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ព័ត៌មាននិងរឿងផ្សេងៗ

Global Christianity and Global Mission

 

Walter McConnell

Walter has directed OMF International’s Mission Research Department for more than ten years. He has previously served in Taiwan as a church planter and team leader, taught Old Testament and other subjects in a number of seminaries and Bible schools in Taiwan, Singapore, Ireland, Indonesia, and the Philippines, and served as pastor of the Belfast Chinese Christian Church. Walter has recently published How Majestic is Your Name: An Introduction to Biblical Worship.

 

Mission Round Table 19:1 (Jan-Apr 2024): 19-26
To read articles in this edition, visit this post on Mission Round Table 19:1.

This is the day of the global church, the age of world Christianity.[1] It is no longer possible to say that the church is only made up of people from one part of the globe. Neither is it right to presume that one race or national church should call the shots regarding how the church should function, which theological issues should be considered, or in which direction mission should proceed. But wait a minute. This has always been so. From the onset, Jesus commanded his disciples to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19). Here, “all nations”—panta ta ethnē—is a reference to all the peoples of the earth—specifically, Jews and Gentiles taken together.[2]

And the story of how all the nations started to become the one people of God begins in the book of Acts where Jesus, in his final recorded words, told his disciples that “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Luke, the author, then proceeds to fill in the Lord’s outline by showing the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria, and to what was then considered to be one of the ends of the earth.

The gospel—the good news about how the eternal God entered his creation to die as a man and then overcome the grave so that our sins could be forgiven and we could be made right with him—was proclaimed broadly as the Holy Spirit empowered the apostles and others so that their words became effective to convict and to save. From the time the first sermon was preached on Pentecost, “Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians” heard the gospel, believed, and were added to the church (Acts 2:9–11, 41–42). From the very beginning, the church was composed of Jews and other west Asians, Africans, and Europeans. And, though there have been ebbs and flows in different times and different places, the church has never looked back.

Thus, when we hear that mission used to be “from the West to the rest” but is now “from everywhere to everywhere,” we should pause and consider whether or not this is true.[3] The deeper our knowledge of church history, the deeper will be our awareness that mission has never really been from the West to the rest—at least not solely from the West to the rest—and oftentimes has been from elsewhere to the West. Oh, there may have been times when it appeared that mission originated from the West, such as in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when both Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries joined their European compatriots who were bent on discovery, trade, and conquest, and traveled to distant lands with the gospel because they longed to see people come to faith in the one, true God. But that was only a short period during the long history of the church, and while these Western missionaries were on the move, they weren’t the only ones. The impression that Christianity has come from the West—understanding “the West” to mean Europe and North America—may be heightened because Western authors have often written to inform the church in their homelands about the advance of the gospel in other parts of the world and challenge fellow believers to join in the work through prayer, finance, or going. But even if these works can be criticized for being more narrowly focused than we might like them to be, the authors sought to engage a particular audience about mission, be they European Catholics, British evangelicals, American fundamentalists, or whoever. And all the while (as these books at times reveal), non-Westerners were also sharing Jesus Christ with their own people and with others.

The fact is, we should never think that the early church, or even the medieval or modern church, was solely a Western church.[4] Neither should we think that the gospel originally spread toward the west and only turned to the east and south when there was nowhere farther west to go. As Moffett rightly corrected his readers a half century ago, “It is too often forgotten that the Gospel moved east, and Asianized (if it was not, indeed, already Asian) as early as it moved west, and Hellenized.”[5] And even though many in the mission community have failed to learn this, whether they express Eurocentric biases or somehow believe the baton of the gospel has been passed on to themselves, it continues to be mistaken and demonstrates our lack of knowledge of mission and church history.[6]

The missio Dei and missiones ecclesiae

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. If we are to understand mission rightly, we have to go back to the very beginning. In fact, we have to go back to eternity past and the missio Dei—the mission of God—before we can rightly understand the missiones ecclesiae—the missionary outreach of the church. God is both the one who creates and sends, the one who gives life and saves it. It is well known that from the time of St. Augustine, missio—Latin for being sent or mission—was used to refer to the sending of the Son by the Father and the sending of the Holy Spirit by the Father and the Son. This unambiguously trinitarian concept became the theological path to follow when discussing the New Testament teaching that the Father sends the Son (Matt 10:40; Mark 9:37; Luke 9:48; John 4:34; 5:24; etc.) and that Jesus is therefore acknowledged to be the Sent One—the Apostolos—who was faithful to the one who appointed and sent him (Heb 3:1–2). It is likewise used to expand the New Testament teaching that the Father (Luke 11:13; John 3:34; 14:16–17, 26; 15:26) and the Son (John 15:26; 20:22) would give or send the Holy Spirit. The missio Dei is thus, from first to last, the work of the Triune God who sent himself into the world to redeem people who could otherwise not know him or come into relationship with him. According to Schirrmacher, “Missio Dei means no less than to recognize that sending (Greek: apostello and pempo and related words; Latin: missio, etc.) for redemption is the essence and center of the Christian faith.”[7]

