The climate of Christianity today can make it easy for us to take global missions and growth of the church for granted. We imagine that missions has just always existed as we see it today. It is important that we take the time to understand the history of modern missions, because it shows us God’s character and encourages us in our efforts for the spread of the Gospel.
Following Jesus’ resurrection, the Church grew rapidly for several centuries, primarily in Europe, Asia, and North Africa. For our purposes today, we’ll look at a few of the major influences in the modern mission movement since the time of the Protestant Reformation.
Many important missionaries served in those early years, but one of the most influential of this period was Nicholas von Zinzendorf. Zinzendorf lived from 1700-1760 and began a group known as the Moravians. This group preached Christianity as a “religion of the heart” and emphasized experiences of faith and love over doctrine. In 1792 they began sending missionaries worldwide and were responsible for sending missionaries to 28 countries over the course of 28 years. By the time Zinzendorf died in 1760, the Moravians had sent out at least 226 missionaries! This was the first large-scale Protestant missionary movement in history.
The Three Eras of Missions
In the early years after the Reformation, mission efforts grew slowly through one individual or group at a time. These faithful Christians, like the Moravians, laid the early groundwork for later missional strategies and methods. Beginning in the 1800s, participation in global mission work exploded. The next few centuries, from 1800 on, can be viewed as three separate eras.
The first era of global missions dawned at a time of political tension as well as economic growth and social change. This “Great Century of Missions” spanned from 1800-1910. One man, William Carey, influenced by the many who came before him, set this explosion of missions in motion. Carey came on the scene at a time of political and commercial expansion, on the heels of the Great Awakenings in America. The stage was set for religious growth in the form of global missions.
The Lord gave Carey conviction and a vision to approach missions in a brand-new way. In 1792, he published, “An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen”. This book addressed the different theological rationalizations for the churches’ lack of evangelism. Once Carey established the biblical necessity of missions, he encouraged the church to use mission organizations to bring people to Christ. After forming the Baptist Missionary Society in 1792, he put his methodology into practice and went to India as a missionary in 1793.
Carey spent 41 years laboring for Christ on the mission field. He preached to win the lost and founded schools and colleges to help spread Christ and educate converts. Alongside his mission to bring them to Christ, he also fought against various social evils such as infanticide and widow burning. Carey’s writings and work inspired many believers in the church to create numerous mission organizations and societies. William Carey had such an immense impact on the beginning of modern missions he is now called the “Father of the Protestant Missionary Movement.”
The second era in global missions began in 1865 and was most influenced by men like Hudson Taylor. Previous efforts were geared toward reaching foreign coastlands, but Hudson Taylor felt compelled to push on to reach the inland territories with the Gospel. To further this new direction, he began the China Inland Mission board in 1865.
Taylor’s efforts to move inland inspired the vision of the second era. Taylor focused on personal salvation of the common man instead of higher education, social reform, or development of churches. He was constantly seeking to move on and evangelize new people. This philosophy was also held by others in this era. Evangelism philosophies were also influenced by several tragic events that took place during this time. These events led many missionaries to think more of the second coming of Christ: they emphasized the Gospel and personal salvation and spent less time on education, social reform, and humanitarian work.
The third and final era began in 1934 with two men who had similar mission objectives. William Cameron Townsend was a missionary in Guatemala in the early 1900s. He realized that Guatemala was not going to be reached merely by distributing the Bible in Spanish since there were many ethnic groups that didn’t speak Spanish. This prompted a new vision to find the unreached and overlooked peoples and to make the Scriptures accessible to them in their language. To do this effectively, Townsend founded the Wycliffe Bible Translators. This mission board is still in existence today and continues to work towards the goal of providing Scripture in the native language of every person.
While Townsend sought to break down linguistic barriers, Donald McGavran sought to identify cultural barriers to the Gospel. McGavran worked on the mission field in India and found that differences of caste, economic circumstances, and social position were the primary barriers preventing these people groups from hearing and experiencing the good news of Jesus Christ. Once these barriers were identified, McGavran encouraged missionaries to connect in culturally appropriate ways with their target people group.
Together, Townsend’s linguistic work to the unreached and McGavran’s social analysis helped to form the modern mission philosophies that we still use today.
Why it Matters Today
As you can see even from a brief look at the history of modern missions, the Lord has preserved the integrity of the Gospel over many years. He has not only protected His church to stand firm over time, but He has also caused it to expand and grow exponentially. One means of growth has been global missions carried out by faithful Christians.
In 1800, one percent of Protestant Christians lived in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Today, at least 67 percent of all Protestant Christians live in countries that were at one time considered foreign mission fields. This gives us encouragement to continue to engage in mission outreach at home and abroad, because the Lord has and will continue to use it. Charles Spurgeon gave the church this challenge: “It is the whole business of the whole church to preach the whole gospel to the whole world.” Take this to heart, Christian. Be encouraged by what the Lord has already done among the nations and be faithful to spread the Gospel.
Editor's Note: This originally published at Thinking & Theology.