A Review of Mission after Christendom by David Smith

Society is changing, but so many in Christian missions appear to act as if not much has really changed in the past two hundred years. We still think of the unconverted as ‘over there’. We still talk of ‘crusades’ and ‘conquering’. I read a recent example of this in Exploring the New Testament written by Howard Marshall where he described Paul’s missionary journeys with the militaristic phrase ‘campaign’s’. The West can no longer be thought of as ‘Christendom’. We live in a society that has left modernism and rationalism behind and replaced it with post-modernism, secularisation and globalisation. The centre of Christianity has moved from the Northern hemisphere to the southern. This all presents a challenge to modern missions that David Smith seeks to address in this book. He explains that we could react with one of three responses; 1. ‘Business as usual’, asking ‘what crisis?’ 2. Radical revisionism. The danger with this position is that it ignores the goods of the past or 3. searching for the new frontiers of mission, making a paradigm shift from ‘Christendom’ and facing the world that there now is.
In doing this Smith looks at the challenge of Secularisation (how far the West has moved from a Christian identity), Pluralisation (how there is a challenge in meeting Christians in other cultures with their cultures; the West cannot claim a monopoly on doctrinal understanding), and Globalisation (the problem of the West exporting not only democracy but capitalism and technology; the message of the missionary can get caught up with his culture). Smith uses art to illustrate these issues. Each of these chapters are followed by an example from the Bible which provide a model for how we might respond to the challenges presented. Finally Smith looks at the way we might move forward, being willing to meet these challenges and to trust the God will build his Kingdom.

Smith presents a strong case for the challenges that must be faced by Christians today. What is particularly compelling is that the process of secularisation and globalisation is one that has been slowly taking place for a four hundred years and was recognised as an issue at that time. Smith examines how the expansion of mission in the 18th/19th centuries was accompanied by the cultural expansion of the West. These two in many ways became inextricably tied, causing the danger of proselytisation rather than conversion. The spread of technology of these last few centuries, though helpful in many ways equally has changed cultures that it has encountered. Sometimes this has been for good. Inevitably missionaries have taken with them literacy, and perhaps even people group’s language in written form for the first time. In some areas this has actually contributed to the rising up of suppressed groups against their oppressors as they gain a more concrete identity.
The use of art was extremely effective in my view as it was a very visual way of illustrating the thought of the day. I found particularly sticking the use of ‘the Ambassadors’ and the prophetic nature of this painting as it foresaw the death of man as he relied on his reason alone, with the cross sidelined.
A potential weakness was a potentially universalistic tone to some of the book. Smith talks of hints of the spiritual within people even in the West and ‘Godly pagans’ (p.67). While these statements may contain truth I think more needed to be said on the subject as it appeared to open the way for a potentially weaker view of the need for Jesus as Lord and Saviour. Having said this it did challenge the prevailing view that ‘we have got it right’ and encourage us to dialogue with others and critically examine our previously held views.

This book gives a strong challenge to rethink the traditional way of doing ‘missions’, to think more about learning than simply teaching those ‘over there’, to critically examine our own culture in the light of Jesus. Smith also opened up the issue of ‘translating’ the gospel for other cultures, by no means changing it, but making it understandable. I think the strongest challenge is to engage in mission that presents Jesus into people’s cultures and does not pull others out of their culture to meet Jesus in ours.