Christianity Encountering World Religions | Book Review

In Christianity Encountering World Religions, Terry Muck and Frances S. Adeney provide an “explanation of and argument for giftive mission” (7). They state their thesis up front:

Mission to peoples of historically resistant religions [i.e., non-Christian religions] could be made easier and more productive with the addition of a biblical metaphor for mission, the metaphor of free gift. Giftive mission, as we choose to call it, means that we are more than conquerors of other people, more than harvesters of souls, more than winners of metaphysical arguments: we are the bearers of gifts. We bring to the world the greatest of all gifts, the story of what God has done for the world through Jesus Christ (10).

They organize their presentation of giftive mission in four parts:

Part 1 treats the context, text, and pre-texts of contemporary missions. The first is “the religiously plural context in which Christianity exists today” (15). Text is what the Bible says “about our responsibility toward people of other religions” (32). And pre-texts are “[c]ategories of thought, ways of learning, and personal idiosyncrasies” (51).

Part 2 identifies 11 practices that characterize giftive mission. For each practice, Muck and Adeney profile a Christian leader whose ministry embodied that practice, as well as a sidebar of an “antimissionary” whose work was counterproductive to genuine mission. Because Part 2 is the longest section of the book, it is worth naming and briefly describing each practice, together with its characteristic missionary and antimissionary:

  1. Universality: Reaching out to all, including Christians, with Paul as missionary and Jonah as antimissionary (79–91).
  2. Fellowship: Belonging precedes believing, with St. Patrick contrasted to Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (92–103).
  3. Localization: Focusing on questions and concerns of the local community, with the translation work of Cyril and Methodius contrasted to Bishop Wiching’s limitation of Bible translation and liturgy to Latin (104–114).
  4. Commitment: Holding ideas with conviction; acting decisively on those ideas; not letting those ideas be decisive, with Thomas Aquinas contrasted to Pope Innocent IV (115–126).
  5. Freedom: Honoring the principle of religious choice, with Bartolomé de Las Casas contrasted with Louis IX’s crusades and expulsion of Jews from France (127–137).
  6. Effectiveness: Allowing the context to determine the form of witness, contrasting Matteo Ricci with Pierre-Jean de Smet (138–149).
  7. Consistency: Striving for consistency between methods and goals, contrasting William Carey with Tomás de Torquemada (150–161).
  8. Variety: Communicating the gospel in many forms, with Catherine Booth contrasted to John Ryland (162–173).
  9. Respect: Not disparaging others in order to champion your own; not disparaging your own in order to respect others, contrasting William Sheppard with David de Silva (174–184).
  10. Charity: Loving those to whom we witness, contrasting Mother Teresa with King Richard the Lion-Hearted (185–197).
  11. Missional Ecumenicity: Practicing mission as the joint project of the church. Muck and Adeney present Billy Graham as the exemplar of this characteristic, but they do not name an antimissionary (198–209).

The authors conclude Part 2 with a chapter titled, “Jesus, Mission Innovator,” in which they provide this summary of his mission innovation:

Yet part of Jesus’ mission innovation was to make love of neighbor the standard against which all mission workers were to measure their successes and failures. And part of Jesus’ mission innovation was to define what Christian love was over against human love. Christian love begins with a love of God; love of our neighbor is then a reflection of that primary love relationship. Christian love is Christian because it is rooted in the love of God (215).

Part 3 describes a five-stage “spiral of knowledge acquisition” about other cultures, which is essential to the task of cross-cultural workers. These stages are 1) recognizing and understanding our past experience, 2) bracketing our convictions, 3) encountering others with openness, 4) evaluating through reengaging one’s convictions, and 5) integrating our horizon of meaning (224–229). This is not a one-and-done acquisition of knowledge; instead, it is a spiral that continues to broaden and deepen.

