Understanding Christian Mission: Participation in Suffering and Glory
Reviewed by Sarita D. Gallagher, Missiology, George Fox University
In many ways Scott W. Sunquist’s text, Understanding Christian Mission: Participation in Suffering and Glory, is the text for which missiologists and mission practitioners have been waiting. In Sunquist’s three-part exploration of mission history, theology, and practice, the author presents a well researched, ecumenical, and theologically balanced exploration of mission history, theology, and praxis, past and present. While this may seem like high praise for one text, Understanding Christian Mission has already started to make waves in theological and missiological circles, most recently receiving Christianity Today’s 2014 Best Book Award in the category of “Missions/Global Affairs.” Written as an introductory text to global mission, Sunquist’s text provides valuable historical and biblical insights that speak to the ever-changing realities of global mission.
Framing his text through the two-fold lens of the suffering Church and the glory of God, Sunquist immediately tackles the complex nature of Christian mission – one of loss, hardship, and suffering, and of healing, joy, and victory. Sunquist argues: “God’s plan is incomprehensible unless we enter into discussion of both God’s glory and the way of suffering” (xi). The author proposes that “suffering is inescapable as a central element in God’s redemption” (xiii) for two reasons. First, “suffering is very much a part of human existence, as well as human existence in general” (xiv). Second, the presence of suffering is prevalent throughout the biblical narratives. Therefore, “as people who participate in Christ’s salvation, we also are called through suffering (which is temporary) to that which is glorious (and eternal)” (xiv). In considering the wide scope of global mission, the author concludes: “God’s mission … is more often than not the story of suffering witnesses or sacrificing saints. And yet, the larger story is one of glory: suffering is the path; glory with great joy is the end” (399).
In addition to the theological framework of suffering and glory, the text seeks to reflect an ecumenical and global understanding of the missio Dei. Sunquist incorporates missiological definitions and ecclesiological examples from Protestant, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, and Orthodox Christian communities. The author explains, “all four, I submit, are important to include in our understanding of the mission of the church. The church is rooted in the Great Tradition, representing the body of Christ, as a gathered community, in the power of the Holy Spirit” (234). The author’s definition of mission is likewise universal and God-centered in its focus. He explains: “If any consensus has developed about mission during the past century, it is that Christian mission is rooted in the mission of God (missio Dei) rather than in a particular task (planting churches) or a particular goal (making converts)” (xiii). The missio Dei is thus the “foundational concept that launches the church from the place of worship and fellowship into the frontiers of God’s reign” (xiii). It is with this ultimate goal of participation with God in his mission that the author explores the history of the church, its theology, and its current mission practices.
The text is divided into three parts: “a descriptive section (history); a prescriptive or constructive section (theology); and an issues section (contemporary themes)” (13). In the first section, Sunquist follows the unfolding story of Christian mission from the monastic period to the contemporary missionary movement. Integrating the early missionary efforts of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, and later those of Protestant Christian movements, the author highlights the cyclical growth and decline of global missions. In his analysis of Christian history, Sunquist echoes David Bosch’s warning against the dangers of Christian communities turning inward and moving away from their raison d’etre, mission (29). Often emerging from the margins of Christianity, indigenous and foreign missionaries throughout the ages faced periods of persecution and institutionalization. The socio-political challenges of poverty, slavery, war, religious nominalism, and Christendom similarly reappear throughout Christian history. Sunquist notes that it is only in the nineteenth century, after several centuries of mission praxis, that missiological reflection gains a place of prominence. As mission practitioners enter into dialogue with their global counterparts, crucial missiological issues emerge, including the new role of the non-Western Church, the importance of interfaith dialogue, and the continued development of indigenous leadership and women in ministry (98-110).
