Visual Timeline of 20th Century Missiology in the West


This is a rough sketch of the history of missiology in the 20th century and how the conversation has evolved in the West. This is strictly a Roman Catholic and Western Protestant conversation. It leaves out the Eastern Church and the global movement of Pentecostalism, not to mention the entire church of the Global South.

Missiology has evolved through three basic forms in this time period:

1. Theology for Missions. This comes from two hundred years of European colonialism and Christendom. The church was thought to be a location to which people were to be brought, and a cultural norm to which people were to be converted. The church existed primarily for the perpetuation of God’s People, and secondarily for the sending of missionaries to bring the Gospel to the heathen in the dark places of the world. The first meeting of the International Missionary Council sparked conversations about the theological and biblical basis for missions. Several books were written tracing the story of the Biblical narrative, demonstrating that God is a missionary God and has called, first Israel, and then the Church to go into all the world and preach the good news of repentance and salvation.

2. Theology of Mission. Two world wars, the uprising of colonies against the empire, and the rise of deconstructionism in mainline universities became the catalyst for a deeper look at the theology of mission. Most ecumenical churches were pulling away from missions in fear of the complicity it shared in colonialism. The IMC was scrambling for a new imagination for mission. Karl Hartenstein proposed the notion of missio Dei at the Willingen Council in 1952. The term, at the time, was merely a place holder term to connote that the mission was God’s, not the church. Missiologists would spend the next two decades debating over what the missio Dei actually meant.

This conversation went in two basic directions. One the one side, led by J.C. Hoekendijk, the concept of missio Dei became engulfed in a progressivist, universalism in which God no longer needed the church, but that God was already present in all religions and cultures. The mission of the church was simply to recognize God at work in the world and to foster God’s movement toward shalom. The IMC was absorbed into the World Council of Churches as the Commission of World Mission and Evangelism.

On the other side, the evangelical movement was formed to preserve both biblical authority and the centrality of Jesus for the Gospel and the church for mission. God is a sending God. God’s mission is to save the world. God the Father sent Jesus. Jesus sent the Spirit to create the church. God sends the church, in the power of the Spirit to go into the world.

3. Missional Church. The late 1980s brought a movement back to center with the voices of Lesslie Newbigin and David Bosch leading the way. Both of these men were missionaries with great experience of contextualizing the Gospel in the field. When they returned to their sending cultures they realized that the “Christian West” was now, itself, a post-Christian culture and the Gospel, the mission field, and the entire study of missiology was in desperate need of revisioning. The realities of pluralism, globalization, and post-modern deconstructionism sparked a flourish of literature in the 1990s and first decade of the 21st century. The missional church understands that God is missionary by nature, creating and restoring the world. The church is constituted by God’s missionary essence and participates in God’s mission.

A vital component to the missional church conversation is that of the Trinity. The resurgence of Trinitarian theology by theologians such as Moltmann, Pannenberg, Jenson, Zizioulas, Boff, LaCugna, Volf, Johnson, and Torrance has helped the church realize that it is constituted by the relationality of God and functions in the provisional knowledge of God’s eschatological promise and hope of a restored world.