And though, from early in church history, the term mission was used for God’s action to redeem lost humanity, close to 1,000 years elapsed before Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556) applied it to the church’s part in God’s work. Loyola, belonging to a minor noble family from Spain, was recuperating from a leg injury received while fighting in a battle with the French when he underwent a conversion that led him to found the Society of Jesus. This order, also known as the Jesuits, was devoted to fully obeying the Pope and committed to restoring Protestants and leading others to the Catholic faith. And though it is not clear why Loyola applied missio to the church’s task, from his time on it has been used for sending people out with the gospel so that others could be converted. And despite pleas that the term mission needs to be replaced as it arose late in history and has been frequently misused, the reasons given are far from convincing.[8] Perhaps the major reason for this is that the biblical record shows God—particularly, but not exclusively, the Son—sending people to join him in his work of reconciliation. The regular use of apostellō and pempō—the Greek verbs used for the sending of the Son and the Spirit—for the sending of God’s human messengers and the use of apostellos for Christ and for his Apostles makes it clear that if there is a missio Dei, there is also a missiones ecclesiae.[9] By no means should we feel that we should jettison the term, as long as we use it in a way that reflects biblical teaching. If the missio Dei is God’s action of sending himself to bring reconciliation to the world, the missiones ecclesiae is God’s action of sending the church into the world to join his work toward that end.

Mission can only be done by those who join God in his work. It is never something that we can do in our own strength because we think it is a good idea, because we have set particular goals, or because we have devised certain strategies. Since God designed the task, implemented the way forward, and called us to join him in the work, we go in obedience to his command. As recognized by Karl Hartenstein, “Mission is not only obedience towards a word of the Lord. It is not only a duty for gathering the church. It is participation in the sending of the Son, of the ‘missio Dei’ with its comprehensive goal of establishing the rule of Christ over the entire creation.”[10] To take part in mission is to join God’s work of reconciliation, to advance his kingdom rule in the world. It is to serve as ambassadors of Christ, speaking on his behalf as we share his love with others and urging them to be reconciled with him through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.

Christianity has always been a global religion

And whether or not all of Christ’s ambassadors have been able to phrase it in those terms, that is what has happened since the day of Pentecost. Christians have shared the good news about their Lord with the surrounding world. And though the book of Acts mainly describes the spread of the church toward the west, this does not mean that the church’s growth was defined by or limited to that direction. Indeed, from the beginning the church spread to the north and east and to the south just as rapidly as it did to the west, if not more so. Jenkins thus corrects a common misunderstanding when he says that “For most of its history, Christianity was a tricontinental religion, with powerful representation in Europe, Africa, and Asia, and this was true into the fourteenth century.”[11] The wide spread of the faith from the very beginning should wake us up to the fact that “Christianity is and always has been a global religion. For this reason, it is important never to think of Christianity as becoming global.”[12] And if we find it surprising to discover that the church has always been global, we may find it equally surprising to discover that the early church centered in Asia—the “Church of the East”—was for many centuries the largest and strongest region of the church, stretching from Syria and Turkey into Persia and beyond and contained far more churches and bishoprics than could be found elsewhere.[13] The church had even sunk deep roots into African soil before it made much of an impact on Europe. As Jenkins says:

By the fifth century, Christianity had five great patriarchates, and only one, Rome, was to be found in Europe. Of the others, Alexandria stood on the African continent, and three (Constantinople, Antioch, and Jerusalem) were in Asia. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, Christianity maintained its cultural and intellectual traditions in the Eastern empire, in Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt.[14]

