Mission (Missiology)

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1957 Article

Modern Protestant mission work found its stimulus and origin in the 18th-century Pietist movement and the evangelical awakening which followed it. Certain special characteristics marked this flowering of the missionary movement in the "Great Century," such as the multitude of zealous missionaries, the stress upon individual conversion, the dependence for financial support upon a voluntary supporting society, and the development of an understanding on the mission field that the new movement had the status of a minority in an antagonistic world. In the main these characteristics represented a new emphasis and new direction in mission purpose and method and came into being only in the wake of a broad spiritual awakening. The lack of a deep spiritual revival as an immediate aspect of the Reformation was one of the main factors in explaining the lag of Protestant interest in the cause of missions. In other words, when the medieval idea of the state church with state support and state control and enforced membership was taken over by the classical reformers and introduced into the new Protestant movement and with Protestant princes uninterested, unwilling, or unable, the cause of Protestant missions could only wait for a new stimulus to individual responsibility and voluntary participation. The territorial church concept of the Reformers inhibited outreach beyond the national borders.

Early Anabaptist Missions (1525-1600)

Early Anabaptist missions, though conducted against the opposition of both Protestant and Catholic authorities and eventually suppressed, represented an attempt to introduce an apostolic sense of mission 200 years before the Protestant church as a whole was ready. A strong evangelical strain ran in the early Reformation leaders and was picked up by the Swiss Brethren and the Dutch Mennonites, both of whom represented the moderate, spiritual phase of the "Left Wing Reformation." In them was developed to a higher degree the logical Reformation emphasis on individual conversion, apostolic call to witness, and voluntary church fellowship. Early Anabaptist missions, thus, were a precursor to the modern missionary movement. They grew out of a deep sense of responsibility for evangelism and the spontaneous testimony of warm hearts to a faith that could only be transmitted by voluntary witness and appropriation. This spontaneous expansion through evangelism is evident from the earliest Anabaptist congregation at Zollikon in 1525 (Blanke, Brüder in Christo) to the last roving missionaries of the Moravian Hutterites about 1650. It accounted for the rapid expansion in Switzerland,where 38 congregations were reported organized in the canton of Zürich alone in the two years 1525-1527 and a similar number in the canton of Bern. It appeared in the Martyrs' Synod held in Augsburg in 1527, where in addition to ironing out doctrinal misunderstandings missionaries were assigned to the various fields of labor in central Europe. It appeared again in the North in the rapid expansion of Anabaptism in the Low Countries, though here one must distinguish between the politico-eschatological Münsterites and the deeply religious Dutch Mennonites. It was seen preeminently in the Hutterites, whose missioners were part of an organized program to preach the Gospel and gather the Lord's people to the Moravian colonies which, in the later 16th century, were prospering. The evangelists were driven by zeal or persecution into ever widening circles where the indistinct national boundaries of the day made little difference. In this process, although they sailed no boundless seas to "Greenland's icy mountains" or "India's coral strand," they encountered the problems of modern missions and displayed the qualities of character and the methods of that movement.

F. H. Littell ("Anabaptist Theology of Missions") points out specific ways in which the early Anabaptist missions foreshadowed the modern movement: (1) they rejected the parish pattern and coercion for Pauline methods of persuasion and faith in which the proper order was first, preach, secondly, believe, and lastly, baptize; (2) they interpreted the Great Commission's "Go ye therefore" as applying to all believers at all times; (3) the lay believer became the carrying power of the movement; and (4) they had a supreme confidence in the power of God so that the suffering of the martyr church was its authentication and believed that in this very process "the Master was gathering His people from the far corners of the earth and that in His own good time God would give them the kingdom" (Stauffer, "Anabaptist Theology of Martyrdom").

Loss and Recovery of Evangelistic-Missionary Zeal

The very success of the evangelical Anabaptist movement stimulated opposition to it in a day when torture and death were accepted means of suppression. Persecution in various ways and to varying degrees became current wherever the Anabaptists went. The earlier effect was to spread the movement and to increase the challenge to faithfulness; the Hutterite Chronicle, the early South German and Swiss Ausbund, and the Dutch Het Offer des Heeren andMartyrs' Mirror glory in accounts of faithfulness unto death and in conversions by such vivid testimony. The later effects were not so favorable; trained leaders were lost and replaced by equally devoted but perhaps less qualified men; eventually missionary zeal was lost and replaced by an inner aspiration for piety and faithfulness to a more traditional type of religious life. The period of Mennonite exclusiveness had arrived. Although severe persecution ceased, irritating discriminations by the authorities continued, and the typical Mennonite became the "Quiet in the Land," emphasizing the virtues of simplicity, honesty, and adherence to the faith of the fathers, but without imagination or judgment as to opportunities or responsibilities of the higher faith in Christ. The 16th-century Anabaptists had been "in the world but not of the world"; the 18th-century Mennonite was neither "in the world" nor "of the world." This explained the continuing lack of evangelistic zeal for a long period after persecution and discrimination had passed.

