The question, “What is missiology?” is one I have been asked many times by those wholly unfamiliar with the discipline or with any theology-related discipline, for that matter. I have learned over the years to offer up relatively simple (perhaps simplistic) answers depending on my interlocutor (e.g., “Missiology explores how to join with God in loving on people”). Far more intriguing, however, is seeking to answer that same question when posed by fellow academics and even “missiologists.”
In June 2013, the American Society of Missiology met around the theme of the future of the discipline of missiology. While the theme focused on the future, the very nature of missiology was never far from the center of the plenary presentations. Dana Robert initiated the conversation with a brilliant retrospective on the American Society of Missiology (ASM) as it sought to establish missiology as a discipline. The ASM provided for missiology both a scholarly society and a peer-reviewed journal—two attributes of a recognized academic discipline. Other plenary speakers helped sketch the parameters of missiology by addressing issues such as missiology in a nomadic world and “domestic” missiology. Dr. Robert’s paper along with all the other plenary presentations are available in the January 2014 issue of Missiology: An International Review.1 Also included in this issue is an article by the late Ross Langmead, in which he argues that missiology is an interdisciplinary enterprise rather than a discipline in its own right. He insists, “Missiology should permeate theology and exist as a subject area to accompany missionary praxis, making theological education at least missiological to the core, if not itself missional.”2 I refer readers to his article for an explication of his position.
Of course, Dr. Langmead is not the only scholar to call into question missiology’s right to be called a discipline. Indeed, in numerous seminaries’ and universities’ schools of theology, missiology (or its evangelical twin, “intercultural studies”) is a mere footnote to “practical theology.” In defense of the discipline of missiology, I argue that this “queen of theology”3 is not alone among currently acknowledged “interdisciplinary” disciplines. Other eclectic disciplines, such as education, once struggled for academic recognition.
Those who subscribe to missiology as a legitimate discipline generally and unapologetically embrace its interdisciplinary nature. Paul Hiebert’s classic delineation of missiology as theology, history, and anthropology still appears to dominate thinking about the discipline, though not without alternative suggestions. I have long advocated for a “fourth” leg on this three-legged stool: education. Ken Nehrbass used the metaphor of a river with countless tributaries in an effort to displace the old stool. His proposed definition of missiology was, “the utilization of multiple academic disciplines to develop strategies for making disciples across cultures.”4
Both Drs. Langmead and Nehrbass, like many before them, insist that missiology (whether or not a proper discipline) must inform praxis. At the same time, like all academic disciplines, it also develops and articulates theory. Solid research, whether historical, theological, or ethnographic, informs missiology’s theoretical foundations. It is upon these theoretical foundations that the edifice of praxis is built.
So, what is missiology? I stop short of claiming there are as many definitions as there are missiologists, but certainly many definitions have been offered. Nevertheless, I will risk proposing several essential elements of a useful definition of the term:
- Missiology is an academic discipline informed by other academic disciplines, including (at the least) history, theology, and the social sciences (but likely many others). As an academic discipline, it is supported by numerous regional and global scholarly societies and by numerous highly respected regional and global scholarly journals.
- Missiological research draws from and contributes to theory associated with all its related academic disciplines. At the same time, missiology excels in applied research. Its contributions to cross-cultural, multicultural, and intercultural missiological praxis are its lifeblood.
- Missiology embraces numerous embodiments. It is a global phenomenon. Its multiple manifestations are shaped by ambient cultures, ecclesiastical traditions, theological positions, and ministerial priorities (e.g., evangelism, parish work, social engagement, education, leadership development, political involvement, and local and global concerns).
- Missiology is unified by a commitment to participation in God’s transformative global and local mission to reconcile people to Himself, to one another, to His creation, and within themselves.
1 Dana Robert, "Forty Years of the American Society of Missiology: Retrospect and Prospect," Missiology: An International Review 42, no. 1 (2014): –.
2 Ross Oliver Langmead, "What Is Missiology?" Missiology: An International Review 42, no. 1 (2014): 67.
3 Stan Nussbaum, "A Future for Missiology as the Queen of Theology?" Missiology: An International Review 42, no. 1 (2014): 57.
4 Nehrbass, "Does Missiology Have Three Legs to Stand On?: The Upsurge of Interdisciplinarity," Missiology: An International Review 44, no. 1 (2016): 50.
Richard Starcher served as a pastor in rural Nebraska and as a missionary in Africa for 20 years. He taught at the Goyongo Bible Institute in Zaire, at the Bangui Evangelical School of Theology in the Central African Republic and at the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology in Kenya where he also served as Dean of Extension Studies. He continues to teach and serve as an educational consultant in Africa. He is particularly interested in research methods and in exploring models for equipping leaders for the majority world Church. He also edits Missiology: An International Review, the official journal of the American Society of Missiology.