Southern Baptists have a big immediate concern right now. Our International Mission Board is offering retirement packages to missionaries age 50 and over in hopes of reducing the missionary force by up to 800. These offers are driven by financial realities of the last decade that are finally catching up to the practicalities of sending and keeping missionaries on the field. I am personally concerned not only because of theological and missiological reasons, but also because this decision directly affects friends and family members.
There are those far more informed and articulate than I who have written about the theological, strategic, and methodological issues that led to the current financial realities. I won’t rehash those reasons and explanations or give my take on them right now. Instead, I want to list 5 big changing realities that affect and will continue to affect global missions, whether done by the International Mission Board or by other groups. Each one of these deserves a chapter in a book:
1. The Marginalization of the Evangelical Church.
What is happening: This is primarily a Western phenomenon. Due to rising secularization and pluralism, the church has already been marginalized in Europe (notwithstanding state churches) and is on the way to life at the margins in the United States. There are some who want to fight this return to the margins. There are others who argue we should accept this new (and really ancient) reality and embrace our existence at the margins. Why? Because it will force the church to be a committed missional church. Cultural Christians will decide fringe belief and involvement in the church is no longer worth it and will opt to leave.
What it means: The church is losing its status at the center of American culture. There will be a considerable loss of political power, control, and influence, which is not altogether a bad thing. Some will fight to regain the center. Some will respond by going into survival mode, turn inward, build a Christian ghetto, and wait for the return of Jesus. They will be motivated primarily by fear of losing. A better response is to see that America is in fact a mission field and that global missions begin right here and right next door. The difficulty is that there will be fewer people and less money in the church, a reality we are already experiencing. We should not retreat from the global task, but the financial realities will mean new strategies and new methods. Furthermore, we have to consider . . .
2. The Flattening of the World.
What is happening: Rapid advances in travel, communication, and technology mean the world is not as big as it used to be. More significantly, we can know about anything in the world instantly, over and over again. Some places may still hard to get to, but those are increasingly fewer. Trade, multi-national corporations, pop culture and entertainment, and global people movements are blurring the lines of cultures and cultural distinctiveness as never before. The distance between “here” and “there” is just not that great anymore.
What it means: On the one hand it means global missions are easier; we can just get there quicker and easier. On the other hand, as already mentioned, global missions are also next door. Paradoxically, a greater encounter of cultures and peoples means a greater tolerance and growing religious pluralism in some cases and greater intolerance, fear, and conflict in others. More importantly for the future of global missions there is . . .
3. The Shift in Global Christianity.
What is happening: Some hundred years ago the “typical” Christian was a white, European male. Today, because the center of gravity of Christianity has shifted south and east, the “typical” Christian is probably female, Black, African, poor, and charismatic. China is poised to be the largest Christian country in the world, in terms of raw numbers of Christians. Christianity is rapidly growing in Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia. America may still have the richest Christians, dominate the production of Christian resources (many are “Christian” only in the broadest sense), have the most theologians, and send the most missionaries (not for long), but the majority of Christian people are not in the West or the North.
What it means: Simply put, it means we must get ready for changes in the “face” or look of Christianity, changes in theologizing, and changes in how and who does missions. For one thing, many of us Americans need to stop whining about the decline of the church, as if we were the only church. Besides, committed Christianity in America is not necessarily dying, cultural Christianity is. Consequently, we are seeing the growth in . . .
4. Multi-Directional Missions.
What is happening: The flattening of the world, the shift in the center of global Christianity, the growth of the church in the majority world, global people movements, and America as a growing mission field.
What it means: Missions is no longer from here to there; that is, from the West to the rest. Missionaries are being sent out more and more from non-Western countries such as South Korea, Brazil, and from African nations. Some are coming to the United States, which they see as desperately needing the gospel! Sending non-Western (Anglo-European) missionaries often means fewer cultural and racial barriers to cross (Latinos are quite effective in North Africa and the Middle East, for example). Bottom line, the global church will work together to find the most unreached areas and send missionaries “from everywhere to everywhere.” This means we will have to discover . . .
5. New Understandings and New Ways to Cooperate.
What is happening: The marginalization of the evangelical church in America, a decline in giving, the lack of institutional trust by millennials, and the shift of Christianity to the majority world. In the American church financial resources may be fewer, but they still dwarf what is available in the majority world church. Furthermore, less money available in the church does not mean there is less money! It means less is being given. So . . .
What it means: In the U.S. we are going to have to figure out new and different ways to cast the vision for global missions. There is money. People, and especially millennials, however, are not going to give it as readily through traditional means. In Southern Baptist life I agree that the Cooperative Program is the best funding vehicle possible. However, we must re-think, re-brand, and re-sell it, always couched in the vision and reality of missions. I know. Others far smarter than I have tried to figure out how. As for the global missions task in both the U.S. and around the world, the marginalized church needs to figure out new cooperative ways to carry out the Great Commission. Globally, we are going to have to find ways to unite “our” resources with “their” people. For example, how can American churches use our millions of dollars and partner to deploy thousands of Latin American or African missionaries ready and willing to move to North Africa and the Middle East?
Each one of these changes demands much more thought and discussion. I may not have interpreted or explained them perfectly, but I do believe they are real, they are only going to increase in significance, and they will affect global missions more and more.
Next: Need to Know: 5 Missions Strategies We Need to Re-Think.