Fifty Years of Missiology: 1960–2010


by Doug Priest

While missions began in biblical times, the academic discipline of missiology goes back only to the early 1800s. The definition of missiology we learned in college in the 1970s was, “the scientific study of missions.” I recall my missionary father cringing upon hearing this definition, fearing that others would assume the spiritual component in mission was being left out. 

In seminary I learned a more technical definition: “The academic discipline or science which researches, records, and applies data relating to the biblical origin, the history, the anthropological principles and techniques and the theological basis of Christian mission.”1 As a field of study, missiology encompasses a variety of academic subjects: theology, anthropology, history, linguistics, economics, communication, and geography.

Missiology is a discipline in its own right, just as is history or theology. As an academic discipline, it is defined by graduate courses and advanced degrees, professors and institutions of higher learning, books and articles, and seminars and conferences.2 

Missiology’s development depends upon an institutional environment that is conducive to its growth and goals. One way institutional support occurs is when former missionaries serve as college and seminary presidents. Richard Ewing, missionary to Brazil, became president of Boise Bible College. That college’s current president, Terry Stine, was a missionary in Mexico. Robert Wetzel, missionary from England, was president of Emmanuel School of Religion, and his successor, Michael Sweeney, was a missionary from Papua New Guinea. David Grubbs served as president of Cincinnati Bible College and Seminary following missionary service in Zimbabwe.

The past 50 years have seen significant contributions to missiology from the Christian churches/churches of Christ (hereafter, 4C churches). We shall highlight five missiologists whose careers included missionary service as well as classroom teaching. All have authored and edited books that have been recognized by the wider Christian community.


Donald A. McGavran

In the very early 1960s Donald McGavran established the Institute of Church Growth at Northwest Christian College in Eugene, Oregon. McGavran, born in India to missionary parents, had finished 30 years of missionary service in India. He had published his influential book, The Bridges of God (1955), and had traveled to numerous fields to collect data. He was eager to further studies that would lead to the growth of the church.

He pulled together a small faculty and a group of students who studied together in Eugene for several years before taking the Institute of Church Growth to Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. The school remained his institutional base until his death in 1990.

McGavran’s influence was so extensive that many have named him one of the two or three most prominent Christian mission leaders of the past century. In missiological reputation and achievement, he is without peer in the Stone-Campbell Movement. He was editor of the Church Growth Bulletin and authored many books, his best-known being Understanding Church Growth (1970). A summary of his thinking about church growth can be found in his article, “Ten Emphases of the Church Growth Movement.”3 

Many of McGavran’s students from the 4C churches who earned their doctorates under his tutelage went on to serve as professors: Harry Baird (Manhattan Christian College); Max Randall and Cyril Simkins (Lincoln Christian Seminary); Mont Smith, James Smith, and Eddie Elliston (Hope International University); Herb Works (Northwest Christian College); and Rex Jones (Emmanuel School of Religion).


Tetsunao Yamamori

One of McGavran’s students, Tetsunao Yamamori, published the book Church Growth in Japan (1974). While at Milligan College, Yamamori edited The Milligan Missiogram. He later became president of Food for the Hungry. In that role he sought to bring together word and deed with his concept of the “symbiotic ministry.” Yamamori played an important role in hosting conferences and editing books on key mission topics such as HIV/AIDS (2003), and business as mission (2003). He served as the leader of the influential Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization (2003–08), and currently is president of WorldServe Ministries, focusing on transformational development in Cuba and China.

At this time, no 4C missiologist has a wider reputation than Yamamori. He has published extensively, his books have received wide acclamation, and his abilities in leading major mission organizations have been broadly appreciated.


Charles R. Taber

Charles R. Taber came to the Stone-Campbell Movement after years on the mission field working as a translation consultant with United Bible Societies in West Africa. He was a professor at Milligan College and Emmanuel School of Religion.

While at Milligan, Taber edited the journal Gospel in Context and also played a major role in establishing the Carter Symposium on Church Growth. The 1974 symposium lectures on syncretism were printed as Christopaganism or Indigenous Christianity (1975). The following year the symposium focused on the church in Africa.

