When the owners of Ralph D. Winter’s missions mecca opted to sell much of it, they weren’t just parting from the California campus that long housed the late missiologist’s US Center for World Mission (now Frontier Ventures).
Frontier Ventures and the affiliated William Carey International University (WCIU) were also saying goodbye to the traditional notion of a single headquarters for their global ministry—instead adapting, like many missions groups have, to base more of their efforts outside the United States.
“We’re envisioning multiple collaboration points globally—closer to where the Global South sending movements are, closer to where the unreached people groups are—in order to disperse the DNA this place is known for,” said WCIU president Kevin Higgins.
He and Frontier Ventures president Fran Patt believe the move to decentralize best positions their organizations to carry on Winter’s call to minister to the world’s unreached people groups. That’s how they explained their decision to sell to the disappointed alumni and supporters who donated decades ago to secure the then-$15 million Pasadena property as the mission center’s permanent home.
Critics aren’t buying it and have spoken out against a deal announced in April with EF Education First, a global education company that plans to turn the missions headquarters into a boarding school in 2020. “They are secular, they are focused on business and government, and they are focused on preparing people to work in those realms in a global market,” said David Clancy, a former employee involved in the hundreds-strong Save the Campus campaign. “This is not at all about the gospel. This is not at all about reaching unreached people groups.”
But leaders believe the sale is crucial for the future of the ministry. “The shift away from Pasadena is also a recognition that it’s not about us as Americans,” Patt said. “We’re not going to continue to be—we’re not even now—the primary sending force in the world. The intention was never to be colonial in expecting people to come to us, but it’s even less palatable to suggest that people do that now. It makes sense to go to them.”
The Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary has tracked how Brazil, South Korea, and India rank among the top 10 missionary-sending countries in the world, with the Philippines, Mexico, China, Colombia, and Nigeria also ranking high.
“Sending missionaries from the West to the rest of the world to ‘save them’ is just not what’s happening right now,” said CSGC director Todd Johnson. “You can be a missionary and a witness, but you’re doing it in a global context. That changes everything.”
This shift in perspective is happening at think tanks and collaborators like Frontier Ventures, as well as other ministries involved in missions: seminaries, training schools, agencies, and international charities.
Some agencies will continue to train missionaries in the US or another sending country but couple the process with long-term training done in the region the missionaries are destined for.
“It’s a two-hub strategy,” said Grant Haynes, who founded Global Frontier Missions in 2000. “The ‘home hub’ is a place in the Western world, and the ‘field hub’ is a place to land to get used to being in the country.”
Frontier Ventures’ magazine, Mission Frontiers, described this approach in a 2016 issue. At home hubs, missionaries can engage in church planting within their own context or among cultural groups that settle in their area. “Missionary teams must learn to implement here the way they plan to implement there.”
Global Frontier Missions has 25 staffers and about 15 students based outside Atlanta in a refugee resettlement area where they can split their time between classroom instruction and community engagement.
“There isn’t a real need for Westerners to be those pioneer, apostolic, reach-every-last-people-group kind of missionaries,” said Haynes, whose organization has three bases in the US and opened its first international field hub last year in India. “We should be there for encouragement, coaching, and possibly theological training.”
Some missionary agencies have responded to the global shift in missions by designing training for Americans to serve domestically, closer to their own cultural contexts. Many of the 100-plus students training throughout the year at a Youth With a Mission (YWAM) base in Tyler, Texas, express interest in full-time ministry in America—so much that they’ve developed custom curricula for ministering to groups like snowboarders or baristas.
“Typically we think if you’re a missionary, you go off to some land where you don’t know the language,” said Richard Fish, spokesman for YWAM Tyler. “We still do that, and that is still hugely important—the 10/40 window, there’s tons of needs there—but we’re recognizing that America has a ton of unreached people in it.”
There are more than 200 discipleship training schools similar to YWAM Tyler around the world, and more than half are outside the US. The organization lists 7 in South Korea, 20 in India, dozens across the continent of Africa, and at least a half-dozen in the Middle East.
“The greatest challenge is not simply changing the composition of the mission force but changing the way missionaries are trained,” said Johnson, who highlighted the increased awareness of longstanding Western, white biases in seminaries and ministry contexts.
While some international organizations may replicate “franchise” training centers across the world, it takes more dramatic shifts to incorporate non-Western strategies and direction into the setup of missionary training, he said.
That’s precisely why Patt wants Frontier Ventures to shift away from its 42-year-old campus. “The 21st-century force in missions has moved out of North America,” he said. In missions, the cutting-edge ideas and new paradigms are being uncovered and lived out by people on the grassroots level. “They’d take years to get back to a place like Pasadena.”
As ministry contexts shift, Christian organizations like Frontier Ventures must be flexible to adapt as a result—but also be clear to communicate how logistical changes like property sales, headquarters moves, or even new names serve their greater mission.
“It all revolves around ministry impact. If that parcel of land does not help us reach more people for the gospel, why do we own it? If it’s holding us back, why do we own it?” said Paul Martin, president of Advocace, which offers consulting for Christian ministries. “We should start treating real estate as something to support ministry, not as ministry.”
Kate Shellnutt is associate online editor for Christianity Today.
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