Church: World Observations

Should the West Be Sending Missionaries? History

This is the first of what is planned to be a three part mini-series. Before any of my colleagues get upset, I do believe that the West should continue to send out missionaries to the rest of the world, but asking hard questions is a good way of making us face up to some issues that we might otherwise ignore.

Though it only merits a footnote in many history books, one of the most important phenomena of the last two hundred years is the protestant missionary movement. Through the work of missionaries, mainly drawn from Europe and the United States, the Christian faith has grown into a world-wide movement. However, at the same time as Christianity has grown exponentially in the Southern continents it has also experienced a decline in its traditional home. You can read more about this in an essay I wrote here.

In 1800, well over 90% of Christians lived in Europe and North America, whereas in 1990 over 60% lived in Africa, South America, Asia and the Pacific, with that proportion increasing each year.

Andrew Walls describes this as a shift in the centre of gravity of the church from the North and West to the Southern continents. Walls argues that this sort of shift has happened on more than one occasion in church history. New life has sprung up on the margins of the Church, while the centre has declined.

What happened in each case was decay in the heartland that appeared to be at the center of the faith. At the same time, through the missionary effort, Christianity moved to or beyond the periphery, and established a new center. When the Jerusalem church was scattered to the winds, Hellenistic Christianity arose as a result of the mission to the gentiles. And when Hellenistic society collapsed, the faith was seized by the barbarians of northern and western Europe. By the time Christianity was receding in Europe, the churches of Africa, Asia and Latin America were coming into their own. The movement of Christianity is one of serial, not progressive, expansion. (Full article here.)

The upshot of this is that, contrary to popular thinking, the West is no longer the centre of the Christian faith, Africa, Asia and Latin America are. We in Europe, in particular, now live on the margins of the Christian world (a fact captured by Rombo in this comment). The notion that Europe is a Christian land and that the rest of the world is a ‘mission field’ is one that we need to ditch completely as being totally unrepresentative of the world we live in.

If this is the case, is it realistic that the countries at the margins of Christianity should be sending missionaries to parts of the world with larger and more vibrant Christian communities? We have to ask the question. It is not unusual to hear people say that they have a vision of Britain becoming a great missionary sending nation once more, but is such a vision appropriate in a day and age when the Church has gone through such a profound shift?

Of course one reason that we continue to send missionaries from this part of the world is that we have agencies which are created to do just that. There are hundreds of mission agencies of all shapes and sizes recruiting people and sending them off around the world in a pattern that is hundreds of years old. It seems to me, that agencies need to rethink their purpose. If they exist simply to recruit and support missionaries, then they will continue to do so, even if that is no longer appropriate for them. However, if they re-imagine their purpose as being to support the work that God is doing in their particular sphere of interest – whatever that means – then they will have a reason to continue to function. That may involve recruiting missionaries, or it may involve something entirely different; who knows?

It seems to me that the way in which Wycliffe is evolving into a global network gives a picture of the way in which mission agencies need to be developing at this time in history.

As I end this article, let me reiterate, that I do believe that their is still a role for Western Missionaries, but I also believe that this role has to take into account the changing picture of world Christianity. Business as usual is not a valid option.

This post is more than a year old. It is quite possible that any links to other websites, pictures or media content will no longer be valid. Things change on the web and it is impossible for us to keep up to date with everything.

7 replies on “Should the West Be Sending Missionaries? History”

Philip Jenkins, in his book “The Next Christendom” talks about the global shift of Christianity, just like many Church-historians do. He skillfully described the shift of Christianity’s center from the Northern hemisphere to the Southern hemisphere. But he also came up with a very interesting missiological statement which I do not dare to call a theory (yet) at this point: “from anywhere to everywhere.”

Looking at the statistical projections he made in that same book, I can fully agree with you that yes, the center of Christianity has shifted down South, but since missions is now “from anywhere to everywhere,” the West should not stop to send missionaries: are Western missionaries only meant to have a vertical direction and only go South? Why not redefining the direction and make some horizontal moves: from the West into (within) the West?

Thanks for the comment Serge – good to have you visiting!

The concept of from everywhere to everywhere doesn’t originate with Jenkins: it goes back much further than him. But you are anticipating the last post in the series 🙂

Should the West be sending missionaries?
It’s a question that has been asked many times before and I’m tired of hearing the suggestion that we shouldn’t.
In 1792 William Carey published “An Inquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use means for the Conversion of the Heathen” (the subtitle was even longer). He was shouted down as an ‘enthusiast’, by people who assumed that if God wanted to reach the lost he’d do it without our help.
In 1982, Keith Green, wrote ‘Why YOU should go to the mission field’, sang a few powerful songs and stated that although not everyone was called to go, 99.99% probably were, it’s just that most would ignore the call.

I believe the church should be sending missionaries, and that includes the churches of the West, North, South, East and everywhere in between.
But when the westerners go they’d better be preaching Christianity not Westianity. Let’s celebrate the growth of the church worldwide, and let’s continue to be an active part of it. Lets go with a high level of confidence in our call, and a good dose of humility that stops assuming we need to be the ones in charge and keeps us listening to God and the people we work alongside.

🙂 Looking forward to reading the next series then… 🙂 Thanks for raising this always-thought-provoking issue…

Good stuff, Eddie. You know I’ve struggled with being called a missionary. I’ve even questioned why my sending organization calls us missionaries. Part of it is what donors expect. My supporters believe in what I’m doing because they believe it in some way fits into the Great Commission. Culturally I believe it is a part of who we are in the West. It’s what Saundra Schimmelpfennig calls “Whites In Shining Armor.”

Keep ’em coming. I look forward to reading more.

Should the west be sending misionaries?
This seems to assume that the WEST is only sending missionaries from the WEST. Given the wealth distribution in the world, we can send missionaries from the west and the west can support and send missionaries from any of the countries in the center of the Christian Faith or for that matter from the 10/40 window. I would be considered in the lower middle class here in the US but even with what is considered here as a small income I could easily be the sole support of 3 missionary families in Asia. The problem is getting people involved in missions, exposing them to God’s heart for the world so that the Spirit can stir their compassion towards the lost and see them as God sees them. If God would work this miracle in the church thru the HS we would be sending missionaries to other countries, from other countries, and from our own churches into our communities just as we are commissioned to do.

I agree with the latter part of your comment, Bill, but I have some reservations about your first part. Yes, it is true that Westerners can fund missionaries from other parts of the world – I don’t quibble with that. However, we cannot equate this with ‘sending’ people. Paying for them, is not the same as being their spiritual home and support – indigenous missionaries still need ‘sending churches’ even if their funding does not come from their home context.

I also struggle with the concept that we should sponsor majority world missionaries because they cost less to sponsor than Western Missionaries. The assumption that we can pay some people less to do the same job doesn’t strike me as being entirely fair and I’m not sure that the idea of ‘doing mission on the cheap’ is a particularly God honouring one. After all, he paid a huge price! I also have huge questions about the sustainability of a mission model which relies heavily on outside funds. I’ve blogged extensively about the issue of missionaries creating dependencies: this is not something that we can simply ignore. Western funding has caused huge damage to the church in some places.

That being said, it is true that we who are rich have a huge responsibility to help those who are poor. However, the simple idea that Western money is a solution to the problem is as fraught with difficulty as the idea that Western people are the answer to the problem.

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