Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version


World religions, especially Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, have diffused widely over the last 2,000 years. The word mission comes from the Latin root, meaning "to send," and although religions have spread informally and by migration, these three religions have deliberately sent people across numerous sociocultural borders carrying their faiths to others.

Although Buddhism, along with other eastern religions, and Islam continue to spread in the world, Christianity, which earlier had diffused northward to Europe, has spread the most dramatically since 1500 in conjunction with an exploratory, economic, political, and cultural expansion from Europe and North America. Today, numerous organizations carry out mission work, either as branches of religious bodies or as independent mission agencies.

In the Enlightenment heritage within academia and in today's religiously pluralistic world, the subject of missions is sensitive, if not viewed negatively. However, mission activity aimed at both religious conversion and the betterment of human life continues unabated. There is considerable debate in religious circles on how the two goals (conversion and human betterment) are related. However, while the debate takes place, large numbers of people change (or resist changing) their religious identities as an immediate or delayed result of missions. Furthermore, mission work not only is partly an accompaniment of social change but has also contributed enormously to social change in numerous societies. In addition to bringing about broad changes in religious identifications, other changes influenced by modern missions are the introduction of modern medicine, education, and science as well as the stirring of nationalistic aspirations and the provision of new organizational experiences.

Missiology is the formal study of missions and is especially prominent in Christianity, although it has not been a central theological discipline. Most missiologists are trained as historians as well as theologians. Some missiologists are anthropologists, and most have received some training in anthropology and many in linguistics. However, there has been considerably less interaction between the disciplines of sociology and missiology than between anthropology and missiology. For example, sociological researchers and theorists in the fields of social change, diffusion, social movements, intergroup relations, globalization, and even religion have paid relatively little attention to the phenomena of missions.

In addition to the histories of various areas and nations that throw light on missions or the diffusion of religions, there are voluminous church and agency archives and records that have been only partially mined. However, the preponderance of church and agency data are related to the sending, rather than the receiving, side of missions. An ongoing project (see Barrett 1982) to maintain statistics on Christianity and other religions in almost all countries adds to the descriptive material showing religious changes since 1900 on a worldwide basis. Case studies abound, but there continues to be relatively little theoretical work of a social scientific nature on the phenomena of missions.

Robert L. Montgomery


D. Barrett (ed.), World Christian Encyclopedia (Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 1982)

R. W. Hefner (ed.), Conversion to Christianity (Berkeley: University of California, 1993)

J. A. B. Jongeneel, Philosophy, Science, and Theology of Mission in the 19th and 20th Centuries (Bern, Switzerland: Lang, 1995)

K. S. Latourette, The History of the Expansion of Christianity (New York: Harper, 1937-1945)

D. Martin, Tongues of Fire (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990)

"Mission Studies," Missiology 24, 1(1996)

R. L. Montgomery, The Diffusion of Religions (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1996).

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