The recovery of evangelistic-missionary zeal was a complicated process in which not only the challenge of a new viewpoint toward religious opportunities was necessary but also a reinterpretation of secular social responsibilities. It was the complication of balancing one of these against another that made Mennonite adjustments to the new movements of the 19th century so difficult. By approximately the early 19th century the Dutch and North German Mennonites were giving up much of the traditional Mennonite way of life. Nonresistance and nonconformity gradually vanished here and elsewhere. Liberal theology also made its inroads in Holland and North Germany. But Pietism also exerted its influence in Holland, Hamburg, West Prussia, South Germany, and Switzerland. In Russia and America conservative-traditional Mennonitism was maintained, but warmer pietistic and evangelical currents of influence opened the door to missions by the end of the 19th century. It was in the nexus of this social and religious adjustment that evangelism and missions returned to the Mennonites, receiving at first only a hesitant welcome. The process occupied the greater part of the 19th century and in Europe involved stimulating contacts with Baptists and Lutheran Pietists. In America it came largely through the German Evangelical arm of the Methodist awakening, or through the Moody type of revivalistic evangelism. The contacts were many and complex and it was not simply outside pressure that won Mennonites to renewed evangelistic and missionary zeal, but also the dawning consciousness that this was an essential aspect of Anabaptist-Mennonite faith.

Missionary Interest among European Mennonites

This interest was first aroused through efforts of the English Baptists to secure support for their Serampore (India) work. William Henry Angas, an English Baptist preacher, was instrumental in organizing, in 1821, in Holland the Aid Society to support this work, which was predominantly Mennonite in membership. In 1824 Angas toured the Continent, paying attention to Mennonite congregations in Prussia, Poland, Bavaria, Switzerland, and France, and making a deep impression on them. As a result of his visit in the Palatinate a special conference in 1824 authorized a missionary box in every church and a mission offering once a month for support of the Baptist work. Shortly afterward, in 1830, there was held the first mission festival in West Prussia in the Heubuden church. Contributions raised were sent to the Berlin Mission. The growing sentiment for missions brought about in 1847 the reorganization of the Dutch Aid Society for the support of Baptist Missions into a Dutch Mennonite Missionary Association. Prominent in this reorganization was Samuel Muller, who had been president of the previous organization and carried over in the same capacity in the new society. Muller, deeply spiritual, formerly minister of the Amsterdam congregation and professor in the Seminary, was one of the most influential Mennonite leaders of the period. As were most early missionary societies, this was a private organization seeking voluntary support from all who were interested; though there was some Mennonite opposition as an innovation, it came to draw popular support, though it never won the entire brotherhood. The Palatinate and Prussian congregations now directed their contributions to the new Mennonite society, as did those of North Germany, Bavaria, and Russia, as well as a few congregations in America.

The first volunteer for foreign service was Pieter Jansz, a teacher from Delft, Holland, who was sent out in 1851 to the Netherlands overseas possessions in Java, locating at Japara. He was followed by H. C. Klinkert in 1856, Thomas Doyer in 1857, and R. D. Schuurman in 1863. Another mission field was opened in Sumatra in 1871 but staffed by the Russian Mennonites, Heinrich Dirks being the first missionary.

The rise of missionary interest among the Mennonites in Russia presents a vivid case of the influence of Pietist and Awakening forces on staid Mennonites. The Mennonite colonies in Russia were laid down roughly in three strata. The first colonists (1788-98), forming the Chortitza settlement, came originally from the financially poorer class of West Prussian Mennonites, consequently with less training and breadth of vision. The settlement was marked by early quarrels and slow progress and at the middle of the 19th century was still closed to innovations. The second group (1803-1808), forming the Molotschna settlement, were from a more well-to-do background, with broader training and more initiative. They progressed more rapidly and took the lead in educational and religious moves. The third was a group of later arrivals (1819-1840) from scattered settlements up the Vistula River, where they had had more prolonged contacts with other Protestants and particularly intimate relations with the Herrnhuters. They formed the congregations of Rudnerweide, Alexanderwohl, Gnadenfeld, and Waldheim and were scattered within the Molotschna settlement where they became focal points of new ideas. Rudnerweide, a Frisian congregation, immediately showed progressive tendencies by associating and uniting with a Flemish congregation. Then, with Alexanderwohl and Ohrloff, another progressive congregation, it joined in organizing a Molotschna branch of the Bible Society in St. Petersburg, and in supporting the Moravian missionary work as early as 1827. Under the first elder, Franz Görz, there were found at Rudnerweide mission study hours and a warm, evangelical type of sermon not common elsewhere.

