I have been an avid reader and lover of history since college. And I have learned a lot from Scott Sunquist, a close friend for the past 34 years since our days in seminary together. Scott went on to get his PhD in Asian Church history and missiology, and is now a Professor of World Christianity and a Dean at Fuller Theological Seminary. I recently sat down with him around the question: What are lessons we need to learn today on how the Holy Spirit has expanded God’s kingdom these last 2,000 years? Here are a few of his insights:
- Look for the life of Jesus on the margins. From Jesus and the 12 in Galilee, to the surprising growth of Christianity among slaves in North America and the Caribbean, to the church explosion among farmers in northern Korea in the early 20th century, to the launch of the Pentecostal movement at Azusa Street in 1906, the Holy Spirit has been moving on the margins of society.
- Be open to be surprised by the Holy Spirit. The “Spiritual Churches” of Africa, China, and Brazil have exploded by the Holy Spirit apart from traditional methods or missions from the broader, global church.
- Look for God’s image, though clouded, in every culture and language. Watch for the emerging indications of God in peoples you might normally pass by.
- Cross cultures intentionally. Crossing cultural boundaries is indispensable for church health as it forces us to re-translate and rethink what the gospel means for those different than us, a gospel that transcends cultural, racial, ethnic, and national boundaries.
- Find a way to release women. Women have been key throughout church history in the expansion of God’s kingdom. Consider Perpetua (3rd century) and Monica, Augustine’s mother who shaped him into who he became. One of the most recognized Christians of the 20th century is a small woman from Macedonia who is identified with India (Mother Teresa).
- Beware of money and power ruining the church. From Constantine (4th century) to the Roman Catholic Church before the Reformation, to the recent scandals of mega-church pastors in South Korea, we can observe the destructive fruit of money and power.
- Discipleship has always been life-on-life and relational. Nobody has been able to improve on Jesus and the 12 demonstrating this as God’s way to make disciples.
- Watch migration. God powerfully used the migration of Europeans to North America in the 17th-20th centuries. Asian tribes were converted when they migrated into Europe beginning soon after the time of Jesus. Africans are now revitalizing the church in Europe, and Latin Americans are strengthening the church in North America. And God is continuing to bring even more people to our churches in Europe and North America through migration today.
- Be open to Jesus coming to people directly – and not only through missionaries, churches, or people. Tens of thousands of people, especially Muslims in closed countries, have encountered Jesus in visions and dreams. Both Scott and I have met some of these amazing men and women.
- Remember: God has always expanded His work through very diverse churches and structures. The Holy Spirit has worked powerfully through very different “wineskins” and streams: the Anglican church movement in Africa, the Pentecostal churches of Latin America, the Orthodox churches in places like Syria and Iraq, the different monastic orders around the world, and through indigenous apostolic and prophetic teams — to name a few. It behooves us all to be generous towards others and open to new structures God may want use to reach our generation.
There are other important lessons of church history, of course, but this is a good start to ponder prayerfully before the Lord. And let me recommend Scott’s The Unexpected Christian Century: The Reversal and Transformation of Global Christianity, 1900-2000 as another excellent place to learn more.
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