The Changing Face of World Missions - The Strategic Context

Book Summary of Michael Pocock's "The Changing Face of World Mission".


While the global and missional contexts have been changing, the strategic context has been changing as well. Aspects of missions such as teamwork, money, technology, and contextualization must be observed. We need to realize the strategic trends that are occurring and how they are impacting the global church.

Working Together

Over the last 30 years the population of urban dwellers has more than doubled and the number of cities with populations over 1 million have nearly tripled. As a result Christian agencies, churches and organizations have been moving towards greater collaboration with each other. The common desire to expand the impact of the gospel has been the unifying factor in bringing these groups together in a strategic manner.

There are three major elemental trends that are shaping how missionaries are going about their missions work today within these massive urban cultures. Let us look at each element individually and get a brief explanation then we will talk about the application of each afterwards.

Social Networks

These are groups that naturally form within a diverse and concentrated group of people that usually share similar backgrounds and worldviews. These networks are connecting people who are familiar strangers to each other. They do not know the person yet their background may be similar. This makes them feel more comfortable with that person. Prominence is also a natural characteristic of social networks. Each network contains people who naturally connect with more people and/or are held in higher regard due to their prestige. Both connections and prominence are invaluable parts to a social network.

Team Efforts

The Idea of teamwork is not new, rather the focus of organizations to emphasize position structures. Now organizations are seeing the advantages of teams made up of peers as opposed to a hierarchy. Research has shown that more demanding team goals build a stronger team.

Strategic collaboration

This element has grown out of different agencies simply joining forces while working towards a common goal. This kind of collaboration is considered common knowledge in the business world but only in recent years has it started to become more popular among mission agencies.

These next few paragraphs give us some examples of applications of the three major elements. Some people might see these illustrations and agree with them but not know how to adopt or engage any of these elements into their mission agency or organization effectively. For social networks it starts with us. We must take personal responsibility and reach out to networks that align with areas to which we feel God has called us. Once we have an understanding of our own involvement we can look outward towards a higher level of involvement as well as gain a more accurate perspective.

Working in a team can be a source of great blessing as well as great frustration. Christ called us to live in community with one another while loving and serving one another so that people would know we are of God (John 13:34). For any team to operate effectively trust must be built up and maintained. Without trust, the team will fail at some point. A big step in gaining and keeping that trust is a deep-seeded commitment to the transformation of our sinful nature and to show love and mercy towards one another in the midst of that endeavor.

Finally, engaging in greater collaboration is vital to completing a common goal as much as it is to avoid unnecessary competition. Different mission agencies and organizations are often so focused on looking forward to their end goal of Christ they don’t realize if they were to look to their right or left they might see another group chasing the same goal. They would both reach their goal quicker collaborating with each other instead of going it alone.

Some good examples of agency collaboration are Missionary Aviation Fellowship (MAF), Perspectives on the World Christian Movement and the U.S. Center for World Missions. MAF began in 1945 to provide flight support and transportation to missionaries to isolated locations. They do not limit who or what agencies they partner with and have also started offering help with satellite communication. The Perspectives course was created in 1974 and works as an extension/mobilization course in missions around the world that has helped people gain a strategic outlook on the unreached people groups of the world and their role in light of the biblical, historical and strategic purpose of God. The U.S. Center for World Missions was the vision of Ralph and Roberta Winter that started in 1976. It was dedicated to producing and publishing resources for both world missionaries and mission organizations.

Ultimately, we must give up our shortsighted visions in order to gain larger perspectives of global strategies. This is the case because Christ’s call to unity in love is as profound at the beginning of the twentieth century as it was in the first.

The Changing Uses of Money

Money has the potential to either be an incredibly helpful tool or the most harmful distraction for the global church today. While working together, we must also take careful consideration into the funding for our missions teams and organizations. Money can provide missionaries with the means and resources to take the Gospel to new, unreached areas. Yet it can also disrupt ministry efforts by creating dependency on outside funds, and stirring up jealousy among the church. How can we harness the use of money to further the Kingdom of God and not hold it back?

Many missionaries have come back to the States from the mission field, pleading, “Please stop sending money to the overseas churches. They are becoming dependant on American funds and can’t learn to take care of themselves and grow if this continues.” Bob Finley, chairman of the Christian Aid Mission in Virginia acknowledged that, “The most effective indigenous missions organizations are those independent of foreign control and not affiliated with foreign denominations or missions organizations.” Churches that are self-supporting can rely on God to carry their mission forward. However, churches that depend on outside funds are paralyzed, relying on human beings to supply their needs.

This makes sense, right? Why, then, do overseas churches seem to require so much outside financial help? Well, we Americans are used to our mega-churches, and pastors who receive large salaries. Naturally, we take the same picture over to Africa. However, North American missions is drastically different from African missions. For some African cultures, story-telling is a much more effective means of teaching the Gospel than the typical American-style classroom training. Such cultures have no use for, say, projectors and screens. Teaching them that they need such things to effectively teach the Gospel creates a dependency upon American materials and requires funds for technology far out of the native people’s price-range. Practically, churches that begin on a high-end budget will require a large budget during the lifespan on the church. Smaller churches, centered around people and God’s word, only require a tree to meet under and the willingness to gather together.