Gnadenfeld, whose pastor Wilhelm Lange had formerly been Lutheran, had intimate Moravian contacts in Prussia at Brenkenhoffswalde, where the congregation is said to have received many blessings, such as "a clear knowledge of the Scriptures, living Christianity, and understanding and love for missions and schools." This background made Gnadenfeld open to the ministrations of the near-by Lutheran Pietist minister Eduard Wüst, who further cultivated the pietistic-evangelistic emphasis. Here in 1860 was one of the main centers of the Mennonite Brethren as they emerged with their revival activities. In spite of some controversy Gnadenfeld presented a relatively undisturbed picture of developing spiritual life with stimulating effect on other congregations through evangelical, educational, and missionary activities. It was from this same Gnadenfeld that the first Russian Mennonite missionary volunteer came. Heinrich Dirks offered himself to the Dutch society and in 1867 was sent out to Sumatra. His service on the field and later service at home promoted the cause of missions among the Mennonites of Russia and Europe.

The Russian Mennonites organized no mission society of their own, but additional missionaries were like Dirks sent out under the Dutch society, and in fact the main support of the society came from Russia. The Mennonite Brethren made Baptist connections and sent a student to the German Baptist Seminary at Hamburg. When their first missionary, Abraham Friesen, was ready in 1889, he was sent out under the American Baptist Mission Union to South India, where he started a work for the Mennonite Brethren at Nalgonda, Hyderabad. Following him were A. J. Hiebert in 1898 and Heinrich Unruh in 1899. This was carried on at first in cooperation with the Baptists but later absorbed by the American Mennonite Brethren mission established in this area in 1900.

North American Mission Interest

As among European Mennonites, the mission interest of the Mennonites in North America arose contemporaneously with and in relation to the Evangelical awakening but was hindered by the social environment where secular innovations were pressed along with new forms of religious work. Thus opposition to political enticements, secular schools, and city occupations developed a reaction which tended to oppose all innovations including Sunday schools, midweek prayer meetings, evangelism and missions. Mennonites responded with varying degrees of opposition or approval to the new methods and activities, in accord with their background, contacts, and development. All of the Mennonite immigrants to America settled in what were at first closed communities with linguistic and religious distinctions which discouraged outside influences.

General Conference Mennonite Church

The first serious struggle over new methods of work came in connection with the John H. Oberholtzer schism of 1847 in the Franconia Conference (MC) in which 16 congregations, in whole or in part, comprising about one fourth of the members of the Franconia Conference, separated from the main body and organized the East Pennsylvania Conference of the Mennonite Church, later to be the General Conference Mennonite Eastern District Conference. Among the innovations soon introduced under Oberholtzer and the new conference were Sunday-school work, publication of literature, and ministerial training. Missions also were envisaged, for in a letter to European Mennonites in 1858 Oberholtzer inquired about how the Dutch Mission Society operated (Menn. Bl., December 1858, 63). Contacts were soon made with the South German Mennonite immigrants who had recently settled in Iowa and were already sending back contributions to the Dutch work (Menn. Bl., September 1857, 50). Certain Canadian churches associated with Daniel Hoch joined with Ohio churches in a conference in May 1855, and recognized "the high duty to support missions for heathen" (Rel. Botschafter, June 25, 1855, 125). This surge of missionary interest in many quarters was part of the growing sentiment which brought about the organization in 1860 of the General Conference of the Mennonite Church of North America (later General Conference Mennonite Church). In the union conference both home and foreign missions were commended to the churches and three treasuries were set up for the receipt of funds. Plans were made also for continuing and enlarging Oberholtzer's publications and for setting up an educational institution to train ministers and missionaries. To further these ends Daniel Hege was set aside as an itinerant minister to visit all Mennonite congregations explaining the new move and the opportunities for new work, and to solicit funds for the proposed institution. The building for the new school (eventually known as Wadsworth Mennonite School), located at Wadsworth, Ohio, was completed and dedicated in 1866 and Carl Justus van der Smissen, pastor of the Friedrichstadt Church in Schleswig-Holstein, was secured as principal. The influence of the Wadsworth institute, though it lasted but ten years, and the influence of the van der Smissen family in the cause of missions cannot be overestimated. Deeply spiritual, in contact with the Dutch movement and the Java mission, van der Smissen impressed students and through them congregations. Perhaps most important is that from the first graduating class in 1871 came the one, Samuel S. Haury, who was to become the first missionary sent out by the General Conference. As a missionary candidate, he made it necessary for the General Conference to organize a board which became in time the Foreign Mission Board of the General Conference. Various possible fields were investigated, Java under the Dutch society and Alaska; but finally in 1880 Haury was located among the American Indians in Oklahoma. This was the beginning of General Conference work among the American Indians which came to include the Arapaho, Hopi, and Cheyenne in Oklahoma, Arizona, and Montana. The Hopi work was started by H. R. Voth, who in addition to evangelistic work made notable contributions to Hopi anthropology by collections of Hopi artifacts now in the Chicago Museum of Natural History. The outstanding name in the Cheyenne mission was that of Rodolphe Petter, who came from Switzerland in 1890 to join the Indian mission and become the foremost linguist in the Cheyenne language. His dictionary, grammar, Bible translations, and other publications are monumental works. The first mission field on foreign soil to be opened by the General Conference was that in India, started in 1900, in response to famine needs; the second was that in China begun as an independent venture in 1909 by H. J. Brown but taken over by the General Conference in 1914; more recently work was begun in Colombia (1945), in Japan (1950), and in Taiwan (Formosa) (1954). In addition to the several factors mentioned above which contributed to the development of missionary interest among the General Conference Mennonites must be mentioned the coming of the Russian Mennonite immigration toward the end of the 19th century. Ten thousand settled in the prairie states and another eight thousand in Manitoba. Their conscious Mennonite heritage, their emerging interest in missions, their experience in education and co-operative enterprises, and their resources in personnel and finances stimulated all church activities but none more than missions.

