What Is Missiology? (J. Nelson Jennings)

Missiology is “the systematic study of all aspects of mission.” I am borrowing here Andrew Walls’s (and in turn Stanley Skreslet’s) definition.1 Let me explain.

The simple, straightforward answer to the simple, straightforward question “What is missiology?” can be taken from its component terms missio and logos: the “meaning” or “study” of “mission.” However, realizing the inherently awkward linguistic combination of the Latin missio and the Greek logos only begins the adventure of trying to give a simple explanation of missiology that also incorporates its breadth, points of focus, and nuances.

Upon entering a consideration of missiology, it is vital not to overlook the scope of people who might either understand, intentionally or not, the term’s meaning or actually study the associated field. Quite apart from any formal academic approach, a wide range of Christians and others might have their own assured senses of what the terms means, similar to their confident senses about the meanings of anthropology, sociology, biology, or theology. Such non-academic understandings should not be discounted—after all, the vast majority of mission participants are non-academics—and more formally trained missiologists would do well to consult them. However, here I have adopted Walls’s (and Skreslet’s) elastic and working description, mentioned at the outset, which points toward intentional and formal “study.” It is worth noting as well that such study is not restricted to any particular ethnic, linguistic, or regional sector of academia, be it Western or otherwise. In short, the meaning and subject matter of missiology is sensed and understood by a swath of people worldwide and with varying levels of trained expertise.

What, then, is missiology’s subject matter? That is, what does mission (or missions) mean? I find it helpful first to distinguish between the singular mission of God, often termed the missio Dei, and the plural missions that are Christian initiatives at participating in God’s overall mission. Differentiating the terms of course comes out of twentieth-century discussions that resulted in mission coming to represent the World Council of Churches’ understanding, while missions came to be associated with self-identifying Evangelicals, including the Lausanne Movement formed in 1974 largely in reaction to the WCC’s evolving stance on “mission” during the world-altering 1950s and 1960s. I share the conviction that God’s mission to redeem the cosmos is fundamental. I also believe it important to see “missions” as intentional, organized Christian efforts by churches, agencies, and individuals to participate in God’s singular mission. Both terms are useful and helpful, while at the same time neither term can be all-encompassing without the other, especially given varied contemporary understandings.

When missions becomes the only term and concept used—signaled by Evangelicals’ linguistically challenged use of the singular verb “is” with the plural noun missions—God’s mission that works outside of and apart from Christian missions can get neglected. In fact, however, much of God’s mission takes place through extra-ecclesiastical creatures throughout the cosmos, for example angels as messengers and the sun, moon, and stars as witnesses. God also providentially works through this world’s extra-ecclesiastical events, such as human migrations (thus missiology’s focused subset on diaspora matters) and people’s cross-cultural experiences, to carry out divine missional purposes. God the Creator, providential Ruler, and Redeemer are the same Triune God.

Three categories of God’s purpose in mission help both to encompass the broad scope of God’s mission and to focus on God’s—and thus Christians’—priorities in mission(s). First is the need for all people to hear the news of Jesus Christ and to turn from self-service, trust in Jesus, and follow Jesus in a way that restores people to how God created us. Ralph Winter’s 1970s conceptualization of Unreached People Groups (foundational for most Evangelicals ever since) sprouts from this essential aspect of God’s mission. Second is God’s ongoing missional concern to grow and mature the church, both quantitatively and qualitatively. That is, God’s people and their growth never cease being an object of God’s mission concern. (That’s why Western peoples have been challenged and changed so much through the modern Western missions movement.) Third, the making right of all things, including structural injustices and people’s overall well-being, is also an essential aspect of God’s mission. Jesus’s oft-mentioned “kingdom” references apply here.

Clearly, then, missiology as “the systematic study of all aspects of mission” becomes a mind-boggling array of interrelated fields. Certainly social sciences are needed, as much of North American missiology has emphasized. So are history and philosophy, the focus areas of much of European mission studies. Indeed, all sorts of disciplines enter into missiology’s wide-ranging interests, be they linguistics, psychology, communications, literature, or most anything else. There is a danger here of slipping into dilemma Stephen Neill warned about: “If everything is mission, then nothing is mission.”2 Even so, limiting “mission” to “missions” as evangelism and church-planting runs a bigger risk of confining God’s intention for this world to what results from Christians’ religious activities, a restriction that clearly does not match the greatness of God’s gracious determination to redeem the entire world that has gone astray.

In sum, systematically studying all aspects of mission, or carrying out the task of missiology, is as full-orbed a range of fields as can be imagined. In closing this brief discussion, three important qualifications need to be attached. First, God’s commitment to the world, meaning the entire cosmos and all peoples in it, is an essential part of missiology. Consciously recognizing God’s involvement thus sets missiology apart from many other fields of study. Second and related is the need to depend on the Spirit’s guidance and empowerment in going about the missiological task. Third is the acknowledgement that, constituted by such a wide array of study fields that interrelate collectively in doing missiology, there is an inherent dependency on these other fields.

Missiology as “the systematic study of all aspects of mission” demands all that those interested in understanding God’s mission have to offer.


1 Stanley H. Skreslet, Comprehending Mission: The Questions, Methods, Themes, Problems, and Prospects of Missiology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2012), 12.

2 Stephen Neill, Creative Tension (London: Edinburgh House Press, 1959), 81.

Rev. J. Nelson Jennings (PhD, Edinburgh University) is the editor of Global Missiology English, as well as Mission Pastor, Consultant, and International Liaison at Onnuri Church, Seoul, South Korea. He and his family served in Japan for 13 years (1986–1999), first in church-planting then in teaching at Tokyo Christian University. Jennings next taught World Mission for 12 years at Covenant Theological Seminary, then served as director at the Overseas Ministries Study Center 2011–2015. He has published numerous books and articles, and he has also served as editor of Missology: An International Review and International Bulletin of Missionary [now Mission] Research.