In the second section Sunquist presents a Trinitarian theology of mission exploring the role of God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit in fulfilling the mission of God. Of particular interest in this section is Sunquist’s exploration of the Holy Spirit’s role in the expansion of the global Church. The modern movement of the Holy Spirit, the author argues, is one of the three major global movements of the 21st century, along with the ecumenical movement and the geographical shift from the global north to the global south (232). The author explains: “The Holy Spirit is the gift for the church in its mission. Understanding something of the power and purpose of the Holy Spirit will free churches, religious orders, and mission societies from divisions and disappointments that develop because of false assumptions of how God can and will (or should act)” (234). Noting the integral role of the Holy Spirit in fulfilling the mission of God, Sunquist highlights the unique role of the Holy Spirit in providing wisdom and direction for the global church as it seeks to contextualize the gospel and engage with other faith traditions. The author concludes:
The recovery of this larger place for the Holy Spirit in mission is a gift from the non-Western churches as much as from the global Pentecostal movement … The Holy Spirit is the missionary, in the pattern of Jesus Christ, binding up the brokenhearted, but also casting out demons and healing the sick. (269)
Finally, in the third section Sunquist explores contemporary issues that are central to Christian mission today. Of note in this section is Sunquist’s discussion in chapters 9 and 10 on the Church’s unique relationship with the mission of God. While Christian believers have been actively involved in mission work for centuries, the author notes “missiology is still more of an annex to the church rather than its central purpose. Mission is still viewed as a function or an activity of local churches rather than as the purpose of the church” (273). In contrast to this perspective, Sunquist argues that the church is inherently missionary in its nature and purpose. The church exists to fulfill the mission of God and to extend the ministry of Christ and usher in God’s Kingdom (279). The question of whether or not the church should be involved in God’s mission thus moves from “if…” to “how…” The question must then be asked: “How does the church participate in the answer to the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven’?” (273). This question is significant theologically and practically, as “what a church believes about God and the mission of the Triune God will eventually alter the church’s budget and their calendar” (272). The author concludes: “programs, relationships, property, and worship should all be shaped by our understanding of the missio Dei” (272). As the popular adage states: “The church does not have a mission—God’s mission has a church” (273).
In analyzing Sunquist’s text, its primary contribution is its ecumenical exploration of Christian history and theology. Contemporary mission issues such as global partnerships, postmodernity, interreligious dialogue, and race and reconciliation are all touched on, but briefly. Needless to say, the charge of expanding upon all aspects of missiology is a momentous task that simply cannot be fully achieved within one text or via one perspective. Notable areas that beg further exploration include Pentecostal and charismatic church history and theology and various current issues and trends such as insider movements, Diaspora missiology, multi-cultural teams, short-term missions, and transformational development. The final section, for example, limits itself to the institutional church, largely ignoring trans-global mission efforts and para-church organizations. While this decision was made to appeal to local congregants (272), the opportunity is unfortunately lost to speak to the emerging trends within missiology.
Although endeavoring to incorporate the interdisciplinary nature of missiology, Sunquist’s strong theological-historical bias is apparent. In his introduction, Sunquist states that though the social sciences have their place in missiology, “…part of the argument of this book is that missiology must resist being taken captive by the social sciences” (2). In a footnote, Sunquist explains: “when missiology turns into sociological studies of what ‘works,’ then we have turned away from proper missiological centeredness on the knowledge of God and the missio Dei as revealed in the life of Jesus Christ” (2). While there is truth in Sunquist’s explanation that “Missiology is first concerned with thinking correctly about the Triune God…rather than with practices or programs” (2), the ongoing contributions of cultural anthropology, sociology of religion, history of religions, and psychology should not be dismissed so quickly. While it is tempting especially from a Western perspective to adopt a linear construct in which theology comes before practice, this paradigm oversimplifies the complex nature of missiology. While God and his mission should remain at the center of missiology, the interaction between mission theology and praxis is often more circular than linear, with theology informing practice, and practice reflecting theology.
While the mere scope of Sunquist’s task is noteworthy in and of itself, perhaps one of the most valuable contributions of the text is the author’s approach to the discussion of global missiology. Highly qualified in his own right, Sunquist acknowledges the contextual limitations of his worldview as a North American scholar. Sunquist conveys this position through a variety of means. First, Sunquist does not claim objectivity in his task; instead the author articulates his goal as providing “a clear understanding of Christian mission from a participant-observer position” (xi). Second, Sunquist includes a wide variety of historical and contemporary voices, which present a diversity of theological, geographical, and ecclesiological perspectives. Third, Sunquist’s writing style, particularly in the third section, incorporates global case studies and narratives, which depart from the traditional Western academic style of discourse and appeal to a global audience. In a field that has been dominated for decades by Western-centric scholarship, Sunquist’s approach is refreshing and timely. Although much more needs to be done to facilitate the equal representation of global missiologists and theologians, Sunquist takes us several steps in the right direction with his text.
In Understanding Christian Mission Sunquist readily achieves his goals of “pointing towards faithful practices” in Christian mission and exploring “right thinking about Christian mission [and] right thinking about the church” (1). Well-researched, globally relevant, and biblically and historically grounded, Understanding Christian Mission is an invaluable resource for mission practitioners, students, church leaders, and academics alike.