Skip to main content

Ten Challenges to Resolve in Western Missions in the 21st Century

The 21st century is well upon us—and how the world has changed in just 18 years!  The world of Western, Protestant, Evangelical missions has also changed remarkably.  I have been involved in missions all my life, especially since my own first mission assignment in the mid-1980s.  The following reflections come out of the experiences and discussions I have had over the years.  As I am engaged in discussions about how to meet various needs in missions in my own circles, how to relate to supporting churches, and how to engage with nationals involved in Church ministry, I keep coming back to the following challenges in missions today.  In articulating these below, my hope is to help those involved in the discussion about steps to take in missions over the next few years in my own circles of ministry and to help others involved with similar discussions.

      1.      Mission Agencies or Mission Societies?

A mission agency, I would suggest, functions like a temporary employment agency in that it (a) finds open positions; (b) identifies individuals’ strengths and weaknesses to find a good fit; (c) processes the finances; and (d) pays some attention to whether or not the workers are doing good work.  This is vastly different from the missions of the 19th century but characterizes a lot of Evangelical missions today.  A mission society, on the other hand, has (a) its own, clear vision of mission; (b) recruits individuals capable of fulfilling that mission; (c) explores ways to finance the mission, with its missionaries; and (d) is holistically concerned about its mission community, not only the job that individual missionaries are doing.  More will be said about this later.  But missions in the 21st century needs to evaluate more carefully the relationship between churches, denominations, mission agencies, and possible new ways of doing missions through Evangelical mission societies.

      2.      Foreign or Local Missions?

Possibly already in the 1970s in mainline denominations, but not really until the early 2000s in Evangelical circles, one began to hear people question whether foreign missionary work was still needed.  The mainline denominational moratorium on foreign missions had to do with postcolonial guilt along with tightening budgets due in part to a trend in those mainline denominations away from orthodoxy.  Why bother with missionary work in foreign lands when you do not really believe that people need to hear the Gospel and be converted?  Those denominations have, moreover, needed to count their pennies in the face of declining membership since the 1960s.  Evangelicals might have picked up on this attitude somewhat, but the reasons for questioning foreign missions stemmed from other changes they were facing. 

      a.      I think that the main reason for questioning foreign missions in Evangelical circles is the loss of an understanding of what the mission of the Church is.  Mission has become everything, not only everything that churches do but everything that individual Christians can do.  Why go abroad when there is plenty of work to do ‘right here’?  Why do that work when there is other work to do as well?  Thus, we need to clarify what the mission of the Church is and to articulate this mission with respect to the Church, not just good works or ideals or causes and the like.  What is the relationship between Jesus’ saying that he would build his Church and the gates of hell (his death) would not prevail against it (Matthew 16.18) and the Church and its mission today?
      b.      Since the 1980s, ‘short-term’ missions have proliferated, long-term missionaries have come and gone more frequently due to accessible travel, and missionaries have not made lifetime commitments to an ‘overseas mission field.’  These changes are a mixed bag—not all bad and not all good—but they have clouded the idea that missionaries are people who make sacrificial, long-term commitments to a special calling and need the sacrificial support of sending churches.  We need to clarify what a missionary really is.

      3.      Great Commission or Great Commandment Missionary Work?

The history of Evangelicalism can be told with respect to this question.  Early Evangelicals in the UK and America were deeply involved in the propagation of the Gospel and in bringing about social change.  As George Marsden points out in Fundamentalism and American Culture, American Evangelicals by and large emphasized the Great Commission in calling people to commit their lives to Jesus Christ and liberals by and large emphasized a social ‘Gospel’ that originated from a focus on the Great Commandment to love God and neighbour.  American Evangelicalism is largely a critique of its Fundamentalist wing, calling for a holistic mission that includes both proclamation and good works.  This has defined the Lausanne movement since the 1970s, and many seem to think that the theology and practice of holistic missions has been satisfactorily clarified for Evangelicals.  In my view, this is far from the case.  The result of this ‘inclusive’ focus in missions has been that everything is now considered equally important rather than that everything needs to be rightly balanced.  That is, the inclusion of everything people do under the category of ‘missions’ has resulted in several mistakes in missions:

