Wrestling with Onesimus 1: Changes

Yesterday, I highlighted a post from Onesimus Redivivus entitled, When Missions Becomes Toxic; or, Um, They Don’t Need Us Anymore. As the title suggests, this is makes challenging reading for anyone in the missionary business and I hope to work through some of the issues that it raises, in the near future.

Let me kick off by saying that while I agree with a lot of what Onesimus says, I disagree with his conclusion that the majority world Church no longer needs missionaries from the West. I agree, that business as usual should not be an option, but the rest of the world needs the West and, crucially, the West needs the rest of the world. However, it’s going to take a few posts before I get there. For now, I’d just like to look briefly at the issue of ‘change’ which Onesimus mentions more or less in passing.

When I first came as a short-termer to Kenya thirty years ago this summer, there was no telephone in the community where I lived.  It took two weeks for a letter to my mother to reach home, and another two weeks for her reply to catch up with me.  Tonight, I will probably video skype via wireless internet from our back patio from our suburb of Nairobi with my daughters who are in their end-of-year exams at university in Virginia.  Thirty years ago, international travel was exotic and rare.  This past year, various family emergencies have meant that I have traveled back and forth between Kenya and the US three different times.  When we lived in Ethiopia, it was possible to have an early breakfast in Addis Ababa, Lunch in London and a late dinner in Washington, DC, all in the same day.

It is very true that communications have changed dramatically. We once had to drive 450km to make a five minute international telephone call when we lived in Gouabafla. These days, there is good cell-phone reception in the village. Some of my colleagues are such inveterate users of FaceBook, that I know more about what they are doing and thinking on a day to day basis half way round the world, than I do about others who live within a few miles of me.

However, some of these changes are pointing to new ways forward for mission. Skype, which allows Onesimus to talk to his daughters at home in the US, also allows Bible translation consultants in the UK to work with teams across the world, without actually leaving their office. This doesn’t touch the central theme of Onesimus’ piece, but it does illustrate that there are new ways of conceptualising the nature of missionary work.

Used to be us Western missionaries came out for life.  Now ‘long term’ averages about eight years, with the majority of people coming for ‘short-term’ assignments from two years to two weeks.

Here, Onesimus highlights a key change. It is simply not possible to learn enough about a language or culture to build solid relationships in a new culture in just a couple of years. There is undoubtedly a place for short term mission work, but there are some serious downsides, too (here are some posts which touch on the subject).

Though Onesimus touches on some interesting aspects of change in the mission world, it seems to me that he has actually ignored the most important one, the shift in the centre of gravity of the church. I’ve written an essay on this subject which you can find here.

The different experiences of the Church in the West and elsewhere have led to a change in the profile of Christians around the world. 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.

This is the single most important issue when considering the future of missionary work. Simply put, the majority of Christians in the world now live in what we once called mission fields. It is ludicrous today to think of Nairobi or Accra as pagan cities and London or Las Vegas as Christian ones. Our notion of mission, the mission field and missionary work needs to be turned upside down. Onesimus catches a part of this when he says:

The Christian world has moved along, and our multi-billion dollar ‘Christian’ media and music and publishing and conference and education industries, um, ‘ministries’ are all busy generating the sorts of things that they have always generated, but with less and less relevance to the rest of the world.

However, I don’t think he goes far enough. A numerical shift has happened and the church in the West is no longer in the majority, and now a slow shift in leadership, influence and authority is taking place. It is increasingly the churches of the South and East who are providing leadership to the world mission movement and who are setting the agenda for the future of the Church. We aren’t there, yet, but change is under way.

This shift will have a profound effect on the future of the world mission movement. At first glance, it might seem to support Onesimus’ conclusions. However, I think things are more nuanced than that. More in a later post…

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