Who says mission, says church : the church-mission affirmation of Tambaram, 1938.


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This dissertation is a historical investigation of the ecclesiology of the 1938 meeting of the International Missionary Council in Tambaram, India. The study’s impetus is current characterizations of Tambaram as the pinnacle of a church-centric mission theology portrayed as primarily concerned with the numerical growth of the church as an institution under particular cultural norms rather than as an emphasis on the church as the primary agent in mission with growth of the church as a result of mission, rather than the primary aim or goal. The misrepresentation of Tambaram and its church-centrism plays out in the origin story of today’s missional ecclesiology movement and also is subscribed to by other proponents of missio Dei mission theology. These groups differentiate themselves from church-centrism by way of theo-centrism – espousing a trinitarian foundation for mission in the missionary nature and activity of God. Historical analysis identifies the contextual factors contributing to Tambaram’s turn to the church, the core features of Tambaram’s ecclesiology, and the major dissent from Tambaram’s affirmation of the church. Further analysis places Tambaram in historical relation to the IMC’s Jerusalem meeting in 1928 and pre-IMC modern Protestant mission history in terms of contention over the kingdom of God concept. This analysis of Tambaram is then applied to current characterizations of church-centrism clarifying Tambaram’s relation to later developments in conciliar Protestant mission history and Tambaram’s (non)reception. Four contextual factors influenced Tambaram’s turn to the church and also affected the content of their affirmation of the church: a pattern of growing internationalization and parity in the history of the IMC; geo-political tensions and the threat of war; late-modern socio-cultural changes and the totalitarian claims of secular ideologies, nationalism, and non-Christian religions; and an ecclesiological turn in international Protestantism, especially the 1937 meetings of the Life and Work and Faith and Order movements. Five salient characteristics of Tambaram’s latent ecclesiology are identified from textual analysis: penitence, the church called with a purpose, the witness-bearing nature of the church, community and fellowship, and the social and cultural contextualization of indigenous local churches. The study then compares these results with current historical representations and concludes that Tambaram and church-centric mission theology are caricatured. The caricature is rejected, thereby closing off Tambaram from current conversations regarding ecclesiology, culture, and mission. In particular, this caricature and rejection anchors one of the two tributary streams missional ecclesiology narrates in its origin story. This study suggests that missional ecclesiology needs to re-narrate that origin story for the sake of historical accuracy and theological clarity.



Tambaram, International Missionary Council, Ecclesiology, Missional ecclesiology, Missional church, Missio Dei. Willingen, Lesslie Newbigin, Karl Hartenstein, E. Stanley Jones.