The fundamental challenge of missiology among Churches of Christ is, in a word, autonomy. I limit the meaning of missiology here to its simplest terms: the formal study of Christian mission. Furthermore, I have in view a particular dimension of missiology among Churches of Christ, namely, research regarding the tradition’s mission practices (in contrast with other dimensions such as mission theology or intercultural studies). Naturally, the challenge of missiology in the tradition is a reflection of the challenge of missions in the tradition. The same limitations that congregational autonomy creates for mission work find expression in the study of that work. The issues are not a mystery; all the benefits of collaboration are at stake. Funds, understanding, skills, experience, workforce, relationships, and everything else that missions organizations manage to pool are relatively limited—often practically inaccessible—for local churches that take practices such as sending, support, and oversight of missionaries to be matters of congregational autonomy.
Historically, for Churches of Christ, the arguments in favor of congregational autonomy outweighed these challenges on a basic level. I will not repeat those arguments in detail here, but the primary concern was to safeguard the church against organizational structures “unknown to the New Testament.”In time, we learned to compensate in a variety of ways. The tradition developed practices of intercongregational cooperation compatible with autonomous sending, support, and oversight. And institutions such as university missions programs and other training agencies now provide services for mission works apart from the functions still limited to local churches. In any case, some Church of Christ missionaries felt (and continue to feel) that other benefits—like freedom from mission society bureaucracy or direct relationships between supporters and missionaries—make up for what is lacking in organizational synergy.
The challenges for missiology are similar. While the autonomy of local churches often impedes finding answers to research questions about missions among Churches of Christ, however, it benefits the research process nothing. Autonomy not only stymies collaboration and communication but also undermines the organization necessary for collecting missiological data on the tradition as a whole. I chose the word organization carefully in the preceding sentence, to highlight the difference between the “other organization” that haunts the Restoration imagination and the organization of efforts that permits the kinds of collaboration autonomy does not.
Various articles of the present issue exemplify both the adaptation of Churches of Christ to confront these challenges and the ongoing limitations we must address. Missions Resource Network (MRN) generously agreed to collaborate on this issue of Missio Dei, which we have titled “The Status of World Missions among US Churches of Christ” following the 2002 book The Status of Missions: A Nationwide Survey of Churches of Christ, by Gailyn Van Rheenen and Bob Waldron. MRN exists in the no-man’s-land of mission organizations that serve the congregationally autonomous missions of Churches of Christ. MRN’s efforts to represent the status of missions among Churches of Christ deserve our gratitude. They address the challenge of autonomy head-on by resourcing the survey of a representative sample of congregations in a variety of studies. The response rates of these surveys, in turn, stand as a jarring symbol of the persistent challenge. For example, Becky Holton and Dale Hawley report in their study of missionary care that “a low response rate affects the overall validity and reliability of the survey results.” Likewise, Gary Green’s study of short-terms missions indicates only “138 completed responses were gathered from the 4023 emails sent.” I wonder, with whom will our autonomous congregations share their missions practices if not organizations like MRN?
Of course, gathering this sort of data is always a complicated and fraught process. There is not one single cause of low response rates, and I certainly do not mean to suggest that “autonomy” is a sufficient explanation. In fact, I do not reflect on autonomy as a problem but as a challenge—one we must come to terms with. The fact is, in a tradition that numbers something less than 1.2 million members among roughly 12,240 congregations in the US,we do not know how many missionaries are in the field, where they serve, how long they have been there, or what specifically they do. Harding University helpfully maintains a database, but it necessarily relies on self-reporting, which is liable to the same difficulties that plague the surveys conducted for this issue.
In my view, there are two major implications of autonomy’s challenge for missiology among Churches of Christ. The first is the need for efforts at further organization aimed at coordinating not only the capacities and initiative for boots-on-the-ground research but also motivating congregations’ interest and participation in ongoing research. The latter requires an argument to participant churches for the justification—the practical value—of such an effort. I take the research articles published in this issue to be part of such an argument. They indicate the relevance of the information such research stands to acquire, the kinds of conclusions we could draw on the basis of that information, and the importance of the decisions such insights might inform.
The second implication is that we may be well served by a turn toward the practices of qualitative research rather than relying solely on quantitative research. Certainly, some of the interests that motivate survey research—to find, for example, basic data like short-term missions expenditures or long-term missionary attrition rates—continue to require quantitative methodologies. Yet, as qualitative research has in recent decades carved out a space in the hyper-positivistic world of scientific research, notions of validity and generalizability have been freed from the grip of statistics. More fundamentally, the value of the kinds of knowing that qualitative research generates has become clear.In-depth interviews or case studies, for example, can give us unique, vital insight into the practices of sending churches and missionaries alike. It is time to stop thinking of such data as mere “anecdote” and get on with the business of rigorous qualitative research that can answer urgent missiological questions.
I must reiterate my appreciation for the labor of our friends at MRN. They continue to take steps in the direction we all hope to travel—toward wakeful, thoughtful, faithful participation in God’s mission. At its best, missiology always serves those ends. Churches of Christ are fortunate to have embarked on mission in the twenty-first century with leaders like those at MRN, who advocate careful attention to what we’re actually doing, theological reflection on what we should do, and imaginative discernment of what God is already doing in the world. Missio Dei serves to give such voices a hearing, and I pray that readers will find the conversation both helpful and challenging for their local churches.
Soli Deo gloria.
1 See the “memorial” written to the 1892 General Christian Missionary Convention held in Nashville, TN, reproduced in “All Delighted,” The Tennesseean, October 21, 1892, 8. For more information, see Doug Priest, “Missionary Societies, Controversy over,” in The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, ed. Douglas Foster, et al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 534–36.
2 “All Delighted,” 8.
3 Gailyn Van Rheenen and Bob Waldron, The Status of Missions: A Nationwide Survey of Churches of Christ (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2002).
4 Becky Holton and Dale Hawley, “Missionary Care among US Churches of Christ: A Comparative Study of Supporting Churches and Missionary Responses,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 8, no. 1 (Winter–Spring 2017): .
5 Gary L. Green, “Short-Term Missions among Churches of Christ: A National Survey,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 8, no. 1 (Winter–Spring 2017): .
6 Carl H. Royster, “Churches of Christ in the United States: Statistical Summary by State / Territory,” .
7 See Harding University, “Missionary Database Registration,” .
8 For a helpful introduction to these issues in a theological context, see John Swinton and Harriet Mowat, Practical Theology and Qualitative Research, 2nd ed. (London: SCM, 2016), ch. 2.