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3 Eras Shape Modern Missions

Reading contemporary missions literature, one encounters a diversity of approaches and philosophies to cross-cultural ministry. Such diversity didn’t arise in a vacuum. These are developments that emerged from various emphases we can trace from the previous 200 years of Western missions engagement.

In this article, I’ll sketch an overview of modern missions history by highlighting three distinct eras. They’ve produced different emphases or trajectories that continue today in Western missiology. A biblically robust and church-centered missiology gleans from all three eras while avoiding the distortion produced by giving disproportionate attention to any one of them.

Era 1: The ‘Great Century’

Most textbooks on Protestant missions written from a Western perspective will highlight the landmark figure of William Carey. Hailed as the father of modern missions at the end of the 18th century, Carey along with his compatriots blazed the trail for engaging the heathen with the gospel of Jesus. They prayerfully labored to see conversion, discipled new believers, and established churches in otherwise unevangelized contexts.

Readers familiar with 19th-century missions efforts will also recognize names such as David Livingstone, Lottie Moon, John G. Paton, and Samuel Zwemer as men and women who poured themselves out to reach places and people that had never heard the gospel. They sought to obey the command to make disciples of all nations given in Matthew 28:18–20.

During this time, many people were mobilized to missions through the inspirational examples of such men and women. However, some brought with them ideas of Christian faith and practice that resulted in discipling people to be more culturally Western than was necessary for biblical faithfulness. For example, 19th-century English missionaries in India have been criticized for making their South Asian converts keep English traditions as signs of true conversion. Such traditionalism blurred the lines between English culture and biblical necessity.

During what we now refer to as the “Great Century” of modern missions, some missionaries with underdeveloped ideas of culture and civilization propagated undercontextualized models of discipleship and church. However, contrary to modern critics, this wasn’t universally true.

Some missionaries with underdeveloped ideas of culture and civilization propagated undercontextualized models of discipleship and church.

Missionaries such as Hudson Taylor and John Nevius are well known for their desire to demonstrate that the gospel wasn’t a Western cultural idea but one that could be faithfully expressed in a variety of customs of dress, language, and convention. Taylor was among the first to advocate for adopting the local attire of his Chinese audience, and Nevius wrote a book in which he fought the prevailing trends by urging missionaries to equip local pastors to be self-supporting and to develop self-governing and self-propagating national churches.

Missions in the 19th century thus presented a variety of developing approaches built on different understandings of culture and the necessary trappings of discipleship and church. The close of the 19th century gave way to a second era of modern missions, propelled by emerging technologies and optimism.

Era 2: World Evangelization

The Great Century of Western missions raised awareness, excitement, and commitment to the global cause of Christ. Fueled by this increased interest in missions, a gathering of missions-minded Christians convened in 1910 in Edinburgh, Scotland, to strategize about world evangelization.

Advancements in technology and transportation, matched with enthusiasm for missions, made for an environment charged with optimism. Many believed it was possible to leverage contemporary resources in such a way as to complete the evangelization of the world in their generation. This focus on evangelism also mitigated the cultural imposition some feared would occur if extended periods of foreign oversight occurred among emerging communities of national believers.

Despite two world wars, the Great Depression, and the Holocaust, similar gatherings of global-minded Christians convened throughout the 20th century. In the middle of the century, one contingent—which came to be known as the World Council of Churches—strayed from the theological convictions of Edinburgh and opened the door to inclusivism and universalism.

In response to this theological drift, a group emerged of more theologically conservative participants committed to recapturing the original vision of Edinburgh. They gathered separately in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1974. This group became known as the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization.

Meanwhile, the Lausanne Congress exposed two additional strands of missiological thinking that had developed since 1910. These two approaches found advocates in the two architects of the gathering: Billy Graham and John Stott. Graham argued that evangelism—verbally proclaiming the exclusive gospel of Jesus Christ—is the most important priority in missions. In contrast, Stott contended that the church must take up a grander vision of its task to be fully biblical.

Where Graham linked the missionary task to Matthew 24:14 and the preaching of the gospel to all nations prior to the end of the age, Stott linked the missionary task to John 20:21, where Jesus sends his disciples as the Father has sent him. As Christ’s ministry was more robust than mere evangelism, Stott encouraged contemporary missionaries to take a holistic approach to their labors. While proclaiming the gospel is vital, it shouldn’t be so elevated as to diminish other biblical injunctions to encourage engaging society, seeking justice, and embodying the gospel in every sphere of life. Stott’s legacy of promoting holism remains with us today through some of the successors of the Lausanne project.

Yet as well known as Graham’s and Stott’s names are in evangelicalism, theirs weren’t the most influential voices at the conference. Harnessing Edinburgh’s original impulse to finish the task of missions, Ralph Winter gave an address that left an indelible mark on global missions. That address provides a marker for the beginning of a third era of missions.

