Missionary activity in the 19th century became a game changer for the greater Christian church. Missions had been growing since the Protestant Reformation, but the 19th Century represented the sharpest rise in foreign missionary activity in centuries. Churches from Europe and the United States were sending and supporting missionaries throughout the world.
But why was this a game changer? Because 19th century missions fostered what we now refer to as the ecumenical movement.
The word, “ecumenical” means something like “pertaining to the whole world”. It basically means that Christianity can bridge cultural, national, racial and denominational gaps. The ecumenical changes of the 19th century were complex, pertaining primarily to denominational unity and then also to racial, national and cultural. All of a sudden, a Chinese baptist was as legitimately christian as a Swedish Lutheran. I trust that such an idea isn’t blowing any of our minds, but it was significant in the days of a growing global conscience.
Here’s what happened: Long before the modern technological wonders of communication and travel that we enjoy today, missionaries found themselves in strange places literally thousands of miles away from their homes, with people they’d never interacted with before and cultures that didn’t make sense to them. Thus they were often called into difficult environments and circumstances which caused them to do the only thing that made sense: to help each other. That’s right. Presbyterians and Baptists and Methodists began partnering for simple things like support as well as for more complex things like effectiveness in their mission.
I find this important because it reminds me of two things that have tremendous relevance to how I minister to young people. One is that Christianity-on-a-mission looks a lot more like the Church should. This is not only attractive to young folks, but it is necessary for the practice of Biblical theology and true discipleship.
Secondly I’m remind how important it is for young folks to grasp the true breadth and depth of God’s kingdom. The Church is not Lutheran, Baptist, Covenant or anything else. The Church simply consists of those groupings in the same way that it consists of “young and old”, “rich and poor” or “black and white”. To isolate our students, even if unintentionally, from Christians of other races, denominations and cultures is to do a terrible injustice to their understanding of God’s global family. In this light, ecumenicism can be an experience of God’s transcendence, which is something I wrote about recently and can be accessed here.
As with most things, there is more to the story of 19th century missionaries (especially in regards to the uncomfortable blending of missions and colonialism). Still, these people made a lasting effect on global Christianity which we should not only be thankful for, but which we should learn from and use to the advantage of our ministries.