What happened to the 19th Century Mission?

In his article, The Future in the Past: Eschatological Vision in British and American Protestant Missionary History, Brian Stanley gives an overview of an historical shift in theological understanding of the end times among missionaries from the English speaking word around the time of the First World War.

Stanley rightly addresses how

The First World War rocked the foundations of the postmillennial confidence that societies permeated by Christian influence were not far from the kingdom of God. If so-called Christian nations could engage in mutual slaughter on the scale that they did, the quest to construct new Christian nations on the western model no longer seemed compelling.

As the solution to inequality and oppression, the coming of God’s reign, did not happen through implementation of Christendom as the First World War later seemed to prove, there was now an opening for a new theological understanding of the other.

From the late nineteenth century onwards, the more liberal sections of evangelicalism had increasingly questioned the confrontational stance which earlier missions had taken towards other religions, and begun to advocate instead theologies of fulfilment, in which missionaries were to present Christ as the one who fulfilled the highest religious and ethical aspirations of non-Christian religious teaching.

This led finally to the understanding at the fourth assembly of the World Council of Churches at Uppsala 1968, which

re-defined the goal of Christian mission in terms of the inauguration of God’s kingdom of justice, liberation, humanisation and the renewal of creation. … The church is called to co-operate with this free activity of the Spirit, but the proclamation of Christ as Lord is not an indispensable part of the process.

The more conservative wing of the church responded quite differently to the First World War according to Stanley.

[M]any evangelicals lost confidence not simply in social reform but even to some extent also in the ability of the gospel to make any appreciable impact on a lost world.

The conservative response became defensive and

the priority for true Christians was to hold fast the truth against error, …

This more conservative and in some sense pessimistic world view, were often highly suspicious of theological endeavors such as biblical criticism. The premillennial world view was influental in those circles, calling them to stay clear of

what was held to be a worldly understanding of the mission and from a church that had made its peace with an apostate world.

Stanley mentions that „by the 1980s conservative agencies supplied ten out of every eleven career foreign missionaries from North America.“ Though he rightly points out that the pessimistic world view of premillennial understanding is not necessarily a common thread for all conservative Christians today.

Stanley claims that missionaries are more skeptical today about there own cultural background, than before the First World War, more aware „of the spiritual poverty of the western world“. However, Stanley also claims that the missionary movement has lost its real vision.

There will be not beating of swords into ploughshares until the peoples desire together to worship at the mountain of the Lord. There will be no reconciled humanity without true knowledge of God in Christ.

This knowledge of God in Christ, is to be proclaimed here and know, through word but not less by creating glimpses of God’s reign or as Stanley says:

The kingdom beyond history is one to which the church throughout the ages is called to witness within history, and the witness is not just a matter of words but of visibility in deeds and being – the church in mission is to be the visual aid of God’s present rule and coming kingdom.

Stanley’s overview is helpful, as it draws a model of what we can describe as two extreme responses to the attempted assassination of Christendom in the beginning of the 20th Century. To continue to simplify the models, we can say that the liberal camp gave up on the Christendom altogether in an attempt to find a common humanism based on unalienable rights or common natural law, while the conservative group is still trying to resuscitate and keep alive what is probably forever lost.

At last it is helpful to keep in mind that models are always limited. The average person does not exist, and when we paint a picture of million individuals with a one broad stroke we should not expect to recognize anyone, though there might be some resemblance.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.