Missions Going Global in 21st Century

Brace yourself for what one missiologist calls the "brave, new, non-Western world of missions."

Denton Lotz, general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance, has called for establishment of an international Baptist mission agency to send and support missionaries from the "Two-Thirds" World, who feel called to missionary work beyond their borders but lack the financial resources to carry out their calling. 

Lotz says his proposal, introduced at a BWA-sponsored Global Summit on Baptist Mission in the 21st Century," is in the "initial-thinking phase." He told EthicsDaily.com in an e-mail that he issued the call as a challenge to international Baptist mission agencies to support missionaries from the Third World and that the BWA would not necessarily be the body to initiate such an agency.

Lotz said the basic thrust of his proposal is based on the thesis of Philip Jenkins' book, The Next Christendom, which argues that the main locus of Christianity in the 21st century has moved from the West to the South. 

Jenkins' 2002 book, subtitled, The Coming of Global Christianity, observes that for the last five centuries, the history of Christianity has been inextricably tied to the West. That is changing rapidly, he says, by twin forces of secularization in Europe and the explosive growth of Christianity in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Jenkins predicts a worldwide boon for Christianity in the 21st century, but he says the majority of believers won't be white or European. Based on current trends, he says that by 2050 only about one-fifth of the world's Christians will be non-Hispanic whites. A "white Christian," he suggests, may one day be viewed as a "curious oxymoron," similar to a "Swedish Buddhist."  

"Such people can exist," he says, "but a slight eccentricity is implied."

In 1900, about 90 percent of the world's evangelical Christians lived in Europe and North America, according to Mark Elliott, director of the Global Center at Samford University's Beeson Divinity School. By 1985, that figure had dropped to 34 percent. 

Evangelical populations in Central and South America, meanwhile, grew from 250,000 in 1900 to 40 million in 1990. Despite hostility toward Christians in many areas, Christianity in Asia grew 15-fold in the last century, to about 313 million adherents. In Africa, where missionaries' close association with colonial rulers long inhibited evangelism, the number of Christians has grown from 20 million in 1900 to 307 million amid decolonization of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

Implications of that shift for missions are already being felt. 

By some estimates, there are as many as 100,000 non-Western missionaries located around the world. Protestants in Singapore commission more missionaries per capita than any Christian community in the world. Non-Western churches are increasingly viewing a secularized Europe as a mission field. At least one Pentecostal denomination, the Nigeria-based Deeper Life Bible Fellowship, has even planted congregations in the United States.

The number of Western missionaries, meanwhile, is plateaued or declining. Fewer Americans are coming forward as career missionaries, and those who leave the mission field are increasingly replaced with short-termers. Missions giving as a percentage of church income in the West, meanwhile, continues to decline. 

"Non-Western missionaries ministering cross-culturally may come to supersede Western missionaries," Elliott wrote in an article for the Global Center's "East-West Church and Ministry Report." "No longer does it make sense to think of the missionary enterprise as a movement from a Western 'center' to a non-Western 'periphery.'"

"The day of Western-dominated, Western-directed global missions is over—or should be," Elliott says. 

Elliott's article, "The New, Non-Western Chapter in Christian History," encourages Christians to recognize a new paradigm of "a brave, new, non-Western world of missions."

"In the 21st century task of going into all the world and making disciples, American and European believers should proceed with humility as partners, rather than overlords," he contends. 

Quoting authors James Engel and William Dyrness, Elliott says the time has come for Western missions agencies and their supporters "to concede graciously that they are no longer in the driver's seat, nor should they be."

The new challenge for Western agencies, Elliott says, is to respect autonomy and decision-making of non-Western partners while remaining accountable to Western donors. He predicts that Western missionaries will increasingly play consulting and support roles, assisting indigenous churches as requested, while Western workers with specialized skills, such as communications technology and providing social services, will be in high demand. 

Such efforts are already underway on a smaller scale.

The European Baptist Federation, one of six BWA-related regional bodies, recently hired a director for an Indigenous Missionary Program it launched last September. Daniel Trusiewicz, pastor at First Baptist Church in Wroclaw, Poland, will lead the effort to plant churches using local people in order to overcome language and custom barriers, according to European Baptist Press Service. 

A missions leader at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship welcomed the initiative proposed by Lotz.

"We welcome any suggestion that leads to increased cooperation and to better stewardship of mission dollars," said Gary Baldridge, co-global missions coordinator with the Atlanta-based CBF. "It would be a pleasure to study the possibilities with Baptist friends around the world and to see where it all leads." 

A spokesperson with the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention said senior leaders were traveling and unavailable for comment.

Lotz first proposed the summit on Baptist mission, which took place May 5-9 in Swanwick, England, at the 2000 Baptist World Congress in Australia. Two hundred years after the launch of the modern Baptist missionary movement by William Carey, Lotz said it is now time to "re-awaken that vision and recommit ourselves" to new missions challenges in the 21st century. 

Most of the 160 participants who pre-registered for the meeting came from Latin America, Africa and Asia, while participation was lower among Baptists from Europe and North America, according to a news release before the event.

"We recognize that models of mission used in the past will not be wholly adequate for the new era that has dawned with the startling speed of modern technology," delegates said in a "Call to Mission" adopted during the meeting's closing session. "Notions of sending and receiving are unhelpful if we assume that it is the role of some simply to send and others simply to receive. Mission is 'from everywhere to everywhere,' but such movement requires resourcing, and too often resources are held in the hands of a few." 

The statement celebrates past mission successes, while confessing mistakes of cultural insensitivity. It highlights the role of minorities in missions, which delegates said is often overlooked. It commits to cooperation with other Christian bodies and respect in encounters with people of other faiths, and it emphasizes integrity in mission tactics.

"We rejoice in the development of creative strategies designed to share the good news in places closed to traditional forms of witness," the statement says. "Nonetheless we plead for these ministries to carry the hallmark of integrity at all times lest we be judged as those using questionable means to bear witness to Jesus Christ." 

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

Order The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity from Amazon.com.

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