This article is by Caleb Crider, co-founder of The Upstream Collective and instructional design leader for the IMB.
What, exactly, is a missiologist, and why do they matter?
Missiology is the study of God’s mission. It focuses on the theology and practice of mission by thinking deeply about:
The biblical basis of mission: What does God’s word say about mission?
The theology of mission: What is God’s mission? What is the role of God’s people in mission? What is the scope and goal of mission?
The biblical history of mission: How did Jesus, His disciples, and the early church engage in mission?
The history of the church: How have God’s people organized themselves on God’s mission?
The history of mission outside of Scripture: How have faithful men and women participated in taking the gospel to people of every tribe, tongue, and nation?
Global history: How have the rise and fall of empires, societies, and countries affected the spread of Christianity?
Anthropology/Sociology: What can we learn about cultures, worldviews and social trends?
Ethnographic, demographic, and migration research: Who lives where in the world, and how are they moving, merging, and changing?
Language: What language do people speak? How can we communicate the Good News intelligibly? Can we translate Scripture into this language?
And, to a lesser degree,
Communication Theory: What are good principles of communicating across cultural barriers?
Demographics and statistics: How many people are in a place? How many of them have heard the gospel? How many of them are Christians? What percentage of a group must become Christian before there is a gospel impact on the rest of the group?
Geopolitics: How does the political climate affect the reception and spread of the gospel? How do political realities affect missionary access to a people or place?
Why do we need missiologists?
Missiologists are champions for good, sound, and faithful practice in mission. They remind the church of the importance of God’s mission, and the role of the church in that mission. They teach important principles that should be followed as we make disciples across cultural barriers, and warn of potential pitfalls and errors that can have lasting effects.
For example, the conversation about being “missional” that happened in the 2000s was led by missiologists who recognized the major societal shifts away from Christendom and warned the church that it needed to think and act like missionaries in order to make disciples in this new context. The missional shift was an attempt by the Western church to distinguish between Biblical Christianity and Western culture.
In the 1800’s, missiologists reminded the world that a person didn’t necessarily have to learn English or adopt Western culture to become a Christian. It seems silly to us now, but when Hudson Taylor, the founder of the China Inland Mission in the 1850s, adopted Chinese dress and diet for the sake of making disciples of Chinese people, it was a radical idea! Taylor saw it as a simple thing he could do to minimize the differences between himself and those to whom he was ministering. This is a great missiological principle that shapes the way we approach mission even today.
In the Bible, we see a great application of missiology in Acts 15. As the gospel spread among the non-Jewish communities in and around the Roman Empire, early Christians were conflicted; did new converts need to become Jewish in order to follow Christ? A council of Apostles and church leaders met in Jerusalem to discuss the matter. Peter called upon Paul and Barnabas to tell about all they had seen God do as they made disciples among all the peoples of the region. The entire council determined that no, new believers did not have to convert to Judaism in order to become Christians. This determination had far-reaching effects for mission throughout the world, and it’s why Christian missionaries today mark conversion to Christ with baptism and not circumcision!
The gospel is a powerfully simple universal truth. But culture is overwhelmingly complex and ever-changing. Applying the gospel to culture requires first-hand insight that can only come from cross-cultural experience. It’s not possible to study God’s mission without participating in it. Missiologists can not be mere theorists. This is why the most significant missiological insight to date has come from practitioners; missionaries who learned valuable lessons by immersing themselves in foreign contexts.
Missiology has long been relegated to a niche specialty within the broader category of theology. This has not helped the Church, which often fails to adapt to changes in culture with appropriate application of the gospel. We can only be faithful to what God has called us to do when all God’s people wrestle with Christ’s command to make disciples of all people. And we must have God’s disposition toward the diversity of human cultures in order to do this.
To a certain extent, we should all be amateur missiologists. All Christians everywhere must understand the gospel and how to share it across the subcultural barriers of a fractured society. We need regular Christians to think deeply about contextualization as they seek to proclaim the Good News to those around them. We need everyday believers to understand indignity and the need for a variety of culturally-appropriate expressions of worship. We cannot be obedient followers of Jesus unless we follow Him in His mission.