A Review of
Global Church: Reshaping Our Conversations, Renewing Our Mission, Revitalizing Our Churches
Effective discipleship requires a wholehearted embrace of a transformative process which impacts the way we relate to God, to others and indeed the whole of the created world. Thomas A Kempis in his book Imitation of Christ writes of the centrality of Jesus Christ’s life and teaching. How we pattern our lives around the example of Jesus is, in part, rooted in understanding how his life and example were shaped by his historical context. Importantly, it also requires us to understand how to apply the patterns of his life and teachings to the diverse contexts we encounter in our world today. An observation which has been made of Western mission movement and theological academy is that it has often been prone to cultural blindness and superiority; it is this tendency which Graham Hill sets out to address in his new book Global Church: Reshaping our Conversations, Renewing our Mission, Revitalizing our Churches which he introduces with the following quote:
Now when missionaries come to our lands they brought not only the seed of the gospel, but their own plant of Christianity, flower pot included! (Daniel Thambyrajah Niles, preface)
In the context of multi-directional mission movements of the 21st Century we have perhaps been given a unique opportunity as a global family of faith to explore the extraordinarily profound reach of our faith to transform and bring hope to our world in friendly dialogue with each other. Whilst it is certainly true that cultural superiority has always had a ‘white face’ we must also recognise that many new forms of cultural superiority and poor contextualisation are emerging from different corners of the globe due to inheriting poorly contextualised discipleship.
In Global Church Graham Hill seeks to address the root causes of poorly contextualised discipleship and he nails his thesis firmly on the doors of the Western Church and the academy:
Those of us in the West need a new narrative. It’s time to abandon our flawed Eurocentric and Americentric worldviews. We need a new, global and missional narrative. We must turn to the churches of Majority World and indigenous cultures. They can help us explore what it means to be a global missional community. (16).
To some, this may appear to be a bold statement but as Scot McKnight observes in his introduction to Global Church, ‘there is no one more alert to the global and theological shape of missions today than Graham Hill’ (McKnight, Foreword, 11). This book demonstrates that alertness resourced by twenty-seven years of personal enquiry, immersion and practice. In Global Church Graham Hill blends considerable personal encounter and observation with rigorous scholarship and presents the reasons he believes that the Western Church needs to integrate a new narrative or worldview which explores what it might look like to be a ‘global missional community’. He sets out clearly the ways in which Majority World Christians are redefining 21st Century Christianity and how he thinks the Western Church needs to take these into serious consideration. Numerically, 61% of the world’s Christians now live in the Global South or Majority World and Phillip Jenkins’s prediction that by 2025 two-thirds of Christians will live in Africa, Latin America and Asia gives further weight to Graham Hill’s emphatic assertion that it is time to stop marginalizing and ignoring the voices of the Majority World Churches.
Global Church follows on from his earlier book Salt, Light and a city: Introducing missional ecclesiology and develops his proposals for how to integrate and learn from non-Western missional reflections and practices using Mark’s three powerful images of the Church as salt, light and a city. In Part 1, Reshaping our conversations, Graham Hill emphasises the need to move beyond the legacy of the Western academy and to embrace ‘glocal conversations…dialogue, learning and partnership… [with] Majority World, indigenous and Western thinkers…activists, communities and ordinary believers’ (25). In Part 2, Renewing our Mission, he presents and explores contributions from the Majority World around key missional issues such hospitality, care for creation and ethical living alongside an excellent review of liberation theologies, pneumatologies and contextual theologies. In Part 3, Revitalising our Churches, the book concludes with an expansive review of the resources which the Majority Church has to offer to scripture engagement, education, models for servant leadership, community building, spirituality and discipleship. The final chapter closes the book with a reassertion of its central emphasis:
Global missional theology challenges that historical and inherited way of doing theology. It challenges its dominance and myopia and cultural superiority. It challenges the assumption that our inherited Western so-called canons of theology are universal and true for all times and all places. That assumption is false. The voices of the global church-its communities and leaders and theologians-challenge these western theological canons and assumptions. They highlight their shortcomings. They emphasise the need for global theological conversations. (422)
This book offers very good engagement and material for students, practitioners and educationalists alike. The breadth of its focus is well-structured and supplemented by clear chapter end summaries, a study guide and an invitation to access the Global Church project video series. It serves both as a mandate for reform and a very helpful and accessible textbook survey of some key Majority Church contributions to the emerging missional conversations. The content is relevant and thorough in its scope of engagement but not exhaustive in its analysis, which keeps the considerable volume of material moving forwards at a reasonable pace. A minor criticism of the book is that there is a fair amount of repetition, which may on occasion, irritate the concise reader; but as the saying goes, if it’s worth saying once it’s worth saying twice! The style is passionate and assertive; an exhilarating and motivating read. I doubt that this book will be without its critics and this is a good feature- that it invites an ongoing conversation; a dialogue and a synthesis which is urgently needed.
Global Church, at its heart, is a book which affirms the diverse ways in which the Spirit of God has gifted and enabled Christians within their different contexts to interpret and be transformed by the Gospel. Though its central challenge is levelled at the Western church and academy I would venture to suggest that its relevance goes beyond Western readership to all who have felt the alienating impact of cultural blindness or superiority and are in need of exorcising its shadow from their own psyche and thus reduce the likelihood of repeating its patterns in their own context. Listening to the voices which Graham Hill introduces in Global Church is a thrilling reminder of the creativity and diversity of God’s people in mission and is a positive step towards recognising that further conversations and synthesis are not only welcome but urgently needed.
Carol Kingston-Smith is co-founder of the jusTice initiative in the UK.