a.      The first mistake is that ministries of evangelism, church planting, Bible translation, and teaching (the Great Commission ministries) have received less emphasis, having to ‘compete’ with other things considered ‘mission’ that focus on the Great Commandment.  I have suggested reserving the term ‘mission’ for Great Commission ministries and using the term ‘good works’ for Great Commandment activities—or some such terminological adjustment to capture an important distinction.  Both are ministries of the Church, so they are inseparable, but they are not a single thing.
b.      The second mistake is that the Church has become less central to missions, since ‘works’ can be conceived as individual and parachurch ministries.  Evangelicalism itself struggles to articulate a clear ecclesiology, partly because it encompasses great diversity as to ‘church’ and partly because it is so individually focussed (‘conversion’, ‘discipleship,’ ‘para-church ministries,’ ‘mission agencies,’ and the like are good emphases that, nevertheless, need to be developed with the Church, not apart from it).
c.       The third mistake is that foreign missions has suffered in the proliferation of ministries per se that people can (and should) do locally.  Is the only distinction between these that one is done ‘oversees’ and the other is ‘local’?  ‘Mission’ may have an element of being ‘oversees’ (or ‘for all nations’), but is that the defining distinction?  Might it not be more about being ministry related to the Great Commission anywhere and everywhere?

      4.      What is Left to Do?

In the 21st century, there is a general sense that the Church’s mission has been accomplished.  Are there not Christians pretty much everywhere, and where there are closed countries to foreign missionary work, are not people from those countries emigrating to other (mostly Western) countries?  Those who can articulate the ‘unfinished task’ of Great Commission missions, therefore, need to do so.  For instance, the population explosion in the 20th century, continuing in this century, the depletion of the Church in Europe and the Middle East, and the proportionate expansion of Islam (due to population growth and emigration rather than conversions) have all, in several respects, made the call to fulfill the Great Commission even greater than it was in the 19th century.  If the Great Commission was a call to reach several million people in the 1st century with the Gospel, it stands as an even greater call in some respects today to reach several billion people.  Yet the Western Church is not hearing this call to mission.  Probably the greatest reason for this is that Evangelical churches typically do not invite missionaries to speak to the congregations as they once did, and so many missionaries today are not involved in Great Commission missions in any case.  They are given 5 minutes, if that, to address a church during a service, or their relationship to the church is largely through a mission committee.  Many churches do not even support missionaries.  In the 21st century, regular and clear articulations of the task of missions need to find an audience, and pastors need to recapture an understanding of missions and its urgency in every generation.

      5.      Denominations and Missions

One reason that churches do not hear enough about the mission of the Church is the confusion regarding denominations in the West.  The mainline denominations in the West have all moved decidedly to a liberal theology that, without mincing words, is essentially no longer Christian.  Since the 18th century, Evangelicalism largely existed within these mainline denominations as an evangelistic and renewal movement, and these denominations were, by and large, orthodox.  However, they are no longer connected to the historic, orthodox Church theologically or ethically.  This left the newer, Evangelical denominations to try to carry the weight of the Evangelical movement.  But these denominations were, typically, small, or they had not developed a concern for theological education (certainly not higher level theological study), or they were less committed to an Evangelical movement than developing their own ministries.  On the other hand, the newer Evangelical denominations that have split off from the mainline denominations have, typically, organized themselves around a concern for orthodoxy and Christian sexual ethics rather than missions.  All this has resulted in a challenge for organized mission.  In fact, it is not uncommon to find a large, independent church engaged in something they consider to be ‘missions’ that has no connection to what others are doing.  The church might find a ministry partner in some foreign country, send short-term missionaries over for a work project, and consider themselves to be involved in missions when they actually do not have any ‘mission’ undertaking in the sense of a long-term purpose and plan or a theology of mission.  Long-term missionaries often (thankfully, not always!) get jerked around by the changing whims of these disconnected, large churches as the pastors or mission committees chase one, now another, idea of what they would like to support in missions.  What is needed in the 21st century is a renewal of both Evangelicalism as a movement and Evangelical missions.

