Brief Historical Sketch of IAMS

by Joachim Wietzke

The idea of IAMS was born at the Egede Institute in Oslo, Norway. As early as 1951 its director, Olav Guttorm Myklebust, published a booklet "An International Institute of Scientific Missionary Research". In this the author proposed to set up an institute with the following three objectives:

·         to establish and “international association of missiologists

·         to organize international conferences for the discussion of missionary subjects" in a strictly scientific spirit"

·         to publish a "scholarly review of high standards." (1)

The argument, hardly to be debated, was: Missionary research by its very nature is global in scope and thus needs an international structure.

The proposal met with a positive response from various outstanding missiologists, both Roman Catholics and Protestants like T. Ohm, J. Beckmann, K. S. Latourette, R. P. Beaver, E. A. Payne, and S. Neill. Others, e.g. Charles W. Ranson and W. Freytag, supported the idea of a flexible instrument like regular conferences, but saw no need for a permanent structure like an institute or an association.

In spite of further attempts by O. G. Myklebust to establish an "International Association for the Scientific Study of the Christian World Mission"(2) nothing actually moved towards the implementation of this idea for more than a decade. Considerable opposition seems to have come from German scholars who showed little interest in dialogue with Anglo-Saxon and with American missiology in particular(3). However the proposal to create some kind of "a worldwide interconfessional missiological society" was taken up by the "European Consultation on Mission Studies" in 1968 at Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham. This led to a conference in Oslo in 1970, where the unanimous decision was taken to establish the International Association for Mission Studies (IAMS) with the objectives "to promote the scholarly study of theological, historical, social and practical questions relating to mission, to promote fellowship, co-operation and mutual assistance in its study, and to relate studies in mission to studies in theological and other fields"(4). The first President elected was H-W. Gensichen with A. Camps OFM being the Vice President and O. G. Myklebust serving as the first Secretary and Treasurer.

No doubt, by now the time was ripe for establishing the association. Within a few months more than 200 individuals and 39 institutions applied for membership. Today [1993] the Association has truly become international with more that 500 individual and 78 institutional members. Already in 1978 J. Aagaard claimed that IAMS had grown into the "broadest ecumenical movement in Christendom". This of course, does not apply to numbers but it might be true in regard to continental representation and the wide range of confessional traditions and theological orientations. Though the initiative of founding the association goes back to Protestant missiologists from Western Europe – with the exception of A. Camps the Franciscan scholar from the Netherlands and S. J. Samartha, the Director of the WCC Programme on Dialogue, from India, today the IAMS has developed into a global fellowship with one third of the membership from the South and covering virtually all traditions from the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Conciliar and Evangelical Protestants to the Pentecostal, Charismatic and Independent churches and movements.

Looking into the history of IAMS and asking how the constitutional purpose of this association is being implemented I wish to emphasize the following:

1. IAMS provides a unique forum for the scholarly exchange of theological and interdisciplinary research relating to the missionary dimension of the Christian message. The main instrument to achieve this has been a series of international conferences with an average of 150 participants. Space does not permit to go into the variety of topics and issues dealt with, but allow me to recall at least the places of these conferences: Driebergen, NL (1972); Frankfurt (1974); San José, Costa Rica (1976); Maryknoll, New York (1978); Bangalore (1982); Harare (1985); Rome (1988); Kaneohe, Hawaii (1992).

2. IAMS promotes the fellowship and cooperation of missiologists of different countries and various Christian traditions and helps to disseminate information concerning mission among all those engaged in such studies and among the general public. The main instrument for this has been the IAMS News Letter (since 1972) and our semi-annual journal Mission Studies (since 1984). The present circulation is more than 700 copies.

3. IAMS serves as an agency to stimulate and coordinate certain research projects. Already at Driebergen in 1972 a Working Party on Bibliography and Documentation was set up with the purpose to collect, classify and standardize bibliographical information in the field of missionary research. By now this project has grown into a computerized programme on Documentation, Archives and Bibliography (DAB) providing indispensable tools for data collection and facilitating the flow of information between individual scholars, libraries and research institutes (5).

