Urbana.org spoke with author of the first six editions of Operation World and The Future of the Global Church about the place of North Americans in missions, trends in missions that will affect the next generation of missions workers, and the role Urbana should play.
What does Urbana mean to the future of the global Church?
I’m envious as a Brit, because we have not had a significant conference of students or anyone for missions in Britain since World War II that is national and impactful such as you’ve had with Urbana. I just look at the number of people who’ve passed through the Urbana network and experience and are now on the mission field, and I praise God for that.
What are North American college students contributing to the global Church?
One of my concerns, I think, is that so much of the short-term mentality has crept in. People seem to think that this is all that is needed today in missions. Are we communicating a message that involvement for a time means that you’ve done your bit and now you can go and make your pile and get comfortable?
Basically, my concern is that as we look at the future and reaching the least reached or least evangelized people on earth, we’re going to have to also have those who are prepared to do the extreme and take time. I’m very interested to see how the millennial generation rises to the term extreme. I think we need to offer an extreme challenge and I think people will rise to it.
"I think we need to offer an extreme challenge and I think people will rise to it."
The job will have to go on until Jesus returns. But the whole way it’s done, as I see it in the 21st century, is going to have to be a partnership of equals involving nations—Africans, Latin Americans—and not with a subconscious paternalism that often has been there when people go overseas.
I would like to challenge you to show the cost of really getting the gospel to the least evangelized peoples. It is going to be costly. I work with a mission agency, WEC International, and we’ve lost ten people to martyrdom in the last 18 months or two years. So it’s very real. It’s a very harsh reality that the world of the 21st century is not going to be friendly to those who communicate the gospel. But we must still go.
How can short-term missions without long-term discipleship plans be detrimental? Even our whole societies look at mission work as such as archaic, of the past. But that’s not the Bible picture…There’s a job still to be done, but the way we do it may have to change.
I would like to see far more in good orientation before people go, preparing them for the culture to which they are going, helping them to understand the importance of what God is doing in that country and to respect what God is doing. If people don’t have that understanding they can go overseas or go to Mexico or something and actually cause offense by the way they behave.
"And people coming home, not able to share, unburden and process what they’ve seen can actually be counter-productive..."
And so there needs to be both a pre-orientation and reorientation to make that overseas period of more value and actually be productive in incorporating that experience into the ministry of local churches. And out of that, longer-term workers come who have a passion to do something because they understand what it’s like and want to make a difference. But then, very often a short-term experience can actually have negatives. There can be deep shocks. One of the great emphases in recent years has been children in crisis. But then when people actually come face to face with slum-dwellers, with child exploitation, little girl prostitutes, children of war, it’s horrendous, it’s heart-rending. And people coming home, not able to share, unburden and process what they’ve seen can actually be counter-productive and make them feel “Oh, I can’t take this, this is not for me.”
Why are short-term missions not enough?
Because most short-term teams tend to go to countries where there are a number of people on the team who can speak the main language of the country to which they go. Or if they haven’t got that, then long-term missionaries must be diverted from their work to help these inexperienced people survive in a totally foreign environment and maybe it delays the work that is being done.
"...you’ve got to learn a local language, the heart language, before you can even begin to communicate the gospel in a meaningful way."
That’s going to be ten or twelve years of your life just learning to get to the point where you can actually communicate the gospel. It takes time. And so that’s why short-term [missions work] can have a really good contribution, but it’s not going to finish the job.There may be a long-term investment if some of those come back and become part of the long-term team. But if we’re thinking of, let’s say, an unreached people in Chad on the edge of the Sahara. If you’re going to reach that people, you have to learn French first, that’s the government language. Then you have to learn Arabic, because that’s the market language, that’s how you buy bananas. And then you’ve got to learn a local language, the heart language, before you can even begin to communicate the gospel in a meaningful way.
With respect to evangelism work in particular, what part does raising up local ministers or nationals play in the future of global missions?
