Polycentric Missiology, by Allen Yeh

I wish we could sit down and read Polycentric Missiology together.  We might find ourselves talking together about what difference mission makes. Hopefully, our conversation would take us beyond celebrating or condemning missionaries who went out from a “Christian” North to a pagan South. Instead, we would talk about how the world changed in the 20th Century and reflect on the surprisingly decisive role that Christian mission played.

I would really be excited if reading it together, you might also find a way to help me resolve a long-standing frustration of mine.  When we first went to Brazil as missionaries, I discovered the world was not really organized in the way the “missions” narrative I learned from had portrayed it to me. I can’t say that was the frustration.  After all, that narrative convinced me to invest my life as a “missionary.”  Nor was I frustrated when it motivated our friends to make generous contributions so we could stay “on the field,” and more to do some pretty special work.  For all that we are very grateful!  It has been an amazing privilege.

3284_vs8lpfdhp8I also can’t say that the misconstrued narrative actually got in the way of our work in Brazil and Guatemala. I look back in amazement at how important and fruitful some tasks proved to be.  The places, however, didn’t quite conform to the narrative nor to our role as implied in a complicated label like “missionary. ” But we could deal with that misconstrual because of the help of Brazilian and Guatemalan friends.  They took the time to show us how different reality was from the narrative that took us to their countries.  Despite the differences in narratives, they welcomed us and helped us figure out how to do things in appropriate ways.

The frustration manifested itself more when we were “home” in the USA where the narrative lived. It told us how the world was arranged, why missionaries were needed and what missionaries should do.  The narrative encouraged efforts to change the world.  But in practice, I think it actually required the world to stay the same.  Missionaries were sent from America, where we had it together, to places in the world that were defined by their need.  Since we were the missionaries, at home we fit into a predefined role in the narrative.  Whatever words we tried to use to rewrite the narrative, those words did not so much inform as fit us into a world that was neatly arranged into missionary senders and receivers.  I suspect that any attempt we made to inform the narrative with new facts about the emergence of vibrant new initiatives in Christian mission from “the field” must have sounded more like fancy new ideas rather than like our attempt to actually describe and deal with real changes.

If is there is a resolution to this frustration it might be found in Polycentric Missiology.  Allen Yeh opens up a new window on the narrative of Christian mission in the 20th Century.  He frames the story of the emergence of World Christianity, and shows its significance for the future through the story of some meetings in 5 continents in 1910, 2010 and 2012 that, at first glance, may seem important only to “missions wonks”.

He shows that the events really had broader significance by focusing on how the contexts that brought them to be, and located them geographically and historically was itself fruit of Christian mission.  The conferences themselves shed light on one of the 20th Century’s most more important developments: the failures of the triumphalist vision hidden behind the White Man’s burden at the beginning of the century and simultaneously, the rootedness Christian faith in thousands of cultural contexts around the world.

The triumphalist vision motivated Protestant missionaries from the USA and Europe in 1910 when they convened a World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh Scotland.  But hopes of global transformation that were behind the conference had to face the events of two World Wars (the first of which took place in the decade immediately after the Conference).  European Christians warred and killed each other.  Eventually the failure of the European global project led to a pull back of the colonial empires, the pathway on which the missionaries had traveled.  But even as Western Christians were coming to grips with the failure of their twentieth Christianity to forge a peaceful and prosperous new world order, new Christian communities were asserting the the global relevance of faith in Christ.

Polycentric Missiology tells the story of five conferences that laid claim to the Edinburgh legacy one hundred years later.  They stand as assertions on five continents that something important happened to greatly transform once triumphalist narrative.

Not everyone thinks Christian mission made a positive contribution in those 100 years.  For many, the 20th Century discredited Christian mission.  During that time mission was identified with imperialism and with trampling on other people’s religions. In addition, Christianity is identified as a “Western religion” so that a “decline” in Christian faith is regularly narrated alongside the collapse of European colonialism (so closely linked to Christian mission).

