The challenges and opportunities facing the global church can be grouped into nine greats. I hope that you'll read something here that you did not already know, and I hope that, as a follower of Jesus, you'll discover afresh that you are part of God's work and part of a global Christian community.
I also hope to challenge you. In the nine points that follow, I hope that one or two might create in you some sense of where you want to dive in. Some of the topics I cover will require that people dedicate their whole lives to that specific issue. As the church around the world is growing qualitatively and quantitatively, we need people from every walk of life and from all nations who are committed to being involved in making the church into what Jesus wants it to be.
Other topics might require fewer external changes to one's life but no less of an internal reorientation to a new way of thinking about missions in a globalized world.
1. The Great Transition
Even though the Western world has dominated Christianity for much of Christian history, Christianity is now primarily a nonwhite, non-Western, nonwealthy religion. Most of our Christian brothers and sisters live in the Southern Hemisphere and the Eastern Hemisphere. If current growth continues, Africa will be the most Christian continent on earth by 2025.
We're all part of that commandment from Jesus to go and preach the gospel to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). As a colleague from Fiji reminded me, "Your Jerusalem is my ends of the earth." In other words, the "ends of the earth" mandate varies depending on your starting point.
Bill Dyrness of Fuller Theological Seminary observes, "Missions is now mutual exchange among multiple centers of influence and learning and resources traveling all directions, not only from here to there."1
2. The Great Migration
The Great Migration, as I use it here, has to do with the vast movement of peoples from nation to nation.2 It happens for reasons related to economics, politics and personal freedoms. It occurs legally and illegally, with documented and undocumented peoples. And it is occurring in many places beyond just the United States and Canada. It is transforming Europe and creating major subcultures in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East.
With these mass migrations of peoples, we may have the opportunity to reach people who were, up to this point, considered unreached—not because we went to their place but because they came to our place. And the Great Migration of peoples is providing new opportunities: first to reach out to those who have never heard the gospel, and second to join with Christian immigrants as they help us reach our own nation. Many of the people coming from other countries to North America are already Christians, and these newcomers often come with a great zeal to preach the gospel.
3. The Great Divides
The third challenge facing the world relates to divisions between people. Consider two significant Great Divides in the church.
If most of the Christian church now is in the Majority World, most of our Christian brothers and sisters are economically less advantaged than we are. What does that mean for us? How can we use our generosity without creating unhealthy economic dependency? The rich-poor divide calls us to think about things like caring for the poor and standing for justice-related issues. It calls us to wrestle with issues like microfinance and business as mission. It calls us to wrestle with 1 John 3:16-18:
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
How dependent on God are we in North America? In North America, many Christians relegate miracles, signs and wonders to the first century. Our worldviews are so influenced by the Enlightenment that we really don't comprehend the miracle-driven, spirit-aware world of the Bible.
In practical terms, many of us in the North American church are what used to be called cessationists: people who believe that the gifts of miracles, signs and wonders were only for the first century. My advice: if you want to be a cessationist, don't travel! The church in the Majority World did not get the memo. When somebody gets sick, the first thing they do is pray and anoint them with oil. If somebody falls out of a third-floor window, they don't dial 911; they ask, "What did the Christians do in Acts?"
We in North America have a lot to learn about being more dependent on God from churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America. This theological divide is by no means uncrossable, but it calls us to listen more and to dialogue with our non-Western brothers and sisters so that we gain a better understanding of global theology.3
4. The Great Wall
When I refer to the Great Wall, I'm obviously alluding to the amazing structure that strings across China. As such, it represents the twenty-first-century challenge of China itself. Economically, politically, religiously and perhaps militarily, China is in all of our futures.
The Great Wall of China also represents the great divide between peoples who have heard the gospel and those who have not: the unreached peoples of the world. There are still an estimated two billion people (almost one-third of the world) who have never received an invitation to respond to the love of God as demonstrated by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
These are not people who have rejected Jesus; these are those who have never heard who Jesus Christ is. The wall between the gospel "haves" and the gospel "have-nots" needs to be scaled if these people are to be invited to God's global family.
Reflecting on this wall, Todd Johnson observes:
Christians are out of contact with Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. Recent research reveals that as many as 86 percent of all Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists do not personally know a Christian. This must be viewed negatively in light of the strong biblical theme of incarnation, which is at the heart of Christian witness.4
In addition to the wall between the gospel "haves" and gospel "have-nots," there are other symbolic walls, especially ethnic divides between peoples, both in our own country and around the world. Racism, ethnocentrism and interethnic conflict call us as Christians to the ministries of peacemaking and reconciliation.
