One of the crucial issues facing many North American church leaders today is to
understand the scope and focus of mission. When thinking about mission, too many church leaders still think in terms of some Christian activity that takes place either across town, or in another state, or overseas. The totality of mission activity for many congregations is the youth mission trip or the group of people who go to some faraway place and spend a week or two helping less fortunate people. At worst, the church somehow considers the adult choir trip to Europe as mission activity.
However, over the past fifty years the scope of mission has changed dramatically. It has narrowed, widened, and become much more complex. Here’s what I mean.
The Results of the Last Fifty Years
On the one hand, the scope of our mission has narrowed from the world to North America.
Today, only 30 percent of the missionaries being sent out are from the U.S. In fact, Africa, Latin America, and Korea send out the most missionaries—most of them to the U.S. North America is now one of the least Christian areas in the world. Every day the gap between Christian and non-Christian grows. During the final five years of the 1990s, Christianity grew between 7 and 8 percent worldwide, compared to only 1 percent between 1965 and 1985. Currently 165,000 people are for the first time claiming Christ every day around the world. At the current rate, within just a few years one-half of the world will be Christian. That’s almost four billion people! Yet in North America, Christianity continues to decline in actual numbers and percentage of the population.
On the other hand, with the emergence of the World Wide Web, the scope of our mission has widened to still include the world. Church leaders need to realize that the Internet is not about technology; it is about the Great Commission. The Internet makes possible new forms of outreach, evangelism, and disciple making. Never has it been easier and cheaper to get the message out to the world. With a simple website, congregations can share their story with people around the world. North American churches have so many print resources unavailable in many parts of the world. The ability to download material inexpensively has become a major source of missionary activity throughout the world. One-fifth of the hits on our website are from Third World countries.
Now, add complexity to the narrowing and widening of our mission, and you have entered the postmodern world. “Complexity” means all of the shifts taking place that are literally rewiring the hearts and minds of North Americans. So much has changed the last fifty years that the very rules by which the game of life is played are undergoing profound change. Consider the following key shifts during the past fifty years.
Propositional Truth Embodied Truth
Print culture Digital culture
Linear worldview Mosaic worldviews
Credentialed professions Gifted and authentic individuals
Incremental change Total discontinuity
G.I. Generation Generation Y
Europe The East
We now live in a world where . . .
belonging to a community precedes belief in Christ,
the ability to use a mouse is more important than how fast one can read,
people seldom have just one worldview but prefer a mosaic of worldviews,
gifted and authentic individuals are preferred to credentialed professionals,
slow, incremental change has warped through exponential change to total
people under twenty, more than people over forty, are determining the future,
boats no longer come to North America from Europe, but from the East,
Christianity is viewed as merely one cult among many recognized cults (notice I
won’t even use the word religion),
most of the world’s population now lives in the city,
people put more emphasis on relationships than property.
The result of these shifts is that North Americans now live in a world defined by polytheism and biblical illiteracy. More and more people believe in spiritualism, astrology, reincarnation, fortune-telling, and psychic “900” phone lines. Therefore, it is no longer much use to talk solely about God. Now, we must speak of the God of Jesus Christ. The problem here is that much of established, mainstream Christianity is uncomfortable talking about Jesus Christ for fear of appearing exclusive or judgmental. They will have to get over this fear or they will not do well in the new world. We must once again talk about the God of Jesus Christ—just as those before us, when surrounded by polytheism, talked about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The mission becomes more complicated when we consider the biblical illiteracy of the vast majority of North Americans. Forty-one percent of the adults who attend Christian church services in a typical week say they have not embraced Jesus Christ as their Savior. Every study recently has shown that the religious beliefs of people who attend church from childhood are no different than those of people who do not attend. Across the board, churched and unchurched, fewer people under the age of thirty-five have any biblical foundations. We have a formidable task before us.
The Implications for North American Mission
Leadership Training. Our number-one issue is developing a new form of seminary training and credentialing that will result in spiritual leaders who are gifted, authentic, called, and seriously committed to Jesus. Our present seminaries have demonstrated not only that they can’t turn out this kind of leader in the quantities needed today, but they don’t want to do so. Those that have some inclination to do so are hamstrung by their fear of losing their academic credentials.
Therefore, some alternate form of leadership training must be developed. I think it will resemble some form of on-the-job seminary training at a distance that requires “Credentials of Demonstration” instead of academic credentials. By “Credentials of Demonstration” I mean that before being ordained to any form of Christian mission, people must demonstrate pastoral or apostolic activity. Such a requirement shifts the emphasis from training theologians to developing practitioners. This shift could also mean that bi-vocational pastors may emerge once again as one of the mainstays of our mission. We have ample examples of such leadership training and practice in the early Church.
Backyard Mission. We must help our people to see that our primary mission field is in our backyards. They may know this in their head, but few know it in their hearts. We must assist our people to learn the importance of being ambassadors for Christ with their friends, relatives, associates, and neighbors. We must cease electing people to just sit on committees and instead commission them to go out into the world. We must also do away with our mission committees and in their place begin to see our church as mission.
Embrace Current Technology. For the first time in human history, a whole new
community of faith—the cyber community—is emerging today that offers a more solid community than do most of our existing congregations. If you are following it, you know that for the moment at least, this digital community is emotional, virtual, holographic, decentralized, empowered, one-to-one, borderless, bottom-up, global/local, and egalitarian. Do not make the mistake of thinking that community online is impossible. Case in point: A young couple had been trying to conceive for a long time and finally had succeeded. After six months of carrying the baby, the mother miscarried.
No one from their church came to see them. The young man, who had been in one of our online communities for two years, told the cyber community about the tragedy. The next day someone from over 500 miles away showed up on his doorstep! Now I ask you, which had the best community: the church family that did not care enough to visit, or the online community that cared enough to show up from so far away?
Focus on the City. This means two things: planting churches where the people are and focusing on penetrating the city rather than building churches. (For those people in dying congregations who think we have too many churches today, at the turn of the century in the U.S. there was a church for every 500 people, whereas today there is one for every 2,000 people).
From my travels, I estimate that as many as 80 percent of U.S. churches (an even higher percentage in Canada) are located in sparsely populated areas instead of in the urban areas where the vast majority of people live today. We must change that by planting churches in the urban areas of dense population (to do this we must have more effective pastors). We must do this even if it means closing many of our less strategic locations, and we must not allow the idolatry of place to get in our way.
In addition, we must focus on penetrating urban life and reaching city dwellers. The first century Christians knew how to do this. The Celts knew how to do this during the Roman Empire.
John Wesley also showed us how. All of them penetrated the urban centers by establishing multiple numbers of gathering places throughout the cities, i.e., more congregations. The only way we can ever achieve this is by focusing on fulfilling the Great Commission rather than focusing merely on planting churches. This means we need more leaders who think and function like apostles than like pastors.
The Hope of Christian Mission
Times of great change require people willing to make great sacrifices without sacrificing any of the fundamentals of their faith. Some of us will put mission before personal likes and opinions and may have an opportunity to contribute to God’s movement in the world. Others will insist on holding tightly to their sacred cows and personal opinions, thus destroying everything they touch. Such is the burden of a time like ours.
Never has it been easier and cheaper to get Christ’s message out to the world. Our primary mission field is in our backyards.