The day of North America being at the epicenter of world Christianity is already long gone.
Whether we acknowledge it or not, massive movements of the gospel have been taking place all over the world, particularly in Asia. It could even be argued that the epicenter of Christianity is better described generally as the Global South, since the church is multiplying lickety-split across South America and Africa. Meanwhile, the West continues its march toward becoming entirely post-Christian.
Seemingly overnight the world is a place of overwhelming complexity. Perhaps a better adjective is simply global. God has allowed the development of technology, commerce, and infrastructure to make our world intrusively interconnected. Just think, normal as it may seem, we can astoundingly be anywhere in the world in just a few hours. More than that, we can basically be anywhere in the world right now using our phones.
With all due respect to Ralph Winter and other leaders who helped awaken Christians to the strategic importance of unreached people groups, the world is no longer so clearly delineated (see “The Dangers of Focusing Only on Unreached People Groups”). Though Winter’s fifth epoch of missions history, the Ends of the Earth, is a convenient catch-all for whatever happens next in the story of global missions, I would argue that we are currently witnessing an age worthy of its own recognition.
It’s best described by missiologist Paul Borthwick as “the Great Transition” (59). This entails not only the movement of Christianity from the Northern Hemisphere to the South and from the Western Hemisphere to the East, but also the dizzying migrations of people “from everywhere to everywhere”. Consider the following dynamics:
Populization Populization is the biggest issue in the world, because humans are Tetris-ing while the resources that sustain them are depleting. The world’s population doubled from 1970 to 2010. Doubled. China alone has one third of the world’s population, with India close behind.
Urbanization This is the unstoppable movement into cities (see Keller). By 2050, 75% of the world’s population will live in cities. To help you understand the kind of urban sprawl we’re talking about, the metro area of Tokyo by itself has more people than Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri combined.
Migration This is the uprooting of people from their homeland. 50 million are refugees. It’s estimated that 232 million work abroad to support their families. Millions of others choose to relocate simply because they can. There are so many North Africans moving to Europe that the two most-commonly given names in England are two versions of Mohammed.
This is our age. Suddenly the unreached people group in a general area of Sub-Saharan Africa are scattered in pockets throughout the world. Missionaries wake up in cities of millions, neck-deep in a stewpot of hundreds of people from seemingly everywhere. While they labor to acquire a new language and culture for communicating the gospel, the very people they came to engage are adapting their language and culture to their multi-cultural context. It’s thrilling. It’s chaos.
Hopefully you’ve already deduced that the burden to navigate this Great Commission maze is not resting solely on our shoulders. We would, in fact, do well to accept a piggy back ride from the global church: among others, those eighty million Christians in China, four hundred million in Africa, and forty five million in Brazil. They, too, are sending missionaries. Brazil, China, Korea, the Philippines, India—together they send more missionaries than North America. The US is actually now the greatest recipient of missionaries in the world—and we can use the help!
Just what kind of non-American missionaries are being sent? Consider Brazil as a generalized example:
- extremely relational
- commonly multiracial
- culturally familiar with suffering due to colonization
- politically non-polarizing
- economically growing
- financially satisfied with wages common to the country they move to
What kind of missionaries do you think they are? Honestly, the kind we could learn a lot from.
As Westerners this should challenge us, but also encourage us. Because the Holy Spirit empowers us to celebrate God’s kingdom instead of our own, we can cheer on our diverse brothers and sisters in Christ. We can join in the most epic epoch of missions history thus far.
So, in conclusion, how are we to handle all this missions history? Here are few notable take-aways:
- A quite simple pattern that we see predicted in Scripture and played out in history is this: the nations rage, the church suffers, the gospel advances. We should not be surprised by these three movements as they take expression in our own age. And we must constantly fight the individual and corporate tendency in the church to grow cold in our love for Jesus and lost people both near and far.
- Global missions doesn’t depend on us; not just because it belongs to God, but because North Americans aren’t the only ones in the game. We can step into global missions with the humbling freedom that God will accomplish it, and graciously use us to do so alongside his global church.
- Faithfulness in global missions is carried out one season at a time. Gone are the days of missionaries packing in a pine box that will one day be their casket. The world is rapidly changing. We play our part in missions history the only way we know how: by being obedient one crazy season of life at a time.
- Commitment to global missions doesn’t trump family. Missions history is full of stories of missionaries being used to advance the gospel at the expense of their family’s health. We should learn from this just as much as we celebrate it. It is not a noble voluntary sacrifice unless God calls us to it and counts us worthy to endure it.
- God’s global story is written through unnamed people. This series has highlighted notable names in missions history, but in heaven we’ll get to know millions of biography-worthy people whose names have only been written in one place: the Lamb’s book of life. Like them, may we also preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten.