The city of Santa Cruz, situated in the eastern lowlands of Bolivia, is one of those frontier places where cultures meet and traditions are challenged. Close to the borders of Paraguay and Brazil, Santa Cruz is a mixture of Spanish, Indian, Guarani, and Brazilian cultures. Peruvians and Brazilians sell their goods in the main square. In her streets, one sees old Mennonites from distant colonies, Quechua Indians who have migrated from the highlands in search of land, and Japanese and Korean colonists settling in as Germans and Jews did 50 years ago.

Santa Cruz is a window into what missions is going to be in the decades to come. A Korean Presbyterian missionary who barely speaks Spanish has almost single-handedly established a Christian university that serves 1,500 students and trains medical doctors, dentists, engineers, agronomists, and ministers. A Colombian couple, volunteers with the Mennonite Central Committee, live in one of the poorest barrios of the city and minister to the poor in cooperation with the local Catholic priest, himself an American missionary.

A Brazilian evangelist has brought a team of 20 young people from Sao Paulo to teach them how to do missions and survive by faith without receiving any money from a mission board. They are challenging Bolivians to join their team of missionaries to Muslim countries.

Alejandro Escobar, born in Argentina and a citizen of Peru, works in Santa Cruz with Canadian and American missionaries and Bolivian experts in a holistic mission project. They use the latest computer technology, marketing, and management theory to create jobs and encourage entrepreneurism for thousands of families in the region.

In the approaching millennium, the remarkable work at Santa Cruz will become less the exception and more the rule. The Christian mission worthy of that name in the future will be truly international, ecumenical in the best sense of that term, unapologetically holistic along biblical lines, and daringly willing to face the new world order into which we are moving. Consequently, there will be a need for a paradigm change that will allow us to be obedient to the drive of the Spirit, in tune with the revealed design of the Father, and faithful to the clear example of the Son.


The world in which missions will take place in the coming decades is going to be a cruel, cold, desperate world. In the words of Jacques Attali, it will be "a world that has embraced a common ideology of consumerism." One of the images Attali uses to convey the contrasts and tensions of tomorrow's world is that of the "nomadic man" since circling the globe will be possible for an increasing number of people in years to come. Predicts Attali, rich nomads, with their Walkmans, their fax machines, their laptop computers, and their cellular phones, "will roam the planet seeking ways to use their free time, shopping for information, sensations and goods only they can afford, while yearning for human fellowship and the certitudes of home and community that no longer exist because their functions have become obsolete."

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At the same time, says Attali, tomorrow's world will hold roving masses of poor nomads, "boat people on a planetary scale-seeking to escape from the destitute periphery, where most of the earth's population will continue to live." Anyone involved in Christian missions has seen these poor nomads, carrying their children and their misery. Some navigate the southeast Asian seas in flimsy boats; others desperately cross the U.S.-Mexico border through sewage collectors and across barbed wire; still others pack the train stations and homeless shelters of Germany; while some even stuff themselves into United Nations trucks in the Balkan peninsula.

Circling the globe in a kind of nomadic existence has always been part of the missionary enterprise. Remember the seaborne apostle Paul, headed for Rome in Acts 27? It was Paul, a missionary in chains, who offered expert travel advice to his captors, kept calm in the midst of the storm, gave leadership at the moment of danger, and thereby gained the confidence of the centurion in whose charge he was a prisoner. What a powerful message it was when Paul broke the bread and gave thanks, restoring confidence and hope among his hearers!

This story brings to my mind two simple but searching questions for our times: Where will the missionaries of Jesus Christ place themselves as they circle the globe in that nomadic world? And how will they carry the presence of the kingdom and the message of the King as they move among all kinds of nomads?


These questions about missionary presence and style have motivated some of the most creative missiological thinking of recent decades, which has resulted in a refreshing and challenging return to Scripture. Missiologist David Bosch has said, "Our point of departure should not be the contemporary enterprise we seek to justify, but the biblical sense of what being sent into the world signifies."

