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Review of Scott W. Sunquist, Understanding Christian Mission: Participation in Suffering and Glory

Author: Danny Reese
Published: August 2014

MD 5.2

Article Type: Review Article

Scott W. Sunquist. Understanding Christian Mission: Participation in Suffering and Glory. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013. 448 pp. Hardcover. $21.48.

Fuller Theological Seminary has a long history of leadership in the global mission movement, and the recent contribution of the dean of the School of Intercultural Studies furthers that reputation. Scott Sunquist, dean since 2012, provides a comprehensive, balanced, and fresh introduction to world missions with his recently published book, Understanding Christian Mission: Participation in Suffering and Glory. The weighty (448 page) volume is intended to serve as an introductory textbook, and would be most suitable for upper-level undergraduate or introductory graduate-level studies. It has been particularly well received in the missiological discipline.1

Several aspects of Sunquist’s personal background find expression in his writing. First, he is an academically accomplished historian, with earned degrees from Gordon-Conwell (MDiv) and Princeton (PhD) and a combined total of 27 years as professor of church and missions history at Trinity Theological College (Singapore), Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and now Fuller. He is author of several books, most notably the (to date) two-volume History of the World Christian Movement, coauthored with Dale Irvin.2 As a result, Understanding Christian Mission is replete with historical perspective and a wealth of footnotes that reveal a familiarity with primary sources and wide exposure to current literature, both academic and popular. Second, Sunquist is an ordained pastor of the Presbyterian Church (USA) whose personal theological leanings are also shaped significantly by Pentecostal pneumatology and Eastern Orthodox spirituality.3 The volume is richly theological throughout, bringing Orthodox and “Spiritual” (to use Sunquist’s term) correctives to an ecumenical Protestant perspective. Within that mix, he also values the contributions of Roman Catholicism and Evangelicalism, so that the volume at times feels like a round-table conversation. Third, Sunquist is a missionary and evangelist at heart, having served in Singapore for eight years and with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship for six years. Thus, while the pragmatic contributions of his book take a tertiary position behind history and theology, he still writes with the added flair of first-hand experience and with conviction of the essentiality of active evangelism.

Understanding Christian Mission is organized into three parts: History, Theology, and Practical Issues. Thus he follows the tripartite structure that has become standard in missiological introductions of recent years4 but alters the standard order, giving history the primary place before theology. This is not a denigration of theology but rather an admission that constructive theology relies upon a clear perception of our current historical situation. The entire volume—all three sections—ends up being quite pointedly theological, as the book’s thesis demonstrates: “Mission is from the heart of God, to each context, and it is carried out in suffering in this world for God’s eternal glory” (xii). The Preface expands on this thesis, illuminating the all-important interplay of suffering and glory that Sunquist traces throughout the volume. The Introduction is substantive (21 pages) and helpful but somewhat disjointed, covering the history of the discipline of missiology, the varied definitions of mission, and nine “contextual concerns” that shape the current missiological discussion.

Part 1 covers mission history in five chapters. Ancient and Medieval Mission surprisingly skips over the New Testament era to focus on the monastic movements of the fourth through fifteenth centuries. Colonial Missions, Part 1, covers the global expansion of Roman Catholicism. Colonial Missions, Part 2, fills a common lacuna with its presentation of early Catholic and Protestant missions to the ancient Christian peoples of the Near East, then presents an overview of missions to the First Nations of North America. Chapters 4 and 5 are an overview of Western Missions (1842–1948) and Postcolonial Missiologies (1948 to present), with significant emphasis on the changing missional thrust of the conciliar movements (Edinburgh, IMC, WCC, Lausanne, etc.). In each phase of history, Sunquist focuses on the “issues” that shaped missiological thought and practice: slavery, colonialism, confrontation with other religions, the role of women, unity in mission, secular theologies, and the rise of Pentecostalism, just to name a few. These “issue” discussions are elucidating and well chosen, but due to the breadth of coverage the factual historical overview is at times quite brief. The historically minded missions professor will want to provide supplemental material for his or her students.

