The Discipline

Missiology is made up of three interdependent areas of study:   Theology, the social sciences, and strategy.  To facilitate understanding, these disciplines are described separately, even though they are closely related in the actual practice of missions.  Picturing the areas of study in tiers implies that some are foundational to others.


Theology: The Foundation of Missions


All missiological decisions must be rooted, either implicitly or explicitly, in theology in order to mirror the purposes and mind of God. Theology provides the purpose, the focus, the life of missiology and is, therefore, the very foundation of the discipline. It produces the message proclaimed in missions–a message not of human origin but revealed by God. Theology also furnishes the motivation of mission, which is rooted in the attributes of God, who sends and saves. It gives “the work of ministry its heart and fire” (Wells 1992, 186). Finally, theology provides the ethical lenses through which missionaries evaluate human cultures and determine practical strategies of ministry. The study of theology thus enables Christian missionaries to perceive the social contexts through the eyes of God and develop strategies shaped by the touch of the divine.

Too often, however, we take the theological foundation of missions for granted. Paul Hiebert writes,

Too often we choose a few themes and from there build a simplistic theology rather than look at the profound theological motifs that flow throughout the whole of Scripture. Equally disturbing to the foundations of mission is the dangerous potential of shifting from God and his work to the emphasis of what we can do for God by our own knowledge and efforts. We become captive to a modern secular worldview in which human control and technique replace divine leading and human obedience as the basis of mission.
(Hiebert 1993, 4)

Hesselgrave confirmed the absence of theological foundations in contemporary missiology when he made a thematic content analysis of book reviews and articles published in major mission journals (MissiologyInternational Review of Missions, andEvangelical Missions Quarterly) between 1973 and 1986. He concluded that the social sciences and history have been given more attention in the study of missiology than has theology (1988, 139-144) and asks, “Of what lasting significance is the evangelical commitment to the authority of the Bible if biblical teachings do not explicitly inform our missiology?” (1988, 142). Without a theological foundation missions quickly becomes merely another human endeavor.

Christian strategists who prioritize God’s role in missions do not begin with the pragmatic question “Does it work?” They rather begin by asking fundamental theological questions: “How does God desire that we minister within this cultural context? Do these plans enact the rule of God and challenge ungodly allegiances? Do these strategies reflect the nature of God?” A Christian leader thus makes plans based upon Christian presuppositions. Missions reduced to methodology is as empty as spiritual gifts without love–like “a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1). Strategy must be a servant, never a master, to the mission of God.


Culture: The Arena of Missions

The social sciences–anthropology, sociology, and psychology–form the second layer of missiology. These social sciences inform missionaries of the cultural context in which they are living and the nature of the human psyche. Cultural similarities and differences and the difficulty of communicating across cultural barriers become apparent. Specific studies of marriage customs, kinship patterns, cultural roles, and patterns of organizing thought greatly impact how the gospel is communicated. Effective strategies take into consideration the cultural context.


Strategy: The Implementation of Missions

Strategies form the final tier of missiology. The arrows in the diagram on the home page reflect how the formulation of Christian strategy begins with the desires and perspectives of God, then considers the reality of the social situation, and finally constructs strategies compatible with these understandings and commitments. This bottom-up methodology guides missionaries to construct strategies which are both godly and relevant. Strategies, therefore, must not be rooted in mere pragmatism but developed upon the basis of theological insights and cultural understandings. Strategies without a firm theology and realistic cultural understandings are like sloughed-off snake skins–empty and useless. There is no life in pure methodology. Effective strategy grows out of theological and social science considerations.

Strategy is indispensable to the doing of any task. For example, students cannot do research without many strategy decisions. Students must first determine the exact focus of their topic. They will ask, “How do I determine my topic? How do I uncover the significant resources on my topic? How should research for the paper be categorized and filed–on note cards, under headings on one continuous sheet of paper, or on various files on a computer disk? What style of writing do I choose–narrative, deductive, inductive? When do I research–in early morning, afternoon, or evening?” Without making such methodological decisions, the student would be unable to write a research paper. Although the ultimate purpose of the paper may be to seek some eternal truth, significant strategy decisions must be made along the way.

Some theologians deal with the bottom two layers of missiology but seem to have no need for the third layer. They may feel that the message of the gospel can speak for itself, and they are so concerned for the content of Christianity that they exclude its practice. Some missionaries, on the other hand, disengage strategical considerations from their theological undergirding. They become mere pragmatists desiring success as measured by the number of people converted and churches started. The following definition of strategy guides missionaries to eliminate these two extremes.

Definition of Strategy

Because missions must begin with the wishes of sovereign God yet function within the context of a social situation, strategy is defined as the practical working out of the will of God within a cultural context. Missionaries ask, “How does God desire that we minister within this context?” Seeking God’s will for the culture, they work with national leaders to develop creative, God-centered, biblically-critiqued strategies with well-defined goals.

Paul’s letter to Titus illustrates the development of strategy for a specific cultural context. Titus was ministering among a demoralized culture where no central government existed, the economy had disintegrated, and insolence and arrogance reigned. A prophet, quoted by Paul, characterized his own people as “liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12). Even the Christians on Crete were described as “rebellious people, mere talkers and deceivers” who were “teaching things they ought not to teach” (Titus 1:10-11). Paul suggested to Timothy an appropriate strategy for working in this demoralized culture. He directed Titus not to handle all the problems of the Cretan church by himself and to avoid petty arguments because they were “unprofitable and useless” (Titus 3:9). Rather, he was to appoint elders in every town, who would then determine God-ordained solutions to Cretan dilemmas. Throughout the process Titus was to remember that conversion is of God and that all were once foolish and disobedient, enslaved by passions and desires, but have been saved by God’s mercy (Titus 3:3-7). Titus was to “stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good” (Titus 3:8). Because of the demands of the gospel and the demoralization of the cultural milieu, Paul calls Titus to a focused ministry of mentoring, training, and ordaining Cretan leaders.

Old Testament leaders where also concerned about strategy. Jethro saw that Moses was being worn out by the impossible task of judging all the disputes of Israel and that the people were also growing tired because of the lengthy proceedings. He, therefore, proposed a strategy for dealing with the situation. Moses was to appoint trustworthy, godly officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens to judge the people. Only difficult cases would be brought to Moses (Ex. 18:13-26). With such a strategic organizational model, Moses could more effectively judge the people of Israel.

The book of Proverbs provides numerous reflections and pieces of advice from godly people concerning effective planning:

“The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps” (Prov. 16:9 NASB).
“Every prudent man acts out of knowledge, but a fool exposes his folly” (Prov. 13:16).
“Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed” (Prov. 15:22).
“Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and your plans will succeed” (Prov. 16:3).
“Make plans by seeking advice; if you wage war, obtain guidance” (Prov. 20:18).

These verses express what Dayton and Fraser call “the tension of a paradox. God is in control and is sovereign; yet humans are free and responsible” (Dayton and Fraser 1990, 11). Making plans while praying and searching for God’s will is not a denial of divine sovereignty but an acceptance that God works through faithful servants.

Christian strategies must leave room for the sovereignty of God. Humans are not self-sufficient or able to predict all eventualities. Who could have predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of Eastern Europe to the Gospel? In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev vowed that he would accomplish what his predecessors failed to achieve: “the elimination of religious belief in the Soviet Union” (Johnstone 1986, 60). As recently as January 1989, the East German official who had been in charge of the actual building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 said that he could visualize the wall remaining for another hundred years. From a human perspective the wall was impenetrable. But as God used Nebuchadnezzer to deport an unfaithful Jewish nation and Cyrus to return these people from captivity, so God has used Gorbachev to open parts of the world closed to the gospel. Should we not, likewise, expect God to shake the Muslim world and continue to open China to the gospel?

Few churches would question the urgency for the gospel to be proclaimed to the entire world, yet most Christians do not evangelize. This occurs because Christians have not been motivated by the message of God to make specific goals or strategies to evangelize. Having no goals is comfortable; without goals, there is no failure. If the gospel is ever to be proclaimed in all the world, Christians must feel God’s compassion for the lost, understand the cultures of people among whom they live, and make specific plans for reaching them with the gospel, for nurturing them to maturity, and for training them in Christian leadership.

It is naive for missionaries to assume that all they need to do is to exegete scripture, empathetically communicate with people and learn the local language. Although biblical, communicative, and linguistic skills are imperative to the missionary task, they do not displace the need for missiological strategy. Many movements stagnate because Christian leaders have not developed the creative capacities for strategic planning.

Types of Strategies

For the sake of clarity strategies might be grouped under four general headings: (1) standard-solution strategies, (2) being-in-the-way strategies, (3) planning-so-far strategies, and (4) unique-solution strategies (adapted from Dayton and Fraser 1992, D36-39). Each of these four types of strategies has its own strengths and weaknesses and a degree of validity. However, unique solutions are needed if the goal of missions is to nurture initial believers to maturity in cohesive, reproducing churches with trained leaders and not merely to baptize individuals.

