A key aspect of my spiritual journey and my ministry has been learning what the gospel means in places of intersection through a discipline called missiology. In the mist of cultural complexity and a constant whirlwind of social change, missiology gives me the tools to offer the reality of Jesus. So what exactly is missiology?
Missiology is the study of cross-cultural communication of the Christian faith. It includes:
- How the gospel spread and the church expanded throughout history.
- Understanding other religions in order to communicate the gospel.
- Dynamics, culture, geography, economy, religions and politics of specific global regions.
- Clear strategies for communicating Christian faith.
- International and cross-denominational mission movements.
- Leadership and organizational dynamics.
- Linguistics and Bible translation.
- Behavioral and social sciences, especially anthropology.
- Theology in specific contexts, such as studying postmodernism to understand how to communicate Christian faith in a postmodern world.
Missiology brings together faith and practice, intellectual understanding and spiritual life, “secular” scholarship and theology. Missiology is all about being the church in a world of intersections. Missiology is about the mission of God in the world.
Understanding God’s mission is key to what we understand about God. Basic Christian theology is: God so loved the world that He sent His son. At the very beginning of God’s sending, there was a love for the world, and a passion to see the world changed that resulted in the Son being sent. At the beginning was a holy God on mission. Jesus Christ lived — in the flesh — the mission of God in the world, and His teaching explained what He was doing.
The Apostle Paul’s great contribution to theology arose from his church-planting movement and specific situations he addressed as he was carrying out the mission to which Jesus had called him.
For both Jesus and the Apostle Paul, theology arose out of their mission. German theologian Martin Kähler expressed it like this: “Mission is ‘the mother of theology.’” J. Andrew Kirk, a theology teacher, built on that: “All true theology is, by definition, missionary theology, for it has as its object the study of the ways of a God who is by nature missionary… Mission as a discipline is not … the roof of a building that completes the whole structure, already constructed by blocks that stand on their own, but both the foundation and the mortar in the joints, which cements together everything else.” There is an unavoidable intersection between theology and missiology, the academy and the church, the church and the world, and the U.S. and the international church.
We are all spiritual beings. What we think of God and how we think about God directly affects how we function. Bad theology kills — literally. For example, children die of treatable illness because their parents believe only in faith healing and refuse medical attention, or pastors are killed by snakebites in Christian subcultures that practice snake handling. (Snake handling is based on misinterpretation of passages like Mark 16:18 and Acts 28:3.) These are tragic results of misunderstanding and misapplying Scripture. Bad theology hurts people and dishonors God.
As bad theology kills, good theology sustains, frees us to think clearly about God, empowers, protects and preserves us from the subtle lies of the snake. It is not an empty exercise but a means to freedom. We know the truth, and the truth sets us free (John 8:32).
Every Christian has a missiology. When that missiology is weak, bad, poor or self-serving, it is lethal for both the recipients of our mission and our own souls, and it devastates our participation in God’s mission. Good missiology frees us to think clearly about God and to lead the church of Christ in ways that result in healthy expansion with deep roots and vigorous, New Testament-type reproduction. This kind of healthy church is exactly what our world needs! In my next post, I’ll apply this understanding of good missiology to how we do global church and mission work.
Delia Nüesch-Olver is the Latin America Area director for Free Methodist World Missions. She began this role in 2008 after 35 years of ministry experience as a cross-cultural church planter and pastor. She also served as a professor of global urban mission at Seattle Pacific University. She is an ordained elder and has a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology.