“I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes.” Two colleagues and I had asked a Majority World mission leader, “If you could speak to a room full of Western Christians who want to be involved in global missions, what would you say?” Initially, he was concerned he might offend us. But I assured him our toes were ready. They’d already been stepped on many times in the past nine months.
Over this period, my colleagues and I have been talking to mission mobilizers, practitioners, and leaders from Asia, Africa, and South America, asking how Western missions needs to change. We’ve had almost 60 conversations. We believe their voices of encouragement, challenge, and direction are worth hearing.
‘Thank You. Stay Involved.’
Every Majority World leader we spoke with expressed gratitude for the sacrifice of Western missionaries. Dr. Lazarus Phiri, vice chancellor of the Evangelical University in Zambia, described what it took to bring the gospel to his country: “There are graveyards of the pioneer missionaries who led their lives so that I might hear the gospel. An aunt of my wife packed a coffin in the boat coming to Africa. We’re indebted to the church in the global North,” he continued, “a debt we cannot pay.”
We’re indebted to the church in the global North, a debt we cannot pay.
The Western missionary effort—despite its association with colonialism and the accusations of cultural imperialism—advanced the gospel around the world. Through their sacrifice and commitment, national churches have taken root in most countries. Leaders from these countries aren’t ignorant of this. Many came to Christ through the work of foreign missionaries.
And although Christianity is declining in Europe and America, these global leaders want the Western church to stay involved. “We still need American minds,” Dela Adadevoh, a Ghanaian and the vice president of Global Leadership for Cru, told us. “We need American spirit, resources, and leadership.”
However, as Adrian de Visser, a Sri Lankan pastor and the vice president of Asian Access, points out, Western involvement won’t be like it was before.
God has blessed you . . . to be a blessing to the nations. I want to celebrate what God has done in you and through you. But now, I also believe that it’s a new era. I wouldn’t want the church in the West left out of what’s happening today.
‘Go in New Ways’
In 1910, when evangelicals gathered in Edinburgh to discuss the Great Commission, there were only nine million Christians in Africa. Today, there are almost 700 million—three times the number of Christians in the United States. Missions is no longer the West to the rest. It’s now from everywhere to everywhere.
Missions is no longer the West to the rest. It’s now from everywhere to everywhere.
According to Pastor Adrian, this changing landscape suggests a change in the West’s role.
It’s like you’ve given birth to us, and we are your children. When the children are thriving, we don’t want parents out of the scene. . . . We want the West to recognize that we’re no longer infants but welcome us to the table to share a meal with you.
Multiple leaders shared this sentiment. The Majority World church is ready not only to receive missionaries but to shape missiology. They’re ready not only to receive theological instruction but to shape theology.
This desire, however, is complicated by the power difference between the Global North and Global South. As Lazarus Phiri explained, “The center of Christianity seems to have shifted to the Global South.” Yet much of the intellectual, economic, and political power remains in the North. So, what should missions look like in this new world?
These leaders believe Western missionaries must go in new ways. Carlos Abarca, director of the Costa Rican Missionary Federation, suggested one form Western missions could take: “I think the most beautiful contribution is to be a traveling partner. We help each other with no pretension other than to be collaborative servants of our Lord in a world full of needs.” Pastor Adrian agreed. “My desire is this: Can someone come alongside, understand the needs of my country, and work with me to achieve those objectives?”
As global Christianity has shifted south, the Majority World church has taken up the banner of the Great Commission. According to Phiri, “Those people who were once a mission field are now looking like a mission force.”
Those people who were once a mission field are now looking like a mission force.
This doesn’t mean it’s time to pass the baton to the Global South while Western Christians focus on domestic issues. Instead, we should work together. As Dela Adadevoh expressed,
Our working assumption is that the Great Commission is given to every people. . . . Every culture has bright spots and blind spots. No one culture is adequate to carry the complex, comprehensive, holistic message of Christ to the diverse world.
This idea is echoed by Adegbite Olanihum, a leader in the Nigerian Evangelical Mission Association who hopes to send 50,000 missionaries over the next 15 years. “I believe the Americans and Europeans still have a place in the global agenda. Every one of us has something to bring to the table. It should not be a paternalistic approach.” He believes the complementary strengths of North American and Nigerian Christians should be leveraged together for the sake of the gospel.
The challenge will be for Western Christians who often have social and economic strength to come alongside our brothers and sisters in the Majority World without standing above them.
Moment of Decision
With the ascendance of Christianity in the Global South, the Western church faces a decisive moment. We can continue with business as usual. We can withdraw. Or we can humbly play the part God has for us today.
As Phiri reminded us, Christ became like us to serve us. We should be willing to follow his humble example. But Carlos Abarca wonders if the Western church is ready to leave behind our power and prejudices “to genuinely meet a brother.” To have a relationship, to stay engaged, and to work side by side for the glory of God.