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

I’ve found John Dickson tremendously helpful at just about every stage of my Christian life – even when he edited a magazine called Zed magazine that I remember reading as a kid. His books are helpful. His take on public Christianity is pretty paradigmatic for me, and his apparent commitment to excellence – particularly as manifested in his approach to scholarship, and the resources he produces – is something I aspire to.

This comes as a sort of disclaimer to be read to account for my bias in this treatment of his exceptionally useful book – The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission: Promoting the Gospel with More Than Our Lips.

This isn’t a new book, it has been around for a while, but we’re doing a series at church this term on connecting with people, where the book is suggested as a good way for understanding what evangelism looks like as a church family – it takes the pressure off a little bit, by lowering the bar – and treating evangelism not just as God’s work – which is a robustly reformed understanding of the task, but as the church’s work. A team effort.

My experience while reading this book was quite bizarre – almost an out of body experience. It was like I was reading my own thoughts written to me. This was scary, and somewhat reassuring. Though I hadn’t read the book until a month ago, this is largely the framework I use when I’m thinking about church, mission, and our role as individuals within those contexts.

My take on his foundational premise – that our lives, our whole lives, essentially function as a declaration of who we are, so we should think about that and live intentionally in a way that our lives are consistent with the gospel, in a way that promotes it – means I think it’s an incredibly useful resource, especially as it applies this concept to real life, it’s not abstract, and its incredibly well argued, with occasional references to the author’s PhD thesis, which I read a lot of for an essay once, and found equally helpful.

Here’s a lynchpin sort of paragraph…

“But perhaps the best kept secret of Christian mission is that the Bible lists a whole range of activities that promote Christ to the world and draw others toward him. These include prayer, godly behaviour, financial assistance, the public praise of God (in church) and, as already mentioned, answering people’s questions. All of these are explicitly connected in the Bible with advancing the gospel and winning people to Christ. They are all “mission” activities, and only a couple of them involve the lips at all.”

But wait. You say, observant reader that you are – this sounds exactly like that Sir Francis of Assisi misquote (h/t Gary Ware) that you don’t like: “always preach the gospel, when necessary use words” – you’ve said before that words are necessary. Thankfully, I’ve also said that I think a whole bunch of other stuff that communicates the truth of the gospel, deliberately, and alongside the use of words, also counts as word ministry (how we live/act, how we sing, multimedia, though I remain unconvinced about gospel mime).

I think words are necessary for word ministry, and for mission, but they aren’t the only part of our testimony. I think this book seeks to avoid people saying “words alone” – because our testimony will be much richer if we’re living them out, together, and letting people who are gifted in particular areas carry the load in those areas.

I like this quote from Augustine on the place of good works.

“Now of all who can with us enjoy God, we love partly those to whom we render services, partly those who render services to us, partly those who both help us in our need and in turn are helped by us, partly those upon whom we confer no advantage and from whom we look for none. We ought to desire, however, that they should all join with us in loving God, and all the assistance that we either, give them or accept from them should tend to that one end.”

Dickson is not denying that the gospel is words – he simply says we promote the gospel with more than words. Importantly he says this:

“Does this mean that people can start believing in Christ without hearing the gospel at all? No. As the apostle Paul makes clear, “faith comes from hearing the message” (Romans 10:17). First Peter 3:1 shows us that the gospel’s role in conversion is more complex than we sometimes realise. It is not enough simply to affirm that people are won to faith only through the hearing of the gospel. Let me explain. Leaving aside the important theological observation that all conversion is ultimately the enlightening work of the Holy Spirit, let me try and account for conversion from the human side of the equation, which is what Paul and Peter are talking about in the above texts. Humanly speaking, hearing the gospel is the necessary and sufficient cause of faith in Christ. It is necessary inasmuch as people cannot put their faith in Jesus without first learning the gospel about him. It is sufficient in that the gospel can bring people to faith all on its own—it needs no other factor (other than the work of the Holy Spirit). However, none of this means that hearing the gospel is the only cause of faith, or even that it is always the primary cause of faith. Other factors (on the human side of the equation) will frequently play a minor or major role in winning people over to the One revealed in the gospel.”

I could wax lyrical about this book and its benefits for a couple of thousand words – or you could just buy it and read it.

