40 Years of Mega-Change in Missions

By Marvin J. Newell, Staff Missiologist, Missio Nexus

At the end of this month I will be retiring from Missio Nexus. Starting in the mid-1970s until the present, God has granted me a fulfilling career in missions. That context and landscape has certainly changed over these past 40+ years. Those getting their start in missions today would likely not be able to fathom the world and the work as it was four decades ago. Here in summary, and without critique, are ten of the most noteworthy mega-changes that I observe have taken place.

1. From Western church to global church

In 1970, 70% of Christians in the world lived in the West. As such, it was a Church identified as west, white and rich.  Fast-forward to today and we see the Church is 70% non-western. As such it is generally characterized as south, of color, and generally poor. The most accurate portrait of a Christian in today’s world is that of an African female living in subsistence living conditions.  

2. From white missionaries to multiracial missionaries

Tied to – and a logical outgrowth of the previous point – is the identity of the majority of today’s missionaries. Forty years ago the majority looked like me. Two-thirds were from the North Atlantic region – Western Europe and North America.  Today it is just the opposite. “Majority world missionaries” from all over the globe are dominant, making up two-thirds of the global missionary force.

3. From a “nation” emphasis to “nations” emphasis

As a result of insights from missiologist Ralph Winter in the early 70s, the focus of missions has almost entirely shifted from attention to the spiritual needs of a given country, to attention to all the people groups or “nations” within a country. For example, our missional concern isn’t solely on a country like Vietnam, but more comprehensively on the 118 “nations” within Vietnam.

4. From fixed locales to hybridity

In the past, we needed to send gospel message bearers to particular countries in order to encounter the unreached. Not so today. Now there are more movements of peoples beyond their traditional homelands than ever before. Migration caused by numerous factors (both globally and locally in scope), have resulted in the ability for Christians to meet otherwise unreached peoples as they come into areas where Christians are present. We no longer need to rely solely on strategies and structures that assume fixed, isolated, homogenous people groups.

5. From justification to justice

Forty years ago the core concern in missions was the propagation of the gospel of justification through the redemptive work of Christ. The main activities driven by this concern were “EDP” – evangelism, discipleship and planting churches. Not so much so today – at least not as primary. The pendulum has swung to an emphasis on social justice, compassionate ministries, equality, human rights and help for the vulnerable. For many, Isaiah 1:17 has supplanted Matthew 28:18-20 as the mission mandate.

6. From silos to movements

Donald McGavran got the mission world thinking beyond silo church existence and mere church addition, to church multiplication through movements. Over these past four decades we have witnessed this concept progress from church growth movements, to church planting movements, to disciple-making movements.

7. From hardy personalities to fragility

(Ok, I know there will be push back on this one!)  We all are products of our culture and times, and that includes missionaries. My observation is that over the past 40 years we have seen a change from spiritually and emotionally hardy and mostly robust missionaries, to more fragile and distracted missionaries. The advent and explosion of member care programs during this period gives evidence to this phenomenon. The bane of the dark side of the Internet certainly contributes to this condition in the lives of many of today’s missionaries.

8. From competition to collaboration

Following WWII, there was a scramble among missions, both established and up-starts, to get to and hold geographical and specialty “territories,” as North American Christians responded to their newly found global access. This naturally resulted in ministry competition. However, these past years has witnessed a subsiding of rivalry. Being connected to one another is now seen as crucial if the task is to be completed. Strategic connections are now the norm. As a result, there has been an unprecedented upsurge in the formation of networks. “We serve the Lord better when we serve together” has become today’s mantra.

9. From settlers to transients

What I am referring to is length of service. Formerly missionaries went out with the intention of a lifetime to a specific country of service. They became settlers in a new and distant country, digging in for the long haul. Up until the 1970s, that was almost always the case, whether in reality or by intent. But with the advent of the jet airliner, the option of serving as transients became possible. We now speak of serving short-term (1 week to 1 year) mid-term (1 year to 4 years) and long-term (5 years and beyond). The astronomical explosion of short-term missions arrived. 

10. From bodily presence to virtual

The advancement of new technologies over the past 40 years is beyond amazing. We have progressed from Internet non-existence, to online virtual everything. No longer does a message bearer need to be physically present in a specific distant locale. Cyber missions and evangelism has arrived. Some missions are strategically and successfully exploiting this new access. One can even comfortably reach distant people from a laptop while sitting on the living room sofa.

I, along with my generation of mission colleagues who are in the process of retiring, have witnessed the world and the work of missions experience mega-changes over the past four decades. These have radically altered the landscape of missions. May they be for the better.  

(Have a comment? You can email me at: mnewell@missionexus.org)

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