The history of missions is the history of how the gospel spread and how churches were established into new cultures and countries and people groups and the set-backs and defeats and victories and the struggle of seeing the gospel take root in other cultures.
Also, see my other article at Ken’s Blog on “Why is church history important to missions?”
There are different ways of looking at the history of missions, or categorizing periods and movements and chronological events.
Ralph Winter has a very effective way of understanding a basic outline of the history of missions in how the gospel went into new large “cultural basins” or in some cases, how it did not advance. (in the Perspectives on the World Christian Movement text and course)
Winning the Romans (30-400 AD) – the church grew under persecution until 312 AD, Constantine’s Edict of toleration. Theodosius (380-392 AD) was the emperor who made Christianty the official state religion. Also, the Armenian people accepted Christianity as their religion in the year 303 AD by the decree of a king. But it takes individual witnessing and faith for true conversion to take place. There is a vibrant Armenian Evangelical community today in Armenia and Turkey and Iran, although most Armenians today are very nominal.
Winning the European Tribes (400-800 AD) (commonly called the era of the Barbarian Invasions of the Roman Empire like the Goths, Franks, Visi-Goths, Vandals, Britons, Scots, Irish, Angels and Saxons and other Germanic and European Tribes. They invaded the Roman Empire and missionaries were also sent out and these European tribes became Christian in culture. This laid a foundation for the basic Christian culture of most of Europe. Some of the missionaries, like Ulfilas, who went to the Barbarain Goths, were Arian in there theology, and they needed to be discipled in correct doctrine. (Arian means, they followed the theology of Arius, who was a heretic condemned at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. Arius taught that Christ was not the eternal Son, but the first creature that God the Father created. Arius said, “there was a time in the past that the Son did not exist.” The Council of Nicea condemned him as a heretic and Athanasius, Ambrose, Augustine, Hillary, Jerome, the Cappadocian fathers, all wrote and taught against this ancient heresy. Today, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have a similar theology as the ancient heretic Arius.
Islam invaded and conquered the Middle East Byzantium Empire, North Africa, Spain, and the Persian Empire. (634 – 722 AD; and into the 800s) The Church as a whole had “left its first love” (see Revelation 2:4-5) and did not reach out and allowed false doctrines to eclipse the gospel; so God allowed Islam to conquer many areas that were thriving Christian centers and cities in the earlier centuries.
Winning the Vikings (800-1200 AD) – Scandanavian peoples invade Europe and come into contact with Christianity, at minimun in a cultural encounter and with a middle ages Roman Catholic theology. Many Vikings killed the men and took women as their wives, and many women spread Christianity into the Vikings cultures through a quiet and submissive character and faithful witness when the men became curious to their godly behavior. (as in 1 Peter 3:1-6)
The Crusades (1095-1299 AD) – was obviously NOT a missionary strategy but because the church was unified with the European governments and military force, the Muslims got the impression that the Church of that day was trying to convert them to Christianity. The bitter results of the Crusades still lingers in the Muslim world today. The Crusades was a mixture of the “just war theory” and Roman Catholic theology of relics and pilgrimmage visiting and penance and gaining forgiveness through the indulgence system and getting people out of purgatory -theology, by fighting the Muslims. It was not a good testimony at all, though from a “just war” theory or self -defense perspective, some aspects of it were understandable, as the Muslims did start the process in their Jihad conquests in 634-722.
Winning the Muslims? (1200-1600) is not really accurate, (hence the ?), because there really was not any outreach to Muslims, except for 2 famous people – Francis of Assissi and Raymond Lull. But this 400 year period reflects the last century of the Crusades (1200-1300) and the Suljuk and Ottoman Turks who attacked Constantinople and eventually conquered the city in 1453, renaming it Istanbul.
The Ends of the Earth – (1600- today ) – this reflects the Protestant Reformation and the great Century of Revival movements and missions efforts of 1792-1900s
Coastlands – 1792-1900s– establishing gospel outreach in coastal cities – for example, William Carey in Calcutta, India and Adoniram Judson in Burma were great pioneers
Inlands -1800s – 1900s – going deeper into the countries beyond the coastal ports and cities – for example, Hudson Taylor in China, Lottie Moon in China, David Livingstone in Africa; Early 1920s to 1960s – William Miller in Iran, and Samuel Zwemer in Arabia, Iraq, Bahrain, Egypt.
Unreached people groups – 1930s to today – Donald McGavran was a pioneer of the concept of the ethnic people groups (The Biblical meaning of the word “nation” (ethne – as in “ethnic”) that are within political boundries/countries and spread over several political boundries that needed the Scriptures in their own language and churches in their own cultures. Cameron Townsend founded Wycliff Bible Translators and set the foundation for translating the Bible into many more languages that needed them so that the gospel could spread in those cultures as they heard the word preached and taught when the Bible was in their language. Romans 10:13-15 – “how shall they hear and believe without a preacher?”