Does the world need North Americans to continue sending missionaries worldwide to finish the task of seeing all people hear the gospel? Or have we done our part, and now it is time for those in other nations to finish the task in their homelands? A recent article taking the first position was criticized in a response in another journal here, highlighting the two opposing views. I just finished a book that charts a helpful “middle course” between the two.
In fact, I was already reading this book because it addresses an important issue I’m dealing with as president of a global missions organization. Historically we have been a sending agency for missional Christian professors who seek to teach in universities worldwide for the Kingdom. Most of those we sent have been from North America. Yet more and more non-North Americans are applying to serve with our organization (such as a Kenyan Ph.D. who wants to teach in Saudi Arabia). Furthermore, indigenous Christian professors currently teaching in their own countries regularly ask us for training and resources to be salt and light in their universities. How can we best respond? Western Christians in Global Missions: What’s the Role of the North American Church? provides a helpful roadmap for how we and other North America believers can best serve these global needs.
Who Will Benefit from Western Christians in Global Missions?
Obviously, believers in the West who are concerned with global missions will primarily benefit from this book. It will be especially helpful for those considering or currently supporting missionaries outside North America, for those on church missions committees, for those considering serving outside North America (either short-term or long-term), and for North American mission leaders.
Paul Borthwick, a professor of missions at Gordon College and senior consultant for a global mission agency, is the author. He writes in an informal, non-academic style, including just enough supporting data and many quotes from global mission leaders. The book is about 200 pages long and can easily be read in a few hours.
The First Section: Where Are We Now?
Borthwick begins with the assumption that the reader is familiar with the biblical call to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. If you are not familiar with this theme of Scripture, I suggest studying Genesis 12 (God’s call to Abraham to be a blessing to all people), Isaiah’s response to God’s call as a model (“here I am—send me” in Isaiah 6:8), and passages such as Psalm 96:3 which exhorts us to “Tell of His glory among the nations, His wonderful deeds among all the peoples.” In the New Testament we find Jesus’ last commandment to take the gospel to all people (Matthew 28:18-20 and again in Acts 1:8), echoed in the song sung to Jesus at the end of the age: “You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” (Revelation 5:9). Revelation 7:9-10 foretells the result of our labors:
[A] great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
Borthwick identifies the work to be done before that final day. He notes there currently are “…more than two billion people who still have no viable access to hearing, experiencing or understanding the gospel.” (p. 113). He observes the change in who is embracing the gospel:
An overview reveals a global church that is predominantly not from European descent, not materially wealthy, not from the postmodern worldview of the West and often not concerned whether their theology fits into all of the neat and tidy categories of Western thinking. (p. 89)
In fact, we in the West will continue to be an increasing minority among the world’s Christians: “by 2050, only about one-fifth of the world’s 3.2 billion Christians will be non-Hispanic Whites,…” (p. 130, quoting Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, p. 3).
The Western missionary movement has played a significant role in this growth, and for this we rejoice. Borthwick cites research done by Lamin Sanneh, a Christian historian and missiologist from The Gambia who was raised as a Muslim, has come to faith in Christ, and now is a professor at Yale University:
Sanneh observes that by translating the Bible into vernacular languages, Christian missionaries actually helped to preserve cultures and languages [leading to] social transformation: the dignity associated with speaking indigenous languages revitalized societies and laid the foundation for the eventual ousting of colonial powers. (p. 119, from Sanneh, Translating the Message: the Missionary Impact on Culture)
Yet Borthwick is not naïve or calloused to the ways Western missionaries have also done harm over the centuries. He is honest about how often the gospel has been confused with Western culture, leading to indigenous people groups converting more to a Western way of life than Christ Himself. He also identifies the ways Western missionaries have not always come as servants, but instead with an attitude of superiority. We must learn from these mistakes as we look to the future.
The Second Section: Where Do We Go From Here?
Neither Option is Correct
Unfortunately, as we move forward towards finishing the Task we often hear of only two options. On the one hand, some advocate we continue to see North America as the driving force in taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. The best ideas, the best strategies, the best leaders and the best organizations are from North America alone. Therefore our role is to export these to everyone else, who wait expectantly for what we will next provide (and fund). From my experience I agree this view is alive and well, and is expressed often. I recently heard it expressed at a conference I attended. This is also the view many saw implicit in the recent Gospel Coalition post and response in Faithfully mentioned earlier.
