Polycentric Missiology: Twenty-First-Century Mission from Everyone to Everywhere

Written by Allen Yeh Reviewed By Kirsteen Kim

Polycentric Missiology conveys an infectious enthusiasm for the subject, shows real insight, and is a refreshing contribution to the discourse from a younger scholar. The book is written for interested lay people as well as undergraduates—perhaps the author’s own students at Biola University in California. The content is stimulating and the questions provided at the end of each chapter are engaging. However, its usefulness for university teaching would be enhanced by a more academically rigorous approach.

Allen Yeh writes a kind of travelogue of his experiences at five recent mission conferences. He uses these to support the hypothesis that mission is no longer ‘from the West to the rest’ but ‘from everyone to everywhere’. The presentation of the conferences in chronological order forms the body of the book: Tokyo 2010, Edinburgh 2010, Cape Town 2010, 2010Boston, and CLADE V (in Costa Rica) in 2012. He explains the different mission networks represented by each event. The conferences are compared with one another. They are also integrated with reference to the legendary World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910, whose centenary occasioned them. These five chapters are set in context by an overview of mission from 1910 to 2010 and an introduction to world Christianity as a shift in the (numerical) centre of gravity of the faith to the Global South. Along the way, we are introduced to mission leaders and movements that Yeh considers significant, including prominent Americans William Carey, Adoniram Judson, John Mott, and Ralph Winter, and Latin American evangelical leaders such as Rene Padilla and Orlando Costas. Pentecostalism, ecumenism, missio Dei theology, partnership, and holistic mission are included in the latter category. The appendices contain useful documentation from each event.

One of the interesting questions Yeh raises is: Which of these twenty-first century events is the true heir of 1910? His answer is that they are all legitimate and that our understanding of the original is enhanced by studying them together—just as we know Christ more fully because there are four gospel narratives. Yeh—an evangelical—is not afraid to call this an ‘ecumenical’ approach. He claims this term to refer not merely to denominational representation but also to the diversity of region, gender, culture, and so on, that he also sees in early Christianity. The argument for diversity is one of the book’s main contributions to evangelical missiology, together with its emphasis on the polycentric nature of world Christianity. The latter is represented by the five conferences on different continents. Polycentrism necessitates a comparative approach. Yeh stresses there is no normative missiology, nor even theology, because these are contextual and churches must be self-theologizing. Along with this inclusivity, he makes many commendable attempts to be even-handed in criticism of the different events.

Although Yeh is an Asian American with links to China and the Pacific region, he has not allowed himself to be defined by his heritage. Instead he capitalized on the intercultural nature of missiology by choosing to do his doctoral studies (in the UK) on Latin America. One of the book’s recurring themes is the neglect of Latin America in Anglophone missiology. Another is the lack of ‘non-Western’ voices in contemporary missiology. Despite this wide experience and his openness to learn from different traditions, as he himself admits, Yeh’s own centre is apparent in his selection of ‘heroes’ above.

While it has much to commend it, Polycentric Missiology does have some serious shortcomings. One is the arbitrariness of the selection of the five conferences. They happen to be five that Yeh (uniquely) attended. In his further rationale, Yeh uncritically accepts a widely-published assertion that these four 2010 conferences were the main ones of the centennial. As the Edinburgh 2010 website shows, many other Edinburgh 2010 conferences were held around the world, including international ones. Why were none of these selected, especially as many of them showed the local initiative in the Two-Thirds World that Yeh admires?

Second, Yeh’s ecumenical and polycentric approach owes most to Edinburgh 2010 (which was promoted in this way). However, his approach is rather more limited than that project. For example, Catholic missions and missiology are entirely absent from Polycentric Missiology, and this despite Yeh’s respect for the numerical strength of movements. Third, although Yeh is well-informed and observant, in all cases he was a participant not an organiser and his coverage of the conferences tends toward the journalistic. Stereotypes such as ‘ivory-towered academics’ (p. 70) are used unthinkingly.

There are some casual assertions, unverified assumptions, simplistic categories, and inappropriate comparisons. In places, this approach leads to outright errors, such as the assertion that Edinburgh 2010 was held in Edinburgh ‘mechanically’ without any reflection on its appropriateness in the twenty-first century (p. 97). There is ignorance of other traditions, such as the use of ‘witness’ in ecumenical missiology (p. 119). In other cases, Yeh misses the point; for instance, the political reasons for the inclusion of Anglo-Catholics in 1910 (and consequent exclusion of the Latin American field). Furthermore, premises are unexamined, such as the assumption that like is being compared with like. Edinburgh 2010, for example, was not only a conference but also a University of Edinburgh research project.

One man cannot understand each of these different traditions, but Yeh makes the effort. Let us build on his polycentric principles and have more missiological discussion from different centres. And let us collaborate for in-depth research so that we understand one another—and God’s mission—all the better.

Kirsteen Kim

Kirsteen Kim
Leeds Trinity University
Leeds, England, UK

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