The changing complexion of world missions reflects the emerging leadership of the churches in the Third World and the end of colonialism.

World Missions Today

When the Royal Air Force won the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, Winston Churchill paid public tribute to the brave men of the RAF in these words: “Never in the history of human conflict have so many owed so much to so few.”

The same may be said of the modern missionary movement. Tens of millions of people in all parts of the world are what they are today because a comparatively small number of gallant men and women risked their lives to give them the gospel with all the blessings that accompany it. Many countries in Black Africa might not be independent now were it not for the solid contribution made by the early missionaries. Those pioneers planted churches, opened hospitals, and established schools, thereby setting Africa on the path to modernization. Indeed, but for the missionaries, most of the 860 languages and dialects of Africa would still exist only in oral form.

Increase Despite Turbulence And Change

The Christian mission is still growing and expanding at home and overseas. According to the twelfth edition of the Mission Handbook, published in early 1981, there are now 44,862 North America-based missionaries serving in over 125 countries of the world—up from 37,677 four years ago. Missionary giving is also at an all-time high—$1,148 million compared with $656 million in 1976.

Not all denominations have participated in this growth. Personnel in the Division of Overseas Ministries of the National Council of Churches dropped from 8,279 in 1969 to 3,899 in 1979. In the same ten-year period, personnel in the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association increased from 6,611 to 9,797. The number of missionaries in the Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association, the Fellowship of Missions, the Associated Missions of the International Council of Christian Churches, and the Canadian Council of Churches remained about the same or showed only modest gains or losses. By far the largest increase came in the more than 400 agencies not affiliated with any of the above-mentioned associations. Known as “unaffiliated missions,” they showed a whopping gain of 10,714, from 12,424 to 23,138. The “big three” are Wycliffe Bible Translators with 4,225 missionaries, the Southern Baptists with more than 3,000, and the New Tribes Mission with over 1,400.

The last 25 years have seen drastic changes. The greatest came with the collapse of the colonial system in the 1960s and the subsequent emergence of the many independent countries of the Third World. This is seen most dramatically in the United Nations. It began in 1945 with 51 charter members. Today it has 153 members, the majority being ex-colonies of the great European powers.

The advent of independence brought three major changes in Christian missions. First, the role of the missionary changed. Once he was master; then partner; now he is servant. Second, the status of the churches changed. “Younger” churches of the Third World are no longer controlled by Western mission boards, nor are they part of “mother” churches in the West. They manage their own affairs without reference to Geneva, London, or New York. Third, the image of Christianity has changed. The foreign gunboats have been withdrawn and the foreign flags have come down. Now Christianity is free to chart its own course, develop its own structures, and project its own image without the stigma of “foreign imperialism.”

Challenge To Advance

Welcome as these changes are, others have been less desirable. The spirit of nationalism, now running high, has adversely affected both church and mission in many parts of the world. China, Vietnam, Burma, Syria, Cuba, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, South Yemen, and other nations have expelled all Western missionaries. Some countries now issue only temporary visas for one or two years. Others require residence and work permits. Still others keep the missionaries under such strict surveillance as to greatly reduce their effectiveness. One thing is certain—the unrestricted freedom enjoyed in the heyday of colonialism is gone forever.

Article continues below

Another major development is the resurgence of non-Christian religions. Far from breaking up, they are on the move and showing signs of new vitality. Temples are being refurbished, scriptures are being translated and distributed, missionaries are being trained to take the message to the West.

Ever since the Sixth Great Buddhist Council, held in Rangoon, 1954–56, Buddhism has been on the march. Zen Buddhism fascinates university students everywhere. A Society for Buddhist Studies was established at Columbia University in 1975, and for the first time in history, a Buddhist was appointed chaplain of the California State Senate.

An even more aggressive Islam is undergoing a renaissance, which in Iran has developed into a revolution. In 1976, delegates from 44 Muslim countries at the First International Shariat Congress in Karachi called for the “quiet withdrawal” of Christian missionaries from Muslim countries.

