The Dynamics of Christian Mission | Book Review

Paul Pierson’s The Dynamics of Christian Mission consists of lectures on Christian history from a class he taught for twenty-five years at Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of Intercultural Studies.

Like other books of this sort, it narrates the history of the expansion of Christianity from the apostolic era to the present, dividing that history into six sections. “Early Expansion” (chapters 1–7) traces the story from the apostolic era through the rise of the Celtic church. “Change and Attempts at Renewal” (chapters 8–12) examine the Middle Ages. “The Reformation Era” (chapters 13–16) focuses on the missionary efforts of the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation. “Renewal and the Beginnings of Protestant Reformation” (chapters 17–22) takes up the story in the seventeenth century with Puritans in the British Isles and Pietists on the European continent and ends with revival movements on the American frontier. “The ‘Great Centuries’” (chapters 23–30. examines evangelical missionary efforts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, dividing its material into geographical regions: Asia (chapter 26); Oceania, the Middle East, and North Africa (chapter 27); Africa (chapter 28); and Latin America (chapter 29). “The New Era (chapters 31–35) conclude the story with chapters on how missions is changing in the contemporary era.

Pierson’s historical narrative is conventional, focused on European and North American missions, especially evangelical missions. The real value of the work lies less in its narrative than in its interpretation of what the book’s title calls “the dynamics of Christian mission.” Pierson makes explicit in the Preface that this interpretation is the “purpose of this work”: “To study church history in a way that will encourage you to appreciate the importance of the dynamic principles underlying the expansion of the Christian movement” (p. 5).

He then goes on to identify eight dynamics—he calls them “theses”—in particular (pp. 6–7), which he draws attention to repeatedly throughout the historical narrative that follows:

  1. “Movements of renewal and mission always seem to arise on the periphery of the church structures.”
  2. “Congregational structures [i.e., modality] and mission structures [i.e., sodality] are essential to the completion of the mission of the Church to the end of history and that both are equally the Church, the People of God.”
  3. “A key leader has triggered most mission movements.”
  4. “Mission has normally come out of renewal.”
  5. “Movements of renewal and mission have often involved theological breakthroughs: a discovery or rediscovery of a previously unrealized or forgotten aspect of biblical faith.”
  6. “The historical context of mission movements is important. The mission does not change, but the context in which God calls us to carry out our mission changes constantly. This opens up new and creative possibilities for sharing the Gospel.”
  7. “New, more contextualized forms of spirituality are often a characteristic of the movements we will study.”
  8. “Finally, the distribution of information has often been important. News of new initiatives in mission or renewal has often stimulated similar movements in other places.”

The identification of these theses or dynamics demonstrates the enduring value of Pierson’s work for missiologists, more so than his historical narrative, which as already noted, is conventional, though competent.

Book Reviewed
Paul Pierson, The Dynamics of Christian Mission: History through a Missiological Perspective (Pasadena, CA: William Carey International University Press, 2009).

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Review of ‘Mission in the Early Church’ by Edward L. Smither

Mission-in-the-early-churchEdward L. Smither, Mission in the Early Church: Themes and Reflections (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2014).

The aim of Mission in the Early Church is “to begin a discussion about early Christian mission that will impact how we think about and approach mission today” (p. 1). Its author—Edward L. Smither associate professor of Intercultural Studies at Columbia International University in Columbia, South Carolina—pursues this aim by providing “an introductory reflection on some prominent marks of Christian mission in the early church” (p. 5), including suffering, evangelism, Bible translation, contextualization, word and deed, and the church. Smither’s treatment of these themes is brief, balanced, and readable.

Chapter 1, “Backgrounds,” summarizes “the origins and development of Christianity,” its “political and social contexts,” and “the currents of thought” it encountered during the period, A.D. 100–750. During this era, the church expanded westward through the Roman Empire as well as Eastward into Persia, Mesopotamia, and beyond. During the pre-Constantinian period, the “first Christians had expansionist tendencies without worldly power” (p. 16), as Smith quotes Dale T. Irvin and Scott W. Sunquist, experiencing repeated bouts of local persecution. “Constantine’s alleged conversion [in A.D. 312] certainly set into a motion a pattern in which kings converted and then directed or at least influenced their subjects to do the same” (p. 22). The entanglement of church and state in the West continued until the modern era. However, in the East, the church fell prey to the rising Islamic tide.” “Within a century of the death of Muhammad,” quoting Irvin and Sunquist again, “as many as half of the world’s Christians [who lived in the East] were under Muslim political rule” (p. 23). Throughout this period, Christians engaged “a variety of philosophies and religions” (p. 24), but especially Gnosticism, paganism, Zoroastrianism, Manicheanism, non-Christian monotheisms (i.e., Judaism and Islam), and numerous Christian heresies.

