MR #21: The Missiological Foundations of Theology

Missiology: The Mother of Theology

Some years ago systematic theologian Martin Kahler wrote the often-quoted statement that mission is “the mother of theology.” Theology, said Kahler, developed as "an accompanying manifestation of the Christian message." In other words, theology was formed when church planters and waterers (1 Cor. 3:6) reflected upon God’s will within specific cultural contexts. Although these leaders were learned, they were not scholars in the modern sense of the word. They did not have jobs that allowed them time to research what others had written and spoken. They were rather Christian ministers, considered by their peers as “jars of clay” (2 Cor. 4:7), who put pen to paper in order to address tangible, contemporary issues in the life of communities of faith. "They wrote in the context of an 'emergency situation', of a church which, because of its missionary encounter with the world, was forced to theologize" ([1908] 1971, 189-90; cf. Bosch 1991, 16). In other words, theology was done in missional contexts in response to missional questions as Christian ministers planted new churches and nurtured existing churches to maturity.

The Historical Demise of Missiological Thinking

During the time of Constantine, the concept of Christendom and the Christian nation began to developed. In 375 AD Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Christianity thus stood at the center of culture, and churches and cathedrals were auspiciously built in the center of the communities, not only in Europe but also in various parts of the New World, signifying the dominant role of the church as the pillar and molder of society. For hundreds of years thereafter people were expected to follow the religion of their political leaders. Within these environments people did not become Christians but were rather born Christians.

This Constantinization of the church led to the demise of missional thinking. Stated in other terms, Theology was generally constructed without a missional core, and Christianity without missional distinctiveness accommodated to the world. Such classical doctrines as missio Dei were lost to the church. In other words, Christians could not conceive of the church as the “outcome of the activity of God who sends and saves” (Vicedom 1965, 80) because “sending and saving” was not a part of their identity.

During the twentieth century, the church was displaced as the moral and ethical institution of Western culture. The perspective that humans can think independently and arrive at understandings by their own ingenuity challenged the sole authority of the church. People experienced the fragmentation of Christianity, came into contract with other world religions, which over time, became options for them, and with this cross-fertilization developed their own New Age philosophies. Thus perspectives of individualism, rationality, democracy, and pluralism within popular culture eroded the place of the church at the center of culture. The church, proud of its heritage and shaped by functional and pragmatist paradigms, had little experience defining itself as a minority movement. Even today, many have not recognized that we are living in a post-Christian age.

The fourth and the twentieth centuries thus “form bookends marking transition points in the history of the church. Just as the fourth century adoption of Christianity by Constantine forced the church to struggle with its self-identity as the new center of the culture, twentieth-century Christians must now struggle to understand the meaning of their social location in a decentered world” (Roxburgh 1997, 7-8).

Over the centuries, theological reflection moved from the arena of ministry to the monastery and eventually to the seminary (or university). In the seminary theology was frequently segmented from ministry. As in Greek thought, the focus was on what people believe, on orthodoxy, rather than on who people are or what they do. In the drive for orthodoxy, Christian beliefs were generally taken out of their cultural and historical contexts and studied abstractly as if truth was self-contained and propositional.

Most seminaries today are attempting to break with these modern paradigms of theological education, connecting learning to practice by the use of case studies, historical reflection, illustration, and some level of practice in ministry. These refreshing changes, encouraged by the Association of Theological Schools, indicate an increasing awareness that theological reflection must be connected to practice.

The Rise of Missiology as a Discipline

Missiology is once again becoming accepted in Theology for at least two reasons.

First, as described previously, Christianity without a missional theology cannot adequately provide an identity to cultures where the church has been disenfranchised from her traditional role as the major shaper of culture. Unless the church recreates her missional identity, she will continue to function in pluralist society like a ship without a rudder. Looking at Christianity missionally, i.e., through the eyes of missio Dei or of the kingdom of God in the world, provides new theological direction for floundering Christianity.

