From Jerusalem to Timbuktu:
A World Tour of the Spread of Christianity
Timbuktu, now one of the eight administrative regions of the Republic of Mali in West Africa, has long been used, as author Brian Stiller points out, “as a metaphor for a far-away and unreachable place.” But Timbuktu has literally become the geographical center for worldwide Christianity, which is a major emphasis of Stiller’s book. Especially in the last six or seven decades, Christianity has grown and spread in such a manner that now its “center” is farther south than it has ever been.
Stiller, a Canadian born in 1942, is well qualified to write a book on the growth of Christianity outside the North Atlantic countries over the past century. Since 2011 he has served as Global Ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance. In that position he has traveled extensively and has had contact with numerous Christian leaders, churches, and movements outside of North America.
The son of a Pentecostal preacher, Stiller seems to have stayed close to his roots in theological orientation, although he has worked closely and well with various evangelical denominations through the years and especially since in 1997 when he became president of Ontario Bible College/Seminary. By the time he left that post in 2009 it had become Tyndale University/Seminary, the largest seminary in Canada.
Stiller’s new book, written in a journalistic style, is clearly weighted toward Evangelicals and Pentecostals, as he makes clear in the Preface: “In general my writing concerns itself with the Evangelical world, although occasionally statistics will encompass the entire Christian community” (2). Because of that primary perspective of the book, those who are most in harmony with worldwide Evangelicalism and/or Pentecostalism will perhaps enjoy/profit the most from reading it. Nevertheless, this reviewer, who no longer identifies with those expressions of Christianity, found much in Stiller’s book to be interesting, instructive, and inspiring—as well as a few things that raised questions and concerns.
In the first chapter, “Faith Is on the Rise,” Stiller writes mostly about the “surprising surge” in the worldwide growth of Christianity during his lifetime, that is, in the last 75 years. The five “drivers,” as he terms them, of the remarkable spread of the Christian faith are briefly described in this opening chapter and then dealt with in some detail in the five chapters of Part II.
Given his church affiliation and orientation, it is not surprising that the first “driver” presented is the Holy Spirit, whose activity is now seen with new prominence in the present time, “The Age of the Spirit” (the title of the second chapter). Stiller unhesitatingly declares that beginning early in the 20th century, “the Pentecostal message has transformed the global church” (28). This transformation is seen both in the manifestation of the Christian faith as well as in its spread to the “Global South.”
“The Power of Bible Translation” is the title of the second chapter, and according to Stiller the significance and extent of the Bible being translated into so many languages and distributed so widely in countries around the world is the second driver of Christianity’s growth in the past century. He says, for example, that there are more Bibles now distributed in China than in any other country in the world (67). Earlier he had pointed out that while there were fewer than one million Christians in China in 1949, that number now is estimated to be “100 million or more”—and if the present growth rate continues, nearly one-third of the China’s population could be Christians by 2040 (14).
The next driver of Christianity’s remarkable growth worldwide is the subject of “Revolution of the Indigenous,” the fourth chapter. Stiller states, “When missions understood the power, utility, and genius of indigenized gospel ideas, the ground shifted. It was a tipping point for a truly global Christianity” (76).
“Re-engaging the Public Square” is the title of the next chapter, and the Evangelical renewal of “public engagement” is thus considered by the author as the fourth driver of Christianity’s growth, especially in countries outside of Europe and North America. This chapter raised many questions in the mind of this reviewer. It is mainly about Evangelical/Pentecostal engagement in the political life of predominantly Christian (in the broader sense) countries such as Kenya, Zambia, and Brazil. But there were widespread corruption charges against the Evangelical men who served as the presidents of those two African countries. Stiller at least is honest about this when he remarks, “Evangelical conviction . . . is not a secure barrier against personal failing, greed, and self-interest” (117).
The fifth driver is explained in “The Power of the Whole Gospel,” the next chapter. Stiller tries to make the point that especially since the 1974 Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, Evangelicals have shown “a growing and passionate interest in speaking to matters of inequality and injustice” (142). This may be true in much of the Global South but is has not been so obvious among Evangelicals in the U.S., especially with the rise and influence of the Moral Majority in 1979 and the years following as well as with the surge of “Trumpism” in and following 2016.
The seventh, and last, chapter is called simply “Wholeness,” which to a large extent is the primary focus of the previous chapter. Rather than being a strong close, it is sort of a hodgepodge of topics and was not as helpful as the previous six chapters.
Overall, perhaps one main problem of this book is the title: there is little about the spread of Christianity before 1900 (thus the “from Jerusalem” has little meaning) and it is primarily about the spread of Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism and not Christianity in its many different, and even conflicting, expressions.
Also, it seems that perhaps the author’s evaluation of the growth and spread of his brand of Christianity in recent decades is perhaps too optimistic and insufficiently realistic.
Still, there is without question much that is good and important in this book, and it is refreshing to see a 75-year-old man so positive about the present and hopeful for the future.