The title of chapter 2 reveals its topic: “Who Were the Missionaries?” Smither argues that there is evidence in this period for “official, full-time evangelists who proclaimed the gospel publicly in the early church” (p. 31). However, the majority of missionaries were “bivocational,” including “bishops, teachers, philosophers, and monks” (p. 32). Smither uses the word bivocational in an unusual way, here, it seems to me. While evangelism may not have been the first item in these groups’ job descriptions, all of them were connected to the church in some way, so they were not bivocational in the sense modern Christians use it, i.e., having an ecclesial as well as a “secular” job. (Even the philosophers Smither mentions, for example, are men like Justin Martyr and Origen, who ran catechetical schools.) The truly bivocational missionaries, in my opinion, are the “businessmen and merchants, colonists, and soldiers” who “played a significant role in early Christian mission” (p. 43). Smith quotes Adolph Harnack in this regard: “the great mission of Christianity was in reality accomplished by means of informal missionaries,” then comments, “it is not insignificant that the two largest communities in the early western church—Rome and Carthage—had undocumented origins” (p. 44).

Chapter 3, “Suffering,” that is not usually thought of in missiological terms by western Christians. Rather, we think of the suffering contemporary Christians endure in political terms, as a violation of their religious freedom rights. As Smither shows, however, “suffering [in the early church] did serve as a strategic means for the advancement of the gospel.” This happened because “the public context of persecution allowed Christians the opportunity to witness verbally about their faith and to clarify and defend the gospel.” Furthermore, given that the suffering was unjust, it “resulted in apologetics, written treatises that defended and articulated Christian belief.” A final effect of suffering was that it “invigorate[d] the church and its mission as martyrs were remembered on feast days, through sermons, sacred biographies (vitae) and even through the construction of churches” (p. 51).

Chapter 4, “Evangelism,” examines “how the early church approached evangelism” (p. 76). Although evangelism in the early church did not look like the altar call at a Billy Graham crusade, Smither contends that “early Christian mission was characterized by a great commitment to kerygmatic proclamation” (p. 89). Christians in this period were “integrated into the fabric of society” (p. 76), so evangelism took place among all classes. However, Smither pays special attention to the use of written testimonies (e.g., Augustine’s Confessions), and the church’s engagement with intellectuals, political leaders, and heretics.

The translation of Scripture is the focus of chapter 5. Following Lamin Sanneh, Smither refers to translation as “the vernacular principle,” i.e., “making Scripture available in the heart languages of the world’s cultures” (p. 92). He shows the vernacular principle at work in this period through the translation of the Bible into Syriac, Latin, Coptic, Gothic, Armenian, Georgian, and Ethiopic (Ge’ez). He concludes this section with a twofold irony related to Latin: “communities that translated Scripture into the local vernacular managed to avoid extinction, especially following the rise of Islam in the seventh century,” except in North Africa, which never translated Scripture into Punic and Berber, using Latin instead. This “helps explain why the church in North Africa went from being one of the fastest growing churches in the Roman period to virtually non-existent once the Arabs took control of the region.” Moreover, in the west, the Vulgate, which was commissioned to serve as “a vernacular translation” became “the standard Bible for the global church,” effectively stifl[ing] vernacular translation efforts until the fifteenth century” (p.107).

Chapter 7, “Contextualization,” examines “how early Christian missionaries articulated the faith through commonly understood ideas, by engaging sacred space, and through visual and work culture,” though it also notes “how the church failed at points to be indigenous in its message and approach” (p. 111). I was especially intrigued by Smither’s discussion of “visual and material culture” (p. 117). Columba’s mission to the Picts took up and transformed Pictish art forms. I couldn’t help but wonder after reading this section whether Christian approaches to contextualization focus too much on ideas and too little on sights and sounds.

Among North American evangelicals, the holism-priorism debate continues to divide evangelical missiologists. Holism refers to whether the church’s mission includes both gospel proclamation and social action. Priorism refers to whether proclamation has priority over social action within the church’s mission. Chapter 8, “Word and Deed,” examines this question, showing that “good works accompanied proclamation in early Christian mission.” Good deeds included “care for the poor, hungry, imprisoned, enslaved, and marginalized,” but it also included “ministry to those in need of healing and freedom demonic possession” (p. 128). Smither concludes that “there was little debate in the church over the relationship between proclamation and social action” (p. 146). As a Pentecostal, this chapter was intriguing to me for two reasons: First, the holism-priorism debate is alive in my own denomination, the Assemblies of God. After reading this chapter, I am strengthened in my own opinion that asking, “Proclamation or social action?” is a false alternative. Why not both? Second, it was encouraging to read about the continuing ministries of healing and exorcism in the early church. One wonders why, given this history, cessationism ever got off the ground, theologically speaking.

