Abilene Christian University
What methods have been used in the spread of the gospel from nation to
nation throughout the centuries? Which ones have been successful? Which
ones failed? What strategies from the past can be applied to contemporary
efforts in the mission of God? These and similar questions are the basis
for the following brief, historical survey.
There is little information about mission methods in the New Testament
beyond the work of the apostle Paul. His custom was to select a populous
district center where Greek was the common language. He went to the local
synagogue to address both Jews and Gentile proselytes -- monotheists who
would be sympathetic to his message (Glasser 1981:108,109).
Often Paul was driven out by the Jews, so he turned to the Hellenized
ethnic groups which he had contacted in the synagogue assembly. This
necessitated a deliberate attempt to put the gospel into Greek thought
forms. Hence, contextualization is an essential strategy in mission as old
as the church itself.
Paul gathered the converts into churches. These churches functioned
as autonomous assemblies of believers. The congregations were not to be
supervised by paternalistic missionaries. The apostle taught but did not
control. Elders and deacons were chosen by the local believers from among
their own membership to guide the life and work of the congregation.
During the two or three centuries after the death of Paul, there is no
evidence of any carefully defined mission method in use. Rather, the faith
was spread by itinerant preachers and lay witnesses. Most of the advance
of the gospel was the result of spontaneous evangelism by the saints (Green
Within the Roman Empire
The writings of the Apologists primarily addressed the intellectuals
and politicians. They tried to clarify the Christian faith, refute charges
of atheism, deny infidelity to the state, and stress the benefit of
Christianity for everyone. Since they employed the ideas of Greek
philosophers to explain Christian concepts, the Apologists are another
example of contextualizing the faith.
Outside the Roman Empire
Those evangelists who went beyond the parameters of the empire
vigorously attacked heathenism--denouncing idols and destroying shrines.
When they evangelized among their own people, significant movements toward
Christ tended to develop. The message, announced in terms of the local
culture coupled with the Bible translated into the vernacular of the local
people, possessed great persuasive power. Contextualization was an
important and necessary part of evangelism though the process was gradual
The first example of a well-developed mission method occurred in the
eighth century among the English missionaries who worked on the continent
of Europe. Boniface preached to the Germanic pagans. He used rather
aggressive tactics such as defying their gods, cutting down their sacred
trees, and demolishing their shrines. He built monasteries to teach
converts Christian doctrine and vocational skills. These extraordinary
efforts produced a stable society and a well-grounded body of believers.
Boniface, who brought nuns from England, is credited with being the
first to formally enlist women in mission work. Church leaders were
recruited from among the local people. In his reports to England, Boniface
regularly discussed mission strategy. In turn, those in England sent
Boniface personnel, money, and supplies (Hillgarth 1986:168-177).
The well-defined strategy of Boniface did not survive the subsequent
pagan invasions. Mission by and large became an instrument of imperial
expansion--both political and ecclesiastical--employed by kings, emperors,
and popes. The Crusades are a tragic example. This trend became
institutionalized when the pope divided the non-Christian world into two
parts: the already discovered and the yet-to-be discovered lands. He laid
upon kings the obligation to evangelize these lands, establish the church,
and teach the converts. Missions became a function of government (Neill
The Portuguese developed an extensive trade empire. They held various
territories--including Brazil--under their direct control. Usually they
suppressed the pagan religions, drove out or destroyed those who resisted,
and created Christian communities composed of converts from the lower
strata of society.
The Spanish attempted to transplant western Christianity and culture
among those who were brought under their control. At first the explorers
ruthlessly exploited the local people. The extermination of an entire tribe
of Indians was not uncommon. Later, due to the heroic efforts of
Bartholome de las Casas and others, missionaries among the Spanish often
functioned as the protectors of the Indians.
A mission would be established on the frontier where Indians were
gathered into a small community. Often a garrison of soldiers was in
residence to protect both missionaries and converts. The Indians were
given minor roles in the cultic life of the church. Folk festivals were
"Christianized" and Christian feasts were introduced. Farms were developed
and the local people were taught various aspects of western agriculture.
Unfortunately, when the Spanish authorities decided that the mission
had civilized the Indians, the missionaries were replaced by government
officials. Stern discipline ensued. Land was parceled out among Spanish
settlers. The Indians were reduced to a very low level of servitude. For
the most part, spiritual nurture was neglected.
The French had a different colonial policy. They were interested
primarily in furs. Hence, the disturbed the Indians as little as possible.
The French missionary was to do the same. He was to live with the Indians
in their villages and, although he could teach, baptize, and incorporate
them into the church, he was to allow his converts to remain Indians.
In 1622 the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith was
created by the Roman Catholic Church to direct their worldwide mission
efforts. The "Propaganda," as it was called, wrote manuals on missionary
principles and practices, laid down the qualifications for missionaries,
established missionary training schools, and decided on the strategy
missionaries should use. Some have referred to the members of the
Propaganda as the first modern mission methodologists (Schmidlin 1931).
Among these pioneer Catholic mission strategists, two distinct groups
developed: innovators and conservators. The former emphasized
indigenization. They attempted to contextualize the church in other
cultures. The latter emphasized tradition. They sought to reproduce the
church in other lands as they understood it in Europe.
The innovators in seventeenth century Catholic missions were found in
every continent of the world (especially Asia). Those who went to Japan
lived in Japanese houses, ate Japanese food, wore Japanese clothes, and
practiced Japanese etiquette. These missionaries also used the Japanese
language in evangelism. They appointed Japanese converts to the
priesthood. In short, they attempted to identify with the local people
(Cary 1909). It is little wonder then that a large community of Catholic
believers soon came into being.
The missionary efforts of Robert de Nobili in South India went much
further (Richter 1908). He became a high caste Hindu scholar. He dressed
like a guru (or religious teacher), observed the caste laws, and learned
Sanskrit. D Nobili presented Christian doctrine using pagan terms (which
the Catholic missionaries in Japan did not do). He made many converts
among the high caste Hindus.
Perhaps the best known attempt at cultural identification was in China
(Latourette 1967). Matteo Ricci adapted the local ways of life. He even
introduced Christian doctrine through the use of Confucian concepts. But,
unlike those in Japan and India, Ricci permitted his converts to observe
certain pagan ceremonies, namely, those in honor of family ancestors (Chow
1964:226-228); Minamik 1985-15-24). The missionaries formed friendships
with numerous influential people in the imperial government which resulted
in opportunities to present the faith. This strategy was crowned with
There were other missiologists in the Catholic Church who took a dim
view of these innovative strategies. They held tenaciously to their
traditional western terminology and practice. Though undoubtedly motivated
by sincere intentions, they attacked those missionaries who attempted to
identify with the local culture. Many hurtful charges and counter-charges
Ultimately the conservators got the upper hand. The Propaganda
denounced the idea of cultural identification and its accompanying
methodology. A ban on contextualization followed. All Catholic
missionaries were required to take an oath of allegiance to the ban.
Henceforth missionaries were to behave as Europeans while serving in other
lands. The church was to remain a distinctively western institution. For
two centuries this paradigm of mission remained in effect.
Notwithstanding, today almost all missionaries -- Catholic and Protestant -
- acknowledge the necessity of some form of indigenization, identification,
Protestant mission efforts began in the seventeenth century. Much of
the Protestant work was focused on the American Indians. Consequently, the
early missionary activity on the North American continent provided the
models for cross cultural evangelism among Protestants around the world
during the next couple of centuries (Warneck 1906). Protestant strategies
included public preaching, organizing churches, building towns, and
Evangelism was the first ingredient in early Protestant mission
strategy. Most often doctrinal sermons stressing the wrath of God were
delivered (though noteworthy exceptions which emphasized the love of God
can be found). As a rule, the gospel was proclaimed in public to large
audiences (though, again, examples of private approaches to individuals can
The second ingredient in early Protestant mission strategy was
gathering converts into churches. At first the new believers experienced a
prolonged period of probation before receiving full church membership.
Later, in Protestant mission efforts, such a delay was omitted. Once
churches were organized, converts were carefully instructed in various
elements of the Christian faith.
A third ingredient was the establishment of a Christian town (Bowden
1981:124- 133). John Eliot and others believed that separation from
heathen relatives was necessary to insure growth in grace. It was thought
that in isolation from pagan influences the converts could live together
under strict discipline and regular instruction. Whatever may have been
gained in the development of Christian character in these towns was lost in
the evangelistic influence that the inhabitants could have had among their
unconverted family members.
