Global Gospel: an Introduction to Christianity on Five Continents is a book that I would recommend to every Christian who has a heart for both the gospel and the world, and shouldn’t we all!? According to the author, Douglas Jacobsen, “The ultimate goal of the book is not merely to dispense information. It is to encourage a richer, deeper, and more constructive dialogue among Christians worldwide.”
Well-known church historian Mark Noll of the University of Notre Dame, writes the following endorsement, “Douglas Jacobsen has provided a succinct, well-organized, and clearly written historical account of contemporary Christianity as a truly global religion. Broad coverage of geographical regions and theological traditions – including very helpful graphs, charts, and bibliography – underscores the books emphasis on diversity. For a Christian world that is continuing to change with unprecedented speed, Global Gospel offers unusually perceptive guidance.”
Before I go any further I must divulge, and I’m proud to do so, that the author is Donna’s brother. The back cover identifies “Jake” this way: “Douglas Jacobsen (PhD, University of Chicago) is distinguished professor of church history and theology at Messiah College. He is the author, coauthor, or editor of ten books, including The World’s Christians: Who They Are, Where They Are, and How They Got There.”
In my opinion, the first two chapters should be “required reading” for all Christians. Chapter one is a brief, but well-written history of global Christianity. Chapter two summarizes the four major Christian traditions: Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Pentecostal.
The remaining chapters go through the history of Christianity and its present situation continent by continent: Africa, Latin America, Europe, Asia, and North America. The story of Christianity in these different parts of the world is complex. The Christian faith in its varied forms has been greatly influenced by historical events, current issues, and cultural worldviews.
Jacobsen has an amazing grasp of his complicated subject matter but writes in a clear style that any relatively educated person can understand. In addition to giving the facts, he proposes some interpretations of the facts. Naturally readers will disagree with some of them because interpretations are, of their very nature, subjective. I have no interest in being a nitpicker, but I’ll cite one example.
Having spent some years as a missionary in Congo, I truly believe that African Christians have much to teach the global Church. They point us toward joy amidst poverty and suffering, exuberance in worship, and hospitality toward strangers. However, I wonder if the philosophical notion of “ubuntu” is representative of the continent. It’s an Nguni Bantu term that comes from southern Africa.
Jacobsen makes the following generalization in the conclusion of his chapter on Africa:
“African Christians speak with their own distinctive voice. At the core of that message is the notion of ubuntu, meaning that every human life has value and that all of humanity is interconnected. Christians everywhere refer to the body of Christ and assume that all Christians are connected through the Spirit. African Christians are now reminding Christians all around the world about the importance of these connections, not only within the church but also within human society as a whole.”
I indeed hope that what the author has stated is accurate, but I didn’t encounter this notion (“all of humanity is interconnected … within human society as a whole”) or anything similar to it during my years in Congo. In fact, I saw almost the opposite – division based on clan, tribe, race, and socioeconomic status, even within the Church of Jesus Christ. … I think my comment illustrates that it is virtually impossible to draw general conclusions about Africa because it is so huge and varied.
After taking us around the world to show us the global diversity of contemporary Christianity, the author concludes Global Gospel this way:
“Each Christian living around the globe today has unique gifts and weaknesses, and each deals with unique trials, tribulations, joys, and successes. The same can be said of cultures and theological traditions. Each culture and theological tradition has its own strengths and its own weaknesses. How could this not be true given that every culture is composed of human beings and that every theological tradition must rely on human language to articulate its values and beliefs? This is precisely why the global dynamics of contemporary Christianity is so important. It is at the intersections where different individuals and cultures meet that Christians may have the best opportunity to learn from one another.”
As a postscript to this book review, I’d like to share a few miscellaneous, rather disjointed personal reflections:
- As you know, I’m a conservative evangelical who has been greatly influenced by both Reformed theology and Pietism. On the other hand, my travels, my studies, and my anticipation of worshiping in heaven with believers “from every nation, tribe, people, and language” have given me an interest in the worldwide Church, as well as in the contextualization of the gospel for various people groups. … Maybe you discern a tension within me on this subject — hopefully a healthy one.
- Jesus prayed in John 17 that His followers on earth would be one, even as He and the Father are one. Unity in Christ is a witness to the world (John 17:21-23). Unity of true believers, however, doesn’t mean uniformity. Instead it means mutual understanding, respect, and cooperation, wherever possible, but without compromising our heartfelt theological and cultural distinctives.
- In recent years, I have met many wonderful Christians from various traditions – Catholic, Orthodox, main-line Protestant, evangelical, and Pentecostal. Because of my experiences, I don’t believe we evangelicals have a monopoly on the truth. In fact, we can learn from Christians of other backgrounds.
- As I read in Global Gospel about Christianity in its multicolored forms around the world, I asked myself: why do I see things so different from many of these Christians? I’ve come to the conclusion that it is primarily, though not exclusively, because of my presupposition regarding the Bible. I have the firm conviction that the Scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit and thus authoritative in doctrine and practice and are to be interpreted literally (meaning taken at face value according to the genre of literature of the particular passage). The Westminster Confession of Faith explains it this way in Chapter 1:
“The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.”
- Another thought: I believe that many so-called “Christians,” including tens of thousands of evangelicals in America, are simply cultural Christians. Because of their parents or their heritage or both, they claim a certain religious affiliation without possessing a real commitment in heart and mind to their faith. That means we have a responsibility to evangelize them just as we do people from non-Christian religions.
- I want to sound a warning against universalism as I end my thoughts. I do not believe the Bible teaches that everyone will be saved. It appears to me that one of the primary distinctions Jesus made in His teaching was between the saved and the lost, the sheep and the goats, those on the narrow road to life and those on the broad road to destruction. Our Lord spoke of the reality of both heaven and hell. In fact, He said more about hell than He did heaven.
“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:18.)