Author: Sam George
The era of Christian Mission, as we have known it, is over! What I mean is mission from ‘West to the Rest’ is a thing of the past. We are living through a new era in missions – everywhere to everywhere. It does not mean western church is no more involved in mission, but rest of the world has caught up with similar global vision and is involved widely than ever. I do believe West will still play a crucial role, but its dominance is the global missionary enterprise has dwindled significantly. This in itself should not be news to anyone who has been following the writings of mission scholars like Andrew Walls, Philip Jenkins, Lamen Sanneh, David Barrett, Samuel Escobar, Mark Knoll, Robert Schrieter, Bill Taylor, Miriam Adeney, Todd Johnson and others.
We are living in a different world than one we all were born into. The cataclysmic changes are taking place all around us every day. The new connected borderless world has lowered trade and political barriers, and the exponential technical advances of the digital revolution have made it possible to do business, or almost anything else, instantaneously with billions of other people across the planet. These unprecedented levels of interactions between people and cultures, movement of ideas, images and information, transfer of goods and capital etc. have accelerated change in recent years what our forefather would have seen over many generations. In this era of rapid changes, there are far reaching repercussions on how missions happen worldwide. One of the exciting change is that many countries that were once the destination for western missionaries are now sending nations.
Look around. At the dawn of twenty first century, more than two of every three Christians live outside of the West, compared to less than five percent two centuries ago. The fastest growing church network in the United States is Hispanic. Some of the largest churches in Europe are led by Africans. A Nigeria-based church has 5000 parishes in 80 countries. Korean missionaries are everywhere from Argentina to Zimbabwe; in fact, South Korea alone sends out as many new missionaries each year as all Western nations combined. Chinese missionaries from the underground churches are going overseas in large numbers. Indians have one of the largest cross-cultural missionary forces in the world, now increasingly turning abroad. Haitian missionaries are in Toronto and Indo-Fijian in New York. Filipino women have gone to Muslim countries and Brazilians are in Japan and Australia. A Mexican church planter is in Germany and an African pastors the largest church in Europe (in Kiev, Ukraine). This is a different day in the world of missions!
Diaspora: A Hidden Link
How does Christians in every nation catch a global vision? Of course, from the Biblical mandate of missions and through Christians who have had a global impact. But how does a non-Western mission agency expand its work around the world? It could begin with reaching people in neighboring nations. Other way would be to serve with existing global Christian networks and organizations established by the Western Christians. But the most strategic and furthest reach is possible through its own global Diaspora.
Diaspora is one of the missing links for the global church of Jesus Christ to be involved in mission globally. The scattered people become conduits through which missionary passion flow into old heartlands of Christianity and they create new frontiers of cross-cultural diffusion of their faith. Even as every missionary is a migrant, every migrant can be a potential missionary. One of the remarkable features of scattered people is that they establish worshipping groups in host nations, even in closed countries as well as ‘Christian’ West. The evangelistic passion of ethnic churches soon begin to flow out to natives in the land even as their own children assimilate prevailing cultures and develop new faith expressions.
Diaspora networks hold a strategic nerve center for missionary influence to flow from everywhere to everywhere. Like the Jews in the early Christianity, the contemporary Diasporas are building network civilizations - an archipelago of nodes linked together by shared cultural space and aided by technology and modern transportation. Much akin to expansion of early Christianity through scattered Jews and gentiles, gospel is making fresh inroad among and through today’s migrants and diffusing cross-culturally around the world. Just as the first century cross-cultural missionaries were Hellenistic Jews, the migrant bicultural Christians who are at home two world cultures, will have profound impact on today’s missions.
Amidst the socio-cultural disruption of cataclysmic proportion as a result of migration, they cling to their faith and family ever so tightly to weather these challenges. The uprooting and alienation deepens our innate need for self concept (identity) and a sense of belonging (community). Immigrants are religious – by all accounts more religious than they were before they left home, because religion is one of the most important identity markers that help them preserve individual awareness and cohesion in a group. The migration experience itself has profound ways to transform one’s spiritual quest and intensify soul search for ultimate home and truth.
The geographic dislocation of Diasporas becomes a seedbed for fresh critical reflection on some of the assumptions upon which we build our lives upon like identity, community, faith, purpose, meaning, family, destiny etc. The biblical narratives and the contemporary global migrations abound with stories of tragedies and triumphs, of annihilations and redemption that forces them to seek and engage with God and others in a whole new way. These experiences are potent places for finding their identity beyond passports and community beyond languages and to translate their faith into new contexts leading to advancement of the Kingdom.
The Holy Spirit seems to be at work especially in the periphery of the world giving Christians a vision and mobilizing them for local and global mission in spite of poverty, lack of experience and training. The post-Christendom approach to mission, where faith is professed from the position of weakness rather than through the sword, is making surprising breakthroughs in Christian expansion. While Britain and the USA became major mission force because of their wealth and prestige, Asia, Africa and Latin America is becoming a major mission force because of its poverty, weakness and sufferings. Migrant Christians operate out of a sense of minority, without power, clout, resource or triumphal spirit. They are highly motivated and determined to succeed in the new land also extends to spiritual experience. They establish immigrant churches and most actively engage in reaching fellow immigrants, other ethnics and eventually people in the host nations.
Challenges of New Missions Paradigm: Multiple and Varied
The new paradigm of everywhere to everywhere is yet to be working smoothly. Not everything is in its place. Multinational teams do not work well easily. On one hand, the Westerners experience a loss of power and out of control as they are no more in charge, while on the other hand the non-Westerners are not well connected or resourced. Theologies and spiritualities differ. The innate disparities of communication styles, approaches, ethnocentrism, humor, lifestyles etc create lot of challenges on a daily basis. A multiethnic congregation with multinational leadership team involved in multiple contexts creates enormous complexities. The provincialism that creates barriers between the different ecclesiastical traditions and myriad of understanding of the Gospel is source of incessant confusion. In order to fulfill the Great Commission it is time for the Christians everywhere to learn afresh from each other and join hands to a new level of mutual understanding and partnerships. This new paradigm will call for humble servanthood and coming under the leadership of Christ and the missional mandate.
Here are some questions to ponder: As the result of growth of Non-Western Christianity and widespread migration out of these new centers of Christianity, will Christian faith recede in future much like what happened in Europe? How will we accommodate this new expansion without losing existing ground? As other faiths establish global presence through their own Diasporas and become more evangelistic, what impact will multidirectional religious influence have on a local church? What will multiple center of gravity of Christianity come to mean for global Christian expansion in 21st century?
Diaspora naturally extends missional involvement of all nations as all migrants are potential missionaries. They cause cross-cultural diffusion and sometimes even unknowingly play a catalytic role in Christian expansion. The renewal of Christian West will rest on the non-Western Christianity and the scattered people have potential to significantly affect demographical contours of faith adherence and the future of the missionary task. The development of Diaspora network is strategic for Christian in every nation to become a sending nation and missional flow from everywhere to everywhere.
Note: An expanded version of this article will be published in the American Society of Missiology journal Missiology later in 2010 (http://www.asmweb.org/missiology.htm)