American Christians have, for a long time, thought of Christianity primarily through American eyes, often viewing America as the center of the world since the 20th century. As a result, the burden for overseas missions represents only a drop in the bucket of our concern, efforts, and consideration. Most American Christians could not conceive of living anywhere else in the world, for if they did, how could they achieve the American dream? It is, after all, an American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
As a result, we see few of our young people intending to give their lives to foreign missionary service, and even fewer adults selling all they have to emigrate to a foreign country for the purpose of spreading the gospel. Also as a result, missionaries spend 2-3 years (or more) traipsing across America begging churches to support them so they can get to a field before the next generation of natives dies without Christ. The rest of the world just seems so far away, and most of them don’t speak English, so it’s a bit of a bother to expend too much effort in that direction. We are glad to see the missionaries when they come home on furlough and ask how they can stand living in that awful place, but then quickly forget them when they return abroad.
This pessimistic account is not entirely inaccurate. The truth is, when we think of Christianity, we tend to think only of American Christianity. When we think of heaven, we tend to think of people just like ourselves numbering in the millions, worshipping God around the throne. What we don’t often think about is the fact that there is a whole world of Christians in other countries that don’t think of America as the center of the Christian world, won’t ever be American, and may not even desire to be so. In fact, in some places of the world, the Christian church is actually quite a bit healthier than it is in the U.S. and more populous.
In his book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, Philip Jenkins documents the shift of Christianity to the southern hemisphere of the planet over the past one hundred years:
We are currently living through one of the transforming moments in the history of religion worldwide. Over the past five centuries or so, the story of Christianity has been inextricably bound up with that of Europe and European-derived civilizations overseas, above all in North America. Until recently, the overwhelming majority of Christians have lived in White nations, allowing theorists to speak smugly, arrogantly, of “European Christian” civilization…
Over the past century, however, the center of gravity in the Christian world has shifted inexorably southward, to Africa, Asia and Latin America. Already today, the largest Christian communities on the planet are to be found in Africa and Latin America. If we want to visualize a “typical” contemporary Christian, we should think of a woman living in a village in Nigeria or in a Brazilian favela. As Kenyan scholar John Mbiti has observed, “the centers of the church’s universality [are] no longer in Geneva, Rome, Athens, Paris, London, New York, but Kinshasa, Buenos Aires, Addis Ababa, and Manilla.” Whatever Europeans or North Americans may believe, Christianity is doing very well indeed in the global South—not just surviving but expanding (p. 1-2).
While Jenkins’ comments reveal some disdain for American Christianity, and his figures make no distinction between Evangelicals, Catholics, and other types of “Christians,” his point stands nonetheless. The “average” Christian in the world is not a middle class white man (or woman). Population booms and religious shifts have made the world a different place than it was as short a time ago as the 1980’s. By 2015 none of the most populated urban centers in the world will be on American soil. And with the exception of the U.S. and China, all of the most populated countries in the world will be in the global South.
This reality has a number of implications for the work of missions. First, at the present mission work seems to be moving more to a teaching, educational model than a church planting model. Many missionaries have learned that an American pastoring a church of nationals in a foreign country is counterproductive in the long run. The most effective missionaries today seem to be those who go with the intent to raise up a college or seminary for the training of national pastors, and eventually work themselves out of a job as those very men take over the institution. The seminary where I teach has already done that in several countries in Eastern Europe and South America. This trend should compel more and more missionaries to obtain seminary and advanced degrees before going to the mission field, or else they will find themselves unable to train nationals to a level necessary to run their own schools.
Second, there are many countries of the world closed to American missionaries. Yet these very same countries are wide open to people of other nationalities. One missionary I know in Eastern Europe trains men to go into the Muslim “stan” countries such as Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan that are closed to American passports. A similar phenomenon is happening with Asian Christian working in Middle Eastern countries, many at the risk of persecution or death. Rather than giving up on closed countries, we need to continue to seek creative ways to get the gospel into them through believers of other ethnic heritage.
Finally, in the very near future, the tide may change in some countries where Americans find missionaries from Africa, Asia and Latin America knocking on their doors in Anytown, U.S.A. to evangelize Americans. Jenkins notes,
Great Britain today plays host to some 1,500 missionaries from fifty nations. Many come from African countries, and they express disbelief at the spiritual desert they encounter in this “green and pagan land”…Announcing a new missionary endeavor, the Anglican primate of Brazil declared that “London is today’s field of mission. It’s so secular we have to send people for their salvation” (p. 205).
Be prepared to be evangelized by a foreigner!
Revelation 7:9 speaks of a multitude without number from every nation, from all tribes and people and languages, standing before the throne and the Lamb. What a glorious day that will be when a countless sea of faces from every corner of the earth will raise their voices like a mighty wave of praise to God! If God designed a global redemption to culminate in such a scene, how much more should we already be thinking of Christianity in such terms? How much more should we be encouraging our children to think naturally about foreign missions? How much more should churches be sacrificing to speed missionaries to the field? How much more should those preparing for missionary service be adequately preparing for long-term effective ministry? And finally, a little closer to home, how much more should we be reaching our own neighbors right next door?