For people who are interested in evangelical Christian missions worldwide, it is an interesting and exciting time to be living. Globalization has allowed for conversation between the quickly growing Christian populations throughout the “Global South” and the West. Christian voices from Africa, Latin America, and Asia are being sought and being heard from in the West. The dynamics have and are continuing to change.
Recently, 4500 Christian leaders met in Cape Town, South Africa for a two week conference to discuss what Christianity looks like, and what needs to be addressed, worldwide. Most people were under 40 years old and not from the United States or Western Europe. It was the third Lausanne conference for world evangelism. A movement started by Billy Graham and John Stott in 1974. This huge endeavor has potential to heavily influence and impact the way Christianity is shaped and grown worldwide. The topics discussed are the topics that will be brought back to the seminaries and also to the local churches around the world.
Three professors from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, the graduate school I attend, were privileged to go. (Dr. Peter Cha, Elizabeth Sung, and Dr. Tite Tienou) After they returned, a group of about 50 students listened to their overall impressions in a panel discussion headed by Dr. Craig Ott last Thursday. (Dr. Gary Fujino, a graduate of TEDS, who also attended Cape Town 2010 was there in place of Dr. Tienou). The themes and impressions that they returned with I found to be interesting and useful in helping me understand what the focus of world evangelism and missions looks like for the near future. It was also interesting for me to compare some of the topics they brought up with the topics that were mentioned at Urbana 09 last December, which I was privileged to attend.
There are themes and trends which seem to be more in discussion for Americans and others in the West than in most of the rest of the world. For example, the hot topic of the balance between social justice and missions/evangelism. As we here in America continue to battle what the balance should be of alleviating current physical suffering versus addressing future eternal suffering through proclamation of the Gospel, others in the world simply do not even realize there could be a dichotomy between the two. For them, to do missions is to be holistic. There is simply no other option. When a woman is starving, or someone has AIDS, to simply preach to her about the gospel is not enough. It is inhumane. At the same time, to just help the individual in their current suffering and not give them the hope of the Gospel is unfaithful and unthinkable. The two must be done together. It is not seen as evangelism. It is not understood as missions. It is just simply being a “normal” Christian. The problem arises here in America and other wealthy countries because we can completely seclude ourselves from the physical suffering of many people. This leads us to putting priority to proclamation of the gospel and ignoring physical suffering and needs. John Piper, at Cape Town, answered this issue in an interesting way. Christians care about suffering, but they care about eternal suffering more. Perhaps this may help bring the mindset of those who see proclamation as being first and foremost see that suffering does need to be addressed. But ultimately it may still fall short of really helping bring the two sides back together.
I say two sides because that is sadly what has happened in America and the polarization only has seemingly gotten stronger in recent years. Someone recently brought up in a discussion about social justice and missions the fact that the strong split between fundamentalism and modernism really helped bring this false dichotomy arise. And we today are trying to still find the middle ground in this issue. While there are those who value the proclamation of the Gospel as first and foremost (and I cannot disagree that it must be done, and done very clearly) there are also those who have said that doing social justice is a way, if not the way, to proclaim the Gospel. They would say that preaching isn’t necessary if we are showing them Christ’s love through our actions. (Side note: Perhaps the growth of short-term missions has helped this view grow stronger as people many times go and help build and paint houses and do other types of physical labor without much evangelizing). Yet, to not proclaim the Gospel leaves the people we help, feed, etc., without the possibility to place their faith in Jesus Christ. They may see our good acts, and we may have done it as unto Christ, but in the end they are still lost.
So, as I have already said. This is a big topic within the evangelical world today, especially in the realm of overseas missions. But it seems to really only be a topic that troubles us here in the West. It’s not something that causes much divide elsewhere. Plus, it’s not like over the last century the missionaries that have gone have proclaimed the gospel while ignoring the social issues they are surrounded by. When the debate really picked up, it wasn’t like the missionaries shut down the hospitals they started or shut down the clinics, schools, or orphanages they had been working in. It is something that has actually found quite a healthy balance throughout the world and really seems to only be a problem as we turn to American short-term missions. But that is a completely different topic.
So this topic was not a big topic discussion for Lausanne III as many might have thought here in the West. A topic that was discussed however was how to reach out to the diaspora people scattered throughout the world. This is a topic that wasn’t so much addressed through the plenary sessions as much as around the tables and in the hallways. This was also a topic briefly mentioned at one of the sessions that I attended at Urbana 09. It is not talking about immigrants scattered throughout the world. It is talking about groups of people, mass movements, in certain countries. To be a missionary to a certain people, you do not have to go to their home country anymore. To reach out to the Indian people, you can go to Canada. There are 26 million refugees in the world, and those who are away from home are softer to the Gospel message.
This is a topic that is being discussed and it doesn’t look like it is going to be leaving us anytime soon. It is growing more and more prominent in the discussion among the missiologists and those interested in global evangelism.
There are other topics which are hot issues that as time goes on will continue to mold the way missions is addressed in this quickly changing world. Population growth, extreme poverty, rapid urbanization, reactionary fundamentalism, growing violence, globalization, fragmentation and nationalism, the growth of Islam, and religious pluralism are all topics which are shaping what 21st century Christian missions looks like. We’ll see how God continues to shape His kingdom in this quickly changing world.