Posted by Marv Newell, Sr. Vice President, Missio Nexus
Here’s a question worth considering … With the spreading decay of Christianity across the West, how is it affecting our confidence in the North American missions movement? And if our confidence is eroding, how is this impacting our long venerated station in the global Christian Movement?
A surface assessment of the North American mission movement would lead one to believe that when it comes to our engagement in the Great Commission, we are doing just fine. We continue to send just as many mid-term and long-term missionaries as we had in years past. There are more mission organizations registered in the US and Canada than ever before, with new ones popping up daily. Annually, we pump more money into missions than in any other time in history. We are utilizing technology on a scale and in ways never before imagined. We are just as creative (if not more so) in methodologies as any previous generation. One would think that with all these going for us, that our confidence level would be high.
Yet, a deeper look into the North American Church along with its interdependent mission movement, reveals a disturbing reality: we are loosing confidence in our ability to remain a leading missions force. When I say “confidence,” I’m referring to a posture of assurance, conviction and certainty that we can continue to be a dominant influence, or at least a major player. Consider some areas of concern that diminish our confidence.
Losing confidence in our message. Pluralism so permeates our churches that the rank and file sitting in the pews find it difficult to believe in the exclusive message of the Gospel. The biggest theological uncertainty in the North American Church today centers on the issue of “lostness.” Is exclusive belief in and acceptance of Jesus Christ as one’s personal Savior the only way to God? A survey reveals that 55% of evangelical churchgoers and 80% of Christian college students are uncertain when asked that question. Even our missionary candidates can no longer answer that question with unreserved certainty. If Jesus is not the “only way,” why would anyone go and live in hardship conditions in a foreign country to declare otherwise? Some, commendably so, go to engage in compassionate ministries to help alleviate human suffering. But “spiritual suffering” no longer seems to rate that kind of commitment for many.
Losing confidence in faith. There is a real crisis of faith that looms over our modern day churches. We have become so self-sufficient that it is more and more difficult to live by faith or to value and help those who desire to do so. The “faith mission” movement has fallen on hard times. In the past most non-denominational missions were called “faith missions” because their members were willing to live without any guarantees. They had faith that funds would come in to sustain their needs and that people back home were faithfully praying for all their needs. That is becoming more rare and harder to sustain. Here’s the foundational issue: when believers in the churches no longer live by faith in God’s ability to supply them for what they need to give to the ones living by faith, the whole faith mission paradigm collapses. “Faith Promise” is a thing of the past. More and more mission CEOs are telling me that the faith premise of missions is harder and harder to sustain because it has diminished in the churches. This impacts their ability to field missionaries and is having dire consequences on their organization’s budget.
Misplaced confidence in ourselves. This observation is related to the previous point. The void that is left with a loss of faith is quickly filled by human effort – that’s our default mode. But Zachariah reminds us, “Not by might nor by power but by my Spirit says the Lord of host” (4:6). I had a professor in college that paraphrased that verse, “Not by might of excellent methods, nor by the power of polished technology, but by my Spirit says the Lord of host.” We have become methodical, managerial, and technologically dependent in our mission to the world. Rather than trusting in the work of God through His Spirit, we tend to trust in human efforts for advancement. We Westerners tend to have a knack for doing that. The humble teachings and model of Jesus for mission is increasingly obscured by human techniques. That brings us to the paradox that the more work and effort we put into our human initiatives, the less confidence we have in the meaningfulness of our outcomes.
Losing confidence in our candidate pool. When left unchecked, the lifestyle of today’s western believers either disqualifies them for service or hampers them when they try to serve. Misguided believers fall into every imaginable vice the world has to offer, then some naively seek recovery by offering themselves for mission service as a panacea for deliverance. For instance, in the past mission screeners would ask candidates if they ever watched pornography. Now they ask, when was the last time that they did. In the past a candidate was asked if they ever experienced same-sex attraction. Now they are asked how they handle those feelings. These behaviors are now assumed. Without biblical morality, there can be no meaningful ministry. One’s conduct cancels one’s message. Fortunately, there is a remnant that has not bowed the knee to the Baals of anti-biblical behavior, who have a passion to serve Christ crossculturally. Thankfully, the candidate pool still exists, albeit much different.
When we look at the accomplishments of the past two centuries in Christian missions from the West, they are remarkable. Extraordinary advances in world evangelization were accomplished by a confident church on mission. Now we have misplaced confidence in ourselves. Loss of confidence in our message and messengers is eroding our confidence to sustain that momentum.
But all is not lost! God’s mission to the world is not hamstrung by our predicament. A host of other missionaries is flooding across the world from the global church outside of North America. Scott Sunquist reminds us:
“Today most missionary work is being done by Koreans, Chinese, Brazilians, Nigerians, Indians, Ghanaians, and even Egyptians, Lebanese, and Costa Ricans. They move across cultural, language, and faith barriers in ways not that different from the Europeans and Americans in the past, but with little of the worldly power. They are inadequate, often improperly trained, and they often go with mixed or unclear motives. This unexpected history of Christianity in the twentieth century should give us some hope. A gentle and suffering Savior will be Lord of all these efforts in the future, as in the past.”
 Scott W. Sunquist. The Unexpected Christian Century: The Reversal and Transformation of Global Christianity, 1900-2000. Kindle location 4059