The title of this article is misleading. What kind of mission are we talking about? A Christian mission? A world mission? If either of these is the focus of our discussion, that kind of mission does not have a future. If the focus is on the mission of God, we can talk about its future. We can talk about how it relates to the whole world and what role Christ-followers have in that mission.
A good many years ago corporations saw the need to state clearly both the vision of the organization and its mission. These two factors needed to be clearly stated so every person connected with the business could understand and buy into the mission of the company as they sought to serve their clients.
God predated all the corporate jargon. Dr. W.O. Carver, noted missions professor for fifty years at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, always asked students in his Introduction to Missions classes two questions: “What is the Bible all about?” and “Is it all about anything?” The rest of the course was showing how it is all about one thing – the mission of God.
In his latest book entitled, The Mission of God, Christopher J. H. Wright suggests we need to read the whole Bible in light of the overarching perspective of the mission of God. A missional understanding of the Bible “is nothing more than to accept that the biblical worldview locates us in the midst of a narrative of the universe behind which stands the mission of the living God.” It is stated in narrative form clearly enough so any one claiming to be a Christ-follower can eagerly serve the mission of the Owner/CEO.
Wright states this grand story (meta-narrative) reveals three realities: the reality of God, the reality of this story, and the reality of this people. Therefore, “the authority for our mission flows from the Bible because the Bible reveals the reality on which our mission is based.”
God created everything on purpose, with a purpose. We know who God is. We know who we are. We know where we are. We know the problem. We know the solution. How do we know? God has been telling the story since creation. God created co-managers of God’s creation, Adam and Eve. When they made a self-centered decision that cost them their original role and their residence, God’s grace preserved them and the original mission.
When the sins of the human race seemed so gross there was not anything worth preserving, God focused on one righteous man, Noah. Noah’s obedience encountered God’s grace and the mission was kept on track. And human kind was mandated to scatter and fill the earth.
When the human race decided to settle in, rather than scattering, and build a tower as a monument to their own genius, God judged them and scattered them. With this part of the narrative, we are left hanging. Where is the grace? Will the mission of God get back on track?
Genesis 12 gives the answer. God called Abraham. From his loins God called a people who were to be separate and apart from the ways of the world, but be very much in the world. They were the collective co-managers of God’s mission, a collective Adam, a pontiff people who were to be the bridge connecting God and all creation. But every century that passed seemed to blur any distinction between this special “people” and all other peoples. Was there even a remnant who understood why God chose them to serve God’s mission?
In the fullness of time God spoke the clearest Word ever spoken. The mission of God was fleshed out. The mission of God and the mission of Jesus were synonymous. As God was to the creation of a chosen people, Jesus was to the extended Israel that we call church. For the past 2000 years the church, as a servant to the mission of God, has been on a similar roller-coaster ride to that which Abraham’s descendants experienced. Faithful – unfaithful. True, the church has been planted in every known continent and nation, ranging from frightfully weak to apparently strong. Having said that, does it mean the task is complete? If not, what is the future of God’s mission on this earth and in the cosmos?
In our time, the Wind of the Spirit is blowing again. Many churches in the Western world did not even notice when the great shift occurred. The Southern hemisphere emerged as home to what we now call the Majority World Church. Seventy-five percent of the world’s Christians live in the southern and eastern world. The majority of believers do not speak English. A new apostolic era has dawned. Believers in Africa, Latin America and Asia take the Bible very seriously. They get involved in what they are reading, and are convinced it is as relevant for today as it was when it was written. They have jettisoned the Western style of “doing missions.” They move as the Spirit directs.
Let us look at specific pockets that illustrate the movement of the Spirit.AFRICA
In 1900 there were 8.7 million Christians on the continent of Africa. In the year 2000 there were about 350 million Christians. According to Lamin Sanneh, native African scholar and professor at Yale Divinity School, in 1900 Muslims outnumbered Christians by a ratio of 4:1. In 2000 the ratio was almost 1:1. Sanneh attributes this explosive growth to certain factors: 1) Expansion took place after colonialism during a period of national awakening, 2) the overall, if delayed, effect of the translation of scripture into native African languages, and 3) African leaders stepping forward to lead the expansion without the disadvantage of foreign compromise. (Sanneh, Whose Religion Is Christianity) Was not the Spirit evident in all these factors? If trends continue, by 2050 there could be 600 million Christians on the continent of Africa.
Christianity Today, in its September 21, 2007 edition, reported that a research report read at a government meeting recently indicated there may be as many as 130 million Christians in China now, including about 20 million Catholics. For some perspective -the total population of Japan is 127 million.
Thomas Alan Harvey is quoted in David Aikman’s book entitled Jesus in Beijing:
Regardless of which policy the Chinese government pursues, the church in China will profoundly affect the shape of Christianity worldwide for generations to come.
David Aikman states the spread of China into Asia and the southern hemisphere in the past two decades will probably affect Christianity on a global scale.
Regardless of one’s position about the Chinese initiative called the Back to Jerusalem Movement, the wind of the Spirit has stirred the hearts of hundreds of Chinese believers who are committed to take the gospel down the silk roads leading from China through southern Asia and the Middle East to its point of origin. One can hear figures estimating as many as 100,000 Chinese missionaries will take up the challenge without a thought of ever returning home again.
Estimates of believers in South Korea number about 12 million or over twenty-five percent of the population. Some say over thirty-five percent of the military are Christian.
Korea is now the second largest missionary sending nation in the world. Reliable sources state there are 16,200 missionaries working in 180 countries. Others estimate those figures may be pushing 19,000. Korean churches are sending 1100 new missionaries out annually.
There are over 10,000 Indian missionaries working cross-culturally in their own country. Thousands of churches have been planted in the last decade.PHILIPPINES
Some evangelical leaders in the Philippines state there will be over 200,000 Filipino missionaries working around the world in the next few years. Already thousands of believers work in the market places of Middle East countries. They don’t look like traditional missionaries. They do take their faith very seriously.
The Majority World Church has over 103,000 missionaries working throughout the world, many of them among the least reached peoples on earth. The US and Canada have only 112,000 cross-cultural missionaries, many of them working in more traditional areas where the church has been planted for many years.
In the light of these anecdotal facts about the location of the world’s dynamic churches, what do you think is the future of the world Christian mission? No, that’s not the question. What is the future of the mission of God? It is moving toward its glorious climax where peoples from every tribe, every race and every nation will gather around the throne of God singing the praise of the only One who is worthy to be praised.
My prayer is that those of us who live in the northern hemisphere and the Western world will catch a glimpse of this grand procession of faithful Christ-followers and join hands and hearts in a collaborative effort to make Christ known to the ends of the earth.– William R. O’Brien, Bill and his wife Dellanna served for years as missionaries in SE Asia. He is a former Vice President of the Foreign Mission Board of the SBC and is regarded by many as a missions futurist.