From Jerusalem to Timbuktu: A World Tour of the Spread of Christianity
A shorter version of this review was published previously in Themelios 44, no. 3 (December 2019): 637–39.
Since 2011, senior Canadian Pentecostal leader Brian Stiller has been a global ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA). In his From Jerusalem to Timbuktu Stiller has gifted readers a celebratory survey or “world tour” of the global demographic shift in contemporary Evangelicalism, a shift he documents, describes, and explains with various local vignettes and personal anecdotes. In fact, this book was born from his search for what factors in his own lifetime have been driving the church’s growth in the majority world (2). The city of Timbuktu, Mali, is now the “real (and emblematic)” statistical “center of density of Christian populations” (3) worldwide using Jerusalem as its historical starting point for diffusion.
“Raised in the home of a Pentecostal church leader” (2), Stiller quite understandably writes with a Pentecostal vantage point and bias. Having served for more than fifty years in various Evangelical ministries (2), he also evinces a large-hearted, big tent perspective, as well, of healthy, classical Evangelical ecumenism that this reviewer appreciates. Stiller explicitly locates Pentecostalism as a subset of Evangelicalism (despite contrary taxonomies by others). Stiller’s vantage point and bias is actually warranted and instructive given that “in some countries Pentecostals make up more than half of Evangelicals” (2).
Stiller was lead editor of the textbook, Evangelicals Around the World: A Global Handbook for the 21st Century (Thomas Nelson, 2015), a project of the WEA. From Jerusalem to Timbuktu is more conversational in tone, though very engaged with missiological literature for a book not making the IVP Academic stables. Stiller riffs on the work of many missiologists, historians, and sociologists of religion, including Andrew Walls, Lamin Sanneh, Timothy Tennent, Todd Johnson, Philip Jenkins, and Peter Berger. It’s a helpful introduction to the emerging academic field of “world Christianity” as well as an introduction to the global church itself. The endnotes and extensive bibliography bear this out and provide direction for further study. In this book, the reader encounters Christian faith as expressed and on the move via Albanian, Chinese, Colombian, Egyptian, Filipino, Indian, Iraqi, Mongolian, Nepalese, Romanian, South Korean, Sri Lankan, Thai, and Vietnamese believers, among others. The author, subject, and Scripture indices also serve the reader very well and position the book as a reference work.
The book is at times poetic. The reader stumbles upon the occasional pithy or eloquent sentence. For example, “I was born with a Bible, in my language, in my hand” (18); “Bible translation is ultimately about opening a person to Jesus—not an idea of God, or God as a theophany, but as a person, who took on flesh and (as the book of the Revelation tells us) now bodily still bears the marks of his crucifixion” (61); “The Bible text is made holy when inhabiting other tongues” (71); “God in us, and in this, [in] his world” (160). These doxological semantics far outnumber the statements that non-Pentecostal readers might find theologically “iffy.”
Young Restless Reformed types should lean in and listen humbly to Stiller and his compatriots in order to recognize the sovereign grace of God at work in the midst of dynamic messiness, and to then learn what they might for their own edification before they begin to criticize or attempt teaching for correction. They shouldn’t set the book aside after sifting through the second chapter, which is by far the chapter most colored by Stiller’s own theology. Christian convictions or biblical interpretations with which one disagrees are still good to know for the sake of greater awareness and intelligent, sympathetic, mutually edifying fellowship to the honor of Christ our shared Lord. Besides, Stiller is not without theological criteria or critical reflection on what is out there in the name of Christian faith. He notes “aberrant forms” (68, cf. 195). In a section on contextualization he says syncretism is “a legitimate fear” (85).
An author’s preface and epilogue well frame the “world tour,” noting first its personal significance to Stiller and then finally suggesting its relevance for the reader’s faithful discipleship going forward. Stiller’s thesis is “faith is on the rise,” the title of chapter 1 which alone comprises Part I. This chapter is a good, succinct survey of Evangelicalism on each major continent and briefly introduces each “driver” explained in the following chapters. The bulk of the book, in the middle five chapters, is focused on five drivers that are “growing and reshaping” the church (2). These chapters comprise Part II.
In chapter 2, “The Age of the Spirit,” we find a brief and simplistic historical survey of pneumatology (24–28). The “mystics,” from Montanus to the Keswick Convention, are the charismatic good guys (my term) before the modern Pentecostal movement emerges with Charles Parham and William Seymour. Stiller does acknowledge that the Reformation “opened a window on the Spirit” and that English Puritans “pointed to his centrality in conversion and faithful living” (25). Yet what’s missing is recognition that the difference in emphasis wasn’t an ignorant slighting of the Spirit or a political “state-sponsored preference for the Son” (25), but rather a thoughtful, articulated alternative theology of the Spirit’s Trinitarian role and place in a Christo-centric understanding of revelation and redemptive history.