And it was not long after the fall of Rome that the church in the West nearly entered into hibernation for a number of centuries. Strangely, this happened not long after Constantine accepted the Christian faith and it became not only legal for Roman citizens to become Christians, but could often prove beneficial. Prior to Constantine’s ascension, the emperor Diocletian (284–305), who severely persecuted Christians, divided the empire into a Tetrarchy—a reign of four—with two augusti and two caesares. The eastern part of the empire was split between the Augustus Diocletian and Caesar Galerius and the western part by the Augustus Maximian and Caesar Constantius (the father of Constantine). Taking over from his father, Constantine was engaged in battle against his rival emperor Maxentius when he saw a vision of a cross in the sky with the inscription “In hoc signo vinces”—“In this sign conquer.” Rather unexpectedly, he won the battle at Milvian bridge (312), solidified his reign, and entered history as the first Roman emperor to embrace and promote Christianity. However, even though he had come from the west of the empire, he chose Byzantium—which would later be renamed Constantinople and then Istanbul—rather than Rome, to be his capital.

While most of the emperors who followed Constantine adhered to the Christian faith, within two centuries the western part of the empire would be no more. Though the causes of the decline are endlessly debated, before the end of the fourth century the empire was at war with itself, by 410 it was sacked by the Visigoths, and in 476 finally fell to the Germanic king Odoacer. Though the once popular idea that Western Europe immediately descended into a millennium-long “dark ages” has been capably debunked,[15] this part of the Roman empire would never again be unified by a common political power. Eventually, western Europeans were drawn together by their common Christian heritage, but this did not happen overnight. Indeed, it was not until the time of the Crusades (ca. 1095–1291), when Europeans assembled from various parts of the continent to fight a common enemy, that they began to develop a common identity as “Westerners” or members of “Christendom.”[16] Before that time, there was little intra-national cooperation or sense of solidarity outside of the church.

The dating here is of immeasurable importance, for it took many years before western Europeans came to an understanding that their common faith gave them unity with other western Europeans. The trigger for this change in mindset can be linked to the loss of much of the Christian world to the incursion of Islam and, separately, the Mongol empire. The desire of western Christians to regain the Holy Land for the church brought them together to fight the Crusades. We should note that it does not matter that they ultimately lost the Crusades or that Christianity in the West at that time was not as strong as it was in the East and in Africa. Neither does it matter that different sections of the Christian world divided along theological lines and accused each other of heresy for rejecting what were, to them, essential doctrines. What matters is that other groups, Christian and not, were recognized as existing. The Christian world was bigger than the Europe, Asia, and Africa, and they all knew it.

Worldwide Christianity

This balanced spread of Christianity in the early centuries is well illustrated in a map printed in Germany in 1581.[17] The “three-fold world”[18] portrayed here in cloverleaf form had existed in popular consciousness from before the fifth century BC. In his histories, Herodotus showed awareness that those who preceded him “divided the world into three equal parts—Europe, Asia, Libya; the whole surrounded by the ‘Ocean.’”[19] And although Herodotus wasn’t personally convinced that this was an accurate portrayal of the world, this balanced perspective was common throughout the ancient and medieval periods. It was so strong that not even progress in cartography during the age of exploration could dull the image. The map, drawn in Hanover during early Reformation times to illustrate a biblical travel book, mirrored the ancient understanding that the world consisted of three continents joined at Jerusalem, which formed the center of the world.[20] That the mapmaker took “the center of the world” to mean “the Christian world” is clear in that he has labeled countries and cities where the church could be found. Even in the sixteenth century, European Christians had not totally forgotten the extent to which the church had spread.

Even though the map shows that the Christian faith encompassed the known world, it ignores the reality, already mentioned, that of the five early patriarchates, only Rome was in Europe, Alexandria was in Africa, and Constantinople, Antioch, and Jerusalem were all located in Asia. This spread corresponds to the nations represented on the day of Pentecost, ten of which were from Asia, two from Africa, and only one from Europe.[21] To signify the real spread of the church, the map of the early Christian world should have been drawn to emphasize the easterly and southerly directions.

The gospel spreads to the east

That the gospel, from the earliest times, would spread to the east is easy to understand. The first disciples of Jesus all spoke Aramaic. When they moved to Damascus, Antioch, and other cities of Syria where other Jews lived, they could easily communicate as Syriac was a sister-language to their own. By reversing Abraham’s journey to the Promised Land, unknown missionaries spread the faith through Mesopotamia and came to Edessa—the capital of Osrhoen, which became the world’s first Christian kingdom. They then continued to move along the Silk Road farther and farther east, reaching Nisibis in Persia and even Pakistan. For many years, the main center of the Church of the East was the twin cities of Seleucia-Ctesiphon—near modern-day Baghdad—which was once the most populous city in the world.[22] However, neither building churches in cities nor establishing monastic houses in more remote places could dampen the ardent missionary spirit of the Syriac followers of Jesus.

