As much as you focus on recruiting and developing church planters, your organization also needs to develop its missiological leaders in order to keep a fresh Biblical vision and to respond to the fast-changing culture. Church planters are the missionaries of your organization, engaging directly with those whom you are trying to reach, but it’s the missiologists that build the culture and strategy of your network.
Organizations need directors, but Kingdom movements need missiologists.
Samuel Escobar delineates the difference between a missionary and missiologists in this way:
I propose that the key difference between a missionary and a missiologist is that while the missionary accomplishes the task that his or her call demands, the missiologist also reflects about that task in a critical and systematic way. Such reflection is necessary in order to adapt, correct, and improve missionary methodologies (Escobar, 101).
Here are three kinds of missiologists that should be influencing and challenging your network’s culture and strategy:
1. Missiological Theologians
Mission is deeply a theological concept, which means that when studied properly, it’s first a study of the nature of God and his purposes. Therefore, a theology of mission must also deal with all the traditional theological themes of systematic theology. A missiological theologian is often motivated by understanding, as best as possible, God’s revelation of himself to mankind as an instantiation of mission. A very noteworthy theologian of this sort is David Bosch. In his well-known book, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, Bosch puts forth a strong vision for the missio Dei and how mission is firstly and firmly rooted in the nature and person of God (Bosch, 9).
North America has come on a day where the missiological challenges range from ongoing racism to gender-debates to the reality of the supernatural to debating the usefulness of the term evangelical. These are deeply missiological issues rooted in the great doctrines of God, mankind, and what is the nature and purpose of the Church. Theologians steer us towards a greater Biblical vision in order to effectively build the culture and strategy of our church planting networks.
Missiological Theologians keep the focus of your network on God and the Kingdom and not just on pragmatic methods and organization building.
2. Missiological Theorists
Theorists differ from theologians in that they are primarily motivated by describing and modelling missiological ideas. While that does not mean they are less Biblically inclined or less concerned with orthodox doctrine or even less involved in theological discussions, it does mean that their contribution to missiology will at times not be primarily rooted in the disciplines of theology.
Ralph Winter has been touted as one of the giants in mission. Much of what he accomplished went beyond theory into real practice and implementation, leading to very real strategies and outcomes. However, perhaps his most well-known contribution to modern missions was taken from his plenary session delivered at Lausanne 1974 entitled, “The Highest Priority: Cross-Cultural Evangelism” where he formulated the idea of “unreached peoples.” Peter C. Wagner explains that Winter almost succeeded in persuading every delegate present to shift their understanding of mission from the idea of evangelizing geographic locations such as countries and cities to mission as the idea of evangelizing “people groups” (Wagner, 109). Despite some later challenges to this theory and further nuances, in particular how his theory may fit into multi-ethnic environments (Parsons, 14), this shift from focusing strictly on geographic locations to people groups still remains a large part of mission theory today.
Theorists remind us that sometimes the mission needs to be re-imagined in order for better strategies to be proposed. Today in North America, we need new narratives of mission to be told as the colonial vision is quickly fading. Just as the global centers of mission become more distributed all over the world and not just in the West, church planting networks in North America should think how to redistribute the missionary task among the diverse groups and nations that are ready to impact North America like never before.
Missiological Theorists push organizations to define Kingdom opportunities, to identify expiring models and paradigms, and to be innovative in its thinking.
3. Missiological Strategists
The last group can be considered to be the most practical of all missiologists. Strategists go beyond theological foundations and theoretical models to imagining actual strategies to implement on a mission field. While often times strategists may not be the ones implementing the strategies, their ideas are directly applied to a specific mission context with an intended outcome.
We have already mentioned Ralph Winter as a theorist, but his strategic ideas, such as Theological Education by Extension, have been successfully implemented all over the world with the result of developing leaders who are engaging in mission. Another notable strategist and contemporary of Winter is Donald McGavran whose “church growth” principles have been implemented not only in North America, but all over the world. As a missionary in India, McGavran used these principles to some level of success. However, he did not achieve the results he had initially intended. Regardless of his personal ministry, many others attribute the phenomena of church growth and megachurch to his principles. While in recent years, McGavran’s work has been referred to in a pejorative sense because of its alleged bias against multi-ethnic ministries or simple church models, many are recapturing the usefulness of his observations and reappropriating his work in new ways (Martin, 7).
Lastly, we shouldn’t forget to mention Roland Allen whose reputation and life’s work places him in all three classifications of missiologists. His most widely read book, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? can be categorized as theological, theoretical, and strategic. However, Allen is mentioned in this classification of missiological strategists primarily because of this book. His motivation for it was primarily to offer missionaries “keys to his [Paul’s] success” for developing converts in a local context for the purpose of establishing indigenous church leadership not dependant on a foreign missionary (Allen, 11). Allen’s book is primarily structured to that end and cannot be misunderstood as primarily theological or theoretical offering.
North America has become so diverse that one strategy does not fit all. We need regional catalysts to become niche experts in culture and to raise up church planters from among indigenous contexts and neighborhoods. But we also need national strategists who can read social trends and hand off organizational vision to the next generation of leaders.
Missiological Strategists deploy the Kingdom vision in a specific context, working towards creating sustainable regions of churches that are missionally mature.
So as your organization continues to recruit and develop church planters for the future, also ask yourself these three questions regarding how you’re developing missiological leaders for the future:
How are we developing Missiological Theologians to shape the Biblical vision of our network?
How are we developing Missiological Theorists to build a culture of innovation within our organization?
And how are we developing Missiological Strategists to catalyze and develop regions and networks of churches towards missional maturity?
Allen, Roland. Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?, 6-9. GLH Publishing, 2011.
Bosch, David J. Transforming Mission, 9. Orbis Books, 1991.
Escobar, Samuel. “The Training for a Missiologist for a Latin American Context.” Missiological Education for the Twenty-first Century: The Book, the Circle, and the Sandals: Essays in Honor of Paul E. Pierson, edited by J. Dudley Woodberry, Charles Van Engen, Edgar J. Elliston, 101-102. Wipf & Stock Pub, 2005.
Martin, George H. (2016). Why Another Look at Donald McGavran? The Southern Baptist Journal of Missions and Evangelism, 2(1), 5-7.
Wagner, Peter. Wrestling with Alligators, Prophets, and Theologians: Lessons from a Lifetime in the Church, 109-110. Chosen Books, 2010.