Regarding the fifth stage, Muck and Adeney note that “change occurs both in the people of the other culture who interact with the missionaries and in the Christians relating to the culture.” On the one hand, “The people are influence by the story of Jesus as it is related to them in culturally appropriate ways.” On the other hand, “The Christians are also changed by the character and forms of the culture they encounter” (227).

Part 4, finally, makes the case for giftive mission explicit. Noting that there are numerous biblical metaphors and metaphor clusters for mission activity (e.g., agricultural, military, architectural, athletic, economic), Muck and Adeney argue that “free gift” is an especially fruitful metaphor for contemporary missions for several reasons: It is biblical, it is universal, and it has local variations. They consider how giftive mission might vary in indigenous, Western, and Eastern gift-giving cultures.

An appendix helpful lists 239 “Biblical Interreligious Encounters” that are useful to readers who want to examine the biblical material for themselves.

On the whole, I thought Christianity Encounter World Religions was well written and persuasive. The 11 practices the authors identified, along with positive and negative examples of each, were helpful, especially to readers such as myself who are enmeshed in the pluralism and relativism of contemporary globalized culture. The interplay between the mission Jesus gave the Church and the world in which that mission takes place requires a frank recognition of both “competition” between Christianity and other religions, at the same time it necessitates “cooperation” with them (28–31).

Book Reviewed
Terry Muck and Frances S. Adeney, Christianity Encountering World Religions: The Practice of Mission in the Twenty-first Century (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009).

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Whole and Reconciled | Book Review

One of the central debates among evangelical missiologists in the past century concerned the relationship between evangelism and social concern. In the mid- to late-twentieth century, many evangelical missiologists prioritized the former to the later, primarily in the West. In the last quarter of that century, however, prioritism gave ground to holism, especially among the Rest, who viewed evangelism and social concern as equally indispensable aspects of the Church’s mission.

In Whole and Reconciled, Al Tizon outlines a holistic missiology. Rather than rehearse the arguments for holism, however, he assumes their conclusions. What is unique to his articulation of holistic mission is the use of the concept of reconciliation to clarify what holistic mission requires. As he puts it in the Introduction, “We engage in holistic mission when we participate with God in putting the world back together in Jesus Christ: reconciliation as mission” (xii). Or as he states in the Conclusion, “This book has sought to reshape our understanding of the church’s holistic mission in the world by seeing it through the lens of biblical reconciliation” (212).

Tizon divides the book into four parts.

In Part 1, “Whole World,” he outlines “major global shifts that have massive implications for the church in mission” (3). These include globalization (6–20), post-Christendom (21–36), and postcolonialism (37–55). He severely critiques the first (i.e., capitalism) but embraces the other two.

In Part 2, “Whole Gospel,” Tizon critiques “false gospels” and “half gospels” (pp. 63–76). The former includes gospels of hate, prosperity, comfort, and empire. The latter includes the gospels of (merely) personal salvation and of (merely) social liberation, the characteristic understandings of the gospel on the Right and Left, respectively. Turning from critique to affirmation, he defines the gospel in terms of the kingdom of God. Trying together the concepts of kingdom and reconciliation, he writes: “To the extent that God reigns over existence, reconciliation between God and people, between people and people, and between God, people, and creation happens” (85).

In part 3, “Whole Church,” Tizon turns to the nature of the Church, believing that “the impact of the whole and reconciled gospel on the world depends on the wholeness of the bold and humble church” (96). Such a church requires “whole persons” (97–109); a diverse, reconciled, and reconciling community modeled on the relationships of the Persons of the Trinity (111–128); and “the spirituality and worship practices of the people of God” (129–144, cf. 130).

In Part 4, “Wholeness as Mission,” Tizon narrates the history of the theology and practice holistic mission (155–170). He writes about three dimensions of reconciliation (171–181). These dimensions describe “the ministries of (1) evangelism, facilitating reconciliation between God and people; (2) peacemaking, between people and people; and (3) stewardship, between God, people, and creation” (174). Finally, he asks, “What principles must be operative for genuine peace [among people] to manifest itself” (183–210, cf. 184).

While I agree with the general framework of holistic mission and am sympathetic to Tizon’s use of reconciliation as an organizing principle for it, I don’t agree with everything in the book. I struggled especially with Tizon’s critique of capitalism and embrace of a post-Christendom and postcolonial perspective in Part 1. Other readers may find different points of disagreement. Regardless, Whole and Reconciled is a worthy contribution to the theological and practice of holistic mission.

Book Reviewed
Al Tizon, Whole and Reconciled: Gospel, Church, and Mission in a Fractured World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018).

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For the Love of God | Book Review

For the Love of God, edited by Jerry M. Ireland, examines “principles and practice of compassion in missions,” as the subtitle puts it. Part 1 examines principles, and Part 2 examines practices. Contributors are for the most part missionaries with practical experience and/or relevant academic training.

Part 1 includes five chapters: “Introduction” and “A Missionary Theology of Compassion” by Ireland; “Missions and Compassion: The Indigenous Principles” by Alan R. Johnson; “Defining Poverty” by JoAnn Butrin and A. Chadwick Thornhill; and “Best Practices in Compassionate Missions” by Suzanne Hurst.

Part 2 includes nine chapters: “Compassion and Unreached People Groups” by Jeff Palmer and Lynda Hausfeld; Counterintuitive Missions in a McDonald’s Age: Recovering the Apostolic, Incarnational Model to Integrating Gospel-As-Mission and Gospel-As-Deed” by Jean Johnson; “In Pursuit of Holistic Economic Development” by Brian Fikkert; “The Church’s Response to Injustice” by JoAnn Butrin, Suzanne Hurst, and Brandy Tuesday Wilson; “Orphans and Vulnerable Children” by Ireland; “Health Issues and the Church’s Response” by Karen Herrera and Paula Ireland; “Natural Disasters and the Church’s Response” by Jeffrey Hartensveld; “The Local Church and Faith-Based Organizations” by Jason Paltzer; and “Conclusion: For the Love of God” by Ireland.

Ireland summarizes “the approach of this text” in his Introduction:

This text addresses compassion in missions from a thoroughly evangelical perspective. As such, this text will center around three themes to which we will often return: biblical foundations, the local church, and development principles. The central thesis of this text is that these three themes must guide evangelical responses to compassion if we are to be faithful to Scripture and to the church’s uniquely redemptive purpose. We will argue that Christian compassion is fundamentally a matter of discipleship and that modern Christian missions often tends, contrarily, toward the professionalization of compassionate ministry. Such an approach robs local believers of their God-given mandate to love their neighbors (Matt. 22:39).

In other words, the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16–20) commands believers to make disciples of all “nations,” that is “people groups.” A necessary outcome of discipleship is compassionate individuals and congregations who minister to the needs of their neighbors holistically. In cross-cultural situations, missionaries’ primary work is to empower the local church to make compassionate disciples, rather than to do the work of the local church themselves.

Who should read this book? Missionaries are obvious candidates, especially those working in compassion-focused missions. Those preparing for missionary careers or those teaching them also are intended readers. However, I would also recommend the book to pastors, especially those whose churches sponsor compassion-focused missions or who send abroad short-term missions teams. The emphasis on empowering indigenous local churches to perform compassion ministries, rather than doing it for them, should affect the way U.S. churches fund their missions program, as well as how they utilize short-term missions teams.

The book includes a 14-page Bibliography, but not an index. Though an index would be helpful–indexes are always helpful in academic books–the specificity of the chapter topics obviates need for one.

Book Reviewed
Jerry M. Ireland, ed., For the Love of God: Principles and Practice of Compassion in Missions (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2017).

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Why Missions Needs Missionaries | Influence Podcast

This past summer, thousands of Assemblies of God churchgoers went on short-term missions trips. These trips often do much good. They certainly change the people who go on them for the better. But is it a good idea to shift a church’s missions strategy to short-term missions?

Similarly, churches are increasingly supporting “social justice” causes such as anti-human trafficking initiatives and water well drilling as an important part of missions. Granted, these are great causes, but are they missions?

In today’s episode of the Influence Podcast, I talk with with Doug Clay and Greg Mundis about what missions is and why missions need long-term missionaries. Doug Clay is general superintendent of the Assemblies of God (USA), and Greg Mundis is executive director of Assemblies of God World Missions.

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 ‘The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History’ by Andrew F. Walls

Walls, Andrew F. 2002. The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.

The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History is a collection of essays, originally published independently, which Andrew F. Walls has organized into three parts. Part One consists of four studies of “recurrent themes of Christian history, and of Christian historiography, viewed intercontinentally.” Parts Two and Three consist of eleven studies of “the transmission and appropriation of the Christian faith” in “Africa” and “the modern missionary movement from the West,” respectively (p. ix). Because of the wide-ranging nature of the book’s interests, it is difficult to review it as a whole. So, instead, this review will focus on the themes in three chapters.

Chapter 1, “A History of the Expansion of Christianity Reconsidered,” reviews the contribution of Kenneth Scott Latourette’s magisterial, seven-volume history of missions of that title. Latourette famously described the history of Christianity’s expansion in “the spread of the influence of Jesus.” He went on to propose what Walls calls “a threefold means for measuring the influence of Christ” (p. 9).

Walls devotes the bulk of chapter 1 to outlining and giving theological depth to Latourette’s “threefold means.” He names them “The Church Test” (p. 10), “The Kingdom Test” (p. 13), and “The Gospel Test” (p. 18). “The first sign of the expansion of the influence of Christ is the presence of a community of people who willingly bear his name, an ‘Israel’ that maintains his worship. The other tests themselves presuppose this one…” (p. 10). The second test regards “the numbers and strength of new movements owing their origin to Jesus Christ,” which was Latourette’s means of testing “the depth of Christian expansion at any one time in any given area” (p. 14, emphasis in original). “Kingdom movements,” writes Walls, “call the church to repentance and to alertness to the presence of Christ within,” and are thus inclusive of “many movements of reformation, renewal, and revival” (p. 15). The third test pertains to “the effect of Christ on people and on cultures,” an effect that varies in different times and places because the “scope of the principalities and powers and their corrupting rule is immense” (pp. 18, 19). An obvious example of this is the difference between the guilt-innocence cultures and honor-shame cultures hear the gospel.

Chapter 3, “From Christendom to World Christianity,” highlights the serial nature of Christian expansion. In two paragraphs that repay careful attention, Walls writes:

…The Christian story is serial: its center moves from place to place. No one church or place or culture owns it. At different times, different peoples and places have become its heartlands, its chief representatives. Then the baton passes on to others. Christian progress is never final, never a set of gains to be plotted on the map. The rhetoric of some of our hymns, and many of our sermons, about the triumphant host streaming out to conquer the world is more Islamic than Christian [!]. Christian history reveals the faith often withering in its heartlands, in its centers of seeming strength and importance, to establish itself on or beyond its margins. It has vulnerability, a certain fragility, at its heart—the vulnerability of the cross, the fragility of the earthen vessel

In other words, cross-cultural diffusion has been necessary to Christianity. It has been its life’s blood, and without it the faith could not have survived. It does not, like so many of the religions of India, belong to a particular soil; nor does it, like Islam, produce a distinctive and immediately recognisable [sic] form of civilization. The missionary movement from the West, therefore, seen in the total history of Christianity, is one of a series of major cross-cultural diffusions…” (pp. 66–67).

To the extent that the book’s fifteen independent chapters have a unifying theme, this is it. Christianity expands on a serial basis through cross-cultural processes. One can never assume its triumph in history; one must always be incarnating the faith once delivered to new contexts.