5. The Great Barrier Reef
I refer to the Great Barrier Reef here as a representation of the great global issue of the environment. Whether human-caused or a result of natural cycles (or both), climate change is a serious matter, and Christians need to be involved in creation care. A publication from the National Association of Evangelicals identifies the connection between environmental degradation and poverty: "Changes in the environment interact with poverty to worsen its effects by increasing conflicts and migration while decreasing the ability of the poor to improve their well-being."5
When the land becomes barren, rich people can move to another home. In contrast, poor people lose their farms, become destitute and move to a refugee camp. Sun Come Up was the first documentary to introduce me to the term environmental refugees. It describes the south Pacific Islander people known as the Cartaret and their plight of losing everything as the rising waters of the Pacific swallowed their homeland.
Put simply, the global mission of God calls some people to go out as dedicated church planters to unreached people groups. But it calls some to serve as dedicated tree planters in eroded areas, some to work toward providing clean water for those who do not have access and others to address the problems of hazardous waste. All these activities are part of God's kingdom work in redeeming people and the world.
6. The Great Commission
Our sixth great is summarized in what we know as the Great Commission, or Jesus' last words in Matthew 28:18-20: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them . . . and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."6
In the last century, the global church has excelled in making converts and fostering decisions. We have not done a great job in making disciples, however, either in North America or in the Majority World. Do you understand the difference? Jesus didn't say go into the world and make converts; he said go into all the world and make disciples.
Becoming a disciple and making disciples is tough work. It means digging deep into our lives, which will show us a lot of things needing to be remade by the strength of the Holy Spirit. Making converts can happen pretty fast; making disciples can take a lifetime.
When we think about the Great Commission and our part in it, there are four things to remember.
"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." In other words, Jesus is saying: "Disciples, I've just conquered death; all authority is mine. You don't have to be afraid of how you're going to get treated; all authority belongs to me. Nothing is going to happen to you that I'm not going to allow."
Jesus' phrase "all nations" means not just all the geopolitical nations recognized on maps. Jesus is referring to all the ethnic-specific units (ethne = "nations"). We are to go to all the ethnicities of the world. If we're looking for opportunities to evangelize, we need to be thinking not just about nations but about the specific people from those nations.
Third, Jesus says, "Teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." Not just the happy things. Not just the user-friendly, seeker-friendly, I-feel-fulfilled-with-Jesus things. But things like taking up the cross daily, laying down our lives, putting other people first. In other words, we are to teach—and obey—even the uncomfortable things.
"I am with you always." Wherever you are going, Jesus is there with you. How many of us grow fearful when we think about what God might call us to in this world of global Christianity? In response to fear, remember the most common command in the Bible: don't be afraid. "Don't fear" doesn't mean that we'll never be afraid. It simply means that we don't have to be ruled by our fears. Psalm 56:3 says, "When I am afraid, I put my trust in you."
7. The Great Compassion
In the story of the judgment of all nations (Matthew 25:31-46), Jesus tells us that the way we treat the poor, the marginalized, the hungry, the naked, the prisoner and the homeless is the way that we treat him. How we treat the people needing compassion and justice and care and advocacy is the criteria of his judgment.
After sharing in a church in New York City, one fellow approached me and said, "I'm the representative buyer with a factory we have in Madagascar. I buy jeans from that factory. I sell them on Fifth Avenue; we buy jeans for a dollar and sell them for four hundred dollars. Maybe we can do something."
He contacted the factory liaison in Madagascar and asked how much it would cost if the factory started paying for the school fees for the workers' children, better housing, health care, improved sanitation and more reasonable hours. The buyer was pursuing compassion for these workers.
The buyer got a message back from the liaison representing the factory management. He said that they were very sorry, but such added benefits would quadruple the price for the jeans to four dollars a pair. The buyer decided to authorize it anyway, thus making the "sacrifice" to go from a $399 profit margin down to a $396 profit on the jeans. A Christian used his position of power to bring about compassion and justice for the poor. He was leveraging his position for the poor.
Compassion takes on different shapes. Some might choose to live in an intentional community committed to incarnational ministry with the urban poor. Others might become legal aides who can influence a senator or a member of parliament to make a decision that can empower many poor people. Who knows? We need eyes of compassion toward our world; it is one of the biggest challenges facing the church.
8. The Great Salvation
Challenges eight and nine are fundamentally personal worldview issues. They relate to the spiritual lenses through which we see the world and our role in it. Number eight I call the Great Salvation. I take the phrase from Hebrews 2:3: "How shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation?"
