A Brief History of Christian Missionaries
Like a stone hitting the surface of a pond, Jesus described concentric circles extending the reach of the gospel. Over the next 2,000 years, Christian missionaries from all countries and denominations have taken the message of Christ from their personal Jerusalems to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). What began as the opening act of the Christian church has resonated across time.
Things have changed a lot since the first century, but the truth of the gospel—and the role of Christian missionaries in sharing that truth—has remained a constant for the kingdom. If you are considering joining the ranks of Christ-centered missionaries, you are preparing to join a long thread weaving through church history.
And it’s important that you know just how that thread has touched the lives of millions.
To the Ends of the Earth
The story of Jesus’s missionaries begins in the book of Acts. As noted, Jesus challenged His followers to take the gospel from the confines of Jerusalem to the outlying areas of Judea and Samaria. Ultimately, the goal was to hit Rome and the furthest reaches of the known world.
Acts 1:8 presents the mission. The rest of Acts explains how it happened.
Early on, believers stayed close to Jerusalem, but a massive wave of persecution caused Christians to scatter (Acts 8:1). That’s how God got originally moved His people into Judea and Samaria. It’s also how He started the church’s missionary work. Christian missionaries like Philip shared Jesus’s message to the north in Samaria (Acts 8:4-8) and to the south in Gaza (Acts 8:26-40).
Before becoming a Christian, Saul chased Christians as far as Damascus in Syria (Acts 9:1-8), while Peter witnessed a Roman centurion in Caesarea (Acts 10). Later, after accepting Christ, Saul ministered in Antioch, a Gentile city that was among the largest communities in the Roman Empire (Acts 11:19-26). It was from there that the Holy Spirit called him to become a missionary for Christ and to take the gospel to Rome and beyond (Acts 13–28).
This zeal for Christian missions essentially defined the first three centuries of the early church. Even in the face of persecution from Jews (who served the law), Greeks (who served idols), and Romans (who served the emperor), the church grew.
But around 313, something shifted. Emperor Constantine revoked laws against Christianity. This new openness actually worked against the church and its missionary movement. Outsiders entered the church because it was convenient or somehow beneficial. This led to deeper heresies, which forced the church to focus more on theology (what to believe) than on missions. In a sense, Christian missions lost a measure of urgency while church councils took priority.
The Politics of Faith
Constantine’s edict also strengthened the connection between churches and states. In some areas, the Christian faith became institutional rather than personal, which also served to water down Christian missionary efforts. In other areas, monasticism transformed faith into an inner discipline rather than something to be lived out before the world.
Meanwhile, kings and armies began adopting Christianity as a sort of “good luck charm.” As a result, missionary work became synonymous with wars and conquest. Soldiers saw themselves as Christian missionaries, “converting” every land they defeated.
However, the important work of genuine Christian missions never stopped. For example, after the fall of Rome, new missionary activity was initiated to evangelize the barbarians who now controlled wide swaths of the old empire. God also used Christians who were taken captive and enslaved by pagan armies to evangelize nations that had no other knowledge of Jesus and His work. One British missionary named Patrick had such an impact on the spiritual life of Ireland that it became a missionary launching pad for centuries.
The Printing Press and the New World
When Johannes Guttenberg invented the printing press in 1462, he didn’t just open the door for the widespread publication of Bibles and religious literature. He also encouraged Christian missionaries to embrace new technology in sharing the gospel. Eventually, the printing press—along with the Protestant Reformation—sparked missionary efforts across Europe. In time, those sparks jumped the Atlantic and stoked a flame in the Americas.
Both Catholic and Protestant missionaries embraced the opportunity to minister in the New World. In North America, the primary focus (along with exploration) was evangelizing Native American tribes.
But America was not the only focus. Many nations, like England, sent the ancient equivalent of “marketplace missionaries” to other nations. These individuals were trained in matters of business and trade, but they were also trained as Christian missionaries who could share the gospel as they fulfilled their secular duties.
The Advent of Modern Missions
Within two centuries of the Protestant Reformation, Christ-centered missionaries were using a new tool for spreading the gospel. Groups of believers began coming together to form mission societies. In modern terms, these became the first sending agencies in the history of Christian missions.
The first recorded agency (founded in 1701) carried a ponderous name: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. Despite the complicated name, it set about the business of sending missionaries to America (like John Wesley in Georgia) and across Europe.
Other agencies focused on Africa and Asia. For instance, William Carey—commonly known as the “Father of Modern Missions’—joined the Baptist Mission Society and traveled to India in 1793. Less than two decades later, in 1812, Adoniram Judson and Luther Rice became the first Americans to travel overseas as Christian missionaries when they went to Asia.
The middle of the 19th century also saw the rise of denominational sending agencies in the United States.
Setting the Stage for Today
During the 20th century, new missionary organizations were founded, many with a focus on challenging young adults to serve. Groups like Youth with a Mission (YWAM), Campus Crusade for Christ (now called Cru), and Navigators continue to have an impact on the kingdom through their missionary emphases.
History also has repeated itself as Christian missionaries have consistently found ways to leverage technology. Marketplace missionaries in careers like media, aviation, sports, medicine, and Bible translation have opened doors that once were closed.
Missions research has revealed new trends to make missionary work more effective. For example, the rise of large urban areas has led to a shift in how some missionary organizations determine their strategy. We also use terms like “indigenous leadership” and “unreached people groups” to define target audiences.
We focus on the “10/40 Window” to describe a large area between the 10th and 40th parallels that includes places like North Africa, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and China. These areas claim nearly half of the world’s population but have experienced limited gospel penetration because of the powerful influences of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and atheism.
God is Still at Work
Of course, this is a quick review of just a few of the highlights of Christian missions, but one thing remains clear. Throughout history, God has continued to call and equip Christian missionaries to fulfill His purposes. The God who empowered Paul to take the gospel from Antioch to Rome is the same God who guided William Carey to India and Hudson Taylor to China. He is the same God who led Jim Elliot to South America and inspired Bill Bright to found Campus Crusade for Christ.
If you believe He is calling you to follow in their footsteps and to fulfill the Great Commission as a Christian missionary, you can trust that He is with you, as well.
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