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"Mission in Christ's way" is the agenda that John Stott pioneered in 1966 as he shifted attention from the classic passage of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20 to the almost forgotten text of John 20:21: "As the Father sent me, I am sending you." This is the text where we not only have a mandate for mission, but also a model of mission-an incarnational model where we live alongside and partner with the people we are trying to reach. Before we search for methods and tools that will help us communicate a verbal message, we must search for a new style of missionary presence relevant to this moment of human history.

Essentially, the shift to the Johannine pattern of mission and a return to biblical teaching means the abandonment of the imperial mentality in missions. Imperial missiology carried on missionary work from a position of superiority: political, military, financial, and technological. The maxim "The cross and the sword" symbolized the attitude of Iberian missions in the sixteenth century, and "commerce and Christianity" symbolized the mindset present at the height of Protestant-European missions in the nineteenth century. "Information, technology, and gospel" symbolizes the mindset in our contemporary age of nomads. The change of mind that this postimperial mission requires bears heavily upon the evangelical missionary establishment today. A change of methodologies alone will not work. Take the reality of Islam as a case in point.

Islam has become one of the great missionary challenges of today. It is now a rival faith in Indonesia, several African countries, the Middle East, and even the heart of American and European cities. At the time of the Crusades, Islam was a thriving, conquering faith that could barely be stopped at the doors of Europe. Within the frame of an imperial and Constantinian mentality, missions in those years became a holy war against the Moors.

The fact that we still operate with these and similar categories was dramatically portrayed in the Urbana 1990 missionary convention. It was December of 1990, a few weeks before the Gulf War, and there were anti-Arab sentiments in the air, fostered by the media, the rhetoric of the United States' political and military leaders, and the fiery language of religious fundamentalists. In a missionary convention, one expects to hear a discourse shaped by the spirit of Jesus Christ. But a plenary address on the Middle East-that area of "creative access," as it was called-was no different from the one that dominated the airwaves of a nation at war.

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A member of the Urbana staff clearly expressed the protest that many others felt was necessary: "From a position of power and wealth, we divide the world according to our categories and strategize how we will conquer. Foreign policy is couched in spiritual conflict terms, and militaristic attitudes are baptized in the name of Christ. Haven't we learned anything from history?"

What we learn from history is that the inhumanity of the Crusades was not the only way in which Christians related to Islam in those days. Francis of Assisi pioneered a different approach. In 1219 he managed to cross the lines of battle and gain entrance to the sultan of Egypt. There Francis presented to the sultan the message of Christ in its simplicity and beauty.

This same approach was developed into a missionary methodology by Ramon Llull, the famous Spanish mystic and apologist. At a time of war and confrontation, he made four missionary trips to North Africa in order to preach to the Muslims, and he died as a result of persecution in his last attempt in 1315.

Contemporary missionaries to Muslims, such as William Miller, Dennis Clark, Phil Parshall, and Margaret Wynne, have abandoned the imperialist mindset and have stressed spirituality and readiness for suffering as fundamental components of missions to Islam.

Several other evangelical missionaries have gone through the pilgrimage of learning to practice missions according to Jesus' model, forsaking the crude traditions of the imperial age. Missions in the coming years will follow in the footsteps of pioneers such as Viv Gregg, the New Zealander who became a companion to the poor in Manila. In his moving account, he describes revolutionary proposals for missions without giving up any of his evangelical convictions.

Luis Scott, an American scholar from Ohio, built his house among the poor in Mexico City and supported himself teaching Greek in a national university there. He now combines a church planting ministry and an academic career discipling younger Mexican scholars.

The incarnational style dramatically portrayed by these pioneers is not necessarily something that all missionaries should duplicate, but in this style, a pattern of imitating Christ has been recovered. To be truly effective, our missionaries must be shaped by the spirit of this incarnational model.

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The last recession in the United States led to mergers of missionary organizations, restructuring of mission boards, and an increase in the hiring of fundraising specialists. But despite rumors that human and material resources for missions have evaporated in Europe and North America, last year more than $2 billion were dedicated to the missionary enterprise in the United States and Canada alone. Without question, the missionary enterprise is still strong, especially in North America.

