Diaspora Missions: East Meets West (and North meets South): Reflections on Polycentric Missions
Last month, as I stood on the banks of the giant Panama Canal in Panama, Central America, and saw ships cross from the Atlantic to Pacific Ocean side, I was reminded of a famous quote from a poem by Nobel Laurate Rudyard Kipling—‘East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” He was born to English parents in Bombay in Colonial India and having grown up in India, Kipling’s short stories were a regular feature of my staple diet.
As I gazed at the breathtaking engineering feat, I wondered how wrong Kipling was. Right in front of my eyes, I was seeing the coming together of the East and West. Over a century of transportation and global trade has remarkably brought the East and the West closer together. Yet, Kipling is so right. There is so much fear, confusion, and pain between people of different geographies, culture, race/ethnicity, wealth, and ideologies.
Polycentric Missions: From Everywhere to Everywhere
I was in Panama to participate in the global consultation of the World Evangelical Alliance Mission Commission; the theme of the gathering was Polycentric Missions. We spent five days learning and discussing about the changing landscape of missionary work in the world today and delving into biblical reflections from the Book of Jonah. We discussed theological and missiological concepts such as Missio Dei, center/periphery, margins, new missionary-sending nations, and emerging polycentricism in missions.
The Panama Canal was emblematic of the flow in material goods and wealth of the nations. But when money and goods move, information and ideas move, which leads to people movements and culture change. Moreover, what remains subtle is that when people move, they carry faith with them. The movement of people has decisively shaped nations and the religious landscape worldwide. No wonder Professor Andrew Walls claimed that “migration was a more significant event in Christian history than the Reformation itself.”
The Great European Migration – from the 16th to the 19th century – scattered some 50 million Europeans worldwide. A century ago, over one-fifth of Europeans lived outside of Europe in nearly one-third of the inhabited world. The British were so widespread that it is said that the sun never sets on the British Empire. This outward flow of people from a region that was representative of Christians in the world then brought Western religious ideas, expressions, and institutions around much of the world. The result was that Christianity looked Western in the process.
However, the second half of the 20th century saw a great reversal in migratory flow, and former colonies began to send its people to their former colonizers and elsewhere. This resulted in a post-Christian West and post-Western Christianity.
As Asia, Africa, and Latin America have become the new centers of Christianity and missionary work, they have also exported millions of people all over the world. As people everywhere began to read scriptures in their own heart languages and were led by the Spirit to take the gospel of Jesus Christ across cultural barriers to the ends of the earth in new ways, multiple center hubs of centrifugal missionary activities began to arise.
Almost every inhabited region of the world is now both sending and receiving missionaries. Mission is a two-way street as prior senders receive and former recipients send missionaries all over.
Global North and South: Convergence and Divergence
Panama is a meeting place between the North and South American continents. At the mission event, I saw a convergence of Global North and South, where a few hundred evangelical mission leaders from around the world gathered to talk and learn from each other about polycentric missions—only to be scattered a few days later to multiple centers of missional influence.
More people are on the move than at any time in our collective known history. According to UN estimates, nearly 250 million people live in a place other than where they were born. This does not include hundreds of millions of domestic migrants or internally-displaced people.
Additionally, there are over 65 million forcibly displaced refugees in the world. The human dispersion is a global phenomenon today and continues to soar in volume, velocity, routes, directions, and complexity. In spite of many dangers and stricter regulations than ever before, the human dispersion continues unabated.
At the beginning of the 21st century, Christianity is the world’s most globalized, most geographically dispersed, and most culturally and ethnically diverse religion. Nearly half of the international migrants in the world are Christians, and nearly two-thirds of legal permanent residents in the United States over the last 25 years were Christians.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 43 million residents were foreign born, and of those, about 75 percent were Christian. Clearly, the U.S. is being Christianized afresh by the influx of Christian immigrants from Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Christianity is not declining in the U.S., but is being ‘de-Europeanized,’ or more precisely, it is being globalized.
As Christianity remains a migratory religion not captive to any culture, every Christian migrant is also a potential missionary. This is resulting in a massive Majority World missionary movement. Missions is no more from ‘the West to the Rest,’ but has become from all nations to all nations. New missionary-sending nations like Korea, Philippines, Nigeria, Kenya, Brazil, China, India, and Mexico have become a notable missionary force and are involved in multiple countries and regions of the world.
We can now view the United States both as a mission force and a mission field. Every wave of immigrants to the United States has decisively enriched the mosaic of American Christianity and in turn shaped our global engagement.
The diverse heritage and vibrant contemporary expressions of Asian, African, and Latino Christianity (with their deep spirituality, family-centered ethic, multicultural competency, willingness to suffer for gospel, and mission in a multi-religious context) has much to contribute to American Christianity in the 21st century.
Finally, Kipling’s poem with which I started this reflection dates to 1889 and comes from the context of a strained relationship between British West and Indian East. However, the rest of the ballad is not known to many:
Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgement Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the Earth!
That sounds like a missionary call and the challenge for a polycentric mission era, where followers of Jesus Christ from all nations join hands together in every nations to reach people everywhere with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The coming years will be a new era in missions during which the Great Commission will not be the exclusive prerogative of a select few and driven by nationality, race, or money. Instead, followers of Christ will reject the idolatries of power, success, and greed as they serve on mission together in unity, humility, integrity, and simplicity. May we all, from East and West as well as North and South, come together with our missionary God to do missions to the ends of the Earth.