Mission agencies have a bit of a problem; the world has changed massively and they are struggling to react to the demographics changes that have happened in the church over the last hundred or so years. I’ve written about the crisis facing agencies a number of times – here would be a good place to start, but let me just illustrate this with a quote from David Smith that I’ve used more than once (for example, here):
“What is clear by now is that both the concept of mission as a one-way movement from Christendom to the un-evangelised world, and the structures devised at the close of the eighteenth century to facilitate that movement, have been overtaken by a historical developments that render them increasingly irrelevant and redundant.” (Mission After Christendom p.116)
In this new situation, many mission agencies are looking around to find new opportunities and ways of working. A cynic might say that they are looking to justify their continuing existence in a world in which they are increasing irrelevant. One approach adopted by an increasing number of agencies is to promote mission from their former “mission field” to the UK (and other former “sending” countries). Personally, I’m not convinced that this is a good approach, let me explain why.
Firstly, I think that in a changing world, mission agencies are going to need to be really creative in thinking through their raison d’être in the future. They will need to think theologically, with input from Christians from all over the world in order to develop a new paradigm for mission. Simply sending missionaries from one place to another (albeit in the reverse direction) is just doing what they’ve always done. There will be some particular organisational and financial challenges, but basically this sort of approach is leaving agencies in their comfort zone and does not, in my opinion, show the sort of radical thinking that is needed if agencies are to survive.
Secondly, while I am absolutely convinced that the church in the UK is in need of infusion from Christians from around the world (immigrants, refugees and, yes, missionaries), I am not convinced that the existing Western agencies with their established practices and protocols are the right vehicle for this. If, indeed, mission agencies are needed to help the flow of missionaries to the UK (and I am not convinced that they are), they should be indigenous African, Latin and Asian agencies, not Western ones that come with a lot of historic baggage. The role of agencies from the West should be to encourage and foster (but NOT control or finance) emerging mission movements in the developing world, allowing them to shape their own ministry and to (hopefully) develop a better relationship with the church in their home countries than most agencies have managed in the UK.
The future for mission around the world will not consist of old, familiar, structures doing the same thing they’ve always done, but with a bit of a twist. I don’t know what it will look like – but it won’t look like what we’ve got today.
Before anyone gets upset; this post is not aimed at any mission agency in particular – but at all of them in general!