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About the discipline

Missiology is a relatively recent addition to the range of subjects which fall within the broad category of "theology", though of course mission in a variety of forms has been practised by the church since Pentecost. Indeed, the majority of theology courses, in British universities at least, do not include missiology. It is also one of the areas most difficult to define. It clearly relates to the traditional disciplines of biblical studies, church history and theology. However, because mission is above all something which is practised, mission studies must also relate to practical theology. With its focus on the engagement of the Gospel with culture, it is also informed by the social sciences, in particular the disciplines of anthropology, sociology and communication theory. And since mission involves the contact between the Christian faith and other faiths, it also relates to the discipline of religious studies, and the study of particular non-Christian religious traditions. In some universities and colleges the subject is referred to as mission studies rather than missiology. The two terms are close in meaning, though mission studies usually places more stress on the study of Christian mission and its impact throughout history and in different cultures (and in British universities it tends to be mission studies which is taught, whereas North American and some European seminaries will teach missiology). It may be that missiology is best understood as a multi-disciplinary subject, which both draws on Biblical studies, theology, church history, practical theology and the social sciences and also influences them. For example, reading the New Testament as documents which emerged in a missionary context may give fresh insights into understanding it. Likewise, learning to talk about theology in the context of engaging with other religious traditions may sharpen our grasp of key beliefs. And of course, in western contexts where society is arguably becoming post-Christian, insights from mission practitioners who have learned how to engage in mission and evangelism in non-Christian contexts will be invaluable to the church.

Key issues in current missiology

  • What is mission?

Mission is practised not just by evangelicals, but right across the spectrum of Christian traditions, including the broadly ecumenical World Council of Churches, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Orthodox churches. It is unsurprising therefore that there is a range of definitions of mission. At the popular level among evangelicals mission is often thought of as evangelism and church planting, usually in a different culture, though there is an increasing understanding of mission as meaning relief and development. There is of course much mature reflection on the subject being done by evangelical missiologists. Among the ecumenical churches there is greater emphasis placed on issues of development, social transformation and justice, though the importance of conversion is being increasingly recognised. Among Roman Catholics too evangelism is emphasised, though this often goes hand in hand with adherence to the institutional church. Pope Benedict 16th called for the re-evangelisation of Europe. Issues of justice, peace and liberation are also high on the agenda. Orthodox churches, many of which have a long history of life in either Islamic or communist contexts, often understand mission in terms of bearing witness through worship and presence. As with the Roman Catholic Church evangelism is often seen as drawing people into the institutional church. In both cases, however, it should be emphasised that conversion is seen as more than simple adherence to the institution. In as much as there is general agreement, mission is more than just evangelism, and is concerned with the proclamation and demonstration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the bringing in of his Kingdom.

  • Paradigm shift in mission

This is the theme of David Bosch's magisterial study Transforming Mission. Drawing on Thomas Kuhn's theory of paradigm shifts in science, such as that from the Ptolemaic view of the universe to the Copernican view, he argues that throughout Christian history there have been a number of different paradigms, or models, of Christian mission. These have reflected the relation between Christianity and its cultural setting. Thus, for example, there is a difference between the model of mission practised during the patristic period, when Christianity was a minority religion within the Roman Empire, and that of the Christendom period, when it was effectively the state religion. This differs again from the enlightenment paradigm, i.e. from the 18th century onwards, when Protestant mission in particular shared some of the assumptions of the enlightenment, such as the inevitability of progress, the ability of technology to solve all problems, and the superiority of Western culture and civilisation. Bosch's thesis is that the events of the twentieth century, including the end of colonialism, the rise of nationalism, the destruction resulting from two world wars, the fact that technology has been seen to be a curse as much as a blessing, the increasing environmental threat, and the growth of Christianity in the non-Western world, all mean that a new paradigm of mission is necessary, and in fact is emerging. His book is an attempt to suggest what shape this new paradigm will take. It is fair to say that one of the chief concerns of contemporary mission studies is the question "What will a post-modern paradigm of mission look like?" David Smith, in his Mission After Christendom explores these same themes. This is not merely a theoretical discussion, but one which will significantly affect the practice of mission. If western missionaries still approach mission from the perspective that their way of doing things is the right way or the best way they risk being guilty of a kind of ecclesiastical colonialism. One of Bosch’s main emphasises is that mission will be practiced in partnership. In essence, mission can no longer be thought of as “from the West to the rest” but rather as being “from everywhere to everywhere”.

