Friday, March 03, 2006

History of Christian missions

According to the documents of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, the Biblical authority for missions begins quite early in Genesis, 12:1-3, in which Abraham is blessed so that through him and his descendants, all the "peoples" of the world would be blessed. Others point to God's wish, often expressed in the Bible, that all peoples of the earth would worship Him. Therefore, Christian missions go where worship is not, in order to bring worship to God.
In this view, the early historical Jewish mission is that of being a people placed in the midst of the other nations, situated so that they could proclaim the Creator God that blessed them. This view is confirmed in many OT scriptures, (cf. Exodus 19:4-6, Psalm 67) as well as the nature of the temple (its outer court was "the court of the gentiles").
Several teachers including John R. W. Stott, believe that a prominent prophecy in the Old Testament often unfolds continually and is certainly manifested in three situations, an immediate historical situation following the prophecy, a church-based intermediate situation, and an eschatological, end-of-time situation. Of course, Gen. 12:1-3 is such a prominent passage.
The first, and most famous missionary was St. Paul. He contextualized the Gospel for the Greek and Roman cultures, permitting it to leave its Hebrew and Jewish context. This cultural fluidity was then, as it is now, a source of friction between he and some members of the sending church. In such contextualization, the object is to take the essential seed of the Gospel, and plant it in the soil of the foreign culture, so that every practice not essential to the Gospel is indigenous. This permits the indigenous church to grow more rapidly by reducing cultural barriers to acceptance.
In the early Christian era, most missions were by monks. Monasteries followed disciplines and supported missions, libraries and practical research, all of which were perceived as works to reduce human misery and suffering, thus enhancing the reputation of God. For example, Nestorian communities evangelized much of N. Africa before Muhammad. Cistercians evangelized much of Northern Europe, as well as developing most of European agriculture's classic techniques. Later, Jesuits were sent to China.
After the Reformation, for nearly a hundred years, being occupied in their struggle with the Roman Catholic Church, the Protestant churches were not missionary-sending churches. But in the centuries that followed, the Protestant churches began sending missionaries in increasing numbers, spreading the proclamation of the Christian message to previously unreached people. In North America, missionaries to the native Americans included Jonathan Edwards, the well known preacher of the Great Awakening, who in his later years retired from the very public life of his early career. He became a missionary to the Housatonic Native Americans and a staunch advocate for them against cultural imperialism.

As European culture has been established in the midst of indigenous peoples, the cultural distance between Christians of differing cultures has been difficult to overcome. One early solution was the creation of segregated "praying towns" of Christian natives. This pattern of grudging acceptance of converts was repeated in Hawaii later when missionaries from that same New England culture went there. In Spanish colonization of the Americas, the Catholic missionaries selected and learned among the languages of the Amerindians and devised writing systems for them. Then they preached to them in those languages (Quechua, Guarani, Nahuatl) instead of Spanish, to keep Indians away from "sinful" whites. An extreme case were the Guarani Reductions, a theocratic semiindependent region established by the Jesuits.

Around 1780, an indigent Baptist cobbler named William Carey began reading about James Cook's polynesian journeys. His interest grew to a furious sort of "backwards homesickness," inspiring him to obtain Baptist orders, and eventually write his famous 1792 pamphlet, "An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of Heathen." Far from a dry book of theology, Carey's work used the best available geographic and ethnographic data to map and count the number of people who had never heard the Gospel. It formed a movement that has grown with increasing speed from his day to ours.

Slightly after his pamphlet was published, the first missionary society was formed by his friends, and sent William Carey to India. In India, Carey is well-known, having translated and printed numerous books, scientific as well as religious. He translated not just from English to Bengali and Sanskrit, but also translated the Vedas to English, producing the first authoritative English versions. He started the first Bengali newspaper, formed horticultural societies and universities to teach farming and useful arts, and successfully fought the ancient evils of infant exposure and wife-burning (Suttee).

Carey's example was followed by a number of missions to sea-side and port cities. The China Overseas Missionaries and Moravian Church are two of the more famous.

Thomas Coke, the first bishop of the American Methodists, has been called "the Father of Methodist Missions". After spending time in the young American republic strengthening the infant Methodist Church alongside episcopal colleague Francis Asbury, the British-born Coke left for mission work. During his time in America, Coke worked vigorously to increase Methodist support of Christian missions and raising up mission workers. Coke died while on a mission trip to India, but his legacy among Methodists - his passion for missions - continues.

The next great wave of missions, starting about 1850, was to inland areas, led by Hudson Taylor with his China Inland Mission. Taylor was a thorough-going nativist, offending the missionaries of his era by wearing Chinese clothing and speaking Chinese at home. His mission was one of the few that actually began to persuade Chinese to follow Christ. His books, speaking and examples led to the formation of numerous inland missions, and the Student Volunteer Movement (SVM), which from 1850 to about 1950 sent nearly 10,000 missionaries to inland areas, often at great personal sacrifice. Many early SVM missionaries to areas with endemic tropical diseases left with their belongings packed in a coffin, aware that 80% of them would die within two years.

In 1910, the Edinburgh Missionary Conference was held in Scotland. Presided over by active SVM leader (and future Nobel Peace Prize recipient) John R. Mott, an American Methodist layperson, the conference reviewed the state of evangelism, Bible translation, mobilization of church support, and the training of indigenous leadership. Looking to the future, conferees worked on strategies for worldwide evangelism and cooperation. The conference not only established greater ecumenical cooperation in missions, but also essentially launched the modern ecumenical movement.

The next wave of missions was started by two missionaries, Cameron Townsend and Donald McGavran, around 1935. These men realized that although earlier missionaries had reached geographic areas, there were numerous ethnographic groups that were isolated by language, or class from the groups that missionaries had reached. Cameron formed Wycliffe Bible Translators to translate the Bible into native languages. McGavran concentrated on finding bridges to cross the class and cultural barriers in places like India, which has upwards of 4,600 peoples, separated by a combination of language, culture and caste. Despite democratic reforms, caste and class differences are still fundamental in many cultures.

Most modern missionaries and missionary societies have repudiated cultural imperialism, and elected to focus on spreading the Gospel and translating the Bible. Sometimes, missionaries have been vital in preserving and documenting the culture of the peoples among whom they live.
Often, missionaries provide welfare and health services from love, as a good deed or to make friends with the locals. Thousands of schools, orphanages, and hospitals have been established by missions. One of the quietest, yet most far-reaching services provided by missionaries started with the Each one, teach one literacy program begun by Dr. Frank Laubach in the Philippines in 1935. The program has since spread around the world and brought literacy to the least enabled members of many societies.

The word "mission" was historically often applied to the building, the "mission station" in which the missionary lives or works. In some colonies, these mission stations became a focus of settlement of displaced or formerly nomadic people. Particularly in rural Australia, missions have become localities or ghettoes on the edges of towns which are home to many Indigenous Australians. The word may be seen as derogatory when used in this context in a derogatory or racist way.