During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, missionaries in
Africa and Oceania remained enamored with the idea of nurturing converts in
separate Christian villages or mission compounds. The usual result was
alienation of the believers from their own people which stymied the sharing
of the good news. A sealed-off enclave of saints could not effectively
shine as lights in the world.
Included in each town was a school. The church provided spiritual
nurture while the school gave a general education: the one Christianized,
the other civilized.
It was believed the school would enable the convert to become part of
the modern world (which was often equated with Christian society).
Reading, writing, and arithmetic were taught. Agriculture and industrial
arts were also studied so that life in a western style community might be
possible. Fundamental to this entire academic thrust was the training of
local leaders. The missionaries were fully convinced that the most
effective leaders for the churches were the "native" people themselves.
The efforts of the pioneer Protestant missionaries cannot be faulted
for their faith in the potential ability of the local people. However,
their methods should be questioned because of the ethnocentric attitudes
which spawned them. Indeed, it was ethnocentrism among the white settlers
that resulted in the decline of the colonial Indian towns. Nevertheless,
schools would continue to be a basic strategy of missions in the nineteenth
and twentieth centuries.
The die had been cast. For the most part, the primary methods for
missions had been articulated. And, though there were disagreements on
particular points, the broad parameters of cross cultural evangelism were
in place. The methodological developments in subsequent centuries were in
fact refinements of what had already been set forth.
Due to the long distances and slowness of communication, most
missionaries since the first century had supported themselves. The
Moravians made vocational missions a requirement. This led to the creation
of a wide range of craft industries which not only supported the mission
effort but also brought the missionaries into intimate contact with the
local people. Even though the Moravians were vocational missionaries,
their primary thrust was proclaiming the simple story of God reconciling
mankind to Himself through Jesus Christ.
Poverty, disease, nonliteracy, cannibalism, widow burning, and other
dehumanizing conditions were rampant on the mission field. Everyone agreed
that something must be done. In the late 1700's the debate was over what
to do first: to Christianize or to civilize. Obviously, both could be
Missionaries who went to the more developed societies of India and
China usually stressed Christianizing as primary whereas those who went to
the less developed regions of Africa and Oceania leaned toward civilizing
as a first concern. One group argued that the gospel would inevitably
produce a desire for civilization while the other group held that a certain
degree of civilization was necessary in order to understand the faith.
In spite of the intensity of the debate, most missionaries believed
that the two emphases mutually interacted and should be implemented equally
and simultaneously. In theory this was a reasonable idea. In fact it
rarely worked that way. The mission efforts in India are a case in point.
A substantial emphasis was placed on English language schools and colleges.
They produced few converts but gave believers from the lower castes an
opportunity for social and economic advancement. This pleased the colonial
government and commercial establishment since the schools trained English-
speaking employees for them. However, these educational enterprises soon
consumed the major portion of the resources of the missions.
The emphasis on schools resulted in the development of huge mission
compounds where converts clustered in social and economic dependence on the
missionaries. Unless someone came to Christianity with others of their
caste, clan or class group, he suffered expulsion and loss of livelihood.
Therefore, in order to keep a person from falling away from the faith, the
mission station became a place to live and work (Neill 1964:380). Local
believers were paid to do what they should have done voluntarily.
This practice was similar to the Christian towns built by John Eliot
and others in the seventeenth century. The missionary compound was almost
a "city unto itself" with houses, church, school, hospital, and printing
press. The expatriate was preacher, employer, paymaster, policeman, mayor,
and judge. Such a system was very western, very complicated, and very
Indigeneity was impossible and evangelism was to a certain degree
stifled in the mission station approach. Missionaries exercised authority
over all aspects of the community. Their decisions were final. The
nationals became mere cogs in the mission machinery. Outside of the
compound there were preaching points -- rather than organized churches --
because the local people were neither allowed nor trained to assume the
direction of these village assemblies.
In the middle of the nineteenth century then, the time was ripe for
some fresh thinking. This was aptly realized in the influence of four
outstanding mission strategists.