  • Missio dei

The concept of missio dei, the mission of God, is one of the key concepts in contemporary missiology. It signifies a shift away from seeing mission as something, which the church does, to seeing mission as something which God does, indeed as something which God, by his nature, is. Just as the Father sends the Son, and as Father and Son together send the Spirit, so Father, Son and Spirit send the church into the world, as an instrument of God's sending and saving love. This results in seeing mission as more than just making converts and planting churches, but rather as an expression of God's love and purpose for the world. There is a lot of strength in this concept, but it presents difficulties for evangelicals in the way that more radical theologians and practitioners have interpreted it. They interpret the mission of God as being anything which leads towards human liberation. So, for example, the activities of Marxist guerrilla movements or, more contemporaneously, ecological activists, even if they have no explicit Christian connection, may be identified as working within the mission of God, since they reflect God's purposes for the world. This view was strongly represented in WCC circles between the 1960s and 1980s, where "humanisation" rather than "salvation" was emphasised, and it still has influence today. Evangelicals are right to be critical of this approach (and their concerns are also held by other conservative Christians), because it often ignores the issues of human fallen-ness, the call for repentance which accompanied Jesus' teaching on the Kingdom, the NT emphasis on the Lordship of Christ, and the whole eschatological dimension of Scripture. The evangelical missiologist Chris Wright, in his magisterial work The Bible and the Mission of God, shows how this understanding of mission is thoroughly grounded in a reading of the whole of Scripture. Despite all the ways in which the term has been appropriated by various groups within the church, if understood correctly it is truly biblical, and helps the church to engage in mission from a position of humility, conscious of her privilege in sharing in what God is already doing in the world to reconcile individuals with Himself, to reconcile communities and ultimately to make all things new.

  • Dialogue and the relation with other religions

The issue of how Christians involved in mission relate to those of other faith traditions is becoming increasingly important. The twentieth century saw the growth of Christianity to become a truly global religion, but it did not see a corresponding decline in the other so-called "high" religions of Judaism Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. Most growth occurred as people moved from primal religions to Christianity. If anything, there has been a resurgence in these other non-Christian religions as well. This has led to a questioning among some Christians, both about the status of those who either do not hear or who do not respond to the Gospel of Christ, and to the question of how those of other faiths should be approached. Traditional evangelical thinking viewed everyone who did not respond positively to the claims of Christ as eternally lost, and tended to understand the other religious traditions as being either the products of human ignorance or of demonic deception. Some Roman Catholic theologians have suggested approaches which retain the supremacy of Christ but which see Christ as the fulfilment of other religions. Rahner, for example, speaks of anonymous Christians, i.e. those who would be Christians if they heard. Scholars such as John Hick and Wilfred Cantwell Smith have suggested a still more radical approach to the understanding of the variety of religious traditions in the world, which removes claims of Christianity's uniqueness as a way of salvation. Hick advocates a theocentric approach, understanding Christ not as the only way to salvation, but as one of a number of valid ways of understanding the divine. Broadly speaking these three approaches have come to be categorised as

  1. Exclusivist – the traditional view which sees Christ as the only way of salvation

  2. Inclusivist – the view which sees Christ as the fulfilment of the quest of all religious traditions, but which recognises that within these traditions there is at least a degree of true revelation

  3. Pluralist – the view which sees Christ as one of a number of manifestations of the divine

Along with the latter two views has come an increasing emphasis on dialogue as a means of increasing understanding between those of various traditions. Pluralists in particular are adamant that the goal of this dialogue is not conversion to Christianity but rather a sharing of religious experience with a view to deepening understanding within one’s own tradition. Thus Paul Knitter can say, for example, that "The goal of missionary work is being achieved when announcing the gospel to all peoples makes the Christian a better Christian and the Buddhist a better Buddhist" (in No Other Name: A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes towards the World Religions, p.222, published by Orbis).

The pluralist position represents a major challenge to orthodox Christian claims about the uniqueness of Christ, both at an academic and at a popular level. However, it can itself be accused of creating a new exclusivism, in that it insists on recognising the validity of all religious expressions. Thus it excludes not only orthodox Christians but also many Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists from the area of dialogue. It also finds it difficult to deal with the intrinsically different worldviews of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which acknowledge a clear distinction between the Creator and His creation, and the monism of Hinduism and Buddhism. On a practical level, pluralists have often found it difficult to find dialogue partners within other traditions who share their agenda.

