ability (I grew up with a stuttering problem so this was me for a long time) do little for the Gospel. On the other side though those who have great speaking ability think they are doing more for the Gospel than others. Both outcomes are equally deleterious in my opinion.

However, Dickson proposes that we change the way we think about Christian mission. He proposes an idea here that is very similar in many ways to what many mean when they speak about being ‘missional’ in everyday living. He suggests that we speak less of everyone being an evangelist per se and emphasize the role that all Christians play in what he calls ‘promoting the Gospel.’ The thing is that not everyone will have the same role or do the same thing to promote the Gospel. Additionally, while not every activity that works to promote the Gospel counts as evangelism proper they are all equally important. The important thing that one gets I think from reading Dickson’s book is to adopt a manner of living in which one works to promote the Gospel in every area of life, no matter how large or small, significant or seemingly mundane (again, this sounds very ‘missional’ to me). The best kept secret, according to Dickson is that promoting the Gospel is more than just a verbal activity. There are many ways in which we can promote the Gospel throughout all of our lives. I think there are some refreshing results of Dickson’s approach here.

First, he points us towards a more gifts based approach to doing church. Instead f trying to fit everyone into the same mold (which is what evangelism training tends to do) each one should promote the Gospel in the manner consistent with their specific giftedness. If not everyone is gifted as an evangelist then they should not be one. Perhaps part of the ineffectiveness of evangelical witness has come about because the great diversity of gifts given by God has been ignored. This can only result in emaciated witness. Second, Dickson’s approach will lead us to a more holistic promotion of the Gospel. Some may want to complain that he downplays the speaking part too much. But this is not the case. Instead he points us toward a holism that doesn’t set speaking against living and that sees promoting the Gospel as encompassing a total way of living. The reader will have to decide here. He may not get us all the way on this point but he points in this direction. Third, his approach points us toward a relational as well as ecclesial approach to Gospel promotion. Promoting the Gospel is not simply about downloading the correct data in the process. It is equally about our relationships with others (again, holistic in nature). In my view relationship is the soil in which promoting the Gospel and mission is nurtured and fed. But its not just our relationships with those outside the church. We also need the rest of the church. The fact is my giftedness isn’t enough. But when nurtured in the ecclesial soil of the church, with other Christians who are also promoting the Gospel and living on mission, my giftedness is not merely added to others but multiplied. This promoting the Gospel and mission thing is not for lone rangers!

I also found Dickson’s Best Kept Secret reorienting as well. In my opinion, chapter eight is the best chapter in the book (and also the longest) and alone makes the book worth the price. This chapter takes on the very important subject of what the Gospel is. Ironically, it seems that many of the favorite evangelical presentations are not really telling the Gospel itself. This means that while something like the Roman Road is a distillation of doctrinal points, it is not the Gospel itself (something that honestly some evangelicals have forgotten). So, what is the Gospel then? Very simply put, the kingdom of God is the subject and theme of the Gospel. Dickson says that we are involved in a “reality mission” in which we give witness to the reality that in Christ the kingdom is at hand. And if there is one Lord to who all people and everything belongs the people of God must promote this reality everywhere since God through his Messiah reigns over all. This is the good news of the Gospel of the kingdom of God.

Probably one of the greatest services of Dickson’s book is that he reorients us to the fact that the telling of the Gospel is the recounting of a narrative or story. Telling the Gospel is not the same as presenting a list of doctrinal points or just declaring to our friends that God is king and they should accept this or else! No, in line with the Gospels themselves, telling the Gospel is telling the story of Jesus. And the story of Jesus serves as the center of a life lived in promotion of the Gospel. Dickson summarizes five parts to the story of Jesus that we tell as the Gospel: Jesus’ identity as the Christ (or Messiah), Jesus’ saving death, Jesus’ burial, Jesus’ resurrection, and Jesus’ appearance to witnesses. Dickson traces these elements through the Gospels themselves as well as through the letters of Paul noting that when the ‘good news’ is presented these elements are present.

Three things stand out to me in this view of the Gospel. First, some may have wondered where the ‘traditional’ emphasis on personal sinfulness and accepting Jesus into one’s heart is at. This has been the staple of evangelical witness since I can remember. The problem is that this isn’t the Gospel and the reason why this isn’t the Gospel is because it is all about me and you. God has graciously drawn us into his kingdom and included us but the Gospel itself is about Jesus, God’s reign, and the kingdom – not us. Yes, we need to deal with human sinfulness and one needs to make a choice to follow Christ (though I wish we could find language other than ‘accepting Jesus into my heart’) but the Gospel itself is not about us. Second, for those that wish to pit Jesus and Paul against each other (though this is not a main concern of his) Dickson presents strong evidence that this Gospel narrative is at the heart of everything else for Paul. In fact, it seems that Paul was very much a Jesus kind of guy (radical idea I know) and that even his more didactic passages extend from and are rooted in the Gospel narrative of the kingdom and Jesus as Lord. Third, the idea of the Gospel as the story of the kingdom and Jesus as Christ should remind us of the basic narrative nature of our faith. This is a narrative that gets distorted when we try to distill it too hastily into doctrinal points and propositions. This is not to say that these things are unimportant, just that they must be situated within the context of the Gospel narrative lest they also become distorted. To tell the Gospel story we must recount the narrative of the Gospel of the kingdom and the story of Jesus plain and simple. It is this narrative which shapes everything else we say, how we promote the Gospel, and becomes the guiding narrative that shapes and forms our own personal narratives. The overarching story of Jesus must become our story as well.

Its probably not good to end on a sour note, but there is one regret that I had with Dickson’s book that I need to mention briefly. Overall, while he is a bit dry in places, I felt like he did a good job writing a book for more traditional evangelicals on being ‘missional’ without using the normal missional lingo. However, I was disappointed that while he talked about God and God’s mission, unless I missed it he never once mentioned the Trinity. This I feel is a crucial mistake that evangelicals seem to repeat and is one that gets played out even in some of the more current missional literature. But if we are talking about the God revealed to us in Jesus then we are talking about the God that is nothing less than the communion of Father, Son, and Spirit. And if we are talking about God’s mission and the mission of God then we are talking about the mission of the Triune God into which we are invited in to participate ‘in Christ’ and through the Spirit. I lament the fact that even though there has been a resurgence of Trinitarian thought in recent years that the Trinity still seems so forgotten. In short, I feel that an embrace of God as triune is essential not only for the shaping of mission but also for the empowerment of mission. I think this may actually be the best kept secret in Christian mission.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Zondervan as part of a give away to read and post a review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s16 CFR, Part 255 “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”