Stiller’s probably correct, though, in claiming that an increasingly rational approach to Scripture in the early twentieth century by Evangelical scholars in response to critical theories of modern theology “added salt to the broad popular thirst for a Spirit-enabled faith” (30). Stiller is aware, of course, that “Fundamentalist, and sometimes Reformed, Protestants were horrified by what they saw as emotional excess and a misreading of the biblical text” by Pentecostals (36). While painting a dire backdrop for the redemptive emergence of Pentecostalism, Stiller notably avoids snark and any undue critical tone. He models the gracious affirmation of even those brothers and sisters with whom he finds serious disagreement.
There are subsections in this chapter regarding the emphases of Pentecostalism: “return to the miraculous,” “end times theology,” “the Bible, core to identity and practice,” and “ahead of its time” (i.e., moving beyond a merely cognitive and modern way of knowing). Regarding the Bible as core to the identity and practice of Pentecostals, Stiller says: “They embrace, engage, and enter into truth unfolded by their spiritual vision through experience and a ‘listening’ intuition. Yet at the same time the Bible to them is bedrock” (35). He notes the Charismatic movement has been a bridge between Protestant denominations and even between Roman Catholics and Evangelicals (42). Charismatic and Pentecostal believers, whom, as Stiller notes, Todd Johnson calls “Renewalists,” are now a “global force” inhabiting and fueling a “spiritual revolution” of enthusiasm and religious entrepreneurship (44–47).
Chapter 3 on “The Power of Bible Translation” might be my favorite chapter in the book. Here Stiller revels in the fact that “Christianity is a translated faith, and a faith translated” (53) as he celebrates the inherent power of God’s Word. He reminds us of the “double power” of Bible translation: not only translating the words on the page into a vernacular language, but the vernacular words of Scripture being “translated” by readers into their very lives (59). Bible translations enable the Christian faith to fully “live in the neighborhood” of believers from every tribe and tongue (55f). It positively impacts societies by dignifying dialects, revitalizing local cultures, and equipping various peoples and nations for navigating our post-colonial world. Stiller provides examples from North Africa, Oceania, Eastern Europe, and Asia (China and India). He weaves together theology, missions history, translation theory, and contemporary statistics on translation needs and progress.
Chapter 4, “Revolution of the Indigenous,” is about the importance of locally grown leaders and ideas for the deep-seated and serial diffusion of Christian faith from one culture to another. “Localized ownership is a major driver in today’s global witness” (75). Readers find here what I’d call a popular theology of incarnation and indigeneity: “The incarnation of Jesus established the prototype, in both substance and process” (77). Stiller briefly and a bit simplistically contrasts the “old model” of doctrine-oriented and missionary-led church planting with the “new model” of self-governing, self-funding, self-propagating, and self-theologizing (78–81). Stiller then briefly presents a theology of contextualization from glimpses of Paul’s ministry and the Jerusalem council in Acts (84–87). He too uncritically names the insider movement among Muslims and Hindus an “exploratory” method of evangelism (85). But this chapter well represents the essence of the most seminal studies in world Christianity and missions history.
In chapter 5, “Re-engaging the Public Square,” Stiller sketches three “major ideas” that have historically influenced Evangelical perspectives on what is proper Christian engagement with the public sphere: a Christendom model, Calvinism, and Wesleyanism (104), or, as he alternatively states, the theories of Luther, Kuyper, and Menno Simons (106). It isn’t clear how these models relate or have been synthesized by contemporary majority world Evangelicals. But he says, “Many Christians now sense the Spirit calling them to be present in public forums” (104). Stiller asserts that public engagement by Evangelicals in our day is “inevitable” for four reasons: our sheer numbers as part of various populations, the growth of churches and their influence, our political influence as voters, and, “oddly,” he says, our pursuit of self-interest (108). He presents examples from Kenya, Zambia, Brazil, South Korea, and the Philippines.
Chapter 6, “The Power of the Whole Gospel,” is about global Evangelicalism’s embrace of concern for every aspect of life in each local context. This includes one’s broader culture and the unseen spirit world as well as the whole human experience, including the physical and psychological. The chapter provides a quick look at Evangelical relief and development organizations like World Vision (144). Readers get a word on Lausanne ’74 and the contribution of Latin American missiologists there like René Padilla, Samuel Escobar, Emilio Núñez, and Orlando Costas who pushed North American church leaders to a more fully biblical definition of missions and discipleship in full context, as I put it in my classroom (145). Stiller writes as someone who was there, as well: “I could feel the growing wave of understanding, strange and somewhat foreign at first, and then, ‘Ah, yes’” (145).