Consider InterVarsity Christian Fellowship's triennial Urbana missions convention. In spite of the lamentations of mission boards that have difficulty finding candidates, last December almost 20,000 people-25 percent of whom were of an Asian background-attended the four-day convention, eager to learn and receive an intense and serious missionary challenge.

As evidenced in the more diverse ethnic makeup of Urbana '93 (in all, nearly two-fifths of those attending represented ethnic minorities), much of missions' future success depends on its willingness to adapt to and take advantage of the resources of an increasingly multicultural society.

The most articulate defender of the historic role of Western missionaries in the Third World is Lamin Sanneh, an outstanding African scholar from Gambia, who teaches World Christianity at Yale University Divinity School. The general secretary of the Church Missionary Society, one of the most prestigious missionary societies of the United Kingdom, is Michael Mazir-Ali, a bishop who went to England from his native Pakistan. When 200 Korean missionaries working in Latin America look for fresh missiological thinking that may throw biblical light on their problems, they ask Ecuadorian missiologist Rene Padilla for advice. All of these examples reveal the cosmopolitan flavor that missions is taking on around the world.

In the coming decades, missions going East and West will require resources from all quarters. It is becoming increasingly apparent that responsible mission-minded people today must work together, whether from the North or the South, the East or the West. The next century demands an international vision.


Global migration has forced missions to take on a holistic thrust. We see this in large cities in the United States. One result of the intensification of nomadic lifestyles has been that what we usually call the Third World has now come to North America. Americans are now able to see on their streets the architectural shapes of mosques and Hindu temples-not as exotic ornaments for casinos, but as places of worship for communities that sometimes outdo Christians in their missionary zeal. Moreover, those indigenous churches over which mission-minded Americans once rejoiced when they read missionary literature have become sister churches just down the street. Congregations of Haitian Baptists, Filipino evangelicals, and Latin-American Pentecostals are now taking over abandoned church buildings in downtown Philadelphia.

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American Christians are being pushed by the logic of these facts into a choice: They can become authentically missionary at their own doorstep and therefore assume a holistic stance (because as they establish relations with recently arrived brothers and sisters, they will not be able to avoid a gamut of social and economic problems, such as illegal immigration, drug-related issues, oppressive structures, police abuse, and so on). Or they can isolate themselves and reduce their commitment to sending money through traditional missionary agencies that do not require active involvement or solidarity with the people the missions are trying to reach. Thus they will turn their religion into a formality: baroque buildings, orthodox theology, empty words, and meaningless ritual. No matter how successful some churches may appear, as they provide religious support for a declining American culture instead of preaching true conversion and discipleship, they will be condemned to irrelevance.

This is a time in which taking a truly missionary stance means announcing the whole counsel of God to a society that is hypnotized by a passion for consuming. In the kind of increasingly paganized society that the United States has become, a critical distance and a prophetic stance are urgently required of Christians. They have to become "resident aliens" in their culture.

On this point, evangelicals could learn a lesson from the history of the Catholic church in Latin America. Traditionally, it was a church that allowed greed, injustice, and corruption to shape society, used political means to keep her privileges intact, and that always embraced conservative causes when the world was crying for reforms. Now Latin Americans are leaving that church at the rate of 400 people every hour.

Partnership in mission with the growing ethnic churches will demand a change of missiological beliefs. Societal solidarity, respect, and equality will all be indispensable prerequisites for entering into partnership. The largest churches of a particular denomination in New York are Hispanic and Asian. They are successful churches in the urban jungle. But the executives of that denomination appear unwilling to learn from the Hispanic and Asian pastors about missions in the city. Rather, they bring specialists from missiological think tanks that tell them what they want to hear. The seriousness of missionary commitment of American evangelical churches in the coming decades will have to be measured not only by the amount of money they give to organizations working abroad, but also by the effective answer they give to the missionary challenge of American cities.

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Partnership in mission also includes a reappraisal of predominant patterns of middle-class Western culture. It is well-known, for instance, that while the Anglo church fled to the suburbs, ethnic and Pentecostal churches have remained in the heart of American cities. Many of these churches have the marks of what we could describe as "popular Protestantism," because they coincide with the marks of the culture of poverty, such as oral liturgy, narrative theology, uninhibited emotionalism, maximum participation in prayer and decision-making, dreams and visions, and an intense search for community and belonging.

