Working Definition of “Missiology”

A Missional Method for Constructive Theology (Part 4)

Missiology in Theological Perspective

Because missiology’s relationship to the rest of the theological curriculum has been uncertain since its inception, the discipline’s definition itself highlights the a methodological question for my approach to missional theology. How does the study of mission relate to constructive theology? The historical transitions from the juxtaposition of “theology and mission” as discrete activities to a robust exploration of the “theology of mission” and finally to a “missional theology” put a fine point on the issue.[1. Darrell Likens Guder, “From Mission and Theology to Missional Theology,” The Princeton Seminary Bulletin, n.s., 24, no. 1 (2003): 36–54, reviews these transitions deftly.] If missiology is a discrete sub-discipline of “practical theology,” mission is not likely to function as a basis for theological method.[2. Wolfhart Pannenberg, Theology and the Philosophy of Science, trans. Francis McDonagh (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1976), 357–58, 413, portrays the classic location of missiology as a sub-discipline of practical theology.] The theology of mission would likewise seem to be a single locus of constructive theology rather than a methodological crux. Hence, the emergence of missional also marks a revisioning of missiology as a discipline.[3. Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile, The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation, The Missional Network, Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 35, thus include the “renewal of missiology” among the theological concepts that define missional. This does not offer much conceptually, however, and they rightly present the “renewal” as the culmination of the other five developments listed above.]

This is not to say that missiology, or even its subset “theology of mission,” is coterminous with the missional theology movement, but the major components of missional theology have all developed in the context of ecumenical missiology and are arguably indistinguishable from an account of its major late modern developments, except for one. In this regard, it is vital to note that Van Gelder and Zscheile contrast the convergence of missional theology toward missio Dei and the reign of God (represented by Newbigin) with the divergence precipitated by evangelical missiologists’ entrenchment in “classical evangelical themes of the modern missions movement” (represented by Donald McGavran).[4. Van Gelder and Zscheile, 33–36.] This is critically important for defining missiology in relation to missional theology, because McGavran also represents the burgeoning of missiological anthropology, which thrived among evangelicals in a way unparalleled in mainline missiology.[5. For a review of this bifurcation, see Robert Montgomery, “Can Missiology Incorporate More of the Social Sciences,” Missiology: An International Review 40, no. 3 (July 2012): 281–92.] While McGavran’s Church Growth Movement utilized anthropological insights in order to advance the agenda of the modern missions movement (especially cross-cultural evangelization and “church planting”), missiological anthropology quickly led beyond the reinforcement of ecclesiocentric missions to ethnotheology and then self-theologizing as the “fourth self” of the indigenous church.[6. Charles Kraft and Paul Hiebert are the key representatives here. For Kraft’s ethnotheology, see Charles H. Kraft, “Dynamic Equivalent Churches: An Ethnotheological Approach to Indigeneity,” Missiology: An International Review 1, no. 1 (January 1973): 39–57; Charles H. Kraft, with Marguerite G. Kraft, Christianity in Culture: A Study in Biblical Theologizing in Cross-Cultural Perspective, rev. 25th anniversary ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2005). For the development of self-theologizing, see Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), ch. 8. Rochelle Cathcart and Mike Nichols, “Self Theology, Global Theology, and Missional Theology in the Writings of Paul G. Hiebert,” Trinity Journal, n.s., 30, no. 2 (Fall 2009): 209–21, trace the development of Hiebert’s understanding of contextualization from self theologizing to his sketches of “missional theology” in a way that is very relevant to the present study.] In other words, the major development in late modern missiology that missional theology typically ignores is theological contextualization based on missiological anthropology. While the preeminence of the majority world church is the great new fact of twenty-first century missiology, missional theology remains a notoriously Western movement. I suspect that this shortcoming is related to its construal of evangelical missiology’s “divergence” from the ecumenical consensus about missio Dei. If evangelicals are warming to missional theology,[7. Van Gelder and Zscheile, 36.] one can hope that missional theology will in turn realize the paradigm-shifting importance of anthropologically-informed contextual theology.[8. Given the rise of the majority world church, the only future for missional theology is intercultural, global dialogue in which anthropological tools such as worldview analysis are indispensable. Two good examples of such dialogue are Craig Ott and Harold Netland, eds., Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), and Stephen B. Bevans and Katalina Tahaafe-Williams, eds., Contextual Theology for the Twenty-First Century, Missional Church, Public Theology, World Christianity (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2011).]

