In this excerpt from the introduction to Sixteenth-Century Mission, Edward L. Smither lays out three broad themes that emerge from this survey of cross-cultural outreach during this critical century in the church’s history.
How did the sixteenth-century global church understand and practice Christian mission?
This question proves more fruitful than the usual questions missiologists and historians often ask of the Reformation: Did the Reformers have a practice and theology of mission? Why did it take so long for Protestants to engage in mission? Was the admonition to make disciples of all nations no longer applicable to the church in every generation?
While making many mistakes, the sixteenth-century church demonstrated faithfulness in Christian mission. The players included a diverse lot—monks, mystics, itinerant preachers, colonialists, women, and men. Our narrative takes us to the ends of the then-known world—to Europe, the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Though cross-cultural outreach had been part of the church’s DNA since the first century, it was the sixteenth-century church (the Society of Jesus, in fact) that gave a name to proclaiming Jesus in all of the world—missions.
Three themes stand out when surveying the scope of Christian mission during the sixteenth-century: the meaning of mission, mission in forgotten places, and the strategy of mission.
The meaning of mission
In this project we have resisted offering a definition of Christian mission that might be too located in the twenty-first century. Rather, we have allowed Luther, Calvin, Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila, and others to define mission on their terms and through their practice. Nevertheless, we are able to sketch out how certain sixteenth-century individuals and movements understood mission.
For the Magisterial Reformers, particularly in the first generation of the Reformation, their focus in mission was evangelizing the existing church in Europe. That said, we will show that disciples of Luther and Calvin also would make disciples in Scandinavia, France, and even in Brazil.
Anabaptist believers largely associated mission with itinerant preaching. Striving to reform the church and preach the gospel while dissenting from a conflation of church and state, Anabaptist missionaries tended to suffer for their faith and ministry more than their Reformed, Lutheran, or Roman Catholic counterparts. In fact, they were routinely persecuted by Reformed, Lutheran, and Catholic Christians.
Sixteenth-century Roman Catholics understood mission as preaching the gospel and establishing the church in all the world. They were the most deliberately global about their focus. Sixteenth-century Roman Catholic mission paralleled Europe’s migration to the world, particularly the empires of Spain and Portugal. With missionaries disembarking from the same boats as conquistadores and colonists, it’s not surprising that the Jesuits would adopt a military term (missions) to describe their work.
Mission in Forgotten Places
Deepening our grasp of global church history, our authors have also shed light on lesser-known mission fields. For example, one author thoroughly surveys Jesuit mission efforts in the kingdom of Kongo—the first wave of sixteenth-century Roman Catholic mission work to the African nation.
Strategy in Mission
The essays in this book also stimulate discussion on historic mission practice. For example, some of our authors, particularly those surveying Catholic mission, show the correlation between spirituality, ascetic living, and sacrificial mission service. Others, focusing on mission to China, discuss the complexities of what we, today, call contextualization. How does the unchanging gospel find a home in Chinese soil that is cultivated by Confucian thought? Finally, one of our authors reveals the troubling and painful history of mission amid colonial expansion in the Americas, while showing how one sixteenth-century missionary opposed those in power and advocated for justice for indigenous American peoples. Each of these historic themes remain relevant to mission practice today.
This post is adapted from the introduction to Sixteenth-Century Mission: Explorations in Protestant and Roman Catholic Theology and Practice edited by Robert L. Gallagher and Edward L. Smither (Lexham Press, 2021).