For many of the first thousand-plus years of church history, the Church of the East represented more Christians than any other part of the church—more believers, more churches, more bishoprics, more metropolitans. In addition, it was by far the most missionally active group. By the time Aidan (ca. 590–651) left Ireland to convert “heathen” people in northeastern England and founded the renowned monastery at Lindisfarne and some time before Boniface (675–755) became the apostle to Germany—after cutting down the sacred oak to prove that the God of the Bible was more powerful than Thor, the god worshipped by the Germanic tribes—Syriac Christians had already carried the gospel throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, into Africa and India, and as far as the Malay Peninsula and China.[23] Following the path that Chinese Christians would choose more than 1,000 years later, Persian Christian merchants carried the gospel east along the Silk Road, converting people to faith in Jesus, starting churches, and translating the Bible and other literature into the local languages.[24] Though the Nestorian outreach was rejected on several occasions by Chinese and other rulers, their eastward outreach was only shut down when Timur (1336–1405) closed the Silk Road.[25] Even so, many of their spiritual descendants were recognized by the early Catholic missionaries when they reached East Asia in the sixteenth century.

Rabban Hormizd Monastery by Hardscarf, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. The ancient monastery, founded about 640 AD by the Assyrian Church of The East, is about 2 miles from Alqosh, Iraq.

The gospel turns to the south

In addition to stretching out from Jerusalem to the east, the church also turned toward the south. Acts mentions several Africans who expressed their faith in Jesus. In addition to the people from Alexandria who were present on the day of Pentecost and the Ethiopian eunuch who interacted with Philip,[26] two others who stand out are “Simeon who was called Niger” and “Lucius of Cyrene,” both of whom were members of the leadership team at the church in Antioch.[27] These men originated from northeast and northcentral Africa, and testify that the church was multinational from its very beginning. It wasn’t long before the faith sank deeper roots into the African continent. By the year 200, the church could be found in the major population centers from Alexandria and Memphis to Cyrene and Carthage. By the sixth century, its reach extended to the Atlantic Ocean and far up the Nile, eventually approaching the equator.

Christianity was so strong in Alexandria that the city became one of the five early patriarchates and thus impacted the spread of the gospel to other parts of the continent. Following the example set by St. Anthony (251–356), Egypt became the home to a major monastic movement that arose in the surrounding deserts and spread throughout the Christian world. The ongoing strength of the church can be seen in that, despite centuries of persecution and isolation, the Coptic church today makes up between about five and ten percent of the population of Egypt.[28] Moving south, the gospel impacted Cush (modern Ethiopia and Sudan) from before the time of Constantine, with the result that a large percentage of the population came to faith in Christ. The faith of the Ethiopians remained so strong through the ensuing centuries that the Europeans, who came upon “the country in the seventeenth century … were astounded by the degree of Christian devotion” they found.[29] Today, around two-thirds of the population are recognized as Christian.

The church spread along the north coast of Africa, quickly reaching the major cities that were the homes of some of the major thinkers in early church history. Their influence is well summed up by the Kims:

Many of the key doctrines of Christianity were hammered out in the region in dialogue with Berber, Pharaonic and early Coptic and Nilotic cultures (Oden 2007). Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, Athanasius, Didymus the Blind, Augustine of Hippo, Cyril of Alexandria as well as some of their opponents — Sabellius and Arius — were North Africans and key doctrinal debates took place in Carthage, Alexandria, Hippo and Milevis that defined the methods of consensus that would be applied elsewhere.[30]

The death of a church

Though the church in Asia and Africa developed more quickly than the church in the West and was, for a long period of history, more influential and stronger, it didn’t last. This is, in part, due to the rise of Islam beginning in the seventh century, but it was also impacted by the fractures that widened as the Roman empire dissolved and the invasion of the Mongols in the thirteenth century. All of these worked together so that by the twelfth or thirteenth century, great sections of the church were critically weakened and others entirely blotted out. But despite the pressures that would eventually devastate the church in Asia and Africa, it is almost remarkable to realize just how long it held on. After centuries of persecution, it was still true that

As late as the eleventh century, Asia was still home to at least a third of the world’s Christians, and perhaps a tenth of all Christians still lived in Africa—a figure that the continent would not reach again until the 1960s. Even in 1250, it still made sense to think of a Christian world stretching east from Constantinople to Samarkand (at least) and south from Alexandria to the desert of the Ogaden, almost to the equator.[31]

