by Chris Wright
Chris is a Global Ambassador for Langham Partnership.
Global realities are impacting the church and its mission across the world. These are my reflections on some of the factors and how they are affecting mission in, to and from the majority world.
The Pandemic – Covid has reversed half a century of global poverty reduction. In 2020 global poverty increased again for the first time in decades with the greatest extremes in Africa, where Covid has exacerbated underlying problems. Obviously connected to that, the pandemic exposed global injustices, for example, in the hoarding of vaccines in the West and lack or delay of them in the poorest countries.
Political Polarisation – Recent years have seen the rise and, in some cases, fall of authoritarian, populist and extreme ‘strongman’ leaders with a contempt for human rights, the poor and the environment, and sometimes encouraging extra-judicial action or violence-inducing rhetoric. One thinks of Trump, Duterte, Bolsinaro, Modi, Erdoğan, Orban and Putin. Tragically, some evangelicals are bitterly divided between those who support and praise such leaders and those who reject their methods, policies, racism and propaganda. The word ‘evangelical’ itself has become polluted and toxic in some quarters by these political associations.
Migration – It is estimated that at least 300 million people are migrants in one sense or another and at least a quarter of those are involuntarily displaced people and refugees. It is undoubtedly one of the major global realities of our era. There are multiple causes: economic free choice, political pressure, civil conflict, drug-related violence, wars, hunger and climate change – the list goes on. It is multidirectional: from and to every continent. The world order is massively stressed and under pressure. Europe reacts in some places with barbed wire but in others with an extraordinary welcome. Ukrainians have been welcomed in Poland while others, such as Africans or Syrians, have been met with racist discrimination or a ‘broken’ asylum system and xenophobic policies in the UK.
Environmental Impact – A recent IPCC report1 says that ‘global warming, with all its frightening effects, is now “undeniable and irreversible”’. Whatever your views, many people are fearful of facing an existential threat to human life on this planet and the worst impacts of the changing climate fall on the poorest, who also tend to be among the ‘least reached’ in missional terms. This is an area where our creation care-taking responsibilities and evangelistic motivation coincide. It is important to think biblically, remembering God’s covenant with Noah and His faithfulness.
Conflict – We think immediately of the horror of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the death, destruction and suffering inflicted there. But we easily forget wars or civil conflicts going on also in Myanmar, Ethiopia, Yemen, the little-reported violence across the Sahel countries of Africa, the oppression of the Uyghurs and others. There is no doubt that war not only devours colossal amounts of national resources that would be better spent on basic human needs, but it is also a major accelerant of environmental destruction and chaos.
Trends Affecting Global Mission
Covid has left massive collective and personal trauma in many places and the church has not been immune. Hundreds of church leaders perished in India and in other countries including in Latin America. There is a rebuke, for those with ears to hear, of the complacency of the church and a desperate need for the biblical resources of lament, healing and hope. In His Word, God chose to give us multiple psalms of lament and a whole book with that title – how needed they are now!
Churches are responding to need, as they always have done. During various plagues and pandemics in ancient Rome, observers were impressed by Christians caring for sick and dying pagans. It was Basil of Caesarea who built the first hospital for leprosy sufferers in Cappadocia in ad365.
In His Word, God chose to give us multiple psalms of lament and a whole book with that title – how needed they are now!
Today, we have seen churches in Lebanon reaching out to Syrian refugees with practical love and care, such that many Syrians have come to faith in the Messiah Jesus and are being discipled and trained in church leadership. In the midst of the horrors of war in Ukraine, despite many churches being destroyed, Christians are coordinating massive efforts to rescue the trapped, feed the hungry, care for the wounded and bereaved, and share the Word of God and the love of the Saviour with many displaced and traumatised people. Mission in such circumstances is intrinsically holistic and practical and spiritually fruitful.
The church in the global South is growing. It is well known that around 70% of the world’s Christians live in the so-called majority world – not that we should imagine that we, from the West, accomplished that. The church expanded into Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and China long before it reached the limits of Western Europe. Today, we need to cultivate a willingness to recognise and learn from believers in the majority world churches, and to appreciate their missional zeal and their perseverance under suffering and persecution.
There are indigenous movements to Christ – ‘insider’ communities in contexts of other faiths. Multitudes of Jesus followers, secretly or openly, live in the cultures of Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist countries. Although western Christians and mission agencies differ in how they respond to some of the controversial issues that arise: are these authentic expressions of the gospel or syncretism? Let’s be wary of critiques emerging from highly syncretised and idolatrous western evangelicalism, in the light of what Jesus said about trying to remove the speck in a brother’s eye while unaware of the plank in your own. God is clearly at work.
As a result of the phenomenon of migration, there are diaspora communities of multiple ethnicities on every continent. Some of them are from countries with a strong Christian background, such as Nigeria, the Philippines or Latin America. Others are coming from places that have been closed to the gospel. The missional significance and opportunities for mobilisation are huge. Partly as a result of migration and globalisation, geographical boundaries and older territorial definitions of peoples and mission have become much more fluid. Mission is no longer, though it never really was, only ‘from the West to the rest’, but from everywhere to everywhere. Missional activity and leadership have become polycentric and some agencies are recognising and making major internal adjustments, while others with older models of traditional mission agencies with hierarchical structures are becoming obsolete. Non-western missions from previously ‘receiving’ countries have grown exponentially. However, some are already experiencing the same problems as western agencies which, somewhat to their detriment, they imitated: problems of unsustainable finances, an ageing or retiring workforce and outdated models of leadership. Mission is becoming far more indigenous and multifaceted in concept and in practice, as local churches catch the vision for sharing Christ across cultural barriers closest to them.
External and Internal Threats – Persecution has been the reality for the Christian church from the beginning and is only increasing year by year, as one can see from the grim index of the countries where it is most difficult and unsafe to be a Christian. But as Patrick Fung, General Director of OMF International, has said, ‘Persecution cannot kill the church. Dilution and compromise of the gospel is what kills the church.’ The letters to the seven churches in Revelation still have their penetrating relevance today, as we lament the prevalence of false teaching, corruption and bribery, sexual immorality and abuse, and political collusion, among professing Christians around the globe.
In the midst of these global realities, and sometimes worrying factors affecting the world, God is sovereign! His mission continues, often His church grows because of and not despite these changes and trends. Let us continue to put our hope in the living God and labour for His glory – that all the people of the world might not remain in darkness but come into His light. ‘I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in Me may not remain in darkness’ (Jn 12:46).