Understandably evangelicals are very suspicious and critical of the pluralist position (and this feeling is mutual). Nevertheless, there is a growing recognition that a dialogical rather than a polemical approach towards those of other faiths is increasingly important in today’s world. In particular, since 9/11 and the rise of the commonly held feeling that religion is a major source of violence in the world, evangelicals need to think through how to relate well with those of other faith traditions and to be peacemakers wherever possible. While evangelicals are in general reluctant to seek to share religious experiences for mutual enrichment, dialogue with the goal of developing understanding and, in certain cases, of engaging in common action in areas of mutual interest, such as community projects, is something in which they do well to engage.

  • Contextualisation

Contextualisation refers to the process of the Christian message finding expression within particular cultures, historical situations and contexts. In some circles the word inculturation is used, but the two terms are virtually interchangeable. The expression emerged in the 1970s, although there are numerous examples throughout history of contextual forms of Christianity emerging. It is in fact a process which began as soon as the Gospel moved from its original Jewish setting into the gentile world, and Christians had to begin asking questions such as "What does it mean to be a Christian in a Greek setting?" and "If I become a Christian do I need to become culturally Jewish?". The answers to these questions affect Christian ethics, doctrine, and language. And they are questions which Christians have had to ask again every time the Gospel moves from one culture to another, hence its significance for missiology. Many examples of contextual forms of Christianity which have emerged in the twentieth century have been concerned with questions of social justice, notably the various expressions of liberation theology which have emerged in Latin America, among blacks in North America, in South Africa, among the dalits (the outcaste peoples) in India, and the minjung (the working masses) in South Korea. In large parts of sub-Saharan Africa, where there has been substantial Christian growth over the last hundred years, the place of pre-Christian religious traditions, the understanding of ancestors and the whole realm of the activity of spirits have become major issues of discussion. Is it all right, for example, to use as a name for God the name of the High God of the traditional religion present before Christianity came? (Most African Christians answer yes to this question.) African expressions of Christianity have emerged to challenge the Western model which much nineteenth and twentieth century mission brought with it.

Evangelicals are often cautious about contextualisation and contextual expressions of theology. This is partly because these have often emerged from liberal churches which place less emphasis on the authority of Scripture, and which are more willing to adopt local resources from a culture's pre-Christian or non-Christian tradition. It is, however, partly because Western evangelicals are also culturally blinkered. We assume that our own expressions of Christian faith and practice are somehow "pure" and untainted by our culture, but, as Bosch and others have demonstrated, Western evangelicalism is strongly influenced by modernity and the Enlightenment. Increasingly, evangelicals involved in mission both as missiologists and as practitioners have embraced the concept of contextualisation, seeing it as vital to enable Christianity to be expressed in culturally appropriate forms, and to be freed from its image as a western religion. Increasing numbers of attacks on Christians by militant Islamic groups in places such as Pakistan, Indonesia and Nigeria, highlights the importance of this. Contextualisation must not be seen simply as a tool to make mission more effective. Truly authentic contextualisation will occur naturally as the Gospel takes root and bears fruit spontaneously within particular cultures. The particular challenge for evangelicals is to let Scripture remain authoritative within any culture, but to realise that all interpretations of the Scripture are affected by cultural presuppositions. Developing good skills in hermeneutics thus is vital

  • Evangelism, development and transformation.

The question of the relationship between the verbal proclamation of the Gospel and its demonstration was (and in some cases still is) a particularly thorny one for evangelicals throughout most of the twentieth century. The emergence of the Social Gospel movement which reinterpreted salvation in humanistic rather than eschatological terms caused evangelicals to retreat from their commitment to social action which had characterised them in the nineteenth century. Within the ecumenical movement the goal of mission came to be seen almost exclusively in this-worldly terms. It is a slight caricature, but Western evangelicals tended to be very suspicious of any activity which smacked too much of social or political involvement, except for activities such as medical mission. Even these were mainly of value in creating responsiveness in people for the message of spiritual salvation. It was the Lausanne Congress of 1974 which marked a turning point in evangelical thinking in this area. The contribution in particular of Latin American evangelical leaders such as Rene Padilla, Samuel Escobar and the late Orlando Costas awakened this gathering of evangelical leaders to the challenge of poverty and injustice, and the fact that authentic mission had to respond to these questions. Many Western evangelicals still feel a certain degree of tension between the need to preach "spiritual" salvation and work for earthly justice, and there is need for continued reflection on Biblical and theological themes relating to these questions. The Biblical theme which is of most help here is Jesus' teaching on the kingdom. With its emphasis on Jesus' concern for the whole person, the call for a radical repentance and the emphasis on both the "now" and the "not yet" of the kingdom, it may help to resolve the apparent dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual. (This itself may be more a product of Western rationalism rather than of Biblical reflection). Along with that is emerging an understanding of the goal of mission as being transformation, both of individuals and of communities. This transformation is something which will begin in the present, but will only be fully realised at the Parousia. Chris Wright’s work in his The Mission of God in which he writes of the “ultimacy” of evangelism is very helpful here

