Understanding Christian Mission: Participation in Suffering and Glory


Scott Sunquist has given the whole church a beautiful book. Writing out of his own experience as a missionary in Asia and American-based theological educator, decades of careful study, and wide exposure to mission in the name of Christ, the Dean of the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary has forged a synthesis of history, theology, and applied missiology that will benefit all sorts of readers, including both beginners and veterans.

This volume combines theory and practice; general surveys and specific examples; professional reflection and personal experience; lessons from both the Eastern and Western church; ecumenical and evangelical; Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant perspectives. The style combines clarity and elegance, precision and passion, objective information and subjective response.


The introduction lays the foundation by tracing the history of missiology, a relative latecomer to the academic curriculum. He defines key terms: mission, missions, missionary, missiology, missional. Interestingly, he retains the old word “missionary” as a biblical noun for one who is “sent from the heart of God to proclaim the present and coming Kingdom of God to all nations of the earth” (8). He observes that “theology starts with mission,” both in the history of the church and in the fact that “missiological reflection is both the context of all theology and the first movement in theological reflection” (9).

While describing some definitions of mission, he notes their common points: “Mission” involves crossing frontiers, communication of an essential core message, and contextualizing that message in particular cultures. He then describes this book as a missiology that is “Trinitarian, catholic, and evangelical” (15). Missiology speaks of the mission of the Triune God, involves the entire worldwide church, and centers upon the gospel of God’s work in Jesus Christ.

Nine contextual concerns inform Sunquist’s approach:

  1. “Theology” – including missiology - “must be ecumenically informed (globally and from many churches)” (16).

  2. “Missiology must be big enough to include various strands of Christianity. . .” and “focused enough to be distinguished from the Rotary or local Garden Club.”

  3. We must be aware of the special characteristics of twenty-first century Christianity: it is “mostly non-Western”; “growing outside the older boundaries of Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox churches” to include “spiritual and indigenous forms of Christianity”; and now less organized, and much more diffuse than previously (17).

  4. “The major issues of today have to do with religious encounters, political presence, and ongoing human-induced tragedies” (19).

  5. His major dialogue partners include a small, but representative, group of thinkers from various times, places, and traditions. This is a major key to understanding the book.

  6. Mission “is really a dimension of our spirituality”; missiology, therefore, is “a spiritual theology.”

  7. Christianity is unique, because it speaks of the “uniqueness of God’s redemption” in Christ (19).

  8. He follows Andrew Walls in “understanding that Christianity is both incarnational (Jesus tabernacles among us, and so is at home in all cultures) and a pilgrim faith (Christians are not at home; we are pilgrims and refugees)” (19).

  9. The gospel must take root in all cultures, but it must also challenge all cultures.

Part I, Suffering and Glory in Mission: The Mission Movement

Sunquist, who has already published standard works of Christian history (including A Dictionary of Asian Christianity; Time, Cross, and Glory: Understanding Christian History; and (with Dale Irvin) A History of the World Christian Movement, 2 volumes), begins the book with a broad survey of the history of the Christian mission movement. He does this for several reasons: 1. Christianity is a historical religion. 2. “Christian missions is a process that takes place in history,” and is “both influenced by the historical and exists for the sake of influencing what is historical” (24).

As you might expect, the author’s treatment of the history of mission(s) is both comprehensive and focused: his theme remains the suffering and glory of the church in mission. A few major subsidiary themes stand out: The necessity of learning the local language and culture; the centrality of Bible translation; the role of renewal and revival in sparking new mission movements; the folly of wedding the gospel to any particular culture, or of expressing it in terms that promise worldly benefits alone; the unhappy association of Western missions with imperialism; the central role of mission societies; the place of the Great Commission in motivating evangelical missions; and the necessity of appreciating local cultures.

In the 20th century, other themes appear: the urgent imperative of fostering truly independent indigenous churches; the checkered role of expensive institutions (such as universities and hospitals); the revolutionary results of 20th century wars and independence movements; the growth of the ecumenical movement; the rise of Spirit and Pentecostal churches; the growth of the worldwide evangelical movement; the sudden rise of non-Western churches; the debate over the place of “liberation” in mission preaching and praxis; the boundaries of inter-religious dialogue; the vast changes brought about by Vatican II; the post-World War 2 “nationalizing of missions and the decline of the West” as a missions force, rapidly replaced by mission societies from other nations; and increasing dialogue about mission among evangelicals, liberal Protestants, and Roman Catholics.

Although particular statements here and there may be questioned, overall this section strikes one as an almost magisterial overview of the history of missions. It deserves repeated readings and reflection.

Part 2, “The Suffering and Glory of the Triune God”

With this brief historical background, which Sunquist admits is sketchy, Part 2 seeks to root missiology in Scripture and the Great Tradition. As one example of why we need to know how other Christians have understood the gospel, he cites the popular, but tragic, loss of repentance and confession of sin in the evangelistic message of many people today, and thus the lack of spiritual depths in too many churches.

He believes that his approach has three helpful features: First, he sees the mission of God as “a matter of our participating with Jesus Christ in his suffering love for the greater glory of God to be revealed.” This will, of course, “critique any and all gospels of health and wealth” (172). Amen! Second, he envisions “mission as a fundamental dimension of Christian existence,” and thus as central to the church and “a matter of basic discipleship” for all believers (172-173). Finally, “mission is primarily a matter of spirituality,” “an expression of spiritual life in God,” and thus something about which ancient disciples can teach us (173).

At this point, Sunquist offers his own definition of mission: “Christian mission is the church’s participation in the Triune God through the suffering of Christ, who was sent by the Father for the redemption and liberation of the world, by means of the conversion of individuals and cultures, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to the end that God be glorified in the nations and in all of his creation” (173). Every part of this definition will be unpacked in the following chapters. Here I would only note the necessary insistence upon our participation in the suffering of the Lord Jesus.

