Review by Titus Presler
A common assumption in many denominations since the mid-20th century has been that the growth of the church in Africa, Asia, and Latin America — commonly called the Majority World — made evangelism and church planting obsolete in the global mission of churches in Europe and North America.
Today, the common argument says, further evangelism and church planting is the responsibility of indigenous Majority World Christians, while European and North American churches focus their world mission on infrastructure and interchurch companionship that avoids colonial condescension and cultural meddling.
Appreciation for other religious paths and a stereotype that evangelism means dismissing or condemning other religions has further strengthened the tendency among mainline Christians, including Episcopalians, to sideline or excise evangelism and church planting in their global engagement.
Shadows from Light Unapproachable is a collection of essays that testifies to what in this missiological environment is a countercultural movement founded in 1993 as Anglican Frontier Missions (AFM). Writers drawn from Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America discuss the perennial mandate of sharing the gospel with people who have not heard it and have no indigenous church. In 1990 these were 1.8 billion people, or about a third of the world’s population, among over 6,000 ethno-linguistic groups.
Most of the 15 contributors to the volume, which is edited by Tad de Bordenave, AFM’s founding director, highlight fruits of the witness and community-building work of AFM and other Anglican groups among hitherto unevangelized people groups. The essays also testify to fruitful collaboration between activists in North America and the Majority World.
Norman Beale writes of work among the Tamang and others of Nepal, where today there are more than 100 Anglican congregations gathered into a deanery of the Diocese of Singapore. Bishop Nathan Inyom of Makurdi in Nigeria writes of establishing AFM Nigeria and its work among the Baka Pygmies of Cameroon.
An especially outstanding essay comes from Joshua Wu, who recounts how people with whom he planted churches in China and Southeast Asia brought him to a deeper and fuller understanding of the gospel, thereby embodying the listening that must accompany faithful proclamation.
“I needed to listen to them,” he says, “and together we needed to listen to the Word of God and discern the leading of the Holy Spirit.” He describes how working with the Dong people’s need for ordered worship led him into Anglicanism.
Similarly, working in Turkey led Chris Royer, AFM’s current executive director, from a free-church background into Anglicanism, which Christians with a Muslim background found especially congenial. He writes of how, when organically contextualized, Anglican emphases on the creeds, Eucharist, and even the lectionary helped in discipling the newly evangelized in Turkey. In a memorable sentence for any context, Royer writes, “The beauty of Anglican liturgical worship is its usefulness and suitability as a garden tool for cultivating the spiritual soil of the heart.”
While Royer expresses respect and appreciation for the Muslims among whom he worked, a disturbingly discordant note is struck by Duane Miller, who denies that Islam is even a religion and insists instead that it is a legal-political order bent on world domination. With that premise, it is not surprising that Miller considers inter-religious dialogue a naïve and futile enterprise. Nevertheless, Miller’s essay is useful in documenting that there is at least one Anglican of such sweeping negativity and in helping readers develop more nuanced views.
As in any collection, these anniversary essays vary in quality, and some would have benefited from more fact-checking and closer editing. Gratitude for God’s providential action is always good, but at times I wished for more precise analysis of theological, cultural, and missional dynamics. There are no essays from Latin America, but with limited resources AFM has understandably focused on the least evangelized in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
Inspired by Michael Curry, Episcopalians are now reengaging with evangelism as “the spiritual practice of seeking, naming, and celebrating Jesus’ loving presence in people’s lives and then inviting them to more,” so evangelism’s long domestic eclipse may be ending. Shadows from Light Unapproachable should prompt all involved in the church’s global mission to consider how to reincorporate evangelism and church planting in the church’s collaborative work abroad.
The Rev. Titus Presler is a missiologist with experience in India, Zimbabwe, and Pakistan and president of the Global Episcopal Mission Network.