      6.      The Involvement of Churches in Mission

Many Evangelical churches want to open up missions to their members so that missions is not limited to lifelong missionaries that they support.  Many other Evangelical churches fail to see the point of supporting foreign missions (as already noted).  The failure of denominations in many areas has led to a weakness in missionary coordination.  Some churches, sensing this need, have defined themselves as ‘missional’ churches, yet local activism in missions is not done according to a coordinated plan by Evangelicals for missionary work in the world.  The involvement of the local churches in missions needs clarification in the 21st century for a variety of reasons.

      7.      Funding

The funding of Western missionary work is, by some accounts, doing well.  Many missionaries are funded and sent off to foreign fields of ministry.  Yet, most Evangelical missionaries receive the majority of their funding from individual contacts.  That is, the support of missionaries is no longer associated mainly with churches, although there are exceptions in the case of Evangelical denominations that have defined themselves well as missionary denominations (such as the Assemblies of God).  Many, many questions need to be asked in the 21st century about missionary funding, which has developed into what it is through a history of missions rather than a planning for missions.  That is, old models of missionary support continue without much critique even though the funding issues missionaries face have changed significantly.  Some of these changes have already been articulated, such as the failure of denominational networking for the funding of missionaries and the challenge to present a clear understanding of the task of missions in churches.  Another challenge us the increasing cost of fielding missionaries, raising the concern as to whether we are ‘spending our money wisely.’  This has led some churches to support a national worker rather than a missionary from the West—a noble sentiment, but not, in my view, a clearly understood response to a larger issue.  Some missionaries have turned to ‘tentmaking’ missions, meeting some of their own financial needs themselves through their own labours, as Paul did.  Yet, not all churches understand this ‘hybrid’ approach to missions, especially if it involves living and working part-time in the West and part-time in some foreign country.  These examples are not exhaustive but are meant to state the need for a better approach to missionary funding that fits the 21st rather than the 19th or 20th century.  The result may well involve a leaner and highly trained missionary force from the West that is engaged in mission society work that is funded by denominations or networks of churches.  Having missionaries raise large funds themselves through un-networked (non-denominational) churches and mostly personal contacts is a very poor way to fund missions.

      8.      Short-term Missions

The enormous problem of short-term missions needs to be addressed in the 21st century.  Short-term missions has grown since the 1980s and now factors as a major part of what people understand to be missions in the West.  Much has been written on this subject, but the continuation of short-term missions—2 weeks or so—from local churches seems here to stay.  This is not all bad, although these trips are really more about mission exposure than mission.  They must be mind-boggling to the impoverished believers on the other side watching a large group of wealthy Americans and young people arrive to build a wall that locals could have built for a fraction of the cost!  Yet this is what lights the fire for missions in Western churches, and many who commit to long-term service have been on such a short-term ‘mission’.  The challenge in the present day is, therefore, how to correct rather than shut down these enormously expensive expeditions of well-meaning laity to needy countries.  There is, actually, a role for short-termers to play in missions; what is needed is a far better plan and programme for this.  Rather, mission societies (not agencies) need to develop that can incorporate various levels of voluntary involvement into what they do.  The initial focus in such planning needs to be for a 2 year or so period of short-term involvement, not 2 weeks.  Also, these short-term programmes need to be defined in terms of discipleship: the training of the persons being sent for Christian ministry over the 2 year period.  This would be an alternative to the old model of going to Bible School as the training would be both classroom and active ministry training, with teachers and mentors.  However short-term missionary work is to be worked out, it desperately needs to be redefined as a discipleship and ministry programme, and the best way to do this is to create mission societies with a clear vision of their mission in the first place.
      9.      Education of Missionaries

