As we look to the future of missions, we need to think in broad categories about the current trends that appear to have a future trajectory. Many strategies will rise and fall with people’s interests, technological changes, crises, and other transient issues. But, stepping back and observing the world of missions as a whole, we can see fairly clearly that there are a few major trends that will continue to push the church in new directions as we live out the Great Commission around the world.
Just as recognition of the 10/40 Window made an impact on the strategies of local church missions committees 20 years ago, congregations will need to be aware of where missions is heading in the next 10 years if they hope to be effective participants in God’s mission.
Three major trends are bringing about important shifts in our strategy for reaching the world. These trends are not due to some underlying plan made by the shakers and movers in missions; they are merely an acknowledgement of the changing realities of our world. They form the basis for any future strategy of the church in reaching the lost.
Serving the Whole Person
The first important trend is a major shift in thinking of missions as merely “cross-cultural evangelism” to one of ministering to the whole person. Certainly, evangelism needs to play a major role, but even the most conservative church groups now seem to understand that discipleship means much more than merely convincing people to make a decision for Christ.
God is interested not only in converting people; he is concerned for their physical, emotional, and social well-being as well. To the writers of the New Testament, true religion was not just preaching a message, but also “to look after orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27). It was never a case of “either/or,” it was always “both/and.” Instead of defining missions in terms of specific tasks, the tendency now is to look at missions as the church’s attempt to be the outward, visible expression of the kingdom of God. Our goal is to find out what God wants to do in this world and jump on board.
This can easily be seen in the variety of mission organizations that have displays at the International Conference on Missions (ICOM). These groups emphasize such things as church planting, Bible translation, medical work, disaster relief, pastor training, business as mission, community development, education, and a host of other concerns. These are all ways of expressing God’s concern for people’s lives—every aspect of those lives.
Serving from Anywhere
The second great trend having a huge impact on missions is the shifting geographic center of Christianity, if, indeed, Christianity can even be said to have a geographic center anymore. It is certainly true Christianity can no longer be seen as a “Western religion.” There are more people who call themselves Christians in the South than the West, most notably in Africa, where the church has experienced phenomenal growth over the past few decades. Because of this, we find that missionaries now come from almost anywhere and go almost anywhere. They not only come out of the United States and Europe, but may go to Europe from Kenya, or the Philippines from Korea, or even to Texas from Ecuador.
The church, and hence its representatives, is now more culturally diverse than ever before, so we must come to terms with a great deal more diversity in thought and expressions of worship than ever before. We now must recognize that much of what we have experienced as “church” was highly influenced by our own culture, and that there may be other cultural expressions of “church” that are just as biblical—and they may be found next door instead of across the ocean from us.
Serving in Cities
The third trend is the urbanization of the world. Since 2008, for the first time in history, more than half of the world’s population resides in and around cities. That shift creates a different set of needs and requires a different kind of response from the church.
People in cities live differently than those in rural areas. Life is less attached to clan and family and more attached to neighborhoods and employment. Poverty takes on a different character in cities. People movements have different motivations. Social networks in cities have a different way of operating than in tribal cultures.
At one time, the stereotypical, albeit tongue-in-cheek, image of a missionary was a man in khaki shorts and a pith helmet trying to convert cannibals while trying to stay out of the cooking pot himself. Now, the missionary is mainly a city dweller, working with ethnically diverse populations, putting up with public transportation and traffic jams, and trying hard to influence those who can influence others in local neighborhoods and networks.
All of these trends will continue with even more intensity, and all of them must be taken into account as we make plans to reach the world for Christ.
So how will the church respond? What strategies will make the greatest impact for the kingdom?
It is, of course, impossible to predict all the details. God’s people can be amazingly creative when they see a need. But we are already seeing the church respond in new ways that provide a preview of what we may soon find ourselves involved in. I’ll mention four here:
Technology and Missions
The new and future face of missions will find itself at odds with older notions of missionaries as impoverished Luddites whose nod toward technology consists mainly of a slide projector and a laser pointer, as long as they’re not used at the same time. Modern missionaries are deep into technology.
