What Majority-World Missions Really Looks Like

Christians from the Global South are invigorating international missions. Here's how.
What Majority-World Missions Really Looks Like
Image: Illustration by Maggie Chiang

Beauty Ndoro and her husband had been living among and serving the residents of slums outside Harare, the capital city of their native Zimbabwe, when they unexpectedly received a letter from Los Angeles–based missions organization Servant Partners. The letter said Servant Partners felt led to recruit Africans to serve in Mexico. They had gone online to search for like-minded ministers in Africa—and came across Ndoro and her husband.

The couple had considered serving in another southern African country. Ndoro’s husband felt a burden for Tibet. But Mexico? That had never crossed their minds. They ignored the letter. Servant Partners persisted, sending two more letters over the next six months.

Lisa Engdahl, co-general director of Servant Partners, says they typically search far and wide for missionaries willing to serve in the world’s poorest communities. “We are always trying to recruit a breadth of people because of the demands of our work,” she told me. “Our teams have looked to diversify as much as possible.” The recruitment of Ndoro and her husband was a recognition that “there are many strong, godly leaders in the African church whom God is calling into cross-cultural ministry.”

“I wasn’t sure if God wanted me to move so far from family, to go to a different culture,” Ndoro told me. “I didn’t know any Spanish, and my daughter was only two years old.” But then she started receiving confirmation from others. “I hear ‘Mexico’ and God’s calling upon your life,” they told her.

Eventually, it became clear that Mexico was where God intended them to go. “I had my own fears, but I was so excited,” Ndoro said. “I knew God was going to be with us.”

That was ten years ago. Since then, Ndoro and her family have served in both Mexico and Nicaragua, living in urban slums and leading Bible studies and recovery groups for survivors of trauma. Several of these Bible studies have grown into new churches.

While there have been challenges, Ndoro has no doubt that Latin America is exactly where God wants her, a black Zimbabwean woman, to be. “Because of knowing who I am in Christ and as an African, that has helped me help others understand that they are worthy before God. They are valued regardless of economic or social status, or skin color.”

A New Wave of Missionaries

Beauty Ndoro is part of a growing movement of international missionaries sent out from the Global South, which includes Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. According to Christianity in Its Global Context, 1970–2020, a report by The Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, 66 percent of all Christians will be from the Global South by 2020, up from 43 percent in 1970. This could reach 75 percent by 2050. Christianity is surging in these regions, even as North America and Western Europe see the number of religiously unaffiliated growing at an increasingly rapid pace.

As the demographic center of the global church shifts, so too does fervor for international missions. As Christianity Today has previously reported, the beginning of this century has marked a dramatic swing from the model of Western missionaries going out to the rest of the world to “the sending of international missionaries to all of the world’s countries from almost every country,” according to Christianity in Its Global Context.

The World Christian Database reports that while the US still sends out the most missionaries, that number is decreasing. There were 121,000 active American missionaries in 2015 (the most recent year for which data is available), down from 127,000 in 2010. During that same period, the number of missionaries from non-Western countries increased significantly. Brazil, for example, went from 34,000 to 35,000 missionaries, and South Korea leaped from 20,000 to 30,000 missionaries.

Missionary movements from the Global South aren’t entirely new. For example, the Back to Jerusalem movement—an effort by Chinese Christians to evangelize all the Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim people groups who live along the old Silk Road—traces its roots back to the 1920s. It was newly revitalized in 2003 by exiled house church leader Liu Zhenying (also known as Brother Yun). South Korean missionaries have been going to the US since the 1970s to “‘bring the gospel back’ to Americans, particularly white Americans,” reports sociologist Rebecca Y. Kim in The Spirit Moves West: Korean Missionaries in America. The Filipino Sending Council, affiliated with US-based SEND International, has been sending missionaries abroad for more than 30 years.

This is the first time, however, that the world has seen so many missionaries from Asia, Africa, and Latin America crossing national borders, including going to the homelands of the missionaries who first brought them the gospel. In 2015, 9 of the top 20 sending countries—including Brazil, the Philippines, China, India, Nigeria, and South Africa—were in the majority world (also referred to as the developing world), with a total of 101,000 international missionaries. These missionaries come in all forms—tentmakers and donor supported, organization affiliated and free agents, evangelists and church planters and incarnational ministers—but they each bring unique strengths and a vibrant faith.

The Interconnected Body

Globalization has tied the world’s economies together, but it has also facilitated international missions through increased migration, economic mobility, and information access. The United Nations reports that the number of international migrants is growing rapidly each year, with 258 million recorded in 2017. (Only 10 percent of these were refugees and asylum seekers.) Today, more than 4.34 billion people in the world, or 56.8 percent of the global population, have internet access, up significantly from 3.18 billion in 2015. News and information, including news about the global church, can reach nearly every corner of the world.

