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  • Writer's pictureBradley Bell

How to Handle Missions History, Part Five

This series has peered down at missions history from 30,000 feet. The purpose wasn’t to be comprehensive, but clarifying, building a very simple framework for understanding the chaos of missions history. In doing so, I’ve leaned heavily on the insight of Ralph Winter, who broke down 2000+ years of history into five epochs. He called the fifth the Age of the Ends of the Earth.

Within this timeframe the epicenter of Christianity decentralized from Europe and resettled in North America. This happened through two primary means: the Protestant Reformation and overseas conquest.

The Protestant Reformation sparked a movement of biblical authority and the reaffirmation of the gospel as justification by faith alone. Though it would be the flint God used to ultimately reignite missions fervor (see Haykin), in its time the Reformation really did more for the church gathered than the church scattered. Surprisingly, both Martin Luther and John Calvin believed that the fulfillment of the Great Commission had been accomplished by the apostles. Nevertheless, they did at least seek to mobilize church planters to Switzerland and Brazil.

Even if living churches had not sought to advance the gospel in any fashion at that time, the Protestant groups that spun out of the Reformation were persecuted more and more. Numbers of them were eventually scattered, which landed some of them in North America.

Among the groups that did not land in North America were the Moravians. Perhaps the greatest missions-infused church since Antioch, the Moravians mobilized hundreds of their people into other cultures. The key to their effectiveness was likely rooted in their commitment to prayer for the advance of the gospel. It’s recorded that they organized a 24/7 prayer vigil that lasted for 100 years! Their most common strategy for sending missionaries included people simply utilizing their job skills to work in other parts of the world. As they worked there, they declared the gospel. A small number even sold themselves into slavery for the sake of accessing lost peoples. For an encouraging glimpse into the Moravians, including both their historic accomplishments and surprising humanity, I recommend the free ebook, “A History of the Moravian Church“.

Meanwhile, as the church grew in North America, the “modern missions movement” was instigated by William Carey. Deeply moved by reading Jonathan Edwards’ biography of young missionary David Brainerd, Carey called the church to act on behalf of the “heathen”. The church’s reply? “Sit down young man. If God wants to reach the heathen, he will do it himself without your help or mine” (a quote credited to Dr. John Collett Ryland). Carey then wrote the influential book, “An Enquiry Into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen,” which, once again, is a free ebook. Winter said this book “became the Magna Carta of the Protestant missions movement.” Carey eventually established the Baptist Missionary Society and served in India. This was the era of coastland missions.

Further movements and missionaries and societies followed, including most notably, Hudson Taylor, who established the China Inland Mission. It alone mobilized over 6,000 missionaries. This helped spark the Student Volunteer Movement, which mobilized 10,000 students as global missionaries. This was the era of inland missions.

And finally, in the twentieth century leaders such as Cameron Townsend, Donald McGavran, and Winter himself began to advocate for a new strategic view in missions. First pitched at the 1974 Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, missions was broadly redefined from viewing “all nations” as geopolitical entities to ethnolinguistic people groups. The movement gave a pronounced view of the scope of the Great Commission, and as such revealed just how far it was from being "fulfilled". This brought on the era of unreached people groups.

So is this where the story ends?

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