In recent decades, the vanguard of evangelicalism has steadily shifted to the global South and East. The number of missionaries sent from places like Brazil (35,000) and South Korea (30,000) is a testament to the spiritual vitality that exists in these regions. Fascinatingly, a 2013 report showed Palestine as the nation sending the most missionaries per capita (of the Christian population). The West is no longer the hub of missionary sending.
Yet this doesn’t tell the whole story. Where the church is growing the fastest, a great need remains for training. Some 95% of pastors worldwide have no formal theological education. Meanwhile the rise of materialism and secularism in developed nations calls for an urgent spiritual awakening in the West.
What does this suggest for the future of global missions? Considering our diverse strengths and weaknesses, partnerships forged in mutual dependence will be key to the success of global missions in the coming decades.
Churches Aren’t Independent
Much of the church growth around the world in recent decades has happened through the independent church movements, many of those being house churches. However, the recent pandemic has exposed the weaknesses of such small and independent churches. Lockdowns and the loss of work brought severe challenges, even hunger, to many non-urban pastors who rely on income from other jobs. When church members couldn’t make money or lockdowns kept them from giving their tithes, their churches struggled financially, especially those isolated from the rest of the body of Christ.
But this isn’t the way the church is designed. Jesus said his followers are one with him and one with each other (John 17:21). We’re members of the same body—belonging to one another (Rom. 12:5). Crucial to this oneness is learning to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). That means we not only carry the loads of others but also allow them to share our burdens. In a sense, there’s no such thing as an independent church.
Some Christians might argue that these biblical instructions don’t apply to inter-church relationships. While they acknowledge that the early church had all things common, they see such interdependence and care for the poor as happening within the local church (Acts 4:32). Yet Paul himself vigorously sought the help of Gentile churches to support the poorer parts of Christ’s body, namely the Jerusalem Christians (1 Cor. 16:1–4; 2 Cor. 8, 9). By soliciting help, Paul embraced the dignity of dependence, and the weaker members of the body were blessed. John Stott calls this interdependence our “mutual burdensomeness.”
I work for Youth for Christ (YFC) in Sri Lanka. Over the years we’ve tried to embrace a posture of dependence in our ministry. As a result, the body of Christ in developed nations like Singapore has graciously supported and cared for our many needs. During the recent pandemic, Singapore YFC trained us in digital evangelism. By relying on and learning from others we’ve been able to mobilize more laborers to blaze new trails for the gospel.
Mutual dependence will be key to the success of global missions in the coming decades.
But that’s not the end of the story. Sri Lanka is full of prayer warriors. The Singaporean body of Christ can depend on them. Many of our leaders in YFC are from impoverished and harsh backgrounds. Perhaps the greatest lesson I’ve learned from them is the desperation and persistence with which they cry out to God. The majority world, driven less by time, is perhaps more likely to persevere in prayer at the feet of God. Such persistent prayer is a significant way we can bless developed nations.
What explosive spiritual power would emerge if the majority world would unite in praying for a mighty revival in post-Christian Europe? What if those hungry for theological education would humbly and proactively ask for help? And what if developed nations appealed to the majority world to pray for them? What if Western believers actively listened to the penetrating insights of those applying the Bible in contexts of hardship and suffering?
A key to mutual burden-bearing is embracing a dependent spirit. This principle, weak as it sounds, may be indispensable to world mission in a post-pandemic world. By depending on one another through prayer and partnership, we can foster unity and humility in the body of Christ (2 Cor. 1:11; Phil. 1:19).
Over the last few years, the country that I’ve prayed for the most next to my own is Japan. Out of the population of 127 million, less than 1 percent are evangelical. Yet there are missionaries living in Japan from over 30 nations. It seems there’s a great need to mobilize laborers from among the Japanese people to lead in reaching the millions of their own nation headed for a Christless eternity.
Meanwhile, there are now more than 2,000 Korean theologians who have PhD or DEd degrees and are finding it difficult to acquire teaching positions in Korea. What role might they have to play in the gospel’s advance in neighboring Japan or the theological training of church leaders in the global South? These realities—and others like them—call for redistributing missionaries among the nations, as Bong Rin Ro points out (“Missiological Issues in Asia Today,” JAET 18, no. 2).
In the first half of the 21st century, we could be entering the heyday of mission partnership and mobilization.
One important factor that can propel this redistribution is mutual dependence. Christians in need should be able to request help from nations that have a wealth of financial, theological, or human resources. Furthermore, cross-cultural missionaries and established churches should see the value of partnership with indigenous believers or diaspora churches for the sake of the gospel. With the rise of online platforms like Zoom and WhatsApp, the opportunities for communication and cooperation are endless.
In the first half of the 21st century, we could be entering the heyday of mission partnership and mobilization. Yet the need to train local leaders and mobilize missionaries to reach those yet unreached is urgent. For this to be accomplished, a spirit of humility and mutual dependence must be recovered in our churches. We need one another.