Christian Missions

The term has usually applied to foreign missionary activity, but development of the world church has led to fresh appreciation of mission as the task of the church wherever it is found. Mission is the joyous and loving response of the Christian community to the universal and exclusive claims of the triune God who has revealed Himself definitively in Jesus Christ. It involves crossing all human boundaries, by Christians who are called individually and corporately to proclaim God's purposes. By their witness and service they summon fellow-sinners to turn to God and share in His promised kingdom, for right response to God is inseparable from the calling of the nations and offer of new life to all who will hear.

The NT concentrates on Paul's missionary activity, but he was only one of many who traveled the Roman Empire witnessing to the risen and coming Lord. The ministry of Jesus and Paul provide classic examples of the exacting nature of proclamation of the Gospel, the varied methods used, and the historic content of the Christian message. There are fragile boundaries between loyalty to what is historically revealed and cultural exclusiveness. Accommodation can lead to syncretism or conservatism and, despite the presence of the Spirit, the risk of misrepresenting Christ demands constant scrutiny of the message.

During the first three centuries the church faced and partly resolved issues which have continued to test her missionary vocation: disagreement about God's nature, definition of the unique historicity of Christ, relation to the state, exposition of the Christian ethic, relationship to other religions, refutation of misunderstanding and slander, development of a pattern of authority which allowed local adaptation without destroying unity, initiation into mission, and worship.

By the end of the second century the work of the Apologists, the triumph of Catholic Christianity over Gnosticism,* and the development of written Scriptures and creeds had given Christians a defined and readily communicable message, which was greatly assisted by a common political framework and the popularity of koine Greek. Judging by the strictures of Celsus, even ordinary Christians developed successful methods for communicating their faith. Initially Christianity mainly appealed to urban groups, especially those already interested in monotheism and accessible to trade routes. Pliny's* letters suggest more widespread impact in Bithynia, and there were major movements in Egypt and North Africa (see Africa, Roman) by the third century. In Rome, Callistus's pastoral problems suggest that the church included a cross-section of society. Though there were wide regional variations in church growth, there was a Christian presence in most imperial provinces and in Edessa, Armenia, and Ethiopia.* In Asia Minor and Egypt, Christians were too strong to ignore and too numerous to eliminate.

Spasmodic persecution contributed to church growth, giving powerful testimony to the manner in which Christianity freed men and women from the fear of death, demons, and fate. The joyous certainty and vitality of Christian literature contrasted strikingly with the pessimism of much pagan writing, while strong traditions of mutual help on an empire-wide scale enabled believers to meet illness and misfortune far more effectively than pagans who saw little connection between religion and responsibility. Official recognition by Constantine* and his successors posed fresh problems, because of the political and cultural overtones conversion acquired after 313, as barbarians like the Goths moved inside Roman frontiers; but the attempted revival of paganism under Julian the Apostate* showed that Christianity did not depend on official support for its growth. The task of translating Jesus' message into Greek and Latin cultures was almost complete by the end of the fifth century, but the church was seriously weakened by barbarian invasions, the slow collapse of political order in the West, and bitter theological divisions in the East.

By the seventh century large Christian communities were dominated by Islam, though the Nestorians spread Christianity through central Asia and as far as China.* An even more significant movement was under way in the West. Following the conversion of Ireland* by Patrick,* Celtic missionaries (Columba,* Columbanus,* Aidan*) moved into Scotland and the N English kingdoms, throughout and beyond Frankish territory, where Clovis* had become a Catholic Christian in 496. The Gregorian mission to Kent in 597 gradually expanded into other kingdoms, and Anglo-Saxon Christians sent a number of notable missionaries like Wilfrid* and Winfrith (or Boniface*) to their kin among the German tribes and Scandinavia, with markedly successful results. The correspondence of Boniface is a missionary classic, and the pattern of tribal conversion with a minimum of cultural disturbance resulted in the development of strong churches within a Roman framework. The sharp division between clergy, religious, and laity meant that the work of conversion was largely regarded as the responsibility of clerics, and it was long before Christianity penetrated isolated rural areas. Illiteracy, lack of vernacular worship, and ineffective pastoral care meant considerable confusion between paganism and Christianity. The work of conversion continued steadily eastward, and official paganism ended with the baptism of Jagellio in Poland* (1386), though groups like the Lapps and the Romany remained largely untouched, as did the Jews.

