In 1988 the face of missions changed dramatically for church history students in Swaziland. As they heard about missionaries sent to fulfill the Great Commission, they asked, "Where are the stories of missionaries from Africa?" At the end of class, students prayed for committed Christians around the world to answer the call to be missionaries.
After the prayer, Wellington Obotte from Kenya boldly announced, "God is calling me to be a missionary." Because of the vision of church leaders, Wellington and his wife, Hellen, became global missionaries. Mission leaders recognized that non-Western theologians, pastors, authors, and songwriters can faithfully tell the biblical story that will bring transformation to a world without hope.
Here are five ways the face of mission is changing to offer hope and healing in a broken world:
1. The changing face of missions is to be expected and celebrated when changes result in the passionate response of those answering a call. Today's missionaries come from all over the world. They may be identified as skilled laity serving as tentmakers, or volunteers working in the public sector of society while evangelizing and planting churches. They may serve on a limited-time assignment working directly with the international church in specific areas of need. Today's missionaries may be full-time servants who have dedicated their lives to service in multicultural experiences.
2. The changing face of missions calls for continual recognition and understanding of the challenges of societies: the rise of postmodernism; migration of large language groups to the West; global humanitarian needs such as the HIV/AIDS pandemic; the plight of children at risk; the unprecedented growth of the Church outside the Western hemisphere; a weakening of Christian values; and the impact of technology, economics, and urbanization.
In 1800, only 3 percent of the world's population lived in cities. In 1900, mission activity was centered in small villages. The United Nations forecasts that today's urban population of 3.2 billion will rise to nearly 5 billion by 2030, when three out of five people will live in cities. Stewardship of personnel and resources requires missions to now be focused on cities. Mission boards seek faithful personnel who can respond to the challenges and opportunities for kingdom movement and growth in cities through partnerships with parachurch and community organizations.
3. The location of missions is shifting as seen in an unprecedented growth of the Church in many parts of the world formerly identified as "the mission field." While missionaries must continue their efforts to reach those living in the 10/40 window, residents are migrating outside and living in Western cities. On a Sunday morning, Christians are looking out their church doors directly into the 10/40 windows of their neighbors.
With large unreached people groups migrating to Western societies, previous sending nations have been declared mission fields. But this label need not be a reason to feel shame if dedicated Christians accept the challenge to become involved in mission opportunities in their communities.
4. Since missions is at the front door of each church wherever it is located, mission-minded members need holistic tools to help them develop ministries that welcome multi-cultural groups. Mission organizations are developing practical tools that help Christians engage in nonprofit organizations, work with diversity on church boards, create a church plant with multicultural groups, and fight social injustice.
Some have expressed concern in the changing face of missions. Signs near the exits of churches state, "You are now entering the mission field" to remind members to be missionaries. By an indiscriminate use of the term, a "missionary" is anyone who participates in outreach programs of the church, who serves food to the homeless or neglected, who participates on a team to build a home for the less fortunate, or who distributes clothing to the needy. By all Christians being missionaries and involved in outreach programs, less emphasis may be placed on evangelism.
5. Traditions in doing missions have changed. The consequence of the old model meant dependency upon the missionary for leadership, training, and funds. Often this resulted in an emphasis on language study so missionaries could write in the national language rather than assisting national authors to publish. At times it meant missionaries remaining in leadership rather than empowering others who had been trained.
In the beginning of my missionary career, I often explained,"'My job as a missionary is to train someone to take my place." However, towards the end of my career, I realized I needed to do more than just train leaders. I also needed to serve as a resource by walking beside and assisting local leaders and stepping quickly away when a person was qualified to lead.
The face of missions is changing, whether the church is ready or not. The line between local and global mission fields has blurred. A nation may be a sender of missionaries and also a receiver. While changes occur in doing missions, our holiness doctrine, based soundly on Scripture, cannot be changed. As we adapt ways to engage a world needing to be transformed, our tradition of dependency upon the leading of the Holy Spirit cannot falter.
Let the face of missions continue to change, but never let us forget our call to make disciples in the nations. "See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up|;do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland" (Isaiah 43:19, NIV).
The 10/40 Window is a term referring to unreached people groups living in the eastern hemisphere located between 10 and 40 degrees north of the equator. While missions must continue its efforts to reach those living in the 10/40 window, residents are migrating outside and living in Western cities. On a Sunday morning, Christians are looking out their church doors directly into the 10/40 windows of their neighbors.
Geneva Silvernail is vice president of Asbury Theological Seminary's Dunnam campus in Florida. She served as an international tentmaker and career missionary with the Church of the Nazarene for nearly 30 years.
Holiness Today, Jan/Apr 2011
Please note: This article was originally published in 2011. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.