Encountering the History of Missions: From Early Church to Today

Written by John Mark Terry and Robert L. Gallagher Reviewed By Travis L. Myers

John Mark Terry and Robert Gallagher should be commended for attempting to survey the history of Christian missions in a single volume that is both succinct yet comprehensive enough to serve as a textbook for a semester-long course. The eighteen chapters of Encountering the History of Missions span roughly 350 pages. It takes readers from the well-trod ground of “missions in the early church” to a rare and insightful chapter explicating the pervasive influence of Fuller Seminary’s Church Growth Movement school of thought. The authors aim to provide a global perspective in three main ways: (1) by turning from the imperial Roman church to a chapter on Persian and later Nestorian missions (chapter 2), (2) by discussing a millennium of Eastern Orthodox missions (chapter 4), and (3) by including notable majority world church leaders and missionaries in their survey of the modern era.

In a largely chronological presentation, readers progress through succinct chapters on “Celtic” (curiously including Boniface) and Orthodox missions as well as Dominican and Franciscan, Medieval Renewal, and Reformation missions. This is followed by respective chapters on Jesuit, Pietist, Moravian, and Methodist missions. Next comes chapters on The Great Century of Protestant Missions, The Twentieth Century, Missionary Councils and Congresses, and Specialized Missions (developed in the twentieth century). Thankfully, there is a topic index. The second half of the book is more cohesive as the focus narrows on evangelical Protestantism, though not exclusively. The authors find their own voices after relying, perhaps too uncritically, in the first half of the book on scholars of the Catholic, Orthodox, and Nestorian traditions.

A book like this is attractive for a few reasons. Textbooks of this genre and scope are few and far between. Terry is a longtime Southern Baptist professor and former missionary. Gallagher is a Charismatic Australian department chair at Wheaton College and member of the CMA. These seasoned missiologists have provided leadership for a swath of evangelicals. They survey mission theory while introducing the history of missions. The authors believe the history of missions “is as inspiring as it is instructional” (pp. 361–62). It is written for evangelical students and practitioners.

The book’s purview is ecumenical; its perspective is broadly evangelical, not polemical. Terry and Gallagher offer a charitable introduction to the place of missions in Luther’s thought, early Lutheran missions and the eventual Lutheran expansion throughout Scandinavia (pp. 138–48). They survey the missionary contributions of John Calvin’s Geneva. Although the chapter on Reformation missions is too narrowly focused on Wittenberg and Geneva, the authors avoid erroneously dismissing the Reformation movement as unmissionary.

A few weaknesses make me hesitant to assign it to undergraduate students, at least without careful mediation on my part. I am especially troubled by the authors’ uncritical attributions and statements. The following references deserve yet lack theological comment: the liberal Adolf von Harnack is quoted merely as a “German Lutheran theologian” (p. 6); “Arian Christianity” is noted without critical assessment (p. 13); a supposed quote from Jesus is taken from the Gospel of Thomas without qualification (p. 30); Spaniards are said to have searched for gold and “brought Christ” to native peoples through military conquest and forced conversions (p. 91); Ignatius Loyola is said to have had a “radical conversion to Christ” (p. 150), and post-Trent Jesuits are said to have “presented the gospel” (pp. 157, 158, 170). The authors present Jesuits as being both “faithful to Christ” and “flexible in [Christian] expression” (pp. 150, 170). The laudable pedagogical intentions of these professors, it seems, get in the way of discerning historical and theological reflection.

Furthermore, curious omissions and unclear writing span the book. The authors do not cite Tertullian when they write, “The blood of the martyrs really did prove to be the seed of the church” (p. 10). Nor do they indicate that their turn of the phrase, “The world was his parish,” is derived from John Wesley (p. 224). They do not always clearly distinguish between Persian, Syrian, and Nestorian churches. Medieval renewalists are unhelpfully called “Reformers” with a capital R. Martin Luther’s 95 theses are framed as a summary of Reformed thought rather than a focused critique of indulgences (p. 139). Several other simple errors could also be mentioned

This book will serve readers seeking a better understanding of the missionary component of the history of world Christianity. Instructors and graduate students may find it a useful reference and pedagogical resource. A twenty-five-page long reference list includes approximately 500 entries. Many helpful sidebars throughout the book highlight particular events, issues, or primary documents, and persons, including modern era majority world church leaders Ko Tha Byu, Samuel Adjayi Crowther, John Sung, and Sundar Singh. Several women are mentioned throughout the book, including Ann Haseltine Judson, Helen Roseveare, Amy Carmichael, and Betty Green.

The chapter on the Church Growth Movement proved a helpful, objective though sympathetic explication of the current missions scene. Terry and Gallagher posit eight socio-historical factors that facilitated the trending of this school of thought (pp. 338–40). They then posit seven consequent “streams” flowing from Donald MacGavran’s influence. This chapter could serve as a stand-alone resource well describing what is “out there” and requiring critical, discerning engagement. The authors note six needed improvements to the Church Growth Movement. They suggest, as well, that it “never developed a thorough theological foundation” while emerging from a pragmatic and sociological point of view (p. 352).

The book’s perspective on contextualization seems noncontroversial, albeit uncritical. Their claim that elements of a pre-Christian culture could serve as a “foundation” for the Christian faith (p. 158) may be taken as either overstatement or, perhaps, a more accommodating Charles Kraft-like posture toward indigenous worldviews and culture. They rightly commend the usefulness of anthropology and sociological insights for faithful missions (pp. 284–86, 343) but do so without any accompanying warning of potential missteps.

The authors’ final chapter fails to deliver on their promise to consider how to meet the remaining needs in our contemporary world. To be fair, readers will find much “instruction and inspiration” for missionary praxis in the content-packed chapters that precede. Despite its weaknesses, Encountering the History of Missions accomplishes in textbook form, and as a single volume, what no other book I’m aware of does.

Travis L. Myers

Travis L. Myers
Bethlehem College & Seminary
Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

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