Factors World missions history lecture

Brief History of Christianity's worldwide expansion

Lecture for the second week of the online course "Global Evangelism"

How has Christianity Become such a Worldwide Religion?

Question:I hate history classes with all of those dates and names and garbage like that. Will this be another boring lecture stuffed with that kind of material?

I could throw at you thousands of names of famous missionaries, all of them "heroes" in spreading the faith across barriers of culture, language, and geography.

I could throw at you hundreds of dates, all of them of important events in global evangelism.

I could talk about lots of trends, all of them keys to understanding the spread of the gospel around the globe.

Alas, you'd be swamped with data and wind up suffering from information overload. So, I'll resist the temptation to swamp you with too many dates and names.

I hope you'll devour and internalize Ralph Winter's wonderful encapsulation of world missions history in his 5 epochs of redemption history. Make this oversimplified historical summary the one thing that you take away from this week's study:

Bear in mind that these 400-year periods are very rough approximations. Winter is not using them to pinpoint things precisely. He came up with them as a memory device. (My PowerPoint presentation on this theme)

Question: St. Patrick is mentioned in this week's reading. Is this the same guy whose life people celebrate by drinking green beer?

The March 17 celebration of St. Patrick's Day shouldn't be about leprechauns and green beer and rainbows with pots of gold.

Patrick, who lived during the 400s, was a young English boy captured by Irish pirates and taken to Ireland. While a slave there on a farm, he was converted. Eventually, he escaped and went home. But Patrick felt called to go back to his former pagan captors as a missionary. He did and led much of Ireland to faith in Christ.

3-leaf cloverHis use of the 3-leaf clover to illustrate the Trinity to a pagan tribal chieftain forever tied Patrick and Ireland to the shamrock. Sadly, the shamrock that's sometimes used in decorating for St. Patrick's Day is the four-leaf kind.

Next time March 17 rolls around and you see leprechauns, pots of gold and 4-leaf clovers, think how disgusted Patrick would be at what we've made of his life.

"Patrick saw God's fingerprint in the three-leafed clover and used the three-leaf clover to try to explain the Trinity to the Irish. Patrick not only saw God's fingerprint, he become God's fingerprint through the life he lived and the people he influenced." -- Vernoica Roesley, Northwest Nazarene University grad student

Another of my heroes of that period is Boniface who dared to march in a German forest one day and defy the pagan gods by chopping down a huge sacred oak tree. In a further act of defiance, this missionary to some of my ancestors used wood from that fallen tree to build a chapel.

Question: St. Francis of Assisi is this week's reading. Isn't he the guy that preached to the birds and who wrote the little prayer about being an instrument of peace?

Yes, he was. Francis and Raymond Lull in the 1200's were two of the few people in the middle of that bloody Crusade period who tried to witness to the Muslims. Francis actually went to Egypt and met with the Sultan and talked to him about Christ. Lull gave 40 years of his life to evangelizing the Muslims and wound up being martyred at age 80.

"To read of Ramon Lull's willingness to leave nobility to reach the Muslims ("the Fool of Love") should challenge each of us to ask if we are that willing to be of use by God." -- Kevin Bottjen, Northwest Nazarene University grad student

Question: Wouldn't it be great to see the tremendous results that those early pioneer missionaries saw?

William Carey went 7 years before he had his first convert in India. Adoniram Judson worked in Burma for almost the same period of time before he had his first convert.

Robert Morrison, first Protestant missionary to China, who labored for 25 years and had fewer than a dozen converts?

Or what about Ansgar, the Apostle of the North, who gave his life to preaching the gospel to the Vikings without any long-lasting results?

What about missionaries to East Africa who in the early 1800's shipped their goods to Africa in coffins because most of them knew they most likely would be struck down during their first term by disease or unfriendly natives?

What about Jim Elliot, Nate Saint and those three others who were martyred on a Amazon tributary sandbar in Ecuador as they made the first attempts to reach the Waorani indigenous tribal people with the gospel?

I stand in awe of these pioneer missionaries. Many of them died without seeing great results. Yet, many of the outposts they planted eventually flourished as the gospel took root in culture after culture.

Question: Does this have anything to do with Nazarenes?

It does. Our denomination was born at the turn of the last century. The 1800s were a period that historian Kenneth Scott Latourette calls "The Great Century" of Protestant missions. The early Protestant Reformers had shown little interest in global evangelism. Then, in a 100 year period, Protestant missionary activity swelled to incredible proportions.

At the end of the 1700s Christianity was still pretty much confined to Europe and the Americas. By 1900 Christianity had become a truly global religion.

I think the fact that we were born in that kind of world evangelism atmosphere contributed much to the missionary spirit of our denomination.

Let's come back to Ralph Winter's explanation of the three world missions eras influenced by four men. There's a poignant phrase attached to three of the personalities involved:

William Carey
"Young man, sit down. When God chooses to save the heathen, he'll do so without your help or mine" (said by Baptist minister).
Hudson Taylor
"There's too much work yet to do here. We've got to properly finish the job here before we can even think of going to other places" (said by other missionaries in China when Taylor wanted to move to cities in the interior of China)
William Cameron Townsend
"How come your God doesn't speak my language?" (said by Guatemalan Indian to whom Townsend was trying to sell a Bible in Spanish)

As for Donald McGavran, he became obsessed by several thoughts. Among them:

  1. God wants his lost children found.
  2. People like to become Christians without having to nfeel that they need to cross racial, language or cultural boundaries in order to do so.
  3. Healthy churches can best fulfill the Great Commission. Many of the disease that weaken churches can be kept at bay or cured.

Here's a question for reflection: So, were these people that I've mentioned as well as others you ran across in your reading super giants of the faith? Did they reach a level of spirituality that is out of reach for you and I?

A missionary's prayer

"May thy grace, O Lord, make that possible to me which is impossible by nature." — Amy Carmichael, missionary to India for the first half of the twentieth century

Discussion questions

  1. In what ways can Ralph Winter's five epochs of redemption history help to grasp the history of the expansion of Christianity? Why might it be helpful for us to differentiate between these periods?
  2. What can we learn from the lives of early Christian missionaries like Patrick, Boniface, and Francis of Assisi? How might their stories inspire us to share the gospel today?
  3. Why do you think it took many early Christian missionaries years or even decades to see their first converts? In what ways should their persistence and dedication shape our own efforts to fulfill the Great Commission?
  4. How have the ways in which Christians share the gospel changed over the course of history, from the Roman Empire to modern-day missions, and what can we learn from these changes?
  5. How might understanding the history of Christianity's global expansion help us to better appreciate the diversity and richness of the global Church today, and how can we use this knowledge to foster greater unity and cooperation among believers?

    -- Howard Culbertson,

Things that Furthered Global Outreach

Several factors have contributed to the worldwide spread of Christianity:

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