Perhaps the worst historical theological mistake is in this chapter. Stiller blames Chalcedon and “early Greek Christianity” for a gnostic subordination of the material human body that was, he says, eventually adopted by Western Evangelicals. He then jumps in the narrative from the fifth century to Dispensationalism’s early twentieth century emphasis on conversions over social engagement in reaction to the Social Gospel to set a dire backdrop for the new global Evangelicalism’s more appropriate holistic understanding of the good news and Christian ministry (136–37).
This chapter also includes a well-qualified treatment, though, of prosperity theology. Stiller sets it in post-colonial and whole life perspective, viewing it “from the bottom up” as an issue faced by people in economic instability and a search for human dignity (152). Stiller acknowledges both the legitimate longings (or “logic”) that compel someone toward it, as well as the “flagrant abuses,” “silliness,” and “enormous biblical flaws” often committed by those who promote it (152). Prosperity theology has “attracted a deservedly bad reputation,” he notes (152). Stiller does well to not call it a false gospel per se but an expression of over-realized eschatology (152–53). He rightly asserts, “Like it or not, this movement has become a lathe on which Christianity, not only in Africa but much of the world, is being shaped” (152). Stiller claims (or observes?) that “as the church grows and is revitalized, heresy is almost always a byproduct” (153). While I appreciate his mature and seasoned caution against responding with mere disputation without the intent of mutual exchange, his confidence that orthodoxy will always bubble up and win out as heresy burns off over time seems too passively optimistic.
In the concluding chapter which alone comprises Part III, Stiller notes five “factors” for the drivers of global Evangelicalism; three he specifies as “enablers” of it and two he merely deems “issues” it is facing. Here he provides four-to-seven-page-long primers on each of these topics: prayer movements, women in ministry, praise and worship, refugees and migration (“a human tidal wave”), and persecution. While Stiller too simplistically asserts that US women did “an end run around church policy” by using their gifts and abilities on foreign mission fields in the early twentieth century (172), he does carefully qualify that the China Inland Mission and other organizations didn’t recruit in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with “feminist theology” or “gender arguments” but by appealing to women’s willingness to go to hard places (175). Stiller notes local expressions of praise and worship from Gregory the Great to Martin Luther, Isaac Watts, Ira Sankey, Fanny Crosby, Bill and Gloria Gaither, Larry Norman, and Hillsong. He presents the composition and singing of new worship songs as a kind of translation, with the indigeneity of style and leadership that provides for a whole person experience of the faith. He admits that he and his wife prefer more classical music in worship but commends accommodation of various styles to prioritize the interest of other believers while also asserting the primacy of lyrical content over form (178). In this concluding chapter, too, Stiller succeeds in convincing the reader that “migration redefines the world” (195) and that persecution is more complicated than popularly understood in that there are different types of it, reasons for it, and effects of it.
In a February 2017 editorial in the Journal of Global Christianity, Darren Carlson of Training Leaders International exhorted Western neo-Reformed readers to engage and relate with other believers and ministries more broadly than they are used to doing. He pointed out, after an experience with the Lausanne Movement, what a narrow slice of the global body of Christ they are. Carlson warned against a fundamentalist impulse that could leave neo-Reformed Westerners relatively isolated and unfruitful. He posited lessons to learn from the larger global church. As Stiller notes, the global church is on average quite young. And this new generation of young Evangelicals sees a world without borders, and a church without borders (111). I’m hopeful that this trend will hold true now in the West, as well, among Young Restless Reformed types. From Jerusalem to Timbuktu is certainly a useful primer for making college and seminary students—and current pastors—more aware of the grace of God at work in the world through sisters and brothers in Christ they’ve not yet considered, or they don’t quite yet appreciate.
For another celebratory and “easy” read about the global church that is not without a missiological angle, I highly (and frequently) recommend Miriam Adeney’s Kingdom without Borders: The Untold Story of Global Christianity (IVP, 2009). With less historical background but more references to non-Christian literature and media, Adeney masterfully tells more street level personal stories of her Christian friends and their particular local ministries for a more granular or high definition picture than readers get in From Jerusalem to Timbuktu. Readers who want more scholarly and ecumenical surveys will find much to appreciate in Charles Farhadian, ed. (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012); Sebastian Kim and Kirsteen Kim (Bloomsbury, 2016); and Lalsangkima Pachuau (Abingdon, 2018). For academic surveys of contemporary Pentecostalism as a global phenomenon, see the works of Allan H. Anderson, David Martin, and Donald C. Miller, inter alia.