by David J. Hesselgrave
Question: When is a trend not a trend? Answer: When it is an issue.
Question: When is a trend not a trend? Answer: When it is an issue.
That seems straightforward enough, but these concepts are often used interchangeably. The perspective taken here is that a trend is a prevailing direction or drift. A major trend (Naisbitt’s word is "megatrend") is more than simply an important trend. It is a trend that will tend to define the future. A major trend has explanatory potential.
Once a major trend is identified and understood, we can make decisions that will affect the future. In other words, trends—and especially major trends—give rise to issues. They present us with choices.
While to a certain extent we can anticipate the future if we understand the present, as Christians we are not confined to consideration of predictions based on human understanding. In part, prophecy was given so that we need not be surprised by the future. In broad outline we are assured of certain future events, not because fallible humans have predicted them but because an omniscient God has revealed it.
When instructing potential and practicing missionaries, it is extremely important to deal with trends and issues, predictions and prophecies in such a way as to enable them to become proactive, and not just reactive. This demands as much understanding and objectivity as possible.
In the first place, insofar as possible, I have tried to establish some objective criteria for the identification of trends. In addition to the usual data supplied by the World Christian Encyclopedia (and updates), and the latest editions of MARC’s Mission Handbook, Patrick Johnstone’s Operation World, and the UK Christian Handbook, I undertook a thematic content analysis of 949 articles in the International Review of Mission, 604 articles in the Evangelical Missions Quarterly, and 444 book reviews in Missiology and International Review. This in addition to acquainting myself with the general literation on the subject.
In the second place, I have placed trends and issues in the context of the prophetic Word of God, especially the Olivet discourse which forms a part of the immediate background of the great commission. This approach runs the risk of misreading prophecy, but if the Olivet discourse provided some solid answers for the early disciples it should do the same for us.
In the third place, a study such as this should be placed in the context of recent missions history. History provides precedents and understandings that come in no other way. So I have tried to be true to history.
TEN MAJOR TRENDS IN CONTEMPORARY MISSIONS
The following major trends seem to loom large on the horizon of missions today. It seems they confront us with crucial choices for tomorrow’s mission. Even though we are confined here to a consideration of the tips of missiological icebergs, it might be well to ask ourselves how much consideration they receive in contemporary missionary discussions and mission classrooms.
Trend No. 1: Multiformity and multiple options. Entrepreneurship, innovation, and independence characterize missions today. A record-setting 150 new mission agencies were formed during the 1970s in North America alone. So far, we are keeping up with that pace in the 1980s. (Mission Handbook, 13th ed., pp. 593-594). Unaffiliated missions (not all non-church sponsored, however) are outstripping the growth of missions connected with the major associations of missions. Between 1979 and 1985, affiliated missions showed a net increase of 3,078 (Mission Handbook, 13th ed., p. 564.)
Between 1980 and 1987, total church income worldwide increased from 64.5 billion to 79 billion U.S. dollars, while parachurch and institutional income increased from 35.8 billion to 60 billion dollars. David Barrett predicts that by the year 2000, church income will increase to no more than 80 billion dollars, while parachurch and institutional income will jump to a whopping 120 billion (International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Jan. 1987, p. 25)!
Granted that mission agencies of various kinds play an important role, we must ask whether this trend is in all respects a good one. Granted "the more the merrier," can we also grant "the more the better"?
Trend No. 2: Targeting and strategizing for world evangelization. Just 100 years ago in Mt. Hermon, Arthur T. Pierson called for the "evangelization of the world in this generation." At that time, it was not clear how the job should be accomplished, but there was no lack of enthusiasm. Before the conference was over, 100 students had responded to the challenge and, for all practical purposes, the Student Volunteer Movement was launched.
After World War I, vision gradually waned, and ultimately the S.V.M. was no more. But after World War II, both the slogan and the vision were revived. World evangelization has been high on the agenda of Evangelicals for a generation now. During the 22 years of its publication, over 15 percent of all the major articles in the EMQ have featured world evangelization-related themes. Twenty-eight percent of North American missionary personnel are now engaged in ministries intimately related to world evangelization (Mission Handbook, 13th ed., p. 617). Although Christianity is having difficulty holding its own at approximately 33 percent of the world population, the unevangelized proportion of world population has shrunk from about 50 percent in 1900 to about 27 percent today (International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Jan. 1987, p. 23).
