Somalis watering their camels in a shallow well at Boka Wells in the Tana Region of Kenya

Before we get into the history of missions proper, we need to ask first, what is the best way to study the subject? This implies, of course, to use the old English proverb, “there is more than one way to skin a cat.” Sorry, my ailurophile friends. So, we want to find the best way—the most efficient, the most comprehensive and the most biblically oriented. Let’s run through a few options.

First, throughout the history of the Church missions have often be been advanced by organisational structures alongside the Church. In the Middle Ages, religious Orders of disciplined and tightly knit communities brought their own distinctive goals and gifts to the spread of the gospel. During the 11th and 12th centuries, the Church attempted to recapture territories in the Mediterranean from Islamic rule. This operation was known as “The Crusades” and it is one of the most tragic periods in the history of Christianity. Then there is also, in more recent times, the many missionary organisations, parachurch and in some cases quasichurch organisations) like the Church Missionary Society (CMS), Sudan Interior Mission (SIM), China Inland Mission (CIM), Africa Inland Mission (AIM), and World Evangelisation Crusade (WEC). The list goes on. Then there are of course the many denominational mission groups throughout the world, which also offers an interesting and insightful study. To make a study of all of these organisations, even within Evangelicalism, would be gargantuan.

Second, we could look at the themes arising out of missions, or ideas associated with missions, such as contextualisation, suffering & martyrdom, “Word and Deed,” humanitarian missions, literacy work and Bible translation, missionary strategies, etc. Again, this is another rich and fruitful method of study. Third, we could study the history of missions, as Ruth Tucker has, through the lives of the missionaries; the men and women of missions, like St. Paul, Patrick, William Carey, Hudson Taylor, etc., etc. In her book, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya (Zondervan, 2004), Tucker tells the history of missions through the lives of over one hundred missionaries. Finally, another way of tracing the development of missions would be through a series of, what we might call forces of history; influences or world empires; the Roman Empire, the rise of the Papacy, the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution and British Imperialism and colonisation.

Each of these methods of looking at the history of missions has its own merit. However, the most comprehensive method is to think of missions from the perspective of God’s sovereign redemptive operations on the world; the theological perspective. Without sounding too pious or elitist, this is not only the most biblical method, but, if done properly, will cover all of the issues raised in the other methods.

God is a God of missions.

There are numerous advantages to taking this approach to the history of missions as opposed to the other methods. Let’s call it the Big God Approach.

  • A big God approach starts at the beginning of the biblical story and it allows us to deal with missions through the unfolding revelation of Scripture. Missions is rooted in the Old Testament. If it is true that God is a God of missions, we would expect to find world missionary intent in the Old Testament. This is, indeed, what we find. Missionary interest and activity did not begin with the Great Commission, or with the book of Acts. From the first mention of the gospel to our first parents (Genesis 3:15), through the story of Noah (Genesis 6-9), the confusion of languages at Babel (Genesis 11), and into the details of Israel’s national hymns and prayers (the Psalms), we find the roots of Christ’s Great Commission to go into all the world. When Jesus gave us the Great Commission, therefore, it was part of an ongoing story of redemption—it should not have surprised the disciples who had read the Old Testament Scriptures. In the Old and New Testament, then, God has given us the motivation behind missions, the mandate for missions and the methods by which we are to conduct His on-going mission in this world.

  • A big God approach focuses on the sovereignty of God. It identifies the providence of God in the up and downs, the ebbs and flows, the twists and turns, the thorns and thistles and how God has used these things in the advance of his Church. If God is a God of missions, then we would expect missions to be successful. God purposed to save a people to himself from before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4-5; 1 Peter 1:2). He has sent his Holy Spirit into the world to secure the success of Christ’s death and resurrection. As we descend into the mine of mission’s history, we are forced to wind our way through many twists and turns and to wrestle with messy and complex issues associated with global missions. We will see that in His sovereign wisdom God has used the assaults of Satan, the depravity of men and the complacency of the church to bring a people to Himself from all nations. He is building His Church by the power of the Holy Spirit and the success of missions in the world is sure.

  • A big God approach sees missions as one movement of God in the world travelling towards a definite goal. We don’t want to think of missions as a number of little unrelated events or operations dotted across the missionary map in the foyer of your Church. And we certainly don’t want to have such a narrow view of missions that only those within our own church or denomination get a mention. Missions is God’s movement.

  • A big God approach confronts the difficulties head-on. As we move through the centuries and with the spreading of the gospel across the world, we come face to face with the oppositions, the mistakes, and big personalities and flaws that pepper the story of missions. We are forced to answer these irregularities in the framework of God’s big picture.

  • A big God approach acknowledges the trinitarian foundation upon which missions is built. If we understand missions as primarily God’s operation, we will see, not only the sovereign will of the Father, but also the Christ of Calvary (the message of missions) and the Holy Spirit of Pentecost—the means by which the knowledge of Christ will spread across the world.

  • A big God approach recognises people, themes and epochs and forces of history in the framework of divine providence and God’s redemptive purposes. We acknowledge that God has ordained human means for the success of missions. Men and women go to men and women with the gospel. Sheep produce sheep. We will see as we look at missions from the very beginning and follow it through the text of Old Testament Scripture that God not only brings us into a saving relationship with Himself, but he has obligated us to spread the saving message with the world. For many of us, the discussion of missions revolves around the stories of those men and women who have gone to the ends of the earth with the gospel message; the lives of men and women like William Carey, Mary Slessor, Jim and Elizabeth Elliot and many others. We will meet these people as we follow the story of the history of missions.

Having gone through the advantages of this Big God Approach, the next instalment in the history of missions will begin at the beginning of the biblical record—with the Protoevangelium, the First Gospel.