The Challenge of Missions (by Oswald J Smith)

Oswald J Smith was a Canadian pastor in the 20th century, who was passionate about world mission, albeit from a fundamentalist and decidedly pre-millennialist viewpoint. I doubt if I would have heard of him, but for this book which we apparently picked up at the reduced rate of 25p from a bookshop, probably twenty years ago.

I don't remember if I had read 'The challenge of missions' before the past week; if so, I didn't remember the style or indeed the exhortations. For, as might be surmised from the title, this book - written in 1959 - is an attempt to encourage Christians to evangelism, and particularly missionary work amongst the unreached countries of the world. The author is passionate about his calling to speak and write so as to enthuse people to go to the mission field, even though he himself was in poor health. This despite the fact that he lived well into his nineties.

Inevitably the book is very dated, with rather a lot of words we would consider politically incorrect these days, such as 'savages', 'natives', and so on, to describe people who had not yet been reached by missionaries. Moreover there's a lot of discussion about the importance of the 'mission board' - he insists that nobody should go without one - and, mystifyingly, the new missionary's 'outfit'. Perhaps this just referred to basic luggage, or clothes suitable for the relevant climate.

There's also quite an attitude of western superiority, at least it seemed so from my vantage point. I was also a bit disturbed that the author's stated motivation for evangelism seems to be less about caring for unreached people as individuals, and more about hastening the return of Jesus. But perhaps that's unfair; inevitably a writer uses the language of his contemporaries and will seem dated in many respects over fifty years later.

I wasn't particularly happy with some of the emphases on fundamentalist theology, or the insistence on people actually wanting - and asking - to suffer; perhaps the church today has gone too far in the other direction, but it felt unbalanced in places. I was also rather put off by his somewhat graphic descriptions of some atrocities in non-Christian environments; they were hardly typical of the societies he was writing about, and he avoided mentioning that, sadly, many horrors have been carried out under the banner of Christianity, and not just in the late Middle Ages.

Nevertheless, Oswald J Smith's fervour for evangelism and mission work is clear in many places, and at times inspiring. Written when it was, I can see why so many people's lives - or at least worldviews - changed, in the era prior to technology and widespread knowledge of the world.

I wouldn't particularly recommend this; there are better, more modern books on the topic. But it was interesting to read such strong viewpoints from this era.

No longer in print as a paperback, but available for the Kindle.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

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