Book Reviews

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Book review – Encountering the History of Missions: From the Early Church to Today

Reviewed by Nathan Keller

As missionaries who labor in our specific tasks to fulfill the Great Commission, we can easily forget that we are simply one thread in the two-thousand-year tapestry of Christian missions. We need to learn (and often be reminded) of the many brothers and sisters in Christ whom God has used throughout history to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to the nations.

To this end, Encountering the History of Missions is a very welcomed book. The historical characters and movements detailed within inspire us. They also teach us. In the preface, the authors write, “The history of missions instructs contemporary missionaries on what to do and what not to do” (vi). As reflective practitioners, we should reflect on those who have gone before us and put into practice what we learn from them.

The book, composed of 18 chapters, surveys the history of the church through a missional lens. Each chapter focuses on the leaders and mission methods of major movements throughout church history.

The first chapter details the spread of the early church both before and after the Nicean Council. Chapter 2 deals with the Church of the East or the Nestorian Church. John Stewart, writing early in the twentieth century, described this church—which included Bishop Alopen who went to China—as “the most missionary church that the world has ever seen” (24). Chapter 3 introduces the Celtic mission movement, which is known for doing effective evangelism without denouncing the culture of the people ministered to.

Chapter four tells the story of the early Orthodox Church missions, characterized by a mission strategy of learning local languages, training local leaders, and planting indigenous churches. Chapter five tells the stories of the Dominican and Franciscan missions that were born out of a response to a corrupt medieval papacy. The following chapter tells the stories of several of the medieval renewal missions, including leaders such as Peter Waldo, John Wycliff, and Jan Huss.

Chapter seven focuses on the mission methods of the Protestant reformers Luther and Calvin. The next chapter deals with the Jesuits, the mission response of the Roman Catholic Church to the Protestant Reformation. In this chapter, the history and strategy of the Jesuits is related through the stories of Ignatius of Layola and Matteo Ricci.

Chapters nine through eleven detail some early Protestant mission movements. The mission efforts of the Pietists are discussed first. A large section of this chapter tells the valuable story of Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg, the Pietist missionary who went to India in 1706. Chapter 10 details the Moravian missions, which greatly influenced both William Carey and the founding of the London Mission Society. Chapter 11 tells the exciting story of the Methodist missions in Europe and North America. This movement introduced new preaching methods and organizational structures, cultivated a place for women in ministry, and promoted the widespread use of hymns.

Chapters 12 and 13 detail Protestant missions history during what is known as “the Great Century”—the title coined by Kenneth Scott Latourette. These two chapters provide the biographies and mission strategies of well-known missionaries, such as Adoniram Judson, Robert Morrison, David Livingstone, and Hudson Taylor. The chapters also describe the rise of faith missions and missiologies that have promoted indigenous missions. Chapter 14 takes a reflective look at both the challenges and helps that the twentieth century brought to global missions.

Chapters 15–17 document special issues related to the last century of missions. These include missionary councils and congresses (chap 15), the rise of specialized missions, such as translation and student ministries (chap 16), and a reflection on the Church Growth Movement which greatly impacted both home and foreign missions for more than half a century (chap 17).

The final chapter, an appropriate summary to the entire book, is an honest reflection of what the authors believe missionaries have done wrong, what they have done right, and what still needs to be done to fulfil the Great Commission.

Encountering the History of Missions is a well-organized book. The chapters give thorough historical background to the leaders of the above-mentioned mission movements and to the mission strategies adopted by each. The book tells of the story of both well-known missionaries and missionaries that will be new to many. Throughout the book are numerous detailed sidebars and thought-provoking case studies, both of which are paired with questions for reflection.

The book, in my opinion, has one major limitation. Besides general summary statements, there is very little mention of modern mission movements from non-Western countries. This is an unfortunate omission, for these modern mission movements have accomplished much for the kingdom of God and have much to instruct the Western church.

All in all, I would recommend Encountering the History of Missions to anyone who wants to either learn about or be reminded of the people and movements God has used over the last 2000 years to make disciples of Christ among the nations. Reading this book will well serve those who desire to be reflective practitioners of Christian mission.

Encountering the History of Missions: From the Early Church to Today
By John Mark Terry and Robert L. Gallagher.

Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017.
ISBN 9780801026966. 405pp.

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