“What do you mean churches are shutting down? They’re becoming more secular? Less young people are in the church?” Zimbabwean Tatenda Chikwekwe recalls thinking as his home church in Harare heard about Christianity’s decline in North America and Europe. “To see nations with such strong Christian heritage, rich church history, to see the recession in that—my heart was being broken constantly,” he told me.

After being sent out in 2002 and participating in various ministries around East Africa, Chikwekwe joined the pastoral staff at Nairobi Chapel, a nondenominational church in Kenya. There, the leadership was engaged in an intentional conversation about the role of the African church in global missions. They studied the teachings of 1 Corinthians 12, about the roles of different members of the body of Christ, from a global perspective—and concluded that Africa, as an essential member of the global church, needed to do more.

Faith Mugera, pastor of global partnerships at Nairobi Chapel, is one of the key leaders of the resulting missions efforts. “For a long time, we felt like the Great Commission was a mandate given to the Western world,” she explained. “But do we believe that we are part of the global body of Christ? If so, then we absolutely cannot dismiss ourselves from that. If we as the African church are not functioning right, then the global body is missing out.”

Nairobi Chapel is at the leading edge of an increasingly strategic approach to missions among Global South Christians. At the turn of the century, Chikwekwe and other missionaries like him were often sent out with few resources, minimal connections, and no plan aside from sharing the gospel wherever they could. Now more churches and ministries are borrowing from their Western counterparts and placing a heavier emphasis on goal setting, training, and strategic partnerships.

Mugera and her colleagues, for example, have set the audacious goal of planting 300 churches worldwide, with 20 of those in capital cities across Africa and 10 in international cities of influence. To support this goal, they train three separate cohorts of young leaders each year in leadership and spiritual development, as well as life skills like resourcefulness and relationship building. Nairobi Chapel has already sent ministers and church planters to Chicago, London, Sydney, and Christchurch. Their next mission field: San Francisco, which they have spent the last year praying and fasting for.

Missions Outside of Traditional Models

That doesn’t mean that Global South organizations like Nairobi Chapel are approaching missions in the same way as North Americans and Europeans. “Previous models don’t work in our context,” Mugera said. In those missions models, “you have to be in school for a long time. You have to raise a lot of financial support. You need a missions agency.” But these resources aren’t readily available for most Africans. “We don’t have finances. We don’t have the same visa access. We don’t have easy access to education.”

These challenges have forced Nairobi Chapel and other churches and missions organizations to think creatively about how to send out missionaries, often relying on multinational collaborations and alternative visa options. Outside of Africa, Nairobi Chapel relies on existing local churches to invite their ministers, sponsor their visas, provide homes, and raise financial support for their expenses.

Other ministries are capitalizing on an increasingly global economy and job market. Since 2015, the government of China has committed to investing $120 billion in Africa, enabling hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers and entrepreneurs to move to the continent to seek economic opportunity. One Hong Kong–based couple I spoke with is targeting Chinese businesspeople migrating to Africa and elsewhere, challenging the Christians among them to also be evangelists. In the Philippines, missions groups are training some of the more than 2 million Filipinos who work abroad as everything from engineers to domestic helpers, equipping them as tent-making missionaries who can witness to their employers, colleagues, and neighbors.

Facing Unique Risks

For these missionaries, simply applying for a visa to a country that does not welcome migrants who look like them can be an act of faith. Some majority-world missionaries experience prejudice and hostility in the countries they have come to serve. Melody Mweu, a Kenyan missionary who served in Khartoum, Sudan, told me she initially had trouble being accepted by the upper-class Sudanese women she encountered. In that context, she explained, “the darker you are, the lesser you are.” Though Melody eventually befriended a group of Sudanese women, she still had to be careful about where they met, knowing that she would not be welcome in certain locations.

Beauty Ndoro similarly recalls needing quite a bit of time to gain the trust of her Nicaraguan neighbors in the slums. “When we started walking in our community, people were afraid. They didn’t want to talk to us,” she remembered. But she and her husband kept showing up, talking to people and praying for them. This eventually led to the start of a women’s ministry.

These racial tensions can have real consequences. Hondurans Jairo and Lourdes Sarmiento have been leading a church plant in a low-income Latino community in California for several years. Today, as the highly charged debate about Latin American immigrants and asylum seekers roils American politics, the Sarmientos’ own immigration status remains in limbo.

Spiritual Grit, Fresh Passion

Enduring such hardships requires significant faith and perseverance, which many in the Global South have in abundance. This spiritual grit has often been shaped by decades of poverty, war, colonization, and political instability. “Growing up in poverty, being not as privileged, has given us a sense that we can do so much with very little,” Chikwekwe told me.