Another area of research crucial to any missiology is its Biblical foundation. At the Maryknoll Conference in 1978 this concern was strongly voiced and led to the inauguration of the IAMS project called "Biblical Studies and Missiology" (BISAM). The main objective was to study "the importance of recent exegetical research for missiology"
(6) and to reclaim the New Testament as a basically missionary document. A first fruit of the project was the valuable publication edited by M. R. Spindler and P. R. Middelkoop on "Bible and Mission: A partially annotated Bibliography 1960 –1980"’ Leiden – Utrecht 1981 and Spindler’s challenging article on "Visa for Witness: a new focus on the theology of mission and ecumenism in Mission Studies No.5, pp.51-60.

The third project emerged from the IAMS Conference in Harare and was officially approved by the Executive Committee in April 1986 with the title "The Church as a Healing Community". To widen the scope beyond the church this project was later renamed HEALING and no doubt it has proven a useful instrument for the exchange of relevant studies in the field of healing concepts, both in traditional and western medicine. In terms of missiology the project is geared towards the ambitious goal of developing contextual theologies of healing

These projects show the vitality of IAMS. They prove that IAMS is more than a fund raising agency to organize conferences. After all the project work is not done by the IAMS Executive, but by dedicated and active members. The role of the Association is that of an enabler, facilitator and coordinator. It has the function of a mid-wife. Some might call this a limitation, however it is a role not to be underestimated. At the same time it is a healthy reminder, to be for, namely to stimulate and strengthen each member in his or her missiological study and missionary involvement.

To provide an even better framework and infrastructure for this is the ongoing challenge in front of us. On top of our agenda is the question how to extend the services of our Association to areas where IAMS is little known, to Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the francophone countries of Africa and elsewhere. We realise that there are many scholars particularly in the South who do not regard themselves as missiologists, but deal precisely with the issues we are interested in. How do we relate to them? Should IAMS establish closer links with existing national and regional associations or start its own regional and continental sections? Is there a need to sharpen the profile of IAMS or do we continue to provide a platform for as wide a constituency as possible? Do we concentrate on academic study or should more emphasis be given to common commitment in action?

These are some of the questions to be answered by the new Executive. I feel our last conference has given some pointers in which direction to move. I like to mention only two.

First, in Hawaii there was a strong plea to launch a new IAMS Project on "Women in Mission". In the conference women had a significant share, probably a more important one than in any IAMS conference before. It will be wise to build on this and to give women their due place within IAMS.

Secondly, in Hawaii there was a strong feeling that missiology cannot be purely an academic exercise but has to be done from a position of actual involvement in missions. This suggests rethinking our membership criteria and to be more open to groups being actively involved in frontier missionary work. Neither the missiologist nor the missionary activist should reflect and operate in isolation. Both are in need of a creative exchange of theological convictions and missionary experiences, and I know of no better forum than IAMS to do this.

January 1993.


1. O. G. Myklebust, "On the origin of IAMS" Mission Studies III-1, 5, 1986, p.4.

2. Letter from the Egede Institute dated June 5, 1954.

3. W. Urstorf. "Anti-Americanism in German Missiology" Mission Studies 11, pp.23-34.

4. Quote from the first IAMS folder.

5. See the various reports of the DAB Working Party in IAMS News Letter No. 2, pp.4f; No. 13, pp.8ff; Nos. 16/17, pp.9ff; Nos. 18/19, pp.12ff; in Mission Studies Vol. II/1, pp.135ff; Vol. II/2, pp.92ff; No.5, pp100ff, No. 7, pp. 71ff; No. 10, pp.134ff; No. 14, pp.237ff.

6. News Letter 13, p.31; apart from various progress reports see in particular D. J. Bosch, "The scope of the ‘BISAM’ Project", Mission Studies No.11, pp.61-69.

7. See the project reports of the Rome Conference by H. -J. Becken, in Mission Studies No.10, pp.146-149, and by Chr. Gründmann in Mission Studies No.11, pp.70-72.