Missiology and The West
Missiology? This term has been around for some time, though it is not altogether common. I do find that half the fun of theological studies is the discovery of new terms and then trying to pronounce them… While the textual appearance of the word at hand is slightly more odd than its phonetic utterance, the meaning is not odd at all: Missiology is simply the study of Christian missions.
On October 31, 1517 an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of Wittenberg Church in Germany, protesting against church offenses. This act birthed what became known as the Protestant Reformation, eventually affecting all of Western civilization. The next four hundred years solidified the concept of the Protestant Church being synonymous with the West, i.e. Europe, Britain, and North America. Interestingly, Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East were rarely even a focus of Protestantism or “Western theology” in that until approximately AD 1800, 98 percent of the world’s Protestants lived in the West. This is attested to by the famous shoe maker later extolled as the father of the missionary movement, William Carey. The seeming monopoly on theological advancement occurring in the Western world led Carey to India in 1793 to preach the Word of Truth. The next one hundred years witnessed a grand increase in foreign missions, though by 1900 the West still held nearly 90 percent of the world’s Protestants.
At present, the West may still hold a majority of the world’s Protestants, but it does not hold a majority of the world’s Christians. The dominant regions of Christian growth are now found throughout what is often considered the “mission field,” such being Latin America, Africa, Eurasia, and the Middle East (Status of Global Mission, 20th-21st Centuries). In the context of global Christianity, the term “World A” represents the unevangelized world, being those who have never heard of Christ, Christianity, or the Gospel message. The scandal of World A is that more than 70% of Christian effort and ministry is directed at people who already profess to be Christians, while less than 5% of our total missionary activity is focused on those who have never once had a chance to hear about the good news of the Gospel. The connection between the known “mission field” and “World A” is that the former encompasses the latter, therein proving a significant lack of focus in confirmation of the previous quote.
In response to this “scandal” I purpose to promote a much greater awareness of our Christian brethren in the non-Western world, for they are of serious import to Christendom in that they are the majority of Christians in the world today. As with a previous article I posted, In the Shadow of Death, I seek to edify those members of the Church where persecution is heavy, martyrdom is commonplace, and miracles abound, affirming that the book of Acts is literally the context of the day. The past several centuries have seen great advances in theology on a plethora of levels. However, Western theological analysis of the world at large has not kept pace with the Spirit (John 3:8), trending more toward intellectual vanity and a focus on God as a subject to be studied rather than Someone to be experienced. Moreover, the West views itself as the ecclesiastical exemplar for the world, all the while suffering more denominational infighting and schism than during the era of protest against Roman Catholic heresies ignited by the Reformation!
We in the West often believe that our understanding of systematic theology and church history is entirely and readily applicable, and thus normative, to people from all cultures. The folly of this thinking results in frequent relational rifts between Western evangelicals and non-Western believers. Imagine a well-intentioned theologian from the West steeped in academia and ecclesia though lacking in non-Western perspective/experience suddenly engaging in conversation with a devout Christian from Eritrea, Iran, or India. Initial differences and misunderstanding would likely arise from mere terminology. Further rifting would develop as Western orthodoxy was met with the apparent unorthodox template of outright miracles, makeshift, underground, and temporary churches, “unschooled” Christian leadership, minimal Christian resources (even Bibles), and highly frequent violence and brutality.
So what exactly is normative Christianity? Certainly it is not found in the affluent West where the prevailing aspirations trend toward political correctness and entertainment. What constitutes normative Christianity is that which parallels the circumstance of the first century Church and reflects the faith of the apostles. This is widely observed/experienced in the aforementioned regions predominantly classified as the mission field.
The Western church has long focused on itself, leaving missionaries and outreach organizations to “indoctrinate” the non-Western world, as if such were merely a project for those willing to take part. Yet the past decade has witnessed vast shifts in global Christianity that the West would do well to analyze and absorb into its own theological perspective, particularly through reflecting on what the non-Western church is writing about and doing. This would equip us for more effective outreach due to more outward thinking in light of what Almighty God is doing in the world, not the Western church.
Western Christians in general are not familiar with the cross-cultural nature of Christian theology, not yet comprehending that Western theological perspectives are no longer mainstream. Thus the clear and immediate need is for the West to elevate missiology into a priority whilst allowing for development of new theological formulae. Case in point: the more refined and analytical minds of recent generations are desirous toward the application of theology in context of actual life-circumstances rather than being content to remain cloistered behind the walls of universities acclimated to the confines of academia alone. Likewise, missionaries and Christians in World A regions are experiencing an insatiable hunger for systematic theology and a deeper understanding of church history due to ever increasing complexity in light of exponential growth in both the volume of new believers and a desire for spiritual depth in the same.
As religious divides (and conflict) become increasingly volatile, especially in the non-Western world, the need for decisive Christian apologetics cannot be overestimated. Christianity may very well be the fastest growing faith system in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East (Islam holds this statistic at the global level), but this is not a result of being sanitized so as to be inoffensive to any and all opposing religions and cults. Expanding knowledge planet-wide has set the stage for a war of worldviews to be waged upon the battlefield of hearts and minds, and as Christians engage in cross-cultural encounters the necessity of sound theology and apologetics in the arsenal of faith is self-evident. Christian “missions” recurrently generate the demand for immediate and unspoiled theological ventures, lending severe gravity to the warning found in Colossians 2:8, “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ.” This is profound counsel for the Christian who interacts regularly with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, tribal shamans, or the like.
I strongly sense that a new era of theological understanding and advancement has dawned. Perhaps a “second Reformation” is in order to salvage the best of Western theology, then graft such into the ideals of true missiology, resulting in a far more exhaustive perception of Jesus Christ’s Work in the world. Though for such a grafting to take place a definitive reconciliation must be effected between the differing dispositions of theologians and missionaries.
How can this be accomplished? Consider the efficiency of missionary theologians, such being individuals well-versed in Scripture, commanding extensive knowledge of church and world history, and also extensively learned in the anthropological and sociological arenas. Consider the apostle Paul, at once the Church’s greatest missionary and its greatest theologian.
Personas of this caliber would benefit Christendom immensely today, but do any exist? Indeed they must, though more are required, in both the non-Western and Western worlds. For I am convinced that, in an appropriately ironic twist, the West has become the “mission field” for the non-Western church.