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Book review: Mission is the Shape of Water

Sunday, 15 October 2023  | Claire Harvey

Mission is the Shape of Water

By Mike Frost

(100 Movements, 2023)


In Mission is the Shape of Water, Mike Frost attempts an incredibly ambitious undertaking, presenting a high-level survey of some key moments and movements in mission history along with insightful reflections and critical analysis along the way. The intention throughout seems clear: to challenge and inspire a new wave of missionary engagement that is broad, deep, relevant and impactful. This incredibly timely and engaging book conveys Frost’s deep conviction that mission is the primary purpose of the church:

Our mission … is to alert everyone everywhere to God’s universal reign through Christ, by both speech and action, by explaining and demonstrating, by word and deed. We proclaim it with our mouths, through our joyful witness to our experience of God’s reign, by our testimony of coming under God’s reign, and through evangelistic preaching about God’s reign. And we show it with our actions, demonstrating God’s reign through acts of kindness and hospitality, through healing and serving others, and by contributing to the flourishing of a just and equitable society. (p. xii)

The imagery employed throughout is of water always being water, yet changing its shape in natural response to the various containers it fills. This fluid sense of mission’s form offers a reminder that as much as the church’s task of mission never changes, the language used and methods employed must change if the church is to remain relevant and effective in its sacred work. Frost goes on to suggest that our limited awareness of Christian mission’s rich history leaves our imaginations stifled and myopic, and it is this deficit that he longs to address.

Frost’s call is not for us to emulate the missionary stance employed in different eras, but rather to have our imaginations stretched in such a way that we’ll be able to more readily capture a sense of what faithful discipleship might look like for us today. Like water, we are to be agile, and even ‘fluid’. And like water, the endeavour of mission ‘flows most effectively when hundreds or thousands of nameless, faceless Christians humbly submit to the task of contributing their bucket to the torrent’ (p. xix). Frost makes clear that he is not calling for more mission heroes, but rather a groundswell of faithful disciples who are ready and willing to play their unique part, no matter how small.

In assessing two millennia of mission, Frost identifies ten key ‘shapes’. The first of these is God Slaying, which refers to the bold work of the first Christians in countering the fear-fueled, soul-crushing paganism of their time that bound people up in trepidation. This approach included ‘ridiculing’ the worship of self-made idols as a form of spiritual blindness, alongside their inexplicable kindness and goodwill.

The second shape is that of Peacemaking, focusing on the fall of the Roman empire and its then state-sanctioned Christianity. Entirely vulnerable to waves of attacks by Goth and Huns, the peace of Rome unravelled and the people were plunged into different varieties of polytheism, superstition and fear. Followers of Jesus, confident in their God and therefore unafraid, were strikingly different. They bore a message of peace, not just with God and others but with the earth: ‘Shalom involves being right with God and with past enemies. It means community, justice and the end of all divisions and hatreds’ (p. 24).

The third shape is Flame Bearing, drawing the imagery of being light in the darkness. The darkness includes the rot that was setting in within the Christendom model that saw church and state intricately and unhelpfully intertwined, where clergy acted as (often corrupt) bureaucrats. The retreat of a few faithful, who focused on quiet lives of prayer, study and work, were the seeds of not just a reformation but a revolution, including the profound impact upon agriculture. This longer-term, positive impact upon broader society is often completely overlooked, despite its incredible significance.

The fourth shape is Spirit Seeking, which points to the powerful work of the Spirit in animating the church with renewed missionary zeal. A fresh appreciation of grace and experience of God’s presence, accompanied by prayer and characterised by personal transformation and a heart to pursue justice, have awakened a dull church from her slumber, time and time again.

The fifth shape is Wordsmithing, and the key image is that of the bible translator harnessing the remarkable capacity of the printing press to amplify a vital message. The confidence of Christian missionaries in the power of the written word to transform lives was quite remarkable. This was an era of profound change, with the Enlightenment sowing the seeds for the Protestant reformation and the beginnings of what would unfold as a fundamental reordering of society and its key ideas and institutions.

The sixth shape is Freedom Fighting, with a particular focus on the costly fight against wicked powers of human degradation and exploitation, including the arduous campaign to end slavery. While it seems rather foreign to us now, it was not that long ago that some cultures practiced infanticide, human sacrifice, head hunting and cannibalism! In more recent eras the battles for liberation have been fought over racial segregation, the mistreatment of women and children, and other systemic forms of oppression.

The seventh shape is Unshackling, which speaks to the various unconventional expressions of Christian faith that emerged from indigenous churches, often to the bewilderment of Western missionaries whose familiar positions of power were threatened. This process was messy. The work undertaken by indigenous leaders was gruelling, and must have often seemed futile in light of the entrenched structures of injustice that had become characteristic of the colonial era.

The eight shape is Contextualising, which names the crucial missional task of understanding not just local languages but also the contours of customs and culture. The incarnation of Christ is the model: ‘we see God becoming human in a particular time, culture and place’ (p. 146). Contextualisation that takes seriously the issues and challenges of each particular people in their unique time and place in history enables the gospel message to be heard and received in ways that are deeply relevant. Yet it is a profoundly complex task: the opposite risk being that of syncretism, where the gospel loses crucial elements of its divine distinctiveness.

The ninth shape is Remissioning, and it speaks directly to our own post-Enlightenment, post-Christendom and post-colonial era. We face an ongoing temptation toward attempts to shore-up institutional power and dominance, often in ways that can appear increasingly desperate to onlookers. Within this challenge lies tremendous opportunity to re-imagine and re-form mission as something centred in God, rather than being yet another slick program of a waning church. Indeed, Frost affirms that ‘Re-Christianization of the West today … can occur gently, lovingly, by the burgeoning growth of multiethnic communities of God’s humble, peace-loving people’ (p. 184).

The tenth shape is Unearthing, which acknowledges that for many in the West the Christian faith is not so much foreign but rather forgotten. Our culture ‘...needs missionaries to help unearth that treasure so that people who feel Christianity has no bearing on their lives can see its luster with new eyes’ (p. 186). Frost’s compelling call, in depicting this final shape of mission, is to focus our attention on ‘bringing non-practicing Christians back to faith’ (p. 188). The need is for a courageous and costly embrace of loving faithfulness in place of hubris and a triumphalistic inclination to dominate.

I am among the many who would heartily agree with Frost’s thesis that we desperately need to offer the world a richer and more expansive gospel that is deeply centred in Christ and that speaks discerningly, intelligently and attractively to contemporary culture of God’s good intentions for all of creation. There is so much that we can learn from a slow and attentive reflection upon the history of missional engagement across the centuries: in fact, we are foolish to neglect this vital task. Cues are woven throughout the text, prompting a humble-yet-brave focus on key moments in the church’s history where opportunities for the flourishing of faith may well have been stifled or lost.

The learning journey brings moments of heartache and pain, alongside wonder and sheer beauty, but it is one we are being prompted to embrace. The epilogue presents some compelling vignettes that act as encouraging and illuminating signposts as we navigate our way forward as the people of God, adapting our methods of engagement to suit our unique contexts in an era characterised by complexity and anxiety. There are myriad challenges, in these troubling times, however there are also tremendous opportunities to connect with a world in need of renewed love, hope and purpose. I believe that Mike Frost has crafted a crucial text for the church in our times, and it is my hope and prayer that it makes its way to millions of readers around the world whose eyes, ears, hearts and imaginations are wide open.


Claire Harvey is involved with The Village Church in Mount Eliza. She works with ISCAST, serves on the Ethos Board, is an elected councillor with Frankston City Council and is currently completing an Integral Ecology Fellowship with the Sisters of Mercy.

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