The twenty-first century is a time of unprecedented challenge and opportunity for global missions. The terrorism of 9/11 was the first of many cataclysmic global changes that are reshaping our world. The surge of terrorism against Western powers, the growth of Islam, and the burgeoning global prominence of the Majority World (formerly called Third World) represent significant challenges facing Christian missions.
The unprecedented worldwide interconnectivity due to globalization both facilitates and challenges missions work. Urbanization has resulted in more than half of the world’s people living in major cities. In many global south countries, up to one-half of the population lives in the capital cities. The principle of acceleration, which means that something is not just true but is increasingly true, exacerbates the challenges. In order to meet new challenges, missionaries and their agencies must constantly monitor global trends in order to reshape strategies and methodologies.
Beginning in the mid-1970s, missionaries began to strategize to reach people groups rather than just nations. This led to a focus on unreached people groups and more recently to strategies for engaging groups where no one was seeking to plant churches. Missiologists call this the “Last Frontier”—unreached and unengaged people groups. Reaching areas where there is no Christian witness and no government permission to do so is one of the daunting challenges facing missions today. On average three countries per year legally close their doors to traditional missions.
As the world’s economic center shifts toward the global south, there is also rapid growth in the Southern Church. The churches of Latin America, Africa, and Asia have produced record numbers of Christians and missionaries that dwarf their older sister Church of the North. Evangelical missionaries celebrate this growth cautiously because, sadly, aberrant doctrine and practice abound in many southern churches. Since the first missionaries to these areas often emphasized simply reaching groups with the gospel, they left once they had evangelized a number of people. This means they regularly left behind undiscipled believers, ill-equipped leadership, and churches that adopted syncretistic beliefs and practices.
Missionaries of the twenty-first century must find ways to disciple people who learn in differing ways. This will require returning to some areas to train biblical leadership in the churches. One reason why many areas of the world are unreached, as well as why many reached peoples were left untaught, is that the people are oral learners who do not read. Oftentimes, their languages have not even been reduced to writing. Although missionaries are developing methods to teach this 70-80 percent of the world, less than 10 percent of all evangelism and discipleship resources are currently designed for oral learners.
The growth of the Southern Church has also brought about an emerging mission movement. The Southern Church has heard the missionary call, and its members are following the Lord’s guidance to fulfill it all over the world. The biblical principal that those who know should teach those who do not suggests that missionary training programs ought to be developed for this emerging missions force. Discipled and trained believers among the cultures of the world are the key to healthy, reproducing New Testament churches.
Modern missions history has witnessed pendulum swings ranging from the rejection of cultures to an uncritical acceptance of them. A healthy balance is one that is faithful to God’s Word and sensitive to cultures so that they can embrace the pure gospel in culturally appropriate ways. Missionaries in Muslim and Hindu areas are facing challenges to this balance in the extreme forms of insider movements and uncritical contextualization models that fail to stress the exclusivity of Christ.
Answers to these challenges are not easy, and no single-solution strategy will fit every culture in all ages. We can be certain God will make a way, but we must be diligent and faithful no matter the challenges. Missionaries must stay in the Word, on their faces in prayer, and as close to Jesus as they can get in order to tread the narrow way through an ever-changing world, bringing the Good News to all nations.
M. David Sills is the A. P. and Faye Stone Professor of Christian Missions and Cultural Anthropology, and Director of Global Strategic Initiatives and Intercultural Programs at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY. He is also founder and president of Reaching & Teaching International Ministries.
This essay is taken from the HCSB Study Bible, Copyright 2010 by Holman Bible Publishers