Mennonite Brethren in Christ

The Evangelical movement under Jacob Albright in the early 19th century among the Germans in Pennsylvania came close home to the Mennonite congregations there, and among the thousands who thronged this movement were many Mennonites. Some joined the Evangelical church; some attempted to remain in their own church. William Gehman, a minister in the Upper Milford congregation associated with Oberholtzer's group, under Evangelical influence started holding prayer meetings. Criticism developed against this new spiritual exercise and the emotional religion with which it was associated. As a result, in 1858 Gehman and others were stricken from the list of ministers. With like-minded members they then organized the Evangelical Mennonites, who in turn made contact with groups in Indiana, Ontario, and Ohio of similar experience and by a series of unions formed in 1883 the Mennonite Brethren in Christ (MBC). Because of their background in the revival movement they immediately adopted its type of program and entered aggressive work. Home missions and particularly city missions were prosecuted with zeal, and an increasing proportion of their membership came from people of non-Mennonite origin. It was from this group that the first American Mennonite missionary to a foreign land appeared. Eusebius Hershey, for forty years an inveterate traveling home missionary, announced in 1883 that the church would have a foreign missionary before long. In 1890 he left his family at home and without board appointment or assurance of support sailed for Africa. Aged 67 and not physically strong, he succumbed to the African climate after six months of work through an interpreter. His greatest contribution was the legacy of inspiration of a completely devoted life. Two others from this group left in the 1890s for foreign service-William Shantz (1895) and C. F. Snyder (1897), both to China where they worked under the Christian and Missionary Alliance. The first work directly sponsored by the MBC church was opened in Nigeria, Africa, by A. W. Banfield in 1901 and taken over by the church in 1905. This was well supplied with workers and was a successful effort. Other fields in which this Mennonite branch labored were Armenia (1898-1920), India (1928), and Colombia (1942), with also many individual workers supported by the church but working under other boards.

Mennonite Church (MC)

Among the mass of remaining Mennonites, often referred to as the "Old" Mennonites, who were located largely east of the Mississippi River and in Ontario, evangelism and missions were slower in entering. John C. Wenger characterized the group as (1) conservative in faith, (2) strict in discipline, and (3) active in missions, publication, education, and mutual aid. The activity came in part from the stimulus of prolonged contacts with outside influences such as Sunday schools and evangelism. The influences were mediated by men like John F. Funk and J. S. Coffman. The former, a Pennsylvania teacher and later businessman in Chicago where he had contacts with Moody, relocated his printing business in Elkhart in 1867 and became the center of a movement for publication, education, and missions. The latter, a Virginia minister, became the pioneer evangelist and almost single-handedly introduced "protracted" meetings in the church during the 1880's. Both worked together for promoting education for service in the Elkhart Institute (1894), which later became Goshen College (1903), as well as stimulating the organizing of the Mennonite General Conference in the late 1890s. They had an uncommon ability to retain the confidence of conservatives while introducing progressive ideas. Mission interest, both home and foreign, entered and became fruitful in the closing years of the century through organization of the Mennonite Evangelizing Committee (1882) and the Mennonite Benevolent and Evangelizing Board (1892), which in 1905 became the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities. The first city mission was opened in Chicago in 1893 and the first foreign work in India in 1899. The India work was a response to famine conditions which were vividly reported by George Lambert, who had just returned from a world tour appalled by the suffering. He was sent out to accompany a shipload of food, and the first missionaries, J. A. Ressler and Dr. and Mrs. W. B. Page, followed shortly. Beginning with orphanage, education, and evangelistic work, the India work developed into a strong indigenous church work. Other fields entered included Argentina 1917, Tanganyika (Tanzania) in East Africa 1934, Bihar in India 1940, Chaco in Argentina 1943, Puerto Rico 1945, Ethiopia 1948, Japan 1949, Sicily 1949, Belgium 1950, Honduras 1950, Luxembourg 1951, Alaska 1952, England 1952, Israel 1953, France 1953, Somalia 1953, Cuba 1954, Brazil 1954, Uruguay 1954, Jamaica 1955, Vietnam 1957, Ghana 1957. In this group several district conferences have entered into foreign and home mission work in addition to the main older board, these being Lancaster (Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities in 1917), Virginia (1949), Conservative (1951), and Franconia (1954). An independent mission was begun in the Amazon region of Brazil in 1955.