Orthodox missionaries, Cyril* and Methodius, penetrated Moravia and, by their translations of Scripture and liturgy, played a formative part in the entry of Slavs into Christendom. Further east, the baptism of Vladimir* of Kiev about 988 was a turning point in Christian history, for Russian Orthodoxy has expanded steadily eastward with the extension of Russian territory, and remained in continuous contact with other religions until the present century (see Russia). Great missionaries like J. Veniaminov (1797-1879) and N. Kasatkin* are too little known in the West.

One of the most powerful inspirations for missionary activity has been the rediscovery of apostolic Christianity and the message of Jesus. In the twelfth century, groups like the Waldenses* traveled widely to communicate this, but were proscribed. It was not until Innocent III recognized the followers of Francis of Assisi* that zeal to convert infidels and heretics, inspired by the Crusades, was briefly redeemed by a truly Christlike spirit, which rejected force as a means of conversion. Raymond Lull,* a Franciscan tertiary and a pioneer theologian of mission as Christians' basic responsibility, saw conversion as a work of love, demanding careful intellectual preparation. Kublai Khan's request for teachers in 1260 was not taken seriously in Rome, but John of Montecorvino* reached Peking in 1294 and was sent other Franciscans as bishops. Some converts were made prior to a change of dynasty in 1368, but these Roman missionaries remained a royal chaplaincy, dependent on imperial favor for survival.

European colonial expansion and the renewal of the church during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries underlay the next major phase of Christian expansion, dominated by Roman Catholic orders. Mission was clerical, inseparable from political goals, increasingly under Roman control after the foundation of the Propaganda* (1622), and only partly successful in dealing with a new missionary problem-preaching the Gospel and establishing churches in primitive cultures in Africa and parts of Latin America. Brutal exploitation of natives by colonists and administrators was partly redeemed by the struggle for the human dignity of the Indians fought by B. Las Casas* and others against official apathy and the theologians who taught that the Indians had no souls. A more permanent solution was found in the Jesuit* “reductions,” which were a noble attempt to create Indian Christian communities; but they collapsed with the dissolution of the Jesuit Order (1773). Paternalism has remained one of the most serious missionary problems. In Japan,* F. Xavier* adopted a different approach, attempting to build on local culture, and was followed elsewhere by M. Ricci,* R. de Nobili,* and A. de Rhodes (1591-1660).

Significant gains were made in Japan, China, and India* until political changes led to the virtual extermination of Christianity in Japan by 1650 and its proscription in China in 1723. European colonies in India enabled Roman Christianity to take root, but local adaptation was proscribed by Omnium sollicitudinum (1744). Until 1938 all missionary priests took an oath of submission, with the result that there was excessive Romanization in Roman Catholic missions. They received another setback with the abolition of the Jesuits, but revived after the French Revolution. Many new missionary orders, like the Marists,* were founded to take advantage of French imperialist expansion in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. Great missionary statesmen like Cardinal Lavigerie (1825-92), with his White Fathers* (1868), were remorseless opponents of slavery, intrepid explorers, and contributors of African education and technical advancement. Catholic missions were particularly strong on institutional work, and their doctrine of the church made it easier for them, than for some Protestants, to deal with African tribalism, though they did not escape the dangers of paternalism and over-identification with colonialism which characterized the nineteenth-century missions.