But even if the church in Asia and Africa still made up more than forty percent of the world Christian population at that time, its demise continued to the point that later generations were often left unaware that the church ever existed in those areas, much less that these were once areas of great spiritual, theological, and missional power. Lamenting the death of large portions of the church, Jenkins says that “Christianity did indeed become ‘European’ but about a millennium later than most people think.”[32] Thus, the thinking that Christianity originated in western Europe and that mission has spread from the West to the rest of the world is predominantly an indication that we are ignorant of our history and in need of devoting time to learn from the past in order to understand our present world and prepare for the future.

Conclusion

Our overview of the spread of the church in the early centuries should help us in a number of ways. First, it should put to rest the refrain that “Mission used to be from the West to the rest but now it is from everywhere to everywhere.” While this slogan can be said to positively encourage some people who had previously expressed no interest to get involved, it negatively provides a ready excuse for those who would prefer to exempt themselves from the endeavor since “Our people have already done their share.” Worse, it ignores the historical spread of the gospel. From the beginning of the church, all parts of the world were involved. The church didn’t and doesn’t grow from west to east and south. The church grows as people who live where it exists take the gospel to other places. And while this is usually a movement from where the church is strong to where it is weak, the opposite may also happen. The church may grow as believers engage in deliberate missionary activity. It could also happen as Christians engage in trade or when they either move or are moved to nearby or distant lands due to war or persecution. It might happen when people share Christ with their neighbors or in other parts of the world. But no matter how it spreads, the gospel was never set on a perpetual westerly tack. Rather, it has always been more like the patterns made when someone throws a handful of rocks into the water—ripples spreading out in concentric circles, growing in all directions that overlap with waves coming from other directions.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Is it then “from everywhere to everywhere?” Well, not quite. While there is a lot to this phrase that gives people involved in mission reason to cheer, it doesn’t adequately reflect reality. It would be more accurate to say that mission extends from where believers are to wherever they end up. And while some believers may decide to move to another part of the world to take the gospel to people who don’t know Jesus, others may be forced to relocate due to war, famine, or something else. In either case, it is highly unlikely that the one who moves with the gospel will be able to go just anywhere. Due to global realities—be they political, economic, educational, linguistic, and many others—people from some locations will always find other places inaccessible. It would be better if we could simply do away with the slogans and taglines that are often associated with mission today and simply join God’s work of mission by sharing the good news of Jesus with people where we are and where we might end up—whether a move is by plan or forced upon us.

Another thing that we should learn from this study is that we can never be sure if the church that is established in one place today will remain after one or a hundred years from now. While Jesus said that “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18), he was not promising that every local congregation or national church will last forever. Some will be persecuted and forced to flee. Others will apostatize. Yet more will be marginalized or subsumed within a larger culture. This is borne out by church history. It happened in first century Judea. It happened to the Nestorian church in China and the Church of the East throughout much of Central Asia. It happened to the Jesuit mission to Japan in the seventeenth century. It happened throughout North Africa. And it has happened in many parts of modern Europe.

Though there are different reasons, the result is remarkably similar. Where once there was a thriving church, there is now only a remnant and sometimes not even that. And though those who are undergoing persecution often harken to the refrain ascribed to Tertullian—“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”—they need to note that the church of his homeland has almost completely disappeared. Again, a good slogan is often not good enough. Rather, we need to consider why some churches fail to take root, others remain stunted, and more flourish for a period and then wither and die. Jenkins rightly alerts us that

Theologians seldom address the troubling questions raised by the destruction of churches and of Christian communities. Most important, we need to realize that such incidents of decline and disappearance are quite frequent, however little they are studied or discussed. Dechristianization is one of the least studied aspects of Christian history.[33]

And yet it is one that we may be doomed to repeat unless we rightly understand it.

This brings us to a third point. As the church spreads, the deeper it can set its roots into the local soil, the longer it will last. The first century churches of Ephesus and Corinth were planted in distinct soils and faced different growing conditions. Each church had its own struggles and its own victories, and yet, as Paul wrote his missionary letters to them, he placed their situations and his role into proper perspective before God. In many ways, Ephesus was the more mature church. Even so, Paul needed to offer up a relatively long prayer for them.

