Learning from Mission History

As I look at the missiological landscape more than halfway through the second decade of the 21st century, I join others in noting similarities with the early 20th century. Christopher R. Little writes:

Indeed, the problems the missionary movement generated at the early part of the twentieth century have returned with a vengeance at the beginning of the twenty-first century. … It is a hard fact to face, but the church has failed to learn from history and is therefore repeating it. – Polemic Missiology for the 21st Century: In Memoriam of Roland Allen, Kindle loc. 137

Likewise, Charles Van Engen writes:

In the twenty-first century Evangelical mission agencies are becoming increasingly committed and involved in humanitarian and compassion ministries … Given these new emphases in Evangelical mission activism, it behoves us to consider carefully how Evangelical views of mission today may be tempted to repeat the same errors made when mission was redefined and eventually lost in the World Council of Churches between the 1960s and the 1990s. Missionshift, 20.

The seeds of redefining mission in the World Council of Churches started at the Edinburgh 1910 Mission Conference in which theological discussions were ruled off limits. The Ecumenical Movement lost mission through redefinition and this loss was accompanied by a loss of confidence in the Bible. Arthur P. Johnston has traced the development of mission in the ecumenical movement in two books: World Evangelism and the Word of God, 1974 and The Battle for World Evangelism, 1978. He observes that “ecumenical theology does not begin with an infallible Bible – nor end with a biblical Gospel.” (Battle for World Evangelism, 287) The ecumenical movement’s emphasis on social action eventually swallowed up evangelism. Johnston sees this as a consequence of a low view of Scripture:

What a man or a church thinks about the Bible makes a big difference in what he thinks about the teachings of the Bible: The inspiration and authority of the Bible directly influence how one views the deity of Christ, the sin of man, the death of Christ for sinners, the second coming of Christ, and the teaching of the Scriptures on eternal punishment of the unbelieving, unrepentant sinner. – World Evangelism and the Word of God, 251

Many of these doctrinal issues are currently questioned by those who claim to be evangelicals. Some believe that “about half of all evangelicals believe that the Bible is part false and part true and about half believe it is wholly true.” (Controversies in Mission, 309).

Theological discussion is often avoided in church and mission circles today not unlike a hundred years ago. David Hesselgrave observes:

The decision of conciliars to rule theological discussion out of order in Edinburgh 1910 was fundamentally flawed because it prized unity at the expense of truth. … Appeals for unity and cooperation that are based on both truth and love are worthy of consideration. Appeals for unity and cooperation based on either one at the expense of the other are not. – Controversies in Mission, 307

Elsewhere he writes:

Unless truth is the goal, love is not the motivation. A better biblical case can be made for being a watchman on the wall than an observer on the fence. – Missionshift, 272.

In order to avoid the drift experienced by the Ecumenical Movement in the twentieth century, Evangelicalism must recognize that mission is fundamentally a theological movement. Theological issues must not be avoided but ought to be thoroughly discussed. Evangelical missions must reaffirm commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture or drift without a rudder in popular currents. Evangelical missions must regain the priority of evangelism in our definition of mission. David Hesselgrave, citing Lesslie Newbigin’s forward to the 1961 edition of Roland Allen’s Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?, writes:

Allen’s primary objective was to urge “… the resubmission in each generation of the traditions of men to the Word and Spirit of God.” – Controversies in Mission, 302.

So let us learn from history and not repeat it. Let us resubmit our definitions and strategies of mission to the Word and Spirit of God, noting that there is no dichotomy between Word and Spirit. The written Word is the objective authority by which we test the subjective leading of the Spirit.

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One thought on “Learning from Mission History

  1. Pingback: How do we decide whom we can work with? – SEND U Blog

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