Historians and missiologists point out that during our century this form of Christianity is the one that has grown most extensively all over the world, but especially among the urban masses in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It is also the kind of Christianity that is surviving in American cities. Sociologists point out that such numerical growth takes place especially among socially marginalized groups that suffered uprooting and anomie during periods of rapid urbanization. Becoming partners with these churches will require serious self-appraisal for the more institutionalized, well-mannered, predictable churches of respectable, middle-class evangelical congregations.


Missions experience can be the source of vitality and renewal for churches and individual Christians who have lost their sense of purpose. Daniel Fountain, an American Baptist medical doctor, spent almost 30 years as a missionary in Zaire with his wife, Miriam. What he says in a self-critical way about medical practice could also be applied to counseling, teaching, and pastoral work.

For many reasons we have lost the art of communication. Diagnosis is made by electronic and computer technology, and prescriptions are handed out with minimal instructions. We do not admit our patients to the mystique of medical knowledge and, as a result, we lose their confidence. … Medical specialists can repair, alter or prop up the human body with great skill and we even have a growing supply of "spare parts." Yet we seem unable to touch the human spirit or bring wholeness to the sick person.

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Medical practice on the mission field along the lines of current canons of Western medicine proved insufficient for Dr. Fountain. Compelled by the cry of human need and his own commitment to serve people, he rediscovered the relevance of the biblical view of persons. According to Fountain, "secular philosophy ignores or even denies the realm of the spiritual because it is beyond the limits of scientific experimentation. Life has no ultimate meaning and God has become irrelevant to any considerations of health and healing." The problem that the doctor finds is that much illness and "disease" comes precisely from that loss of meaning and purpose, so he cannot avoid the conclusion that "if the sick person is to be made whole, we must involve in the restoration process the center of the personality where the quests for meaning and purpose exist."

Fountain's challenge coincides with the opinion of one of the greatest missiologists of our time, Lesslie Newbigin, who says that "there is no higher priority for the research of missiologists than to ask the question of what would be involved in a genuinely missionary encounter between the gospel and this modern Western culture." For Newbigin, this task is urgent, not only for those who deal with the missionary crossing of frontiers in other lands, but for pastors, evangelists, and seminary professors who have to deal with the missionary encounter here in the United States or in Europe.

Bishop Newbigin went back to England to minister in a parish of factory workers after spending 30 years as a missionary in India. There he experienced the outcome of the secularization process that, during his absence, had made deep inroads into the culture of his country.

Newbigin describes how Western missionaries in our time have come to share in the general weakening of confidence in the modern Western culture; "they have become more aware of the fact that in their presentation of the gospel they have often confused culturally conditioned perceptions with the substance of the gospel and thus wrongfully claimed divine authority for all the relativities of one culture." What he finds surprising in the missiological literature about contextualization is that there is no serious reflection about "the most widespread, powerful and persuasive among all contemporary cultures-namely, Modern Western culture. Moreover, this neglect is even more serious because it is this culture that more than almost any other, is proving resistant to the gospel."

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This is one of the new missionary challenges: bringing missions to this increasingly resistant Western culture. Precisely at this point, God has brought the Third World church to the heart of the American and European cities where that Western culture has become a mission field. Missions at our doorstep is the training ground for carrying on missions around the world.

At the end of this century, we find ourselves facing the prospect of a new world order, which scares us not only for what is unknown about it, but also for what we may reasonably expect it to be by looking at contemporary trends. However, we also find the amazing reality of the church as a truly global body-closer than ever to that vision of the seer in Revelation: the multicultural, multilingual, multiracial company "that no one could count," crying out in a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb" (Rev. 7:9-10, NIV).

We are closer, but not there yet. The missionaries of God's kingdom have many geographical, cultural, and sociological frontiers to cross; the task is not anymore "the white man's burden," as it seemed to be at the beginning of this century. It is clearly the task of men and women in a new global church, a task that demands a renewed biblical vision for a new historical moment.


Samuel Escobar teaches missions at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This essay is adapted from an article first published in the January 1994 issue of Prism magazine.

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