Rise of the Non-Western Church: Top Ten Mission Trends in the 21st Century

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

We live in a rapidly changing world.  What is not as evident is how these global changes influence the church’s role in the world.  This is particularly true in the area of missions.  Many people still think about missions as it was in the 19th century. While the missions mandate itself remains unchanged, the context of missions today is quite different from what it was even fifty years ago.  To be effective, churches need to be aware of these changes and discuss how these changes can practically influence and shape the policies and procedures which shape and guide our missionary thrust.  This blog series will be highlighting the top ten things which a church should know about missions in the 21st century.  None of these points are intended to be exhaustive, but rather to stimulate discussion and reflection in the church about missions today.

1.  THE RISE OF THE NON-WESTERN CHURCH

communionOur generation has experienced the largest demographic shift in Christian affiliation in history.  In the last fifty years the church in the non-Western world has been dramatically increasing.  Traditionally, missions has been primarily conceived of as someone from the Western world saying good-bye to kith and kin and re-locating to another part of the non-Western world to share the gospel.  However, today we can no longer regard the non-Western world as a monolithic block which is equally in need of the gospel.  To be sure, there are hundreds of people-groups in the non-Western world who have no viable witness of the gospel in their midst.  However, we are also seeing the growth, sometimes, dramatic growth, of the church in many parts of what was formerly known as the missions field.

To put it plainly, the church is shifting southward and is growing in the southern continents of Latin America, Africa and South Asia.  When William Carey went to India at the threshold of the 19th century, only 1% of the entire world’s Protestants were found in the non-Western world.  That means that 99% of all Protestants lived in the Western world!  It is no wonder that some people called Christianity a “white man’s religion”. Even one hundred years after Carey at the turn of the 20th century, only 10% of the world’s Protestants lived in the non-Western world.  However, the 20th century witnessed a dramatic shift Southward and Eastward such that today approximately 67% of the world’s Protestants live outside of the western world.[1] That means that today the majority of Protestant Christians are non-white and non-Western in their ethnic and geographic orientation.

As the below chart indicates, one can see the percentage of where Christians live in each of the major spheres of the world.  (See,  Chart A).

What are the implications of this?  This is not a call for a moratorium on missions from the Western world.  This is no time for us to sit back and declare that the job is done.  It is a time to be thankful that the seeds which our missionary forbearers planted have taken root in ways undreamed of by those early pioneers.  However, there are still people groups in the Middle East, Central Asia, China and N. India who have very few or no known Christians.  This should call us to re-double our efforts among those peoples.  Nevertheless, it does mean that the remaining job is not to be done only by initiatives from the West, but in genuine partnerships with Christians from around the globe.  It is quite common, for example, to meet Korean or Brazilian missionaries on the field working alongside or independent of Western missionaries.[2] Churches in the West should be more aware of the existing work being done by our non-Western brothers and sisters and, wherever possible, engage in creative partnerships so that together we can more effectively obey the Great Commission.  This has been summarized best by the statement issued at the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in 1974 which stated, “It takes the whole church to bring the whole Christ into the whole world.”  May this reminder always be before us.

Chart A

chart


[1] For a full account of these demographic shifts see, Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom:  The Coming of Global Christianity, (Oxford University Press, 2002).  The Southern shift of Christianity is addressed beginning on page 83.

[2] For a discussion of the growth of the Korean missionary movement see, Steve S. C. Moon, “The Recent Korean Missionary Movement,”  International Bulletin of Missionary Research, vol. 27, #1 (Jan., 2003) 11-17.

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