Review—Christian Mission: A Concise Global History

Edward L. Smither, Christian Mission: A Concise Global History. Lexham Press, 2019. 200pp. R310.00

Available: FaithlifeAmazon

Globalization, they say, has brought the world together, made it smaller and eradicated geographical boundaries. Certainly, the world we inhabit today is quite unlike what has come before us. Yet, there is another phenomenon that has exceeded boundaries and traversed many cultures, and yet it is much older than ‘globalization’: the spread of the good news of Jesus the Christ. Notwithstanding the many ‘unreached peoples’, the expansion of the Christian message has historically penetrated into every continent, making the world, in a sense, a much smaller place—tied together by the news of a bloodied and life-giving savior.

This history is vast, intricate and complex; just how do we make sense of it and follow the many threads spanning this globe? In his book, Christian Mission: A Concise Global History, Edward L. Smither seeks to provide readers with a digestible introduction to the spread of the gospel across the globe and across time. Serving as Professor of Intercultural Studies and History of Global Christianity at Columbia International University, Smither is no stranger to these historical events, having written copiously on related subjects: Missionary Monks: An Introduction to the History and Theology of Missionary Monasticism (2016), and Mission in the Early Church: Themes and Reflections (2014). At the heart of this book is a desire to catalogue “innovators in mission who sacrificially went to the nations to make known the gospel of Christ” (p. xiii).

Summary

Whilst approaches to a history of Christian mission are diverse, Smither sets out to examine the geographic, political, and social contexts of mission, at the same time highlighting the key people, strategies, and outcomes of global mission (p. xiii). The book’s title further elucidates this proposal in two ways. First, central to the Christian Scriptures is a narrative in which God himself initiates and sends others as a means to announce his message of redemption and reconciliation—‘mission’ is first and foremost of God (p. xiv). Second, it is ‘Christian’ in that the “central task…is proclaiming Christ—his death, burial, and resurrection” (p. xiv). This does not exclude acts of mercy and providing humanitarian aid, since Jesus’ own ministry exemplified this two-fold approach of mission in word and deed (p. xiv).

Furthermore, Smither’s work operates on four features: the value and necessity of history for shaping our consciousness; a broader, chronological, and contextual approach; a focus on Protestant evangelical mission from the nineteenth century onward; and a method that asks when, where, who, and what, concerning mission, whilst also highlighting key trends, themes, and shifts of mission practice (p. xvi-xviii).

With this framework in mind, Smither’s concise global history is divided into six time periods: the early church (AD 100-750), the medieval church (AD750-1500), the early modern church (AD 1500-1800), the great century (AD 1800-1900), the global century (AD 1900-2000), and mission from the majority world (twenty-first century).

Evaluation

One of the most obvious strengths of Smither’s Christian Mission is its readability. For many, ‘history’ is synonymous with dreary facts and events—not so with this book. Christian Mission is simple yet robust, delving into many characters and key events without getting stuck in the details. Smither has provided an edifying introduction to what is a vast body of information.


Christian Mission is simple yet robust, delving into many characters and key events without getting stuck in the details.


On a similar note, it must be stated that Smither achieves his goal: Christian Mission is indeed a concise, global history. Of particular benefit is the lesser known details—at least in Protestant circles—about the mission in the medieval church (750-1500). Smither challenges the assumption that the so-called ‘dark ages’ were all that dark. The author presses the reader with the reality that despite the challenges of the medieval era, “the church engaged in mission…reaching new regions such as Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Russia, the Middle East, North Africa, and central Asia…missionaries continued to engage heretics and Muslims and serve in contexts of violence among the Vikings, Muslims and Mongols.” (p. 49-50) Christian Mission, then,presents a diverse account of the gospel’s advance, incorporating Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant endeavours, whilst alerting the reader to contextual issues—geographic, political, and cultural—within each of these movements.