Second, Christian leaders are realizing that existing practices and structures of the church are inadequate for expressing Christian values and presuppositions. Missiology as “a conscious, intentional, ongoing reflection on the doing of missions” (Neely 2000, 633) enables to church to rethink itself in the post-modern period. Missiology thus embellishes Theology because it is the "critical reflection that takes place in the practice of mission…. (It occurs) in the concrete missionary situation, as part of the church’s missionary obedience to and participation in God’s mission, and is itself actualized in that situation…. Missiology arises as part of a witnessing engagement to the gospel in the multiple situations of life” (Costas 1976, 8; cf. Van Engen 2000, 950).

The increasing acceptance of Missiology was reflected in a meeting of 250 presidents and academic deans representing theology schools from 53 nations as part of the Global Consultation on World Evangelization (GCOWE '97) in South Africa from June 20 to July 5, 1997. The first and central thesis of their declaration was: “The primacy of missiological concern for world evangelism must be recognized and focused in the total curriculum of ministry training” (Mulholland 1998, 1).

The Gospel and Our Culture Network ( is a refreshing attempt to integrate Missiology and Theology, thus developing a missional theology for North America. This coalition of Christian leaders has been inspired by writings of the missiologist Lesslie Newbigin, who returned to Britain after forty years of missionary work in India, and during his “retirement,” reflected upon both the demise and revitalization of the church in the West. The GOCN arose "from the conviction that genuine renewal in the life and witness of the church comes only with a fresh encounter of the gospel within our culture” ( The guiding question of the network is “What faithful action is required of us in this post-modern world?” This question prompts three activities “which give shape to the missionary way the church is called to live”: (1) social and cultural analysis, (2) biblical and theological reflection, and (3) vision for the church and its mission ( The coalition’s purpose is not only to “provide useful research regarding the encounter between the gospel and our culture” but also “to encourage local action for transformation in the life and witness of the church” (

While Missiology is gaining new hearings within the academy, there is also an entrenched reticence. Theologians who believe that out of theology the practice of missions can be induced without analysis of culture and contextualization of the message and ministry reflect this reticence. Frequently Missiology is disparagingly equated with church growth, a type of Missiology in which theologians believe that pragmatism takes the place of theological reflection. Some theologians assume that spiritually formed believers know how to do missions and de-emphasize critical reflection upon missional practice. Theology continues to maintain a dominant role and Missiology a subservient one. Missiology is "taught usually as one of the subjects of practical theology. There was little curricular evidence that 'missions is the mother of theology'" (Guder 1998, 7).


Missiology and Theology should not be seen as separate disciplines but as clasped hands, two parts of an interpenetrating whole. Not only does theology help the Christian minister understand the message and motivation for missions but it also provides the ethical lens through which missionaries evaluate human cultures and determine practical strategies of missions. Missiology, moreover, helps Theology focus on God's redemptive purposes, enables theologians to analyze cultural contexts, and guides future ministers to develop strategies for church transformation, local evangelism, church planting, and leadership development. In healthy theological education Theology and Missiology actively shape each other.

Sources Cited

Bosch, David J. 1991. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

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

Kahler, Martin. 1971. Schriften zur Christologie und Mission. Munich: Chr. Kaiser Verlag.

The Gospel and Culture Network. 2001.,, and

Guder, Darrell L. 1998. Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

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

Mulholland, Kenneth. 1998. Global Consultation on World Evangelization 1997: Presidents and Academic Deans Declaration. In the Occasional Bulletin of the Evangelical Missiological

Neely, Alan. 2000. Missiology. In the Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions. Ed. Scott A. Moreau. Grand Rapids: Baker.

Roxburgh, Alan J. The Missionary Congregation, Leadership, & Liminality. Harrisburg, PN: Trinity Press International.
Vicedom, George F. 1965. The Mission of God. Trans. Gilbert A. Thiele and Dennie Hilgrendorf. St. Louis: Concordia.