The cruel half truth that floats around the missions world that nationals can do the job better than foreigners. And it is absolutely true. But in most of the parts of the world that most need the gospel, there are not enough people who know the Lord, who can do the job.
"And so to think that we can actually by proxy get the least evangelized evangelized by paying locals, there’s something wrong there."
But if I think of Chad again, I’ll just give that as a good example. In the south of Chad, various mission agencies like TEAM and the Lutheran Brethren and others have worked there and done a brilliant job, planted churches, thousands of born-again believers. And so to think that we can actually by proxy get the least evangelized evangelized by paying locals, there’s something wrong there. We need to realize that we’re going to have to work together with locals in cross-cultural teams, perhaps.
But their culture is far different to the central belt of peoples than the Mexican culture is from the US culture, far different. And so for the people from the south to be given American money or Western money to go to the north, they just don’t know how to behave. And they might go and have an open-air meeting and that is most offensive in the Muslim context.
The idea of nationals doing the job, um…yes, but then again we have the other problem. If there are nationals who can do the work, does the money that comes from overseas distort their own ministry? I’m very cautious about foreign money going into a country where there’s not a local accountability for the use of that money and it brings a sense of control from outside. And so the local people can actually just turn their backs on the leadership locally in the country: “I don’t need you because I get money from America.”
Giving of money is great, but don’t let it damage existing structures and ministries by distorting them.
What trends in missions will affect the missionaries that are being raised up today?
What we are facing is a very different world to 1900. In 1900, probably 80-85% of all evangelicals in the world were in the United States. Most people don’t realize that. It was an astonishingly high number. But now we’ve had this explosion of evangelical Christianity in Latin America, Africa and Asia. And soon the Chinese church will surpass the United States in the number of born-again Christians.
"This is the world into which we are moving. We’ve got to prepare people for a multicultural world."
We’re going to have to work in a multicultural world and we’re going to have to adapt to other cultures on mission teams. This is the world into which we are moving. We’ve got to prepare people for a multicultural world.
One of my gripes today is so much of our theological education structure in our seminaries, in our universities, is based on a reformation paradigm which ignored the missionary component. Most pastors who go into churches today, they’ve never had an hour’s study of the last command of Jesus. That is added for people who may be interested in missions, the fanatics, the crazy guys.
And if pastors are not equipped in the future to see the importance of cross-cultural communication—between powerful cultures and powerless cultures, how we can offend by direct speech, how leadership structures work effectively in different cultures, how leaders are seen. We’ve got to learn a whole range of adaptive mechanisms so that we can work in multicultural teams.
We need to have a training for pastors who will then communicate that with their congregations, see multicultural congregations emerge and teams that can function. So my suggestion is that one of the key things of the future is that those who go into theological training must have missions, cultural, cross-cultural training. And if Urbana can do anything to further that, great.
Are there other trends?
Well, there are so many. I think one of the factors that we need to realize is how the wave of migrations that are going on around the world is not going to decrease. Population growth is going to slow, and so there are not going to be the dramatic changes that we’ve had over the past 30 years. But what we’re going to see is massive changes in compositions of populations.
"...in 2050 the USA will only be 40% Caucasian."
I mean, for instance, if my figures are correct, in 2050 the USA will only be 40% Caucasian. Europe will only be about 60% Caucasian. How do we work strategically so that we reach the world, but use this globalization effectively?...We have to think globally.
We’re in a technological age. I’m the wrong generation. I’m older. I’m a visitor to that world. But I am very aware of what is going on. Just to give an example, one of our workers working on the edge of the Sahara desert, she works amongst nomads and she found a brilliant way of evangelizing Muslim nomads.
She’s got a number of mobile phones. She downloads the Jesus film and a number of other evangelistic resources and leaves the phones in different encampments. And all the young people rush there with their mobile phones and download everything she’s got on her mobile and watch the Jesus film or access the internet. And this is happening in Africa!
