History of the Modern Protestant Missions Movement

Part 3

Four years after the Edinburg Conference, the world was gripped by the sudden outbreak of one of the worst military conflicts in the history of the earth- the First World War. Protestant missions efforts were interrupted as the world was engulfed in this crisis. By the time the dust cleared in 1918, the entire world was nearly unrecognizable- the old order had been swept away in the conflict.

The era of empires had come crashing down. Gone was the German, Russian and Ottoman Empires and deeply broken were those of the British and French. Besides the immediate infrastructural devastation of Western Europe, the deaths of over 16 million young men in combat and 40 million people from the simultaneous global flu pandemic, a much deeper loss had taken place. The deep sense of optimism in human progress, prosperity and the advancement of Western utopianism that had marked the 19th century was dashed to pieces in the trench warfare of the Great War.

This affected all levels of society across the world. Europe’s prosperity and peace had been understood to be the success of not just Western ideology and culture but of Christianity itself. The Postmillennialism that had marked early Western missions exploits was harnessed to this concept and when it all came crashing down this theology was abandoned- it had been destroyed in the war along with the old order. In the face of such unspeakable suffering, people no longer believed that the Kingdom of God would physically advance unhindered towards greater levels of glory, prosperity and victory in unrelenting progress. Deep pessimism and disillusionment fell upon the modern Western world. More than the failure of Western civilization, the First World War was seen in the eyes of many to be the failure of Christianity.

Many people -both Christian and otherwise- began to question the legitimacy of Christianity itself. If Europe -the beacon of Christianity in the world- could completely destroy itself in such a catastrophe, how could Christianity as a faith be legitimate? This disillusionment affected even the most devout believers; the entire superstructure of Western Christianity felt the shock to the system- including the missions movement.  

The SVM was one of many organizations deeply impacted by the devastation of the war. In their 1919 conference, the former optimistic tone of SVM leaders had been replaced with a need to defend the faith itself in the face of disillusionment among the students present. Robert Speer is quoted in his address to those present at the conference as saying, “I am going to open quite candidly the questions that some of you have been discussing right here in these days as to whether there is worth enough in our Christian faith… There are men here in this conference, women too, who are saying that Christianity here in America, and as expressed by this Student Volunteer Convention, is a failure… No, Jesus hasn’t failed, and He isn’t going to fail. But I tell you men and women that there is a danger here of failure tonight- that we ourselves may fail.” In spite of the pleas of leaders, the disillusionment among SVM students continued. An observer at their conference five years later is quoted as saying, “There was not any expression or conviction on the part of the students that the way of Jesus is the way.” In fact, although the SVM would continue to make a tremendous impact on the missions world for many more years, its terminal end can be traced back to this traumatic post-war period.

This was not exclusive to only SVM. Rather, the events within the ranks of SVM was symptomatic of a broader and more general chagrin within the Protestant missions world. Along with the psychological challenge from the war, the expenses of the war began to effect missions organizations and many of them went into debt. Many people began to stop giving to missions exploits and it is reported that many students interviewed for missions admitted that their main focus was not missions, but was to secure a career to make lots of money. Students, long the bulk of the missionary movement, were now unenthusiastic about missions. Recruitment numbers dropped dramatically and missions agencies began to dwindle. This represented the beginning of a major decline in Western Protestant missions.

The pre-war world and framework that Protestant missions had functioned within had been broken by the conflict in Europe. The financial, cultural, emotional and theological challenges from World War 1 nearly ended the Protestant missions movement. It would not be for another twenty years that it would once again gain momentum. However, when that momentum resumed, it would come back with an incredible shift in global missions strategy- one that has remained with us to this day.


The Third Era- Unreached People Groups (1935- Present)


During the difficult years of the early 20th century, in the midst of great challenges to Protestant missions, two men stood out as significant influential leaders in their generation. Their contributions to the advancement of the Great Commission -comparable to that of Carey and Taylor- have had far reaching effects that are still felt to this day in that they were critical in the initiation of the Third Era of Protestant missions. These men are Cameron Townsend and Donald McGavran.

Cameron Townsend was born in Eastvale, California on July 9, 1896. While attending Occidental College in Los Angeles during his junior year, John Mott of the SVM visited the campus and called the student body to give their lives for missions. Cameron soon responded to the call by meeting with Mott, joining the Student Volunteer Movement and dedicating his life to missions. Although he was part of the armed forces in the war, he was challenged by a friend to honor his commitment to the SVM and made the decision to request to be discharged and pursue missions in Guatemala.