There are other aspects of this trend as well. After a great deal of discussion (and some rather bizarre proposals), missiologists have more or less settled on meaningful definitions of such concepts as "evangelized" and "people groups" so that vision for world evangelization can be married to intercessory prayer, the targeting of unreached people groups, and strategizing for gospel communication and church growth. World evangelization was never more possible than it is today.
Trend No. 3: The reactive trend. There is a terrific tension between the call of God and the cry of the world in missions today. Although nearly three times as many EMQ articles focus on church planting and growth as focus on socio-political action, just about the reverse is true in Missiology book reviews. Over twice as many articles in the IRM focus on socio-political action as focus on church planting and church growth. But whereas many in conciliar missions consciously call on the world to set the agendas for theologizing and missiologizing, Evangelicals less consciously tend to do the same. The idea that missionary work should be "self-fulfilling"; the tendency to "baptize" the latest social science theory; the recent emphasis on "holistic mission"; the resurgence of kingdom theology; the upswing in missions to Islam; team strategy-these and numerous other emphases seem to be related to this trend. Of course, to identify certain aspects of missions as reactive is not to paint them black or white. But at the very least, objective evaluation is hardly possible unless we are acutely aware of why we say what we say and do what we do.
Trend No. 4: Ambivalent polarization. The divisions that have been evident in Protestantism for some time, and are now apparent in Roman Catholicism as well, are also characteristic of Christian missions. But the situation is by no means simple and static. Rather, we are in a time of flux. Although the prophecy is clear on the ultimate configuration of the religious world, it is difficult to predict the alignments and realignments that will eventuate in that configuration. Along with the churches, missions are in flux.
Recognizing that many nativistic movements in Africa and elsewhere may be hardly recognizable as churches, one European missiologist nevertheless calls for unity on the basis of an "intercultural theology" that will not be conceptually uniform or entirely faithful to the historic heritage of the church. He sees this as the only antidote to a cleavage that would be as decisive as that of the Protestant Reformation (W.J. Hollenweger, International Review of Missions, Jan. 1986, p. 12).
Some Evangelicals seem to perceive the World Council as charting a more conservative path than previously, and therefore call upon their colleagues to join it. Meanwhile, some World Council leaders are bending every effort to achieve a rapprochement with Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. While some evangelicals place so much stress on the new birth experience that they are willing to disregard historical ecclesiastical and doctrinal differences in order to communicate it, many Charismatics are willing to do the same in order to promote a Spirit-baptism experience.
A careful look at missions literature reveals that while Ecumenists tend to assume that their kind of unity is worth doctrinal compromise, Evangelicals tend to assume a doctrinal consensus that allows them to concentrate on pragmatic concerns. Both assumptions may be wrong. Leaders at Edinburgh in 1910 decided that the cause of world mission could best be served by dismissing a theological discussion of the great commission from their agenda and allowing all participants to interpret it as they will. It was a tragic mistake. There is considerable evidence that the "error of Edinburgh" may be in the process of being repeated.
Trend No. 5: "Third Force" emergence. There can be no doubt that Pentecostalism has emerged as a major force in the Christian world. In its widest dimensions the movement numbers 100 million believers worldwide. Its growth rate eclipses that of any other segment of Christianity, and is greatest in the Third World. As many as nine of the world’s 20 largest churches are Pentecostal/ charismatic (John Vaughn, The World’s Twenty Largest Churches).
In addition to their contribution to world evangelization, Pentecostals have kept the power and place of the Holy Spirit in mission high on the agenda of contemporary missions (though they have not been alone in accomplishing this). For this we should be grateful. Now Pentecostals have the most viable opportunity of countering syncretism in Third World churches.
But classic Pentecostalism is faced with the tension occasioned by the need for improved scholarship and credibility on the one side, and the need to preserve certain distinctives on the other. The charismatic movement runs the twin risk of perversion of doctrine and an aborted mission to the unbelieving world. One respected pentecostal leader recently reminded me that the charismatic movement as such has yet to spawn a real missionary thrust.