14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20 Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Eph 3:14–21)

Notice how he prayed that the Father would strengthen them inwardly through his Spirit and that Christ would dwell in their hearts by faith. This unabashedly Trinitarian prayer shows the missio Dei in operation so that his church would be “rooted and grounded in love.” And so it was, because God planted them and caused them to grow. And, as the prayer says, for doing that, he deserves all the glory and praise.

As Paul’s letter to the Corinthians makes clear, this church struggled with many things, compelling Paul to work hard to help them through the issues they faced. One concern that stands out distinctly was their propensity to divide into factions. As Paul addresses this, he reminds them that their growth was due to the grace of God at work in them. And though they delighted in aligning themselves with a favorite apostle the way someone today might support a sports team, Paul needed to remind them that the worker was nothing special, but was just doing his job.

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (1 Cor 3:5–7)

Neither Paul, nor Apollos, nor Peter, nor anyone else could take credit for the growth of the church in Corinth. And none of us can take credit for the growth of the churches where we work. We are all nothing more than the servants of the God who gives the growth. We are also, and I almost shudder to think it, the servants of the God who often withholds the growth or allows a church to die. But this is just where the sovereignty of God is most clearly seen. He does it, not us. And as the Lord causes a church to grow, it will put down roots and find that the soil where it is planted is home. The church of Ephesus had to grow in Ephesian soil. The church of Corinth had to grow in Corinthian soil. Neither could grow properly in any other place, and the apostles couldn’t prepare a new soil or a neutral soil for them. Some years ago, Mark Noll wrote about how this works.

In its very earliest decades, the gospel message, which appeared first in a Semitic milieu, moved eastward into Asia, southwestward into Africa, and northwestward into Europe. Immediately those who turned to Christ in these “new” regions were at home in the faith. When they became believers, Christianity itself became Asian, European and African. And so it has gone for nearly two thousand years. The agents that communicate Christianity to places that had not before known the gospel might come from far away; their understanding of the faith might be defined by cultural patterns from those far away places. But once Christianity is rooted in someplace new, the faith itself also takes on something from that new place.[34]

This explains why we need to work so hard to learn language and culture. And it also explains why we need to work hard to understand the Bible and the history of the church. Without these tools, and more, we will not be properly equipped to take part in God’s mission to our world. This is the age of the global church. May we all do our best to share the good news of Jesus Christ with people who need his love. And may we trust that the God who desires everyone to be reconciled to him will use us as his ambassadors who entreat the world around us to listen to his words and turn to him for eternal life.

 


 

[1] It has been said that “The expression World Christianity (also referred to as Global Christianity) came into ascendency beginning in the 1980s as scholars began to turn their attention to the surprising growth of Christianity in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.” F. Lionel Young, World Christianity and the Unfinished Task: A Very Short introduction (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2021), 2.

It should be appreciated that some distinguish between “World Christianity” and “Global Christianity.” Thus, Sanneh says: “‘World Christianity’ is the movement of Christianity as it takes form and shape in societies that previously were not Christian, societies that had no bureaucratic tradition with which to domesticate the gospel. In these societies Christianity was received and expressed through the culture, customs, and tradition of the people affected. World Christianity is not one thing, but a variety of indigenous responses through more or less effective local idioms, but in any case without necessarily the European Enlightenment frame. ‘Global Christianity,’ on the other hand, is the faithful replication of Christian forms and patterns developed in Europe. It echoes Hilaire Belloc’s famous statement, ‘Europe is the faith.’ It is, in fact, religious establishment and the cultural captivity of faith.” Lamin Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity: The Gospel beyond the West (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 22. My understanding is that “world Christianity” and the “global church” are analogous ideas, the first referring to the religion and the second to the people involved and their organization and practice.

[2] Contrary to one popular interpretation, first-century believers in Christ could not have understood panta ta ethnē as referring to what we commonly call “people groups”. This idea would have been as incomprehensible to them as would understanding the term in the sense of “nation-states”. For some who understand panta ta ethnē as “both Jews and Greeks, see, among others, Dennis C. Duling, “The Gospel of Matthew,” in The Blackwell Companion to the New Testament, ed. David E. Aune (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 305; R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007); Hal Freeman, “The Great Commission and the New Testament: An Exegesis of Matthew 28:16–20,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 1, no. 4 (Winter 1997): 18; John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).

