The Changing Face of World Missions - The Missional Context
Section Two– The Missional Context
As the world is changing at an accelerating rate, how is Christianity changing? The center of Christianity, which used to be the West, is disappearing. Christianity is thriving in places such as South America and Africa. Over the next 20 years these continents will have the largest Christian communities on the planet.
The Disappearing Center
Missions has often been thought of as “the West to the rest.” In other words, the supposed center of Christianity exists in the West, and the missionaries are to leave the West to reach out to the rest of the world. The common perception is that the average Christian is a forty-five year old white British male, which would be correct if we lived in the year 1907. However, we live in the 21st century, and due to the success of missions efforts of the last century the center for Christianity no longer lies in the West. Instead the good news about Jesus has spread around the globe. Thus, it should not be surprising that the average Christian is no longer a white male but a twenty-eight year old black African female.
During the industrial age of rational scientific thinking many people thought that Christianity would fall apart and die off. Two world wars were fought amongst traditionally Christian countries, widespread biblical defections occurred among those in the West, and Marxism established antireligious materialism in several countries. Signs such as these pointed towards the idea that true Christianity was dying. However, to the amazement of the world, Christianity flourished globally during the 20th century.
Despite the decline of traditional Christian countries in the West, God worked through missionaries to spread His kingdom globally. In Genesis 12, God promised Abram that He would make Abram into a great nation and through that nation all the peoples of the earth would be blessed. God is doing what He promised in this very age, and yet most Christians seem unaware of Christianity’s global expansion beyond the West. One third of the world’s population and 60 percent of sub-Saharan Africa are now Christian. Latin America is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. In addition about 12 percent of all Caribbean and Latin American people are non-catholic Christians.2 In fact, Asia is the only continent where Christianity is not the majority religion.
Clearly God’s church is expanding as a global church. Jesus commands us in Matthew 28 to “go and make disciples of all nations.” The church is still far from having made disciples of all nations. 2.74 billion people have yet to be reached with the good news of the gospel. Therefore, as the church grows worldwide, diversified believers from all nations must work together and learn from one another in order to fulfill Jesus’ command and spreads God’s glory to the ends of the earth.
“For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.” - Habakkuk 2:14
Changing Motivations for Missions:
On July 8, 1741 in Enfield, Connecticut, the famous evangelist Jonathan Edwards preached his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” He proclaimed, “The wicked will not escape the wrath of God unless they repent!” Edwards stressed the reality of a just God, who cannot permit sin in His presence, and of the unrepentant sinners, who deserve eternity in Hell. Edwards’ sermon struck fear into the hearts of those who were unsure of their eternal futures, motivating them to become Christians. This method of motivation, obeying God in order to escape the consequences has been applied to missions as well. For centuries, the most effective method of inspiring people to go into mission work was guilt. Over the decades however, the motivation to reach the world has shifted to an overflowing of thankfulness.
The desire to bring glory to God should be motivation enough to inspire all intentional Christians overseas, actively working to teach the world about Jesus. And at one time, it was sufficient. The Early Church consisted of people who recognized that their purpose was to tell everyone about Jesus. They preached to the Jews, but to the Gentiles as well, “so that the Gentiles may glorify God for His mercy” (Rom 15:9b). But after Constantine proclaimed Christianity the state religion in AD 313, Christianity gradually became more about doing good things and less about the joy of salvation and bringing glory to God. Especially during the Middle Ages, the fear of hell was used to ensure that the people stayed true to the church. Then leaders during the Protestant Reformation urged the return to the fundamentals, doing away with the extra-Biblical requirements imposed on the people by the church. Since then, the emphasis has grown gradually more and more toward the love and grace of God and become less and less about the consequences for sin.
In this post-modern age, it is not longer “politically correct” to proclaim that there is only one road to God. Christians have backed down, to the extent that even an atheist philosopher, Bertrand Russell, acknowledged, “Hell is neither so certain nor so hot as it used to be.” Christians have become uncomfortable stating that people can be eternally lost without Jesus, hesitant to sound intolerant.
Yet the Bible makes it very clear that the alternative to accepting the gift of Jesus Christ on the Christ results in an eternity of suffering, separated from God (Rev. 20:10). The reality of Hell, however, stands next to the truth that God is compassionate, willing that none should perish (2 Peter 3:9), and that he has prepared a place in Heaven for those who believe on the name of Jesus Christ. Heaven should be understood as the place where we can spend forever with our glorious creator, not merely as a reward for good deeds on earth.
God has not given us a spirit of fear, and Jesus did not come to condemn people to Hell, but to seek and to save the lost. So our motivation to serve Christ our savior in missions is much greater than the fear of Hell. As Michael Pocock said, “The glory of God is the essence of the kingdom of God and therefore can stimulate missions like no other motivation” (Pocock 178). Christians should pursue missions work because of the incredible power of God which they have seen in their own lives, and from an outpouring of love for Him and a desire to bring Him glory.
As Christianity expands throughout the world, its outermost edges are the places where some of the most significant spiritual battles are fought for the expansion of God’s Kingdom. Those who are on the “front lines” of ministry will be the first to attest to the reality of spiritual warfare and its impact on winning souls for Christ. Spiritual warfare is a reality that most Western Christians don’t know about and seldom learn about in their churches, seminaries or bible studies. This lack of knowledge is proving to not only put Western missionaries at a disadvantage in regards to reaching out to majority Christians, but also paralyzing them when it comes to effectively dealing with spiritual warfare in the mission field.
Increasing Awareness of Spiritual Power:
Contrary to our Western culture that is much less spiritually oriented; many other cultures view spirituality as a fundamental part of faith. While this necessity may stem from rituals inundated with magic and witchcraft it nonetheless shapes their belief to one with a spiritually-focused worldview. This lack of knowledge on spiritual warfare translates into western missionaries subconsciously syncretizing their faith with the secular worldview of modernity which is spiritually bankrupt.
