BOOK REVIEW: The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission – John Dickson

(citations are from the kindle edition)

In John Dickson’s The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission, Dickson brings an unexpected approach to rediscovering the biblical grounds for orthodox Christian missions. The reader will find a professionally written composition that includes exegetical data understood in its historical, biblical, and linguistic context, in addition to personal stories of gospel encounters, bringing to life the propositions grounded in scriptural analysis. It is informal and theoretical, yet made remarkably practical. Dickson’s stories remind the reader that doctrines alone cannot bring to life the truth of the gospel, but that true missions must involve an encounter with the reality of Jesus’ Lordship. This is Dickson’s overall argument; that to promote the gospel in a biblical fashion involves every aspect of ones life being rooted in the embracing of ‘the Gospel as revealed in the gospels’ — the ‘here and coming’ kingdom of Jesus being Lord. Thus, for Dickson, the Gospel is more than a set of doctrines but is rather founded on the narrative of the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, and the key to all of these is that they point to Jesus being Lord and king. This is what is primarily central to the Gospel. In light of this gospel, its promotion is not founded on soteriologically driven themes that prioritize personal salvation (though it may include them), but on the story of Jesus, his kingdom, and its consequences.  Dickson’s ability to stay balanced is an uncommon, yet pleasant approach. He claims that “the gospel message is not a set of theological ideas that can be detached from the events that gave these ideas definitive expression.  Nor is the gospel a simple narrative devoid of theological content” (1872).  Ultimately, an encounter with this gospel inevitably leaves an impact on every aspect of life.  Confronting the matter regarding evangelism training programs, Dickson rightly claims that programs “that focus on the doctrines of sin, atonement and grace without also stressing the need to be gentle, respectful and gracious are incomplete” (2788). Therefore, rightly understanding and receiving the gospel of Jesus being Lord must inescapably result in a graceful lifestyle that simultaneously beautifies and promotes the gospel message.

The climactic chapter that has brought most personal gain for myself would be that of the Gospel. Dickson puts into perspective what the gospel really is, the “Gospel as portrayed by the gospels.” He shares a most enlightening conclusion that to tell the gospel involves “recounting the deeds of the Messiah Jesus” (1685). I have gained a personal sense of urgency coming from the realization that the majority of evangelical circles today have deduced the gospel to four spiritual laws centered on personal salvation. In engaging with the ‘cognitive dissonance theory’ that Dickson makes reference to, I ask: is it not possible that we have modified the gospel to fit our consumerist society? Have we, due to our consumerist mindset, deduced the gospel to matters of personal benefit, and at what expense? When the promotion of God’s glory is central to the gospel then we are disarmed in being consumer driven. Subsequently, the privatization of the gospel experience has perhaps caused us to fail to realize that the gospel has more to do with breaking cultural barriers than we might think. In Dickson’s chapter “Following the ‘Friend of Sinners,’” he briefly points out that Paul criticized Peter for “not acting in line with the truth of the gospel” when he separated himself from the Gentiles (Galatians 2:14).  Thus, when we act in line with the truth of the gospel, we are not creating cultural barriers, but like Paul and Jesus, we live “oriented toward the salvation of outsiders,” (715) since “eating with sinners was for Paul exactly what it had been for Jesus: an embodiment of the salvation message itself” (731). One can perhaps make the argument that we have sidelined issues of racial segregation at the aggrandizement of personal salvation. Thus, the gospel has much to do with community; it is not a private salvation but a communal and public one. Citing Rodney Stark as referenced in Dickson’s chapter entitled “Being the Light of the World,” Stark claims that  “a major way in which Christianity served as a revitalization movement within the empire was in offering a coherent culture that was entirely stripped of ethnicity.” It is this new ‘culture’ that resulted from a kingdom-centered gospel, and this is the key to a continuing revitalization: when the message of Christ’s here and coming kingdom is central to the gospel it will empower the Church to truly be the Light of the World (1366).