  • Pentecostalism and the growth of non-Western Christianity

The growth of Christianity in the non-Western world is one of the most significant features of twentieth century church history. This growth has taken place primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, in parts of Asia such as China and South Korea, and in Latin America. It has to be acknowledged that in the case of Latin America what Protestants would call growth Roman Catholics would call sheep-stealing since virtually all the growth in Protestant churches has been at the expense of a (frequently nominal) Roman Catholicism. This growth has huge implications for the question of contextualisation discussed above. What is also significant is that much of this growth has been of Pentecostal Christianity. Out of an estimated two billion Christians in the world, some 500 million are thought to be Pentecostal. The vast majority of these are in the non-Western world, and large numbers are poor. There is no doubt that the vibrancy of Pentecostal worship, its emphasis on personal conversion and spiritual experience, its engagement with spiritual and demonic powers, the place it gives to healing, and the sense of hope which it offers to those in poverty are all factors contributing to this phenomenon. In some sections of this movement prosperity teaching is popular, although given the economic situation of many Pentecostal Christians this is understandable. The movement has also been accused of being manipulated by North American and European Pentecostal leaders, but in fact one of the characteristics of the movement is the degree of indigenous leadership which exists within it. The movement has also been accused of ignoring political and economic issues, especially in Latin America, but there is a growing sense of social concern evident. And the fact that a movement which lays such stress on "spiritual" themes such as conversion, baptism in the Spirit, exorcism and healing is growing so rapidly is a challenge to those sections of the church which have for many years virtually ignored those questions. The growth of the Pentecostals has also challenged many sociologists of religion such as Peter Berger and David Martin to review their own theories of secularisation.

  • Mission in the Western world

Along with the growth of non-Western Christianity has come the decline of Christianity in the West. This is particularly noticeable in Europe. However, even in the USA where there is a far higher proportion of church attendance and practising Christians among the population, the influence of Christianity in public life appears limited. The late Lesslie Newbigin and others in both Europe and America, reflecting on their own missionary experiences in the non-Western world (Newbigin was a missionary in India), have been encouraging the Western church to see Western society as a missiological challenge. In other words, they try to apply the insights gained through cross-cultural mission to Western society which, though arguably once Christian is now predominantly influenced by secular humanism and pluralism. Newbigin famously presented the challenge thus, "Can the West be converted?"

Two themes in particular are significant here. The first is the fact of migration, which has resulted in many non-western Christians from countries which were evangelised by Western missionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries coming to the countries from which missionaries were sent – and being shocked by the decline of Christianity which they find there, especially in Europe. The term “reverse mission” has been coined to refer to this phenomenon, which sometimes consists of missionaries specifically sent from countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, India, Brazil and Argentina to re-evangelise the west, and sometimes consist of Christians from the non-Western world who have migrated to the west for other reasons and for whom sharing faith is a natural thing. However, it should also be noted that many of them have found that secular Western culture is much more resistant to the Gospel than the cultures from which they have come.

This in turn leads to the growing interest from Western churches in exploring fresh ways to engage missional with the surround culture. There has been a renewed interest in apologetics (partly in response to the attacks of the so-called New Atheists), in church planting, and in new expressions of church. The common phrase “from maintenance to mission” expresses the challenge which our current situation presents. That is, how do congregations and denominations move from a position which sees their role as keeping the structure of the church going, (thus in effect making the goal evangelism and mission as being to get more people in), and instead move to a stance where the people of God (and therefore individual congregations and denominations) see themselves as the instruments of God, sent into the world to share in His mission.