Among the missionaries I interviewed, almost all of them shared stories of childhood hunger, abuse, neglect, or persecution. Two women had been nearly sexually assaulted in their home countries, and another was almost raped while on the mission field, but they were miraculously protected. “There’s a passion about our faith that has been refined by seeing God at work in our most difficult circumstances,” reflected Mugera.

Even in South Korea, today one of the most industrialized nations in the world, memories of war and its hardships continue to influence how missionaries approach their work. Lydia Park (a pseudonym), a native of Seoul who has served in Libya and Zambia and now Kenya, says the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945—and Koreans’ decades-long resistance against it—seeded a determined mindset among modern Korean missionaries. “If Koreans believe something is very important, we are willing to give ourselves, to give our lives,” Park told me. “We never stop, never give up.”

The passion and commitment of missionaries from the Global South are also fueled by fairly recent encounters with God. The church is rapidly growing in this part of the world, populated by many new believers. The number of Christians across Africa has grown from 360 million in 2000 to nearly 619 million in 2019, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity. In Asia, Christianity is growing at twice the rate of the population, due mostly to new converts.

Aarthi Jambhulka, who evangelizes and preaches in countries as varied as Nigeria, Myanmar, Australia, and Canada, says she rarely encounters others from her native India who come from multigenerational Christian families. Her parents began following Jesus shortly after she was born, and she faced significant persecution for her faith while growing up. Unlike many Americans or Europeans who have “inherited” their faith, Jambhulka explains that “our experiences are very fresh. It’s what we’ve experienced directly. It’s not something that’s been handed down to us. It’s very real.”

Confidence and Cultural Understanding

This sense of the immediacy of God is one of the most powerful gifts that missionaries from the Global South have to share, according to Engdahl of Servant Partners. “They have an expectation of the movement of God because the church is flourishing in their home countries,” she told me. “They enter with faith for the movement of God.”

They also enter this work with important cultural commonalities that facilitate their ministry. Singaporean Jemima Ooi has been a full-time missionary in Africa for seven years and currently serves in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. In her experience, it’s not uncommon for Congolese to approach her and say, “Asians and Africans, we are brothers and sisters.”

“Some cultural elements come more intuitively to me: honor elders, speak to the hearts of people, be concerned with someone’s entire family and not just their work,” Ooi told me. She cites the fact that 75 percent of the world’s population comes from honor-shame cultures and collectivistic mindsets—which, notably, does not include Americans, Canadians, or Western Europeans. Growing up with a similar worldview makes it easier for missionaries like Ooi to operate with cultural sensitivity in new countries. Her understanding of how to honor the Congolese has even helped to keep her safe in one of the world’s worst conflict zones. “They feel that you’re a kindred spirit,” Ooi explained. “They take care of [my colleagues and me] when there are raids.”

Even the obvious differences between Global South missionaries and those in their adopted countries can be leveraged for the kingdom. Several missionaries I interviewed told me how they were curiosities when they first began serving, prompting regular inquiries of “Why are you here?” that opened the door for deeper conversations. “It’s important for people to know the gospel is not just for white people or Westerners,” Edith Law (a pseudonym), a missionary from Hong Kong, told me. “The gospel is related to them, not just the Western world.”

Bringing Differences Together for the Kingdom

Missions organizations in the West are taking notice of this spiritual awakening in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and are taking intentional steps to bolster their missionary efforts. SEND International, for example, is one of a growing number of missions agencies actively recruiting missionaries from the Global South. Currently about 20 percent of their 500-plus ministry workers are not from the US, Canada, or Western Europe; recently, they set the goal to increase this to 50 percent by 2029.

“This is the current of God’s work that’s flowing in the world, and we want to be a part of that,” Barry Rempel, SEND’s globalization office director, told me. He sees this kind of multicultural, multinational collaboration as essential to the vitality and growth of the future church. “The main advantage is that it gives us a more full-orbed picture of Christ’s body, a more full-orbed expression of his work. Each place, wherever it is, brings a further expression of Christ’s body into our organization, represents Christ in a more glorifying way, and leads to more fruitfulness.”

Faith Mugera agrees. “There is liberty in difference. God allows our differences to come together in the good of what we’re desiring to do.” And when every member of the global body of Christ recognizes their unique gifts and callings and brings those to bear for the sake of the kingdom, “nothing is impossible,” Mugera said. “We know for sure that there will be revival.”

Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is an award-winning writer, communications consultant, and the author of Start, Love, Repeat. A Silicon Valley native, she has also lived and worked in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Kenya.

This article is part of CT’s special issue on how women are rethinking global gospel proclamation. Download a free pdf of the issue at moreCT.com/YourMissionField.

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