Darrell Jackson

6 May 2024


Theory in the Study of Evangelical Mission and Its Responses to Religious Plurality

The arrival of the Baptist William Carey in India in 1792 is considered by many to signal the beginning of the “modern missionary movement.” The legacy of Carey’s missionary work is one with which many Baptists and even more Evangelicals would identify. Yet Carey’s legacy is complex, ambiguous, and contested.

For Baptist scholars, Carey’s careful statistical enumeration in 1791 (in An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens) of the world’s populations of Christians, Jews, Mohammedans (sic), and “heathens” sits uncomfortably alongside Thomas Helwys’s early 17th-century Baptist call for religious toleration (A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity, 1611), addressed to the British monarch in the following way: “Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it does not appertain to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.”

Presumably, religious toleration and religious conversion were not mutually exclusive options for Carey, though this feature of his approach is probably under-examined.

For evangelical mission practitioners, the complexity and ambiguity in Carey’s biography are frequently overlooked, and the evangelical mission movement appropriates Carey as little more than a trope or meme (William Carey International University and William Carey Press, based in Pasadena, California, for example, both continue to promote evangelical mission, with respect to Carey’s legacy.) This probably reflects evangelical readings of Carey. For Carey, “duty” and “obligation” were the primary motivations. Most US evangelicals read Carey through the lens of later US missionaries such as Adoniram Judson, whose characteristic missionary virtues were couched in terms of “sacrifice” and “suffering for the gospel.”

Carey’s contribution to a growing sense of global Evangelical missionary identity might not be immediately obvious. Although his call for a world mission conference in Cape Town in 1810 was largely ignored, the Edinburgh Mission Conference of 1910 is often seen as a fulfillment of his vision.

Edinburgh 1910 was primarily lay-led, principally evangelical in constitution, though it is often understood as a triumph (perhaps short-lived) of joint, Protestant, ecumenical endeavor.

The Evangelical scholar, Rose Dowsett, argues that the Edinburgh Mission Conference was the primary impulse for the organizational structure of the ecumenical Committee for World Mission and Evangelism (established within the WCC in 1961) and that each of these is of consequence for the Lausanne Mission Movement’s theological rationale in the 1970s, most notably at the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in 1974.

The key contributions to evangelical mission theology and practice at that congress were primarily anthropological and biblical: Ralph Winter, Donald McGavran, Peter Wagner, Orlando Costas, Charles Kraft, Paul Hiebert, John Stott, and most notably, Billy Graham. Social sciences were used only to the extent that they might be “applied” to “improve” the practice of mission (Wan, 2005). The critical questions they raised were largely ignored.

Each of these conferences gave rise to mission statements, including reports and occasional papers produced between conferences. Some of these outline an unsurprising, expected, missionary response to other religions, seeing them as suitable targets for conversion (Jews, Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholic Christians, nominal Christians, and so on.)

One can read the various texts of these congresses and conferences for summaries of evangelical mission, but this reductionist tendency is inadequate and reflects little more than the exegesis of texts that are largely the co-production of missiological elites and mission agency leaders.


Critiques Internal to Evangelical Mission Practice and Theory Since the Lausanne Congress

The Lausanne Congress did not go as smoothly as the event managers had hoped. Evangelicals from Latin America urged the congress to reflect more self-critically on what these critics called “mission by managerialism,” which assumed the normativity of “economic rationalism” and ignored the social injustices of the region.

Over the past fifty years, the critique within the Evangelical movement has problematized:

  • The forms of anthropology deployed in the 1970s and still used by some contemporary evangelical mission agencies;
  • The colonial nature of the evangelical missionary endeavor, with its imperialist, Enlightenment, and Orientalist assumptions;
  • The tendency towards proselytism, whether latent or acknowledged, in evangelical missionary activity.

Each of these has relevance for evangelical mission, and while they remain contested and the debates are lively, the questions raised by these tendencies point to the impact of world Christianity upon evangelical mission practice in religiously plural contexts.


“Lived Mission” in the Context of World Christianity 

The self-assured tone of anthropologists, missiologists, and biblical scholars advising the evangelical mission movement in the early 1970s is giving way to less universalizing social science approaches. Approaches that are more attentive to the local and contextual expressions of religiosity, whether Christian or otherwise. A self-respecting evangelical professor of world religions today is likely to encourage their students to engage with Muslims as an integral aspect of their study of Islam.

