History of Modern Missions Strategy

Author’s Note: This is the second post in a short series on The History of the Modern Missions Movement (read first post here).


American Missions Societies began forming in 1787, but it wasn’t until 1810 that these societies launched out into overseas missions.[1] The reason for the lack of overseas missions was because the focus in America from 1787 until 1810 had been to evangelize American Indians.[2]

As part of their strategy, missionaries stressed the need to civilize the culture where they served, because these cultures were seen as degenerate and as a roadblock to Christianity growing within that culture.[3] In their infancy, missions directors thought that they could best decide the policies that were to be followed by the missionaries in the field from afar. However, it soon became evident that missionaries on the ground were in the best position to create policies that, in turn, were then approved by the mission society boards.[4]

Not much has changed since the start of the modern missions movement relating to the strategies used by missionaries then and now. The strategies used by missionaries today are very similar to the strategies used throughout the history of the modern mission movement. The basic outline is to plant churches that are lead by local laity and pastors. Then train the laity and pastors to repeat the process.

At first, India received the most attention by missionaries and the societies that sent them. Much of the tactics that came from the early missionaries to India have been copied by later missionaries in other geographic regions.[5]

Known as the “Serampore Trio,” missionaries Carrie, Marshman, and Ward were “especially influential” during this time.[6] Carey “sought individual conversions” but “he wanted to foster the growth of a church that would be independent, well sustained by a literate and Bible-reading laity, and administered and shepherded by an educated native minister.”[7] Carey founded a Bible College in India and he spent a vast amount of time translating the Bible into the local languages, which he printed and distributed along with other literature that he and his companions wrote.[8]

The “Serampore Trio” “worked for the transformation of society under the impact of the Gospel, and they became a mighty force for social reform, bringing pressure on the colonial government and leading Hindus to enlightened view on old wrongs and their elimination.”[9] They were able to abolish “widow burning, temple prostitution, and other dehumanizing customs.”[10]

In the 19th century Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson came up with the “three self” strategy for missions. This strategy was used from the “middle of the 19th century until World War II.”[11] The “three self” mission strategy goal “is to plant and foster the development of churches which will be self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating.[12]

Missionaries set out to plant churches and staff them with locals, and these churches would adopt a similar missions program to duplicate the strategies by the missionaries.[13] In this mission strategy, missionaries operated as a sort of big brother in an advisory role.[14]

Another strategy that was birthed during this time came from John L. Nevius, a “Presbyterian missionary in Shantung.”[15]  His strategy simply taught the layman to be an evangelist “in his own craft.”[16] In other words, wherever the layman worked he was to share the Gospel with those that he worked with.[17]

He also advocated for “constant Bible study and rigorous stewardship in combination with voluntary service and proposed a simple and flexible church government.”[18] Other missionaries that he served with in China rejected his strategy. However, missionaries in Korea used it successfully.[19]

After World War II, the strategy of missions was adopted by missionaries originated from Roland Allen. Allen wrote two books titled Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s Or Ours? and The Spontaneous Expansion Of The Church. In these books is found the strategy followed by missionaries of World War II.[20] On Allen’s strategy Beaver writes:

In barest essentials this is his strategy: the missionary communicates the gospel and transmits to the new community of converts the simple statement of faith, the Bible, the sacraments, and a principle of ministry. He then stands by as a counseling elder brother while the Holy Spirit leads the new church, self-governing and self-supporting, to develop its own forms of polity, ministry, worship, and life. Such a church is spontaneously missionary.[21]

[1] Beaver, R. Pierce “The History of Mission Strategy.” Perspectives: On The World Christian Movement, edited by Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorn, 241-253. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1999, 247.

[2] Ibid., 247.

[3] Ibid., 247.

[4] Ibid., 247.

[5] Ibid., 247.

[6] Ibid., 247.

[7] Ibid., 247.

[8] Ibid., 247.

[9] Ibid., 247.

[10] Ibid., 247.

[11] Ibid., 248.

[12] Ibid., 248.

[13] Ibid., 248.

[14] Ibid., 248.

[15] Ibid., 249.

[16] Ibid., 249.

[17] Ibid., 249.

[18] Ibid., 249.

[19] Ibid., 249.

[20] Ibid., 251.

[21] Ibid., 251.

About Peter van Brussel

Peter is the Director of For His Glory Prison Ministry. Peter holds a BA in Pastoral Studies from Southwestern College, a MA in Theological Studies, and a M.Div. from Liberty University. Peter is married to Niki, and has two children. He has been saved by grace and seeks to share the Gospel with those who have been forgotten.
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