I think we all recognize that the world has changed over the past fifty years and that these global changes have had an impact on International Missions. The question I want to address with you today is how the NAB is responding to and leading into this emerging world.a
In my mind, there are two primary developments that have taken place over the past few decades that have had a significant impact on the way we participate in international missions. I may be accused of oversimplifying the issues, but I believe there is merit in simplicity if it helps to bring at least an initial clarity to the work before us. We can move into the details later. For now, let’s work on the big picture.
First, the western church—Europe and North America—is now a minority participant in global missions. Researchers tell us that somewhere in the last one hundred years we crossed a line where there were more Christians outside of Europe and North America than there were within these western continents. This is a significant shift. Western Christianity has been the primary expression of Christianity for hundreds of years, and we tend to assume this is still true today. Paul Borthwick writes, “Even though the western world has dominated Christianity for much of Christian history, Christianity is now primarily a non white, non-Western, non-wealthy religion” (Western Christians in Global Mission, p.36). In the global scheme of things, we are now in the minority.
I experience this when I travel to other countries on behalf of the NAB. I keep thinking that we have to find a way to participate with the global church without assuming we are in charge or that our Western way of thinking is necessarily the right way of thinking, or even a good way of thinking. We are now one voice among many, and although our voice is desired and appreciated, it is no longer revered. We have been appropriately humbled.
When you begin to think about this change, you come to realize there are significant implications involved. For the first time in centuries, the majority world church—non-western—is a major participant in sending missionaries. At the same time, the minority world church—western—still holds most of the resources. The NAB has two things the majority church needs: we are rich in finances and we are rich in theological education.
We must continue to invest our resources in NAB missionaries as we contribute to God’s global mission. We are identifying the places that God is opening doors unique to the NAB, and we are seeking NAB missionaries to develop these ministries. But we must also find a way to invest our resources into national missionaries. Most Sunday School teachers or elders in NAB churches have as much theological training as many pastors, church planters, and missionaries I have met in the majority church. We have much to contribute to the global mission, and our partnership with national missionaries will only increase our effectiveness.
This is not a question of which strategy to pursue. It is a question of how to do both. Jesus asked us to pray for workers for the harvest, and God has responded. The non-western church is producing dedicated and gifted missionaries who are laying down their lives in obedience to Christ. We as the NAB family have the resources to equip and send. We have to find a way to act as one global church, both by sending NAB missionaries and by sending NAB resources for national missionaries.
But there is a second major development in recent decades, and that is the growth of short term missions (STMs). Globalization has unleashed the western church to participate in missions anywhere and everywhere we please. We have the money, so we go. This has tremendous potential for good, and I want to speak about that in a moment, but it also has tremendous potential for harm.
I need to be careful here, but I will risk saying that some of this international travel is motivated more by our wealth than God’s mission. Missions-travel is a growth industry in the western world. It has become a specialized niche of the travel industry, much like eco-travel or adventure-travel. I recently had a mission-tourism company contact me seeking to use our NAB relationship with the Cameroon Baptist Convention as a door to expand their market. They were offended that I would challenge the integrity of their “ministry.”
Don’t be fooled. Our western consumer mindset has corrupted even the motivation for missions. No longer are we asked to “lay down our lives” to follow Christ. Marketing has found a way to see the world and serve Jesus too. These “voluntourism” companies appeal to our greed, not God’s mission.
It is interesting to me that currently one of the most common themes among books written in the area of international missions is on the damage we do when we participate in mission-tourism. Titles like When Helping Hurts and Toxic Charity should sound an alarm. We are not always accomplishing what we think we are accomplishing.
Let me affirm once again that the fact the western church has an abundance of resources is a tremendous opportunity. But just because we are traveling and sharing our resources does not make our mission trip a positive contribution. The trick is to find a constructive way to partner with the majority world church, and to design STMs in this partnership context.
This is why Gateway is such an important piece of our NAB global strategy. It is not just about sending teams. It is about equipping teams for constructive participation in global partnerships. Anyone can send a team; not everyone knows how to do this in a way that doesn’t do more harm than good.
We want our NAB churches to be equipped for constructive international partnerships, and we continue to invest in Gateway as a resource to this end. We as the NAB family still have an important role to play in international missions. It is a changing role, but a critical role, and we believe it is our mandate to equip the church to fill that role.