Global Gospel: An Introduction to Christianity on Five Continents

Douglas Jacobsen
Published by Baker Academic in 2015

In Global Gospel: An Introduction to Christianity on Five Continents, Douglas Jacobsen provides a valuable overview of the global Christian Church. With the ongoing expansion of Christianity since the first century, it has become increasingly difficult to navigate the “immense diversity across contemporary Christianity” (xv). Jacobsen takes on this challenge, providing a well-researched and comprehensive analysis of the principal historic, demographic, and theological motifs and trends within the churches of Africa, Latin America, Europe, Asia, and North America. Despite the enormity of the task, Jacobsen succeeds in writing an intellectually engaging and theologically compelling commentary which considers both the diversity and unity of the global Church.

Jacobsen highlights the lack of familiarity among Christian communities around the world, noting: “The movement has expanded so fast that its growth and diversification have outpaced all attempts to track them. As a consequence, Christians have lost touch with one another, becoming strangers who just happen to confess the same faith” (xv). In order to reconnect with the global body of Christ, the author emphasizes the need for members of the Christian Church to enter into dialogue with their global counterparts (xiii). The goal of this dialogue should not be to generate Christian uniformity; instead, Jacobsen argues that “the glory of Christianity is best displayed in its interconnected diversity … in a complex, multihued, interwoven, and mutually enriching choreography of faith, hope, and love” (xiv). While some scholars have started to refer to “Christianities in the plural,” the author claims that this approach “does not describe the ideal: a community of mutual love and compassion in which all the followers of Jesus participate” (225-26). It is essential to “articulate a new vision of Christian unity within diversity” (226).

While observing the vibrant theologies of the Church, Jacobsen invites the reader to listen to and participate in global theological conversations. Although “the differences that exist among Christians worldwide do not fit neatly into one particular set of logical categories,” Jacobsen maintains that the time has come for theologians, particularly those from Europe and the United States, to enter into cross-cultural dialogues with other Christians around the world (226). The author holds that this global dialogue is no longer an optional enterprise, but a necessity in the age of globalization. In a world saturated by media and connected through advances in technology and transportation, the actions of a Christian community on one side of the globe can directly affect Christians elsewhere, both positively and negatively (xvi). While previous generations of “Christians often settled their intra-religious disputes by geographically segregating themselves from one another,” this disengagement is no longer a viable option (xvi).

Divided into seven chapters, the text serves as an introduction to the regional distinctions of the global Church. The first two chapters provide a brief synopsis of Christian history and the development of the four primary branches of Christianity: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and Pentecostalism. First, the historic development of Christianity is presented from its genesis in Jerusalem to its present status as a global faith in the twenty-first century. Jacobsen notes the early acceptance of ethnic and theological diversity among Christian believers. This “multiplicity of vision” continued as the Church expanded throughout the Roman Empire, Asia, Africa, Europe, and later to the Americas (1). In chapter 2, the author follows the development of the doctrinal diversity of the Church through the emergence of Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Pentecostalism.

The following five chapters highlight the regional distinctions of the Christian Church within the continents of Africa, Latin America, Europe, Asia, and North America. Each chapter has three primary sections: (1) historical development, (2) contemporary demographics, and (3) theological motifs. In the first section, the ecumenical history of Christianity in each region is analyzed. Of particular interest in these historical sections is Jacobsen’s purposeful inclusion of key indigenous movements, Christian leaders, and theological motifs. For example, in the chapter on Africa, the marked emphasis is on the contributions of African Christian leaders, missionaries, and theologians such as Samuel Ajayi Crowther, William Wade Harris, Desmond Tutu, Leymah Gbowee, Gabriel Setioloane, and Mercy Amba Oduyoye. Subsequent chapters also highlight the significant theological contributions of ecumenical Christian leaders from Latin America (such as Óscar Romero and Martiz León); Europe (such as Pope Benedict XVI and Kallistos Ware); Asia (such as K. H. Ting and Kosuke Koyama); and North America (such as William Penn and Randy S. Woodley).

