From the Bible’s earliest pages, God indicates His plan to redeem humankind from sin and reconcile us to Himself. He chose one specific family or ethnic group, Abraham and his descendants, to be His “missionary model,” to receive God’s blessings and then to travel to other places, cultures and families to share those blessings (Genesis 12:1-4).
As our All Nations Verse List shows, God repeated this message many times throughout the Bible.
The response of God’s chosen people was sporadic. At times they obeyed and at times they disobeyed His instructions to be a blessing to “all families on earth.” Nonetheless, the neighboring tribes and kingdoms of the Middle East did gain an awareness of the One True God.
The watershed event of missions is the coming to earth of Jesus Christ, the one “seed” or descendant promised to Abraham (Genesis 22:18; Galatians 3:16). In Jesus, God established the way in which we can be reconciled to Him (John 14:6; II Corinthians 5). With His final words, Jesus charged His followers with the task of worldwide evangelization and discipleship (Mark 16:15; Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8).
The response of those who heard those words firsthand, as recorded in the book of Acts, is something of a blueprint for mission activity in the centuries that followed. At times, believers have done very little to cross cultural barriers and share the gospel. Then a “Philip” or a “Peter” or a “Paul” has emerged, or a relatively small band has risen up, to proclaim boldly the good news to those who have never heard it. Noteworthy historical landmarks include the following:
- Christians were put to death for their faith during the Roman Empire. (The term “martyr” originally meant simply “witness”, but during this period it came to be applied specifically to the powerful testimony of those who died rather than turn away from Christ.)
- Nordic Viking raiders surrendered their lives to Jesus due to the impact of Christian women that they had kidnapped in southern Europe.
- During the horrific bubonic plague of the 6th and 7th centuries, and later the Black Death of the 14th century, believers literally stood out from among the masses by risking their own lives to bring aid and comfort to plague victims.
- Catholic mission efforts range from the 5th-century activities of St. Patrick of Ireland to the organized campaigns of various monastic orders in the Americas, Asia and Africa during the Golden Age of Exploration.
- The efforts of Martin Luther and his contemporaries in the early 1500s to make the Bible and church practices more readily understandable to all people sparked the Protestant Reformation.
- “Modern” missions are often marked as beginning with the efforts of Count Nicholas Von Zinzendorf and his band of Moravians in the middle 1700s. They were among the first of the Protestant faith to organize a movement to take the gospel to those who had never heard it, sending workers to the Americas, Africa, the Far East, and even the Arctic.
- William Carey, an English cobbler and minister, caused waves among his peers in the late 1700s when he wrote a systematic defense and exploration of the Christian responsibility to share the gospel with unbelievers. Carey went on to four decades of groundbreaking fruitful work in India. (Although he is now commonly named as “the father of modern missions,” Carey himself gave that honor to Von Zinzendorf.)
- By the mid-1800s, missionary efforts had largely covered the world’s coast-lands, and many workers, feeling that their task was finished, returned to their home countries. But Hudson Taylor, David Livingstone and others drew attention to the vast interior regions of the continents, where Christ was yet unknown. Thousands from Europe and North America were recruited to “China Inland Mission,” “Africa Inland Mission,” and similar agencies.
- At the start of the 20th century, many again felt that the task of world evangelization was on the verge of completion. Donald McGavran, working in India, and Cameron Townsend, distributing Bibles in Latin America, sparked a new focus on “unreached people groups,” those ethnic groups in which there is no indigenous Christian presence of sufficient size and strength to evangelize the people group fully without outside help. “To reach the unreached” became a new watchword for Christian missions.
- With rapid advances in transportation and communication and increased coordination of efforts, the last 100 years have seen an amazing acceleration in cross-cultural missions. Believers from Asia, Africa, Oceania, and Latin America have joined the movement. The Word of God, the “sharpest tool” in our box, is becoming available in language after language. We are on the verge of seeing at least the first knowledge of Christ in every ethnic group on earth.
This page is clearly just an introduction to the history of Christian missions. To explore the theme further, read Ruth Tucker’s book, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya