This week we are highlighting three new volumes in the Studies in Historical and Systematic Theology (SHST) series recently published this month. Today, we interview Michael Niebauer about his new book, Virtuous Persuasion: A Theology of Christian Mission. D. Stephen Long, Cary M. Maguire University Professor of Ethics at Southern Methodist University calls this book “the most important work on moral theology and missions that currently exists.”
Lexham Press: What is the central thesis of Virtuous Persuasion?
Michael Niebauer: The central thesis is this: Christian mission is best construed as specific activities (proclamation and gathering) that develop virtue in its practitioners, moving them toward their ultimate goal of partaking in the glory of God.
One way to think of my conception of mission is to think of evangelism and church planting as distinct practices, much like learning a sport or playing the violin. For instance, one learns the violin because they love music and find a kind of internal joy in mastering the instrument. Whether they make millions playing the violin doesn’t really matter. It is that internal joy that prompts one to excel. We can think about proclamation and gathering in a similar way. Christians should be motivated to share the Gospel and gather new believers out of the internal joy one gets by honoring God as they engage in these works. That, rather than numerical success, should drive us to excel, and we can excel at it no matter what the external outcomes
LP: How does Virtuous Persuasion help correct some problems or oversights in the modern missiology movement?
Niebauer: In the book I critique three major conceptions of mission: Mission as Missio Dei, Mission as Church Growth, and Mission as Dialogue. These critiques generate what I see as the three major problems in the modern missiology movement, which I define as the problems of distinction, agency, and persuasion. We can think of these issues in terms of a set of practical questions: What is mission, and what isn’t mission? How does my work in mission relate to the workings of God? How do I persuade people of the truth of the Gospel without being coercive or manipulative?
My conception of mission addresses these problems by orienting the goals of mission not around numerical outcomes, but rather the glory of God and the development of virtue. The goal of mission is to honor and glorify God in the act of proclaiming the Gospel and starting churches. As one does this, they in turn develop virtues, which draw them closer to Christ. This conception of mission is meant to challenge a fixation on numerical growth while still taking seriously the need to do mission well.
LP: What does virtue—and virtue ethics—have to do with missions?
Niebauer: One of the central claims in the book is that the development of virtue in the missionary is more important than the mastering of specific evangelism or church planting techniques. The problem with focusing too much on specific strategies and techniques is that they rarely work as advertised: people are immensely complex, and cannot be controlled and carrowled by methods and marketing campaigns.
In contrast, the development of virtue centers upon the character of the missionary, and challenges the missionary to reflect first on their own relationship with God. For instance, temperance needs to be developed, so that the missionary might prioritize prayer for the lost over the multitude of ever present distractions. Fortitude needs to be cultivated to endure the potentially negative reactions one might encounter as they share the Gospel with their friends.
LP: Who would you like to read Virtuous Persuasion and what do you want them to take away from it?
Niebauer: The book is principally a work of ethics, so anyone who studies ethics or is interested in issues related to persuasion, human agency, and virtue should find something valuable and challenging in the text.
However, my primary audience is pastors, missionaries, and educated lay Christians. I hope that the book would be both a challenge and a comfort to these persons. First I would like to challenge ministers to reconsider their pastoral and missional goals. As a pastor myself, I have found that numerical or financial growth drives a lot of our work. I think there is an irony in so much of this focus on numerical growth, in that it actually leads to less people becoming Christian. After all, the fastest way to grow a church is to reach wealthy people who are already Christian. Such a focus may lead to big numbers and big budgets, but most of that growth will simply be the transferring of parishioners from one church to another. The challenge is that reaching the lost often takes a long time, and reaching those who are poor will drain budgets. So pastors might need to be ok with smaller and more fragile churches for the sake of reaching the lost and outcast.
But I also hope that this book is a word of comfort, because I want pastors to see as their goal the glory of God. In each and every act of proclaiming the Gospel and gathering new churches, we have an opportunity to glorify God and have God delight in us. The good news is that we can do this whether we are ever successful by worldly standards.
The main example I use throughout Virtuous Persuasion is Stephen. In the book of Acts, both Peter and Stephen give brilliantly persuasive speeches with the hopes that their audience would repent and believe in Jesus Christ. Peter’s speech is met with thousands of converts. However, Stephen’s speech is met with a stoning. By modern standards, Stephen is a failure in every way. His proclamation of the gospel leads to negative growth. Also, his speech is at times caustic and offensive, which violates our modern desire for infinite tact. And yet Stephen gets a vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father as he is being stoned. Stephen, I argue, gets the higher reward for his labors—he gets the beatific vision.
My hope is that pastors can live like Stephen—that in the very act of doing their work well, they may glorify God no matter how they are perceived by the world.
Christians should make disciples as disciples.
Christians who are engaged in missions regularly face ethical challenges. But the approaches and standards of modern missions often further complicate, rather than alleviate, matters. Modern missiology debates what actions constitute mission work, how to measure growth, and the difference between persuasion and coercion.
In Virtuous Persuasion, Michael Niebauer casts a holistic vision for Christian mission that is rooted in theological ethics and moral philosophy. Niebauer proposes a theology of mission grounded in virtue. Becoming a skilled missionary is more about following Christ than mastering techniques. Christian mission is best understood as specific activities that develop virtue in its practitioners and move them toward their ultimate goal of partaking in the glory of God. With Virtuous Persuasion, you can rethink the essence of Jesus’s Great Commission and how we seek to fulfill it.