Some of the most innovative efforts in missions are technologically based. Nowhere is this truer than in the area of modern communications. In the 15 years that my family was in Papua New Guinea, we saw communications with supporting congregations go from a four- to six-week response time to just a few minutes, even when we were in the middle of the jungle. The Internet is available just about everywhere and can be used for godly purposes by the right people. Computers enhance the work of missionaries on many fronts, helping to translate the Bible more quickly and accurately, allowing mission organizations to coordinate their efforts, and building relationships across cultural boundaries through Skype and social networking. It is now possible to be “present” anywhere in the world almost instantly.
Granted, technology may not always be a good thing. There are some who may use it to avoid direct human contact and deep relationships. But as long as there are creative thinkers in the church, we will find the missionary of the future coming up with new ways to use technological advances as rapidly as they appear.
We are finding a different kind of missionary today—the businessman or woman who takes on the ministry of helping people in other countries overcome poverty through business. Business does not need to be merely about profits, even though a business that loses money will certainly do no one any good. Business can be about human dignity. It can be about helping people to be a part of their own solution and develop a sense that God cares for the food on their plate and the clothes on their back.
So Christians with skills in business are turning those talents into a new kind of ministry we sometimes call “business as mission.” It can take various forms, but it almost always involves starting a business in another country, hiring people who might not otherwise find employment, sharing God’s love in and through the business, and showing people what a business can look like and accomplish when it is run for the glory of God.
Alongside of business as mission models, we find the area of business financing, particularly with regard to microloans. Frequently, all a person needs to become self-sufficient is some basic training in how to manage a small business and enough money, provided at a reasonable interest rate, to get established. The rest is up to the new businessman or woman. More often than not, they pay back the loan, achieve a degree of financial independence, and the interest they pay goes to help another person escape the cycle of poverty.
Entrepreneurial ventures such as these continue to grow and spread in the Majority World, and through them people come to see that God wants to be involved in every aspect of their lives.
Foreign-supported Indigenous Workers
Along with the realization that missionaries now come from everywhere and go anywhere is the parallel realization that often the best missionaries are those who stay home to work among their own people, but are supported by foreign (Western) churches. To date, most of the successful examples of this have been with people who came to the United States to attend a Christian college, and through the relationships that developed during their time in America, they were able to build a support network for their work back home. While it is extremely difficult for indigenous workers to gain and maintain support apart from this kind of personal connection, we are likely to see this as an area of growth in missions.
There are certainly dangers involved in such enterprises, especially that of developing unhealthy dependent relationships with Western “parent” churches. It is probably unwise for indigenous churches to be financially supported by outsiders, at least for more than a few months.
But consider the advantages that indigenous workers have over traditional missionaries: They already speak the language of the people they are working with. They are familiar with existing networks and who the influencers are in their society. They understand the culture and worldview from the inside out. They already know the hot issues and problems that must be avoided. They have no need for work permits and visas. They can often live on a fraction of the amount that a Western missionary would require.
As the world continues to flatten, we can expect this to become a more viable option for the church of the future.
No area of missions has seen as much growth as short-term missions in the past decade. Whereas one- and two-week mission trips used to be organized mainly by Christian organizations that brought in people to build houses, run VBS programs, or hold medical clinics, we now find an entirely new kind of short-term trip run entirely by megachurches. Often these trips are a part of an overall strategy that emerges from a congregation’s partnership with a long-term missionary or a sister congregation in another country. A large church might send up to 100 people for a week or two in a kind of “blitz” effort that involves medical work, youth work, sports ministry, building projects, preaching and teaching clinics, working with orphans, and numerous other service projects as needs arise.
Often, we find, the greatest impact is on those who go. Once you see how the rest of the world lives, there is no going back.
Seeing What God Is Doing
The directions we set for our missionary efforts today have an impact on how our missionaries will operate in the future. God continues to set new opportunities before us. The key is to remain aware enough of what he is already doing in the world that we can join in and fulfill our roles as emissaries of his kingdom.
Michael Sweeney is president of Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Johnson City, Tennessee. He served as a Bible translator in Papua New Guinea for 15 years with Pioneer Bible Translators.