It is an obnoxious question because it requires a single answer when there are so many that should be included. So, Matt originally posted three answers. Still woefully inadequate.
All joking aside— in the spirit of the question, and recognizing ’tis the season for “top five” lists, this article recommends five key books that have shaped how we approach the discipline of missiology and the training of missionaries at Cedarville University. Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive. Neither is it representative of the many non-Western thinkers whose insights and vision have shaped us. Instead of being a comprehensive list, we offer these recommendations because they have formed our thinking and have influenced our teaching.
We’ll begin by highlighting a recent single-volume missiology that has become our go-to recommendation. Beyond that, we have leaned on the helpful heuristic provided by Gailyn Van Rheenen’s missional helix to provide some categories that shape our approach to missiology at Cedarville. We will offer a top-shelf option for each of the following categories: theological reflection, cultural analysis, historical perspective, and strategy formation.
A One-Volume Stop: World Mission: Theology, Strategy, & Current Issues
To begin, let us at least entertain the original question that prompted this article. If someone interested in learning about missiology asked for a one-stop missiology shop, what would we recommend? Of the many good single-volume missiologies written since J. H. Bavinck’s Introduction to the Science of Missions, one recent book that has become a go-to recommendation is World Mission: Theology, Strategy, and Current Issues.
What sets this book apart from other recent offerings is that the contributors consistently write as if they believe the essential tools for missions are rooted in hermeneutics. As practitioners themselves, the authors are not oblivious to the cultural realities and difficulties that need to be acknowledged and considered. Still, their vision for not only communicating the gospel, but also equipping local leaders with the tools to do exegesis for themselves is admirable. Finally, these authors dedicate a chapter to the importance of including theological education within the scope of the missionary task—an element often overlooked in other missiologies.
Honorable Mention: Western Christians in Global Mission: What is the Role of the Western Church
Though this book doesn’t cover nearly the amount of ground that other options might, it calls Westerners to take an important posture of partnership with the global church in obedience to the Great Commission together.
Theological Reflection: Theology and Practice of Mission: God, the Church, and the Nations
As a first port of call in Van Rheenen’s missional helix, we consider resources that provide a hearty biblical foundation for theological reflection on the missionary task. Our priority here is not merely finding resources that string together isolated texts in order to argue a biblical foundation for missions.
Confident that the Bible—and the God revealed through the Bible—is thoroughly supportive of missions, our desire in developing a theology of missions must first call us to serve as responsible exegetes. One great example of responsible exegesis-driven theologizing about missions comes from the book, Theology and Practice of Missions. As another multi-authored volume, this book allows various contributors to write chapters pertaining to their particular fields of expertise. Ranging from theologians writing about the doctrine of God and church to specialists writing about missions among Hindus and Muslims, this book offers extensive expert insight on the biblical theology underpinning and encouraging missionary efforts.
Honorable Mention: Paul’s Missionary Methods: In His Time and Ours
Bringing together a wide range of authors, this book explores Paul’s missionary theology and practice, Roland Allen’s missiological concerns from one hundred years ago, and the application of both to contemporary missionary methodology.
Cultural Analysis: The New Global Mission: The Gospel From Everywhere to Everyone
The second layer of our missiological process involves the necessary step of doing cultural analysis. The deep layers of meaning implicitly perceived by cultural insiders require missionaries to acquire extensive cultural awareness. In order to recognize how these layers of meaning affect gospel communication and disciple making, a missionary needs to understand how dependent they are upon their brothers and sisters within the culture.
This cultural analysis will require an ongoing dialogue as missionaries and Christians within the host culture discuss terminology, theology, and strategy. Missions requires sustained, mutual partnership between true brothers and sisters in Christ. Healthy dialogue occurs when all partners are mutually committed to Scriptural faithfulness and cultural relevance. As a wonderful start to the conversation about the polycentric nature of contemporary missions and the cultural conversations it requires, we like how Samuel Escobar’s book, The New Global Mission, pushes the global church to the task of doing theology as a global family on mission together.
Honorable Mention: Anthropological Insights for Missionaries
A classic work by Paul Hiebert, this book offers helpful guard rails to contextualization while also including important cultural categories for missionaries to be aware of as they seek to communicate the Gospel cross-culturally.
Historical Perspective: Christian Mission: A Concise Global History
As with all important endeavors, missions does not arise in a vacuum. Neither does missions move forward on the merits of its own contemporary wisdom and strategy in isolation from its historical predecessors. It is thus important for us to consider the role of Holy Spirit empowered witnesses who have gone before us as we engage in cross-cultural ministry today.
A recent offering that has quickly proven itself helpful is Christian Mission: A Concise Global History. This book not only covers the geographic expansion of the church, but succinctly narrates the specific strategies employed in each era of missions history. Where this book goes above and beyond other volumes is in its final chapter which attends to the development of missionary vision and activity throughout the majority world.
Honorable Mention: Encountering the History of Missions
For those who are interested in a more substantive treatment of missions history, we recommend this option as it goes into greater depth regarding factors affecting Christian expansion, methods utilized in different churches, and representative missionaries of each era.
Strategy Formation: Global Church Planting: Biblical Principles and Best Practices for Multiplication
Our final category is strategy formation. Strategy, though practical in focus and expression, cannot be divorced from the biblical and theological foundations. Neither can it helpfully be produced without considering the cultural and historical elements of the context. To build a strategy that is both theologically grounded and contextually appropriate, one must be willing to continuously assess and develop understanding of the biblical text and the cultural context.
One of the most important aspects of strategic development is a clear vision of the goal. We believe that the Bible pushes us to see worship as the goal of missions with local churches providing the means of discipling people towards transformed lives of faithful worship. Therefore, as a book that proves helpful in guiding missionaries to do the ongoing, evaluative, and developing work of planting multiplying churches, we recommend Global Church Planting by Craig Ott and Gene Wilson.
Honorable Mention: Developing a Strategy for Missions
This book provides a roadmap for moving missions practitioners from biblical convictions to the end vision by engaging in an intentional strategic process. Here the authors encourage the development of intentional strategies that draw upon biblical reflection, historical awareness, and cultural understanding that result in effective cross-cultural ministry.
This list gives readers a good start at understanding the way we see the shape of missiology. While there is much to be learned from a multitude of other disciplines, and our classes are supplemented with insights from the social sciences, our commitment at the core is to lay a foundation for a missionary task that is inescapably concerned with reading, teaching, and applying the Bible alongside of brothers and sisters around the world and all of its sundry cultural contexts. These five books will help get you started in that direction.
(Oh yeah, and as a Christmas bonus, you would do well to read most anything by Leslie Newbigin — especially The Open Secret.)