Protestant churches displayed little interest in the heathen during the Reformation,* though their rediscovery of the Gospel, stress on the vocation of all Christians, recovery of vernacular Scriptures and liturgy, and emphasis on a literate and responsible laity were to prove profoundly important for the development of Christian missions once Protestant countries acquired colonies and came into contact with other religions. Initially visionaries like A. Saravia* and J. von Welz (1621-68) won no official support. Such initiatives as were taken by J. Eliot* and T. Bray* were personal and based on the voluntary principle. The Danish Tranquebar Mission (1706) was the pioneer Protestant foreign mission, though the Moravians were the first church to undertake foreign missions (1732).

Evangelical revivals during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries combined with European imperialist expansion to open up vast new areas to the Christian message. European Protestants concerned about missions formed voluntary societies, beginning with the Baptist Missionary Society (1792), the London Missionary Society (1795), the Netherlands Mission Society (1797), the Basel Mission (1815), and many others. The entry of churches like the Wesleyans (1818) into missionary activity marked a fresh development, as did the founding of the China Inland Mission by J.H. Taylor,* for it repudiated connection with any one church, was resolutely nondenominational, and was the forerunner of a host of “faith missions.” Many missions placed great stress on civilization as a partner of evangelism, and the godly artisan or teacher sent overseas was a new missionary phenomenon. W. Carey* exemplified this approach and set a sterling example by translation work, study of local religion and culture, and determination to develop an educated local ministry and people.

This pattern of Protestant mission was repeated throughout Africa, Asia, and Oceania (see South Seas; Australia; New Zealand). Usually it led to strict preparation for baptism, probation before admission to the Lord's Table, and restriction of local ministry to teaching and catechizing, with the unspoken assumption that European standards of literate faith were the norm. Often there was a sharp rejection of local culture wherever it impinged on religion, but critics of the Westernness of Christianity like N.V. Tilak* were not taken seriously. The Boxer Rising in China (1900) and the Nyasaland Rising (1915) led by J. Chilembwe showed the depth of resentment at the confusion of colonialism and Christianity. In Africa* the desire for authentically local Christianity has led to the formation of rapidly growing Independent churches. The No-Church movement in Japan has similar roots. H. Venn* and R. Anderson* looked forward to self-governing indigenous churches, but many missionaries did not. The consecration of S.A. Crowther* in 1864 reflected Venn's goals, but inadequate CMS assistance led many to consider the experiment a failure, and there were no more consecrations until the twentieth century. The Nevius Plan (1890) in Korea was more successful in allowing room for local initiative, but unity has suffered considerably (see Nevius, J.L.).

By the beginning of the twentieth century, Christianity was a genuinely international religion and had decisively broken out of its Western boundaries. Missionaries had played an important part in the legal abolition of slavery; had championed natives against white exploitation (J. Philip,* G. Scott); pioneered medical services through groups like the Edinburgh Medical Mission Society (1841), or individuals like P. Parker* and I.S. Scudder*; founded schools, colleges like Serampore (1818) and universities like Doshisha (1875); while the personal influence of educators like A. Duff* and T. Richard* was profound. D. Livingstone* was one of many explorers, and notable contributions were made to linguistics (H. Martyn*), ethnography (H.A. Junod, 1863-1934), and comparative religion (J. Legge*), to mention only a few of the missionary contributions to scholarship.

New perspectives were given on family life and the role of women, economies revolutionized through introduction of products like cocoa into Ghana (1857) by the Basel Mission, cannibalism and infanticide checked, and above all, countless lives transformed by the power of Christ and vigorous Christian communities established, especially in animist societies, but also in ancient Asian cultures. Islam* alone remained largely resistant to Christianity.

The very success of Christian missions raised important questions about the nature of Christian faith. Men and women who wished only to preach the Gospel found it necessary to come to terms with the oversight of churches and ancillary institutions. Mass movements in India, Africa, and Oceania created great problems for missionaries, though H. Whitehead (1853-1947) and B. Guttmann (1877-1966) led the way in suggesting solutions which have raised important issues about the relation of mission, church, and society. This also emerged with local criticism of denominationalism, which seemed superfluous in a largely pagan context where European comity agreements had already established one church in particular regions. In addition, practical matters like preparation of missionaries, relations with governments, and need for biblical translations encouraged cooperation on the field and at home.