In any case, aside from indicating major theological paradigm shifts in missiology, the story of missional theology’s missiological origins highlights two key aspects of the discipline’s ambiguous relationship to constructive theology: its practical concerns and its relationship to the social sciences. Furthermore, the fact that missional theology’s emergence is presently redefining missiology implies that the articulation of missional theological method will itself affect the relationship between missiology and constructive theology. Finally, postmodernity, globalization, and majority world Christianity exert pressure on missiology, which seems to find itself in a constant state of disciplinary renegotiation.[9. The last few years have been rife with discussion of missiology’s definition and role, driven not least by the American Society of Missiology’s study of the question. See Charles Fensham, ed., “Group Discussion Conclusions on the Future of the Discipline of Missiology: Annual Meeting of the American Society of Missiology,” Missiology: An International Review 42, no. 1 (January 2013): 80–86.] Altogether, this state of affairs calls for a tentative but functional definition of missiology by which my study of missional theological method can proceed with conceptual clarity.

To this end, I do not claim what missiology should be but describe, minimally, what it is. In service of minimalism, it helps to whittle away a few definitional options typical of the discipline’s ongoing self-assessment. Virtually every current definition of missiology includes an acknowledgement of its interdisciplinary nature; interdisciplinarity is constitutive of missiology. This does not, however, justify defining missiology merely as interdisciplinarity for the sake of mission.[10. Kenneth Nehrbass, “Does Missiology Have a Leg to Stand On?: The Upsurge of Interdisciplinarity,” Missiology: An International Review 44, no. 1 (January 2016): 50–65, comes very close to such a notion.] Furthermore, my working definition does not attempt to predetermine the meaning of mission (e.g., making disciples or crossing boundaries) or the scope of its concerns (e.g., theology, history, and anthropology). Meaning and scope are both liable to change precisely by virtue of doing missiology. Finally, I do not attempt to distinguish between discrete components of missiology, such as the distinction between the missiological “dimension” of all theology and and missiological “intention” of missionary training,[11. Bernhard Ott, “Mission Oriented Theological Education: Moving Beyond Traditional Models of Theological Education,” Transformation, 18, no. 2 (April 2001): 74–86.] between descriptive (e.g., historical) and prescriptive (e.g., strategic) concerns,[12. Dwight P. Baker, “Missiology as an Interested Discipline—and Is It Happening?,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 38, no. 1 (January 2014): 17–20.] or between theoretical and practical study.[13. The very idea of “practical theology” as a separate branch of theological education is a symptom of dualism that missional theology, being fundamentally participatory and theoretically praxeological, rejects.] Any of these types of missiological work may be undertaken individually, but missiology as such exists as an integrated whole.[14. “It includes the theology that gives rise to mission, the effect of mission on theological understanding, and the interconnectedness of mission with other dimensions of the life of the church.” John Roxborogh, “Missiology after ‘Mission’?,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 38, no. 3 (July 2014): 123.] Thus, I define missiology as interdisciplinary theological study of and for Christian participation in God’s mission.[15. Missiology is committed Christian study, therefore it is inherently theological. It is inseparably study both of and for mission: secular study of mission unrelated to participation in mission is not missiology but religious studies. Because missiology is interdisciplinary, it may be best to call it a “field” rather than a “discipline.” See Ross Langmead, “What Is Missiology?,” Missiology: An International Review 42, no. 1 (January 2013): 67–79.]


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