Missiology's contribution to theology

The study of mission ought to inform many of the more traditional areas of Christian theology. For example, understanding the Bible, and the New Testament documents in particular to have emerged in missionary situations, will give new insights to Biblical studies. Similarly, Christian doctrine will be enriched by seeing the creeds as examples of contextual theology, in other words, formulations and expression of Christian truth in response to questions arising from that particular historical context. Church history has always been concerned with the expansion of Christianity, but the rise of non-Western forms of Christianity will encourage listening to voices from the underside of history. Contextualisation and translation theory influence the discipline of hermeneutics and biblical interpretation. And, as referred to above, practical theology will benefit from the insights of cultural anthropology and communication theory which have emerged in missionary situations, as it addresses the essentially missionary challenges facing the Western church. In particular, Christian youthwork has picked up on missiological insights in recognising the essentially cross-cultural nature of work with the present generation of young people.

Key books

N.B. The vast majority of books listed below are written by evangelicals or at least reflect a conservative position on mission. This list is not intended to be exhaustive, and it should be borne in mind that there are many writings on the issues raised above which are not from an evangelical position. Many of these do have some helpful insights as well as raising tough questions for evangelicals. The books below may provide some pointers for a response

Bosch D, 1991 Transforming Mission New York: Orbis - the classic work. Not always an easy read, and certain areas of importance which have emerged since his death are not covered, but it remains an essential text. Bosch writes from the perspective of one who spans both the evangelical and ecumenical positions.

Kirk JA, 1999 What is Mission? London: DLT - a helpful introduction to the complexities of the subject, rather easier to read than Bosch, and picks up on more recent developments. Read it as a complement to Bosch

Walls A, 1996 The Missionary Movement in Christian History Edinburgh: T & T Clark- another essential read, especially in the areas of contextualisation and mission history. The first chapter "The Gospel as Prisoner and Liberator of Culture" ought to be required reading for all theology students.

Kostenberger AJ and O'Brien PT, 2001 Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: A biblical theology of mission Leicester: Apollos - as the title suggests, a very helpful survey of Biblical material relating to the theme of mission

Samuel V and Sugden S, 2000 Mission as Transformation Carlisle: Regnum - a collection of articles by evangelical missiologists attempting to develop a holistic approach to mission

Stott JRW (ed.), 1996 Making Christ Known Carlisle: Paternoster - a collection of documents on aspects of mission which have emerged from within the Lausanne movement, the overarching evangelical grouping concerned with world mission

Bevans S, 2002 Models of Contextual Theology (Revised Ed) Maryknoll, NY: Orbis - written by a Roman Catholic missiologist, this is a very helpful introduction to the area of contextual theology.

Dowsett R (ed.), 2011 Global Mission: Reflections and Case Studies in Contextualisation Pasadena, CA.: William Carey Library

Gallagher R and Hertig P (eds), 2009 Landmark Essays in World Christianity Maryknoll: Orbis – a very helpful collection of key essays both exploring key issues in missiology and tracing the development of themes in the area of mission studies

Jenkins P, 2003 The next Christendom : the coming of global Christianity Oxford: OUP – a stimulating study of the significance of the growth of non-Western Christianity for the world church and the future of Christianity.

Schnabel E, 2004 Early Christian Mission vols 1 and 2 Leicester: Apollos – an exhaustive treatment of the Biblical material dealing with the growth of the church and its practise of mission, by an author who is both a missionary and a New Testament specialist

Schnabel E, 2008 Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and Methods Leicester: Apollos – a more condensed version of the above book, focussing on Paul.

Smith D, 2003 Mission after Christendom London: DLT – a moving and thought-provoking study of what mission should look like in a world in which Christianity is no longer the dominant religion of the West. The themes of mission in the contexts of secularisation, pluralism and globalisation are explored. Highly recommended.

Wright C, 2006 The Mission of God Leicester: IVP – a very detailed study of the concept of the Mission of God, traced though both Old and New testaments.

Skreslet S, 2012 Comprehending Mission Maryknoll, NY: Orbis – for those who wish to understand the debates around the nature of missiology and mission studies and current views, this is a very helpful book

About the author – David Miller served as a missionary in Japan for ten years with OMF International. He then taught missiology at International Christian College in Glasgow prior to that college’s closure, and now serves as pastor of Millerston United Free Church of Scotland and works as a freelance mission educator and researcher. He can be contacted at thatdavidmillerguy@gmail.com.