The education of missionaries in the West is in a very bad place.  One hundred years ago, a Pentecostal or baptistic denomination that believed that Jesus was likely to return within a generation still sent its missionaries to Bible school for four years of study.  Various factors have led to a very different situation in the 21st century.  Some of the old Bible colleges have become Christian colleges or universities with a more academic than ministerial focus, and ministry training in many circles has come to involve a master’s degree at a theological seminary.  (I’m thankful for higher level, theological education, but we need to realize that this has unfortunately been at the expense of graduating persons well-prepared for church ministry and missions.)  The time and cost of a seminary education has made this a virtually impossible road for missionaries to take.  Often, mission agencies throw together a plan to get missionary candidates some form of training—some online classes, 6 weeks of cross-cultural and other training, or nothing at all.  The result is a more poorly trained missionary force than what one would have found 100 years ago.  Missionaries may have a good bachelor’s education, but not in Bible or theology.

What is needed is a cost-effective approach to training people for ministry in general, not just missions, in the 21st century.  This is especially needful for those ministering where remuneration is minimal, such as (often) in missions.  Many feel this need for cost-effective, relevant ministerial training today, but the present situation is problematic for a variety of reasons, most of which stem from an educational system that is run by the academy rather than more integrated with the Church and its ministries.  This has led to independent efforts (a ministry school out of a large church, e.g.) over against the ‘air craft carrier’ seminaries with their master’s degrees and academic accreditation/validation.  The strains that the cost of education and the academic degree approach to ministerial and missional education place on preparing people for ministry in the Church are serious.  Unfortunately, the seminaries’ main concern for much of the 21st century has been to remain open: financial need more than mission tends to drive academic discussions.

      10.  Western Missions and National Partnerships

The 21st century has made discussion of ‘Western missions’ awkward for various reasons.  Missions is not a Western project, although for a certain time in history it largely became one.  Western missions has a history that is entangled (not always negatively, by the way) with colonialism.  And many regions where the need for missions makes sense requires engaging with the Church that is already there.  Thus, just how to work out the relationship between missions from the West and national church partners remains a major challenge for missions today.  There are various, interesting examples from the past 30 years that could be explored.  One of my suggestions, however, is to get away from the mission agency concept and move to a mission society concept.  The distinction between these has already been noted somewhat.  The best way to consider this is to offer three examples of mission institutions.  First, there is the mission agency discussed above, which operates more like a temporary employment agency connecting individuals to ‘jobs’ abroad.  This characterizes not a few Western missionary groups.  A second approach might be seen in mission groups—whatever they might be called—that really have a clear mission and keep to it, even if various ancillary workers are needed to serve the needs of the mission (like administrative staff or teachers for missionary children or aviators to get to remote areas).  Frontiers has a focus on missions where the Church is weak or even not yet established, such as in Islamic regions of the world.  Wycliffe focusses on Bible translation.  Such mission groups are quite different from the Evangelical mission ‘agency’ that lacks a clear focus in missionary service.  The third approach is what I would call a mission society.  Like the second group, it has a clear mission focus.  It is distinct in being more intentional about its mission community, and this focus can allow it to incorporate persons from other countries.  Examples easily come to mind in the history of Roman Catholic missions—the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), the Franciscans, etc.  They have had both a missional and a communal focus and have set themselves up around the world in ways that would allow nationals to join the society.  The challenge for Protestants has been how to include families into tight societies and how to relate these to the Church, especially since much of Protestantism has a weak ecclesiology in the first place.  This, however, is well-worth exploring as a way to integrate church members interested in short-term missions in the West with long-term missionaries overseas and with nationals living and ministering in their own countries.  Protestant mission societies may be the way forward in the 21st century.