He left for Guatemala in August of 1917 and committed to stay there for one year. Towards the end of his initial commitment, he had an encounter with an indigenous Cakchiquel Indian that approached him as he was distributing Spanish Bibles. The man asked him what the Bible was and Townsend explained what it was God’s very word. The Cakchiquel Indian famously reported to have said, “If your God is so smart, why doesn’t he speak my language?”. Cameron suddenly realized that although the man lived in a predominantly Spanish speaking country, he spoke no Spanish whatsoever.

This encounter marked him in a significant way. He soon met with an older group of missionaries who had already concluded the need to reach indigenous populations in their own languages and then began his work. At the age of 23, he decided to remain in Guatemala for 13 more years, dedicating 10 of those years to translating the Bible into the Cakchiquel language. He realized that although much of the geography of the world was being reached by Protestant missions, there was an entirely new and much more nuanced frontier that was unreached: distinct ethnic peoples.

Cameron founded Wycliffe Bible Translators in 1934. This new mission agency focused on teaching linguistics as a means to reach these new frontiers. Initially, Cameron estimated there were about 500 people groups in the earth. He revised these numbers several times and today they are estimated at over 5000. There are still roughly about 3000 languages without the Bible translated in the earth. Cameron is credited for the initiation of the Third Era of missions. The focus of this new era transcended the traditional geographic focus of missions and instead concentrated on ethnic people groups.

Meanwhile, as Townsend was discovering the linguistic nuances of people groups in Guatemala, Donald McGavran was discovering the social and cultural barriers in India. McGavran was born in Damoh, India in 1897 as a third generation missionary. In 1919, while a student at Butler University, McGavran visited Des Moines, Iowa to attend an SVM convention and was deeply influenced by John Mott. McGavran described the event as, “There is became clear to me that God was calling me to be a missionary, that He was commanding me to carry out the Great Commission”.

McGavran returned to India in 1923 and was deeply influenced by the anthropological work of J.W. Pickett who documented mass people movements to Christ in India. McGavran was troubled by the slow growth of his churches while at the same time he saw many “people movements” (thousands of people in groups) scattered across India coming to the Lord. In this time, he began see the distinct cultural and social barriers in India and started to promote the reality of homogenous units of people which are today referred to as “people groups”. McGavran’s missiological work in his book, “Bridges of God” helped to formalize the understanding of distinct boundaries within different regions that constituted unique ethnic “people groups”.

The collective work of Townsend and McGavran (both greatly impacted by the Student Volunteer Mission Movement) framed the new era of missions by calling attention to the various ethnolinguistic people groups in the earth as opposed to the more simplified geographical focus in past generations.

The progressive decline in Protestant missions that had came about after the First World War came to an end after the Second World War in 1945. The missions movement was being revitalized by thousands of veterans who were returning from Europe and the Pacific with a deep burden to bring the gospel to the places they saw that had been ravaged by the war. In 1946, 575 students from 151 different schools gathered at the University of Toronto to dream for a fresh student movement for missions. Two years later, in 1948, they gathered for another missions convention at the University of Illinois, Urbana. Urbana student missions conventions have continued to this day with the expressed purpose of mobilization for the Great Commission.

Out of the Urbana conventions, many veterans from the Second World War who had a desire to return to the foreign lands to bring the gospel were sent back out as missionaries. The experience of the war had prepared many of them so that they went out into the missions field with extraordinary effectivity. Collectively, God used them to rally another massive student-led missions movement. In the late 1940’s through the early 1950’s, more students went overseas for missions than in any other time in history- including the great Student Volunteer Missions Movement which by this time was nearly discontinued. It was this missions thrust that produced such incredible laborers as Jim Elliot, who would be martyred in Ecuador in 1956 for the sake of the gospel of Jesus.

Although the students of the 1960’s embraced more anti-government and liberal activism (thus resulting in a decline of missionaries) the 1970’s witnessed an increase of missions interest through the Urbana student missionary conventions and the Jesus Movement. Within a few years, the amount of students signing up for missions increased by nearly ten times that of 1970.

