The Meaning of Missionary Work

Understanding of what "missionary work" is and means has evolved through the centuries, and continues to evolve. The purpose of this page is to ask some interesting questions about missions work and lay a framework for understanding the variety of perceptions of what it is.

One of our desires for our time in India is to think carefully about the meaning and heritage of missionary work. As was one of the first countries to be targeted by modern Christian missionaries, India has a rich missionary heritage that reverberates through its social and cultural life. At the same time, it is a country with strong indigenous spiritual traditions that sometimes feel threatened by missionary activity.

Orienting Questions about Missionary Work

Contemporary Interpretations

Christian Interpretations

Following the example of Jesus and heroes of the faith, Christians generally feel a compulsion to live their faith in the world. "Missions" is one of the outworkings of this compulsion. Most generally, it refers to the faith-inspired, intentional crossing of boundaries for the purpose of loving and serving others.

What is "Missionary Work?"

The work of Christian missions today involves some mixture of evangelical and humanitarian work.

Evangelical work typically involves the preaching of the Gospel, the call to conversion to Christian belief and lifestyle, and the establishment of new churches that have the capacity to sustain missionary activity. In the words of the 1974 First International Conference on World Evangelization, the purpose of missions work is "to form viable, indigenous church-planting movement[s]." In more charismatic flavors of Christianity, this process also involves elements of the miraculous, such as healings, exorcism, speaking in tongues.

Christian humanitarian work is much like secular humanitarian work—focused on volunteer action in community development and providing social services. Christians who are passionate about the humanitarian missions are inspired by the character of Jesus and the moral teachings of the Christian Scriptures.

While these two tasks are often rhetorically separable, in practice, few Christian groups are fully devoted to one pole to exclusion of the other. Christian work with a purely humanitarian agenda often loses its distinctive character and becomes another secular agent of service. Meanwhile, strongly evangelical groups find that they have little credibility unless they attend to the physical needs of the people they are reporting to serve.

Motivations for Missionary Work

And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
Matt. 28:18-20

Other important Scriptures include

  • The Commissioning of the Apostles (cf Luke 10:1-12)
  • Jesus as bringer of abundant life (John 3:16, John 10:10)
  • The Missionary Journeys of the Apostle Paul

Historical Development of Missionary Activity

The bulk of modern Christian missions developed from several loosely related movements among European Protestants of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The Reformers, perhaps remembering the missionary overtones of the failed Crusades, were unenthusiastic about winning new souls to Christianity. However, the tools they crafted put the Scriptures into the hands of the people. Eventually, several Christian communities and commentators came to seize on the evangelical overtones of the Scriptures. Through their work and experiences, elaborate missionary frameworks began to evolve.

The most influential figure missions advocacy was William Carey. A self-educated Baptist shoemaker, Carey took interest in the plight of the world's people through reading the works of explorers. His missionary manifesto, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens, was the first to locate an imperative to propagate the Christian faith in the now well-discussed Great Commission. His work lit a fire in England, and catalyzed the creation of missionary agencies and institutions.

Tales of heroic missionary exploits in strange lands drew wide interest and readership in Europe, and through the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, missionary endeavors continued to proliferate. However, the shock of two World Wars, the collapse of colonialism, and the rise of critical introspection led to a decline in missionary activity in mainline Western Protestantism.

Sts. Cyril and Methodius, distinguished Byzantine missionaries of the 9th c., brought Christianity to the Slavs.
Sts. Cyril and Methodius, distinguished Byzantine missionaries of the 9th c., brought Christianity to the Slavs.

Catholic and Orthodox Missions

Between the fourth and eleventh centuries, Christianity spread steadily, primarily through the influence of monastic movement. As skilled organizers, the monks introduced Christian practices and imperial methods simultaneously to both the highest and lowest levels of society, bringing about social transformation with remarkable speed.

After the eleventh century, effectively missionary work largely disintegrated. In the East, Orthodox missionary work was at first hampered by the rise of Islam, and then largely collapsed with the fall of the Byzantine Empire. In the West, missionary energy was redirected into the Crusades, a movement that was both less effective, and caused the structures of European politics and religion to become unhealthily intertwined.

Catholic missions work went through a significant revival in the sixteenth and seventeenth century under the leadership of the Jesuits, who were tremendously effective at contextualization. They brought Christianity to the people in forms and cultural images that they could understand. Unfortunately, these missions were temporarily shut down by Rome, and many of these insights suppressed until the twentieth century, when Vatican II opened up new understandings of the importance of local custom, language, and tradition.

New Voices

In the second half of the twentieth century, the demographics of the Christian world changed dramatically. Church attendance fell off precipitously in the West, but in the former colonies, particularly Africa and South America, the Church experienced tremendous growth. Today, there are more Christians living south of the equator than north.

Since these Christians are the product of missionary work, it seems likely that the missionary impulse is well-coded in the spiritual DNA of these peoples. It is not yet clear how they will come to understand this missionary heritage. But certainly, the future trajectory of both missionary work and Christianity as a whole will be dramatically impacted by how these new voices understand this calling.

Critical Interpretations

For the critics of missionary work, the enterprise is at best a well-meaning but misguided or mislead service attempt: a tool, either conveniently or deliberately, of imperialism. At worst it is a form of bullying, manipulation, or brainwashing into a profession of the Christian faith.

Critics of missionary work come from both within the Christian movement (reformers attempting to define what service is best and what work is truly glorifying to God) and from outside of it (either in the form of secular criticism, or from resistance movements to missionary preaching).

The Moral Arm of Imperialism

There is undeniably some relationship between imperialism and missionary thinking. Without the imperial system, Western Christians would have had neither the access, nor the interest necessary to perform missionary activities.

Exactly how deep this relationship runs is a matter of some debate. Most missionaries certainly understood themselves to be operating out of the Gospel commission exclusively, but all imbibed imperial rhetoric simply as a consequence of their origin.

In this interpretation, Christianity is generally understood to complete the work of imperialism on a social and moral level. While commercial, diplomatic, and military infrastructure drew the lines of empire and established the rules of commerce, Christian work (for better or for worse) exported Western educational, medicinal, and religious systems to the colonies.

This interpretation of missionary work is popular in most academic circles. It leaves much room for subtlety, and space for critique and for praise.

Aggressive Manipulation into Profession of Christian Faith

In this view, the ultimate objective of missionary work is the complete obliteration of the missionized cultural and religious institutions. The primary objective of the Christian faith is to propagate itself at the expense of indigenous culture. Christians are understood to spend most of their time preaching, and when they offer social services, equal access to them is contingent upon conversion.

This interpretation is growing, especially in India, and has lead to increasing persecution of the Christian community in that country.

Unfortunately, it is not a completely groundless accusation. The sheer diversity of Christian organizations inevitably means that some "missionaries" do not receive adequate training and oversight, and resort to manipulative "scalping" tactics to eek out professions of faith to brag about to their funders. This should not only be a source of concern to indigenous peoples, but to the Church as a whole. The work of genuine conversion, after all, is severely hampered by manipulated professions of faith.

In a place like India, it is also important to tone down the rhetorical fires, and recognize that this is not usually the case with Christians. Inciting fear and burning houses and churches is not a particularly constructive response to the sins of a few.

Reinterpreting Missionary Work

Missionary work is a particular historical incarnation of the contextual church.

Missionary Work as a Call to the Universal Construction of Christian Institutions
Missionary Work as a Call to Enter Authentic Cross-Cultural Conversation
Missionary Work as a Call for Conversion


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