2012 marks three significant anniversaries in the history of Christian missions. Two hundred years ago, in 1812, Adoniram and Ann Judson set sail from the harbor in Salem, Massachusetts. They were bound for South Asia, and with their companions they were the first foreign missionaries to go out from the United States. One hundred years ago, in 1912, Southern Baptist missionary Lottie Moon died, ending a remarkable career that has had a lasting impact both in her beloved China and among the churches that sent her out. That same year, Roland Allen published Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s, or Ours? As Allen himself predicted, his book has attracted far more notice as the years have gone by, and today it is impossible to think about missiology without taking Allen into account.
How should we think about such milestones in missions history, or indeed about missions history itself? Henry Ford famously called history “bunk,” and his attitude is not uncommon among Americans. We who are Christians, however, should have a different perspective on our family history. The memory of people like the Judsons and Lottie Moon fills us with admiration, and it also serves to challenge the casualness of our own obedience. When they and their generations left home, they did so with little expectation or hope of ever returning – and most of them never did. They went without electronic communication technologies or modern transportation systems. They went knowing full well that they would face exotic diseases for which there were no known cures, and they had no expectation of medical evacuation if something went wrong. They did not count on political intervention to protect them from hostile governments. Few today face the level of uncertainty common to them. Their example demonstrated the worth of the Gospel in ways modern Western Christians would do well to embrace.
We also learn valuable lessons about how to do missions from people like the Judsons, Lottie Moon, and Roland Allen. They had far fewer examples to follow. They did many things very well, and they laid the foundation on which the current global spread of the Gospel is being built. They and their generations tried things, some with good outcomes and some with unintended negative consequences, and their experience is valuable to us today. Roland Allen, in particular, reflected on what he saw at the turn of the last century, and his observations help us significantly down to this day. Because of their courage and creativity, we have a far better idea today how to pursue the calling of global evangelization.
2012, then, is an occasion for celebration among mission-minded Christians. We should celebrate the beginning of the American foreign mission movement in the sailing of Adoniram and Ann Judson. We should celebrate the life and impact of Lottie Moon. We should celebrate the keen powers of observation and analysis that God gave Roland Allen. As we celebrate, we can honor their memory best by learning from their lives and by redoubling our efforts to fulfill the vision for which they gave those lives – the spread of the Gospel to the ends of the earth.