We need a whole new generation of missionaries who are going to know how to use the modern technology wisely. So that’s another trend.
What are the strengths North Americans bring to missions work?
Generally speaking in North American culture, there is a gregariousness, a willingness to make contact with people, which I love. That is not English culture. We find it very hard to introduce ourselves to other people. This is not hard for an American. And I think there’s a wonderful sense of wanting to make contact with people that is part of the culture here. And I think that’s a very beautiful thing. That’s one aspect.
"It just makes me think, wow, we need to give a challenge, an extreme challenge, and people are going to rise to it."
I’d like to leave out the financial aspect altogether because I think really we have to learn to live simply and not export our lifestyle and our expectations, our four-wheel drives, our this-that-and-the-others. But live more close to the level of the people we want to reach. And that’s a challenge.
But again, I think the modern generation, there is that willingness as I mentioned earlier with the word extreme. You know, if people offer and extreme holiday, you’ve got quite a few volunteers. It just makes me think, wow, we need to give a challenge, an extreme challenge, and people are going to rise to it.
Are there other aspects of a vision that should be passed on to Millennials?
I think we need to communicate something of the breadth and the extent of the work of God in the world at this time. We are so privileged to be alive today, of all times, when God is working in an extraordinary way.
"We are so privileged to be alive today, of all times, when God is working in an extraordinary way."
I mean, I went out to Africa four decades ago, or nearly five now. And two-thirds of the evangelicals in the world were in the West. But now two-thirds of the evangelicals in the world are in the non-West, maybe more four-fifths. We’ve seen this immense growth of the church and we need to communicate that message, that God is doing immense things and we’ve got the statistics to prove it. We’ve got the stories to tell.
I heard of this Iranian woman in a Turkish evangelical little congregation in Istanbul. She got up and testified and she said, “I praise God for the Ayatollah Khomeini. Because it was through him I found Jesus. I knew that what I saw in him, it wasn’t what I wanted, Islam wasn’t providing the answers I needed and I found them in Jesus.” Even the extremism we see in the Muslim world may be a tipping factor for many Muslims, and is a tipping factor, that many Muslims are seeking Jesus.
I think people need to be encouraged. They’re part of a great enterprise of God that is going to be brought to completion and that they can be part of that completion. This is one of the messages of my book and I want to communicate that: hope and expectation. If you can do that on the website, great!
Are there aspects of missions—or missions movements—that need to be highlighted and communicated to North American college students?
Wycliffe Bible translators have a vision that every one of the 2,000 languages that do not yet have any scripture, that it might be determined by 2025 which languages should be translated and have teams starting on the process by that year. There’s another huge goal.
"...for the first time we can see the parameters of the task we must complete."
If we look at the least evangelized peoples of earth, for the first time in history, we’ve got a pretty well complete list of all people groups of the world. This has never been possessed by the Church before. And so for the first time we can see the parameters of the task we must complete. We need to mobilize people to see the least evangelized evangelized because we can actually count them. We can identify where the gaps are. This is something for the 21st century.
There’s a tendency with the whole missions industry to go through fads. Many people think that the 1990’s was the unreached peoples fad time and now we go onto something else. Child abuse or something. No!
The basic message Jesus gave was that we must go and make disciples of all nations and peoples and we need to emphasize that. But for the first time, we have the tools and the knowledge to know how much has to be done. That is a wonderful focus that we can give. People only need to go to the Joshua Project site and get a wealth of information on those peoples that still need the gospel.
But prayer, that’s another great factor. You know, one of the challenges that I think we have in the West is there’s not enough prayer. There are mighty prayer movements all over the world, but I don’t see that same prayer spirit in many parts of the Western world. The ramifications are that if we don’t pray, God doesn’t answer.
The leader of the mission I once served in Africa said, "Much prayer, much blessing. Little prayer, little blessing. No prayer, no blessing." It may be a simplistic statement but I think there’s some truth to it.