Don’t Know Much About History…

Dave and Joe: As promised, the two of us (Joe and Dave) will be offering some ideas (in the form of questions) in our coming blogs to help in assessing your church’s missions-mindedness and to enable you to shore up your foundation in missions.

Today: Question #1 – “What does your missions team know about missions history? What books on missions history have you read? How familiar are you with missionary biographies?”

Dave: Quick! Can you answer any of these 3 questions without resorting to Google or pulling a history book off of the shelf?

1. What are 3 significant breakthroughs in world missions in the 275 years that followed the Reformation?

2. If challenged, could you write a one-sentence description of any three of the following individuals and explain their contributions to missions history?
Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf, William Carey, Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, John
Mott, Cameron Townsend, Donald McGavran, Elisabeth Elliot, Ralph Winter.

3. In what century and state did the Haystack Prayer Meeting occur? What happened in the century following as a result of that prayer meeting?

How did you do on our brief quiz?

Joe: For some, studying history can be one of those terribly unnecessary activities that you can indulge in after retirement. After all, why spend time now learning about things that happened ages ago to people who are now quite dead?

Dave: Remember the song line, “Don’t know much about history…”? We figure the guy who sang those words was admitting he was a dummy. The importance of understanding history was once a focus of education, and those who didn’t know what went on before were believed to be handicapped in their ability to see the way forward.

But interest in the historical perspective has, sadly, waned with our preoccupation over the present and our worry about the future. This is clearly true in terms of missions history.

Joe: From a world missions point of view, shouldn’t it be helpful to know some of the ways God has moved throughout history? Wouldn’t it be advantageous to know how God took this fledgling movement of lowly born people in backwater Palestine and turned it into the movement it is today? If you took a large world map and used colored pencils to color in how the church has spread over the centuries, you would be amazed.

Dave: I discovered our missions history illiteracy a few years ago while teaching a class of upper classmen in Bible college. I had made a casual reference to William Carey. The blank stares of my students revealed to me that I had invoked an unfamiliar name. Picking up on this, I asked for a quick show of hands of those who had never heard of WiIliam Carey before. Shockingly, the majority of my class was unfamiliar with “the father of modern missions.”

Joe: A healthy curiosity about missions history does raise questions. Why did the church grow at certain times and not at others? Why did it sometimes advance during fierce persecution and not so much during times of peace? How did technology fit into the growth of the church? How did major world events like wars, economic collapse and the rise of other religions affect this progress? Who were the people God used to bring this massive expansion of His church? What can we learn from them? Were there changes in methodology over the years? Are there things we can learn from how missions methodology has changed?

Dave: History is vital because it gives reasons and explanations for why things are the way they are. For example, if I don’t know why my sump pump malfunctioned turning my basement into a swimming pool, I can’t decide how to prevent it from flooding in the future. This capacity for reflection based on historical precedent adds beauty to human experience because we are wired to be inquiring people who want to know “why”.

Joe: You see, history isn’t quite so irrelevant after all. In addition to seeing the different causes for the growth of the church, we can be blown away by how God can use rather small groups of inexperienced people of seemingly no consequence to change the world.

“Yes,” you say, “we see that sort of thing in the Bible with the apostles, but that doesn’t happen now, does it?” When you read a couple of these missionary biographies and missions history books, you will realize that it does happen and is still happening now. No, you won’t see it on the cable news channels, but it is happening and in some very exciting ways.

Joe and Dave: Here are 4 recommendations to enhance your personal growth in understanding the history of missions so that you can challenge your missions committee to grow in this area as well –

(1) Take Perspectives and get the big picture of what God has been doing for the past 2,000 years. Three whole lessons in that course address the history of missions.

(2) Assign readings in missions history to various members of your church missions committee. Ask for 15-minute reports at subsequent missions committee meetings. (Ask us if you need suggestions on good articles or books on missions history.)

(3) Have everybody on your missions team purchase a copy of “From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya” by Ruth Tucker. This is a simple, yet fairly comprehensive overview of the last 2,000 years of missions history in a readable, biographical format.

(4) Challenge the members of your missions team to master one historical character out of missions history. Let each person select a key person, read their biography, and report back to the committee on what they learned. This can be an enormously fun project. Learning about people can ignite a passion for missions.

Well, that’s question #1. Our next blog will bring you a 2nd question. Bet you can’t wait to see what it is!

Dave Shive and Joe Steinitz