A further strength of Christian Mission is its ability to whet the appetite in several ways: first, toward further study and analysis. Whether it is Basil of Caesarea (p. 14), Dominic de Guzman (p. 50), or Samuel Zwemer (p. 127), readers are provided with an amount of detail to spur one on to further reflection. Secondly, readers’ personal walk with Christ and own efforts in mission will be stirred toward action. Smither is not ignorant of the power of imitation and story: “God’s people imitate God, declaring his glory among the nations and crossing boundaries from faith to nonfaith.” (p. 199) Readers of Christian Mission will be invigorated by reading of God’s sustaining hand in his mission, through his people, and across the ages. 

Though brief, a final strength of Christian Mission is Smither’s description of the approaches and methods used within each epoch. These contextual side-notes provide helpful analyses of precisely how mission has taken place through the centuries. At once, we are alerted to the flexibility, creativity and ingenuity of those that have gone before us. Certainly the modern world’s complexity, pluralism and global injustices beckon the church to continue in this stream whilst presenting the time-, culture-, and class-transcendent message of the gospel.

Whilst Christian Mission’s simplicity and generous overview was delightful, two weaknesses were apparent in my reading. First, is the remarkable absence of the prosperity gospel in his accounts of modern Christian mission. Of course, there might be several reasons why one might think that this sect within Christianity falls outside of the discussion of the gospel’s movement, however, as one who lives in the global south, the growth, spread, and sheer numbers attached to some form of the prosperity gospel is alarming. Notwithstanding a spectrum ranging from unhelpful emphases to blatant heresy, the prosperity gospel is rife in several locations globally and, without a doubt, presents one of the greatest challenges to Christian discipleship in the global south. I am not sure if its presence is hidden behind Pentecostal and more charismatic leaning congregations, but its absence from Smither’s record is odd. It could have been recorded as a challenge the modern church faces today, especially in the global south, or as one of the ways ‘Christianity’ has spread globally in the twenty-first century, though presenting an aberration and divergence from historic Christianity. 


Protestant evangelicals often prize history from the Reformation onwards. Christian Mission will help alleviate the church of such chronological snobbery and introduce readers to a wealth of missional engagement in all parts of the globe, and in contexts quite unlike our own.


The second weakness of Smither’s work is the apparent comfort that seems to be found in the numbers for the modern church in the global south and elsewhere. Perhaps I am more pessimistic, but personally knowing national leaders in India, Kenya, Nigeria, Brazil, and South Africa, reading the numbers presented in Smither’s account of the mission from the majority world, I could not help but feel as though such numbers and statistics are misleading and unhelpful—especially for those in the global west. Numbers, ‘adherents’ to Christianity are not what we measure the health of the church by. As a case in point, South Africa’s Christian presence, though diverse, presents a conglomeration of widespread nominalism, prosperity teaching, and syncretism. Conversely, I think Smither’s assessments of the challenges facing the global south are spot on: there is a serious dearth of training, resources, and care (p. 194). This far more accurately describes, at least in the South African context, the fledging and growing Christian mission here.

Personal Reflection

Edward Smither’s Christian Mission presents a clear and sweeping account of Christian mission from the early church to today. Moving forward, the book will certainly prove to be a useful tool for the church, especially those who are ignorant of mission on the global scale, as well as those who want to touch up on or get a quick overview of the big picture. I know I will return to this work for my own edification as well as use it to educate and encourage others around me. This is a book the modern church needs since Smither recognizes the movement of the gospel as coterminous with the church’s history; church history is in fact mission history (p. xvi). For the church to thrive in its future, it must be well acquainted with its past–warts and all.

Additionally, in my own circles, Protestant evangelicals often prize history from the Reformation onwards. Christian Mission will help alleviate the church of such chronological snobbery and introduce readers to a wealth of missional engagement in all parts of the globe, and in contexts quite unlike our own.

Finally, I was personally challenged to see the diversity of missional strategies employed by those who have gone before us. I think I have suffered from the modern dualism of word versus deed paradigm, the result of a kind of soft-Gnosticism that pervades modern evangelicalism. Christian Mission subtly invites us to consider otherwise; mission, historically, has generally incorporated alleviating suffering and other forms of humanitarian aid with gospel proclamation. Would the same be said of us in centuries to come.

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