The (In)Famous Watchword: Its Cultural and Theological Assumptions


by John Drury



The great missionary conference at Edinburgh in 1910 promoted this goal: the evangelization of the world in this generation.  What was hiding behind this “Watchword?”  On what cultural assumptions did it rest?  What theological assumptions fueled this goal?  These questions will help us to better understand the Watchword so that we can evaluate it fairly.

I. The Watchword: What it is and What it is Not

            The Watchword represents the missionary goal of the church in the opening decades of the last century.  It is thoroughly evangelistic.  The social implications of the gospel are certainly carried along with it, but not central to it.  The object of evangelization is “the world.”  This broad term is actually very specific.  The mission of Edinburgh was limited to non-Christian sectors of the globe (Hogg 131).  The Christian West was excluded.  The time scheme of this world evangelization was “this generation.”  This makes the goal very concrete by placing it within a definite time frame.  The Edinburgh conference was calling the church not to prepare for world evangelization but to accomplish world evangelization.

            It is important to point out what the Watchword was not affirming.  It does not project the conversion of the world in this generation.  Conversion is conditional on so many other factors than the will and act of the church.  Evangelization, on the other hand, is the proclamation and witness of the gospel, which is an act the church can perform.  Furthermore, it is worth noting that the term generation connotes renewability.  If the world is not evangelized in this generation, the goal is not lost but can be picked up by the next generation.  Such renewability would not be possible had the Watchword set a date.

II. Cultural Assumptions

            The Watchword is certainly a product of its time.  What are the cultural assumptions hiding behind it?  First of all, the Watchword assumes the possibility of reaching the whole world with the gospel.  Because of modern innovations in communication and transportation, Christianity is enabled to share its good news with the world.  The very awareness of a world without Christ was made acute by modern global explorations.  Furthermore, the Western political hegemony makes its possible to enter otherwise hostile environments with the full backing of military intimidation.

            Secondly, one catches in the Watchword a hint of the “White Man’s Burden” idea.  The superior Western person is obligated by the goodness of his or her religion and culture to share it with the rest of the world.  The missionary is the subject and the world is the object.  The gospel is gift possessed by the missionary who then offers it to the world.  There is a sense of abundance and blessing, which is to be shared with those who are deprived.

            Finally, there is a certain evolutionary assumption behind the Watchword.  Why would this generation be obligated to evangelize world?  Because this generation is at the dawn of a new era.  Culture has been progressing to this “omega point” of evangelization.  The church has “come of age” to its world obligation.  The Enlightenment principle of progress lies behind this mentality.

III. Theological Assumptions

            The Watchword was also dependent on certain theological assumptions.  First of all, one could point out the strong Arminian emphasis.  According to the Watchword, the advance of the Gospel is dependent wholly on the activity of this generation.  The missionaries will evangelize the world.  A sense of God’s sovereignty is not fully taken into account.  If God’s sovereignty plays any role, it is in the command to go and preach.

            This command leads us to the second theological assumption.  The motive for mission is rooted almost entirely in the context of command and law.  Other motives such as joy or promise are subordinate to the command to do the will of God.  It is out of sense of necessity before possibility; law before grace.

            Furthermore, there is a mixed eschatology informing the Watchword.  It represents both premillennial and postmillennial visions of the future.  It is premillennial in so far as the evangelization of the world in this generation is cast in light of Christ’s imminent return.  If Christ could come back any day, then we must hurry to share his gospel with all.  It is postmillennial in so far as it sees the evangelization of the world in this generation as the prerequisite for God’s kingdom to be established on earth.  If his kingdom requires all to believe, then we must get the word out to all.  These themes are mixed yet not integrated.

            The final theological assumption is the principle of fides ex auditu--faith comes from hearing.  Salvation is dependent on faith, and faith is dependent on hearing the gospel.  This classical principle motivates the emphasis on evangelization.  Christ is not so much seen in the life of the church but heard in the proclamation of the church.  The church’s proclamation and its life ought to correspond, but the latter is subordinate to the former.   

IV. Evaluation

            Armed with an understanding of its cultural and theological assumptions, we are now equipped to evaluate the appropriateness of the Watchword.  First of all, I would commend its sense of responsibility.  For a group of Christian leaders to call the church to fulfill its mission to the world is a daring but necessary task.  The church is called to evangelize the world.  The Watchword foregrounds this missional reality, and rests the full weight of responsibility on this generation of the church.

            Secondly, I respect the sense of urgency the Watchword entails.  Why hold back a good thing?  Why leave for tomorrow what can be done today?  The missional task does not always have to be described as a long, drawn out process.  Certainly obstacles emerge, but that should not deter the urgency of the Christian missional task. 

            Despite these favorable features, the Watchword has certain deficiencies.  First of all, there is a problem of semantics.  The evangelization of the world in this generation should be regarded as a vision, not a goal.  The church should always hope and therefore foresee a world that has heard the gospel.  But it is dangerous to speak this Watchword as a goal for church.  As far as it does, it sets up a bar of success and failure to justify its missional activity.  The difference between a vision and goal is a technical one, but the implications are intensely practical.

            To this semantic problem I would add the problem of its optimism.  The Watchword has no categories to deal with the intense challenges the church would face in the decades following its popularity.  The doctrinal disputes, the encounter with world religions and secularism, and the intense violence of two World Wars cannot be made sensible by a mind-set controlled by the Watchword.  How can such a broken generation evangelize the world?

            Finally, the Watchword carries with it a strong sense of triumphalism.  The Christian West possesses the gospel that it takes to the non-Christian world.  This triumphalistic attitude results in triumphalistic missiological practices.  Western culture is assumed to be part of the gift of the Gospel, rather than an incidental (or even erred) packaging.

            In the final analysis, the Watchword without qualification would not be an appropriate goal for church’s mission.  However, if it were cast as a vision rather than goal and were shed of its optimism and triumphalism, it may be a helpful reminder of the responsibility and urgency of evangelism.  Our generation ought to have the courage to take upon itself the missionary task of the church.



Works Cited


Hogg, William Richey.  Ecumenical Foundations.  New York: Harper Brothers, 1952.