In July of 1974, one of the most significant missions conferences in history was held in Lausanne, Switzerland. The Lausanne Congress of 1974 (Also known as the First International Congress on World Evangelization) was called together by Billy Graham for a discussion on the present state of missions. With over 150 nations represented, Lausanne sought to follow in succession from the 1910 Edinburgh Conference and strategized for the completion of the Great Commission. Out of the congress the Lausanne Covenant (one of the great manifestos on world missions) was produced and signed by nearly three thousand leaders.

Ralph Winter, one of the most influential men in the history of missions attended the congress. He is widely acknowledged to be just as catalytic in the development of Protestant missions as Carey, Taylor, Townsend, and McGavran. Winter understood that the gospel does not naturally transfer from different cultures or castes even if the people share the same language. It was at the Lausanne Congress that Winter championed the work of Townsend and McGavran and popularized the concept of unreached people groups using an understanding of the biblical word ethnos as a missions strategy. He declared that for the Great Commission to be fulfilled, the gospel had to be planted in each culturally unique ethnolinguistic people group. His speech took Lausanne by storm.

Six years later, in 1980, another missions conference was held in Edinburgh, Scotland known as The Edinburgh- 1980 World Consultation on Frontier Missions. At the time, it was the largest missions conference in the history of Christianity. Remarkably, a third of those present at Edinburgh were indigenous representatives from the Global South representing 57 mission agencies- in 1910 there had been none. In Edinburgh, the strategy of focusing missions to unreached ethnolinguistic people groups became solidified. As a result of these developments, it is generally regarded that the Second Era of missions found its completion in 1980 as the missions world transitioned to a premier focus of unreached and unengaged peoples.

In 1989, at the Second International Congress on World Evangelization (Lausanne II) in Manilla, Christian missionary strategist Luis Bush called for a focused missional thrust into the “Resistant Belt” of North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Following the strategy of unreached people groups missions, Bush and his associates understood that the remaining task of the world evangelism could only be accomplished by pushing into this massive “Belt”. The next year, Bush and his wife Doris used software to analyze this “Resistant Belt” region between 10 and 40 degrees north latitude and coined the famous term, “the 10/40 Window”. This region, the world of Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism was referred to in 1911 by the great missionary Samuel Zwemer as the, “unoccupied fields” of the earth.


Finishing the Task


Since 1990, the world of missions has continued to evolve. The Toronto and Brownsville revivals in the mid-nineties fueled the fire of world evangelization and served the development of the missional Global South tremendously. Today, the Christian world is no longer Western-led. The Global South is no longer “developing”. In many ways, it has already emerged and has taken the lead in the task of world evangelization.

Today, the church in Africa and Asia represents over 60% of the world’s population of Christians. Meanwhile, the church of Europe is dying out. The church of America has maintained roughly the same growth ratio as the year 1900. In 1900, there were 8 million Christians in Africa; in 2000, there were 351 million. African evangelicals send out approximately 13,000 missionaries a year.

The story is similar in Asia. In 1900 there were around 22 million Christians. In 2005 there are estimated 370 million believers, making Christianity the fastest growing religion in Asia.

In Latin America there were estimated 700,000 evangelicals in 1900. By 2000 the numbers had grown to over 55 million believers.

Today the missions dynamics are no longer primarily west-to-east. The Global South has assumed a significant role in the sending of missionaries There are more African missionaries than European ones. Missionaries from Brazil travel across the earth sharing the good news of Jesus. In China, the “Back to Jerusalem” missionary movement has already begun and endeavors to send hundreds of thousands of missionaries across the 10/40 Window.

The task remains massive. After twenty centuries of missions activity there is still about 27% of the world that remains unreached (comprising over 7000 people groups). Since 1974, the strategy in place is to reach ethnic people groups with the gospel- an effort that transcends geopolitical boundaries and classical missions strategies. Today, the West no longer leads the charge but rather partners shoulder to shoulder with the Global South.

Since the day that Jesus stood before His disciples and friends and gave them the Great Commision He has guided generations of faithful men and women towards its completion. He promised that the good news of His coming Kingdom would be spread across the earth as a testimony to every ethnos and then He would return to restore all things. If there is one thing that can be drawn from looking back on the last 300 years of Protestant Missions history, it’s that Jesus is alive. He is with us. He is active in His Church in the earth by His Spirit. He has driven and is driving all of our missions efforts to a marvelous conclusion and the gates of hell will never prevail against His Church. As we now turn our eyes ahead to what lies before us and as we seek to finish this Great Commission, we can be certain of His most blessed and profound promise: “Lo I am with you always, even to the very end of the age”.



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