Taber published several books that caught the attention of the missiological community: The Theory and Practice of Bible Translation (1974); The World Is Too Much with Us (1991); and To Understand the World, To Save the World (2000). In many ways, Taber was ahead of his time. What he wrote in 1983 is only today becoming a standard way of thinking among 4C missiologists:


We have grown accustomed to being the world’s experts, the world’s teachers, that it may be a salutary exercise for us to sit at the feet of the world’s destitute, the world’s oppressed, the world’s babes, and so learn of Christ. . . . It is impossible to partake of the privileged understanding of the poor unless one is unequivocally on their side in their struggle for justice.4 


Edgar J. Elliston

Eddie Elliston went to teach in the area of leadership development at Fuller Theological Seminary following his years of missionary service in Ethiopia and Kenya. He taught a course in research design that was required for every doctoral student. He served as the associate dean in addition to being the director of doctoral programs. His colleague wrote of him, “His reputation of being able to zero in on any sloppiness in theses and dissertations struck fear into the hearts of those he supervised (and those supervised by others who had chosen him to be on their doctoral committees). He is one of the best we’ve ever had at supervising theses and dissertations.”5 

Elliston’s duties included overseeing both extension and cooperative programs in such countries as Nigeria, Korea, and the Philippines. His writings include texts on leadership development, Home Grown Leaders (1992), Developing Leaders for Urban Ministries (1993), and an edited volume on community development, Christian Relief and Development (1989).

Later Elliston served as provost of Hope International University, where he was instrumental in leading that school to a more intentional worldwide ministry, including the development of online degrees for missionaries.


David Filbeck

While all the above has happened, some 50 years, David Filbeck has worked as a missionary and professor in Thailand, with furlough stints at St. Louis Christian College, Lincoln Christian College, and Puget Sound College of the Bible. Though best-known in the 4C churches for his history of direct support missions, The First Fifty Years (1980), he has been recognized among missiologists for two other books. The first, a volume on cross-cultural communication, Social Context and Proclamation (1985), and the second on missions in the Old Testament, Yes, God of the Gentiles Too (1994), have been widely read. Filbeck has published 20 books in three languages.

Trained in linguistics and anthropology, Filbeck has written on the T’in people’s language and culture. His materials have been used by the Summer Institute of Linguistics and the United Bible Societies. Recently he was missionary scholar in residence at the Billy Graham Center of Wheaton College.

Others missiologists may also be mentioned:

Barton McElroy, missionary and cultural anthropologist, taught at Manhattan Christian College.

David Scates served as a missionary to the Navajo people and wrote The Navajos Are Coming to Jesus (1978) and Why Navajo Churches Are Growing (1981).

Fred Norris, church historian and missiologist, taught at Emmanuel School of Religion.

Rondal Smith was president of Pioneer Bible Translators, and his successor, Greg Pruett, will soon complete his doctorate.

Larry Niemeyer has served as a missionary and professor in Zambia and Kenya.

Bill Weber teaches at Cincinnati Christian University.

Susan Higgins teaches sociology at Milligan College.

George Pickens has published on African religion and was professor at Kentucky Christian University before accepting a position at Messiah College.

Tony Twist (TCM International), Doug Lucas (Team Expansion), and Doug Priest (Christian Missionary Fellowship), serve as directors of mission agencies. Priest has edited three volumes on missions with chapters solicited from 4C authors.


William S. Carter Symposium on Church Growth, 1974

In 1974, the administrators of the Carter Symposium on Church Growth at Milligan College appointed a committee to suggest a suitable curriculum for the training of missionaries. Tetsunao Yamamori was a part of that group which was chaired by Alan R. Tippett of the School of World Mission, Fuller Theological Seminary.

The committee’s report was published and represents an important contribution to the church at large. An entire curriculum is included in the report, and the following paragraphs are of continuing relevance as they speak to the need for specialized missions training.