There are numerous stories of indigenous people in rural areas of the world that are from villages and tribes that at one time prescribed to witchcraft and ritualistic methods for praying and healing (including demon-possession). When their own methods failed they would turn to local Christians who simply introduced them to Jesus and prayed over them and they were healed. Many of these people attest to the fact that it wasn’t the act of a demon being cast out but simply the message of the gospel that healed them. The newest areas of Christianity, Latin America and Africa, are very characteristic of New Testament Christianity dealing with dreams, healings and spirit exorcisms.
This knowledge of a growing spiritual warfare orientation is not just trivial information but a call to action. Many organizations have sprung up in light of this new trend. For example, an agency called the Strategic Level Spiritual Warfare focuses on identifying territorial spirits in control of certain areas and, through prayer, seeks to bind or limit their ability to oppose the spread of the gospel. While agencies like this one have good intentions we have to look at them from a biblical stand point. An emphasis on discerning the names of demons is not biblical and approaches a form of animism. Also, seeking information about the spirit realm for use in overcoming it does not appear to be necessary or significant in the bible.
Yet regardless of what our previous view of spiritual warfare may have been, going forward, we as Christians must acknowledge these things in order to be effective in waging war against the evil one; Satan, though defeated, is not confined and he seeks to blind those who have not received, heard or understood the gospel. Everyone who accepts Christ’s death and resurrection are saved and freed from the bondage of sin as well as from the control of Satan.
“Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph. 6:12) This passage is from Paul’s letter of encouragement to the early church in Ephesus telling them of troubles they will encounter with the unseen forces of evil but not to be afraid for God has conquered the powers of darkness and will protect them. We as modern day Christians can claim that same promise that though Satan and his demons wage war against our efforts to advance the gospel we know God holds dominion over them and we can take courage in His victory.
Innovation in Mission Operations:
Most missionaries’ main objective involves communicating the gospel in a way that results in biblical, indigenous, reproducing congregations of disciples of Jesus Christ. This goal can be achieved many ways, however, those called to the mission field are always wondering, “How do we evangelize and establish the church among the unreached peoples of the world where vocational missionaries are not allowed?” and “How do we equip and connect marketplace Christians to carry the gospel and establish churches in and through the markets and industries of the world?” The answer: creative-access platforms.
Creative-access platforms help missionaries build relationships within the community they are working in and gives them opportunities to effectively accomplish their mail goal: bringing God’s love and glory to all peoples. God provides each of us with a platform that we can use to serve Him and share the gospel. They make countries that were once impossible to reach accessible, they offer legitimacy and identity for those of the community to know the missionary by, and it provides a worker with the chance to demonstrate integrity and character. Platforms are not a cover under which we should hide our real reasons for being in a particular place; rather they are a stepping-stone, one that gives us a basis for living among, interacting with, and sharing the gospel with those around us.
As creative-access platforms began to catch steam after the Lausanne Conferences of the 1970’s and ‘80’s, those that were trying to enter countries that were refusing missionaries developed new approaches to tentmaking. Tentmaking has been around since the time of the Apostle Paul, it was just put on the missions back burner for a while until missionaries realized how useful it could be with restricted-access countries. This tactic, along with others such as Humanitarian relief and community development showed missionaries that these were no longer restricted-access communities, but rather creative-access communities. It was and still is possible to reach the unreached, they just needed to “think outside the box.” Among those that pioneered this first wave of creative-access platforms were two missionaries: J. Christy Wilson and Ruth Siemens who worked in Afghanistan and Latin America as tentmakers. Siemens remains one of the most effective advocates for creative-access platforms and tentmaking.
Creative-access platforms are very ethical, very biblical, and very historical. It does not matter if missionaries are going against the law in a country. Though most of the time we are called to obey the laws as Christians, there are a few exceptions. When the law prohibits us from fulfilling The Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) as Jesus has called Christians to do, Jesus triumphs over law. The Old Testament book of Daniel is a great testament to creative-access platforms. Though they did not choose the circumstances (many of us would not choose slavery as our platform I assume), God used them to influence the minds and hearts of King Nebuchadnezzar and his kingdom. The New Testament’s prime example: Christ. God chose to send his son down to earth to live a sinless life, he became a refugee to Egypt, was raised the son of a carpenter, was viewed as a rabbi, was crucified as a traitor and then rose proving Himself to be the Messiah. This was the most strategic platform in all of history. It laid a foundation for the launching of a global movement of churches planting churches that has continued to this day. As for historical background, William Carey, the “Father of Modern Missions” was standing on a creative-access platform. He worked as a translator, factory manger, farmer, agriculturalist, educator, and the list goes on.
Missions has changed within the last fifty years. It is no longer the “West to the rest,” instead it is something much more amazing: Everyone to Everyone. Missionaries are coming from Africa, Asia, South America, Europe and North America. We are living in a time where God’s word is spreading to the ends of the earth! North America and Europe are no longer leading the show, we are just trying to keep up. Our motivation for missions is simple: God’s glory and His love. He deserves it and people need to know it. They need to know how much God loves them and what he has done for them. This is all becoming even more possible by the use of creative-access platforms within the past twenty years or so. Though creative-access platforms should never used as an excuse to get out of raising support, they have served along side support raising as a great way to get into countries that were thought impossible to penetrate.
God’s glory is being brought to the peoples of the world in amazing ways today. We are beginning to see Revelation 7:9 take form around us. People from every tribe, tongue and nation all around the throne of God crying “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Amen.
This article was adapted by permission from The Changing Face of World Missions – Dr. Mike Pocock