I’ll start with what I thought was a question I would have liked a bit more time spent on, or where I think something could be added – the first is his definition of the gospel…

“The gospel is the announcement that God has revealed his kingdom and opened it up to sinners through the birth, teaching, miracles, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, who will one day return to overthrow evil and consummate the kingdom for eternity… Any account of the Christian gospel that does not narrate the basic content of the books we rightly call the Gospels does not deserve to be called a “gospel outline”. It might be a true and accurate statement of biblical truths—and, for that reason, valuable and useful for our hearers—but it is not the gospel that Jesus said must be preached to all nations (Mark 13:10).”

I largely agree. I think the best three word reduction of the gospel is “Jesus is Lord” – if it was six words it would be “the resurrection shows Jesus is Lord” – but reductions suffer because they are simplifications… I’d want to suggest that while this is an incredibly useful description of the Gospel, it kind of cuts loose the Old Testament, especially creation and fall – which, though I have hesitations about the predominant usage of 2 Ways to Live (seriously, how many other conversations do people walk up to somebody, and unless they’re a professional cartoonist, or playing pictionary, say “can I draw you a picture”), though I have hesitations about this use – starting the gospel account from creation and fall is, I think, an essential part of the gospel narrative, I think John’s gospel, in the prologue, agrees with me, as does Matthew with his fronting of the genealogy – so this insight isn’t precluded by the summary above. I just think making it explicit is useful.

God’s role in creation, as the sole author of creation, is the foundation of his commitment to the act of promoting the gospel, so it’s not absent from his thinking. He says:

“There may be different ways of expressing it but I think I would have to answer this question with the simple statement: there is one God. From Genesis to Revelation the Bible makes the resounding, unapologetic declaration that there is just one Creator and Lord of the world. It begins in the Bible’s opening line: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). To ancient readers, this was not simply a sensible way to start a holy book. It was a huge swipe at the entire religious outlook of the time. The opening lines of the Babylonian creation story, Enuma Elish, to give just one example from the period, list no fewer than nine separate gods, each with its own part to play in the events leading up to creation. Saying that “God created the heavens and the earth” was tantamount to saying that no other deity was involved in the universe… If there is just one God in the universe, everyone everywhere has a duty to worship that Lord.”

Tying the motivation for preaching to the Lordship of Jesus, rather than to fear of judgment or as some sort of good work, is incredibly freeing – from guilt, and from any sense of obligation, outside of the joyful gratitude that being one of the people of the true Lord of the universe brings. This is very helpful. He says:

“We promote God’s glory to the ends of the earth not principally because of any human need but fundamentally because of God’s/Christ’s unique worthiness as the Lord of heaven and earth. Promoting the gospel to the world is more than a rescue mission (though it is certainly that as well); it is a reality mission. It is our plea to all to acknowledge that they belong to one Lord.”

To which I say: “Amen”…

I think this paradigm really helpfully anchors the good that we do – promoting the Lordship of Jesus should be behind our care for the environment, and our love of other people – we do these things because both creation and people are good objects to love, but we ultimately do them because we live for the Lord Jesus, not ourselves – and the act declares something about that Lordship. It’s a complex relationship. I think “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

“Good deeds must never be thought of as a missionary tactic, a means of getting people onside before hitting them with the gospel (“throwing cakes to children”, as Emperor Julian would say). They are the essential fruit of the gospel. Good works must be done for their own sake, in obedience to the Lord. God’s grace proclaimed in the gospel finds its essential outcome in the godly life of those who believe the gospel. Nevertheless, it is precisely because good deeds are an essential fruit of the gospel that they so powerfully promote the gospel. Although we must not find ourselves “doing good” simply as a gospel ploy, there can be no question that Jesus expected unbelievers to observe our acts of love (for the world and for one another29) and through them to be convinced to worship the source of all love: “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).”

He also says:

“Following the example of Paul and Jesus does not necessarily mean that we do what they did. It means that we live by the same flexible ethos, seeking the good of many so that they may be saved. Every aspect of our lives—including our social lives—can and should be directed toward the glory of God and the salvation of our neighbours.”

Being already convinced of the place of mission in the Old Testament – or the place it should have occupied in Israel’s approach to the nations – I found his stuff on Israel’s role as proclaimers of this truth convincing and helpful. Sadly, there was nothing that specifically supports my theory that the wisdom literature was a model of evangelism through participation in an international wisdom dialogue, as far as I know I’m still essentially alone there… but his understanding of how Israel was to promote the good news of God in their words, their life, their worship, and their distinctiveness from the nations is useful, and surely forms some of the working in developing a Biblical Theology of mission.

