Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant missions to the nations: 1600 AD to the present

Significant periods in Christian missions history

Church History: The Theological Factor

To a person viewing global Christian missions in the last four hundred years, two things will stand out:

  1. The heterogeneous theological coloring of the missionary force -- something that is also true of earlier missionary eras.
  2. The forming of systematic theologies of missions -- a new development.

Kenneth Scott Latourette's History of Christianity details the expansion of Christianity rather than giving a litany of its doctrinal disputes as church history writers have often been inclined to do. Although Latourette's book covers the activity of groups scattered across Christianity's theological spectrum, it has scarcely a page that would not be of interest to a person studying the expansion of Christianity.

In his book, A History of Christian Missions Stephen Neill describes the heterogeneous theological nature of those involved in recent global missionary activity. World evangelism has not been a monopoly of any one of the three primary branches of Christianity: Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant. Nor has it been dominated by any one particular theological current within any of those three branches.

In dealing with the beginnings of what he calls the "Great Century of missions," Latourette cites the missionary activities of all three major branches of Christendom.1 He notes that the expansion of Christianity in the period from 1914 to 1950 resulted from the missionary activity of Roman Catholics as well as Protestants.2 In detailing one of the religious awakenings of this period (which culminated in renewed missionary interest), Latourette notes that "it cut across denominational and confessional lines."3

Within Protestantism, no one theological tradition stands out as having had more missionary zeal than any other. People growing up in churches with an Arminian heritage think it odd that movements with roots in Calvinism would have an aggressive missionary vision. From an Arminian perspective, it is puzzling that a Calvinistic theology with its emphasis on election could produce missionary consciousness.4 It has done so, however. Or take the ecumenical movement, that monster that was so denounced within evangelical circles. John Mott, a prime mover in the ecumenical movement, was a missionary statesman and mobilizer. Peter Beyerhaus and other important missions theologians have also been part of the ecumenical movement.

Such wide theological diversity should not be taken to mean that one's theological underpinnings are irrelevant to the task of world evangelism. Some denominations' drift away from former theological foundations has led to a retreat from aggressive missionary outreach. Still, we must acknowledge that the Christian missionary force remains very heterogeneous theologically. Theological orientation is by itself a very undependable predictor of one's missionary interest and vision.

The second theological factor standing out in the past four hundred years has been the development of theologies of mission. Andrew Seumois points out: "Systematic research in the field of mission theology is a relatively recent development."5 This has meant, among other things, the development of a new vocabulary for talking about missions. Words like missiology, syncretism, dialog, faith mission, indigenous church, people movements, cultural baggage and overhang, homogeneous units, and many others form an important part of the language missionaries use to talk about strategy, methodology, and even theology.

Inside this arena of the theology of missions, major battles within the World Council of Churches have been fought. Andrew Seumois concludes that it is as a result of the developing theologies of missions that mission methodology has become such a scientifically scrutinized area of study.6 The development of schools of world mission in theological seminaries and the lengthy bibliography of materials now available in the theology of missions should be enough to convince one that, as far as Christian missions are concerned, we are in the age of theology.

1 Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, rev. ed. (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), p. 1013
2 Ibid., p. 1357.
3 Ibid., p. 1018
4 William Richey Hogg, "The Rise of Protestant Missionary Concerns," The Theology of the Christian Mission, Gerald H. Anderson, ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961), p. 101.
5 Andrew Seumois, "The Evolution of Mission Theology Among Roman Catholics", The Theology of the Christian Mission, Gerald H. Anderson, ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961), p. 122.
6 Ibid., p. 133.

     -- Howard Culbertson,


Since 1600 AD, Christian world evangelization has been marked by a dynamic interplay of historical, cultural, and technological factors, leading to the spread of Christianity to diverse regions and peoples around the globe. A few things that stand out include:

Need an overview of missions history?

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