Today Western Christians ourselves are sorely tempted to abandon traditional aspects of the mission.  The most attractive option is to turn missions into a purely humanitarian projects (And the causes are compelling:  orphanages, peacebuilding, clean water, caring for refugees, stopping human trafficking, creation care, micro-enterprise loans etc.).  And mission outreach has become shy about inviting others to become disciples of Jesus, even the projects are often envisioned as ways for their creators to follow Jesus.

It’s not just because I am stubborn that I continue to believe that Christian mission will continue to be the major force that will drive future history and shape the geography of humanity. The story Yeh tells in Polycentric Mission reinforces that conviction.

The abundant syllables in the two-word title of the book should not intimidate readers. Personally, I like the word “Polycentric.”  It has great value for understanding the manner in which mission from last century laid a groundwork for producing new global futures.  I might use it more regularly if it were more familiar to people.

Yeh’s use of the word “polycentric” points out a new 21st Century reality: the reality of World Christianity.  But World Christianity does not turn out to be the result of mission from Europe and North America.  It the result of efforts of Christians from myriad locations.  Thus christians from everywhere were agents in the project of shaping the world according to the gospel–all for different reasons based on how their world is informed by their Christian faith.

Multiple locations for Christian faith assure that no Christians in the world will be able to think of the world through the concept of mission as simply a project whereby they send missionaries from their country to make the world in their image.  Rather, mission has involved both sending and receiving.  People who find themselves anywhere in the world meet Christians who have come to them, who think of them as a mission into which God has sent them.  Both Christians and non find themselves responding to this new World Christianity and to Christians in mission from elsewhere, and will do so more in the future.  How they respond will determine how they take (or not) new opportunities to work together to overcome barriers that resist salvation, peace, justice, freedom and hope for all.

Dr. Yeh uses this story to draw attention to the spread of Christianity throughout the world in the last century and to how that spread has produced an amazingly diverse World Christianity today.  World Christianity opens up new locations from which to learn good missiology.  Rather than seeing World Christianity as a triumph of the Western globalization project, he describes World Christianity as a location in diversity from which to think more completely about the mission of the people of God and with a better informed theology:  “world Christianity is the scope and theme of this book: it is the new way that Christianity should be viewed.”

I particularly appreciate that he takes note of Latin America’s unique (and somewhat unnoticed or marginalized) status in World Christianity, and gives it proper importance and that he does so through the story of CLADE V — the Latin American Evangelization Congress which took place in Costa Rica in 2012.

We used the same word for the theme of the 2016 Panama Consultation where I spoke at earlier this month.  We called it POLYCENTRIC MISSION – from all nations to all nations. You could even end up using it!  We will need it more and more if we are going to talk about how the God of Israel is pulling off his project to bless all the peoples of the earth.  We chose Panama 2016 as the place and date for the Consultation to call attention to an earlier and important meeting Panama 1916 — Conference on Christian Work in Latin America.  Panama 1916 helped create the shape how American Christians have done our missionary work, especially in Latin America, for a century in a similar way.

An illustration of the polycentric.


I have three valued friends with the same name, spelled three different ways (actually I have more friends with that name who are not in the picture).

To have the three of them together in the same picture is a great illustration of the polycentric missiology that the Allen pictured in the middle makes evident in his book.

Alan, on the left, was a missionary from UK in Bolivia who now heads up Latin Link an agency through which Europeans and Latin Americans work in partnership for the gospel.  They provide structure and mechanisms for Latin Americans to serve in countries of Latin America other than their own, for Europeans to serve in Latin America and for Latin Americans to serve in Europe.

Allan, on  the right, is from Costa Rica, and has worked broadly in the Muslim World alongside Christian workers from 20+ countries. He spoke recently at the Urbana Missions Conference.

Allen Yeh, in the middle, is the author of Polycentric Missiology.  He writes from his position as professor of Missiology at Biola University.  It is written in an accessible style, probably because he seems to aim it at opening the minds of University students in the West to the amazing changes in the world that parallel the advance of the gospel over the last 100 years. But it is valuable beyond the classroom for understanding both mission and World Christianity.

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