On the other hand, in reaction many conclude North America no longer has a role in global missions. We “had our day” but that day is over. We need not continue to send North Americans worldwide (and risk continuing to repeat our past mistakes). No, they argue we should concentrate only on our own country, and leave finishing the Task to those in their own countries. As Borthwick says,
A second group of Christians have taken the growth of the global church as a reason to focus only on local realities. They may think that North American Christians are not needed beyond our own boarders. (p. 19)
From my experience I agree this attitude is also alive and well in some circles. As I develop partnerships with other mission organizations working in global higher education I’ve been told this directly by a leader of one organization we very much want to partner with. (Thanks be to God, others higher up in the organization’s leadership didn’t share his view, and we are now working in a healthy partnership with this organization.)
A Third “Middle Way”
Borthwick develops a third option between these two extremes. As Femi Adeleye (a Ghana missiologist) says in the book’s preface:
The first response is as much a misunderstanding of God as it is a dangerous misconception. God neither gives up nor leaves himself without a witness in any part of his world. The second underestimates the need for all hands to be on deck with the harnessing of all God’s gift to us in our diversity to hasten the task before us….this is no time for anyone to relax or withdraw because others are involved. Rather it is a time to persevere in finishing the race together. (p. 8, emphasis added)
Borthwick summarizes that
Our first priority is nether to maintain positions of power in the global Christian family nor to abandon our part in God’s overall plan. Our first responsibility is to build our foundation for involvement, relationships and partnerships on the truth revealed to us in the Scriptures. (p. 112)
So he concludes, after years of conversations with mission leaders around the world,
Should the North American church continue to send missionaries…? The overwhelming response of the leaders we met was, “Yes.” But then they often go on to qualify the character of the workers they want to receive: those with“…integrity of heart; skillful hand (Ps 72:78); deep personal relationship with God; humility, diligence and respect for others.” (p. 173, quoting Reuben Ezemadu, a global missions leader)
The key to this middle way is what Borthwick terms “reciprocity” or true partnership. He develops this in a number of ways:
Reciprocity teaches us that our brothers and sisters are rich in many other ways. (p. 129)
We in North America need to grow in our willingness to be true members in the global family of God rather than thinking that we are the “top down” leaders of the world. (p. 130)
Every partner must bring resources to the table. If all parties do not bring resources, it is not partnership; it is ownership, and there will be controlling dynamics from the side of the owner.” (p. 130, italics his, quoting Paul Gupta, an Indian missions leader and President of the Hindustan Bible Institute and College in India)
[We are an] interdependent team….In order to get to God’s missional goal, the global church needs to work together, incorporating our respective strengths, accommodate our respective weaknesses and move forward as a family. (p. 193)
There are two clear aspects to partnership. First is what we “bring to the table.” It is not as though believers in North America no longer have something of value to help finish the Task. Borthwick quotes Doug Birdsall of the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelism, who observes,
The North American church has unique gifts to the global church, including greater experience in working in a globalized world, training and resources and lessons from our mistakes. (p. 194)
Others also see this as a gift we can bring. “[North Americans have] experience in and resources for training. One of the greatest areas in which Majority World leaders are asking for North American involvement is in the area of training and education.” (p. 67)
Secondly, to bring these resources to the global church Borthwick argues there are two important postures we must assume. First we must give appropriately. We must be generous without creating unhealthy dependency. We must be good stewards of these resources, committed to “listen, learn, serve and lead together” (p. 104). This will mean taking the posture of servant and co-laborer with our brothers and sisters around the world in finishing the Task.
We must also receive appropriately. Borthwick tells many stories of North Americans who were willing to go and serve, but were not willing to also be served. This implicitly communicates an attitude of superiority and not true servanthood.
This includes receiving the gifts of others. In another context Borthwick notes that
It is common across the Majority World to see what is often called “the Big Man” syndrome. These are the leaders who were the pioneers of specific ministries and who now refuse to hand over leadership to others. (p. 97)
Yet I would argue this is also quite prevalent in North American mission organizations. Much too often we hamper or even end partnerships because we are not willing to let go of our leadership roles at the proper time and empower nationals to lead during new seasons of ministry. We too often hold on tight to our positions as if they were a right rather than a role God has given us for a season. True partnership includes being willing to receive well other’s gifts in leadership and other’s callings as also from the Lord. If we fail to do so, in missions no less than in politics, “today’s revolutionary becomes tomorrow’s dictator.”
In sum, I recommend Borthwick’s book to any believer interested in going, praying and/or giving to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. And for those in global ministry leadership positions I believe it is absolutely essential reading. The ministry I serve with is following this “middle way,” resulting in a number of very fruitful partnerships. Hopefully you will find equally helpful ways to live out Borthwick’s call to “work together, incorporating our respective strengths, accommodate our respective weaknesses and move forward as a family.” (p. 193)