Chapter 13, “The Multiple Conversions of Timothy Richard,” examines the missiological shifts made by Richard, a Welsh Baptist missionary to China, over the course of his tenure there in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Walls makes two points: First, these shifts took place in response to changing conditions in China. Walls writes:

[Richard’s] multiple conversions—from conventional [British] evangelism to methods that took China seriously, to famine relief work, to prophet of structural reform, to theologian or religions, to worker for peace and champion of the submerged tenth—mark stages that marked the wider movement in different parts of the world and at different periods (p. 258).

Richard,’ experience, in other words, was “paradigmatic…of the instincts of the missionary movement at work.” These instincts were additive rather than subtractive, however, “never abandoning its original position [of evangelism] but clearing space around it in response to developing perspectives” (p. 258). In other words, a mission that began with the goal of saving souls had to, in response to changing circumstances, take cognizance of the physical, social, and ideological elements impinged on would-be converts’ lived experience. Only in this way could the fullness of Christ’s kingdom be experienced.

The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History is a rich, suggestive work that needs to be read several times to fully digest its significance. This review has highlighted three chapters only because they identify themes that recur throughout the work: the measurement of Christian influence, the serial nature of Christian expansion, and the increasing scope of missionary concern.

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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.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page.

Review of ‘The Next America’ by Paul Taylor and the Pew Research Center

Unknown Paul Taylor, The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown (New York: PublicAffairs, 2014). Hardcover / Kindle

The Next America is not a book about how to contextualize the gospel in contemporary America. At least, that was not Paul Taylor’s intention in writing it. And yet, as I read his fascinating new study, I couldn’t help but notice its missiological significance.

Drawing on reams of research by the Pew Research Center, which he serves as executive vice president, Taylor describes “the demographic, economic, social, cultural, and technological changes that are remaking not just our politics but our families, livelihoods, relationships, and identities. These shifts have left no realm of society untouched.” He goes on to summarize the effects of those changes this way: “As a people, we’re growing older, more unequal, more diverse, more mixed race, more digitally linked, more tolerant, less married, less fertile, less religious, less mobile, and less confident” (p. 6). Throughout the book, he focuses specifically on the generational differences between “boomers” (Americans born from 1946 to 1964) and “millennials” (Americans born after 1980), the former often being parents of the latter.

After an introductory chapter, successive chapters delve into the specifics of generation gaps (chs. 2–4), economic differences (ch. 5), immigration (ch. 6), racial identity (ch. 7), marriage (ch. 8), religion (ch. 9), use of technology (ch. 10), aging (chs. 11–12), and the effect of these changes on America’s social welfare programs (ch. 13). Rather than summarizing the content of these chapters, let me briefly highlight the kinds of questions missionally minded Christians might ask after reading this book:

