Book Review: “Encountering the History of Missions”


The book, “Encountering the History of Mission: From the Early Church to Today” by John Mark Terry and Robert L. Gallagher, is part of the Encountering Missions series of books. It was published in 2017 by Baker Academic.

I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in Christian missions— especially Evangelical Christian missions. I don’t have major problems with it— most of points are either positive or of a more neutral nature. Therefore I will list my points together.

  1. The book is very readable in terms of content, style, and format. I found that I wanted to continue reading to finish a chapter, and then move to the next chapter to see “what happens next.” That in itself is strongly in its favor.
  2. It balances well between events, organizations, movements, and individuals. Missions history is primarily the work of God. Secondarily, it is the work of various religious, sociological, political movements. Third is the people involved. Missionaries did not MAKE missions happen, but responded positively to the work of God and their place in history. That is my view at least. Terry and Gallagher’s book balances things well.
  3. The book embraces what I might describe as a “Generous Orthodoxy” (drawing the term from Brian McLaren). The book is quite respectful of missions from a variety of Christian groups including Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Celtic, “Nestorian,” Russian Orthodox, and many faith traditions among Protestant groups. Some negative portrayals are reserved for the Roman Catholic church (especially in ways it worked against Christian missions and Protestant missions), but the work of RC missionaries is portrayed more positively. The only “historically” Christian group involved in missions that seems to never be described positively (as far as I noticed) was the World Council of Churches, and it missions (“conciliar missions”). More on that later.
  4. The target audience for the book is Protestant Evangelical. A little over half the book is focused on Protestant missions. As the book nears the present, the focus moved more to Evangelical missions. That being said, non-Protestant, non-Evangelical missions is given its place of prominence, especially in past centuries.
  5. I struggled to get a grasp of what the authors’ definition of missions was. Perhaps a reread of the book would clarify this. However, in a couple of places, I found the issue of definition problematic. In Chapters 7 and 11, Christian missions seemed to include what I might call, “Getting people to leave their church to start attending my church.” Chapter 7 attempted to support the notion that the early reformers (most notably Martin Luther and John Calvin) were indeed missional— despite anything that I would consider good support of this. Their argument that Luther and Calvin were missional was based on the fact that and their followers worked hard to get people to leave their own churches and join their churches. Chapter 11 is supposed to be about Methodist Missions, with focus on the Wesleys. However, the great majority of the chapter spoke of their ministry to people who are already Christians. Perhaps the desire to include the Methodist movement, with its link to the Moravians, and to the later ‘Holiness Movement’ made the inclusion feel necessarily. Missions has often included denominational efforts to get people to change churches. I am an Evangelical missionary in the Philippines. Ministry work to get Catholics to become Evangelical is commonly seen as a valid form of Christian missions. However, in other parts of the book, it seems like missions about reaching those who don’t identify as Christian. Thus, I am a bit confused.
  6. Generally, the book did a pretty good job of separating between missions history and church history. To me at least, Church history tends to focus on Creeds, Councils, Controversies, and Conflicts. Generally, the book avoided these. Perhaps it would have been of benefit to integrate more of these in since missions history is in many ways an outworking of church history. For me, however, I feel like keeping the focus on missions was probably the correct choice.
  7. Towards the end of the book, in the chapter on Specialized Missions, a lot was ignored. There was little to nothing on Social Justice, Community Development, Missionary Member Care, Theological education, Interreligious Dialogue, and more. Not everything can be covered in one chapter of course. Still, I feel like some more important specializations in Christian missions should have been included.
  8. I feel like the absence of (positive) representation of conciliar missions was a bit of a failure in the book. I have worked with missionaries who could be described as part of conciliar missions, and often found them to be very faithful to God and capable in their work. While some of the concerns regarding conciliar missions in the book are all too valid, very often the authors had been willing to take the positive view of other missions movement rather than focusing on its worst. The book took a very generous view of the theology of Ulfilas, completely avoided the negative aspects of the work of St. Boniface, and the list goes on. Arguably, the Evangelical missions has benefited from conciliar missions as well. It was the Anglican component of the Evangelicals (such as Neill, Stott, and Newbigin) with one foot squarely in conciliar missions, that kept Evangelical missions from simply be subsumed by the theology (or lack of theology) of the Church Growth Movement. Additionally, conciliar missions has often been better in certain forms of missions than Evangelicals (social justice and interreligious dialogue being among them). I certainly see no reason to give conciliar missions an equal place in the book. I just suggest the overall generosity of the book could have been supplied here as well.
  9. Despite the tendency towards “generosity” to various people and movements, the book did not idealize. The authors were willing to provide kind critique, and occasionally harsh critique. The summary of the good and bad of Christian missions in the last chapter (drawn from Herbert Kane) was not only valuable, but was generally supported in the text of the book.
  10. The authors did not spend much time on theology of missions. I can understand why this was seen as generally outside the scope of the book. However, I was glad that the book did list down strategies and practices of many missionaries and mission movements. I found this quite helpful to understand them better, and to learn more about what I should and should not focus on as a missionary.

I am planning to use this work as the textbook for my upcoming class on missions history. With very few (and limited) reservations, I strongly recommend it to others.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s