Understanding Christian Mission: Participation in Suffering and Glory

Written by Scott W. Sunquist Reviewed By Walter L. McConnell III

In Understanding Christian Mission, Scott Sunquist, dean of the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, has written an introduction to mission that is three books in one: a wide-ranging history, a Trinitarian theology, and a practical ecclesiology of mission. Part 1, which sets the historical background for modern mission practice, contains five chapters sketching the spread of the church in the ancient and medieval world; the intertwining of mission, colonization, civilization, and commerce in the wake of Columbus’ voyages; and the reconception of mission after World War II and the collapse of the colonial era of missions.

Part 2 builds a Trinitarian theology of mission that is (1) biblically rooted in the life, teaching, and ministry of Jesus and his experience of suffering and glory, (2) envisioned as “a fundamental dimension of Christian existence” that involves the whole church, and (3) is “primarily a matter of spirituality” (pp. 172–73). Acknowledging that the Trinity is “one God whose three persons have one divine will, one love, and one work” (p. 196), the author devotes a chapter to each person of the Godhead. He begins with the Bible’s “story of God’s love for and relationship with his creation” (p. 181), as he reasons that before we can speak of salvation, we must recognize that God is Creator, because only the Creator can redeem creation. At the heart of this approach is Jesus, “the Missionary of God” (p. 200), who is proclaimed in the New Testament, the missionary letters written about him. The active agent in mission is the Holy Spirit who, as the “communications specialist” (p. 240), uses the words of his messengers to bring life and righteousness to the world.

Part 3 completes the history and theology by formulating a missional ecclesiology. The basic message is that if “mission is part of God’s very life,” it should be “the purpose of the church” (p. 273). The church should thus be a community of worship and witness for whom evangelism consists of “introducing Jesus Christ to others and inviting them to become partakers in his Kingdom” (p. 312). This general call for the whole church to share the good news of Jesus is brought home through a special focus on three themes: urban mission (appreciating that cities are a complex mix of the sacred, evil, and hope), partnership (grounded in the Trinity, Jesus’s high priestly prayer, the church as Christ’s body, and apostolic missions in the New Testament [pp. 375–76]), and spirituality (demonstrated by prayer and silence, scriptural formation, community life, repentance, active service of others, attentiveness to God’s Spirit, and love [pp. 400–407]).

Many books offer much. This one delivers. The historical section is both enlightening and challenging, not only because it may be the only mission history many prospective missionaries will read, but because it puts evangelical mission into perspective by taking seriously the labor of sections of the church—Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and the ecumenical bodies of the past century—that are often ignored. Our eyes are diverted from William Carey to view the Jesuits as “the first modern missionaries” who extended the use of “mission” from being the work of the Trinity to include the work of the church (p. 46), and whose spiritual activism and engagement of culture became a model copied by many Protestant missionaries. We are further stretched as Sunquist evaluates the merits of ecumenical mission theories and practices. While he recognizes that their theology has often suffered “from an ideological reductionism” (p. 147), he demonstrates that it has positively influenced many aspects of modern evangelical mission scholarship and practice.

The theological and practical sections—in line with the subtitle—remind readers that the church will participate in suffering and glory as did its Lord. While this is a call to sober thinking and action, it also proclaims, “The final word in mission is glory—not suffering” (p. 410). No matter what they experience in the world, Christians should never lose hope, because glory will surely follow.

With all it has to give, the book is not perfect. Most readers will understand Sunquist’s reference to “four streams of Christianity—Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Spiritual,” but find the last category problematic as it significantly crosses over the others (contra what is written on p. 165) and is made up of a strange group of bedfellows. Pentecostals link arms with “indigenous churches, unregistered churches, Muslim background churches, unbaptized believers, and culture Christians” simply because they take their authority “from the Holy Spirit more than from a particular tradition” (p. 15). Apparently, even Radical Reformers like the Zwickau prophets and Thomas Müntzer are included (p. 231). Claims to inspiration aside, some of these groups would likely not recognize the others as kin. Another claim that many readers may be uneasy with is the idea that the liturgy of the early church provided the standard of authenticity when the Scriptures were standardized (p. 28).

These issues aside, due to its breadth and depth, clarity and charity, academic rigor and spiritual warmth, I will enthusiastically recommend Understanding Christian Mission to my colleagues, students, and others interested in mission and the Christian faith. While accessible to laypeople, it is best suited to use as a primary text in a course on Christian mission.

Walter L. McConnell III

Walter L. McConnell III
OMF International

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