Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 10, no. 1 (Winter–Spring 2019)

playlist_add_check Review Article

John Mark Terry and Robert L. Gallagher. Encountering the History of Missions: From the Early Church to Today. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017. 416 pp. Paperback. $25.60.

Teaching the history of Christian mission and expansion is a daunting task. Compressing two thousand years of Christian history from across the globe into one readable volume seems impossible. John Mark Terry, department chair and professor of missions at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, and Robert L. Gallagher, department chair and associate professor of intercultural studies at Wheaton College, take on this project in their book Encountering the History of Missions: From the Early Church to Today. As part of the Encountering Mission series published by Baker Academic, Encountering the History of Missions is a missions history textbook written from a conservative American evangelical perspective for students who desire to pursue a vocation in cross-cultural missions (vi, viii). Their goal in writing this volume is to help contemporary and future missionaries avoid the mistakes of the past while also inspiring them to imitate the passion and dedication of their predecessors (361). The result is an ambitious, yet flawed attempt to write a comprehensive and accessible history of Christian missions.

The book begins with a chapter on “Missions in the Early Church,” where Terry and Gallagher set out to show how the church grew from Jesus’s small group of disciples to a religion that spanned the Mediterranean world by the time of the council of Nicaea in the fourth century (1). They do this by exploring what they identify as the missionary methods used by the early church so that they can distill a clear and straightforward set of methodological lessons for their readers to imbibe. Terry and Gallagher end the chapter with a case study and a set of reflection questions that urge students to apply what they learned in their reading to contemporary situations or problems that arise in the mission field (20–22). This approach to exploring the history of Christian mission sets the pattern for the rest of the book. Each chapter in the first two-thirds of the volume highlights the history and methods of specific Christian traditions, ranging from the Church of the East and Celtic Christianity to Jesuit and Methodist missionary efforts, followed by a case study and discussion questions. The final third of the book follows the same pattern but primarily focuses on evangelical missions, including a chapter on the Church Growth Movement. Terry and Gallagher end the book with an evaluation of evangelical missions based on J. Herbert Kane’s 1978 edition of Understanding Christian Missions. Here the authors reproduce Kane’s assertions and analyze what past missionaries did wrong, what they did right, and the tasks that remain for contemporary and future missionaries (355, 358, 360).

Encountering the History of Missions has two strengths in particular. First, the case studies and discussion questions that Terry and Gallagher present at the end of each chapter are a creative way to help students critically process and apply the historical material to contemporary situations and questions. Second, the broad scope of Encountering the History of Missions is likely to introduce students to movements, characters, and stories of Christianity’s past that they have never encountered. Standard courses in church history rarely include, for example, the stories of the Church of the East and its encounter with Tang China or Orthodox missions in Japan and Alaska. The broad scope of the book will help students understand that Christianity has long been a global faith and not merely a Western one.

Attempting a project of this scope is going to have its drawbacks as the authors have to make difficult choices about what to include and what to leave out. Unfortunately, such decisions are overshadowed by three systematic faults that severely undercut the value of the book. First, Terry and Gallagher fail to set forth a clear and consistent definition of “mission” in their book. Rather, they take an approach that assumes such a definition is self-evident. This lack of definition becomes problematic when they choose what to include in their narrative and what they leave out. For example, chapter seven explores what they label “Reformation Missions” (130–149). Here, Terry and Gallagher portray the Reformed and Lutheran movements as self-conscious missionary movements spreading a biblical gospel throughout Europe to fight the corruptions of the Roman Catholic Church (149). Luther and Calvin, however, did not think of themselves in this light. They understood themselves as working within the framework and borders of Christendom, not crossing boundaries into non-Christian territories. This unique perspective on the reformations of the early modern period raises questions that Terry and Gallagher never answer: What is mission? When do Christians become missionaries in different cultural, geographical, and temporal contexts? The answers to these questions are undoubtedly complicated, especially in our contemporary context, but they deserve a thorough investigation, especially at the outset of a project as ambitious as Encountering the History of Missions.

Second, and related to a precise definition of mission, the singular focus on the individuals the authors identify as missionaries and the missionaries’ methods is problematic. Over the last forty years, scholars such as Andrew Walls and Lamin Sanneh have shown that the mission and expansion of Christianity throughout its history is a dynamic process that affects those who carry the message and those who receive it. Namely, while missionaries serve as cross-cultural gospel bearers, the successful inculcation and inculturation of the Christian faith into a specific cultural context depends on the creativity and activity of receiving peoples, often despite the best efforts of the missionaries themselves. By ignoring the story of peoples who receive the gospel in this book, Terry and Gallagher present a skewed narrative that ignores the importance of indigenous agency in the history of the mission and serial expansion of Christianity.

Third and finally, a cursory reading of Encountering the History of Missions reveals that the authors have not digested the critical scholarship on the issue and, as a result, they have not presented their readers with the freshest material. For example, the sole source for their small section on “The Women’s Movement in Mission” is two editions of the same source: Ruth Tucker’s 1983 and 2004 editions of From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions (265–68). While Tucker’s book is a fine popular overview of missionary biographies, it lacks reference to the scholarly work over the last three decades on the history of women in Christian mission. Careful, critical sources such as Dana Robert’s American Women in Mission: The Modern Mission Era 1792–1992, would have added depth and historical accuracy to their account. Indeed, throughout Encountering the History of Missions, this lack of reliance on critical scholarship often calls into question the assertions put forth in the book.

Encountering the History of Missions provides its readers with a wealth of information while also presenting a series of case studies that pushes them to consider critically the Christian missions history. Students who encounter this book in the classroom will find multiple launching points for a more in-depth study of the history of missions. The lack of a precise definition of mission, indigenous voices, and knowledge of critical scholarship on Christian missions, however, call into question the reliability of the book to provide a fresh and balanced narrative. At best, Terry and Gallagher’s volume is a bold but flawed attempt to provide a sweeping account of the history of Christian Missions. At worst, the authors imply that the conservative American evangelical missionary movement is the zenith of the missionary movement in Christian history.

Jeremy P. Hegi

PhD Candidate, Church History and World Christianity

Boston University

Boston, MA, USA