Era 3: Unreached People Groups

At Lausanne, Winter redrew the map for missionary strategy by arguing that the biblical phrase “of all nations” (panta ta ethne) had been misunderstood. Rather than reading ethne as a reference to contemporary nation-states, Winter argued that a better understanding would be “people groups.” Such groups shouldn’t be defined by the visible geopolitical borders drawn on a map but by the less visible sociolinguistic boundaries that serve to distinguish and divide one subculture from another.

As Christ’s ministry was more robust than mere evangelism, Stott encouraged contemporary missionaries to take a more holistic approach to their labors.

In his writing on these ideas, Winter leaned on Matthew 24:14 to connect the evangelization of the world’s people groups with the missionary task. He reasoned that biblical faithfulness requires intentional targeting of unreached and unengaged people groups.

Following Winter’s lead, many contemporary missionary efforts have recaptured the optimism of Edinburgh: that by utilizing modern data and technology, we can identify and evangelize the world’s remaining unreached people groups. The task of missions is to locate unreached and unengaged people groups, then to target them with the gospel. Once those groups are on a path toward discipleship, missionaries continue to pursue the horizons of lostness by engaging the next layer of the unreached.

This development led to a number of missiological shifts. First, many agencies redirected their resources and attention from fields in which there was an existing national church to fields identified as unreached. Second, a variety of approaches were developed for identifying distinct people groups and considering whether or not they’re reached. Third, the idea has been reinvigorated of working toward bringing closure to this age by ensuring every distinct people group has a witness among them.

Wanting to see this task accomplished with due urgency, many modern missiologists argue for strategies that aim to produce rapid, exponential movements of people to Christ. Such methodologies rightly seek to multiply and mobilize disciple makers, and they want to ensure every believer takes on the disposition of obedience to Scripture. Movementism has been critiqued, however, for the way its focus on rapidity can place new believers in positions of leadership over other new believers while still unprepared or immature in their own faith.

Church-Centered Missiology

Today, much of Western missiology is characterized by three of the missiological trajectories emerging from these three eras: traditionalism, movementism, and holism. None of these emphases is necessarily wrong or unbiblical. But each exhibits shortcomings when given undue prominence. I believe a corrective to each potential danger is found in centering our missiology on a robustly biblical understanding of the church.

Contemporary missionary efforts have recaptured the optimism of Edinburgh: that by utilizing modern data and technology we can identify and evangelize the world’s remaining unreached people groups.

The traditionalism that characterized some of the missiology in the first era rightly recognizes the importance of faithful transmission of Christian teaching. The Bible tasks the church and its leaders with guarding doctrine (2 Tim. 1:13–14), serving as a pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15), and contending for the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3). What this means for church-centered missions efforts is that the disciple-making processes employed in church planting need to be substantial enough to equip the saints with the tools of biblical exegesis and with a historical understanding of the essentials of our faith.

While there’s a biblical-theological core to Christian doctrine, the church and its faith exhibit the ability to be expressed faithfully through a variety of languages (Acts 2:1–13), forms of gathering 2:42–47), and cultural trappings (15:6–21). The biblical vision of the local church is both traditional in its teaching and translatable in its expression. Thus, to be faithful in a new context, the church-centered missionary task must equip new believers in new churches to faithfully exhibit and explain doctrine in ways that may look different from how the missionary’s traditions have framed them.

Likewise, holism rightly perceives that the gospel affects every area of our lives. When we’re saved by the faithful provision of God in Christ, we’re transformed and our citizenship is transferred to a whole new way of being human. Whatever we do is to be done to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31).

However, in the church, the gospel as the message of what God has done for us in Christ is a message of first importance (15:1–6), and that gospel should be distinguished from what it accomplishes. Too often, what the gospel is can be conflated with what it does—and it loses its distinctiveness. Church-centered missions, then, will keep gospel proclamation central while encouraging a healthy deacon ministry and active church members who scatter into every realm of life with the gospel on their lips and its effects displayed in their lives.

The biblical vision of the local church is both traditional in its teaching and translatable in its expression.

Finally, movementism rightly contends that all disciples are to be disciple makers. The church is given leaders to equip the saints to be engaged in the work of ministry (Eph. 4:12). But the church is also a body in which each part contributes to the functioning of the whole (1 Cor. 12). While all are to be engaged in obedience to make disciples, not all will be church planters, teachers, or evangelists.

Church-centered missions will ensure the church is more than an evangelism training center. It’s the environment with a vision for disciple making that’s thick enough to ensure those who receive attention aren’t merely those who exhibit aptitude in evangelism or church planting.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that Jesus promised the gates of hell will not withstand his church. Our hope for kingdom advance isn’t in a particular tradition, holistic society transformation, or a Jesus movement. As such, it’s right and proper for our missiology to center on the church that Scripture defines. This will mean we draw from the biblical injunctions present in each of the three emphases while not overemphasizing them at the expense of the biblical church.


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