by Benjamin T. Conner
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Paperback. 129 pages
reviewed by JEFF KREHBIEL
Two of the most important movements in the mainline church in recent decades have been the focus on Christian practices represented by the Valparaiso Project on the Education and Formation of People in the Faith (represented by Practicing Our Faith, 1997), led by Dorothy Bass and Craig Dykstra, and the emergence of “missional” theology out of the Gospel and Our Culture Network, led by Darrell Guder and George Hunsberger (represented by The Missional Church, 1998).
These conversations have taken place on largely parallel tracks. In “Practicing Witness,” Benjamin T. Conner, adjunct faculty member at the Memphis Theological Seminary Center for Youth Ministry Training, works to bring them into conversation with each other. In particular, as the subtitle of his book suggests, his aim is to develop a more thoroughgoing missional understanding of Christian practices.
His primary conversation partners are Craig Dykstra and Darrell Guder. In a work that originated as a Ph.D. dissertation, Conner explores the development of the Valparaiso Project and the Gospel and Our Culture Network and the contributions that Dykstra and Guder made to each. He provides a detailed account of the origins of each school of thought, particularly the importance of Alasdair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue” in thinking about the meaning of practices, and British missiologist Lesslie Newbigin in the development of missional theology.
For those who are new to these disciplines, Conner’s exploration will be a valuable primer. However, I found his rather exhaustive account of all the many intellectual antecedents to be overly detailed in a way that distracted rather than contributed to the constructive argument he ultimately wishes to make. The book is also filled with redundancies that more careful editing might have eliminated.
His constructive argument, however, moves the conversation forward in a valuable way. As Conner notes, the critique of missional theology is that it has often been overly abstract and academic, and thus removed from the practical life of congregations. Attention to the rich body of literature that has grown out of the “Practicing Our Faith” series may help ground the missional conversation in the “pedestrian” activities of Christian life, and further explore how missional congregations might be cultivated.
At the same time, the practices conversation has lacked a sufficient telos. Christian practices, Conner insists, must be both formative and performative. Informed by a missional ecclesiology, Conner tweaks the definition of a Christian practice from “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],” to read “Christian practices are the Spirit-filled and embodied signs, instruments, and foretastes of the kingdom of God that Christian people participate in over time to partake in, partner with, and witness to God’s redemptive presence for the life of the world in Jesus Christ.”
JEFF KREHBIEL is pastor of Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, D.C., and the author of “Reflecting With Scripture on Community Organizing” (ACTA Publications).