Christianity started in Jerusalem and spread widely in the West, in Europe, and North America. In the past century, the church expanded rapidly across Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Now Christianity’s geographic center of density is in the West African country of Mali—in Timbuktu. What led to the church’s vibrant growth throughout the Global South?
Bible Gateway interviewed Brian Stiller (@bcslms) about his book, From Jerusalem to Timbuktu: A World Tour of the Spread of Christianity (InterVarsity Press, 2018).
Explain how and where the Christian church started.
Brian Stiller: The church began in 33 AD in Jerusalem (Acts 2:1-47), after Jesus ascended and the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples. Peter preached and over 3,000 came to faith that day.
Describe the spread of Christianity from its humble roots.
Brian Stiller: Persecution sent many of the disciples outside of Judea, into neighboring areas, then into the wider world. For example, the Apostle Paul went into what is now Turkey and established churches, in time moving into Greece and Italy and surrounding countries. Luke, the historian, describes how the gospel was launched into the Roman world in Acts 10:1-47.
Where is Christianity declining or growing currently?
Brian Stiller: The Christian message and presence has gone through a low period, especially in Europe, over the past few decades; although there are now signs even in Europe, of resilience and growth in new and remarkable ways. In the Global South (Africa, Latin America, Asia) there’s been an explosion of faith. For example, in 1900 in Africa there were about 9 million Christians. Today that number is at 542 million. In 1949 in China there were 700,000 Christians. Today’s estimates are between 90 and 130 million Christians.
How has Bible translation influenced the growth of Christianity?
Brian Stiller: There’s nothing like having the Word of God in your own language. There have been translations over the past 2000 years, but translation activity accelerated in the mid-20th century. When you read and hear the Bible stories and passages in your own language or dialect, they more quickly take over your heart and mind. Reading what Jesus said, without having to go through a translator, is a powerful spiritual experience. The Spirit then makes the word alive: as I’m more able to apply the story, the message, the letter of instruction into my life, church, and community. It no longer is an abstraction. Instead it lives. The writer to the Hebrews says it well: “For the word of God is alive and active, sharper than any double-edged sword…” (Hebrew 4:12).
Explain your statement, “Disallowing the Bible in an effort to quash Christianity seems to have the opposite effect.”
Brian Stiller: When the Chinese government withheld Bibles, it only served to raise the value and importance of the Bible. People would walk for miles just to hear someone read from the Bible. Imagine how precious it was to have a part or whole of the Scripture text in your own home? The more people were prevented from having a copy, the more they desired one. Also, they came to believe that something good was being withheld from them. The irony is that Amity Press in Nanjing, China, is now the largest printer of Bibles in the world. The Psalmist wondered where his help came from, and he realized ultimately it came only from the Lord (Psalm 121).
What do you mean, “The Bible text is made holy when inhabiting other tongues”?
Brian Stiller: I found an interesting parallel between Jesus’ incarnation—that is his coming in human form—and Bible translation. The Bible—from its very beginning—was written and then translated into other languages—like the incarnation—into the life and experience of people who listen and read it in their own language or dialect. Here, a contrast serves us. The Qur’an, written in Arabic, is considered by Muslims to be holy (although translated into other languages, memorizing it in its original language is regarded as essential). That’s why they’re so offended when one desecrates their holy book. For Christians, only God is holy. The Bible, inspired by the Holy Spirit, is meant for us to hear and read in our language. It does not have to be in the language in which it was originally written. Indeed, Jesus spoke Aramaic and the New Testament writers wrote in the common Greek, Koine. Peter wrote, “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:23)
Having the Bible translated into my own language or dialect allows the Spirit access through my reading and hearing in ways not possible if I read or hear through a translation. Jesus alone is holy, the very one the Bible points me to.
What is it that the world finds so heart-tugging and wisdom-telling in the Bible?
Brian Stiller: Oh, that’s a question we all ask ourselves. What I know is that it just is. For example, the parables of Jesus are unique. Scholars put these in a category by themselves. One reason is that parables—stories built on local culture and experience—draw the hearer into the story itself. Read any one of them and you’ll find that it’s quite impossible to distance yourself. It’s as if Jesus places each of us in the story so we ask ourselves, “What would I do?” Read the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and consider who you are of those who walked by? (Luke 10:25-37)
Also, this is the word given by inspiration of the Spirit: the God of creation who knows us best. The Bible provides us a meta- narrative—a grand story that arcs from the beginning of human life—describing reasons for our coming into being, our moral fall, and the resulting human and ecological tragedy. That arc then finds itself in Jesus: his lifting of guilt and sin in his death and resurrection which gives final triumph over evil and death. Such a story grabs us with its truth, logic, human sense, and solution. Salted throughout are pearls of wisdom. We find understanding of our human predicament, read stories of heroes who fall yet are used by God. It’s all there. And one never seems to tire of reading it again and again. It really is daily bread: nourishment by which to live.
What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?
Brian Stiller: I learned to read the Bible as a child. Mother read us stories at night. And I loved hearing it read in church. Over the years I chose favorite verses, often linked to times in life when I needed counsel and guidance. But overall, my life verse comes from 1 Chronicles 12:32. David was rebuilding Israel and needed leadership. He turned to the tribe of Issachar who “understood the times and knew what Israel should do.” My role is in leadership, and this verse catalyzes my mind, framing what I believe the Lord has called me to be: to understand our surrounding world, to make sense of it, and then develop plans to move forward in kingdom life.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?
Brian Stiller: When I wake every morning, I pick up my iPhone and the Bible Gateway App pops up and gives me my verse for the day. Then it takes me to my daily Reading Plan: reading the New Testament in a year. What a marvelous help. A brilliant application in helping me be nourished daily by the Word of God.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Brian Stiller: In research for From Jerusalem to Timbuktu, both in reading from scholars and visits to many countries, I discovered that central to the amazing growth of the church in these past decades, is the Bible being translated into many languages and dialects. The Spirit takes that seed planted and nurtures it, and so it reproduces. The spread of the gospel is directly related to the spread of the Word of God.
Bio: Brian C. Stiller (DMin, Gordon Theological Seminary) is the Global Ambassador of the World Evangelical Alliance, which serves 600 million evangelical Christians. He travels extensively, visiting churches, holding pastors’ and leaders’ conferences, assisting in peace negotiations, linking evangelicals to the wider Christian community, and meeting with government officials. He’s the author, coauthor, or editor of several books, including From Jerusalem to Timbuktu, An Insider’s Guide to Praying for the World, What Happens When I Die?: A Promise of the Afterlife, Preaching Parables to Postmoderns, and vangelicals Around the World: A Global Handbook for the 21st Century. Brian lives with his wife in Newmarket, Ontario. Learn more at www.brianstiller.com.
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