A Review of
To All Nations From All Nations: A History of the Christian Missionary Movement.
Carlos F. Cardoza-Orlandi and Justo L. González
Reviewed by Douglas Connelly
I haven’t read widely in the story of Christian missions, but what I have read has focused on the modern missionary movement – 19th and 20th century evangelical Protestants, prompted by a compelling desire to preach the gospel to every person, going to Africa and Asia and Latin America with the message of Jesus’s saving grace. Even as a boy, my parents put biographies of Adoniram Judson and William Carey and Hudson Taylor in my hands to bolster my vision of a world waiting to hear the good news. (And if those names don’t ring any bells, you really need to read this book!) So I picked up this new history of Christian missions expecting pretty much the same focus. I was in for a surprise – and an education.
The two authors are professors in mainline Protestant seminaries – Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University (Cardoza-Orlandi) and Chandler School of Theology at Emory University (González). They write, however, with evangelical zeal. Their perception and vision for the continued expansion of Christianity in the 21st century are captured in the title of the book – men and women from every nation going to every nation with the gospel. Something of their personal passion for their subject comes through at the very beginning of the book:
“The study of the history of the missionary movement is both crucial and urgent. The history of the expansion of Christianity is at the same time both inspiring and terrifying. It is both a call and a warning. It calls us to join the shining legacy of those who witnessed to their faith. And it warns us of the danger of imagining that, because we are faithful Christians, we need not be concerned over the consequences of our attitudes and our actions” (2).
The book begins slowly. The first section is a discussion of the theology of missions, called missiology and guides the reader through the process involved in researching and writing the story of the Christian missionary movement. It’s the theological and philosophical underpinnings of the book. It’s an important discussion but, for a book aimed at an interested Christian reader, not a scholar, it’s enough to turn potential readers away. Most of the material, in my opinion, should have been put in an appendix. A much shorter introduction should have led us directly to the story the writers wanted to tell.
One part of their introduction that I would not have wanted to miss is their reminder that Jesus’s commission to his followers to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:20) emerges from Jesus’s claim in Matthew 28:19 that all authority in heaven and on earth has already been given to him. Believers are not carrying Jesus to every region of the world; he is already there! Jesus is already at work and active in individuals and cultures, preparing the way. Christians go to bear witness of Jesus and to call others to believe in him, but they are not taking him anywhere he is not.
If you persevere through the foundational chapters and make it to chapter three, you are rewarded with a broad survey of how the Christian faith emerged from an outpost province of the ancient Roman Empire to a world-wide religious movement. The writers give us short one-or-two paragraph summaries of the expansion of Christianity in various regions of the world during the period of antiquity, the medieval period and in modern times. They don’t overwhelm us with detail, but give us enough information to see the broad picture of Christian missions unfold. Several times I found myself noting people or events that I wanted to know more about. I like a book that sends me on a search into other resources. The authors even give us a great list of other books and journals that will help us pursue other interesting quests.
Cardoza-Orlandi and González also led me through parts of the history of missions that I knew very little about. They had whole sections on Catholic missions, for example. Brave priests took the Christian faith into dangerous places and often paid the price of martyrdom for their efforts. The authors also highlighted the work of women in spreading the good news of Jesus’s love. In the early church, in the Middle Ages, and certainly in more modern missionary movements, women were often at the vanguard of reaching into unreached areas. They went as teachers, as doctors, as nurses, as courageous wives whose husbands died of disease or by the spear. They were compelled by the love of Christ for lost people to leave comfort and family behind for hardship and loss but also eternal reward.
Fortunately, the authors don’t avoid the darker side of the missionary story. They make us face the part Christian missionaries played at times in oppression or racial injustice or the destruction of indigenous cultures. As difficult as it is to read that part, it needs to be told.
The authors conclude with a set of challenges for the Christian missionary movement in the 21st century. The one that surprised me was the realization that in many traditional cultures the main transmitting and receiving agents for the Christian faith are non-white, poor women. For two hundred years of the modern era, the main (but not exclusive) agents of proclaiming the Christian faith in non-Christian areas of the world have been white men. Today Christians in Africa and Asia and Latin America rely far less than they used to on “missionaries.” Instead the Christians live in their own culture as missionaries themselves sharing their faith in the context of everyday life. Even Christians in North America are finally waking up to that kind of “missional” living. Maybe we will also begin to reach our culture as effectively as Christians in Africa and Latin America have.
To All Nations From All Nations is an enlightening read. Reading a chapter every evening is not a difficult goal. You will come away with a broader understanding of how Christianity has expanded to the ends of the earth and a deeper appreciation for those who took Jesus’s commission to the church so seriously that they actually obeyed it. Just have a pen and notebook (or OneNote on your iPad) near at hand to write down the names and the events and the places you want to know more about – and also the ideas you will glean about living in your neighborhood or work place like a missionary.
Douglas Connelly is the senior pastor of Parkside Community Church in Sterling Heights, Michigan and the author of the new LifeGuide, The Twelve Disciples, published by InterVarsity Press.