With their fabulous oil revenues, Libya and Saudi Arabia are subsidizing the spread of Islam everywhere. Indeed, petro-dollars are on the way to making Islam the world’s richest religion. With 25 million adherents in Europe, it is now the continent’s second largest religion. The Anglican bishop of Guildford said: “Islam is now well and truly planted in the soil of Britain. Britain has become one of the leading Islamic centers, with over 300 mosques and one million Muslims.”

Despite these developments, the non-Christian peoples of the world display an openness to the claims of Christ unparalleled in history. Millions of animists in Africa, Hindus in India, Buddhists in Southeast Asia, and even Muslims in the Middle East are showing an unprecedented interest in the gospel. They are reading Christian literature, listening to gospel broadcasts, and enrolling in Bible correspondence courses in record numbers. This quest for spiritual reality is not confined to the poverty-stricken masses whose interest in religion might be suspect. It includes teachers, students, government officials, military personnel, and successful business and professional people whose hearts the Holy Spirit has touched.

Impact Of Pragmatism And Vision

Several major developments in the last 25 years are worth mentioning. The first must surely be the church-growth movement. It was launched by Donald McGavran in the 1950s, was vigorously promoted by Fuller Seminary’s School of World Mission in the 1960s, and reached to the ends of the earth in the 1970s. It is without doubt the most dynamic factor in the missionary enterprise of our day.

McGavran has his supporters and his detractors. Ecumenical leaders, whose emphasis is predominantly horizontal rather than vertical, have understandably opposed church growth. Some evangelical leaders in Great Britain and Latin America have dismissed it as “American pragmatism.” Evangelicals in other parts of the world have accepted it and derived enormous benefit from it. In the last nine years, over 70 workshops and seminars in church growth have been conducted in some 50 countries. Vergil Gerber’s book, God’s Way to Keep a Church Going and Growing, has been published in over 50 languages, with others in preparation. More recently church-growth principles have been applied to churches in the United States and Canada.

Most of the church growth is taking place in the Third World. The Assemblies of God have 12.2 million members overseas, compared with only 1.3 million in the United States. The Christian and Missionary Alliance hopes to double its overseas membership by 1987. In Korea, six new churches organize every day; one church in Seoul has 150,000 members. Every year Brazil sees 3,000 new congregations formed. Myron Augsburger returned from a global tour convinced that the Third World is the cutting edge of the Christian church. After his 1973 crusade in Korea, Billy Graham said: “It may be that the center of spiritual gravity in the world is shifting from the West to the East.” In Black Africa 20,000 persons embrace Christianity every day. For the first time, Christians outnumber both animists and Muslims south of the Sahara. If the present pattern of church growth continues, by A.D. 2000 the Christian church will no longer be predominantly white.

Article continues below

Closely allied with church growth has been an increasing interest in evangelism. Evangelism-in-Depth, the brainchild of Kenneth Strachan, was launched in Nicaragua in 1960. It spread to ten Latin American countries. Later it expanded under different names to Africa and Asia. The “Christ for All” campaign in Kinshasa, Zaire, in 1967 attracted 40,000 people daily, many of whom became new believers. In other parts of Africa, “New Life for All” campaigns resulted in a 50 percent church growth in one year.

The Berlin Congress (1966) and the Lausanne Congress (1974), milestones in the onward surge of evangelism, spawned regional congresses on all six continents. These congresses, together with the worldwide ministry of Billy Graham, have done more than anything else to promote the cause of evangelism. The American Festival of Evangelism, meeting in Kansas City, Missouri, in July 1981, is expected to attract more than 15,000 persons.

Theological Education by Extension began with Ralph Winter in Guatemala in 1960. It was designed originally to provide basic theological training for older pastors who could not leave their home and ministry to attend a central school. The idea spread like wildfire, especially in Africa and Latin America. Today over 50,000 students in more than 75 countries follow the program.

Unprecedented progress in Bible translation and distribution has been made during the last 25 years. In 1956 the Scriptures were available in only 1,109 languages. The present figure stands at 1,710. Ninety percent of the world’s population now have the entire Bible in their own language. The New Testament is available to a further 5 percent and portions to another 3 percent, leaving only 2 percent without any part of the Word of God. In recent decades, Wycliffe’s Bible translators have assumed the lion’s share of Bible translation. Thus far they have completed the New Testament in 150 languages—24 in 1980 alone.

