Book review: René Padilla, What is Integral Mission?

Anvil journal of theology and mission

René Padilla, What is Integral Mission? (Oxford: Regnum Books, 2021)

reviewed by James Butler, Church Mission Society

René Padilla, who died in 2022, has been one of the key voices encouraging an understanding of mission as holistic or integral. Misión integral, as it is called in Spanish, was first introduced to Western mission through the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in 1974. Padilla and his Latin American evangelical colleagues pushed their American and European counterparts to move beyond a binary of evangelism or social justice to see them as a whole. Integral is the word for wholemeal in Spanish and just as wholemeal flour or wholemeal rice is not described as being made up of two things, but whole, so they encouraged Christians to embrace evangelism and social justice not as two things which needed to be brought together, but as a single whole.

This book was originally published in Spanish in 2006 and has been translated into English to encourage greater engagement with integral mission. The book is clearly aimed at a church audience, encouraging conversation around mission themes. It is split up into 19 short chapters taking a short reflection from Padilla’s writings and bringing them together with a poem, quote or reflection and a series of questions encouraging further exploration, often through Bible study. This meant it was a far more introductory account to integral mission than I was hoping for. Rather than going deeper into the theological and missiological themes, it takes a more practice-focused approach, exploring a range of issues and topics from the perspective of integral mission. It is aimed at evangelical groups, offering challenges to ingrained understandings of mission, and assumes readers will be confident at engaging with biblical texts in groups.

There were some real gems within the pages of the book. I particularly liked the chapters on the political nature of prayer (Chapter 9), the challenge to Christians to recognise structural injustice (Chapter 10) and the relationship between integral mission and economic justice (Chapter 14). However, at times it felt a little repetitive, a result of bringing together a series of articles rather than a book was written as one. There were parts that felt a little clumsy in the current climate, particularly the way Padilla talks about racial justice and colonialism. While his account and the challenges he makes may be helpfully stretching and challenging for those who have not thought about these things before, for those who have some sense of Black theology and postcolonial theology some of the phrasing might feel slightly awkward. Similarly I’m not sure his discussion of persuasion rather than coercion in evangelism really gets to the heart of the problem of mission’s ties to colonialism. Those things said, I think this is a good book for beginning to think about integral mission, its history and the implications for mission, church and discipleship. Padilla seemed to move easily from talking about individuals, to communities and to churches demonstrating his more holistic approach to the world.

Overall I can recommend this book to those who have not really explored integral mission, particularly for groups who want to reflect together. It is not all that I was hoping for in terms of my own exploration of integral mission, but I will certainly recommend it to those wanting to think and act more holistically in mission. It provides a fine starting point for engaging with Padilla’s work and his legacy of integral mission.

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ANVIL 39:2, November 2023

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