by Ted Esler
The Next Ten Years
A decade is an interesting chunk of time. It is not short term, but it is also not so long term that one cannot reasonably think about what we will be facing. A decade from now, many of us will have switched jobs, retired, started a family or have experienced some other significant life change. Think back to what life was like ten years ago. What will like be like ten years from now? A decade can make a big difference.
Below is a list of items that I think will be the primary issues and topics that the global ministry world will be talking about. These are things that will be global in scope and have a very specific global missions impact. Other items could be on this list, and you can add them in the comments if you want (my first list was long, so I have cut it down to five items). I am specifically trying to stay in the arena of ministry issues.
Migration and Immigration
Already, the global missions community is consumed with talk of “diaspora” ministry. With people coming and going around the globe this topic has become hot. I do not see this abating any time soon. I think it will accelerate. With the end of globalization looming (see #5) more people will be looking for economic relief and this means more immigration. Is immigration being oversold as a missions activity? Probably not. While it is not a silver bullet, it is here to stay.
Only 3.2% of the world’s population are living in a country other than their birth country. This amounts to about 218 million people (Interactive World Migration Report 2022). That is a small number when compared to the billions around the world. The reason the topic is so sexy right now is that it is a possible rejuvenation of the Western church. Even though immigration is a global phenomenon, the Western missionary movement is enamored with it. This is a paradox. After all the talk about the shifting center of global Christianity, the focus now is being aimed back at the West via immigrant ministry.
Mark this word: mutuality. In the halls and conference centers I frequent, this is the term being used to describe the hope of a future generation of missionaries. I believe that much of the racial discussion in the church will be aimed back at this concept of mutuality. Mutuality refers to empathetic cross-cultural ministry. It starts with a recognition of the value of the lost and seeks to understand and serve via two-way avenues. It denounces the power associated with colonialism and one-way models of “sending/receiving” (in this way, migration ministry fits perfectly and is one reason why this next generation likes it).
Mutuality is appealing to post-modern culture. It seeks to capture the essence of Jesus’ teaching on weakness. It may introduce a paradigmatic shift in our overall understanding of missions. It is weak on the theology of Jesus’ exclusivity. The current use of mutuality grows mostly out of deconstruction, a critique of past models of mission. If it can be unmoored from its current negative polemic, it will significantly impact a younger generation of missions activists.
There is no getting around it. Global population decline will have significant impacts on our world. Entire towns and villages in Eastern Europe are already in massive decline. People are fleeing these places for more populated areas. In the next fifty years, China will undergo population implosion at a rate never seen. Who takes care of the older people when there are few younger people in the workforce? When our entire economic system is built on growth, what happens to our future? Africa will buck this trend and some nations will grow rapidly. How many of these new citizens will seek the empty apartments and sparse economic opportunities of Europe? North America will be the most stable region in terms of population size and age distribution. Will the rich get richer?
Because these are uncharted waters, nobody has a great handle on how to best struggle through the next century. Over the next decade, there is a window of opportunity for nations to prepare. Japan stands as an example that others might take up. They have done more to prepare for their current population decline than any other country. I expect that our leaders will struggle to think long-term about how to best adapt to this new reality. The church will be called on to serve in very unexpected ways.
The End of Globalization
It might be unpopular to say in some circles, but the global economic system controlled by the United States is unraveling. Right now, this feels slow, but soon it will feel fast. As I write this, the BRIC countries are seeking to establish a new monetary order to decouple themselves from the dollar. The impact of “de-Globalization” on China is already being felt as dozens of major industries re-shore and onshore their own manufacturing to home countries. With economic prosperity in Asia on the line, the next ten years are the first years of a new era in global systems of exchange. The rise of the Asian middle class is directly tied to Globalization and this engine is slowing. While Africa will be ripe to displace China as a source of cheap labor, the African infrastructure is weak. Wealthy countries of the West have less appetite to do international business.
What does ministry look like with less international access? How does the African missionary movement spread its wings in an era of increasing protectionism? Will the Chinese missions movement be able to utilize the “Belt and Road” system, built for the Chinese government’s purposes, as a means to spread the Gospel? There are many different possible outcomes but the freedoms we have had during the era of Globalization are receding. The first sign of this was the expulsion of missionaries from China, but this was only the first of what is to come.
US Church Implosion
The US church has been largely exempted from the mass secularization seen in Europe over the past century. This is now reversing with the growth of the “nones” and the inability of the Evangelical church to pass its faith on to the sons and daughters of the current generation. The spillover of political divisions within the culture has forced irrelevancy, with Evangelicals mostly siding with the right. At the same time, aggressive sexual and gender dysphoria has become the staple of the left, making alternative political options bleak. The Evangelical leadership has been mostly made up of Baby Boomers and they are exiting. In their place, we have no obvious leaders who can step in and take up this mantle. The non-Western missionary movement’s largest funder is the US. What happens when this funding goes away?
Does missions live downstream from the church? If so, we are in for a rough ride. Or, alternatively, will the church find her calling once again via the global missions movement? Some predict that the future US church will find its greatest strength in immigrant churches. If so, we are woefully behind in seeing this vision come to fruition.
These are the topics that I think will be among the most discussed among missiologists over the next decade. Scary? No. The church will survive these challenges as it has many others over the past two thousand years. We should be careful, though, to avoid triumphalism. There may be some difficult roads to walk. These challenges will take innovation and there are precious few ministries that have successfully transitioned their primary paradigm to something new. Most of us are riding the same horse we rode in on.
Join Us at SHIFT
Join me in Orlando from September 27–29, 2023, and delve into the topic of rapid social transformation and the gospel at the Mission Leaders Conference. You will gain valuable insights into these pressing issues and more – equipping you to navigate the changing landscape of global ministry.