Mennonite Brethren Church

The Mennonite Brethren (MB) with their Russian origin and evangelical beginnings were better prepared for aggressive work when they came to America in 1874. From Russia Abraham Friesen went to India under the American Baptist Mission Union in 1889 and thus a pattern of Baptist co-operation had been set up. The mission emphasis was indicated by the incorporation of the Mennonite Brethren in 1900 under the name "American Brethren Mission Union," later revised to "Conference of the Mennonite Brethren Church of North America." The first American missionaries to join the Mennonite Brethren work in India were Mr. and Mrs. N. N. Hiebert and Elizabeth Neufeld, who arrived in the Telugu (Hyderabad) field in 1899. Additional missionaries were sent out and a strong evangelistic program carried on which spread to several major stations in the Hyderabad area. The next field entered by the Mennonite Brethren was China where individual missionaries joined the work of the China Mennonite Mission Society in Shantung, and where in 1911 F. J. Wiens opened the work in Fukien (Fújiàn) among the Hakkas. Mennonite Brethren work began in the Belgian Congo on a private basis in 1912, coming under the official board in 1923. The mission in Paraguay to the Indians called "Light to the Indians," begun by the colonists in 1932, was turned over to the Mennonite Brethren mission board in 1946. Additional MB foreign mission fields were Curitiba in Brazil (1946), Colombia (1945), and Japan (1950). They also had a work among the American Indians.

Other American Mennonite Groups

By 1900 most Mennonites were convinced of the validity of mission work and it was only a matter of time and opportunity before the remaining groups began to express interest. The Krimmer Mennonite Brethren (KMB), who merged with the Mennonite Brethren in 1957, had a remarkably high missionary interest, although as a very small group they never had a mission board of their own. Mr. and Mrs. H. C. Bartel, KMB members, started a mission in the Shantung province of China in 1901, which led to the formation of an inter-Mennonite China Mennonite Mission Society in 1912 to operate this work. The Evangelical Mennonite Brethren became one of the chief supporters of this mission. In 1921 two KMB missionaries started a work in Inner Mongolia. Individual workers are supported in other fields by the KMB Conference. The KMB conference mission work was carried forward by three committees, the Foreign Missions Committee, the Home Missions Committee, and the City Missions Committee. The EMB conference operated its mission program through the Commission on Missions, and through the Congo Inland Mission Board, on which it had three members. It operated no direct foreign work of its own but supported conference-recognized workers in several fields under other denominational boards. The Church of God in Christ, Mennonites began mission work in Mexico, and among the Navaho Indians and the Mexicans in the Southwest of the United States, under their General Mission Board.

The Central Conference of Mennonites and the Evangelical Mennonite Church (then Defenseless Mennonites) joined in opening work in Africa which developed into the Congo Inland Mission organized in 1911, which became a large co-operative work in which the General Conference Mennonite Church was also associated. A few of the smaller groups, such as Evangelical Mennonites (Kleine Gemeinde), Church of God in Christ Mennonites, and Conservative Mennonites, only recently were drawn into mission work, while the most conservative groups still held aloof, such as Reformed Mennonites, Old Colony, Hutterites, and Old Order Amish. In 1956 an Old Order Amish mission committee started work among the Indians in far Northwest Ontario.

The total foreign missionaries in service under the major American Mennonite mission boards in all fields as of 1 July 1957 (including those on furlough and under appointment, but not short-term service workers), with the total membership by groups, was as follows: General Conference Mennonite Church: missionaries 127, members 25,295; Mennonite Church (MC): missionaries 266, members 4,103; Mennonite Brethren Church: missionaries 196, members 30,904; Congo Inland Mission: missionaries 93, of which 44 are duplicates of the GCM figure, members 16,000 (all in GCM figures); missionaries 638, members 50,302. The total annual contributions of the American Mennonites to foreign missions in 1957 was over $1,000,000.