[3] We should be clear that the phrase “from the West to the rest” was originally used in discussions of economics, politics, civilization, education, literature, and other topics bearing on globalization. In these contexts, it has usually been used in a negative manner. Its application to mission is therefore derivative, and retains the negative connotation. The phrase “from everywhere to everywhere” has become popular as it was used in the title of Michael Nazir-Ali, From Everywhere to Everywhere: A World View of Christian Mission (London: Collins, 1991) and in a variant form in the subtitle of Samuel Escobar, The New Global Mission: The Gospel from Everywhere to Everyone (Downers Gove: IVP, 2003). See also Allen Yeh, Polycentric Missiology: Twenty First Century Mission from Everyone to Everywhere (Downers Grove: IVP, 2016).

[4] Thus, Mark Noll writes that “The impression that Christianity in its essence is either European or American is, however, simply false. Christianity began as Jewish; before it was European, it was North African, Syrian, Egyptian and Indian. While in recent history it has indeed been American, it has also been Chilean, Albanian, Fijian and Chinese. The gospel belongs to every one in every culture; it belongs to no one in any one culture in particular.” Mark Noll, The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), 191.

[5] Samuel Hugh Moffett, “The Earliest Asian Christianity,” Missiology 3, no. 4 (1975): 415.

[6] Vince Bantu recognizes that “The dominant concept of Christian history is now that Christianity went from its multicultural beginnings in first-century Palestine across a Western trajectory of European and North American captivity to only now reflect global diversity. It is this common misconception that requires further conversation. Many contemporary missiologists and church historians would have us believe that Christianity came into Africa and Asia from Europe when the reality is quite the opposite in several significant respects.” Vince L. Bantu, A Multitude of all Peoples: Engaging Ancient Christianity’s Global Identity (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020), 2.

For an example of how this mistaken idea greatly impacted a movement of local believers who wanted to take the gospel to others, see Paul Hattaway, Back to Jerusalem: Three Chinese House Church Leaders Share Their Vision to Complete the Great Commission (Carlisle: Piquant, 2008). An old booklet produced by CIM includes a world map with a large arrow pointing from the west to the east which is said to have been from the wall of prayer room of the North-West Bible Institute in China and used by students who wanted to continue in a westerly direction to take the gospel “back to Jerusalem”. P.T. [Phyllis Thompson], Back to Jerusalem (n.p., n.d.), 2.

[7] Thomas Schirrmacher, Missio Dei: God’s Missional Nature, trans. Richard McClary (Bonn: Culture and Science, 2017), 19. Foreign words not italicized in the original. Schirrmacher writes in the context of authors who use Missio Dei to refer to a number of different, often unrelated, things without providing biblical or theological support for their usage. As he says regarding this concept, “One gets the feeling that it is a matter of a trendy buzzword and that there is no actual interest in its content or substantive value.” Schirrmacher, Missio Dei, 14. One cannot more highly recommend his insistence that we rightly understand this essential concept before we (mis)use it. The same could be said for much of the terminology associated with mission.

[8] For a plea that we should remove mission from our vocabulary, see Michael W. Stroope, Transcending Mission: The Eclipse of a Modern Tradition (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017) and, more briefly, “Reimagining Witness beyond our Modern Mission paradigm,” IJFM 36, no. 4 (Winter 2019): 163–70. For a rejection of his reasoning and grounds for holding onto traditional terminology, see Mark Oxbrow, “Book Review of Michael W. Stroope, Transcending Mission: The Eclipse of a Modern Tradition,” Transformation 37, no. 1 (2020): 83–85.

[9] Schirrmacher devotes eleven pages to biblical texts that show how God is involved in sending Jesus, the Holy Spirit, Angels, his message of salvation, the Apostles, prophets, other people (including government authorities), and judgment. Schirrmacher, Missio Dei, 21–31.

[10] Quoted in Schirrmacher, Missio Dei, 11. Newbigin expresses the idea this way. “We are not engaged in an enterprise of our own choosing or devising. We are invited to participate in an activity of God which is the central meaning of creation itself. We are invited to become, through the presence of the Holy Spirit, participants in the Son’s loving obedience to the Father. All things have been created that they may be summed up in Christ the Son. All history is directed towards that end. All creation has this as its goal.” Lesslie Newbigin, Trinitarian Doctrine for Today’s Mission, Biblical Classics Library (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1998), 83.

[11] Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How it Died (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 3.

[12] Bantu, A Multitude of all Peoples, 1.

[13] The “Church of the East” should not be confused with the Eastern Orthodox Church. The former was primarily made up of Syriac and Persian speakers, while the latter mainly used Greek.

[14] Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, 47.

