What Is Missiology? (Kirsteen Kim)

Missiology—or sometimes “mission studies”— is the study of Christian mission(s). Every generation of Christians has asked what Jesus Christ requires of his disciples, and Christians have been learning and teaching how to share the good news for more than two millennia. However, missiology emerged as a field of research and scholarship only in the late nineteenth century in connection with the modern missionary movement.

The meaning of missiology is obviously closely related to what is meant by mission, which is contested. Whereas, missiology has always paid keen attention to issues related to mission practice (missions), missiologists have also asked questions about the church’s mission more generally. While many have had a broad understanding that mission is “what God sends the church into the world to do” and, mindful of the Great Commandment, have included various forms of service, others have limited mission to what Christians and churches can do that other agencies cannot—that is, the specifically religious dimensions of proclamation and church planting. In any case, what the church can or should do in the world is greatly affected by the social and geopolitical context, so missiologists have found it hard to reach a global definition of mission practice. From the 1950s, as notions of Christendom broke down, the foundations for mission were re-examined and missiology took a theological turn. The concept of the mission of God (missio Dei) had far-reaching ramifications, such as that mission was the responsibility of all Christians in every continent and social group, and that it should be integral to church life. In the context of criticism of colonial missions, many missiologists took a more reflective approach, which included thinking ethically about mission(s). David J. Bosch’s book Transforming Mission (1991, 2011) remains the classic text on these debates. Policy statements on mission produced recently by global bodies include: The Cape Town Commitment (Lausanne Movement, 2011); Together Towards Life (World Council of Churches, 2013); The Joy of the Gospel (Pope Francis, 2013); The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World (Pan-Orthodox Council, 2016).

The following description of missiology was developed in 2018 in collaboration with the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies in England.

Missiology does not presuppose a particular method but brings many different academic tools to bear on the topic of mission(s); in other words, it is an interdisciplinary field of enquiry. Missiology originated as the study of Western missions using social sciences to increase their effectiveness. However, the field has grown to include the critical study of the spread and the impact of Christianity—cultural, religious and social. It deals with all eras, peoples, and regions, including contemporary missionary movements arising from the majority world. It studies the agents, motives, methods, and goals of mission and assesses its results. Mission has also been developed as a theological term deriving from the trinitarian nature of God and is closely associated with biblical terms such as apostle, evangelize, conversion, disciple, witness, service, and worship. Its impact is related to biblical themes such as new life, justice, peace, reconciliation, transformation and leadership.

The chief disciplines used in missiology are theology, history and various social sciences. Missiology overlaps with other theological disciplines, especially practical or pastoral theology, ecclesiology, church history, ethics, spirituality, biblical studies, and topics of systematic or doctrinal theology such as incarnation, salvation, kingdom of God, creation, Christology, trinity, and pneumatology. Missiology includes history of missions, missionary biography, and church history, but history is also important to the discipline in the sense of contextuality. Among the social sciences, the chief interlocutors have been cultural and social anthropology, communication and translation studies, economics and politics—especially business, globalization and development studies, the study of religions and ideologies, and gender, race and diversity studies. Missiology has stimulated other fields such as ecumenics, contextual and intercultural theology, interreligious studies, and the study of healing, Pentecostalism, and world Christianity. Missiology is also closely related to traditions of Christian social teaching and to theological disciplines that aim at social change, such as political, liberation, transformation, and public theology.

Missiology is an integrated field supported by a body of publications, including summary works, dictionaries and encyclopedias. It is developed through professional guilds, including the International Association for Mission Studies (IAMS), the American Society for Missiology (ASM), the Evangelical Missiological Society (EMS), the Southern African Missiological Society (SAMS), the Fellowship of Indian Missiologists (FOIM), and many others. Leading international journals with mission in the title are: Mission Studies (IAMS); International Review of Mission (World Council of Churches); Missiology (ASM); Missionalia (SAMS); Studia Missionalia (Gregorian University, Rome); and Social Sciences and Missions.

In addition to scholarly literature on mission and related topics, sources for missiology include the Bible and early church texts, church and mission histories, missionary biographies, mission statements of churches and other bodies, and mission reflection emerging from different regional contexts. Missiology methods include field work, using quantitative and qualitative methods, and mining datasets pertaining to religions and society. 

The primary users of missiology are church(es), other bodies that engage intentionally in mission(s)—such as missionary organizations, mission communities and Christian faith-based organisations (FBOs)—and individual mission practitioners. Much of the interest is around evangelism, church planting, Christian growth, missional structures and mission practices. For its users, missiology functions to guide planning, tactics, and strategy according to biblical values, theological understanding, historical precedent and analysis of contemporary issues, global trends, and local contexts. More broadly, missiology encourages discernment of the times and prophetic vision which undergird constructive plans for informed Christian engagement with the world of today and participation in the kingdom of God.

Mission research is also relevant to theologians and other academics, including scholars of religions, community and international development, languages and linguistics, cultural and social change, modernity and postmodernity, communication and networking, and colonial, postcolonial, global, regional and migration studies. Study of the history, motives, and operations of missions and missional churches is especially useful to policy makers in contexts of religious plurality, social need, and conflict.

Kirsteen Kim (PhD, University of Birmingham) is the editor of Mission Studies as well as professor of theology and world Christianity at Fuller Theological Seminary. She is a member of the Lausanne Theology Working Group and was previously vice moderator of the World Council of Churches Commission on World Mission and Evangelism, chairing the drafting group of the mission statement Together Towards Life. She was research coordinator for the Edinburgh 2010 project, drafted its Common Call, and edited the Regnum Edinburgh Centenary Series that emerged from it. She also edits the book series Theology and Mission in World Christianity  (Brill). Her research interests and networks include theology of mission, pneumatology, world Christianity, Korean studies, and development studies. Among her nearly 150 publications, Kim is the author of five monographs. The most recent, A History of Korean Christianity (Cambridge University Press, 2015) and Christianity as a World Religion (2nd ed., Bloomsbury, 2016), were written in collaboration with her husband, Sebastian C. H. Kim.