MR #20: The Theological Foundations of Missiology

All missiological decisions must be rooted, either implicitly or explicitly, in theology so that they mirror the purposes and mind of God. Frequently, however, missions practitioners take the theological foundation of missions for granted. Paul Hiebert writes:

Too often we choose a few themes and from there build a simplistic theology rather than look at the profound theological motifs that flow through the whole of Scripture. Equally disturbing to the foundations of mission is the dangerous potential of shifting from God and his work to the emphasis of what we can do for God by our own knowledge and efforts. We become captive to a modern secular worldview in which human control and technique replace divine leading and human obedience as the basis of mission (1993, 4).

Hesselgrave confirmed this absence of theological foundations in contemporary missiology by making a thematic content analysis of book reviews and articles published in major missions journals (Missiology, International Review of Missions, and Evangelical Missions Quarter). Concluding that the social sciences and history have been given more attention in the study of missiology than has theology (1988, 139-44), he asks, “Of what lasting significance is the evangelical commitment to the authority of the Bible if biblical teachings do not explicitly inform our missiology?” (1988, 142). Without theological foundations missions quickly becomes merely another human endeavor.

Van Engen defined theology of mission as "a multidisciplinary field that reads the Bible with missiological eyes and, based on that reading, continually reexamines, reevaluates and redirects the church's participation in God's mission in God's world" (Van Engen 1999, xviii). How specifically might this definition help the missionary understand the role of theology in missiology and thus clarify and prioritize the tasks of missions?

The Role of Theology in Missiology

Missiology is a multi-faceted discipline. The social sciences (anthropology, sociology, psychology) enable missionaries to exegete another culture, interpret emic (insider) meanings, understand how people live together in groups, compare one culture to another, and perceive psyches of various people within culture. History of missions reflects upon past paradigms of mission theology and practice. Understandings of contextualized ministry (evangelism, church planting and development, leadership training) help missionaries develop theologically focused, yet contextually appropriate strategies. These strategies guide missionaries to teach unbelievers, incorporate new Christians into communities of faith, nurture them to maturity, and train developing leaders to minister within the maturing movement of God. Other disciplines (linguistics; Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist studies; folk religion, etc.) provide tools for the missionary task and heighten understandings regarding Christian approaches to non-Christian peoples.

None of these disciplines of missiology can function individually on its own criteria. Rather, mission theology functions within the field of missiology to prioritize and clarify the functions of these other disciplines in relationship to the purposes of God.

The social sciences, for instance, are disciplines developed during the modern age rooted in secular presuppositions. The missionaries, consequently, cannot merely look at anthropology as a neutral discipline but must seek understandings of local cultures based on the biblical foundation that humans have been created in the image of God yet have fallen away from God through rebellion and sin. Biblical theology, thus, provides foundational presuppositions that guide the Christian anthropologist in cultural analysis.

Moreover, ministry strategies too frequently are developed as a type of triumphalism, to promote some human agenda or ego. They often cater to short-term promotional work while neglecting basic missional tasks, which should have been defined by a biblical theology of mission. Too frequently promotion guides decision-making rather than biblical theology of neighborliness and interdependence rooted in the nature of Christ’s incarnational ministry.

A theology of mission also “clarifies” the “proximity to or distance from the center, Jesus Christ, asking whether there is a point beyond which the cognate disciplines may no longer be helpful or biblical” (Van Engen 2000, 949). A theology of mission identifies “who we are, what we know, and how we act in mission.” According to Van Engen,

It brings together our faith relationship with Jesus Christ, our spirituality, God’s presence, the church’s theological reflection throughout centuries, a constantly new rereading of Scripture, our hermeneutic of God’s world, our sense of participation in God’s mission, and the ultimate purpose and meaning of the church and relates all these to the cognate disciplines of missiology. Theology of mission serves to question, clarify, integrate, and expand the presuppositions of the various cognate disciplines of missiology” (2000, 949).

When missionaries minister, they simultaneously engage all the disciplines of missiology. They employ linguistic tools to learn a new language. They make kinship charts diagramming the relationship of people to people. They ask ethnographic questions seeking emic cultural realities. They reflect on the theologies and practices of missionaries who have gone before them. Based on these and other preparations, missionaries develop their first gospel presentations attempting to appropriately communicate the gospel in the recipient culture. Thus, missionaries do missiology not in abstracted, segmented pieces but integrate all parts of the discipline in missions practice. Missionaries concurrently exegete culture for understandings, reflect historically, strategize for ministry, and do theology in context.

While living in Africa, I remember when certain Christians traveled many miles to visit me. I could feel their tenseness as they sipped tea in my house. After circling the problem for some minutes, they came to the matter to be discussed. “Two of our children are possessed by spirits,” they stated. “They have been sick for almost two years now. What shall we do? What does Christ say about this?” These brothers greatly feared the anger of irritable ancestors, who sometimes possess the living and inflict harm when they become disgruntled with members of their family. The fact that I could communicate with them personally in their language, understand to a large degree their heritage, and theologically engage their questions demonstrated the concurrent employment of all the many disciplines of missiology. Hopefully, my use of these disciplines was toned and shaped by a biblical theology of mission (Note Van Rheenen, 1991).

Two Illustrations of a Theology of Mission

I frequently use two analogies to illustrate the functions of mission theology within missiology.

First, a theology of mission is like the rudder of a ship guiding the mission of God and providing it direction. My wife is fond of remembering how our children frequently wanted to “drive” when we took them on pedal-boats. At times they were so intent on pedaling, making the boat move, that the rudder was held in one position, and we went in circles. Realizing his mistake, but still intent on pedaling, the child would move the rudder from one extreme to the other so that we zig-zagged across the lake. When missionaries operate without the foundation of a mission theology, their lives and ministries zig-zag from fad to fad, from one theological perspective to another.

Second, a theology of mission is like the engine of a ship propelling forward the mission of God. This spring my wife and I taught in our university’s campus abroad program in the Montevideo, Uruguay. During the semester, we traveled with our students to Iguasu Falls, a spectacular waterfall between Brazil and Argentina. One highlight of our visit was a motor-boat excursion against the mighty currents of the river up to the foot of the falls. I was impressed not only the immensity of the flow of the water but also the power of the engine to travel against the tide. Likewise, a mission theology provides the power to enable human jars of clay to carry God’s mission against the strong cultural currents that pull against them. Paul could say that he was indebted, a slave, one “compelled to preach” the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16-18).

These metaphors illustrate that theology is indispensable to the mission of God. Missionaries must gain their direction and empowerment from continual reflection on God’s mission.

In the next Monthly Missiological Reflection I will reverse directions and write about The Missiological Foundations of Theology.

Sources Cited

Costas, Orlando E. 1976. Theology of the Crossroads in Contemporary Latin America: Missiology in Mainline Protestantism, 1969-1974. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Hiebert, Paul. 1993. De-theologizing missiology: A response. Trinity World Forum 19 (Fall):4.

Hesselgrave, David. 1988. Today’s Choices for Tomorrow’s Mission: An Evangelical Perspective on Trends and Issues in Missions. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Moreau, A. Scott, ed. 2000. Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions. Grand Rapids: Baker.

Van Engen, Charles. 1999. Footprints of God: A Narrative Theology of Mission. Monrovia, CA: MARC.

________. 1996. Mission on the Way: Issues in Mission Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker.

________. 2000. Theology of mission. In Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, ed. Scott Moreau, pp. 949-951. Grand Rapids: Baker.

Van Rheenen, Gailyn. 1991. Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts. Pasadena: William Carey Library.