How to Think About Missiology

by Ted Esler

As I read for my PhD I noticed that there are categories of missiology. Identifying these categories might help to understand an author’s perspective. I found that there are four broad categories, with a myriad of smaller subcategories underneath them.

1. Observational Missiology

The first of these categories is observational missiology. Historical research and analysis is applied to the question of how Christian movements have formed and grown. In this school of thought, understanding God’s moving through people is essentially a study of Christian history (including what might be happening right now). Getting a comprehensive view of any sort of historical reality is a challenging task. Autobiographies, historical records and accounts, reports from the field, and a great deal of research is a part of this branch of missiology. Bosch is the prototypical author of this category. This category seeks to answer the question of “What happened or is happening?

2.  Applied Missiology

Another category is applied missiology. These authors are most concerned with how Christians should carry on their work. These are prescriptions and recommendations for how church and mission is to be conducted. Often, there is a sociological root to the views expressed by these missiologists. How-to courses and manuals intended for churches or missionaries, prescriptions on church planting strategies, community development paradigms, various “special interest” missiologies (i.e., children at risk, environmentalism) would fall under this broad category. The recent focus on training about church planting movements and disciple making movements is an example of applied missiology. It seeks to answer the question, “How should we go about our work?

3.  Theological Missiology

There is, of course, much theology embedded in the first two categories. However, some missiologists focus more exclusively on the theological basis of mission. Systematic theology, Biblical theology, and other theological pursuits are similar in nature but have distinct emphases that are different from missiology. Examples of this sort of theological missiology includes NT Wright’s, “Jesus and the People of God,” Christopher Wright’s, “The Mission of God,” and a lot of Newbiggen material. The overarching question that theological missiology seeks to answer is “What is mission?

4.  Local Missiology

Local missiology utilizes any of the previous three categories but is tied to an underlying worldview, culture, or region. This might be the author’s own perspective or it might be the authors reflection on another culture. The emergent church authors, for example, are distinctly concerned with postmodern, Western, missiology. It does not translate well to the plains of Africa, where a much different local missiology has developed. Because we are all trapped by our culture, all missiology might be considered local at some level. However, this category is reserved for those authors that are purposefully writing about missiology in a specific context. [As an aside, there seems to be a desire to frame a “global missiology” but I don’t believe one exists. Most of the books on global missiology are actually filled with chapters about local missiologies and how they relate to the broader evangelical church]. Any author who writes on contextualization is wrestling wih local missiology. There are a lot of authors writing in this category. The question being answered, “What does this particular cultural context say about mission?


Unfortunately, we often hear about “methodology without ecclesiology” or “theology without application” and so on. This is what occurs when one of our four categories dominates over the others. Better missiology happens when the above categories are fused together. They are not independent of each other but work together to form a whole. Maybe this should be a fifth category: Good missiology! Hmmm…. I am having a hard time coming up with an author on that one. :>)

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