For decades, evangelical missions has been quietly shaped by a man who came to faith at his ailing brother’s bedside in a small Wisconsin town.
Screen capture from Trinity International University
The late David Hesselgrave, lauded as the “dean of evangelical missiologists,” taught missions from 1965-1991, cofounded the Evangelical Missiological Society.
David Hesselgrave gave his life to Jesus there as a Christian woman prayed over his brother more than 80 years ago. He followed his brother into ministry and then followed Jesus to the ends of the earth.
And in doing so, he was instrumental in changing the way missions was done – and came to be called the founding dean of modern evangelical missiology.
Hesselgrave’s “life and work burned brightly while on earth, and he continues to cast a long shadow of legacy even after his death at age 94,” wrote Greg Mathias, assistant professor of global studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, in a July 5 article at the International Mission Board’s imb.org website. “I count it an honor to stand on his shoulders as a Christian brother, missiologist and servant in God’s kingdom.”
Hesselgrave, who died May 21, served with his wife Gertrude for 12 years as a missionary to Japan before returning to the U.S. and infusing what he had learned into academia. He built the missions department of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he served from 1965 until he retired in 1991. He also cofounded the Evangelical Missiological Society, an organization aimed at sending missions leaders out to move the gospel forward in a biblical, orthodox manner.
Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, said it is “hard to overstate” Hesselgrave’s influence over global missions.
“As we gathered at his funeral a few weeks ago, family and friends spoke movingly, but I was struck by the number of global missiologists gathered in the room who called him the ‘dean of evangelical missiologists,’” Stetzer told Baptist Press. “Nearly every evangelical missiologist I know draws from David’s approach to culture, mission and contextualization. Perhaps his greatest contribution, however, is that he consistently upheld the priority of evangelism.”
Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear said Hesselgrave “outlined the shape of mission for my generation.”
“He taught us that God really had given us the nations as our inheritance and showed us how to go after them,” Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in Durham, N.C., said in comments to Baptist Press. “My own understanding of mission was profoundly shaped by him, and our sending and missions training today includes many of the contributions Dr. Hesselgrave made to missiology.”
Mike Edens, dean of graduate studies and professor of theology and Islamic studies at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, agreed.
“God employs people like David Hesselgrave to shape His people as followers of the Messiah,” Edens said. “Hesselgrave’s personal and teaching ministry, writing and leadership all helped us become more Christ-like. He inspired us to rethink how to introduce Jesus, biblical discipleship and church across cultures.”
In his article on imb.org, Mathias noted four ways Hesselgrave’s influence impacted him and others:
1. Scholarship and missions go together.
Throughout his career, Hesselgrave was a prolific writer, penning textbooks such as “Planting Churches Cross-Culturally,” “Counseling Cross-Culturally” and “Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally.”
The last, Mathias wrote, combines “academic rigor” with “real-world application.”
“His desire wasn’t for academic prowess but for kingdom-equipping that facilitated gospel impact,” Mathias wrote.
2. Proclaiming the gospel message is central to missions.
While Hesselgrave valued the place of anthropology and other social sciences in missions work, at every possible point he “emphasized the centrality of Christ, the Bible, and proclaiming the Gospel message,” wrote Mathias, a student of Hesselgrave’s work over the years.
“Hesselgrave never wavered in his commitment to gospel proclamation,” Mathias wrote. “Without a focus on Christ and the gospel message, missions is robbed of its significance.”
Stetzer also noted how Hesselgrave centered relentlessly on the gospel.
“David consistently pushed us to remember that, above all else, people need Christ,” Stetzer said. “He will be missed, but I pray his words on evangelism will be heeded by future missiologists.”
3. Humility and charity are vital partners in missiological discussion.
Mathias wrote that Hesselgrave lived out the idea that learning from others makes stronger disciples and stronger churches.
“When reading Hesselgrave, one never finds a spirit of arrogance, nor does one find a belittling of other opinions,” Mathias wrote.
4. Faithful legacy includes both private and public life.
While shaping the face of missions, Hesselgrave quietly cared for his family with the deepest of commitment, Mathias wrote. The Hesselgraves were married for more than 70 years and raised three children along the way.
“Hesselgrave served the church and fulfilled the Great Commission with integrity and humility,” Mathias wrote. “His life and work can be summed up best in his own words: ‘Christ loved the church and gave himself for her. Though in seemingly inconsequential ways by comparison, I, too, have loved the church and given myself for her.’”