Standard Solution Strategies

Standard solution strategies assume that one approach can be used in every context of the world; it is the one-size-fits-all mentality. Evangelists develop methods that effectively work in particular contexts and then apply them to every situation. One example is the World Literature Crusade. This organization attempts to put a piece of Christian literature into the hands of every person in every city in the world. The assumption is that all people can read and make a decision for Christ if they are exposed to the right kind of literature. This approach also takes for granted that all people have the same problems and think in exactly the same ways. Churches of Christ developed a program called One Nation under God. In this program an advertisement in Reader’s Digest announced a nationwide mailing of 100 million booklets called One Nation Under God. Campaigns and campaign meetings were scheduled in every major center to reap a harvest of souls touched by the message of the booklet. The printed material has now been translated into various other languages, and the program exported to other areas of the world. While this standard solution approach encouraged many local churches to cooperate, little long-term response was generated because of lack of particularized application and training and the lack of impact of such a generalized approach.

The strength of the standard solution approaches is that they reach many people in a short period of time. Awareness of the gospel or the church is enhanced, and doors are usually opened to a few new people.

These approaches, however, do not take into consideration that cultures vary and that different approaches are needed in different contexts. They fail to account for people’s cultural and social differences. Social contexts vary just as electricity varies in voltage and in the apparatuses used to harness it: Machines of 240 voltage cannot be powered by 110-voltage systems, and two-pronged strategies will not be able to access power in three-pronged contexts. The voltage and prongs must be adapted to the context.

Thus standard solution approaches typically reach many people but do not impact them significantly except where there is a spiritual vacuum. Standard solution strategies must be coupled with other types of strategies.

Being-in-the-Way Strategies

Being-in-the-way strategies emphasize the role of God in missions and evangelism and assume that human planning negates the divine role. Christians are not to worry about the future but simply be used by God. Long-range planning is not important; it is God’s business.

There is much truth in this approach. God does lead in powerful and unexpected ways. God put Philip in the way of the Ethiopian, and the Ethiopian became a Christian (Acts 8:26-40). God directed Peter to teach Cornelius and his household (Acts 10:1-48).

Unfortunately, this strategy eliminates the possibility of failure and negates personal responsibility. If things go wrong, it is because God has other plans. When a summer campaign in Central Europe had low attendance, one missionary remarked that God sent only as many people as the missionaries could effectively handle. In reality, the missionaries had done very little to organize and publicize the campaign.

The strength of this philosophy is confidence in the working of God; its weakness is the negation of the need for long-range planning and training.

Plan-so-Far Strategies

Plan-so-far strategies focus on beginnings rather than outcomes. Those who use this approach believe that if they plan to begin a work, God will do the rest. Plans are made to “hold a campaign” or have a “Bring Your Friend” day. During the early 1990s North American campaigners went into receptive areas of Eastern Europe. They attempted to plant a church through public lectures, distribution of tracts, teaching English as a second language, and personal Bible studies conducted through translators. Almost invariably the short-term workers left soon after the campaign, and little organized follow-up occurred. The focus was on converting the lost without a concurrent plan to nurture the lost to come under the kingdom of God. The most significant long-term problem of missions is reversion, not conversion. Much more thought and effort must be put into nurturing new converts to fully come into the kingdom of God rather than merely converting people and leaving them.

Plan-so-far strategies, however, have one strength. They sometimes make beachheads into areas where the Gospel would not otherwise go. Long-term missionaries, using unique solution strategies can then follow. For example, Partners in Progress, a medical missions organization overseen by the Sixth and Izard Church of Christ in Little Rock, Arkansas, has opened countries as diverse as Guyana, Romania, and Laos to missionaries of Churches of Christ. In each case the compassion of God expressed through medical missions teams opened the nations to long-term Christian missions.

Unique Solution Strategies

Unique solution strategies are based on the assumption that cultures and situations are different and each one requires its own special strategy. Dayton and Fraser write,

People and culture are not like standardized machines that have interchangeable parts. We cannot simply use an evangelism approach that has worked in one context in another and expect the same results. Strategies must be as unique as the peoples to whom they apply. (1992, D38)

Ideally, Christian missionaries who use unique solution strategies examine strategies that others have used in various contexts but do not copy them verbatim. These experiences, rather, become the reservoir out of which they are led by God to form unique strategy models appropriate for their own context. Some ideas are prayerfully borrowed and reshaped to fit the new context; other ideas are innovated as the community of believers determines how they should practically work out the ramifications of the kingdom of God for their context. Unique solution strategies tend to be holistic in the sense that they emphasize both conversion and nurturing, and because of this, they lead to germinal churches. Because people are unique, strategies must also be unique.

In many ways strategizing for the mission of God is like preparing to preach a sermon. The preacher must prayerfully consider the biblical themes which his congregation needs, properly exegete scriptures which speak to these themes, ardently look for metaphors and illustrations which make these themes live, and fervently pray for God’s empowerment in delivering the sermon. Planning the sermon is a testimony of faithfulness to God. A well-developed strategy, reflecting the same interaction between the will of God and the condition of the culture, is an acknowledgement of the sovereignty of God, not a negation of it.