Between 1860 and 1963 there were ten major international conferences and a host of local and regional ones. Edinburgh (1910)* was a new beginning, for it institutionalized and internationalized cooperation in national missionary councils and by the formation of the International Missionary Council* (1921) which has played a vital role in the missionary and ecumenical movements. The integration of the IMC and the World Council of Churches at New Delhi (1961) was a symbol of the growing recognition that mission is more than a dedicated Christian minority crossing geographical frontiers, but a task for every Christian and the whole church. Increasingly this partnership has extended to leaders of the “younger” churches; men like V.S. Azariah,* D.T. Niles (1908-1971) and T. Kagawa* have helped Western Christians to realize anew the implications of the universality of Christ.

During the nineteenth century, Protestant theologians paid little attention to the theology of missions, or the relation of Christianity to other religions and ideologies. The erosion of Western Christianity, the resurgence of other religions, the growth of anti-Christian ideologies like Marxism, and the development of liberal Protestantism, which denied the uniqueness of Christianity and the need for conversion, caused a great deal of heart-searching about the real motives for missions. W.E. Hocking (1873-1966) and a team of lay investigators produced Re-thinking Missions (1932), which was a persuasive statement of the new views. H. Kraemer* produced a powerful statement of the traditional views in The Christian Message in a non-Christian World (1938), informed by his own experience in Indonesia* and the inspiration of Karl Barth,* but the Uppsala* statement on mission and the response of the Frankfurt Declaration (1970) show that there is deep disagreement about the nature of mission in churches associated with the World Council of Churches.*

Since 1945 an increasing proportion of missionaries have come from North America, and many of these regard the WCC and its agencies with deep suspicion, though the Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association* (1917) and the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association* (1945) joined forces for a notable conference at Wheaton in 1966. A series of Congresses on Evangelism (from 1966) sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has also initiated important evangelical cooperative ventures and examined the relation between the historic Gospel and the need for indigenous, but catholic, response to the risen Lord.

There are still many nations closed to Christianity, other areas where contact has been slight. Massive population growth, urbanization and rapid social change, and rival religions and ideologies are problems common to all Christians. Political independence in former colonial territories and the closure of China (1949) have brought rapid localization of authority. As never before, Christianity is feeling the strains of its historicity and universality, but the decisive feature of Christian missions is not only conversion of men and nations, but obedient witness everywhere to the Lord who makes all things new, for ultimately the goal of missions is the glory of God and confession of His sovereignty.

L.E. Browne, The Eclipse of Christianity in Asia (1933); K.S. Latourette, History of the Expansion of Christianity (1937-45); J. Glazik, Die russische-orthodox Heidenmission (1954); K.M. Panikkar, Asia and Western Dominance (1954); O.G. Myklebust, The Study of Mission in Theological Education (1955); J. Van Den Berg, Constrained by Jesus' Love (1956); A. Mulders, Missiegeshiedenis (1957); T. Ohm, Asia Looks at Western Christianity (1959); P. Maury (ed.), History's Lessons for Tomorrow's Missions (1960); S. Neill, History of Christian Missions (1965); K. Baago, “The Post- colonial crisis of Missions,” International Review of Missions (1967); G.S. Parsonson, “The Literate Revolution in Polynesia,” Journal of Pacific History (1967); E.D. Potts, British Baptist Missionaries in India (1967); D.B. Barrett, Schism and Renewal in Africa (1968); R.C. Bush, Religion in Communist China (1970); E.M.B. Green, Evangelism in the Early Church (1970); A.P. Vlasto, The Entry of the Slavs into Christendom (1970); J. H. Kane, The Global View of Christian Missions (1971); S. Neill et al., Concise Dictionary of the Christian World Mission (1971); M. Jarrett-Kerr, Patterns of Christian Acceptance (1972); D. McGavran, The Eye of the Storm (1972).