Henry Venn. As the general secretary of the Church
Missionary Society in London, Henry Venn set a goal of establishing
churches that would be self-governing, self-supporting, and self-
propagating. He taught as soon as a church was functioning in these ways,
the missionaries should go to "regions beyond" where they could begin the
process again. The aim of mission was to start churches that would start
churches that would start churches -- churches that were self-sufficient,
independent of the missionary, and indigenous in appearance and activity
Rufus Anderson. Simultaneous with, yet independent
of Henry Venn, the secretary of the American Board of Commissioners for
Foreign Missions, Rufus Anderson, arrived at practically the same basic
mission principles. The latter disagreed with the stress on "civilizing,"
believing that such change would eventually result from the leaven of the
gospel in the life of a nation. The task of mission, according to
Anderson, was to preach the word and gather converts into churches. These
congregations were to be led by the local people. All auxiliary
enterprises -- schools, hospitals, printing presses, and the like--were to
be solely for evangelism and for the edification of the church (Beaver
John Nevius. The strategies of Venn and Anderson
were modified even further by a Presbyterian missionary in China, John
Nevius. He sought to place more responsibility on the local believers
while leaving them in their usual place in society. In other words, Nevius
encouraged the development of a volunteer, unpaid corps of national
evangelists who would be trained by rigorous Bible study and practical
experience (Nevius 1958). His fellow workers in China did not adopt the
Nevius plan, but the missionaries in Korea did. The amazing success of the
Presbyterians in Korea is in part attributed to his ideas.
Gustav Warneck. Almost immediately after Venn and
Anderson passed the baton of leadership, mission executives and field
missionaries reasserted the position that national converts were unable to
provide adequate governance for local congregations. Hence, the three-self
formula went into partial eclipse. Gustav Warneck, a German mission
strategist, articulated a compromise, namely, he suggested the establishing
of churches that would remain under the supervision of the missionary until
full ecclesiastical development had been attained.
In the decades just prior to the twentieth century, mission efforts
were, therefore, by and large paternalistic in nature. This unhappy
situation lasted until a survey (which was made in preparation for the
World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh in 1910) revealed the restlessness
of the national churches chaffing under missionary domination (Hogg
1952:98-101). Consequently, a massive surge toward "devolution" of
authority by the missionaries occurred. A new day was dawning.
While missionaries were attempting to place the church in the hands of
the nationals, it became obvious that the local people needed assistance
with the physical dimensions of their lives. In the spirit of helpfulness,
then, as well as the desire to improve the economic base of the church,
missionaries introduced alternative agricultural methods, medical services,
and educational opportunities. It was soon relearned that gestures toward
social improvement had dramatic effects on preaching the gospel.
Negatively, it consumed the lion's share of mission resources. Positively,
it served as a visual aid par excellence of the good news.
Another refinement in mission strategy appeared in the latter decades
of the nineteenth century. The customs in most cultures made it almost
impossible for male missionaries to teach local women. Missionaries' wives
were limited by their homemaking responsibilities. Thus, single women were
needed on the field.
Churches and mission boards -- which were dominated by men -- were
reluctant to send women as missionaries. Out of desperation, therefore,
women began to form their own societies and to send single women overseas
to share the gospel with other women. The history of their service
occupies a unique chapter in the annals of missions, a chapter filled with
stories of unstinting service that was frequently rewarded with an abundant
harvest. Hence, the trail blazed by Boniface -- when he enlisted women in
mission work -- was rediscovered a thousand years later!
One more feature of nineteenth century missionary strategy should be
listed: the practice of comity. Stewardship of manpower and money was a
high priority among mission boards and societies. Waste was abhorred.
Resources were to be stretched as far as possible. So the idea of comity
was developed, that is, giving one mission agency the responsibility to
evangelize a certain group of people in a nation. Supposedly double
occupancy of a region would be avoided. Overlap would be eliminated so
that competition along denominational lines would no longer confuse the
local populace. Since prior work in a particular territory was recognized,
new mission efforts were to go to unoccupied areas.
Comity did not work well. Some mission agencies neglected to
evangelize their assigned region. Others refused to stay within the
boundaries of their designated allotment. And the unanticipated rise of
new mission groups that had not been included in the original agreement
resulted in an increasing number of missionaries who ignored it altogether
(Beaver 1962:273). Thus, what was designed to quell confusion in the end
All of this is reminiscent of the papal decree in the late 1400's that
divided mission responsibility between Spain and Portugal, between the
discovered and yet-to-be discovered lands. Comity was not successful in
the fifteenth nor the nineteenth centuries.
Between 1910 and 1945 the most notable development in mission strategy
was the centrality of the national church. The emphasis was on believers
in the third world having full independence and complete authority in the
life and work of their congregations. The "indigenous church" became the
watchword of this period.
