Top Ten Missionary Books

I thought that I would draw together a list of what I consider to be the Top ten books on Overseas Mission. No doubt others will disagree with the books I’ve listed (I may well do so myself next week); let me know your thoughts in the comments.

I’ve tried to avoid books that are too academic, which means that Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (American Society of Missiology) and Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (American Society of Missiology) are both missing even though I think very highly of them.

I’ve also aimed for books which deal with the contemporary realities of the world church and mission in a multicultural world. Many of the missionary biographies that I grew up reading (for example: Through Gates of Splendour and By searching) are excellent guides to Christian discipleship, but very poor introductions to mission in a world which has changed massively over the last fifty years.  These books are not listed in any particular order.

Mission After Christendom This excellent book gets to grips with the way in which the world is changing and the way in which our concept of Christian mission needs to change. The way in which the information is presented is fascinating: drawing on personal experience, Scripture and great works of art, Smith makes a complicated subject very clear. I reckon that everyone involved in cross-cultural mission should read this book.

The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. Make no mistake, this is a big book, it’s not one that you can easily read in bed. It is a book that you will want to read through, but also keep on the shelves for reference. Chris Wright’s starting point is that God’s mission is the theme which runs through the Bible and he illustrates this in a very thorough and inspiring fashion. It won’t tell you what to do as a missionary, but it will show you very clearly how mission is thoroughly rooted in the Bible.

Christianity Rediscovered (SCM Classics). This is the only traditional missionary biography in my list and rather surprisingly it is by a Roman Catholic. Vincent Donovan was set out as a missionary to the Masai in Kenya and slowly discovered the importance of a culturally relevant incarnational approach to mission. You can’t fail to be impressed by some of the insights of the young Masai Christians as they get to grips with their new-found faith. There are things in this book that I have issues with, but in the main it is an excellent and very informative read.

Changing the Mind of Missions: Where Have We Gone Wrong? This is a far from comfortable book. Engel and Dyrness suggest that Western missions have been doing a lot of things wrong for a lot of years and make some radical suggestions as to how they should be re-alligned. Engels and Dyrness propose a dependence on God’s Spirit for new opportunities.

They insist that the goal of Christ’s Great Commission is not simply to provide a “lifeboat for lost souls,” but the creation of “communities of common people doing uncommon deeds”.

Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development Theology. Part theology book, part practical guide to techniques and planning methods, this is an excellent book on the subject of working alongside poorer communities around the world. Anyone who goes from the West to a developing country will have to face issues of poverty and justice – either that or they will just close their eyes to what is going on. Myers gives an excellent introduction to why we must engage with the poor of the world and how we can go about doing so.

The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church. Strictly speaking this is not a book about ‘overseas’ mission, but about missional churches in the west. However, I would argue that there is a continuity between mission at home and mission in other countries. The old ‘mission’ and ‘evangelism’ distinction is not really helpful. In truth, this is an excellent book about how to contextualise the message of the Gospel in a particular cultural setting – the developed Western world. The lessons of this book can be applied and adapted in any situation around the world. I would include it in any cross-cultural missions training curriculum.

The Message of Mission (Bst) (Bible Speaks Today). If you know the IVP Bible Speaks Today series, this book will hold few surprises for you. It consists of a series of expositions of biblical passages on the theme of mission. The texts are chosen from all parts of the Bible and the whole adds up to an excellent introduction to a biblical theology of mission. There is an excellent section on the missional nature of Bible translation which is worth the cost of the book on its own in my (entirely unbiased) opinion.

The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. Philip Jenkins excellent book gives an overview of the way in which the church has changed over the last fifty or so years. He examines the way in which the ‘centre of gravity’ of the Christian faith has shifted southwards in this time. It doesn’t always make comfortable reading, but it is an essential background to anyone thinking about mission work in the global South.  More than one missionary society has had to change its strategy after getting to grips with what Jenkins has to say.

Whose Religion is Christianity?: The Gospel Beyond the West. Written by a Gambian muslim who was converted to Christianity and is now a professor at Yale, this is the shortest book on my list. It is written as a Socratic dialogue with the author answering a series of questions to guide the reader through his argument. The basic premis is quite simple: Christianity is a world religion and it possible for people from all parts of the world to be authentic believers without becoming westernized. Equally, the leadership and future of the church should not be in the hands of the west.

A Time for Mission: The Challenge for Global Christianity. Amazon didn’t have a picture for this one. This is an easy to read overview of the challenges of mission in a globalized world. What does mission from everywhere to everywhere mean and what are the implications for the church?

10 thoughts on “Top Ten Missionary Books

  1. Interesting list. I know of several of them but have only read the one from Sanneh.
    I plan to read Transforming Mission next week, and sometime Walking with the Poor.
    One I read recently and can recommend – God’s missionary people.

  2. You’ll need a bit of spare time if you are going to finish ‘Transforming Mission’ all in one week! Who wrote God’s Missionary People?

  3. Thanks for that list. “God’s Missionary People” as I recall is written by Charles Van Engen (Fuller).
    Also recommend “African Friends and Money Matters” by David Maranz (SIL) as probably the best book so far on the African paradigm of relationships and, obviously, money matters! Easy read – short book, brilliant resource… will potentially save lots of frustration, misunderstanding and heartache.
    re “Christianity Rediscovered” – I believe Donovan was in Northern Tanzania (not Kenya), Loliondo region.

