As I have said before, definitions are dangerous because they can either confuse or clarify. However, I think it's important to define what a missiologist is. At the most basic level, a missiologist is a specialist who studies and is trained in the science of missions. However, this definition may oversimplify the task of a missiologist. Missiology is accomplished at the intersection of gospel, culture, and the church. It is a multi-disciplinary study that incorporates theology, anthropology/sociology, and ecclesiology. That seems rather complex doesn't it? Well, for this reason missiology constitutes its own discipline.
My Ph.D. is in missions, and as a missiologist I do a lot of cultural analysis and things of that sort. I often talk to churches about their need to join God on His mission by understanding their context and by being faithful to the mission He has given them. I do a lot of research on church planting. I write often on missiological issues. I have written extensively on the subject of missiology and have a book called MissionShift, which examines the shifts in missions the past one hundred years, how those shifts shape how we define mission, discussions on contextualization, and the nature of the church's mission.
All this is to say, I am a missiologist by training. I'm focused on being a missiologist for the church, helping the church think missionally in her context.
The Theology of the Missiologist
What drives the missiologist? Foundational to missiology is knowing the God who is on mission. According to the Bible, God "desires all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim 2:4) and we are assured that people from "every tribe and language and people and nation" will be present in heaven (Rev 5:9). As a missiologist, I am driven by this gospel mission. Moreover, God's redemption extends beyond the personal to the cosmic. In the end, God will give us a new heavens and a new earth (Isa 65:17; Rev 21:2). Why does this matter?
God's mission is one of restoring humanity to all levels of being. In other words, God will not only restore man's relationship to himself, but also to his relationship with others, and with creation. While affirming the goodness of God's creation, we must also affirm that it is broken. Our interaction with culture should point others towards the restoration that is offered in Christ.
In other words, the missiologist must think about salvation and mission in a biblical way with a holistic way. Understanding the purposes of the creator God allows us to gain deeper insight into the longings of men and women as beings created in the His image. Missiology is practical theology at its best.
The Tools of the Missiologist
Missiology is not only grounded in theological reflection, it is also grounded in anthropological/sociological research. Missiology requires thoughtful engagement with the human situation in light of theology and the task of Christian mission. As a missiologist I use the tools of qualitative and quantitative research to gain greater insight into the mission field.
Essentially, missiological research is guided by specific questions aimed at seeking to understand the culture and society in which the church is situated. This research is carried out by formally specified procedures designed to gather, measure, and interpret data. All this work is done with the aim of equipping the church to minister in ways that are not only spiritually meaningful, but also in ways that are situational and structurally beneficial for society as a whole. As a missiologist I help the church understand what it means to be a faithful presence in this broken world.
The Team of the Missiologist
While the church has specialists called missiologists, all thoughtful Christians engage the world in a missiological way. All followers of Christ have been entrusted with the message of the gospel (2 Tim 1:14) and given the mission to make disciples wherever they go (Matt 28:19-20, Mark 16:14-18, Luke 24:44-49, John 20:19-23, and Acts 1:4-8). The gospel transforms people, and thus transforms how those people live in the world.
Lesslie Newbigin talked of the church's relationship to culture as missional in nature. The church is on the front lines of interacting with and impacting culture, and is the team that a missiologist coaches.
The church is called to embody the demands of the gospel as the kingdom way of life, as a credible alternative of living in a fallen world. This is the task of contextualization.
A missiologist comes alongside the church and helps her think critically about the task of contextualization. As a missiologist, I argue that the church should aim for a balanced approach in which interaction with people and culture is both compatible with biblical truth and sensitive to particular people groups. In other words, the church should proclaim and embody the gospel in ways that are biblical, faithful, meaningful, and conversational.
My goal is to help the churches and Christians who intentionally think missionally to do it better.
I am very aware that without intentionality, churches become less contextual, less indigenous, less focused on mission, and less evangelistically effective over time. The final result is a church that is not faithful to its biblical mandate to engage and transform culture with the gospel.
As a missiologist I humbly stand as a prophetic voice to the church, calling her to remain biblically faithful, culturally sensitive, and missionally focused.
That's what a missiologist is--and what a missiologist does.