Journal of Applied Missiology, Volume 1, Number 1



Ed Mathews
Abilene Christian University
Abilene, Texas

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 1970:166-178).

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 and unplanned.


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 1966).


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 success.


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 were issued.

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, or contextualization.


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 training leaders.

Public Preaching

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 be cited).

Organizing Churches

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.

Building Towns

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.

Train Leaders

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.

Vocational Missionaries

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 beneficial.

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.

Mission Stations

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 paternalistic.

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.

Three-Self Formula

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 (Shenk 1983).

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 1967).

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.

Social Improvement

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.

Women Missionaries

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 created confusion.

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 evangelism.

Spontaneous Expansion

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.

People Movements

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.

Unreached Peoples

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 earth.

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 methods.



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    1967 To Advance the Gospel: Selections From the Writings of Rufus Anderson. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

BOWDEN, Henry Warner
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CARY, Otis
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CHOW, Lien-hwa
    1964 "The Problem of Funeral Rites," Practical Anthropology, 11:226-228.
    1981 "The Apostle Paul and the Missionary Task" in Ralph Winter and Steven Hawthorne, eds.
GREEN, Michael
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    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 Brothers, Publishers.
LATOURETTE, Kenneth Scott
    1967 A History of Christian Missions in China. New York: Russell and Russell.
    1985 The Chinese Rites Controversy. Chicago: Loyola University Press.
NEILL, Stephen
    1964 A History of Christian Missions. Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books.

    1966 Colonialism and Christian Missions. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    Planting 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: Mission Press
SHENK, Wilbert
    1983 Henry Venn--Missionary Statesman. Marynoll, New York: Orbis Books.
    1906 History of Protestant Missions. New York: Fleming H. Revell.
WINTER, Ralph and HAWTHORNE, Steven, eds.
    1981 Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. Pasadena, California: William Carey Library.

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