The focus on indigeneity prepared the way for what was soon to follow.
With the conclusion of the Second World War, the domination of the west
over the non-west for the most part came to an end. The political, social,
and economic changes in the post-war era demanded a radical rethinking of
mission methods. The moment had arrived for some new strategies in world
Though Roland Allen had expounded his ideas in the 1920's, they did
not find many sympathetic ears until after World War II. The capstone of
his thinking was expressed in his book The Spontaneous Expansion of the
Church. In a simplified form, his strategy advocated that (1) the
missionary initiate the beginning of an indigenous church while (2) the
Holy Spirit guide the congregation to develop its life and work. It was
thought that, since the Spirit of God wishes to dwell in an ever-expanding
circle of worshipers, the local body of believers would become
spontaneously missionary. The expatriate should stand by as a concerned
friend to counsel and encourage his brothers and sisters in the faith at
crucial points in their Christian activity. Such a strategy is reflected
in the work of the apostle Paul. It leaves the sovereign God at the heart
of His church and her mission.
In the 1950's Donald McGavran began to address the issue of initiating
indigenous churches. He built on the previous work of Christian Keysser of
New Guinea who championed "tribal conversions" and J. W. Pickett of India
who emphasized "mass movements." People movements are a means of church
growth, a way of facilitating Christian conversion without social
dislocation. The new convert remains in full contact with his non-
Christian relatives, enabling them across the years, after suitable
instruction, to accept Jesus and be formed into sound churches. These
congregations are likely to be more stable, faster growing, and highly
indigenous since Christian conviction is buttressed by social cohesion.
The past has bequeathed to the present a legacy of "tried and true"
methods to reach the world. Contemporary concern centers on the 17,000
groups of people among whom there is no indigenous community of believers
with adequate numbers and resources to evangelize their own people. The
challenge is to provide every group of people on earth with a valid
opportunity to hear the gospel in a language they can understand. The goal
is to establish a people movement within every unreached society so that
the saving message of Jesus Christ is accessible to everyone on planet
A new era in world mission has come. A renewed commitment to the
obligation of reaching the lost is growing. Renewed efforts to effectively
plant the church is mushrooming. New technology to aid in the proclamation
of the good news is being employed. This is a time of unprecedented
mission activity. The danger is to plan as if nothing has been done in the
past, to go as if no one has gone before. Tragic mistakes can and will,
indeed must, be avoided by a knowledge of the history of mission
BEAVER, R. Pierce
1962 Ecumenical Beginnings in Protestant World Mission: A
History of Comity. New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons.
1967 To Advance the Gospel: Selections From the Writings of
Rufus Anderson. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing
BOWDEN, Henry Warner
1981 American Indians and Christian Missions. Chicago:
The University of Chicago Press.
1909 A History of Christianity in Japan. New York:
Fleming H. Revell.
1964 "The Problem of Funeral Rites," Practical
1981 "The Apostle Paul and the Missionary Task" in Ralph Winter
and Steven Hawthorne, eds.
1970 Evangelism in the Early Church. Grand Rapids:
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
HILLGARTH, J. H., ed.
1986 Christianity and Paganism, 350-750: The Conversion of
Western Europe. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
HOGG, William Richey
1952 Ecumenical Foundations. New York: Harper and
LATOURETTE, Kenneth Scott
1967 A History of Christian Missions in China. New
York: Russell and Russell.
1985 The Chinese Rites Controversy. Chicago: Loyola
1964 A History of Christian Missions. Baltimore,
Maryland: Penguin Books.
1966 Colonialism and Christian Missions. New York:
NEVIUS, JohnPlanting and Development of Missionary Churches.
Philadelphia: The Reformed and Presbyterian Publishing Company.
1908 A History of Missions in India. Trans. By Sidney
Moore. London: Oliphant, Anderson, and Ferrier.
1931 Catholic Mission History. Techny, Illinois:
1983 Henry Venn--Missionary Statesman. Marynoll, New
York: Orbis Books.
1906 History of Protestant Missions. New York: Fleming
WINTER, Ralph and HAWTHORNE, Steven, eds.
1981 Perspectives on the World Christian Movement.
Pasadena, California: William Carey Library.
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Direct questions and comments to Ed Mathews,
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