The sections relating to what it meant for Israel to evangelise by being Israel is, alone, worth the price of the book. This is one of the money paragraphs:

“Worship by the Book, Tim Keller of New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church writes: Israel was called to make God known to unbelieving nations (Ps 105:1) by singing his praises (Ps 105:2). The temple was to be the center of a “world-winning worship.” The people of God not only worship before the Lord but also before the nations (cf. Isa 2:1-4; 56:6-8; Ps 47:1; 100:1-5; 102:18; 117). God is to be praised before all nations, and as he is praised by his people, the nations are summoned and called to join in song. This pattern does not essentially change in the New Testament, where Peter tells a Gentile church to “declare the praises” of him who called us out of darkness. The term cannot merely refer to preaching but must also refer to gathered worship…

Passages like these illustrate just how natural it was for biblical writers to see corporate praise as public proclamation, as a type of evangelism. This doesn’t mean that all gospel proclamation is “praise” but it does mean that all true praise has the potential to be gospel proclamation, for in it we recount the wonders of Jesus’ life, teachings, miracles, death, resurrection and return.”

I love it. If you read this post – that won’t come as a surprise.

This leads to a particular approach to how church is conducted – it’s not about being seeker sensitive, but about being clear about who we are praising, about why, and concerned about how we conduct our gatherings – concerned for their quality.

“There are all sorts of reasons some of our churches have visitors – location, architecture, demographics and so on-but, in my experience, the most significant factor is the quality of the church service. By “quality” I do not mean the professionalism of the leader or the standard of technology and music. I mean the degree to which the congregation revels in its experience of praising God and encouraging one another…

I want to stress in the strongest terms that visitor-focused services are not an evangelistic necessity. Normal church meetings conducted exceptionally well will not only inspire the regulars; they will draw in visitors and, through the powerful vehicle of our corporate praise, promote the gospel to them.”

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of this book, in terms of its reception, and the bit that I took the most convincing on, is the question of the semantic range of the word “evangelist,” and specifically whether or not everybody has a responsibility to speak the gospel, not just promote it. Dickson’s take is interesting. I feel like he’s onto something. Especially because I’m pretty committed to the idea that the body is made up of different people with different gifts – but I feel like in the absence of other people gifted in evangelism, or in smaller manifestations of the body – people have to be evangelists, I don’t think this is something that Dickson would deny… but I can’t put words into his mouth, here’s what he says:

“We are involved in God’s mission, and so we must allow his Word to shape our part in it. The slogan “Every Christian an evangelist” has a noble purpose, but it is not a biblical way of speaking. For Christians in general—as opposed to evangelists in particular—telling the gospel to others (evangelism) could be described as the icing on the cake of mission.”

His argument essentially seems to be some people are icing specialists (evangelists), some people are cake makers (promoters of the gospel), and that it’s fine to just make cake because that’s where the substance is, and its the harder bit. I guess I’d want to say that everybody should be able to make the icing, and evangelists have to be pretty good at making cake too. Again. I don’t think he disagrees. His tips for picking those people who are especially called, or gifted, as evangelists are valuable – but I do think that each one of the characteristics (keenness to share the gospel, relate well to non-believers, Christian maturity, and clarity on what the gospel is – including speaking intelligibly) is something that all Christians should aspire to.

One other very minor criticism is only really relevant if you’re convinced that Bruce Winter is right about what Paul is doing at the Areopagus, in Acts 17, if his exercise is an exercise in wisely assessing the situation, and meeting a social convention for his audience, which expected to be introduced to “foreign gods,” while presenting the gospel, then I’d say Paul’s speech there isn’t an anomaly, but rather, an essential demonstration of his approach to gospel preaching. I’d argue that rather than simply being an apologetic to their concerns, it is a presentation of the gospel that adheres to how they expect to hear about new gods. But that’s not a point that in any sense undermines this fantastic book.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for me – personally – coming from a guy whose excellence I admire, as someone who is too often tempted to think that my own pursuit of excellence in evangelism will be what produces fruit, came in this paragraph…

“A few years after these strange days, I asked Glenda [the lady who led him, and many of his friends from school, to Jesus] what she put her “success” down to. Without blinking she answered, “Prayer. We prayed earnestly, regularly and specifically for your school, and the Lord in his grace answered us.” As an evangelist who is sometimes tempted to think too highly of skill, style and creativity in evangelism, her words were (and are) a salient reminder that the “harvest” is the Lord’s, not mine. The most basic gospel-promoting task, therefore, is not evangelism; it is prayer to the Lord of the harvest.”

This is really powerful stuff for anybody who thinks too highly of their own God given skills, and ability to think. I thoroughly recommend this book that you’ve hopefully all read already.