The concluding chapter, “Church,” looks at “how the church embodied and embraced mission” (p. 149). Smither argues that “church was central to mission in the early Christian centuries—both before and after Constantine. Though mission strategies changed over time and church forms looked different, there was never a time when there was church-less Christianity. The most visible expression of Christian mission was the church and the most powerful means for it was the church” (p. 162, emphasis added). It is often said that contemporary people like Jesus but not the church. The sentiment is understandable—given how often churches don’t act in a Christ-like manner. It still is wrongheaded, however. Christianity is a community that results from and engages in the mission of Jesus Christ himself.

Smither concludes Mission in the Early Church with a sentence worth pondering: “It is good to reflect on the church’s memory of mission and consider how it might shape us today” (p. 166). Reading Smither’s book deepened my understanding of this period in church history, but it also forced me to think about the same topics in my own ministry. Am I a missionary? How do I suffer? Am I evangelizing people who need Christ’s good news? How do I help people understand the Bible? Am I speaking to the unconverted in a way they understand? Is my verbal witness accompanied by good works? How do I lead the world into the body of Christ and the body of Christ back into the world? For me, Smither’s was a thought-provoking study well worth reading a second time.

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Review of ‘Introduction to World Christian History’ by Derek Cooper

Intro-to-World-Christian-HistoryDerek Cooper, Introduction to World Christian History (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016).

Derek Cooper begins his Introduction to World Christian History with a thought-provoking quote:

In just over 100 years, the map of world Christianity has changed almost out of recognition. In 1900, it is estimated that 70 percent of all Christians were to be found in Europe … whereas … by 2025 Africa and Latin America will be vying with one another to claim the most Christians, having about a quarter each of the world’s Christian population (p. 11, quoting Sebastian Kim and Kirsteen Kim, Christianity as a World Religion).

Given this monumental demographic shift, Christianity must be understood broadly as a global movement, rather than narrowly as a Western one.

Unfortunately, too many evangelical histories of Christianity continue to evince a Eurocentric bias in their presentation. (The same can be said of other Christian traditions too, of course.) They trace the Church’s story from first-century Judea (where the Church was born) to fourth-century Rome (where orthodoxy formed a problematic relationship with the State) to medieval Europe (where Catholic Christendom flourished) to early modern Northern Europe (where the Reformation took root) to Enlightenment-era Britain and America (where evangelicalism began) to today—that is to say, they trace the history from “them” to “us.” That story is true, as far as it goes, but it leaves a lot of vital information out, about both past and present realities of the Church.

The emerging field of “world Christian history” or “global Christian history” seeks to correct this Eurocentric bias and provide a more accurate history of the development of Christianity. “Despite its close connection to the West today, Christianity has always been a global and ethnically diverse religion,” Derek Cooper writes. “The time has come for the church to recognize that its history extends far beyond the Western hemisphere. The church was planted in Asia, nurtured in African and harvested worldwide” (p. 13).

A thorough history of world Christianity would be a multi-volume affair. See, for example, Dale T. Irvin and Scott W. Sunquist’s projected World Christian Movement, whose first two volumes total 1,000 pages, with a third volume still awaiting publication. Even readers with an interest in the topic do not always have the time or patience to read long books like those. They should begin, instead, with Cooper’s Introduction to World Christian History, which summarizes the main points of world Christian history in less than 250 pages.

Cooper arranges his narrative chronologically and geographically. Chronologically, he divides his material into “three fluid periods: (1) the first to seventh centuries, (2) the eighth through fourteenth centuries, and (3) the fifteenth to the twenty-first centuries” (p. 16). Geographically, he divides his material using the United Nations Geoscheme for Nations. Part 1 and 2 examine the development of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Europe during the church’s first fifteen centuries. Part 3 begins in Europe, which is where Christianity had become spiritually and politically dominant, but then traces the Church’s development into new fields in Latin America, North America, Oceania, Southern Africa, and Asia. The Church’s development in this period coincided with European colonialism, which—paradoxically—constituted both an obstacle to the acceptance of Christianity by the indigenous peoples (because it was associated with foreign domination) as well as the catalyst for its growth (because indigenous peoples took the missionaries’ gospel and made it their own).

Reflecting on this history, Cooper concludes his book with words that are worth quoting:

Christianity does not belong to Europe or America, or to Asia or Africa or Oceania any more than the wind can be captured, claimed and bottled. The wind [of the Holy Spirit] continues to blow today, just as it did in the past. We can hear the sound of it and witness how it transforms peoples and cultures. But we do not know how long the wind will remain with us and where it will go next (p. 244).

Wherever the Wind may blow, Christians should pray and work so that the Wind carries them along with it.

P.S. This review is cross-posted at

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