How I wish I could just even list some of the powerful and illuminating statements and concepts in this section, including quotations from figures from church history! A few examples: All of the Bible is about God’s mission and therefore ours. Mission is one of two major themes of the Bible (the other being God’s glory). There is a basic Bible story – a metanarrative, if you will! – that must be told. “Trinitarian language for God has always been expressed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” so “mother” is not an appropriate title for God (190).

“Jesus as missionary, Jesus as message, and Jesus as sending Messiah are all part of a study of Jesus in the mission of God” (202). “The central image of this story [about Jesus] is the cross” (205). The “central concern” of God’s mission is “God saves (from sin)” (207). “The mission of God carried out by the church will be resisted. Jesus’ response to this resistance, and the church’s response, is to speak clearly, act faithfully, and receive the rejection in gentleness and humble submission” (212). “Christian spirituality is centered on humble witness through suffering” (214). Try telling that to Joel Osteen!

“The Holy Spirit in Mission: Presence, Participation, and Power”

Space does not allow more than the slightest reference to this very rich chapter. The author laments the absence of attention given to the fundamental role of the Spirit in Mission, and seeks to provide a corrective. In short, “Christian mission is a dynamic process whereby the Holy Spirit is at work in the elect to bear witness to the salvific and liberating work of Jesus Christ for all nations. The active agent – the power and the personality, the righteousness and the relationship – in Christian mission is the Holy Spirit” (232). He writes of the Holy Spirit and the church; in Acts and the ancient church; the Spirit and the God of the Old Testament. Aside from one or two references to the “conversion” of cultures, I found the sections on cultures and contextualization, as well as the discussion of other religions, both balanced and challenging.

Part 3, “The Suffering and Glory of the Church: The Church in Mission Today”

After first establishing the fundamental declaration that the church is missional by nature, Sunquist further treats the church as “the community of worship and witness,” (Chapter 9) where believers “find their meaning in devotion to Christ and in discipleship of the nations” (282). His observation that “the [church as] community must develop smaller communities in which genuine, caring, and loving relationships, marked by forgiveness and trust, can flourish” will thrill proponents of small groups and house churches (293). He takes up Ralph Winter’s concept of the two “redemptive structures” of the local church and the “sodality – a structure designed to carry out a specific task” (303).

Chapter 10 contains a most helpful discussion of “evangelism and Christian mission,” with many practical insights. Very, very gently, Sunquist dares to say that hell is real and that it is “something to be avoided,” though he refuses to say what happens to those who have never heard the gospel (335). Chapter 11, “Urban Community: Mission and the City,” stresses the strategic importance of the city and of churches in the great cities of the world, and offers principles for effective urban ministry.

Chapter 12, “Global Community: Partnership in Mission,” displays the kind of nuance and comprehensiveness that characterize the entire volume. The term “partnership” is defined; different examples show how it can be done both well and poorly; the history of the concept is traced, along with its biblical basis; and practical guidelines are given for effective partnerships in mission.

The final chapter, “Spirituality and Mission: Suffering and Glory,” recaps some lessons from mission history before a detailed description of “Mission as Christian Spirituality.” Seven elements receive brief but powerful portrayal: silence, Scripture, community, repentance, action, attentiveness, and love. Sunquist reminds us of the value of reading missionary biographies, restates his central conviction that mission must involve sacrifice, and closes with the crucial truth that “the final word in mission is glory. . . God’s glory that will be revealed through the church in this age and in the age to come” (410).

Some Questions

Any work this long and complex, treating a subject replete with controversy, will invite questions and calls for further discussion. Clarification is needed for the claim that, “compared with the fourth family of Christianity (radical or Spiritual), the Protestant division should be understood to be more of a slight mutation” (43). Some Protestants will wonder about his mostly positive assessment of the Jesuit mission in China. Some New Testament scholars and missiologists will no doubt object to the statement that the “Great Commission (Matthew28:19) is focused on cultures” (174). The assertion that the New Testament writings were “translated from Aramaic to Greek” (199) will evoke more than a few raised eyebrows as well.

His characterization of Jesus’ message at Nazareth (Luke 4) as one of “liberation” requires much clearer explanation, as do a couple of comments he makes about the “conversion” of cultures (252). Is this really a good way of describing the effects of “salt and light” Christians in society? Likewise with the assertion that “the particular practices [Jesus] confronted in society were often practices that promoted injustice and oppression” (253). In a similar vein, the broad accusation that “banking and business practices that make possible the accumulation of wealth in the presence of oppressive poverty” are “immoral activities” (354) must be qualified in order to make sense.

Conservative evangelicals will wonder about his undiluted praise for the Social gospel movement, while some with a knowledge of history will take issue with the same assessment of Martin Luther King, Jr., who denied his father’s evangelical faith and basically promoted a form of liberation theology. Proponents of house churches will challenge Sunquist’s affirmation that “there is always a need for large churches: cathedrals that are reminders of the global Christian family and that have the leverage to address complex situations” (366).

Though he writes as a committed evangelical, and though he clearly describes such conflicts as the fundamentalist-liberal debates in the early 20th century, Sunquist’s broad ecumenical inclusiveness sometimes leaves him open to the charge of blurring the abiding importance of distinctions between Roman Catholic and Protestant understandings of the gospel, and of liberal and ecumenical theological conflicts.

Nevertheless, at the end of the day, most will concur with the lavish praise from reviewers quoted on the back cover. Understanding Christian Mission will probably serve as a standard textbook for a long time. We all owe Scott Sunquist a debt of gratitude for what was obviously a labor of love.

ReviewsG. Wright Doyle