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Summary Article: Christian Missions
From Cultural Sociology of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa

Christians, especially Evangelical Protestants, were enthusiastic about the spread of Christianity in the early years of the 20th century. In 1910, 1,200 representatives, including 12 Asians, gathered in Edinburgh, Scotland, at the World Missionary Conference. Their theme was The Evangelization of the World in This Generation. Progress toward that goal seemed certain, but even in 1910, doors were closing to Christian missions in east and southeast Asia. Political revolutions left some missionaries dead and others forced to leave their fields.

Within Christianity itself, radical shifts were occurring. The belief of indigenous Christians that they should have full authority within their own churches was growing, as was the numbers of Independents, Pentecostals, and charismatics. The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) became what has been called the most important event in the Roman Catholic church's definition of “church” and “missions” since the 16th century. “Third-world theologies” created controversy and caused many Western Christians to question the concept of universally normative church structures and theology. The rise of militant Islamic groups in the pluralistic societies of southeast Asia put Christian missions at new risk. Regardless of changes and threats, Christian missions continued into the 21st century, with a different face, a different technique, but with the same purpose.

The First Half of the 20th Century

The Boxer Rebellion began as a peasant uprising against Western encroachment on Chinese culture. Hundreds of foreigners, including about 250 missionaries and their children and more than 20,000 Chinese Christians, perished. Hudson Taylor's China Inland Mission (CIM), at that time the largest in the world, lost 58 missionaries. Yet in the years following the rebellion, the number of missionaries in China increased dramatically, from more than 1,300 in 1905 to 8,000 in 1925. Other areas of east and southeast Asia were also seeing growth during the early decades of the 20th century. In 1912, the Japanese government officially recognized Christianity as a religion of Japan. American Presbyterians were slowly winning converts in Thailand and Laos, and Swiss missionaries entered Vietnam and Cambodia.

About 250 missionaries and their children perished during the Boxer Rebellion in China between 1898 and 1901.

The Baptists made steady progress among the non-Burmese in Burma, and the Dutch, who saw Indonesia as their particular mission field, established three large churches in that country. By 1910, when Japan annexed Korea, there were 30,000 communicants, mostly Presbyterians and Methodists. No Protestant mission work had been allowed under Spanish rule in the Philippines, but with the American victory in 1898, Protestant missionaries began to arrive. Four mainline denominations had begun mission work there by 1902.

The fourth decade of the century saw transformations occur within Asia and within the Western countries where sponsoring missionary organizations were headquartered. In 1932, Pearl Buck, who had just received the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Good Earth, stunned an audience of Presbyterian women by characterizing missionaries as arrogant, ignorant, and insular. The attack by Buck, herself a former missionary and the child of missionaries, galvanized the debate about missions. The Great Depression was making severe inroads on church finances in the 1930s. Mission hospitals and schools required enormous sums of money to operate, and when mission budgets were trimmed to fit the dismal economic status, many missionaries were forced to leave. Even in China, where the growth of Taylor's CIM continued unabated, as it had since its founding in the 1880s, and where a Pentecostal revival was winning converts, news was grim. Communist troops in central China beheaded a young couple with the CIM and killed local Christians who pleaded for the foreigners’ lives to be spared. After Japan went to war with China in 1937, there was a mass exodus of missionaries, although some remained in Taiwan, and about 1,000 were interned, including Eric Liddell, the Chariots of Fire hero. The survival of Christianity was in the hands of the indigenous faithful like Watchman Nee, whose Little Flock had 70,000 members in 700 assemblies in 1950. Nee was publicly tried and was sentenced to a labor camp, where he died in 1972. Today, his Little Flock is the largest Christian group in China.

The End of the 20th Century and Beyond

Some scholars have characterized the period after World War II and extending to the present as the age of reclamation of Asia by its nations and peoples. In the minds of many, particularly the newly independent countries that emerged in the decades after World War II, Christianity and its institutions are aligned with colonial rule and the cultural hegemony of the West. Christian populations within these countries and others often add to the problem. Christianity in Japan has been described as an urban, middle-class intellectual's religion. In multicultural Singapore, statistics support a similar conclusion. Christian missions in Singapore in the 19th and early 20th centuries primarily focused on the poor. They pioneered education for children of the poor and the education of girls generally. Today, descendants of those educated in the mission schools are English-speaking, highly educated, internationally mobile Singaporeans. They are seen as a threat to the central values and stability of their community.

In this new world, the historical missionary approach is useless. The churches established by predecessors are no longer missionary churches but autonomous “younger churches.” The missionaries on the scene today are as likely to have come from India or Africa as from Europe or North America. These non-Western cross-cultural missionaries numbered around 3,000 in 1973; today, they are more than 100,000 strong. In 1973, evangelist Billy Graham, in Seoul for a landmark crusade, predicted that South Korea would be the launching pad for missions to Asia.

Today, that Asian nation with roots in Confucianism and Buddhism, and a population that remains two-thirds non-Christian, has more than 13,000 long-term missionaries in countries around the world. Presbyterian Onnuri Church, founded more than two decades ago for the purpose of training missionaries, has 500 in 53 countries, with a focus on China, Indonesia, and India. The appearance and language skills of these cross-cultural missionaries gain them acceptance in places where their Western counterparts would not be allowed. Then there is the reverse side of the evangelism coin. Yuan Zhiming, forced into exile in the United States because of his involvement in the Tiananmen Square protests, is now producing Christian documentary films that spread the Christian gospel in the West.

See Also:

China , Colonialism and Mandates , Modernity

Further Readings
  • Bays, Daniel H. “From Foreign Mission to Chinese Church.” Christian History & Biography, v.98.
  • Kitagawa, Joseph Mitsuo. The Christian Tradition: Beyond Its European Captivity. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992.
  • Moll, Rob. “Missions Incredible.” (Accessed November 2010).
  • Neill, Stephen. A History of Christian Missions. Baltimore, MD: Penguin, 1964.
  • Rholetter, Wylene
    Copyright © 2012 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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