A person does not need to be a news or a tech junky to recognize that our nation is undergoing unprecedented change. This reality permeates just about every aspect of life and society, including the area of Christian missions in North America. There is no doubt that we are in a time of major changes in what the North American missions movement looks like – some even question whether we are seeing the end of North American missions altogether.
While I would not purport to be the expert who knows where exactly things are headed, in my work at The Mission Society, there are some trends I have observed that I think will continue to characterize the future of the North American mission movement.
1. North American Missions Aren’t Dead Yet.
There has been some speculation that the era of missions is over. If not for the whole world, at least for North America. “Why should we send an American over there if it is a lot cheaper for someone local who already knows the culture and language to get the job done?” This statement sounds good at face value, but ironically reflects American pragmatism more than Biblical truth. The nature of the incarnation and the Biblical record itself shows that people will continue to be called and sent. Something profound takes place when someone intentionally connects with a different people and culture for the sake of the kingdom. So the big difference is not that North Americans will not be engaged in missions; it is that missions is truly the whole, global church sending to the whole world – from everywhere to everywhere. Missions is making the shift from being driven from the West to being driven by the global church, but it is not disappearing from North America.
2. North American Missions Will Look More Like Partnerships.
Increasingly, missions from North America will be engaging in partnership with the majority world. North Americans will depend upon brothers and sisters around the world to help find the most effective and appropriate roles in mission. Leadership and initiative will continue to shift to the majority world, with North Americans often in support roles.
3. North American Missions Will Be Bi-vocational.
North American missions is embracing the idea that people can pursue their so-called secular vocations in cross-cultural contexts, living missionally even while holding down a “regular” job. Rather than an engineer or a professor quitting his or her job to become a full-time missionary, he or she may seek that same job in a country with limited gospel impact. This resolves several practical issues, such as visas and finances, as well as missiological issues, such as identity and local perceptions. Many North American mission agencies are not only embracing, but encouraging and recruiting professionals with vocations that make this possible.
4. North American Missions Will Be Diaspora-Attentive.
There are more people living outside of the land of their birth now than ever in world history. The UN estimates the number at nearly 250 million people. And if you add the 750 million internal displacements, for example western China to its eastern cities, it totals more than a billion people. That means one in seven people are not living among the people or culture of their birth. This phenomenon has mission specialists scrambling to understand how this is and will impact missions. I have little doubt that we will see an increase focus on the diaspora peoples in the future of North American missions.
5. North American Missions Will Recognize Leadership of Diaspora Churches.
In the light of the above point, it is important to remember that many in the global diaspora are believers. Some even felt compelled to migrate due to their belief. Some come from nations with strong Christian histories or even where revivals have been ongoing. People from these groups who find themselves on North American soil now become part of the North American missions movement. Clearly, these new neighbors will have an increasing role in the future of missions from this continent, both at home and abroad.
6. North American Missions Will Recognize the Home Front.
The lines between “foreign mission” and “home mission” have been blurring over recent years, and will continue to do so in the future. There will be an increase in missions focus within North America – both as outreach to some of the groups who have immigrated from lands where the gospel has had limited impact, and as outreach to the post-Christian generations which comprise an increasing percentage of the population in North America. The future of North American missions will depend on its effectiveness in connecting with cultures within its own lands.
7. North American Missions Will Be Centered on the Local Church.
Although I must confess to having less of a handle on this, it is clear for several years that local churches desire hands-on involvement in missions. That has mostly taken the form of short-term mission trips for members, but years of experience and writings about the issues of unhealthy dependency and disempowerment have led many churches to a healthy re-evaluation. As this occurs, it is possible that more local churches will engage in missions at a more sustainable, multi-faceted level as part of the North American mission movement, rather than either being spectators relegated to the sideline, or limited to short-term experiences with questionable impact. The above-mentioned phenomenon of diaspora also has presented an amazing opportunity for churches in North American to engage cross-culturally, strategically, and locally.
8. North American Missions Will Be Holy Spirit Directed.
Thankfully, this never changes! The Holy Spirit kicked off the mission movement of the early church and has been in the driver’s seat ever since. The contexts and the players have changed many times over the centuries, but the Spirit continues to see to it that the message is spread. For North American missions to have a future as a movement, we must continually recommit ourselves to the guidance of God’s Spirit, His power, and His unity.