  • Taylor writes, “Young and old in America are poles apart. Demographically, politically, economically, socially, and technologically, the generations are more different from each other now than at any time in living memory” (p. 29). That being the case, how can Christians show the gospel’s relevance to the hopes and fears of each generation without being captured by the prejudices and proclivities of any of them?
  • “Millennials and Xers [Americans born 1965–1980] are not only in far worse financial shape than Boomers and Silents [Americans born 1928–1945] now, they are also in worse shape than these older generations were back when they were the age Millennials and Xers are now” (p. 60). Moreover, “The young today are paying taxes to support a level of benefits [such as Social Security and Medicare] for the old that they themselves have no prospect of receiving when they become old” (p. 184). That being the case, how can Christians disciple believers, both young and old, to become better stewards of the financial resources God has given them as well as advocates of what Taylor calls “generational equity” (p. 184)?
  • “America is already one of the most racially and ethnically diverse nations in history, and the modern immigration wave is making our tapestry more intricate with each passing year” (p. 71). That being the case, how should Christians evangelize and disciple immigrant populations, welcome them into our churches, and utilize their networks in their lands of birth for missional ends?
  • “Our culture has traded the melting pot for the mosaic. We glory in our distinctive hues. In this new milieu, being mixed race—a stigma not just in our society but in most societies for most of human history—carries cultural cachet” (pp. 95–96). That being the case, how do Christians promote greater racial and ethnic diversity at all levels of their congregations? How do we overcome the de facto segregation so characteristic of American churches?
  • “Lots of particular marriages fail for lots of particular reasons. But nowadays it’s the institution itself that’s in big trouble. And the biggest problem isn’t that people who try marriage are failing at it. It’s that fewer are trying at all” (p. 107). That being the case, how should Christians minister to people among whom extramarital sex and cohabitation are routine, to parents who consider nonmarital childbirth nonproblematic (41 percent of all childbirths in America are now nonmarital), to older people who in increasing numbers divorce their spouses after decades of marriage, and to gay and lesbian persons who want their relationships recognized on par with traditional, opposite-sex marriages?
  • Quoting Mark Chaves, Taylor writes, “there is much continuity [in American religion], and there is some decline, but no traditional religious belief or practice as increased in recent decades” (p. 129). That being the case, how can Christians best serve the growing ranks of “religious nones,” people who, while not necessarily secular or atheist, are nonetheless not interested in institutional churches and traditional dogma?
  • Millennials’ “information ecosystem and social platforms are vastly different from those of her forebears. The ever-changing digital landscape is likely to keep those generation gaps quite wide for the foreseeable future. It may even change the very nature of what it means to be human and to grow old” (p. 156). That being the case, how do contemporary Christians make best use of digital technology? How do we leverage it for gospel ends, without becoming unwise users of it?
  • “Between now and midcentury, even absent any breakthroughs in life extension, the graying of the world’s population [because of both better healthcare and fewer births] will put enormous stress on economics, families, and governments in the US and around the world” (p. 167). That being the case, how should Christians think about aging, generational equity, the importance of having children, and other issues that, while not being explicitly missional issues, nonetheless have implicit consequences for Christian mission in the modern world?

I recognize that my missiological reading of The Next America may not appeal to all readers. For example, I doubt that atheists, agnostics, or adherents of non-Christian religions and worldviews will purchase this book because of the slant of my review. If so, that’s a shame, for this book provides important information about social changes in America that raise questions all Americans—religious or irreligious—will need to answer in the coming years. If I’ve highlighted this book’s relevance for Christians, it’s only because the trends Taylor analyzes have such clear missiological import.

I highly encourage Christian pastors, educators, and lay leaders to readers this book. I also encourage readers to bookmark both and in their web browsers. These websites, among many sites maintained by the Pew Research Center, provide timely studies that are always worth reading.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote yes in my review page.





Review of ‘A Missional Orthodoxy’ by Gary Tyra

Unknown Gary Tyra, A Missional Orthodoxy: Theology and Ministry in a Post-Christian Context (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013). Paperback / Kindle 

According to research by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in 2012, from 2007 to 2012, the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Christians declined by 5 points, from 78 to 73. By contrast, the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as having no religious affiliation increased by 4.3 points, from 15.3 to 19.6. The so-called “nones” described their religious preference as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.” In contrast to “Christian” America, American “nones” are tend to be younger and more political liberal.

The decline of Christian affiliation, the rise of religious non-affiliation, and the attendant shift in political values constitutes a missiological challenge for evangelical Christians. How do we evangelize and disciple in a culture that is increasingly post-Christian? Gary Tyra sets out to answer precisely that question in his new book, A Missional Orthodoxy: Theology and Ministry in a Post-Christian Context.

Tyra is associate professor of biblical and practical theology at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, California, and an Assemblies of God minister. (Full disclosure: He is also a personal friend and an occasional contributor to Enrichment, a journal for AG ministers that I edit.) His previous books include The Holy Spirit in Mission, Christ’s Empowering Presence, and Defeating Pharisaism.

