If you read the right commentary on the state of Christianity, it will seem like doom is coming and we are well into the waning days of the faith, well past the point of no return. Those discussions of the present and future of Christianity tend to rely on data from the developed world, particularly the Northern Hemisphere that has been strongly influenced by the European colonialism.
In From Jerusalem to Timbuktu: A World Tour of the Spread of Christianity, Brian Stiller offers a much different picture. Stiller words as global ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance and has previously served as president of Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto. The reality he describes is generally more reassuring than the darkest of predictions, but disconcerting to those who have concerns about recent innovations in Christian doctrine. There is much to celebrate about the spread of the gospel, but much work to do, as well.
Stiller offers a number of reasons for the spread of Christianity. He cites the spread of Charismatic theology as a contributor to the spread of Christianity. (More on that later.) He also notes that the increase in the number of Bible translations in the heart languages of more people have advanced the cause of Christ. There is little doubt that the proliferation of God’s word has done a great deal to advance the spread of Christianity as a local movement.
Another reason for the spread of the gospel is the willingness of missionaries, particularly those from the West, to allow Christianity to take local forms by not constraining converts by Western clothing and music. This conversation is helpful, though Stiller seems to be uncritical of some forms of contextualization that appear to be closer to syncretism than authentic Christianity. Additionally, Stiller cites the efforts of Christians to engage in the public square for the common good as Christians. Corollary to engagement in the public square is the recovery of an emphasis on the implications of the gospel—in other words, seeking reconciliation in more than just the spiritual dimension—among Christians.
There is a great deal to celebrate about the growth of Christianity and Stiller’s book is encouraging in that general sense. On the whole, however, Stiller spends too much time arguing for recent theological innovations instead of simply reporting the facts. In particular, Stiller attempts to justify the rise of female pastors and Charismatic theology as normative and consistent with Christian tradition. It is clear from his argument that he believes these movements, largely unknown in the Christian church until the 19th century, are causes to be celebrated regardless of their differences with the historical practices of the church. It would have been a better book if Stiller had reported the facts instead of trying to push a theological agenda. His arguments on this front rely on pragmatic justification: these recent theological developments appear to be working, therefore they must be good.
Both with the rise of Charismatic versions of Christianity and excessive contextualization, the book fails to consider sufficiently the detrimental nature of the syncretism of pagan spirit worship with Christianity that he notes on several occasions. Similarly, he is insufficiently critical of the Prosperity Gospel movement, focusing on the abuses of its leaders rather than the theological poverty of the entire system. That critique is necessarily buried, since the Prosperity Gospel movement is a direct theological child of the revisionist Charismatic and Pentecostal movements—the Prosperity Gospel spreads most rapidly among those who seek ongoing special revelation as a special gift from God.
It is exciting that the gospel is spreading, but not all movements that claim to be gospel may accurately reflect authentic Christianity. In that sense, Stiller’s book should raise concern among orthodox believers.
Setting aside those critiques, this is a largely encouraging volume. Although there is much handwringing in the West about the rise of Nones and the secularization of our Christian heritage, the Gospel of Christ is on the move. Stiller’s book pulls the reader’s focus from cable news stories about US Supreme Court cases, concerns over student aid for those who choose to attend a Christian university, and the minor persecutions that seem to highlight some media channels.
Most importantly, and the thing that makes this book worth reading, is that it offers reassurance that in Christ we are more than conquerors. It calls the reader to recognize the great need for evangelization, the opportunities for evangelism, and the possibility that each of us can participate in the spread of the gospel if we simply obey the command to do so.
NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this book with no expectation of a positive review.