[15] See Seb Falk, The Light Ages: The Surprising Story of Medieval Science (New York: W. W. Norton, 2020); David M. Perry and Matthew Gabriele, The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe (New York: Harper, 2021); Barbara H. Rosenwein, A Short History of the Middle Ages, 5th ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018).

[16] Sebastian Kim and Kirsteen Kim, Christianity as a World Religion: An Introduction, 2nd ed. (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), 130. For the idea that ideas of race began to formulate in Europe during the medieval period, see Geraldine Heng, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

[17] Heinrich Bünting, “Die gantze Welt in ein Kleberblat, welches in der Stadt Hannover, meines lieben Vaterlandes Wapen,” Magdeburg: s.n., 1581, Norman B. Leventhal Map and Education Center, https://collections.leventhalmap.org/search/commonwealth:3f462s41k (accessed 26 April 2023).

[18] This descriptive phrase comes from Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, 23.

[19] A. D. Godley, ed., Herodotus II, Loeb Library (London: Heinemann, 1928), x. What Herodotus and others of his time knew as Libya referred to the whole of Africa.

[20] The map probably retains Jerusalem as the center as that is where the expansion of Christianity began. It is, nevertheless, true that “Since A.D. 70 the Christian Church has never had one local centre; it has learned to look only to the living presence of the Lord within itself.” Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Missions, The Pelican History of the Church 6 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964), 23. Note that the existence of America in Die Newe Welt—The New World—is acknowledged on the map but that it is relegated to a distant corner.

[21] I am here treating “the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene” as one location and “Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians” as peoples rather than places (Acts 2:10–11).

[22] Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, 57.

[23] According to the Nestorian Stele (⼤秦景教流⾏中國碑) currently found in Xian at the Beilin Museum, the missionary Alopen (阿羅本) arrived in Chang’an in AD 635 where he was welcomed by the emperor. There is even evidence of Christian presence in Japan by the eighth century. See John C. England, The Hidden History of Christianity in Asia: The Churches of the East before 1500 (Delhi: ISPCK and Hong Kong: CCA, 2002), 105–107.

[24] The connection between trade along the Silk Road and mission is not lost on the Kims. “Church and mission are further integrated by the realization that it is not only missionaries who cross borders and travel globally but ordinary Christians, and even whole churches in migration. The spread of early Christianity and Christianity in Asia in the first millennium was closely linked to trade.” Kim and Kim, Christianity as a World Religion, 275.

[25] Timur is also known as Tamerlane. Nestorianism was denounced as a heresy by some church fathers during the fifth century. More recent scholarship has reevaluated the possibility that neither Nestorius nor his followers may not have been guilty as charged. See J. F. Bethune-Baker, Nestorius and his Teaching: A Fresh Examination of the Evidence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1908); S. P. Brock, “The ‘Nestorian’ Church: A Lamentable Misnomer,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 78, no. 3 (1996): 23-35; Richard Kyle, “Nestorius: The Partial Rehabilitation of a Heretic,” JETS 32, no. 1 (1989): 73–83.

[26] While English Bible versions invariably translate Αἰθίοψ as Ethiopian, there is good reason to believe that the Greek term was used to refer to all black Africans from south of Egypt. It is quite possible that the eunuch mentioned in Acts 8:27 was from Cush rather than Ethiopia proper. See J. Daniel Hays, From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race (Leicester: Apollos and Downers Grove: IVP, 2003), 34–39, 146–50, 172–176 and Edwin M. Yamauchi, “Acts 8:26–40: Why the Ethiopian Eunuch Was Not from Ethiopia,” in Interpreting the New Testament Text: Introduction to the Art and Science of Exegesis, ed. Darrell L. Bock and Buist M. Fanning (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 351–66

[27] As Νίγερ (Niger) is the Hellenized form of the Latin word for “black,” this man “was presumably of dark complexion,” and was likely a black African. F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954), 260. Lucius, though bearing a Latin name, was undoubtedly from the Cyrene region of Africa.

[28] For some of the difficulties involved in identifying the percentage of Christians in Egypt today, see Conrad Hackett, “How Many Christians are there in Egypt?” Pew Research Center (16 February 2011), https://www.pewresearch.org/2011/02/16/how-many-christians-are-there-in-egypt/ (accessed 18 March 2024).

[29] Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, 55.

[30] Kim and Kim, Christianity as a World Religion, 75.

[31] Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, 4.

[32] Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, 25.

[33] Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, 28–29.

[34] Noll, The New Shape of World Christianity, 190.

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