Current Trends in Missions

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Ordinary Guy (TM)
A short summary I cooked up. Knowing my penchant for typos, let me know if you see any bad grammar or spelling.


As we move into the Third Millennium since Jesus first gave us our marching orders, what are some current trends and concerns in missions? We still rejoice in the biographies of Adoniram Judson, David Brainerd and John G Paton, even while we recognize our need to keep abreast of the dizzying flood of worldwide changes just within the last 4 decades. While our Lord is the same in every generation, the world is much-changed.

I summarize a list of current missiological trends below. Please use this list as a starting point for further research.

Current missiological trends:

Trend 1. - The changing context of mission - the shifting center of Christianity:

A Shift Towards the non-Western world:

Missions is no longer “From the West to the Rest.” Those that profess a broadly evangelical faith now have their majority in the non-Western world. Latin America, Africa and Asia are blooming even while North America and Europe are withering and decaying. In 1945 over 80% of the non-Western world was dominated by the West. By 1974 this became less than 5%. During this same period church attendance in the Anglican Church in Britain decreased by 14% in Britain even while the membership rolls in Sudan increased by 633%! African bishops from the “Global South” are now sending missionaries to bolster the apostatizing Anglican Church in the West against increasing defection from the faith. Christianity is no longer a Western religion; the center has shifted.

Missions – increasingly urban, Asian, and in partnership with national Christian bodies:

While rural, tribal missions may excite the fascinations of many, the future of missions may not be the Auca Story in Through Gates of Splendor or even the Sawi story in Don Richardson’s Peacechild. The future of missions is largely to be urban and Asian, and among highly refined cultures holding to Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism, rather than scattered “primitive” animistic tribes. The need for missionaries to Asian cities is great. For example, think on this: while the US has about 9 cities with a population over 1 million, China has close to 150 cities of a million or more.

I freely admit that my own missions scenario in P___, focusing on the remote K___ tribe, is not the wave of the future. But it affords me close strategic involvement with the national church denomination, NAME OF CHURCH (___), the Evangelical Church in ____, which consists of over 400,000 members and is led by 40,000 evangelists and pastors. My local team of highland evangelists, laboring among the K___, consists of 20 evangelists and I am able to influence _____ as a whole through my involvement in this effort.

This brings us to another shift in missions within the last 50-100 years. Missions now must be done, and should be done, in increasing partnering with national Christians. Why bypass those that the Lord has providentially raised up? Enabling indigenous believers and mobilizing local bodies of believers to reach others in their own region of the world is a strategic and God-honoring priority. Partnership is the watchword for missions today in many regions of the world.

The West is no longer the center of mission-sending. Vital hubs of missionary sending are springing up across the world, islands of vital Christianity in a sea of darkness. No longer content to receive missionaries only, these “new sending countries” are striving to send out their own missionaries. For instance, South Korea is on the verge of overtaking the U.S. as the top missions sending nation. I work with one man from the country of Papua New Guinea, the other side of the island here, who felt the Lord calling him to cross the border and labor among his less fortunate brothers in Indonesia.

Our task today as Western missionaries is not merely in going alone to the dark places of the world ourselves, but our task lays also in enabling vital pockets of Non-Western Christians to also reach those dark areas closest to them. We multiply ourselves, becoming catalysts, when we help mobilize national Christians. Right now, there are highland P___ tribal believers, like the D___ and the Y___, that are being trained to take the Gospel to lowland tribes, such as the K___. Not only that, but there are also P___ evangelists being trained to be sent to the other islands in I____, and even out of their own country into PNG and also among the Australian aborigines. Missions now has become a global enterprise, the Gospel from everywhere to everywhere.

For further research:
• Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
• Martin I. Klauber and Scott M. Manetsch, editors, The Great Commission: Evangelicals and the History of World Missions (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2008).
• Bryant L. Myers, The New Context of World Missions (Monrovia, California: MARC, 1996).

Trend 2. The changing focus of mission: The modern People-group focus:

If you have read John Piper’s Let the Nations be Glad (second edition, pages 155-200) you will be familiar with the concept of people-groups. Whereas by the 1950’s the Gospel had penetrated every country (nation state) on earth, there were still billions without the Gospel. Thousands of ethnic groups were not only not being reached, but were not even being targeted.

One high-level Southern Baptist missions strategy coordinator revealed to me how the IMB (International Mission Board) for years colored the entire country of India red, meaning that the IMB had a “missionary presence” in that nation. In reality, there was one lone single female missionary for a country possessing around 2,500 ethno-linguistically distinct people-groups and almost a billion people! He laughed when he told me this and stated how thankful he was that missions had caught onto the concept of people-group thinking.

