With globalization and urbanization as our current reality we are tempted to think that the missionary task is becoming easier. Not so. Today, the world is more interconnected than ever; however, these connections are often used by secularizing and anti-Christian forces. Materialism, atheism, and extremism have all taken advantage of globalization. Still, Christianity maintains a firm presence in every hemisphere and Christian adherents are increasing in number, most notably, in the global-south. However, our successes do not excuse our failing.
The church’s assumption that the developed world will be a more Christianized world has only partially come to fruition. In many countries, traditionally Christian systems of education and community development have proven to be that nation's greatest secularizing influence. The responsibility of the church to take the gospel to every nation weighs heavy upon my generation.
It is into this milieu that Jackson Wu’s prophetic voice is heard. One Gospel for All Nations challenges the church to give a contextualized answer to four important questions: Who is Christ?, What does Christ do?, Why is Christ important?, and How should people respond?. How a community responds to these questions determines not only their theology but their behavior towards other humans and the environment as well. Wu’s thesis is stated in his introduction, “It is possible to proclaim the truth and yet still be wrong.” If contextualization were easy, One Gospel for All Nations would be a pamphlet and not a 350-page book. Christian missions have often spoken the truth wrongly and made the gospel out of reach for whole populations (loc. 228).
Dr. Jackson Wu is a missionary and missiologist who straddles several worlds. Wu was born in America to Chinese parentage and, as a bilingual, he teaches and trains in missions/theology in both the Chinese and English speaking worlds. He teaches primarily in Asia; however, through his writings I, and many others, have been challenged by his prophetic voice to step more deeply into the wounds of the world. Personally, Wu helped me to clarify my thinking regarding, church planting, training, and mobilization of the church for mission.
Wu’s book takes as theological and anthropological approach in analyzing the church’s responsibility to reach the world for Jesus. He shows that correct contextualization is the key for making the gospel accessible to all nations. As a linguist, I appreciate his ideas on language and contextualization.
All minds do not think alike. The gospel is big enough to connect to different worldviews. Wu makes use of various theories from the social sciences and interrogates them into a missiology that any evangelical would agree with. The strength of the book is found in his integration of old and new ideas, while maintaining a firm foundation in Scripture.
Where Wu stands out among other writers of missiology is in his instructive models. Wu’s models of missions and contextualization make the book easy to understand and applicable to any mission field. A book that could prove academically distant to some missionaries becomes relevant through Wu’s models. The practical context for much of the book is China. The anecdotes and personal stories keep the book from becoming dry or uninspiring. I could not put the book down. I found it the most readable book on contextualization that I have encountered to date.
The book is well organized and flows from one chapter to the next, while accumulating momentum throughout the text. The book is divided into four sections.
These first chapters lay the premise of the book, which centers on contextualization of the gospel message cross-culturally. Here, Wu connects to many ideas already understood by any young missionary or seminary student. Section I, connections the gospel to the lost world through the ministry of missions. Wu keeps these three entities (gospel, world, & missions) in correct relationship. While addressing the questions of how to contextualization the gospel, Wu gives guidance on how to keep contextualization from going wrong and veering into syncretistic beliefs and practices.
Section II establishes our priorities for contextualization. Wu clarifies the nature of the gospel and shows how the Gospel answers the questions that the non-Christian world is asking. I found the idea of the “implicit gospel” particularly compelling. Wu challenges missionaries to look deeply into the inconsistencies of our stated missiology and actual practice. “It is possible that our ‘implicit gospel’ has a greater influence on our listener than does our ‘explicit gospel’” (loc. 358). I found this section convicting. As a missionary, I’ve had years of explicit missiological training. However, in reading Wu I saw that there are still ideas that I affirm to be true in my beliefs, but struggle to live out that truth in my daily ministry.
Chapter 6 asks the question: How do we move from biblical text to cultural context? (loc1894) Wu follows a line of thought most closely associated with Paul Hiebert. Exegeses must be done in both Scripture and culture in order to properly connect the two (loc 641). I hope that I’m not reading beyond Wu’s ideas, but I found this chapter to be a simple reproduction of some of Hiebert’s more complex ideas.
