The Importance of History to Missiology

by Gary Corwin

If handled properly, history provides a picture of both what was done well, and what was not. It also has a way of showing us quite explicitly how God often achieves his purposes without us, and even in spite of us. History is the great revealer and the great adjuster of applied missiology.

MISSIOLOGY, OR REFLECTION ON THE TASK OF MISSION, has often been described as resting on a three-legged stool of the Bible and theology, history, and the social sciences. Unfortunately, history is often relegated in practical terms only to the category of inspirational biography—the story of brave men and women who sacrificed to carry the gospel to those with little or no access to it. While that is an important part of what history does for us, it is by no means all. 

History is unique among the three stool legs. It is the link that provides a record of how the mandate and methods of mission set forth in the Bible, together with insights from the social sciences, have actually been applied by flesh and blood servants of God in the nexus of divergent cultures and circumstances. If handled properly, history provides a picture of both what was done well, and what was not. It also has a way of showing us quite explicitly how God often achieves his purposes without us, and even in spite of us. History is the great revealer and the great adjuster of applied missiology.

If you were to ask me what specifically history has taught us over the last two thousand years of mission endeavor, here is some of what I would say: 

History has taught us that what is cultural and what is biblically required often get confused. The examples of this one are almost too numerous to mention. They are traceable back to the circumstances that prompted the great Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, through successive conquests (both military and spiritual) that extended the Church of Christ into new areas, to the missionary endeavors of the last several centuries. The latter are replete with oft-cited examples of Western missionaries confusing Western models of worship, leadership, music, dress, etc. as inextricable from the gospel. There are even examples of Majority World missionaries doing much the same.

History has taught us that decision-making based on historical analogy, while far from perfect, may be, short of divine revelation, the most reliable predictor of the future we have. The reason, of course, is that human nature doesn’t change. The emotional and practical reactions of people in stressful and other circumstances tend to change very little over time. This is a major factor in what makes accurate stock market predictions possible, and is what enables urban missionaries to know that new immigrants are most open to new ideas the first two years following their migration.

History has taught us that while human nature in the aggregate never changes, individuals indwelt by the Holy Spirit can live differently. The stories of cannibals, murderers, and other criminals may be the most memorable, but whole societies have repeatedly been impacted (e.g., the Great Awakenings in the U.S., the Solomon Islands conversions of the nineteenth century, the Sadrach movement among Muslims in Indonesia, or the Don Richardson Peace Child story of Papua New Guinea).

History has taught us that newer isn’t necessarily better or worse. Among all peoples, Americans are probably the most enamored by that which is shiny and new, particularly if the new thing is a pragmatic shortcut. And there certainly have been wonderful innovations, both technological and methodological, that have furthered the effectiveness of the mission enterprise (e.g., anthropological insights, indigenous principles, missionary aviation, global radio and Internet education). The less helpful innovations, by contrast, are quickly forgotten.

History has taught us that the gospel can transform cultures, and that cultures can transform the Church. The taming of Europe’s barbarian peoples following the fall of the Roman Empire, and the subsequent gradual decline of Christian influence in so many of Europe’s cultures in more recent centuries is exhibit A for both parts of that truth. It is by no means alone, however (e.g., other Western nations like Australia, New Zealand, the USA, and Canada of two hundred years ago and today; or the Christo-paganism so ubiquitous in so much of Latin America for so long).

History has taught us that the most vibrant expressions of Christianity exist at the fringes of its expansion. Many readers who have travelled widely know this instinctively, but one cannot do better than Andrew Walls to underscore this point. For the sake of brevity, therefore, let me point you to his writings, particularly The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith, and The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History.

History has taught us that no mission enterprise is indispensable and, good as it may be, that it will not necessarily continue until the Lord returns. The examples are myriad, dating all the way back to the apostolic bands of the New Testament; the Irish monks of the sixth and seventh centuries who “saved the world,” according to the delightful book by Thomas Cahill; the amazing Nestorians who took the gospel to China; the Moravian emigrant pioneers of the seventeenth century; and the many agencies that have come and gone in the modern era.

So, yes, history is important to missiology—as important as reflection on life is to living well.


Gary Corwin is staff missiologist with the international office of SIM.

EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 4, pp. 134-135. Copyright  © 2014 Billy Graham Center.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.




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