Pocock highlights several passages found in Scripture in regard to support for indigenous churches. First, the overseas church should be taught to trust the Lord to provide. Second, they must offer generous hospitality toward those taking the Gospel. Third, in his tent-making, Paul demonstrated the use of a professional vocation to support ministry, rather than relying on those he ministered to for financial support. Fourth and fifth, they must support the leaders in their own church, and send their own missionaries. In these ways, the global church can more effectively share resources and grow together.

The Impact of New Technologies

Life in the Virtual World and Beyond

Similarly to money, technology can either be a great ally or devastating enemy. Technology has become an everyday part of the average missionary’s life and has been used as an effective tool in sharing the gospel. However, we make sure to engage the culture with forms of communication that are readily accepted.

One evening in mid-February, 1987, the new National Broadcasting Network was launched in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. After an hour of local news, the network aired The A-Team. With the well-known theme song, the four soldiers blazed on to the screen. Mr. T, a muscular and flamboyant African American man covered in gold chains, was the go-to guy when it came to brute force. The next morning as Doug McConnell was sitting in the front room of his apartment in Port Moresby, he saw a group of school kids march down the street locked arm-in-arm, humming the A-team theme song, and wearing strings of pop-tops resembling those of Mr. T. A new hero had come to town.

As evidenced by the arrival of the A-team in Papua New Guinea, technology possesses the power to irreversibly change societies. Because technology contains such power, we must take careful consideration when incorporating it with missions. Large-scale media efforts such as the Jesus film are example of how technology has been used in missions. The Jesus film has been translated into 847 different languages and has been viewed more than 5.6 billion times. Missionaries often use the film to portray the life of Jesus as portrayed in the gospel in the language of the culture.

Another advancement of technology that is being used in missions is “e-learning”, training that take place virtually over the Internet. Seminaries and Bible colleges can now train missionaries without forcing them to leave their mission field. It is now possible to earn degrees from schools without ever setting foot on campus. Therefore, missionaries are able to stay in the mission field and while being trained and mentored in the Bible.

However, enhanced connectivity has most likely had the greatest impact in missions. In other words, anyone with a computer and internet can now connect with millions of other people all over the globe. Missions teams now communicate with other team members who are in without being together in person. In countries with few believers and restrictions on religion, Christians can have fellowship through emails. In addition, missionaries no longer have to disconnect from their extended families and friends.

Although these improvements in technology have enormous benefit, they also bring hindrances to the spread of the gospel. Missionaries who stay connected to their families keep a foot both cultures. Thus, they might fill the need for close relationships by keeping old relationships instead of investing in new ones. Furthermore, disparities in technological possessions between missionaries and the people they are ministering to can create divisions. When such disparities are eliminated closer bonds are allowed to form.

Therefore, because technology has the power to advance the gospel as well as hinder it, we must be careful how we use it. “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13 ESV). We are called to serve others out of love. In order to serve we must engage the world of those being served.

Additionally, we must adopt modes of communication that are readily accepted. We should ask ourselves: Does the new solution help us serve others, and will they see it as service? In the end, technology should be a tool for the advancement of the gospel, never a roadblock to its acceptance.


From an Adapted Message to an Adapted Lifestyle

Translatability is one of the unique qualities of God’s message of Christ as revealed in the Bible that makes it relevant to every culture in the world. To make sense to every people group of the world the gospel must be “enfleshed” in their local culture.

The term contextualization was first used to express this tension between the universal and local: 1. The Bible expresses universal truths, and 2. that we live in a world of diverse and ever-changing cultures. The goal is to make Christian faith as a whole understandable by grounding contextualization in Scripture. Contextualizing efforts are judged based on fidelity to the teachings of the Bible. We must be careful when using contextualization that it does not result in relativism because we have replaced the Bible with the cultures themselves. We must make sure communities apply God’s standards to their lives rather than standards that are simply meaningful to them.

Good contextualization follows a multi-faceted approach to culture. It uses theology, anthropology, sociology, linguistics, communication, psychology, economics and politics to offer a comprehensive view of a local setting. It should always be fluid rather than stagnant and be concerned with the whole of Christian faith. If we do not take into consideration all elements of the Christian faith and how they may indigenously expressed in a local context, we could be in danger of taking our own forms of worship and trying to fit them in with the local theology. We must remember to not only come as teachers but come as learners. Contextualization should be done with those in the receiving community rather than for them.

The church has grown in its understanding of the relationship between faith and culture with the use of three processes: accommodation, adaption, and “possessio”. Accommodation refers to the changing of rituals, practices and forms of Christian practice in a missionary’s culture to fit those of a local culture. Adaption is the finding of ways to express the gospel in forms and ideas that were familiar to a culture so that they fit in. And “possessio” refers to God’s work in possessing a society for Christ by establishing a foundation for the gospel and gradually “conquering” the society by submitting all elements to God’s control.

One of the greatest dangers we face with contextualization is syncretism. The biblical concept of syncretism is the “replacement or dilution of essential truths of the gospel through the incorporation of non-Christian elements.( Moreau 2000)” The most powerful way to guard oneself from syncretism is to have a high view of the authority of the Scriptures.

Contextualization is seen through the scriptures, especially in the New Testament and especially in Paul’s ministry. His way of evangelizing ( Acts 17:16-31), his use of discipleship (Acts 16:1-3), his church planting movements (Acts 17:1-4), and the debate of whether Gentiles needed to follow Jewish laws and customs to be considered fully Christian (Acts 15) are all examples of contextualization used in the years following Christ’s death.