This is relevant, for example, to the question of truth and falsehood. Where are religious falsehood and truthfulness to be found? Are they to be found only in doctrinal or theological formulations, or are truthfulness and falsehood to be found in the way that religionists live?

When I was teaching in this area, the Evangelical Theological Federation where I taught changed the nomenclature of the curriculum from “World Religions” to “Living Faiths”. I encouraged my students to understand that the lived experiences of non-Christian co-religionists make all the difference in how we view adherents of other religions.

The shifts may be attributed in large measure to a variety of societal and global tendencies, including:

– The globalization of Christianity, particularly the impact of diasporic Christianity upon the traditional missionary-sending countries of the West;

Global urbanization and its impact on traditional, indigenous communities;

– Global networking of societies and the increasingly polycentric nature of global influence;

Postcolonial critique by leaders and scholars from former colonies and the growing discovery of local and contextual voices; characterized by polyvocalism or polyphony and a resource for critical engagement with the power structures of evangelical mission agencies;

– The emergence of evangelical mission agencies that are familiar with, even comfortable with, religiously plural contexts.

Taken together, these developments provide the impetus for the emergence of the discipline of World Christianity. As an emerging discipline, World Christianity is methodologically committed to “unity connectivity, synchronicity.”

World Christianity provides a lens through which to read religious plurality, making room for the wisdom offered by Christians with the lived religious experience of religiously plural contexts where interreligious coexistence is simply a social reality.

To this extent, World Christianity is more than a theory that offers utility in the service of Christian mission. Rather, it offers explanations for why practice in mission is not always congruent with mission statements.

Following Dorottya Nagy, it can be argued that a Christian identity that defines itself with reference to the “world” assumes some level of ideological commitment to “worldliness” over and above ideological commitment to the nation-state.

Where the nation-state assumes or demands degrees of normativity, religious plurality remains problematic.

However, World Christianity is contrarily pluriform. It often emerges from the margins. It is more comfortable with the ordinary or “demotic” voice. Moreover, it is pressed to offer a better account of how followers of Jesus the Nazarene are to live peaceably as neighbors and friends alongside co-religionists committed to other religious traditions.

The incidence of global migration serves to accelerate this tendency by introducing increased religious plurality into the countries of the historically Christian West. Migration introduces a new type of neighbor to citizens of notionally Christian countries.


Illustrations of the Shifts: Evangelical Mission Agency One

The conservative evangelical mission agency on whose board I serve recently hired a Dutch worker with lived experience of Muslim communities. The program he brought emphasizes neighborliness and common civic cause over conversion and proselytizing.


Illustrations of the Shifts: Evangelical Mission Agency Two

The national director of a large, Western evangelical mission organization, is a Malaysian by birth, educated in an evangelical seminary in the USA, has taught in an evangelical missionary training college in the UK, worked for an evangelical mission agency in Southeast Asia, attended evangelical Lausanne and WEA mission conferences, yet has a brother who remains the abbot of a Buddhist monastery in Malaysia, with whom there is filial love and appreciation for the respective journeys each is on. This illustrates the lived nature of religion for a leading platform speaker at such events where religious plurality is problematic, compared to his personal experience of religious plurality as an unproblematic social and familial reality.



Conclusions remain tentative and provisional. My understanding, illustrated by these two examples, is that “lived missiology” finds a natural location within the theoretical framework of World Christianity. Methodologically, this invites evangelical missiology to consider “unity, connectivity, and synchronicity” and what this implies for its approach to people of other religious traditions.

Alongside the formal mission statements of the Lausanne Evangelical Movement and the World Evangelical Alliance, each of which offers statements about other religious traditions, the lived religious experience of missionaries is frequently shaped by:

– Their own theological reflection;

– Their existential response to the challenge of living alongside their host communities, and

– Is frequently demonstrated through their embodiment practices.

These insights suggest ways in which social sciences might explore some of these trends. For me, however, questions remain:

– What would a lived religion approach pay attention to in an adequate and integrated study of evangelical mission?

– What is the respective impact of studying evangelical mission in either a social science or a theological framework? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each? Is an integrated account possible or even desirable?



Rev. Associate Professor Darrell Jackson is Dean of Research, Whitley College, University of Divinity.

Cover photo: French Polynesia, windward islands archipelago, island of Tahiti, Faaa, sunday mass in the Maohi evangelic church or temple where women wear exotic gowns and hats. (Photo by FRUMM John / Hemis via AFP)

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