Equally astonishing is the matter of distribution. The Living Bible sold 23 million copies in the first six years. Good News for Modern Man sold more than 55 million copies in its first decade. When the Good News Bible appeared in December 1976, one million copies were purchased in the first month! The American Bible Society’s latest plans are to raise $63 million to help newly literate people around the world improve their reading skill. Known as Good News for New Readers, the project involves printing and distributing 725 million beautiful multicolored, four-page, illustrated pamphlets containing Bible stories. It is by far the most ambitious plan ever undertaken in 165 years of ABS history.

In addition, tens of millions of Scriptures are distributed annually by Gideons International, Partnership Missions, World Home Bible League, Scripture Gift Mission, Pocket Testament League, and other specialized agencies.

Article continues below

One of the fastest growing developments is short-term service abroad, which began to pick up speed in the early 1960s. By the mid-1970s it was in high gear, and it promises to continue strong well into the future. Two major groups are involved: youth and retired persons. They serve abroad for one to three years, usually under a mission board. So popular is this program that in some missions more than half of the new recruits each year are short-termers. According to one poll, 98 percent of these short-termers come home with a good impression of missionary life and work; an increasing number consequently return for a second and third term, by which time they are considered career missionaries.

The most exciting development in recent decades is the contribution to world missions by Third World churches. For too long it was assumed that world evangelization was the “white man’s burden.” This is no longer so. More and more churches in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are participating in world missions. The Asian churches lead the way, but others are not far behind. Three Asian denominations have been particularly active: the Christian and Missionary Alliance, the Assemblies of God, and the Seventh-day Adventists.

In country after country interdenominational missionary associations have been formed. In 1973 the All Asia Mission Consultation in Seoul called for 200 Asian missionaries in 18 months. Brazil has the best missionary-sending record in Latin America; and in Africa, Nigeria heads the list. The precise number of non-Caucasian missionaries is difficult to pinpoint, but conservative estimates run as high as 8,000.

In the past 25 years, some parachurch organizations previously restricted to North America have branched out to other parts of the world. Included in this group are Campus Crusade for Christ, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Navigators, Child Evangelism Fellowship, Youth for Christ, Bible Club Movement, Scripture Union, Christian Business Men’s Committee, and Gideons.

Cause For Concern And Praise

The most significant event in ecumenical missions during this 25-year period was the merger in 1961 of the World Council of Churches and the International Missionary Council. Hope was expressed that the IMC might impart its missionary vision to the WCC. Others feared that the ecclesiastical concerns of the WCC would swamp the IMC. Unfortunately, the fear has outrun the hope. Since the merger, the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism has convened three world conferences: Mexico (1963), Bangkok (1972), and Melbourne (1980). Loosely affiliated with the WCC are several regional bodies: Christian Conference of Asia (1959), All Africa Conference of Churches (1963), and the Pacific Conference of Churches (1966).

Ecumenical missions have shown an increasing preoccupation with social and political action to the neglect of evangelism and church planting. Large sums of money given by the WCC to “freedom fighters” in all six continents proved especially controversial.

Another trend is retrenchment. The number of missionaries dropped steadily in the past 25 years. No new countries joined the roster; few, if any, new programs were initiated.

On the plus side, many “daughter” churches in the Third World received full autonomy from the “mother” churches in the West. these new churches have swelled the size of the WCC from 147 members at Amsterdam (1948) to 300 today.

Space forbids mentioning the progress in missionary radio, Christian literature, and Bible correspondence courses; changes in medical, educational, and agricultural missions; and work among refugees.

Despite advances of the last 25 years, we should not be too quick to congratulate ourselves. The ratio of Christians to the population of the world has been dropping steadily ever since 1960, when it was slightly over 30 percent. Today it is 26 percent. There are more non-Christians in India and China than Christians in the entire world. But we can still rejoice that the Christian church now exists, in one form or another, in almost every nation, and there is not a single country in the world without a Christian witness.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.

Tags:
Issue: