Ed SmitherㅣChristian Mission A Concise Global History
1:44PM Dec 29, 2020
Jonathan J. Armstrong
It is our tremendous pleasure today to be speaking with Dr. Ed Smither, professor and Dean of Intercultural Studies at Columbia International University, and also author of the text that we'll be discussing today, Christian Mission: A Concise Global History. Thank you so much, Dr. Smither, for being with us today.
Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Dr. Smither, if we can jump right in, your book is a history of mission. How do you define Christian mission?
Well, mission is a word we don't find in Scripture. But mission means sending. And we find the word sending all over scripture probably 800 times in the Old Testament, about twice a chapter in John's Gospel, Jesus is the sent one. In the garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve fell, God sent himself on mission to engage them. And so, so the Bible is about a missionary sending God, I have a very sophisticated definition for mission, it's crossing barriers, from faith to non-faith among all peoples among all cultures. And so, so with that, we are on mission when we go next door to our neighbors were on mission when we go to the next cubicle, and our place of work. It's it's about crossing barriers. And often it's about removing obstacles to connecting with the people of God and in the not yet people of God.
Thank you so much. And so this is a history of mission. Many of us think of missionaries, when we think of the word mission, how many of those who participated in this broader mission that you described, would have understood themselves as missionaries.
Very few actually, when I study that, especially the early church, when I think about someone like Justin Martyr, who was a philosopher by training, who very much did the work of mission when he put his head on the pillow at night, he didn't think he didn't self identify as a missionary or many bishops in the early church, who like Irenaeus was a bishop of a church in in Gaul, was involved in cross cultural mission. He saw himself as a bishop. And we have others like monks and and other just normal everyday people who certainly engaged in mission but they wouldn't have saw themselves as in a special class or a special vocation. The idea of a vocational missionary is really, I think, a 16th century idea that develops.
This concept of missionary in a formal sense develops in the 16th century. Of course, the 16th century is also a packed century. For those of us who study church history, that's also the century of the Reformation. Was there any correlation between the Protestant Reformation the Catholic counter reformation in this concept of missionary in the modern sense?
Well, it's actually among the Catholics, it's among the Jesuits. It was Ignatius of Loyola, that first use the term missions to describe the work of taking the gospel to the nations. And so the Jesuits coined the term missions and started to talk about missionaries. I will say though, before that the language of missionary we hear people like Eusebius, who obviously you're quite familiar with talking about wandering evangelist and traveling evangelist. Origen talking about those who are itinerant, even in the early Didache, we get the sense of, of people moving about to proclaim the gospel. But we don't have the term missionary until until the Jesuits. Now, in terms of the Protestant Reformation in Europe, I think that the best thing that the Protestant Reformation did is reignited a passion to translate the scriptures. When we think about Luther's work in 1521-22, hidden in the castle and Eisenach in Germany, he spent 10 weeks translating the New Testament into colloquial German, and what he and others with the with the with the Reformation value of sola scriptura. Scripture is the final authority for what we believe as Protestants became involved in the work of global mission. They were very keen on translating the Bible. And so which was something actually we saw a lot in the early church, but by about the sixth century, started to kind of come to a halt. And so one of the best things I think that that the Reformation did, was the value of Scripture. In the vernacular of the peoples of the world.
Thank you very much. And Dr. SMither, I sometimes muse whether we would have the great century of Christian mission and this other very productive post reformation time of Christian mission, in the modern sense of the word if the Reformation had not happened at all, is there some sort of growing rivalry that takes place between the Catholic Church the Lutheran churches and the other Protestant churches in this post reformation era, is all denominations everywhere are teaming to take the whole world for Christ is missionary, the modern missionary enterprise, somehow a child of the reformation.
think it's a child of later generations of the Reformation. In the first generation among the magisterial reformers, Luther and Calvin, their mission field was the church. They were evangelizing the church, and that needed to be done. Now we do see Calvin sending missionaries back in he was a refugee and what is now Switzerland sending preachers back into France, even one experiment to Brazil, but for the most part in the first generation, it was evangelizing the church. But in later generations, especially in Lutheranism, we see the pietist movement developing where there was a it was a spiritual renewal movement. And that's what gave birth to groups that the German pietists that first went to India. And then later the Moravians, they grew out of this renewal movement, a revival in prayer, of not wanting to just know and have sound doctrine, which was important, but to experience and to possess God in a heartfelt way. And, and so I see a correlation in the later reformation of renewal and revival movements, that often spurn Global Mission movements such as the Moravians.
Thank you very much, Dr. Smither for that reflection, Dr. Smither, when we speak of a global history, you're bringing together sources that are not in every textbook of church history, many church history textbooks, even today still focus on Western sources, you're seeking to portrayed the whole story of Christian mission from a global perspective, which is to say the very least a daunting task. What did you do about this question of sources?
Sure. I think, I think we in the West, we need to confess that we contend to do create history in our own image. And we look at our own story, but a Christianity is a global history. So in the year 635, when the when the monk when the Persian monk Alopen, was presenting the gospel to the Emperor of China, he was hearing the gospel at the same time that one of the kings of England, Oswald was hearing the gospel. So the gospel was spreading much farther east than it was going west. But you're correct that our our written records of mission history are better preserved in the West. However, I think people scholars like Philip Jenkins, in the last 15-20 years have really paved the way to recover documents and other sources, from the eastern spread of Christianity in the in the in the medieval period. I mean, when we look at sources, we do have a pretty good account of let's say, the church of the East that that Ephrem of Syria was a part of or Timothy of Baghdad, we have their writings Timothy of Baghdad was a was an eighth century Bishop, eighth, the ninth century Bishop in Baghdad would, which is now Iraq, and he was responsible for sending missionaries across Asia and into China. So we have his writings, we have a record of his works. Part of it is is getting those translated and available to the west. Part of it is paying attention to them to begin with. But we also have to realize that as historians, we read documents and text, but we also have breakthroughs in archaeology. We have oral history. So when the Portuguese arrived in India in 1500, and they met 100,000 Syriac speaking Christians that said, we are the church of Thomas, Jesus's doubting disciple. There were there wasn't a documentary trail, a written trail, but there was an oral history. And so I think we can responsibly work between the archaea-- archaeological texts, the oral memory of the church, along with more and more written texts that we're seeing translated into languages of the West.
Dr. Smither, you title the 20th century, the century the global century of Christian mission, and so much takes place in the 20th century, the Atlas of global Christianity tells us that in the year 1900, there were about 10 million Christians in the continent of Africa. And around the year 2000, there were around 360 million Christians in the continent of Africa. I think of what's taking place in China today, we only hear the faintest of rumors. But it seems as though a one of church history's greatest revivals is taking place in China right now. How do you get sources on even recent history? But because the historical record seems very much incomplete, at this point, how do you get information on this global story you're telling?
It is difficult. Because when people don't live in free societies, they don't want to write down and publish and put online, what's going on. But yet people talk, and we live in a globalized world where people are meeting. And we are, you know, getting a sense of how many believers let's say there are in China, even the the government of China records that there are at least 100 million Christians. So they're keeping their own records. So we pay attention to that. It's it is more of an oral setting, we need to be careful to protect people who are in not living in free societies. But the reality of the 20th century, especially in the post colonial period, moving beyond the 1950s is that the the evangelization of Africa, and China was done by Africans and Chinese Westerners, and people coming from the outside, did a good job. We made our mistakes, sometimes better mistakes and other places than others. But most of the work of evangelism has been Africans reaching Africans. And so I really honestly, I don't know if we'll be able to capture the whole story in our lifetimes. But, but but we are getting, I think, a sense of, of how the church is growing in the world. And we see centers for World Christianity, developing where where things are being responsively reported. And and and so that's that's a hopeful thing.
Thank you, Dr. Smither. Where, for you, were acquiring adequate sources, the greatest challenge and what doors would you like to see open up in the future for future research?
I would say that I would surmise or think that there are still undiscovered resources that we have. We still have lots of things in Syriac and other languages that still need to be trends. It that will shed more light on the story of mission. I do think we are seeing breakthroughs. We see scholars like Robin Jensen, who's an art and church historian who does quite a good job with looking at mosaics and art and archaeology and triangulating that with written documents. And so I think that as as literate peoples from the west, we also have to appreciate the visual texts and the oral texts that come to us. And to make sense of all of that. So I think that the resources are there. I think that the biggest thing is the desire to discover global Global Mission history.
And if I may ask one more source question, Dr. Smither, what books would you recommend to those desiring to learn more about this church in the East, many of us know the Roman sources fairly well, church of the East is something new. How do we learn about the church in East?
Yes, I'm a good starting point is Samuel Moffitt's first volume on the the history of Christianity in Asia, I want to say, one great source that I've appreciated is Wilhelm Baum and Dietmar Winkler's book, The Church of the East, it's published by Routledge in the year 2000. That's been a breakthrough. a breakthrough book in terms of understanding the Church of the East, which takes us away from calling the Church of the East in the Nestorian Church. There is a scholar at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Paul Lewis, who is a scholar of the Church of the east, and he's continuing to publish articles and, and I think has a monograph coming out. And so, so we're seeing more and more source material made available.
Hmm. Thank you very much. Dr. Smither, we often hear that the moravians are this first advance of the modern mission movement, but precisely if I may ask was the role of the moravians in the modern mission movement as you see it?
Well, I think that they, we learn a lot from them, they do. First of all, they come out of a movement of prayer and spirituality. They actually they were a refugee community, who settled in what's now Eastern Germany. I was there about six months ago. And they didn't get along terribly well. They struggle, but through prayer and life together and community, they experienced revival and, and, and they couldn't keep that to themselves. But I think what they illustrate for us is, we often think of mission going we say, from the west to the rest, from places of power, political and economic power, to the rest of the world. But the moravians were were a good example of what I call vulnerable mission. They were tradesmen, and carpenters, and shoemakers, who earned their own way. And even if they went to some very difficult places, they went to Greenland and Lapland. And they went and ministered to slaves, on plantations in the Caribbean, and really humbled themselves and lived very, very simply, very modestly, they aggravated other European colonists, through their work. And so, so I think they're a good model of an evangelical mission, because they were focused on the mission and going very humbly, and not seeking power in what they were doing.
Dr. Smither, you are not only a scholar of the history of Christian mission, but you've also served as a missionary both in France and North Africa for 14 years. And you teach at a school that has a tremendous legacy in the history of missions. What is it that you see? How is it that you see the Christian missions is changing today?
Sure, well, first of all, the most of the global missionaries are not from the west. Now. They are Brazilian, Nigeria, and Malaysian, Korean, even Chinese. And so as, as we, the body of Christ, the global Body of Christ are involved in mission. We need to we have cross cultural teams, we have people from different cultures. And so the teams that I served on, we're all multicultural teams. And that's challenging, that takes a lot of work. I think for us from the west, it takes humbling ourselves, we tend to come with more wealth, and more comfort, and a higher standard of living. And so we need to be equal partners and good teammates with those that come from different parts of the world. And to see our role in that. And some parts of the world, I think about a country like Iran, it's not really possible for a North American to really live in Iran right now, because of political problems. But But Brazilians can, and others for other believers from other parts of the world. So so in some some cases, global believers will take the lead in some contexts that that Westerners won't, and that's a good thing. The other big thing that I see changing and moving forward is, I think, kind of recapturing some of the early church is that perhaps the full time vocational missionary identity will go away. And we'll have global professionals, teachers and medical workers and other people who, who migrate globally, using their professional skills. And they integrate in a community and bring blessing through their work, their excellence in their work, and their contribution, but also have a witness there. And so I think the the idea of someone being a full time supported, vocational missionary, that's still a thing we celebrate, I don't think that should go away. But I think more and more, there are opportunities for for people. And if I give one example, I have a recent graduate who is Singaporean Canadian, and he works for an International Bank, and he lives in New York City. And he asked me, I want to become a missionary. And I said, Well, tell me what you're doing with your life, right? And I said, Well, I work with international students in New York City. And I reached out to people in my workplace, very global workplace. And I said, that sounds like you're on mission to me. And the good thing is with your company, you'll continue to work and maybe they'll place you in Malaysia or someplace else in the world. That's, that's really neat, and he has a good ministry. But sometimes because of our traditional views of what a missionary or a pastor is, he doesn't necessarily see how strategically he's placed in his opportunities.
Dr. Smither, what do you see as the future of Christian missions?
I do think it's, I do think it's believers, all kinds of believers in different professions. Who are we live in a globalized world, we live in a world with people on the move. I see God's people moving all around the world for their work, and their studies and their calling, and integrating professionally. And so I think I think teachers and medical workers and others have the great opportunity to, to pursue their careers, but also to live out the gospel all around the world.
Dr. Smither, thank you so much for these reflections. If I can ask one final question that we've been asking all of the interviewees on this program, and that is this, what would it mean for the church to be united today? How would we recognize this unity? And what is it that we can do to pursue the Unity for which Jesus prayed in john 17?
I think that, that in the church, Jesus gave us two specific forms of worship baptism and the Lord's Supper. I think the second one, the Lord's Supper is neglected by many global Christians. I would love to see communities come together of different traditions and backgrounds, and having communion at the Lord's table together, and, and having meals together. And even people that don't think that they can have communion together. I'd like for them to revisit that I'd like for us to revisit that. But when I read the scriptures, I think that walls are broken down when people sit at a table together and have a meal together. That's what we look forward to at the at the, at the Messianic banquet that the Scriptures tell us about and so I think we can, we can get a start on that today in our worship by worshiping around the Lord's table in communion. And by having table fellowship with with believers from different traditions.
It's been our privilege today to be speaking with Dr. Ed Smither, professor and Dean of Intercultural Studies at Columbia International University and author of the texts that we've been discussing, discussing Christian mission, a concise global history, Dr. Smither, and thank you so much for joining us today.
Thank you so much.