  4. Great list. My only comment would be that “Changing the Mind of MIssion” has, in my view, got things backward. It basically sets up a straw man argument by saying that missions, as we know it, has been highly ineffective and then uses that straw man to criticize the North American mission movement. The problem with this is that globally the church has grown substantially due, at least in part, to missionary efforts. Meanwhile, the North American church, with a focus on huge programs, buildings, and naval gazing, has lost credibility within its own culture.

    It’s not that there aren’t problems in the North American missionary scene. As a returning missionary to North America some years ago, I remember coming back with a view that missionary agencies were not doing a great job. After working some years now within an agency structure I realize the woeful discipleship that has gone on in our churches. It’s no wonder that the average North American Christian doesn’t understand mission – we don’t know what it means to follow Christ.

    Truth be told, what we need to do is “Change the Mind (and heart) of the Church.” Mission will follow.

    My personal favorite “missionary” book is… “Black Like Me,” by John Howard Griffin. I also notice an ongoing frustration I have with missionary biographies that your list reflects. There are virtually none that tell the story of ministry among urban Muslims, which is really the current generation’s challenge. Where are the stories of the heroes toiling in the megacities of the world among Ishmael’s offspring?

  5. Thanks for this list. Very useful. I’ve read only a couple of them and will definitely look out for the others.

  6. Thanks for the correction on Donovan, David. You are right of course – my fault for finishing typing this list up at home where I didn’t actually have access to the books themselves. I agree, too that Dave Maranz book is well worth a read. If I do a top five books on cross-cultural living, it would definitely be in there. (Now there’s an idea).

    Ted, I understand your reservations about Engel and Dyrness and to some extent I share them. That being said, I still think the book is well worth reading because it does shake up a lot of preconceptions. I’ll add ‘Black like me’ to the growing list of books I need to read.

    Keep the ideas coming folks.

  7. Hi Eddie – I’m a friend of Paul M’s and have enjoyed occasional visits to your blog. Appreciate this list; too many of the ‘missions books’ lists I see still emphasize what’s popular over what’s helpful. And as Ted points out, biographies can be a lot of fun but there’s a scarcity of those that really show the world as it is today. I’ve heard good things about “Chasing the Dragon,” by Jackie Pullinger, (not knew, but dealing at least with an urban context). I’ve not read it though.

  8. Thanks for the list on world mission. I Like Chris Wrights book. I have listened to his lectures on that subject while he was still principle at All Nations Christian College (ANCC -UK) It really opened my eyes to the fact that World Mission does not start with Matthew 28, but with Genesis 1. Also Vincent Donovans Book: Christianity Rediscovered was one of the book that I enjoyed immensely as it is written from a Catholic viewpoint as he also discovers contextualization.
    I would like to draw your attention to another book that I recently picked up and that I highly recommend.
    It is by David Boyd : You don’t have to cross the ocean to Reach the World.
    Having lived in Africa myself for a number of years I know what he means when he writes about the fact that a cross cultural missionary in a foreign land create barriers to gospel just because they stick out from the crowd.
    I know work in my home country with a lot of migrants from all over the world. The city I live in has people from over 190 nationalities – many are from UPG’s.
    If we are really serious about World Mission we need to mobilize – and train!- our local churches for cross cultural ministry right in front of our church doors.
    The ‘few’ cross-cultural missionaries that are going into a foreign land will never finish the Great Commission, but the local believers in our churches that cross the street to befriend an Arab women and share their lives with the whole family will have an impact.
    It cost less and it is more effective in the long run. The ends of the World are coming into our cities and the churches are still busy running their programs rather then getting out into the community to serve the needs of the many migrants that have come into our cities

  9. Thanks for the list on world mission. I Like Chris Wrights book. I have listened to his lectures on that subject while he was still principle at All Nations Christian College (ANCC -UK) It really opened my eyes to the fact that World Mission does not start with Matthew 28, but with Genesis 1. Also Vincent Donovans Book: Christianity Rediscovered was one of the books, that I enjoyed immensely as it is written from a Catholic viewpoint as he also discovered contextualization.
    I would like to draw your attention to another book that I recently picked up and that I highly recommend.
    It is by David Boyd : You don’t have to cross the ocean to Reach the World.
    Having lived in Africa myself for a number of years, I know what he means when he writes about the fact that a cross cultural missionary in a foreign land creates barriers to the gospel just because he sticks out from the crowd.
    I now work in my home country with a lot of migrants from all over the world. The city I live in has people from over 190 nationalities – many are from UPG’s.
    If we are really serious about World Mission we need to mobilize – and train!- our local churches for cross cultural ministry right in front of our church doors.
    The ‘few’ cross-cultural missionaries that are going into a foreign land will never finish the Great Commission(still needed though!), but the local believers in our churches that cross the street to befriend an Arab women and share their lives with the whole family will have an impact.
    It costs less and it is more effective in the long run. The ends of the World are coming into our cities and the churches are still busy running their programs rather then getting out into the community to serve the needs of the many migrants that have come into our cities.

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