The recipients of the letter to the Hebrews were tired of the opposition and hardships of following Christ. They were in danger of quitting the faith or at least marginalizing it in their lives. The writer of the letter exhorts them to remember the greatness of salvation: the overwhelming reality that God himself came down in the person of Jesus to be the sacrifice for our sins.
You and I might not be contemplating quitting the faith. But we may be marginalizing it in our lives, allowing the allure of a Western lifestyle to dull the edges of our faith. Add to this the challenges of navigating our faith in the midst of a globalized world, and it is easy to understand why we may want to retreat.
One of the most famous missionaries of the nineteenth century, C. T. Studd, stated, "If Jesus Christ is God and he died for me, no sacrifice I make is too great. If I say I want to follow Jesus, then I'm saying, 'Jesus, in light of everything you've done for me, here I am.'"
People sometimes say to Christie and me as we travel to dangerous places, "Remember, Paul, the safest place to be is in the center of God's will." I know that they mean well, but I disagree. The right place to be is in the center of God's will, but it might not be the safest place. After all, who is the ultimate person who lived at the center of God's will? Jesus. And his life was far from safe, with false arrest, torture and ultimately a gruesome death on the cross.
On a journey to Ghana, my host took me to the missionary cemetery where vast numbers of twenty-five- and twenty-six-year-olds were buried. They had died within two years of coming to Ghana or West Africa to bring the gospel. Tradition says that the British missionaries journeyed to West Africa with their earthly goods packed in their own caskets. They knew when they brought the gospel they would not return home. They went to die there. And they did. They didn't last long, but they planted the seed of the gospel. On that same trip, I visited a Pentecostal church in Ghana that is sending missionaries to eighty-five different countries in the world. This can happen now because people came a century ago and laid down their lives. When we start thinking about the Great Salvation, we realize that we are identified with Jesus, who laid down his life so that we might benefit. "Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies . . ." (John 12:24).
For many of us, following Jesus in this world will not require literally dying. But it might require downsizing our lifestyle. It mightmean taking vacation time to go on a short-term mission trip when we could be just relaxing. In any case, it's all about identifying with Jesus and saying, in light of the Great Salvation, "Jesus, I want to go where you're going and where you want to bring me."
9. The Great Celebration
If a reminder of the greatness of salvation motivates us to go wherever God leads us, a vision of the Great Celebration will help us stay faithful. This globalized world is not simply about challenges; it is about celebrating. Paul celebrates with the Colossian believers when he writes, "The gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world" (Colossians 1:6).
In Revelation, the bible describes the ultimate Great Celebration. The apostle John sees crowds of worshipers, and these worshipers "sang a new song, saying: 'You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation'" (Revelation 5:9).
And again: "After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: 'Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb'" (Revelation 7:9-10).
There's going to be a Great Celebration someday, at which people from every tribe and tongue and nation will worship Jesus. When we go out into the world, we might suffer and incur hardship, but we are participating in God's ultimate party. A Great Celebration day is coming when an uncountable group, speaking thousands of languages from tens of thousands of ethnic backgrounds, will gather to sing praise to the Lamb of God, Jesus, because we're all redeemed by his precious blood.
Reread Revelation 5:9 and 7:9 for a vision that will keep you going. When you're struggling to reach out to a Muslim neighbor or to the Buddhist guy in a Thai restaurant, remember that a day is coming when people from every tribe and tongue and nation are going to worship Jesus. And we have the privilege of enlarging that worship service through our lives, our compassion and our testimony to others.
Adapted from Western Christians in Global Mission by Paul Borthwick. Copyright(c) 2012 by Paul Borthwick. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.
1Bill Dyrness, email message to author, July 22, 2011.
2The Great Migration usually refers to the movement of African Americans from the rural South to the more urban North in the mid-twentieth century.
3Two helpful resources for better understanding global theology are Craig Ott and Harold Netland, eds., Global Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), and Timothy C. Tennent, Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think About and Discuss Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007).
4Todd Johnson, "World Christian Trends" (lecture at Lausanne Bi-Annual International Leadership meeting, Budapest, Hungary, June 18-22, 2007).
5Dorothy Boorse, Loving the Least of These: Addressing a Changing Environment (Washington, D.C.: National Association of Evangelicals, 2011), www.nae.net/lovingtheleastofthese.
6Other Great Commission passages associated with Jesus' last commands to his disciples include Mark 16:15-18; Luke 24:45-49; John 20:21; and Acts 1:8.