The phrase “paradigm shift” has become rather commonplace, so before applying it to global missions, I want to make sure we are operating from the same understanding. A paradigm shift occurs when, over time, a given context or set of assumptions has changed so dramatically that the resulting structures and approaches have to be radically rethought. The former way of thinking and doing no longer makes sense in the new climate, so new paradigms are required. For a Biblical example of this concept, consider Jesus’ teaching on new wineskins.
While God Himself and His mission are unchanging, the context for that mission has changed dramatically in recent decades, to the point that the paradigms for how mission is done are undergoing changes. What has happened in the global context of missions that is requiring God’s church to seek the Lord for new paradigms?
Shifts in Context or Assumptions
1. The center of gravity of Christianity has shifted from the West to the Global South. Although it is important to note that Christianity never has truly been a “western religion,” its influence was primarily in Europe and subsequently the Americas for much of its history. But that has changed dramatically over recent decades, to the point that the majority of Christians are not in western countries. In fact, according to the Pew Forum, the “average” Christian would be a young, Nigerian woman.
2. Many nations are involved in the sending of missionaries. Again, with the shift of the makeup of global Christianity, the missions movement itself has shifted so that tens of thousands of missionaries are being sent from non-Western nations.
3. The global population is becoming increasingly urban. Over half the world’s population now lives in cities, and this urbanization continues to increase. Yet, often when we picture mission work, the image that comes to mind is rural and tribal in nature. While that context still exists, it will increasingly become the exception.
4. The world population is more connected than ever before. Internet and cell technology continue to increase their impact on a significant percentage of the world population and accelerate the trend toward globalization.
5. Unprecedented global migration has resulted in the scattering of people across the globe. The UN estimates 230 million people live outside of their countries of origin. Enormous populations of people groups (global diaspora) can often be found far away from their original home country.
While there are several other trends, these alone are sufficient to necessitate a complete rethinking of what missions involves and how we go about it. The dust has not yet settled and the shifts are in process, so we cannot conclusively state what the new paradigms will be.
Things the Church Will Need to Address
1. Mission strategies need to take into account the complexities of the global city. They need to consider how the faith can be lived out in these multicultural, globalized settings.
2. Mission strategies and structures need to reflect the global nature of the church. Groups need to partner together in ways that navigate the challenges presented by historical patterns of power and a disparate availability of resources.
3. Local churches need to see themselves as centers of mission rather than seeing missions as something to be “outsourced” and to only occur in faraway places. In the light of global migration, local churches often can have an important role to play in cross-cultural mission within their own geographic areas. Mission agencies need to consider ways they can equip and assist local churches rather than seeing local churches simply as resources of people and funds.
4. The church needs to learn to share the gospel anywhere. With global migration as well as the increased mobility of people in general, we need to develop innovative ways of helping people have a missionary mindset wherever they find themselves.
5. Missions can no longer be the job of a small percentage of “specialists.” It needs to become the mindset of all believers, whether they are in a local church where their family has been for generations, whether they are part of the global diaspora, or whether they find a way to apply their vocation in a place where the gospel has had limited impact. Mission agencies need to see their role as facilitating all of these mission settings.
It is certainly a confusing, yet exciting time in global missions as we are in the midst of these shifting paradigms. We need to pray for unity of the church and for discernment as we join our Lord in His mission of reconciliation and redemption, so that all the world would know Him!
Image attribution: Jezperklauzen / Thinkstock