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I Understand
Volume 1.2 / Western Christians in Global Mission

Book Review

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Western Christians in Global Mission

Book Author: Paul Borthwick
Publisher: Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2012. 224 pp.
Reviewed by Darren Carlson

In Western Christians in Global Missions, Paul Borthwick walks the reader through the triumphs and concerns about the rise of the church in the Majority World and the role the Western church has and could play in its future. The book is organized into two parts. Part one, “Where are we now?” describes the changes that have taken place in the world and provides an overview of the identity of the Global church.

Part two covers how the North American church should help, support and work with the Ma- jority World church. Borthwick’s recommendation in his conclusion is that the Western church should no longer lead, but support and work with their brothers and sisters around the world. He spells this out practically in discussions on humility, purposeful reciprocity, sacrifice rather than generosity, and partnership equality. The terms “Western church” and “North American church” are used interchangeably and for the majority of the discussion he is speaking about the American church. The Western church in this book rarely includes Western Europe.

Because this book covers such a large swath of information in a condensed format, I want to only focus on his appraisal of both the North American church (really the United States) and Majority World church (primarily African). It is on his appraisal where he spends the majority of his focus, which then determines his recommendations in the rest of the book.

The North American Church

How does one speak in generalities about things that are so complex? Borthwick admits the problem up front, but believes he can still observe some things that are generally true. He lists the strengths of the US church as: Generosity, Optimism, Experience, Multiculturalism and History.

Borthwick takes his cues on many of the perceived strengths of the North American church from Bishop Hwa Yung of Malaysia. It is interesting to note that while Borthwick records these as strengths, he is critical of each of the points as well. When discussing the Global church’s strengths he does not follow the same pattern. The author actually spends four pages on strengths (which he critiques) and 16 pages on a critique. This is much different from how this breaks down on the Global church discussion (8 pages of critique and 8 pages of praise). One wonders exactly what gen- erosity means. Most Christian leaders in the US lament at the lack of giving (roughly 4% of income for professing evangelicals). Bishop Yung points out that most of the money funding Christian mission comes from the US. That may be true, but that does not say anything about the generosity of the west. It could say more about a few very wealthy people.

In explaining optimism, again Borthwick starts with a critique, calling it “naïve optimism” (pg. 66). The only one of the strengths not critiqued is experience, particularly as it pertains to theo- logical training. He is right in this regard—the theological education opportunities afforded to the American church on the strength of economic stability allow for a lot of formal education.

Borthwick continues to rely on Yung, but as he gets into history, it again becomes a critique of what is wrong rather than a focus on strength. While the west should celebrate its mission history, we are told of the many mistakes these missionaries made in their attempt to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth.

Borthwick’s concerns are related primarily to how the North American church can hurt everyone else in their involvement in missions. His focus is twofold—on global concerns (like globalization and pluralism) and local concerns (like a lack of ecclesiology and the nationization of God). These are helpful to point out, which makes this book a helpful introduction for those who want to get involved in global missions.

At the end of his appraisal he asks the North American church to listen to the global church. He believes we have a lot to learn from the majority world. But here is the rub—who is the majority church and who should we be listening to? Should we listen to TV Joshua in Nigeria or Conrad Mbewe in Zambia? Should we listen to leaders of the Vineyard movement in Australia or the ru- ral Indian pastor that looks over 20 churches and 10 orphanages? The point is not that the North

American church should not be listening, but that the author does not point us to whom we should be listening to.

The Global Church

His appraisal of the global church faces the similar challenge—how do you even summarize some- thing so complex? The problem at the outset is that he doesn’t tell you whom he is talking about. Is it the United States versus everyone else or is it more focused than that? One doesn’t know, which makes an appraisal challenging. How can you say the same things about the Romanian church that you do about the churches in Kenya? Most of his comments focus on China, India and Sub-Saha- ran Africa.

Pushback 1: Is truth truth?