Wu uses his own experiences in Asia to support his ideas. His evidence is convincing, although anecdotal. His approach in section III is less academic than in previous sections. Here, Wu focuses on his personal experience in his Chinese field of service. While not empirical, the evidence’s qualitative property supports his thesis that the gospel can be stated clearly in one culture, but when transmuted into another, may fail to convey the meaning of the gospel in a way that is understandable (loc. 384).
This section would be very helpful to anyone preparing for the Chinese context. Wu’s experience in China is obviously extensive; however, I think the specifically Asian focus of the book was a weak point in that it is practically, singularly focused on China. Because of this, some students may find the book misleading, if they don’t have the research skills to separate Wu’s theory from practical application. Potentially, one might walk away from reading the book with an overly applied Sinocentric view of contextualization.
This section was helpful and motivating to me as a seminary student and lifelong learner. I appreciate Wu’s perspective on biblical literacy and continuing education. For some readers, Wu’s high ideals of a missionary’s education could put them off from grasping the sense of the section. When Wu states that Seminaries should consider making biblical languages part of missionary training, I was taken aback. Is this not a rather grand expectation to put upon a young missionary? I assume there’s good reason that seminaries don’t normally include biblical languages as core classes for Missions/Intercultural Degrees. Wu’s critique that many missionaries are under-educated as compared to lawyers and other professionals is well taken but possibly out of place (loc 3404). The time and intellectual talent required to accomplish Wu’s ideal missionary education is likely outside the capacity of many sending organizations and individuals, especially national missionaries from the developing world. One the other hand, I found Wu’s emphasis on teaming to be insightful and encouraging.
I would highly recommend One Gospel for All Nations to any missionary at any point in their career. The book is insightful and clarifying. Wu’s fidelity to scripture and the Great Commission is inspirational. He covers a lot of material and communicates missiological insights in a well-defined and well organized way. Wu’s academic rigor shows in his emphasis on modeling. Wu’s graphic models of contextualization support and clarify his main ideas. In using models, the content of the book is easier taught to others though the use of geometric representations of Wu’s ideas. I believe these modals would be especially useful in training non-readers.
Wu places himself in the evangelical tradition, which is evident in his underlying theology. His approach to missions and missionary training is not meant to be revolutionary, but firmly rooted in traditional evangelical missiology.
Where Wu adds to the literature, is in his integration of traditionally non-theological scholarship and traditional missions. This is most clearly seen in Wu’s apt handling of contextualization as a foundational element for all missionary efforts. Wu, as a younger missiologist, has the advantage of those (Kraft, Hiebert, Hesselgrave, etc.) who have gone before him and sought to establish the evangelical identify of international missions. Wu doesn’t tamper with this previously established identity but adds to this missiology a more robust interdisciplinary approach to doing missions in a cross-cultural context.
This book will be well received by others for three reasons. First, it is particularly well written. Wu’s work is free from both overly academic language and folksy prose. Second, Wu defines his work and its underlying premises in a way that is consistent with an evangelical framework. This makes his book easy to apply within any evangelical setting. Thirdly, Wu himself is multicultural and speaks with a unique voice. His multicultural background shows though his writing and gives him the ability to critique with authority from multiple positions. If the book is not well received, it will be due to Wu’s hard-line stance on contextualization and his historical critique of missions as a non-contextualized endeavor. Possibly, some may object to Wu’s focus on the Asian context to the exclusion of other peoples. I did see the Sinocentric element of the book as a weak point; however, this is only a minor criticism and should not discourage anyone from reading and applying the content of the book to their own contexts.
Wu’s representation of contextualization as a foundational element of missions is motivating and shows that over the past two generations the church has grown tremendously in its understanding of human social and cognition systems. For this reason alone, the book is worth reading. Where previous works on contextualization and missiology struggle to maintain consistence in language and philosophy, Wu speaks from an established evangelical missiological position. While Wu is not rocking the boat missiologically, he most certainty challenges churches and missionaries to live out the gospel explicitly and implicitly in a biblical way. Wu forces readers to search themselves for any areas of spiritual disobedience or intellectual laziness and place everything aside that would hinder us form making the gospel contextually understood and accessible to all peoples. One Gospel for All Nations should be read by anyone involved in cross-cultural ministry.