For Tyra, answering the missiological challenge of post-Christian America requires fidelity to two biblical imperatives: (1) “to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 3) and (2) to “become all things too people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). These imperatives are reflected in the words orthodoxy and missional in the book’s title.

Although a Pentecostal, Tyra argues that fidelity to these imperatives ought to characterize evangelical Christianity generally, not just Pentecostalism. He develops this argument in dialogue with the writings of liberal Protestant Marcus Born and emerging evangelical Brian McLaren. He surveys their proposals on eight theological topics—Bible, God, Jesus Christ, Holy Spirit, human beings, salvation, church, and eschatology—and concludes that they, in varying degrees, sacrifice the orthodox imperative to the missional imperative. In other words, so concerned are they to make Christianity relevant to a postmodern generation, that they—especially Borg–reformulate doctrines in ways that conflict with both the Bible and the Great Tradition of Nicene orthodoxy.

This doesn’t mean that Tyra is unsympathetic to their critiques, however. Indeed, Tyra concedes that they are correct in arguing that evangelical Christianity has sometimes sacrificed missional relevance to the demands of an arid orthodoxy. What makes Tyra’s missional orthodoxy such an attractive proposal is that it balances the imperatives of orthodoxy and mission in a way that steers between the Scylla of liberalism and Charybdis of fundamentalism.

Take, for example, the topic of Christology. Whereas liberalism tends to emphasize the humanity of Christ at the expense of (even in the rejection of) his divinity, fundamentalism tends to emphasize the divinity of Christ at the expense of his humanity. According to Tyra, missional orthodoxy exposes this as a false antithesis, for the Bible teaches and the Great Tradition codifies that Jesus is fully divine and fully human in one person.

Or take the topic of salvation. Whereas fundamentalism tends to emphasize the cross as the atoning sacrifice by which God forgives our sins, liberalism tends to emphasize the cross as a moral example of self-giving love. Again, this is a false antithesis, for the cross is both of these things. The implication of this is that Christian mission includes both evangelism and social action.

Though I have simplified Tyra’s well-thought-out argument on these two topics for illustrative purposes, I think Tyra is basically correct in identifying the false antitheses that so often plague discussions of Christian mission generally and post-Christian mission specifically. Missional orthodoxy has the capacity “to be faithful to both the biblical text and the missional task,” as Tyra puts it.

In a book of this size, covering as much theological ground as it does, it is inevitable that readers will disagree with this or that conclusion drawn by Tyra. Nonetheless, on the whole, the proposal is so well-grounded in the Bible that evangelicals of many stripes can unite under the banner of missional orthodoxy, which I take it was part of Tyra’s hope for the book.

I only wish that Tyra had dialogued with representatives of the other side of the spectrum than Borg and McLaren. If, as Tyra contends, liberalism and fundamentalism are equal but opposite errors, it would be helpful to line them up side by side for purposes of contrast and comparison. My guess is that Tyra didn’t do this because at nearly 400 pages, A Missional Orthodoxy is already a long book, and because he had previously criticized fundamentalism in Defeating Pharisaism.

(For members of my Assemblies of God tribe, I should note that what Tyra and I mean by the word fundamentalism is different from what the word fundamental means in our Statement of Fundamental Truths.)

I heartily recommend A Missional Orthodoxy to evangelical pastors—especially younger colleagues—who are struggling with the challenge of ministering within an increasingly post-Christian society. I think it would make an excellent textbook in an undergraduate Christian theology class. And while I would love to see it read by laypersons in Sunday school classes and small groups, my fear is that its length will be daunting for the average parishioner. Nevertheless, as Jesus said in an entirely different context, they who endure to the end will be saved. Or at least rendered more missionally orthodox.

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page.

Chris Wright Lectures at AGTS

From my friend William Molenaar’s blog:

Recently, Dr. Christopher J. H. Wright gave the following series of lectures for the Spring Lectureship at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary:

Dr. Wright also gave the following sermon at the Assemblies of God Headquarters chapel:

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