The training of cross-cultural missionaries for the changing times and conditions of the mission fields of the world in our day, requires more and more understanding and empathy. For many years the discipline of anthropology (especially such aspects as social and applied anthropology, acculturation, cultural dynamics, the phenomenology of religion and ethnolinguistics) has been inadequately utilized in the majority of educational institutions where missionaries are trained. With the availability of this kind of education in our day, the sending forth of missionaries untrained in anthropology is no longer justifiable. We recognize that the missionary situation in the world has changed dramatically . . . and the training provided for missionaries needs to be more relevant to the new situations.6 


Missiology at the National Missionary Convention

Budget constraints limit many 4C missions professors from attending professional conferences such as the annual meeting of the American Society of Missiology. Therefore, the annual National Missionary Convention has held for almost two decades a gathering for mission trainers primarily made up of professors of missions from 4C Bible colleges and seminaries.

The daylong program involves lecturers presenting papers and a time for discussion and sharing resources. Topics discussed have included the growing youth population, a statistical analysis of the worldwide expansion of the church, business as mission, the urban poor, and missionary training models. The gathering provides opportunity for professional development and offering encouragement to those completing their doctorates.

A host of scholars has arisen with excellent qualifications, innovative ideas, and new research interests. Dale Meade (Colombia missionary), David Filbeck Jr. (Thailand missionary), Paul Pennington (Cincinnati Christian University), Linda and Steve Whitmer (Hope International University), Shawn Redford (Kenya missionary), Glen Gibson (William Jessup University), Robert Reeves (Mid-Atlantic Christian University), and Kendi Howells-Douglas (Great Lakes Christian College) all hold recent doctorates. Chris DeWelt (Ozark Christian College), Mike Nichols (Lincoln Christian College), and Rusty Thornley (Manhattan Christian College), will soon receive doctorates.


What Lies Ahead?

The future for missiology in the 4C churches is bright but is not without challenges. While the mission of God is constant, the context in which that mission is carried out is continually changing.

Christians south of the equator now outnumber Christians north of the equator. Not all missiologists come from North America and Europe. Kip Elolia (Emmanuel School of Religion) comes from Kenya, as does Stanley Mutunga (Hope International University). Fernando Soto (Hope International University) is from Chile, and Claudio Divino (Crossroads Christian College) is from Brazil.

What of the students? Economics, to some extent, dictates what majors a school can offer. Are there enough mission students in the seminaries to justify the expense of a department of missiology? While missions is generally an undergraduate major, missiology is primarily a graduate school endeavor.

Many undergraduate schools currently see a significant number of mission majors, but upon graduation many of those students pursue careers outside of their major. Because of this, and because of the shorter field tenure of so many missionaries today7, we can predict fewer mission majors at the graduate school level in the years ahead. In Europe, missiology departments are disappearing from theological faculties on a regular basis. Will the same be true of seminaries in America?

Many missionaries being sent today no longer come from the West but hail from the majority world8. Efforts to establish colleges and seminaries in numerous countries around the world mean that local leaders are increasingly able to afford and receive their advanced training in their local context rather than needing to become socially and culturally dislocated by venturing to the West for their education.

Over the last 50 years, the 4C churches have made valuable contributions to the discipline of missiology. Building on the likes of Donald McGavran and Tetsunao Yamamori, scholars today represent an expanding force for missiology, and hence, for the kingdom at large. True to their discipline and calling, today’s missiologist practitioners involve themselves in missional situations around the world.



1Alvin Martin, The Means of World Evangelization (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1974), 27.

2For a listing of missiologists from the Christian churches/churches of Christ who hold a PhD, see William Baker, “Coming Full Circle,” Stone-Campbell Journal: 2007:2:165-191 and “Addendum,” 2008:1:93-95.

3In Unto the Uttermost, Doug Priest, ed. (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1984), 248-59.

4“Missiology and the Bible,” Missiology, 11:2:242.

5Charles Kraft, SWM-SIS at Forty (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2005), 185.

6“Report of the Curriculum Committee,” Milligan Missiogram 1974:1-3.

7Michael Jaffarian notes that for every career missionary sent out—that is, one sent for three years or longer—60 people go on short-term mission trips/excursions. See International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 2008:1:36.

8”Majority world” is a term used by missiologists and others to more accurately describe what had been referred to as the “Third World.” These countries are outside of the most economically developed nations in the world and comprise the majority of the world’s population.




Doug Priest is a contributing editor to CHRISTIAN STANDARD and is executive director of Christian Missionary Fellowship in Indianapolis, Indiana.

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