Part 2 is the theological heart of the volume, presenting mission as flowing from the Triune God. Chapter 6, “Creator God as the Sending Father,” may be described as a well-worded restatement of storied theology in a missional hermeneutic, such as has become common fare in the vein of Chris Wright’s landmark work.5 Chapter 7, “Jesus, Sent as the Suffering and Sacrificing Son,” is a particularly well-rounded presentation of the centrality of Christ in Old Testament expectations, Gospel stories, early church experience, and eschatological fulfillment, with clear extrapolations for missions (most notably the nature of the gospel and the crucial role of suffering). In light of the faith malaise that confronts today’s university and seminary students, this chapter is especially appreciated. Chapter 8, “Holy Spirit in Mission,” is less impressive. The discussion of the Holy Spirit is generally helpful, but only occupies 13 pages before the attention turns completely to the missiological concepts of culture and contextualization for 26 pages. The rather tenuous connection is that the Holy Spirit works in all cultures. In the end, neither pneumatology nor culture theory is presented with the richness it deserves.

Sunquist describes Part 3 alternatively as an ecclesiology and as pragmatic issues facing mission today. It is some of each. Chapter 9 is indeed a very good ecclesiology, centering the church’s dual raison d’être in worship and witness. Chapter 10 then zooms in on witness, defining the church’s evangelistic role in a way that is biblically broad, evangelically sound, and full of conviction. Sunquist remarks, “There is something to offend pretty much everyone in this chapter” (315); I, for one, thought it right on target. Chapter 11 is less provocative—a basic introduction to the urban challenge such as one might get if Conn and Ortiz’s tome were boiled down to a concentrate.6 Chapter 12, on partnership, is particularly disappointing. Sunquist seems hardly to be aware of the significant dependency issues that are still propagated in the name of partnership, or at least does nothing to help students of mission become aware of them.7 The final chapter, on spirituality, is a superbly fitting conclusion, tying history, theology, and ecclesiology into one personally motivating package, taking a page from Bosch’s Spirituality of the Road.8

Helps at the end of the book include an appendix chart of twentieth-century ecumenical councils, an extensive bibliography organized topically, and scriptural and topical indexes.

The above summary highlights several of the strengths of the volume: a strongly theological approach, a thought-provoking historical analysis, and bold and faithful chapters on Christology, ecclesiology, evangelism, and spirituality. Another laudable characteristic of Sunquist’s writing is his ability to introduce major movements of Christianity in terms apprehensible to students. For example, his brief but well-placed introductions to the dispensationalism of J. N. Darby (110–11), Pentecostalism and A. B. Simpson (128), Hoekendijk and the Social Gospel (140–42), and the emergence of evangelicalism (159–61) help bring students up to speed without veering off topic. In general, Sunquist is to be commended for staying focused on mission thought while drawing perspective from a wide swath of religious and secular history.

Teachers of mission face a choice of approaches for an introductory missions course. Sunquist’s strengths and weaknesses can best be seen in comparison with other text options.9 One widely used text is Ruth Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions.10 While Sunquist offers a much broader introduction to mission than Tucker, the motivational and personal element that comes from reading stories of missionaries past is one of the most significant holes in Sunquist’s history.11 Consequently, a pairing of Sunquist and Tucker would be most welcome for students. Gailyn Van Rheenen, Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies, offers a much more strategic, how-to approach;12 Sunquist does not touch such practical aspects as worldview, culture shock, sustainability, church planting strategies, or reentry. Anthropology, long a staple component of missiology, gets barely a second glance. Students preparing for a missionary career would do well to start with Sunquist as a foundation for strategic training in the vein of Van Rheenen. And then there’s Bosch. While David Bosch’s Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission should not be classified as introductory-level, it shares much in common with Sunquist: historical-theological study of mission, trinitarian rooting of the missio Dei, and concern for evangelical ecumenism. Each of Bosch’s twelve “Elements of an Emerging Ecumenical Missionary Paradigm” finds clear expression in Sunquist (though without Bosch’s clarity of organization). However, a comparison with Part 1 of Bosch—164 pages of biblical exegesis—reveals Sunquist’s final major weakness. The bulk of Sunquist’s theology is systematic rather than biblical.13 Sunquist’s approach avoids Bosch’s neglect of the Old Testament and the Holy Spirit but fails to offer students the richness of insight that comes through exegetical wrestling with the most primary of primary sources: the Holy Scriptures.14