Trend No. 6: The social science trend in missiology. During the past generation, the development and acceptance of missiology as a bona fide discipline stands out as a major development in missions. But missiology is eclectic. It draws its materials from various sources-theology, the sciences, and missions experience. It is evident the social sciences constitute the primary focus of much of contemporary missiology. Over one-fifth of all the book reviews in Missiology to date demonstrate a primary concern for the contributions of the sciences. It is also clear that Evangelicals tend to place a greater value on the methods and conclusions of the social sciences than do Ecumenists.
German missiology exhibited a similar trend toward the end of the nineteenth century, but more recently has given more emphasis to the theology of mission. We may not agree with some of the results of German theological inquiry, but perhaps something important is to be learned from the German experience.
Trend No. 7: Bridge-building to other religions and cultures. Dialogue, contextualization, common ground, bridging-these and kindred concepts constitute basic grist for missiological mills today. No doubt about it: religious, cultural, social, ethnic and other barriers must be crossed if the great commission is to be obeyed. Scores of books and hundreds of articles indicate we are aware of this. The Bible is replete with illustrations of it.
Two risks grow out of this trend. First, there is the risk of not going far enough-of turning from the hard work of seeking to understand other worldviews and relating meaningfully to people who hold them. Second, there is the risk of going too far-of defining dialogue, not in a biblical way, but as a pursuit of religious truth and experience transcending any one religion, for example. To steer a straight course between these extremes will not be easy.
Trend No. 8: Rising costs and increased responsibility in missions. It is no secret that missions costs are skyrocketing. One of my students must raise 13 times as much support and 46 times as much outfit allowance as my family did when we went to Japan in 1950. North American missions giving has now gone over the one billion dollar mark to a 1985 total of $1.3 billion dollars (Mission Handbook, 13th ed., pp. 611-612). Corrected for inflation, the increase is not great. Nevertheless, costs are high and appeals are unending. The net result is that Evangelicals are thinking in terms of accountability. Two examples must suffice.
Although the IRM devotes little attention to this area, just over one-third of 604 major articles appearing in the EMQ over the last 22 years have to do with missionary personnel-one-half of this with missionary qualifications, well-being, and effectiveness.
Again, K. P. Yohannan is calling upon American Christians to send money to the Third World instead of sending missionaries. The reason? Cost effectiveness. Yohannan claims that 30 native evangelists can be supported for the same price as one American missionary. Moreover, he says that native evangelists stick to the primary task and are far more effective (Christianity Today, Nov. 7, 1986, p. 15).
Trend No. 9: The transference trend. The year 1980 was a watershed, especially for Evangelicals. In that year, the percentage of all Evangelicals in the Third World came to equal the number in the West and Eastern Europe. Then, within five years (1980 to 1985) the percentages changed, so that 66 percent of all Evangelicals worldwide were located in the Third World (Operation World, 4th ed., p. 35)! Those figures reflect the larger new reality. The center of gravity in Christianity has shifted from the West to the East and from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere. Much depends on how Christians in the Third World and, particularly, in the Western world will respond to this new situation.
Trend No. 10: The encounter with unbelief and evil powers. The evidence that this encounter is becoming more and more significant is overwhelming in the 1980s. Over 2.2 billion people live under de facto restrictions on their religious freedom. The total number of people living in states where missionary entry is restricted or prohibited comes to 3.1 billion (World Christian Encyclopedia, p. 5). Conversionist mission is under attack. The number of Christian martyrs in 1986 was almost 10 times the number in 1900 (International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Jan. 1987, p. 25). Resurgent non-Christian religions, spiritism, and the like have occasioned new concern for power encounter in missions.
Of course, all of this is precisely what our Lord prophesied so it should not have taken us by surprise.
As a matter of fact, when we review the events foretold by our Lord in the Olivet discourse (wars, pestilence, false Christs, persecution, etc.) we realize that only two of them are entirely positive-the preaching of the gospel as a witness to all the ethne, and the return of our triumphant Christ. We do not know the day nor the hour of his return. But we know the nature of our task. And as we pray and study and work together with both understanding and commitment, we will be enabled to make the right choices for tomorrow’s mission.
Trends and issues, predictions and prophecies – all should be at the heart of missionary education and preparation today.
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