The Changing Face of Christian Missions and Outreach

Over the past several months, I have been reflecting on paradigm shifts that are facing Christianity and Christian ministry as a whole. No surprise that Christian missions is also changing in the new millennium for new circumstances.

Some of these changes have been positive, other paradigms are shifting so swiftly many Christians feel that they are losing a grip on the church’s public witness as a result.

It was only a hundred years ago that Christian missions exploded in popularity around the world. The Second Great Awakening swept across western nations in the mid-nineteenth century, enchanting the hearts and minds of Christians who, in turn, passionately pursued the “heathen peoples” of Africa, Asia, and Indonesia for the sake of Christ.

Industrialism and transportation set global missions in motion, and soon these same missionary endeavors coincided with colonial expansion. While developed nations strengthened their empires by forming new markets and bolstering a growing economy, Christians exported western culture under the guise of the Christian religion.

Imperialism reached its height between the years 1880 and 1915, and it was during that timeframe that colonialism and missions became (in the words of Rudyard Kipling) the “white man’s burden.” This had negative consequences as businesses and politicians alike used missionaries to reign in indigenous populations (i.e. cheap labor).

Now, as the remnants of colonialism all but fade into history, Christian missions has taken on a more global hue. Very few missionaries still seek to change the culture in which they work; rather, many are adapting Christianity to the spiritual and social fabric of local communities. This has turned the church’s witness from being coercive and oppressive to being a catalyst for organic, Gospel-centered transformation.

Missionaries Ryan and Cindy Clark were recently commissioned by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship to go to the Philippines. According to Ryan, being a catalyst for transformation requires cooperation with native communities.

“Christianity is growing faster in Asia and Central and South America than it is in the US and Europe, which means there is a power shift in religious influence,” said Ryan, “We’re not going to set up a missionary outpost to convert the heathen; rather, we are going to partner with Christians who are already there to bring our gifts to their needs. This includes evangelism and church planting, as well as training the locals to do the leading.”

Shifting missional paradigms are also changing how churches do local outreach. Many a clergy celebrate the fact that more people are becoming “spiritual”; this gives them the opportunity to tell people that each person’s spiritual longing has little grounding if not anchored in a Judeo-Christian biblical tradition.

This recalls an aspect of Augustine’s confession that sounds fresh for a new audience: “My heart is restless until it rests in Thee.” No iPhone or Starbucks will do.

Likewise, parishioners now see themselves as missionaries in local communities. Folks need not travel across great oceans to reach mission fields. Instead, mission fields consist of neighborhoods, schools, marketplaces, and businesses beyond the church walls.

This philosophy of missions, however, can frustrate churches that see little need for change; but we must face a real fact: More often than not, church growth occurs because Christians are migrating from church to church, not because non-Christians are coming to know Christ. There is still a disconnect between Christians and non-Christians, between the church as “alternative community” and secular society.

With a skyrocketing rate of people who never darken the steps of any church door moving about in our midst, the challenge to change missionary models is key to engaging both local and global communities for the sake of the Gospel and for the salvation that only Christ can bring.

Published by Joe LaGuardia

I am a pastor and author in Vero Beach, Florida, and write on issues related to spirituality, faith, politics, and culture.

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