Even with its shortcomings, Understanding Christian Mission stands as one of the most well-rounded introductions to Christian mission today. Teachers of mission would do well to consider it as a key textbook, especially if supplemented as noted above. Moreover, students of any discipline who want a one-volume entrance to the world of missiology will do well to start here. Sunquist is to be thanked for this key contribution; may many take up his call to participate in the suffering and glory of Christ!

Danny Reese


Huambo, Angola

1 Understanding Christian Mission is the recipient of the 2014 Christianity Today Book Award for “Best in Missions/Global Affairs” ( and is highlighted on the list of “Fifteen Outstanding Books of 2013 for Mission Studies,” International Bulletin for Missionary Research 38, no. 2 (April 2014): 101. More acclaim for the book, as well as five video clips of Sunquist’s own thoughts on the volume, can be found at

2 Dale T. Irvin and Scott Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement, 2 vols. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001–2012). Other publications of note are Scott Sunquist, ed., A Dictionary of Asian Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001) and Scott Sunquist and Caroline N. Becker, eds., A History of Presbyterian Missions, 1944–2007 (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2008).

3 Sunquist’s interest in Syrian and other Eastern Orthodox perspectives finds expression in his preponderance of quotes from the Philokalia, one of his primary “conversation partners” (18). This perspective, somewhat lacking in most missiological literature, contributes to the freshness of Sunquist’s writing.

4 For example, A. Scott Moreau, Garry R. Corwin, and Gary B. McGee, Introducing World Missions: A Biblical, Historical, and Practical Survey, Encountering Mission (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004); Craig Ott and Stephen Strauss with Timothy C. Tennent, Encountering Theology of Mission: Biblical Foundations, Historical Developments, and Contemporary Issues, Encountering Mission (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010); Zane G. Pratt, M. David Sills, and Jeffrey K. Walters, Introduction to Global Missions (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2014).

5 Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006).

6 Harvie M. Conn and Manuel Ortiz, Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City, and the People of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001).

7 He rightly presents partnership as a great necessity of missions today, but only hints at the difficulties through his mention (390) of Jonathan Bonk’s Missions and Money: Affluence as a Western Missionary Problem, rev. ed (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2007). But Bonk deals exclusively with affluence as a personal relational issue for rich missionaries among poor societies; his book does not attempt to address systemic dependency of churches, theological education, short-term missions, etc. For a convincing critique of the failure of the partnership paradigm in light of these difficulties, see Robert Reese, Roots and Remedies of the Dependency Syndrome in World Missions (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2010), esp. 91–99.

8 David J. Bosch, A Spirituality of the Road, Missionary Studies 6 (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1979).

9 Perhaps the most similar option to Sunquist is Timothy Tennent, Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-First Century, Invitation to Theological Studies Series (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2010). Both adopt a trinitarian theological foundation, both are somewhat weak in strategic pragmatics, but Sunquist offers a depth of historical insight that surpasses Tennent.

10 Ruth A. Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004).

11 William Carey receives a few sentences; David Brainerd gets twelve words; Robert Moffat, Mary Slessor, Brother Andrew, and Jim Elliot receive not even a mention.

12 Gailyn Van Rheenen, Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies, with Anthony Parker, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014).

13 The key exceptions are the four “windows” into Jesus’ mission, brief exegetical studies taken from the Gospels, Acts, and Revelation (221–25).

14 One danger of Sunquist’s style of systematic theology is the easy intermingling of Scripture with other sources. For example, in his 13-page exposition of the Holy Spirit’s role in mission, Sunquist quotes ancient and medieval theologians almost as often (9 times) as he quotes Scripture (11 times), effortlessly elevating their writings to similar authoritative heights—a subtle move that students may not be able to perceive or evaluate.

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