Knowing Your Roots: The Importance of Missions History

I recently participated in my church’s women’s retreat. The theme for the retreat was “Story,” focusing on The Story (the gospel), and how we view our own stories in light of the gospel. Scripture lays out one big story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. The Bible tells us who we are in Christ and what we should do in light of that truth. All of our stories relate to this narrative. By listening to the stories of others, we learn more about God and how He works in a diverse group of people to accomplish one purpose- the salvation of the nations. Like the contemporary stories of our fellow believers, history also gives us real-life stories of how God sustained the church, and how the church has furthered God’s mission throughout history. While you may find history boring, it actually informs much of what we do in the church today. It encourages us in times of hardship, gives us warnings when history threatens to repeat itself, and it has given us much of our creeds, songs, and doctrine that we use in the church today.

The Good

Throughout history, there are both positive and negative examples of how believers have implemented the task of missions. Here are just a few:

  • In the 100-200s (the centuries following Christ’s ascension), Persecution of the church was rampant. I could give you a hundred different stories I have heard and read of Christian martyrs. You can find those in books such as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. These stories have made me cringe, and yet I am amazed because the church not only survived, but thrived, during persecution.
  • Also in the 100s, the Plague of Galen wiped out a huge number of the Roman population. Many people fled, but Christians stayed to take care of those who were sick. They were a good example of sacrificing for others, providing food and hygiene needs that saved many lives.
  • In the 400s, Patrick of Ireland, who was kidnapped at a young age, went back to those who kidnapped him to share the gospel with them.
  • In the 1100-1200s, Francis of Assisi sought to evangelize Muslims and had much success. This was a stark contrast to those who participated in the Crusades which happened around the same time.
  • In the 1700s, the Moravian missionaries, one of the largest missionary movements in history, exemplified the importance of prayer in mission. They prayed continuously for over one hundred years.
  • Also in the 1700s, William Carey wrote on the importance of evangelizing the “heathen” and served as a missionary in India, emphasizing preaching, Bible translation, discipleship, and ministerial training.
  • In the 1800s, Adoniram Judson exemplified perseverance in Burma. He lost three wives, children, was thrown in jail where he was treated terribly, and did not see any converts until his sixth year ministering in Burma. However, he spent his life proclaiming the gospel to the Burmese.

The Bad and the Ugly

Unfortunately, there are negative examples of how Christians practiced “missions” in history.

  • In the 300s, the era of Christendom began when Constantine, who had a somewhat questionable conversion, submitted the Edict of Milan, which gave religious liberty to all people. While this seems like a good thing, it ultimately had a negative impact on missions as pagans infiltrated the church, compulsory infant baptism was imposed, and Christians were still persecuted.
  • Also in the 300s, Ulfilas, a Goth and Arian, translated the Bible, but spread a gospel that did not preach Christ as God. Arianism presented Christ as a created being, not as God Incarnate, which led to them spreading a false gospel.
  • In the 500-600s, the Nestorians, while obedient to go as missionaries to Persia and China, ultimately over-contextualized Christianity to the point where the Chinese could not distinguish it from Buddhism.
  • From the 1100s through the 1400s, the Crusades became a dark mark on Christian history. The gospel was lost as Christians sought to reverse Muslim conquests, terrorizing these areas and killing many people. They were offered indulgences for participating in the Crusades, in order to escape purgatory.

Why should we care about history?

We should study history for many reasons. First, it informs us. Centuries ago, there were world councils in Nicaea and Chalcedon which gave us core doctrine regarding the deity of Christ. Christ as God is not something most of us even have to consider—we just accept it as true. However, this was something that was discussed in the early centuries of Christianity. This is just one example of how history informs our beliefs today.

In addition, it encourages us. Our world is a mess and it is easy to get bogged down by what we see on the news: terrorist attacks, shootings, racism, earthquakes, hurricanes, and so much more. Our worldview appears increasingly unpopular. It is discouraging at times. However, history shows that these things are not new to those who are in Christ. Those brothers and sisters who stood for the faith thousands of years ago, and those who stand up for the faith in areas of persecution today, encourage us to be bold in our faith here and now.

As participants in the Great Commission, there are hundreds of missionaries who have gone to the nations before us. They sacrificed much for the sake of the gospel. I encourage you to read about David Brainerd, Adoniram Judson, William Carey, Hudson Taylor, Lottie Moon, and I could go on and on. Their stories will encourage you and will challenge your thinking about missions. From these missionaries, we learn about contextualization, strategy, family challenges, boldness, patience, and faithfulness.

History shapes our understanding of church and missions today, challenging our understanding of sacrifice and persecution, encouraging us to be steadfast in times of trial. It helps us realize the importance of doctrine and theology. It equips us to carry out the work of the Great Commission.  

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