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Missiology is huge. There are so many strands that feed into missiology—the study of religious missions, methods, and purposes (Oxford). It’s a discipline that continues to really emerge over time. Some of the roots of missiology are the prior practice of missions, often thought of as overseas missions, perhaps career missionaries who are serving in a country, spending their lives dedicated to mission. As part of that, you would study things like anthropology, perhaps even sociology, theology, and biblical interpretation. Missiology really is not a pure discipline or a pure field; it’s a combination of many, many different strands that feed in together to create a pretty unique way of looking at church practice and church life.

This material was originally recorded as part of the Renovations Project. It has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Missiology and the global church

As an educator, I’m really interested in taking what missiology is stating at the more theological, quite abstract level, and really trying to make meaning out of it for seminary students, for church leaders, for pastors. I think sometimes missiology can feel a step or two removed from everyday church practice. We’re missing out on so much that could really speak into local church practice if we have a basic understanding of what missiology is.

One of the big conversations right now in missiology is happening on a global scale, not just a North American or European conversation. When you think about the history of missions, the history of the expansion of the church, this is actually a really big shift, and this shift has been happening since the early 1900s. 

Related: These four things are imperative for the North American church today

Missiology today is not only looking back on the past and the ways in which it’s developed over time, but it really is looking forward into the middle part of the 21st century and asking what the trends are now that are going to continue into the future. I think those trends are increasingly global, where pastors, church leaders, biblical scholars, and theologians from the majority world church—places in the world like Asia, Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa—are increasingly speaking up and asking that they have a place at the table, that they get to be part of theological conversation globally, that they get to speak into biblical interpretation. 

One of the things that I’m always pushing with students and church leaders is to think about the church globally. There’s so much that we can learn from the global church. I really encourage students to think about the global church, to think about what’s happening in the global church, and some of the lessons that we can learn from that church.

Related: What is the mission of the church today?

Educating for the global church

This applies on a couple of different levels. I think about the educational level. I think for seminaries and for schools that are teaching and preparing, and even for training programs that are preparing pastors and ministry leaders, it’s making sure that we have global voices included. I think global perspectives and global voices need to be included in a way that doesn’t trivialize them or doesn’t see them as so different and unique that they aren’t bringing merit to the conversation.

There is certainly a tension right now between the old way of thinking that this is the way it is and people around the world should agree with this general theological stance or position, and the new way of thinking—that having new voices at the table challenge [our North American models] and bring something new and something different. There’s questions of orthodoxy and questions of what way should we interpret and understand Scripture. 

Considering the global church at the local church level

Missiology also applies at the local church level. One of the ways you really see this interaction is through short-term missions. Short-term missions is one of the entry points that I had into this line of work. Doing training with short-term missions and experiencing short-term missions, I began to see patterns of practice, of thought, and of posture that is really disconcerting. In local churches, we send our youth on short-term mission trips. But there tends to be fewer opportunities for adults or families to go on short-term mission trips and to really experience that together. So it’s quite skewed in terms of young people, and it also tends to be very action-oriented.

One of the troubling things is that we’re taking young people on short-term mission trips for two weeks or less, they go into a community, and often act like they have all of the answers for the issues in that community. We would never look to our youth group and say that they are the ones that have all the answers for our local community. We don’t ask them to do the same work of ministry in our local contexts. But we do ask them to do that when they go on a short-term mission.

There are many ways that this can be problematic. I’m a huge fan of travel, of being in different cultures and learning from different cultures, and of that happening right around that late teen, early 20s stage. But I think we have to be really careful of what we ask of young people as they travel and interact with people from different cultures because it’s so easy to fall into a very paternalistic or action-oriented or solution-oriented approach.

A new kind of mission trip

I want to launch a short-term mission trip where we’re going to show up and just spend time with people. We’re going to eat meals together. We’re going to worship together. We’re going to pray together. No vacation Bible school, no construction projects, none of that, but just spend time getting to know people, fellowship with people, build relationship, and maybe over time, there are partnerships that emerge. My students at the seminary laugh at that because they always think that it is strange to raise a lot of money to go somewhere and not “do” anything. I think that speaks to our desire in North America. We always want solutions, and ministry oftentimes becomes a way to solve an issue, whether that’s a local community need, whether it’s issues that emerge in our family lives or our work lives—we’re very solution-oriented and action-oriented.

I think short-term missions provide an opportunity to really speak to the importance of relationship building, of really building patterns of mutual relationship, and really changing the dynamics that are often at play in how we do ministry.

Related: How to be a good guest on short-term mission trips

In one sense I very much affirm short-term missions, but in another sense I think there’s a way we can do it better—to really learn from the communities that we visit, the communities that we’re with, and build long-term partnerships, true partnerships in the gospel. When we just drop into a culture and we’re not listening to local leaders or getting to know them, it can become very imbalanced. I would say it’s not a Christian posture to go in and use other people and other communities to fulfill the needs that we have as our local church in North America. 

Often, local pastors have a very distant relationship with their long-term missionaries, not just geographically. We don’t really know what the missionaries experience daily. They may come home on furlough and report to the church, but we don’t truly understand all of the value that they could bring to our local churches.

Related: Four things your missionaries wish you knew

These are people who navigate cultural differences, who think about how the gospel relates to culture, who consider what we need to hold on to as the true essence of the gospel, and who think about how to best communicate the gospel. I rarely see that churches use the resources that they have in their missionaries to really understand how to think about the gospel, or how to communicate in communities of people who have no context for who God is. Our missionaries have these skills, oftentimes. We rarely avail ourselves to this [expertise], make use of it, or do it in a way that is truly a mutual reciprocal relationship.

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Dr. Graham McKeague

Dr. Graham McKeague is dean of professional and graduate studies at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He equips ministry leaders to serve in increasingly diverse cultural contexts. He participated in listening sessions about innovation hosted by the Reformed Church in America.