In the second section of each chapter, Jacobsen discusses the contemporary religious environment of the geographic region. Of note in this section is Jacobsen’s analysis and interpretation of religious demographics. For example, in chapter 7, the author moves beyond mere statistics to explore North America’s steady movement toward becoming religiously pluriform. “Pluriform religion,” Jacobsen explains,

describes a social landscape that is both religiously diverse (there are more different kinds of religions around than there were before) and spiritually fuzzy (meaning that the line distinguishing traditional “organized religion” from … less institutional forms of spirituality is less distinct). (210)

The ensuing changes both of vocabulary and religious perception directly affect the North American Church. As such, Jacobsen asks the North American Church to consider how they might reorganize their churches to best address this paradigm shift (212-13).

In the third section, key theological themes are presented which reflect the prominent theological conversations from each region of the world. While a momentous task, each regional motif is well supported by historical, theological, and socio-cultural scholarship. Of note in this section is chapter 6, in which Jacobsen examines the ideal of harmony in Asian Christianity. He explains that in contrast to the Western emphasis on individualism, Asian Christians “are taught to see the world through the lens of relationship” (174). This relational framework is often expressed via the concept of harmony, which in turn is reflected in familial and societal structures as well as theology. Jacobsen explains: “Christian theology in Asia is frequently described as ‘triple dialogue,’ an effort to balance (or harmonize) Christian convictions with civic loyalty, with respect for members of other religions, and with concern for the poor” (175).

While the scope of Global Gospel is impressive, there are some notable gaps in its content. First, while each branch of Christianity is mentioned, there is more emphasis on Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions and only limited mention of Eastern Orthodoxy. This oversight is particularly unfortunate considering the rich contributions of Orthodox Christianity evidenced in the work of missionaries such as Cyril and Methodius, Stephen of Perm, and St. Herman of Alaska. Most notable however is the absence of an analysis of Christianity in the Oceania region. The author indicates that the exclusion of Oceania is due to its presence in a previous text (xviii); however, it is the only region not included in both texts. While it is becoming common practice among North American scholars to overlook the distinct theological contributions of Oceania, a comprehensive analysis of global Christianity should give voice to Pacific Rim theology and praxis.

Finally, although the author endeavors to write a respectful description of global Christianity (xii-xiii), the author’s biases are still occasionally evidenced in the text. For example, in commenting on the successful reform movement led primarily by Christian women in Liberia, the author adds:

The Christianity of African women is not usually concerned with fine points of theology. They do not care if the word filioque is included in the Niceaean Creed or not. … What does grab their attention is the nitty-gritty concerns of life: caring for children and parents, making sure everyone is fed, tending the sick, and calming community disputes. (66)

While intended to be a statement of support, the author’s comment is an over-generalization which ignores the contributions of prominent female theologians from the continent of Africa such as Mercy Amba Oduyoye, Musa Dube, and Isabel Apawo Phiri. This annotation could be interpreted by some as patronizing and reflective of gender-bias (that is, women only care about raising children, and so on). However, such statements are scarce, and there is considerable effort in the text as a whole to present an objective and balanced account of the data.

In analyzing Jacobsen’s text, its primary contribution is its examination of regional theological motifs. The author’s ability to identify key theological concepts from around the globe is noteworthy, and his insights into the contemporary regional conversations are well worth reading. The inclusion of a number of the major challenges and mistakes of Christian communities worldwide, as well as some of the more controversial Christian movements, also provides a balanced analysis of the global Church. The inclusion of numerous maps, charts, graphics, and sidebars on key global theologians and Christian leaders additionally increases accessibility to the content.

In Global Gospel: An Introduction to Christianity on Five Continents, Douglas Jacobsen provides a thoughtful analysis of the historical and theological diversity of the global Church. Well-researched and thought provoking, Global Gospel is an excellent resource for church leaders, academics, mission practitioners, and students interested in expanding their understanding of the Christian Church.

Cite this article
Sarita D. Gallagher, “Global Gospel: An Introduction to Christianity on Five Continents”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 46:4 , 407–409

Sarita D. Gallagher

George Fox University
Missiology, George Fox University