How did the concept of “unreached people-groups” come about? Ralph Winter, the founder of the William Carey Library and the U.S. Center of World Missions, working through the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization, championed the concept of “unreached people-groups” in the late 70’s and 80’s. He asserted that the ethne of Scripture that we are supposed to reach are not political nation-states at all. They are, instead, cultures within those countries, possessing ethnic and linguistic identities distinct from others.

John Piper points out the firm theological basis for the people-group focus of Scripture. The Apostle Paul in Romans 15:18-21 speaks of having “fully preached” the Gospel from Jerusalem as far as Illyricum. Paul claims to have “fulfilled” (peplerokenai) the Gospel in that whole region. This does not mean that he preached to every single soul in that region, nor does it mean that Paul did not believe that further workers were needed in this mission field; Paul, after all, placed Timothy in Ephesus (I Tim. 1:3) and Titus in Crete (Titus 1:5) to mature the work. Paul’s phrase “fulfilled the Gospel” means this; Paul had a people-group focus. Paul desired to focus on pioneer areas to win many peoples rather than merely as many people as possible, so that God would be praised by all peoples (Romans 15:11), Abraham would be the father of many nations (Romans 4:17), and the name of Christ would be understood in every people group where He is not known (Romans 15:21).

Our goal in discipling the nations is not merely to win people, but to win peoples. Our task is not merely to gain the maximum quantity of people, winning more and more people to Christ, but in winning more and more peoples, ethno-linguistic groups, some from every tongue, tribe and nation. Our goal goes beyond winning as many souls or planting as many churches as possible, our goal is to win souls and plant churches in as many unreached peoples as possible and to cross every existing barrier with the Gospel.

Psalm 22:27:

All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.

Churches and sending agencies now make tremendous efforts to find and research the various people-groups of the world and intentionally target them. This has led to a broadly evangelical ecumenism in cooperative efforts such as the Joshua Project and Caleb Project, whereby unreached people-groups have been listed, quantified, and, as much as able, prioritized so that new workers need not replicate services but can allocate resources most effectively to speed the Great Commission. The people-group concept, therefore, has encouraged cooperativeness across denominational lines and has also promoted an openness to the social sciences as research and statistics on various demographics across the globe are gathered and sent out to churches in order to promote missions, mobilize workers and to fill identified needs.

Many will pooh-pooh this use of anthropology, statistics and the social sciences in dividing up the earth and trying to prioritize the lost. This is both a matter of theological priority, however, and also simple stewardship. A lost soul in Atlanta, Georgia is just as lost as a lost soul in the remote jungle, after all, but why should the lost in Atlanta, Georgia be able to squander thousands upon thousands of opportunities while I must walk two days through muddy swamp as the only nearby Christian worker in order to tell the Northern K___ about Jesus? This research helps our stewardship.

We honor God by finding the darkest hole in which to plant ourselves.

Keep in mind, also, that this research is nothing more than what William Carey himself did in his famous Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen, whereby he gathered the most current data of his day about every group of people under the sun in an effort to aid research about where to send missionaries and how best to pray for world evangelization. Narrow, local thinking is insufficient for the global task before us.

My own use of the people-group concept to inform my decision-making: Why did I choose to go to the country of ____ and also to the K___ people? Why do I continue to help sponsor efforts among the S___ of W____? My decisions were informed by my people-group thinking.

I____ is not only the largest Muslim nation on earth, but also possesses 127 unreached-people groups, not even including the 274 listed languages in P___ (I know several more languages not yet listed). Of these 274-plus P___ language-groups, i.e. ethne, about 70 have at least Scripture portions, leaving about 200 without the Scripture. Of these, the most unreached are scattered into the “14 most isolated areas,” of which my area makes up one of the largest of these areas, and possessing the most unreached tribes. I chose my ministry place based on which groups suffered the highest geographic and linguistic barriers to the Gospel. I prioritized the lost in a sort of missiological triage.

For further research:

• John Piper, Let the Nations be Glad (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003).
• John Piper, “The Supremacy of God among ‘All the Nations,’ ” International Journal of Frontier Missions, 13:1, January-March 1996, 16.
• R. Showalter, “All the Clans, All the Peoples,” International Journal of Frontier Missions, 13:1 (January-March 1996):12.
• Frank Severn, “Some Thoughts on the Meaning of ‘All the Nations,’ ” Evangelical Missions Quarterly, October 1997, 415.
• Harley Schreck and David Barrett , eds., Unreached Peoples: Clarifying the Task (Monrovia, California: MARC, 1987), 44-56.
• Patrick Johnstone, The Church is Bigger Than You Think (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1998), 89-93.

