As is the case with most of our present day life, today’s approach to missions is a result of the history behind it. Here is a rapid-fire, over-generalized overview of the modern missionary movement…

  • Until the 16th century, the word mission was only used to describe the Trinity. But, with the onset of the Enlightenment and Western technological development, David Bosch reveals that there was a rise of material possessions, consumerism, and economic advance. The modern era was born, characterized by man at the center of the world.
  • From this point in history emerged the modern missionary movement. In 1792, William Carey of England wrote a landmark book called An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens, which used the Great Commission as a proof-text, whereby he argued that the West had the power, resources, and obligation to evangelize the world. This era pushed Western civilization and values on other cultures as much as it did the gospel.
  • As Bosch points out, “[The problem was] a total absence of an ability to be critical about their own culture or to appreciate foreign cultures…the problem was that the advocates of mission were blind to their own ethnocentrism. They confused their middle-class ideals and values with the tenets of Christianity…[this came from] a mentality shaped by the Enlightenment which tended to turn people into objects.”
  • Moving into the 20th century, a major theme was that early 20th century evangelicals and revivalists adopted premillennialism, which focused on the end times coming soon and a need to elevate verbal evangelism over and without social involvement. In short, people were trying to convert individuals, aka “save souls,” without caring about any other aspect of their life except for a verbal commitment to Christ.

In summary, from this background, one can see how the Great Commission exists today in its modern effort to convert individuals without sensitivity towards poverty, culture, church, community, indigenous leadership, or personhood. However, as you may be aware, the last half-century has been a push against this paradigm. Evangelical Christianity has shifted towards a more holistic approach to evangelization (especially brought forth by the Majority World) that reconnects evangelism and social action. As you will see in “The Global Shift of World Christianity,” the Western world owes a debt to Majority World leaders, who have illuminated a more holistic view of the Christian life.



The Missionary Movement in Christian History
Andrew Walls

The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History
Andrew Walls

Transforming Mission
David Bosch

A History of Christian Missions
Stephen Neill

History of the World Christian Movement, Vol 1 and 2
Dale Irvin and Scott Sunquist