Review: The Changing Face of World Missions

“Written in a different world” was my reaction to reading the opening chapters of this book. Printed in 2005 to pick up on key issues in world mission the book examines twelve “significant trends” to help understand the changes in society and church that have implications for the way the church “does missions”.

What follows in this blog is not so much a book review as an outline with comments. It grows out of my reading, reflecting and sharing my observations rather than academic review.

Section one: four chapters considering global context.

Globalisation: This is one of the chapters that feels most dated as the rate of change has accelerated over the last fifteen years. The relentless impact of mobile phone technology; with its benefits such as money transfer and its downsides such as ‘fake news’; have impacted even quite poor parts of the world. The winners and losers of globalisation have become less clear and can be seen in the background to Western politics (Austerity, Brexit and Trump for example) as well as sweat shop factories in the Far East. Other aspects we can see more clearly now include the limits of neo-liberal economics and the rise of China.

Demographics: The book notes the impact of migration, HIV/ Aids and children at risk. Again these have accelerated faster than the book imagines with huge refugee crises as well as both population growth and aging populations (in Japan and Europe in contrast to countries in southern Africa dealing with HIV).

Spirituality: The book considers the growth of Islam and evangelicalism (particularly Pentecostalism) as well as Hindu revitalisation and tensions. All of which have continued apace since. The book also notes the rise of New Religious Movements which, although pervasive, have not had quite the impact the authors anticipated.

Post Modernity: The book reads as though the authors viewed modernity as broadly good and post modernity as regrettable – a view that was outdated in 2005 never mind 2019 – though the authors probably represent a strand of evangelicalism that still struggles with Post Modernity and globalisation.  More positively the book notes that the Alpha Course and Chronological Bible storying have been helpful ways to share the faith in a post-modern setting (though CBS has roots in mission in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere rather than post-modern culture) and these have continued. The book also notes how yearning for transcendence, significance and community is fertile ground for gospel centred people to flourish.

Section two: four chapters considering missional context.

From Christendom to global Christianity: The chapter is largely descriptive though it is worth noting that the way the book talks of cooperation, consideration and consultation still sounds as if the future mindset is of a western way of thinking….. It isn’t and I hope that in more recent years we have come to appreciate that global Christianity doesn’t mean that other parts of the world have come to join western missions in the ‘great commission’ taking on our agendas,  strategies and ways of working but of other parts of the global church developing their own.

Changing motivations of mission (from fear of hell to the glory of God): It is hard to see this as anything other than a good thing (though fear of hell has played a significant role in western theology for a thousand years). However, the book is right to point out questions about downplaying a sense of ‘lostness’. My personal view is that post modernism reveals plenty of examples of lostness and this section reflects the particular theological world view of the authors. I also wonder if there is a cultural divide between Christians from the UK and US at this point; for those of us in Europe, modernism left Europe much more secular than the US, so that we don’t see the impact of post modernity quite as negatively than those in the US who perceive it to be a hugely secularising force.

Increased awareness of Spiritual power: Some of this is related to the rise of Pentecostalism and Charismatic expressions of Christianity. The book draws particular attention to the Spiritual Warfare model (and notions of Strategic Level Spiritual Warfare) which had grown through the 1990s.  The discussion is helpful because this remains part of the context for a number of large mission organisations today. Nevertheless I suspect the bigger issue in increased awareness is tied to a recognition that western mindsets have often had a squeezed middle where little thought and attention has been payed to the impact of spiritual forces in the world (in contrast to the world view of many from non-western contexts).

Creative access and innovation in mission operations: this has continued to be a growing element in missions. In part from the need for ‘creative access’ but also because of an increasing recognition of the place of integral mission and need for social entrepreneurship as an important part of mission in itself. As an aside, I do wonder about people who see ‘creative access’ as a good thing but remain negative about asylum and migration. (As if it is OK for us to want to bend rules to get into ‘their’ countries but it’s bad for them to want to get into ours).

Section three: four chapters considering strategic context.

Networking: the book talks about social networks, relationships, teams and collaboration.  All of which continue to be important as people and agencies work together. That said I think the reluctance of many agencies to acknowledge their work with others in their own publicity is indicative of how far we have to go here (I’ve seen a few examples which really push the ethical envelope and even claim as their own, things that were done by other people and agencies). In my experience there are also still plenty of mission personnel and organisations who don’t want to work with others. And, then there is the question of whether there are simply too many agencies and organisations.

Money: the book examines questions of partnership rather than paternalism; questions of the personal support model and the responsible use of money. All of which continue today. In addition, the trend towards Short Term Mission trips has continued to grow, raising questions of whether it is mission, or a responsible use of resources.

New Technology: this chapter notes the increasing pace of life, e-learning and the digital divide. All of which continue as new platforms emerge. Not all of this is negative, the growth of smart phones is lessening the digital divide and, through Zoom, Skype and Facebook, making it is easier to maintain relationships and team. While these may help provide better care to people on the field we now see how they create challenges for people around ‘leaving the home culture and being immersed in the new culture’ and the ability of your sending agency to keep interrupting by email, messages and phone calls (at least in the old days you could ignore them, now they ring you up).

Contextualisation – from adapted message to adapted life: the chapter looks at models of contextualisation and the dangers, recognising that the gospel needs to be contextualised in every society. Again a weakness of the book is that it downplays the degree to which all of us from western societies are contextualised as well, our readings of Scripture are from our cultural perspectives and if we are to be serious about this we need to get off our ‘high horse’ and humbly join others in reading the Scriptures together.

Overall the book helpfully identifies some key issues and trends which continue to be relevant today. While the book has text boxes with scenarios and questions to provoke further thinking and application it is more likely to be useful as an introductory text for people who need to understand context and history as well as current trends (indeed this copy is borrowed from Northern Baptist College Library!).

Michael Pocock, Gailyn Van Rheenen, Doublas McConnell The changing Face of World Missions: Engaging Contemporary Issues and Trends (Baker Academic 2005)