Gone are the days when missionaries packed up their things, their families and spent a lifetime in another country. Today's missionaries are in constant contact with home, due to technology; they are educated in the spiritual battles in which they may have to engage in other cultures; and most often, they aren't Western. Missions in the 21 century is far different than it was in past centuries. Michael Pocock is co-author of The Changing Face of World Missions and chair and senior professor of world missions and intercultural studies at Dallas Theological Seminary.
Globalization has significantly changed the way people around the world are doing missions. Not only are Christians in the West sending missionaries out, but they're also receiving them from non-Western countries. Missionaries are going from just about every country to every other country.
That is exactly the way things are happening. There are roughly 97,000 Western missionaries and about 101,000 non-Westerners working cross culturally. So the line between Western and non-Western was crossed a few years ago, probably within the last three or four years.
A lot of two thirds world missionaries are simply moving because of economic conditions or other conditions in their country.
Because many majority world churches don't have the resources of Western churches or of some of the churches in more prosperous Asian nationsnations like Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, places like thatthey have had to think of innovative ways of getting mission work done.
It's not that the churches in these countries are saying, "Okay, how many people have we got that went overseas to get a job someplace? Okay, we'll count them all as missionaries." Because I think that's one of the problems, churches could be imparting a missionary consciousness and a greater preparation in terms of cultural preparedness and the ability to lead people to Christ, conduct small group Bible study, the basic stuff that evangelism and discipleship really implies. Many churches haven't intentionally sent their emigrants forth as missionaries.
As the center of gravity for Christianity moves south, there is an increasing concern with spiritual warfare, which could be a corrective of the Western mindset that doesn't see the spiritual as something to be regularly engaged.
The southern churches are much more ready to, because of their worldview, which Paul Hiebert has written about. You can read about folk religion in his book Understanding Folk Religion. He looks at the world in three tiers and sees God and the transcendent in the top tier. Then the bottom tier is that which is concrete, the created world, and that leaves this big gap in the middle, what he calls the "gap of the excluded middle."
For us, that realm is relatively empty, but for a non-Western person or a majority world person, that middle world is pretty strongly inhabited, and it's impacting the concrete world. It's not that they have a majority world point of view that's not right, and we are right for having a relatively empty middle. The point is that we've neglected the information in the Bible that tells us about that middle part.
If Satan blinds the eyes of those who don't believe so that they won't believe, a majority world person says, "Okay, I wonder how he's doing that? In what sense is Satan doing that?" The Bible says he clearly is doing it. If Satan is like a roaring lion going around seeking whom he may devour, it sounds like he's a lot more proactive than a lot of Western people think he is. The Bible is clearly telling us that he does that. I'd say that the majority world churches are taking the whole Bibleand particularly the supernatural elements of Scripturesmore seriously than we do.
And that has affected the kind of courses that missionary trainees take in seminary.
Here we instituted a course in spiritual warfare in 1993. I would say it was because graduates would write back and say, "How come you didn't get me ready for the real world?" We decided we were going to launch this course. I had an interest and a certain amount of experience in it, and so I did. Right now, I've got 26 people in a spiritual warfare course. We repeat it every two years. There will always be a nice enrollment for that.
I get asked to teach the course even more overseas. Non-Westerners are caught between having a wildly fanciful view of spiritual warfare that needs to be moderated by biblical teaching, and the need for straight biblical teaching to handle the situation that they actually are facing. I find many people, whether in Russia, Colombia, or Venezuela, a number of places that are deeply concerned about spiritual warfare. They just feel they ought to be routinely better equipped.
Could you comment on how postmodernity has affected how we do missions or our view of missions?
The world of spirits is not traditionally thought of as an area of scientific investigation. In the Western world, that's part of why it's de-emphasizedif it can't be measured, then it must not be happening. Well, postmodernism is really a movement that says there is an element of reality that is not entirely susceptible to modern methods. Modernism is arrogant. Modernity or scientific rationalism is too arrogant in essentially making a case that what's real is what is explore-able in a lab or by means of scientific investigation. What is not investigate-able or study-able by those means either doesn't exist or is relatively unimportant, or else you can't make any decisions about it.
There's obviously a huge variety of postmodernists, from those who would be willing to say nothing is possible to know, over to people who are just more ambiguous about knowledge, willing to use fuzzy logic. I think that's where Christians are being affected. Not necessarily negatively by the postmodern spirit that's in the air. They are more open to that which is mystical, and they accept the fact more readily that the way that God works is somewhat incomprehensible. It's not as predictable as you think.
Therefore, Western methodologies have been criticized. We mention in the book that people are accusing the West of "managerial missiology." There have been others who have accused us of having a militaristic strategy because we use militaristic termslogistics, strategy, tactics. That's an extension, to me, of our Western, rationalistic approach, because it looks so nice and cut and dried.
Yet I think for a postmodern person, such terms makes them feel uncomfortable when it comes to spiritual issues. I don't think it's that cut and dried. I think we're operating at a different level of dynamics.
Business is a new way of entering countries that don't accept traditional missionaries.
There has just been a conference in Minneapolis of the Evangelical Missiological Society and the Interdenominational Foreign Missions Association. The theme was business and missions, or how business has become a vehicle for missions. They discussed whether that's legitimate, like traditional tentmaking. Is it really effective? Does it have integrity? If you're trying to get access to a country, but you're not saying, "I'm a missionary," you're saying, "I'm a business person" or "I'm starting an NGO or a social service," is that legitimate? Increasingly, that is the way of getting into a difficult-access country. And some of the efforts are very, very effective.
