Now facing its third millennium, the Christian church faces a moment of great historical importance and opportunity. The modern missionary movement is now over two centuries old. Looking back over those years, it is clear that God mobilized his people to make great strides in taking the gospel to many parts of the world.
This missionary movement has seen the evangelization of millions of persons representing thousands of ethnic and cultural groups. The Bible has been translated into hundreds of languages and dialects. Over the past several decades, the International Mission Board spread into new areas of the world that have shown a remarkable response to the gospel. In fact, the last half of the twentieth century saw an enormous evangelistic response throughout the Pacific Rim and the African continent.
Today we face new challenges. Without exaggeration, we can point to the twenty-first century as a new era in Christian missions and recognize it as a vast new opportunity.
Looking at Christian missions today, we may be seeing the birth of a new missiological movement. This new era in missions will build upon the accomplishments of the past two hundred years, but it must also be adapted to the new realities of our world context.
New Vision for World Missions
The new vision for world missions is directed to reaching people groups rather than nations.
Under the leadership of the IMB, modern missionary strategy now recognizes that there are thousands of distinct peoples, each identifiable by culture, language, and social structure—and they are not always divided neatly by political boundaries. Each of these peoples represents a distinct missiological challenge, and each must be considered in its own right.
This should bring a new humility as well as growing urgency to the church. So long as we were able to count nation-states in terms of missionary saturation, we could see a tremendous advance and what seemed to be a constant march of progress.
When peoples are taken into consideration, however, we can clearly see that the greater challenge still lies before us. This means that the Christian church must develop cultural understanding and sensitivity, as well as linguistic and cultural dexterity, in the task of preaching the gospel to unreached persons.
“Looking at Christian missions today, we may be seeing the birth of a new missiological movement.”
This new vision for world missions is also remarkable in the fact that much, if not most, of the energy is coming from grassroots Christians rather than from institutional structures. Perhaps the greatest missionary advance among American churches is seen in the widespread participation of Christian laypersons in missionary trips and short-term mission projects that are part of longer-term partnerships between supporting churches and missionaries on the field
Indeed, the IMB has aided this surge in lay participation by partnering with short-term teams, exposing many Christians to the work of the gospel being done around the world. Churches that encourage and support this hands-on approach to missions will bear testimony to the powerful impact it has upon life of the church, the participants themselves, and upon the missionary commitment of the entire congregation.
Today’s Christians are looking for an experiential participation in the missionary challenge. They draw great excitement in hearing from missionaries, but an even greater commitment by being participants in the missionary movement themselves.
Because of this, the new vision is also congregational in its focus. Individual congregations are taking up the missionary challenge and measuring their own faithfulness by the number of missionaries sent around the world from among their own members.
Much of this new vision is flowing out of reports from the 10/40 window—that portion of the world between latitudes 10 and 40 degrees, where most of the world’s unreached peoples live. This focus on the Great Commission has led to a mobilization mentality that holds great promise for the future of the Christian church.
New Generation of Christian Missions
One missionary leader has defined this mobilization as “all of God’s people reaching all the peoples of the earth.” That motto sets the issue clearly. This generation must be committed to seeing all of God’s people together reaching all the peoples of the earth without regard to race, culture, economic reality, or geographical or political obstacles.
This generation demonstrates a readiness to take on new challenges and to go where no previous generation has yet taken the gospel. They have been born into a culturally diverse world, and they are gifted with skills in intercultural communication. They are impatient with the cultural isolationism of previous generations. They see no political boundaries to the gospel. They are ready to cross political borders and see no limitations on the Great Commission.
Where previous generations wanted to support missions, this generation is determined to do missions. Incubated in an experience-driven culture, these young Christians are not interested in missions by proxy.
“Where previous generations wanted to support missions, this generation is determined to do missions.”
This new generation holds great promise, but it also demands urgent attention. The church needs to mobilize the energy of these younger Christians and deploy their gifts in cultural translation and adaptation. We must continue to find new and innovative ways of taking the gospel into the hardest places in the world.
Regrettably, this generation has inherited a dwindling deposit of doctrinal and theological understanding. Our churches and seminaries must quickly be about the business of grounding this generation in biblical truth, even as they are mobilizing for world missions.
Our vision for world evangelization is an important barometer of spiritual and theological health. A vibrant commitment to Christ leads to a passion for the gospel. A grand embrace of God’s truth produces an enthusiasm to see God glorified as his name is proclaimed to the nations.
It is time for a new generation to lead—and to point the way.