Trend 3. The current trend of Short-term missions:

Short-term mission trips have emerged as one of the most significant current trends in missions. Missiologists are divided as to whether this trend is a healthy one or one fraught with dangers.

Some point out statistics demonstrating that short-term trips generate long-term missionaries, most long-term missionaries having been on at least 2 short-term trips prior to committing to long-term “career” missions. Others doubt these statistics and show that as the number of short-term trips has risen, there has failed to be a concurrent rise in long-term missionaries. Instead, the number of long-term missionaries is on the decline and long-term missionaries increasingly fall short in finding enough missionary support to maintain them, even while American churches spend millions on short-term trips. The Masters Mission, for example writes that, on average, a single two-week short-term missions trip costs more than generously funding one long-term family on the field for one whole year.

In addition, as God raises up maturing Third World churches and leaders, imagine the reaction of these African and Asian men of God as they are met by minimally-trained American high-schoolers, presuming to be able to teach these national Christians about the things of God. Imagine such a group, wearing their clothes from the Gap and toting I-pods, taking two weeks off to teach persecuted Sundanese believers about the Biblical doctrine of suffering and persecution? Preposterous!

In this day of modern air travel and quick access to most places on the globe, I would hate to discourage anyone from seeing places in the world that may still be legitimately called “the mission field.” I long to see visitors here who are open to missions, who want to see the beauty of Indonesia, and who are open to the possibility of coming back to serve full-time. With proper preparation, short-term missions can be a wonderful recruiting tool to give home churches a taste of overseas ministry. Through short-term missions, Western churches can make strategic partnerships with solid Third-World believers so that these American churches may aid missions through already-established local bodies. Also, in highly technical fields of expertise, short term missionaries are a major blessing in areas such as well-digging, water purification, mobile cataract surgery clinics, first-aid courses, farming aid, computer care and even seminars on select doctrinal and leadership topics.

I would like to stress, however, that years of language learning and a living long-term presence among a people is often necessary for the Gospel to enter deeply enough into a culture to transform it. Short-term missions are fine, but please do not make them an end unto themselves. They are a means to an end; the recruitment of long-term workers and the initiation of long-term partnerships. My colleague here in P___, KM, serving in the T___ tribe, labored for 10 years before the Lord gave him the spiritual fruit of one believer. Another missionary, after 20 years, had only one person believe in their village - and he died this year! The K___ people that I am laboring among are very ignorant of the Gospel and the work may take just as long or longer.

There is, now more than ever, a need for long-term workers.

For further research:

• Dan McDonough and Roger Peterson, Can Short-Term Mission Really Create Long-term Missionaries? (Stem Press, 1999).
• The Master’s Mission, “Avoiding the Pitfalls of Short-term Missions,” Pastor’s Journal 5, accessed at Home.

Trend 4. Healthier attempts towards broad, cooperative evangelical efforts are now replacing unhealthy ecumenism

Ecumenism has almost become a bad word among the faithful due to the poor showing of past efforts at broad cooperation, such as heresies promoted by some in the World Council of Churches. New efforts at ecumenicity, however, are on the rise and are now more strongly undergirded by basic evangelical doctrinal safeguards.

At the end of the last century, a rising tide of missions zeal contributed to the formation of the Student Volunteer Movement. With its watchword as, “The evangelization of the world in this generation” the SVM helped to mobilize thousands into missions across denominational lines. This zeal peaked in a world missionary conference in 1910 at Edinburgh. This worldwide conference was not a new idea at all, but originated in the forward-thinking mind of William Carey, who hoped himself to see a “general association of all denominations of Christians” meet about every 10 years, beginning in 1810. His dream was realized 100 years late.

Despite great beginnings, these efforts at broad cooperation steered more and more off-course, sacrificing doctrinal purity to gain greater organizational unity. As the World Council of Churches grew into the main voice for ecumenism during the mid-20th Century, doctrines such as the uniqueness of Christ and justification by faith were minimized. In response, many of the faithful fled from ecumenical missions efforts altogether and grew suspicious of all cooperative efforts, growing isolative and critical of any who desired to seek broader partnership.

Recently, however, missions has experienced a resurgence in efforts towards shared resources, broad cooperation, the avoidance of duplication of services, and a decrease in interdenominational infighting among evangelical Protestants. In July of 1974, the International Congress on World Evangelization was held in Lausanne, Switzerland, and this led to the ongoing Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization, with worldwide meetings about every decade. The majority of the delegates were non-Western and over 150 countries attended. A basic evangelical doctrinal statement was adopted.

Also, within the past two decades, collaborative evangelical efforts such as the Joshua Project, the Caleb Project, Operation World and Operation Mobilization have all emerged to better research and allocate resources for missions. These groups are broadly evangelical and serve to compile data and better our stewardship of limited missions resources. I myself have submitted data to the Joshua Project to help enlarge their database on local tribes.

Despite the dangers involved, this cooperativeness must be seen as a positive development. While each individual effort must be weighed accordingly and accepted or rejected on its own merits, broad cooperation being only possible with those sharing solid doctrinal foundations, these current efforts at research and information-sharing are laudable and I myself have utilized much of this research in investigating and surveying needs in I____.

For further research:

• Roth Rowse, “William Carey’s ‘Pleasing Dream,’” International Review of Missions, volume 38 (1949), 181.

Trend 5. Persecution, the demise of colonialism, and the return to Pre-Constantinianism

Pre-Constantinianism? What do I mean by this term?

This term attempts to characterize how the church operated prior to the contaminating influences of the era of Constantine on the early church. Pre-Constantinianism includes two main thoughts, (1) that missions is now being done in the face of the disappearance of Western colonial power and in a manner more reflective of New Testament practice, and (2) Pre-Constantinianism is an attempt to show that missions is now increasingly being done in places where there is a rise in persecution, without the protection of Western governments.

The early church, an oppressed minority, spread like wildfire. From the fringes of power rather than the center, poor and persecuted Christians multiplied despite having no civil backing and little wealth, spreading not only despite persecution but often because of persecution. With Constantinian preference, the church and the civil state married into an unholy matrimony that not even the Protestant Reformation remedied. Christianity spread only with the spread of the civil state. The fiction of “Christendom” crept in. The Protestant Reformation did not expunge these faults and the new Protestant States continued these errors with the policy of, “cuius regio eius religio,” stating that whoever’s region it was, that also was the religion, the political powers fixing religion.

The Moravians were the first to send out missionaries not associated with the colonizing powers; and what a great example of missionary devotion they continue to be, even selling themselves as slaves to evangelize poor plantation workers. The Moravian Church sent out missionaries at a rate of 1 in every 12, a virtual tithe of church members into missions, and inspired William Carey, who proposed that voluntary associations of private Christians, i.e., missionary societies, be formed to reach the world for Christ, an idea that launched the Modern Missions Movement.

Missions is almost entirely done now by groups not wedded to the State and missionaries are increasingly finding ways into hostile regions where persecution is not merely a possibility, but an expectation. There has never been a time when more Muslims are turning to Christ. In North Africa, the small embers of churches that have long been almost stamped into extinction are now beginning to blaze anew, despite renewed persecution.

In Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, there is periodic violence against Christians and hundreds have been killed, and hundreds of churches have been burned or closed. Despite all of this, the official statistics regarding Christians are constantly in need of revision as perhaps over 20 million Christians now exist in this beleaguered country.

A case study: Indonesia is a wonderful illustration of the blessings of this current trend. During the Dutch Colonization, evangelism was slow going and national Christians succeeded where most Western mission efforts failed. Most Dutch mission efforts failed altogether, most Javanese thinking that to become Christian was to model the overly rigid Dutch Reformed patterns of ecclesiology and even adopt Dutch dress. National identity and religion merged into one amorphous mass. Islam and Christianity actually entered the interior of Java at about the same general time period and yet, due to hatred of the Dutch colonizers, more and more Javanese turned to Islam until it became the clear majority all throughout the region, despite “Christian” powers being in control and despite vigorous efforts by Dutch missionaries, who rode the colonial ships over to land on the mission field and lived besides tea plantation masters. Since Merdeka (Independence), and especially since Islamic fundamentalism has begun to gain power, Christianity has spread like wildfire.

Other trends briefly explained:

Space does not allow a full treatment of all the current trends in missions, but below are a few more current missiological trends to consider as we end this article:

• -Missions giving is steadily decreasing.

• -Also those activities supported under the title of “missions” continues to increasingly involve things other than frontier church-planting among the least-reached peoples of the world.

• -Smaller missions are ceasing to exist, mission societies are merging together and more local churches are trying to directly send out missionaries. While this is positive in regards to local church involvement, many of these churches, ignorant of global concerns and well-tried methods, fall into the same or greater errors than the missionary societies that they are trying to replace.

• -Missions is increasingly becoming full of “niche” ministries. Specialization in small technical areas such as aviation, computers, and health work is increasingly becoming more common. Missionary “generalists,” those not possessing some unique trade besides theological preparation, are increasingly becoming rarer.

• -Finally, one last healthy trend is this: churches and agencies are increasingly becoming more “missions focused” rather than “missionary focused.” This means that churches are catching a vision to strategically reach peoples rather than merely supporting their own missionaries.


Ordinary Guy (TM)
Another trend that a whole book could be written on is Global Pentecostalism.... the charismatics are the fastest growing segment of Christianity.
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