What Are We Saying?

This is post #3 in a series on developing a new missiology.

My previous post was about “what missions can learn from the missional movement.” In this post, I’d like to tackle the vocabulary of missions. What are we saying?

It used to be the number salvations. Fifty years ago, missions was all about the harvest. Who could argue the validity of a ministry that was producing fruit? This, unfortunately, led to a “whatever works” pragmatism that . Missionaries and evangelists the world over took to circus-tent preachertainment in attempts to draw the largest crowds and get the greatest number of “conversions.” Thank you. Yes, I see that hand.

In the 1970s, a new crop of missio-sociologists sprang up. Ralph Winter, Donald McGavran, and his successor at Fuller Seminary, C. Peter Wagner. looked no only at the practical aspects of getting people to say a prayer, but also the social implications of evangelization. These were practitioners, each had spent significant time on the mission field, and knew first-hand that numbers didn’t tell the whole story. They knew that people around the world organized themselves into ethnolinguistic people groups that often disregarded geopolitical borders. It didn’t make sense, Winter said at the historic Lausanne Conference on World Mission (1974), to send missionaries to a country. There may be hundreds, even thousands of unique people groups within the borders of any given country, and focusing all our resources on the few responsive people groups was done at the expense of work among others. Not all conversion numbers, then, were equal. Missions needed to focus on unreached people groups.

Before the modern missions movement, missionaries would first teach the people of a tribe or village to speak and read the missionary’s language in order to communicate the gospel. The Moravians, William Carey, and Hudson Taylor changed that. These missionaries devoted their lives to learning indigenous languages and translating the scriptures. But this was done to “win more converts,” not out of any belief that God was somehow brought more glory by worship in a diversity of languages and cultural expressions. Winter, McGavran, and Wagner developed a people group missiology that saw culture not as a tool for the effective conversion of the heathen, but as a thing to be converted as people came to Christ.

An entire missiology of people groups was developed. This perspective traced the mission mandate back to Creation, God’s covenant with Abraham, and later with Moses. It focused on the redemption of people in their indigenous cultures, seeing value in different perspectives and styles of worship. People group missiology interpreted the ancient Greek words, “all nations” in Matthew 28:19 as meaning “all people groups.” The missionary task was therefore defined as, “To reach all unreached people groups.

If all of this doesn’t sound all that radical to you, it’s probably because the missiology of Winter, et. al has becomes so prevalent. For two-hundred years (since William Carey) By the mid nineties, every major missions sending organization had adopted people group thinking and reorganized their missions strategies around it. Instead of relying on high numbers of conversions to justify their work and solicit support, missions agencies talked about the number of people groups that had yet to hear the gospel, and how they were gaining on the completion of the task of “reaching” them all.

The influence of people group thinking didn’t end with missiology. A compatible eschatology was developed around Matthew 24:14, (“And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”) holding that Jesus will not return until we “reach” the last unreached people group. Ecclesiology was reorganized around people groups; it wasn’t enough to have a vital church nearby, each people group needed its own worship gathering. Church planters now focus on specific target ethnic/affinity/subculture groups rather than planting a church per town or neighborhood. Youth ministry, evangelism, Christian education, and research have all be heavily influenced by this perspective. In short, people group thinking has revolutionized Christianity.

All this to set the stage for my next post, Missiospeak. I’ll take a look at specific words we use to talk about missions, and the impact of those words on how we understand and do missions. Tell a friend. Stay tuned.

About E. Goodman

Ernest Goodman is a missiologist, writer, teacher, and communications strategist.