Missionaries and mission fields are changing to the point where it sometimes appears difficult to tell one from the other.
Such challenges as the resurgence of Islam and the loss of Western missionary dominance is radically changing the the traditional face of mission work, according to several reports.
A recent major missionary conference provided a vivid illustration of how much Third World Christians are coming to the forefront of world missions. The Australian evangelical magazine On Being (September) reports that the recent Global Consultation on World Evangelization was the largest gathering of mission agency leaders on a global level since Edinburgh in 1910.
Out of nearly 4,000 delegates who met in Pretoria, South Africa in July, only 20 percent came from the USA, Western Europe, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, suggesting the new mission involvement of Christians in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Africans accounted for 62 percent of the delegates, and 24 percent were women. Only 5 percent were over 60 years of age, and 10 percent were less than 30 years old.
In an in-depth article in the journal Theology Today (July), Stan Skreslet notes that the growth of short term missionaries (rather than career missionaries) and megachurches are bringing their own changes to mission work. Megachurches are developing their own departments of missions, which means that resources for mission — both funding and personnel — that “used to be channeled through denominational structures are now managed locally, although they may be applied anywhere in the world,” Skreslet writes.
But beyond these current trends, he finds three areas where missions and missionaries will face their greatest challenges.
01: The explosive growth of economic refugees or what have been called the “nomadic poor” around the world will eventually stimulate new mission responses and theological reflection on the plight of poor migrants.
02: The rise of non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) to handle such issues as human development and human rights (rather than governments) will put increasing pressure on mission organizations to broaden their agendas and identities.
Already, the World Council of Churches views the new importance of NGO’s (such as Amnesty International) as a sign of what will be the future shape of mission. All this may further blunt the theological and evangelistic edge of mission organizations that also want to function as NGOs.
03: The growth of Islam is emerging as the most pressing issue for missions, according to Skreslet.
Evangelicals and other conservative missions have targeted Islam as its main target for evangelism and religious freedom concerns. Ecumenical Christians, on the other hand, have encouraged dialogue with Muslims on social issues (such as human rights in Israel), but have yet to deal with the dogmatic assertions of “normative Islam” that often surround such issues. Such an approach is “far too equivocal and nuanced for most parishioners, who would prefer to know from their leaders whether Islam en toto is friend or foe.”
The attempt to reach Muslims to faith in Christ is posing challenges to Christian identity and to Christianity’s place among the world’s religions, according to Andrews University theologian Jon Dybdahl. In the Seventh Day Adventist journal Spectrum (May), Dybdahl writes that the task of evangelizing Muslims [who have traditionally not been receptive to the Christian message] has in effect created a Christian-Islamic hybrid in several Muslim countries (which he will not name).
“Unbeknown to many [church] members, a small group of Christian missiologists interested in evangelizing Muslims has started a movement in a certain Muslim country. This movement accepts many major Christian beliefs, but if members were asked their religious affiliation, they would answer, `Muslim.'”
If someone further questions their specific identity, members of this movement would say they are the “true remnant of Islam” When they are “called to defend their beliefs, they are able to do so from the Koran.” Dybdahl adds that this movement continues to grow at a high rate — “winning literally hundreds yearly.”
This movement has strong Adventist representation (with about 1,500 members), and some Adventist leaders have given the initiative their tentative support. “Adventist Islamicists have begun quietly to suggest that Adventism should not consider itself merely a remnant of the Christian church, but a true remnant in all world religions.
Dybdahl told RW in a telephone interview that Adventists are especially suited for such a ministry to Muslims because of similar strict moral codes, dietary regulations and worship patterns. But he adds that evangelicals and other Christian groups have also been involved in this movement. The movement has faced a good deal of criticism and misunderstandings from both sides. Many Muslims and Christians see this as “heresy and syncretism,” Dybdahl says; one reason he refuses to name places and names is that such believers might suffer government repression.
An example of the way doctrinal differences are handled by these believers could be seen in their approach to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. These Muslim-Christian believers would “re-state the doctrine in a way that would stress the oneness rather than the three-ness of God.” Dybdahl adds that the attempt to put Christian belief in a Muslim context is only one example of how some theologians and missionaries are seeking to redraw the boundaries between Christianity and the world religions.
There are similar communities of Christian missionaries working with Hindus and Buddhists to graft belief in Christ within the framework of their faiths.
(On Being, P.O. Box 434, Hawthorn Vic. 3122, Australia; Theology Today, P.O. Box 29, Princeton, NJ 08542; Spectrum, P.O. Box 5330, Tacoma Park, MD 20913)