There's a book by Patrick Lai entitled Tentmaking. Patrick Lai is not his real name, but is the name on the book. And he has started about 12 or 14 companies that are effective both as instruments of witness and as excellent companies. They produce goods. They make profit. They do what they say they're there to do.
Steve Rundle and others have worked on the question of Great Commission companies, companies formed with a Great Commission point of view. I've also been reading papers on the Nestorian merchant missionaries, when Nestorians in the fourth and fifth centuries were directly considering themselves to be missionaries or merchants who were missionaries, you might say.
Could you give me an example of someone doing that?
This is an actual case. I won't cite his name or where he worked. He went to the Middle East on a short-term basis with a standard-issue missionary society that was putting a wing on a hospital in a Middle Eastern country. He's a civil engineer. While he's doing that, he then is introduced to the entire workforce of that area, whether they be Egyptians, Iranians, Iraqis, Afghans, you name it, using all kinds of people at various levels of the construction.
He finishes his stint. The wing of the hospital is completed, and then he and his wife now feel they want to move more intentionally into longer-term missions but feel that they lack theological and biblical training. One got a Master of Arts in Christian education; the other a master's degree in cross-cultural ministries. While they're here, the man works with a civil engineering company.
When he graduated, he went to the company and said, "I've worked in the Middle East for 2 and a half years doing a major project. I know what the business climate is. I believe that our company ought to be involved in that. And if our company wants to open up an office in this country, I would like to be the person to do that."
They said, "Let's do it." So he took a team from a secular company and set them up as a company in this Middle Eastern country. In a matter of three or four years, he had them up fully running and functional. Having done that and having total credibility in the country, he simply withdrew from the company and became a consultant. That gave him a lot more time of his own and ability to decide how to spend it. By that time, he knows Arabic. He knows the local culture.
That's a trajectory into business as a missions involvement. There are any number of others, including schools for computer science or schools for English speaking. In the Middle East, often you have to have local partners, and those local partners may not even be believers.
Toward the end of the 20 century there was a lot of talk about completing the Great Commission, evangelizing all the peoples of the earth. What would your take be on the current status of that effort?
I would say that it changed the mind of missions from about 1980 onward. I think the whole concept of finishing the job was reborn by Ralph Winter. He was looking to duplicate what was a similar movement at the end of the 19 centurythe evangelization of the world in our generation. In 1980 at a conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, they re-launched this idea of finishing the job by the year 2000. That really did begin to affect the thinking of the majority of mission boards in North America, Europe, and now also in the majority world.
They are focusing on finishing as opposed to what? As opposed to being faithful as long as it takes. Focusing on finishing meant figuring out exactly what needed to be done. And that meant identifying who the groups are that don't have a viable Christian church movement in their midst.
You'd find that there are people in every one of these organizations who were influenced directly by Ralph Winter. That's what I told Ralph Winter about a year ago. I wrote him a letter because he is sick. I said, "Ralph, I know that you would say the world's greatest missiologist in the 20 century was Donald McGavern, because he was your mentor. But I want to tell you that I think it's you. It's you, because your ideas have been some of the most original, and besides being the most original, you have put it on track. You formed the organizations that caused people to focus on finishing. You focused on people groups instead of nations or geographic regions, and set the stage for actually breaking up the job into pieces and getting those people groups adopted by churches around the world."
I feel that although the job was not finished by the year 2000 the coining of the slogan, "a church for every people and the gospel for every person by the year 2000," focused people's attention on the matter in a very productive way and resulted in a lot more being done than would otherwise have been the case.
Also, I think that Ralph Winter and others were looking at the fact even 20 years ago that the people who support missions from a place like, say, North America are 55 years of age and older. And they said to themselves, if the only people interested in missions are people 55 and older, then our movement is going to be through in a short time. They were looking at ways to galvanize the interest of a younger generation, and they were successful.
Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
The Changing Face of World Mission is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
More about Michael Pocock and co-author Douglas McConnell are available from their seminary websites. More about Gailyn Van Rheenen is available from Mission Alive.
Other CT articles on world missions includes:
The State of Missions | The director of World Inquiry talks about the challenges and priorities of the evangelical missions community. (June 25, 2003)
The Defender of the Good News: Questioning Lamin Sanneh | The Yale historian and missiologist talks about his conversion, Muslim-Christian relations, Anglican troubles, and the future of Christianity. (Oct. 1, 2003)
Reimagining Missions | Two scholars seek to rescue the Great Commission from narrowly evangelistic readings, but their answers may be dangerously wide (2001)
The Future of Missions? | A global gathering affirms new models while developing countries criticize North American approaches. (Nov. 1, 1999)
Beyond the Numbers Game | A veteran missiologist and marketing analyst implores the missions community to tabulate less and pray more (Aug. 11, 2000)
Missions' New World Order | The twenty-first century calls for us to give up our nineteenth-century models for worldwide ministry. (1994)
Why We Go | Recapturing our motivation for missions. (1994)
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
Read These Next
- TrendingChristian and Missionary Alliance Will Ordain WomenMinisters may now use the title “pastor” regardless of gender.
- From the MagazineWhen Politics Saved 25 Million LivesTwenty years ago, Republicans, Democrats, evangelicals, gay activists, and African leaders joined forces to combat AIDS. Will their legacy survive today’s partisanship?
- RelatedDied: Tim Keller, New York City Pastor Who Modeled Winsome Witness“We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”españolPortuguêsFrançais简体中文한국어Indonesian繁體中文русскийУкраїнська日本語
- Editor's PickNominate a Book for the 2024 Christianity Today Book AwardsInstructions for publishers.