A Fresh Call for U.S. Missionaries
What do we conclude from this? That yes, Western guilt should lead to repentance for presumptuous, insensitive, ethnocentric, and triumphalistic missions. The wrong conclusion, however, is to suggest that we must forgo Western missions because such missions have lost integrity. The very guilt that troubles the Western conscience over past failures points to the moral power and enduring validity of the gospel. Without this burden of guilt, which the Spirit imparts, this world would be far more cruel, heartless, unjust, and oppressive than it is. Only when our hearts and our cultures have responded to the call of Christ and experienced the work of the Spirit can such a conscience develop on the sort of scale that we find in the West. Thus, the Western guilt complex properly understood is also a profound call to humble confidence and boldness in mission.
Where Do We Go From Here?
So, how might Americans respond to the call to missions? Allow me to suggest two steps.
First, the American church must recover a renewed confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul expressed his conviction clearly in Romans 1:16: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes." Francis Schaeffer, commenting on this passage, said that "salvation has something to say not only to the individual man but also to the culture …. It is going to have the answers that men need … because it is the power of God unto salvation in every single area; it has answers for both eternity and now."
Second, a renewed confidence must not lead Americans to forget past mistakes. As many have noted, when Americans go overseas, they need to go with a spirit of humility and servanthood. This means being willing to partner with believers from other cultures. Let me hasten to say that cultural imperialism is not solely an American disease, but can also be seen at times among other Western missionaries, Koreans, Nigerians, Singaporeans, and Chinese. But Americans who are rich in education and finances and many types of expertise need to be reminded of this as much as anyone.
In a globalized world, the days of parochial thinking and action in missions are over. The task is far too big for any one group to manage on its own. The way forward has to be one of genuine Christian partnership between Western and non-Western churches, and between the rich and the poor, whether materially or spiritually.
An example from the 2010 Lausanne Congress: Many of the people who worked behind the scenes to make the Congress a success came from the States. I have heard complaints about Western and American dominance in the program. Having worked as a member of the Congress Management Team for over four years, I do not find those complaints justifiable. There was a determined effort to make Lausanne a truly global movement and to embrace leadership from the majority world—in spite of the fact that the bulk of funding came from the U.S. I cannot say that this is the attitude of all American funders. But this is one highly significant example, among others, that has demonstrated a maturity in vision and partnership.
The key question is, how can the vast resources of Western Christianity on the one hand, and the vitality and dynamism of non-Western Christianity on the other, become a powerful synergistic whole for world evangelization? As we ponder the possibility that the 21st century may indeed be, in the words of Pope John Paul II, the "great century" for the advance of the gospel, this may well be the most important and urgent issue on the global missions agenda today.