Understanding Christian Mission: Participation in Suffering and Glory. By Scott W. Sunquist. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013. xiv + 447pp., hardcover, $34.99 (note: originally published in the Criswell Theological Review in Fall of 2014).
Understanding Christian Mission is the latest work by historian and missiologist Scott Sunquist, who presently serves as dean of the school of intercultural studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. Sunquist’s previous works include A History of Presbyterian Missions, 1944-2007 (2008) and A Dictionary of Asian Christianity (2001); however, he is most well known for editing (with Dale T. Irvin) the important two-volume History of the World Christian Movement (2001, 2012).
Sunquist’s aim is to offer an up to date introductory level textbook on Christian mission for use at the seminary and graduate level. In that regard, it resembles a number of books that have been published recently including Stanley Skesret’s Comprehending Christian Mission (2012), Timothy Tennent’s Invitation to World Missions (2010), and the forthcoming Introduction to Global Missions (2014) by David Sills, Jeff Walters, and Zane Pratt. Though a new book, Sunquist is clearly influenced by past missiologists such as David Bosch and Leslie Newbigin and, like Newbigin, frames his missiology in a Trinitarian perspective. Perhaps the most innovative aspect of the book is the argument that suffering and glory are the predominant motifs in Christian mission.
Understanding Christian Mission is broken down into three fairly equal parts: history, theology, and practice. What distinguishes this work from Tennent’s Invitation to World Missions is that Sunquist does not begin with a biblical or theological foundation; rather, in part 1 (five chapters) he starts with a narrative of mission history. That is, he tells the story of mission and then theologizes about it in the second part. While innovative, this approach highlights Sunquist’s strength as a historian of mission and he certainly pays forward the work already done in History of the World Christian Movement. In part 2, Sunquist takes just three chapters and articulates a Trinitarian theology of mission devoting a chapter each to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’s role in mission. Like Tennent, he argues for an increased understanding of the Holy Spirit in mission. Though helpful, this section does not move beyond the Trinitarian missiology championed since the mid-twentieth century. In the final part, Sunquist devotes five chapters to the practical work of mission today with special emphasis on the church in mission, evangelism, urban mission, global partnership, and spirituality in mission.
This work has a number of strengths. First, as noted, among recent introductory mission texts, it has the strongest historical foundation. I think Sunquist’s choice to begin with the narrative is a fresh approach and he is also able to later illustrate some theological and practical principles by referring back to the historical section. Second, I think Sunquist made good choices in what to emphasize in the practical chapters in part 3. Given the increasingly urbanized world we live and serve in, it makes sense to give an entire chapter to urban mission (chap. 11) and to craft a theology of the city. Also, given the diverse global church and that mission is now from everywhere to everywhere, it was good for Sunquist to discuss global partnership in mission and to lay out a theological basis for partnership based on the Trinity, the Lord’s high priestly prayer, the body of Christ, the model of the apostles (pp. 375-79). Finally, I applaud Sunquist for keeping evangelism (chap. 10) central to his understanding of mission.
While I appreciate Sunquist’s dedicated chapter on evangelism and his key chapter on urban mission, it seems that his “outline for urban missional engagement” (pp. 363-69) lacks a deliberate evangelistic focus and the short-section on church planting (p. 364) is more aimed at social needs than proclamation. Related, I was a bit troubled that in the historical section of the same chapter (pp. 359-60), Sunquist seems to praise the leaders of the early twentieth-century social gospel movement for their urban focus. While mission has always been in word (kerygma) and deed, the social gospel certainly de-emphasized the spiritual and eternal implications of the gospel.
In summary, Sunquist succeeds in showing that suffering and glory are key themes for understanding Christian mission. The author’s references throughout the work to his own active participation in mission only lend credibility to his claims and remind us that the academic study of mission must be regularly infused by mission practice. I happily recommend this book to students and colleagues as a great resource for reflecting on and participating in mission in the twenty-first century.