Borthwick mentions at the outset that the global church is not concerned whether its theology fits into neat and tidy categories of Western thinking. He never really unpacks this, but it does raise a question—are the categories of theological thinking Western or transcendent of culture? Read- ing generously, Borthwick is probably trying to convey that many Christians in Africa and South America are Pentecostal and have sensitivity to the supernatural and practice of prophecy, speaking in tongues and healing. How he phrases his point raises a much more significant issue. Certainly we all bring our own cultural baggage when we read a text, but one wonders whether this would be applied to all other disciplines. Is there such a thing as African math or science? Of course not! Does the Bible invite us to read it on its own terms or does it allow for reading through cultural lenses?

Here is one positive example to show how it might work. In a culture dominated by honor and shame, the story of the prodigal son might be better understood because the 1st century had an understanding of honor and shame in a way that the western church does not. So—the culture of hon- or/shame helps the reader see the text in a way that it was meant to be understood. The key however is that it is read the way it is meant to be understood and not the way a 20th century culture reads meaning into a passage. This of course is a significant issue that raises questions of postmodern/ modern arguments of knowledge and understanding.

Pushback 2: Blaming global problems on American church?

It is striking that every concern the author poses about the global church is placed in the lap of the western church. The abuse of power is the “result of exportation of Western individualism through colonialist mission endeavors.” Making converts, not disciples, is something that is a problem “ev- ery bit as much...in the West.” The prosperity gospel “came as the result of preachers from North America and Europe.” They ignore societal transformation because “they have followed in the footsteps of the dualistic world of their missionary forebears.”

Certainly the missionaries from Europe and the United States brought with them cultural as- sumptions, but we often find that the people who blame the west are either western missiologists or western-trained missiologists. It has become ingrained in our thinking to continually apologize or be constantly self-critical. We only seem to be able to blame ourselves. I only make a note here that it is easy to see the church abroad with a less critical eye because of how differently it expresses itself.

Pushback 3: What is zeal?

Paul once wrote of the Jewish people in Romans 10:

My heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. 2 For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. 3 Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteous- ness. 4 Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.

What is one to think about zeal and how it is defined? While I appreciated some of Borthwick’s points in this section, his argument is weak. He begins by describing zeal as loud worship services with expressive worship and prayer. Who determines whether this is zeal? It is quite different from a more controlled format in some western churches, but that does not make it more zealous. Should we call the Romanian Baptists, many of whom are quite reserved and were imprisoned for their faith, less zealous because they are not as emotionally expressive as Africans? Might our interpre-tation of what zeal is really just be a cultural difference in expression?

Second, Borthwick mentions “In much of the global church, we find no debate about whether Mark 16:9-20 appeared in the earliest manuscripts or if the miracles of the 1st century were for to- day.” The point would have been better made if he would have left out the first part of the sentence. Mark 16 is not in the earliest manuscripts. We don’t dismiss it because it is such a bizarre story. He then recounts his own experience of having Africans pray for his miraculous healing. He recounts that the Africans expected healing, even picking him up off the ground and shaking him. His point about their faith is good, but I believe he misinterprets their expectancy of healing when it is more likely they believe that healing is promised.

His mention of the prosperity gospel is right on, but he limits it to Sub-Saharan Africa and an export of American TV preachers. I would contend it is even a bigger problem in Asia—particularly Korea, Singapore and the Philippines. The prosperity gospel could easily have been in Africa before any American missionaries landed on African soil.

I was a bit surprised that in his discussion he also made no mention of tribalism, which seems to not just be a mark of the Sub-Saharan African church, but the leading cause of much disunity. Nor is there a mention of nationalism, which certainly affects the Korean and Chinese church.

The book is very helpful as an introduction to missions. I would recommend it. I however be- lieve we all have talking points that we use to discuss strengths and weaknesses in the church. The strengths and weaknesses of the western and global church could have been flipped and most peo- ple would still have agreed with most of what was written. Because of this we must be careful in how we draw conclusions from what we observe. 


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