The following table lists the numbers of foreign missionaries by boards and countries, not including short-term service workers (I-W, etc.), in the mid-1950s.

Country Mennonite Church Mennonite Brethren General Conference Total
Alaska 5     5
Algeria 2     2
Argentina 22     22
Austria   5   5
Belgium   23 9 32
Brazil 8 5   13
Colombia 2     2
Congo, Africa   68 44 *161
Cuba 6     6
Ecuador   5   5
England 6     6
Ethiopia 33     33
France 4     4
Germany   5   5
Ghana 4     4
Honduras 13     13
India 32 42 45 119
Israel 4     4
Jamaica 4     4
Japan 18 12 18 48
Luxembourg 12     12
Mexico   11   11
Paraguay   20   20
Puerto Rico 28     28
Somalia, Africa 8     8
Taiwan (Formosa)     11 11
Tanganyika (Tanzania) 41     41
Uruguay 10     10
Vietnam 4     4
Total 266 196 127 638
American Indians   9 27 36


  • The total figure includes other Mennonite bodies

In 1940 the Dutch Mennonite mission field in Java was turned over to the Malay Mennonite Church, which had become independent in that year. The Dutch board then in 1950 took over from the Dutch Reformed Church a mission field in the territory of northwest New Guinea, which has about 60 congregations and mission stations. The Russian Mennonites had developed a mission among the semi-primitive people (Ostyaks) of north-central Siberia after World War I about 300 miles north of Tomsk (see Ob Mission). It was in operation as late as 1928.

The development of the missionary enterprise among the Mennonites of North America since 1900 has been noteworthy in size and significant in influence upon the brotherhood as a whole. It has meant a great enlargement of vision, a stimulus to outreach in various other areas of work, an intensification of spiritual commitment, a growth in stewardship, and emphasis upon the majors in the Christian faith and life.

For additional treatments on aspects of missions and evangelism among Mennonites, see the following articles: Evangelism, City Missions, Missionary Meetings, African American Missions (USA), Rural Missions, the various conference mission boards, the various foreign fields, such as China, India, Japan, etc., the various major stations in the mission fields, and biographies of outstanding missionary leaders, etc. The Dutch Mennonite Mission Association has published annual reports since 1848, and the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities since 1915. -- S. F. Pannabecker

1959 Article - Home Missions

Home Missions, a common term among North American Protestants for mission work carried on within the boundaries of the United States and Canada, hence more recently often referred to as "National Missions." The most nearly corresponding German term is "Innere Mission." Home missions are distinguished from foreign missions. The one exception was the work among the North American Indians carried on by the General Conference Mennonite Church which included this work under foreign missions because of the native Indian language and culture. Home missions included the following types of missionary outreach, for which the articles appearing in this Encyclopedia give detailed reports: City Missions, Jewish Evangelism, African American Missions (USA), Rescue Missions, and Rural Mission (Mennonite Church [MC]). The purpose of all home mission effort is to found churches, except in the case of rescue missions, which seek to "rescue" "down-and-outs" and turn them over to existing churches.

In two of the major North American Mennonite bodies separate boards were organized to carry on home missions, the Home Mission Board of the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Home Missions Board of the Mennonite Brethren Church. In the Mennonite Church (MC) the board which operated the foreign missions has also operated some home missions, usually city only. Every district conference had a mission board; they, with few exceptions, were set up to operate home missions only, and many local congregations operated local mission outposts. Only in the Virginia Conference had a separate home mission board been set up. The total number of home missions, both city and rural, operated by the Mennonite Church under general or district boards and local congregations was over 300 in 1958.

Almost all Mennonite groups in North America engaged in home missions in some form, city or rural, and most conferences had a home missions committee or a board for this purpose; in some cases the district conferences have organized committees or boards. Western Gospel Mission and Western Children's Mission were inter-Mennonite home mission boards in Canada. The Conference of Mennonites in Canada (GCM) had a home mission board, called Pioneer Mission. -- Harold S. Bender

1987 Update

The study of Christian mission is a relatively recent addition to the theological curriculum. Formal attempts to write theologies of mission only began toward the end of the 19th century Specialist mission training schools emphasized the practical aspects of Christian mission and offered instruction in methods of evangelism and church development along with the biblical basis of missions. Graduate seminaries and universities were concerned that the study of missions was not academically respectable. When courses in missions were finally allowed in such institutions, they were placed under the rubric practical theology.

Critics have argued that the academic world has fundamentally misunderstood both the nature of mission and the function of theology. Mission is not an addendum to the church or one of several marks of the church. In the well-known aphorism of Emil Brunner, "The church exists by mission as fire exists by burning." By the same token, theology ought to focus on the nature and execution of the church's witness to the world.


Whereas the term missiology is a rather recent import into the Anglo-American world, it has been used much longer in Europe. However, whether one speaks of mission studies or missiology, the subject is the same. Missiology is the discipline of studying the Christian mission in terms of its biblical and theological foundations, the history of the spread of the Christian movement, and appropriate methods and strategies in light of the goal of mission. Missiologists employ tools of various academic disciplines in carrying out their work: history, theology, biblical studies, anthropology, and other social sciences. Thus missiology is a more comprehensive term than theology of mission. It includes theology as well as all other aspects of the study of Christian mission.

Developments since 1950

Two major streams of thought have dominated Protestant missions in the 20th century Churches and mission agencies that identified with the World Missionary Conference held at Edinburgh in 1910 and the International Missionary Council comprise the conciliar movement. Especially since the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies that crested in the 1920s, more conservative Protestants began developing alternative channels for association (Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association, 1917; Evangelical Foreign Missions Association, 1945). Some Mennonite groups affiliated with the Foreign Missions Conference of North America (founded 1893). When FMC merged with the National Council of Churches (NCC) in the United States in 1950, Mennonite agencies retained only an associate relationship to the FMC and its successor, the NCC's Division of Overseas Ministries. Other Mennonite and Brethren in Christ mission agencies joined the National Association of Evangelicals' Evangelical Foreign Missions Association. Within the Mennonite family there has always been this range of views. Each of these two wings of Protestantism developed agencies and mechanisms for defining characteristic positions on the theology of Christian mission. The conciliar wing has been marked by considerable innovation while the conservative movement has attempted to maintain what it considered to be its historic position.

The theology of mission has been in considerable ferment since the 1950s. Under the impact of the Biblical Theology movement the importance of ecclesiology for theology of mission was stressed. Especially in Europe there was a call to give eschatology greater prominence in mission thought. In the 1950s a consensus began to emerge among theologians of Christian mission that the source of true missionary witness is in the very nature of God rather than ecclesiology, eschatology, pneumatology, anthropology, or practical theology. To speak of the missio dei is to recognize that God has acted in a missionary way in sending Jesus Christ into the world. We therefore properly speak of mission as that overarching divine purpose and missions as those specific efforts which groups of Christians organize in particular times and places in response to God's own sending. That consensus came under attack from those who insisted that the impulse for missionary witness resulted when the church responded to the agenda set for it by the world. In more recent years the assertion has been made that the kingdom of God is the central theme in mission. But is is generally felt that with the emergence of local or indigenous theologies, including liberation theology, attention shifted away from the theology of mission over the past decade.

Conservative Protestants have experienced growing tension and debate concerning a theology of mission. Dispensational eschatology, which played an important role in conservative theology of mission earlier, has lost influence. Conservative Protestants have increasingly been challenged to face the social implications of the gospel. This challenge has produced widespread debate over the relationship between proclamation of the gospel and Christian social ministry (social gospel).

A series of international conferences sponsored by various groups of Conservative Protestants have helped shift the terms of debate: Wheaton (1966), Berlin (1966), Lausanne (1974), Pattaya (1980), Grand Rapids (1982), and Wheaton (1983). Leaders of the non-Western churches are increasingly entering into these debates, bringing other than the Western worldview to bear on the terms of discussion.

Mennonites have participated actively in most of these conferences. In their own practice and understanding of mission they did not separate proclamation from demonstration. This has made them uneasy with the conservative Protestant prescription. But Mennonites have appreciated the conservative concern to maintain fidelity to the Bible and continued engagement in the world.

Following publication of his book, The Bridges of God in 1955, Donald McGavran organized an Institute of Church Growth. The church growth movement has subjected mission strategy to a vigorous critique using growth of the church as the key criterion. Especially conservative Protestants have welcomed this approach. Some Mennonites have raised questions about the church growth concept, in particular its early stress on the homogeneous unit principle (HUP) and group identity. Others have enthusiastically adopted the methodology worked out by church growth leaders.

An important development for all mission thought and practice is the emergence in 1972 of the concept of contextualization. Initially, this was developed as successor to "indigenization" and was applied to theological education. Increasingly it has come to be seen as a shift in understanding which involves all aspects of the life of a church. Mission theory is still struggling to work out its implications.

Mennonites and Theology of Mission

Notwithstanding the important precedent set by their Anabaptist forebears in the 16th century, Mennonites and Brethren in Christ late in the 20th century were still struggling to apprehend a missionary vision which would serve as a basis for motivating their people for witness to the world. For the Anabaptists the church was mission; for 20th century Mennonites mission is but one aspect of church life, not its integrating dynamic.

The modern missionary movement, which emerged around 1800 as a product of the 18th century evangelical revival, and various subsequent renewal movements spurred Mennonites in the late 19th century to engage in missionary work. Mennonites invested little effort in developing a theological understanding of mission out of their own tradition. Rather they relied on what other traditions produced.

For example, J. D. Graber, the most prolific Mennonite writer on mission up to 1965, canvassed the entire range of Protestant missiological writings and interpreted key insights for the Mennonite public. He did not attempt to develop a Mennonite position.

In his influential statement of "The Anabaptist Vision" (1945), Harold S. Bender made no reference to the missionary character of the 16th century Anabaptists. But in 1946 Franklin H. Littell wrote of "The Anabaptist Theology of Mission" which, he argued, was of the essence of the movement. No immediate attempt was made to follow this with a contemporary Mennonite theology of mission.

By the 1960s a number of people were asking whether it was possible to draw insights and inspiration from the 16th century Anabaptist experience that would help Mennonites develop a missiology that was more consistent with their convictions than that offered by either conciliar or conservative Protestants. A number of essays have appeared which contribute to this development, but to date no sustained and systematic treatment has been offered.

The Mennonite Missionary Study Fellowship, which began as a project of the Institute of Mennonite Studies (Elkhart, Indiana, USA) in 1971, has been a forum for promoting explorations into various missiological themes. The "Mission Studies Series," published by Herald Press and initially a byproduct of MMSF, has promoted research and writing which contributes to development of a Mennonite missiology. Since 1972 the quarterly journal, Mission Focus, has cultivated Mennonite reflection and writing on missiological themes. In addition, various histories of Mennonite missions and books dealing with aspects of the mission task have been published since the 1950s.

Developments in Mennonite Missions Since 1950

The period since the end of World War II must be divided into several stages. The first (1945-1959) was a time of sustained growth. Immediately following the end of the war a major relief program was mounted in Europe and elsewhere to assist those suffering the effects of war. At the same time steps began to be taken to send missionaries to found new missions.

The following tabulation of the number of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ mission programs established in each decade since 1850 puts the period in perspective.

Year No. of Mission Programs Established
1850-1859 1
1860-1869 0
1870-1879 1
1880-1889 0
1890-1899 5
1900-1909 7
1910-1919 5
1920-1929 1
1930-1939 4
1940-1949 18
1950-1959 42
1960-1969 17
1970-1979 28
1980-1986 15


These figures do not include relief and development projects administered by Mennonite Central Committee . The 60 mission projects established in 20 years (1940-1960) were more than twice the number established during 90 years from 1850 to 1940.

The second post-war period (1960-1969), by contrast, was a time of consolidation for Mennonite missions. This period coincided with the end of colonial rule for many countries which had been under the control of European powers. The climate changed as tensions between missions and the churches they founded began to mount. Civil wars in Nigeria and Zaire, and the protracted war in Vietnam marked this period as one of profound unrest.

A third period (1970-1975) brought about retrenchment and adjustment. Some of the tensions which surfaced in the previous decade were not resolved until the early 1970s. The world economy which boomed during the period after World War II began to stagnate. Resources for missions and development contracted and consequently fewer new projects were launched.

The next period (1976-86) marked a partial recovery from the sluggishness of the early 1970s but there has been nothing approaching the scale of development during the 1945-1960 period. Although new programs have been established these typically have been smaller in scale and frequently in association with established churches or other groups.

In summary, the missionary movement has been undergoing important structural change since the 1960s, parallel to the world economy and political order. Centers of initiative are emerging in the non-Western world which will take their place alongside, or even supplant, those in the West. The most outstanding example of this development is the church in China. Following the closing of China to outside influences in 1949 until the opening of China to such contact in 1979, it was difficult to obtain reliable assessments of the condition of the church in China. Many observers concluded that the church had suffered irreparable harm under the communist government and thus had been wiped out. Since 1979 it has become clear that the church in China, in spite of great persecution and suffering, has survived and now has a sense of identity as the church in China rather than being a foreign implant. This is representative of a worldwide development among mission-founded churches. -- Wilbert R. Shenk

See also Moratorium; Service; Urban Church


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"Bibliography of Mennonite Missions." Mission Focus 12 no. 4 (December 1984).

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Graber, J. D. The Church Apostolic. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1960.

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Author(s) S. F. Pannabecker
Harold S. Bender
Wilbert R. Shenk
Date Published 1987

Cite This Article

MLA style

Pannabecker, S. F., Harold S. Bender and Wilbert R. Shenk. "Mission (Missiology)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. 10 Jun 2023. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Mission_(Missiology)&oldid=132556.

APA style

Pannabecker, S. F., Harold S. Bender and Wilbert R. Shenk. (1987). Mission (Missiology). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 10 June 2023, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Mission_(Missiology)&oldid=132556.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 712-717; vol. 4, p. 1093; vol. 5, pp. 590-592. All rights reserved.

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