Under the cover of darkness, a statue of a Black Lives Matter protestor has been placed on the plinth where slave trader Edward Colston’s statue had been before it was thrown into the docks in Bristol. BBC news. A sign of changing times? Perhaps. The result you would expect a committee on a replacement statue to agree on? Doubtful.
At the crossroads of events, there are choices to be made. The careful consideration of groups that reflect on events, anticipate changes and peer through the fog of uncertainty to make broad recommendations based on trends. Or: the quick activisms of people with ideas, who are willing to make swift choices and interventions, even 3D printing moulds for a new statue. Clearly we need both, but the moment for rapid prototyping, creative initiatives and agile movement is definitely here.
I’ve written about global mission before, (for example here) but in this time of change, multiple snapshots will be needed. Here’s my status update for July 2020.
Where are we? There are both short term and long term changes going on.
Short term, the biggest impact is from travel restrictions. For organisations involved in sending short term teams, this means an almost total shutdown. And while there’s lots of positive talk about enquiries and people looking to go as soon as the restrictions are lifted the comments from airline executives should give us reason to be cautious. There will be no swift return to ‘mission trips’; in the medium term, the cost of air travel will rise. And this is before we factor in questions about risk.
We can use this time well though, to re-examine how much we want to emphasise short term mission. How much do we really value cultural understanding, language acquisition and relationship building? What impact do mission trips have on the participants and the communities they go to? How can we ensure they help and don’t hinder church growth or community development?
Those agencies whose business model is predominantly short term mission are going to struggle, those whose operation is paid for by income generated by mission teams will find the next year particularly painful. My hope is that what emerges are mission opportunities that are based on learning from the church in another culture, serving and growing alongside Christians in another context in ways that encourage all sides in discipleship and varied marks of mission. The numbers may be smaller, but the long term benefits richer.
In the longer-term political changes are afoot. Globalism is mutating, new alliances are crystallising and borders are hardening. China is flexing its muscle and countries are forced to decide how closely they wish to align with it. Population growth is changing – there’s a report today (BBC news) which suggests how Nigeria will emerge as a significant power, alongside India, just because of its growing population. In recent history, people have been able to travel from the US or Europe to almost anywhere even though citizens of other countries can’t reciprocate. This may change; the openness of countries to Europeans and US citizens may decrease. The growth of population surveillance technology (particularly apps connected to Coronavirus) may be used by more controlling regimes to make it harder to share the gospel in those countries.
As we look to the future it is not clear how welcome will western missionaries be, nor how effective they will be, given they are nearly always a high cost. Western mission workers often bring particular skills and interests but indigenous (or at least nearby cultures) are likely to be more effective for church planting and discipleship movements.
I’m sure there will be a place for Western mission workers; particularly those who are good at pooling their expertise with others from different cultures and backgrounds. And there is definitely a need for non-western workers in the UK and Europe; both as intentional mission workers and through diaspora church movements. The challenge is taking words like polycentrism, multidirectional sharing and partnership and making them real in local situations here and around the world.
This may (will?) result in fewer western mission workers, but given the decreasing size and affluence of the church here, I suspect the impact will be gradual. The early signs from UK churches are that giving is reduced (by how much and how permanently is not yet clear) and, if the 2008 crash is a guide we might anticipate that income will not recover much over the next 5 years. Giving to individual mission workers tends to be fairly resilient but giving to mission agencies is likely to drift downward.
How can we navigate well through this season?
Be prepared to change. Everything.
I wonder in all the talk of change, how far many of us are actually prepared to go and how fast we might be willing to travel. Are we willing for our agency, our pet project, our ministry to die? Or, at some point, do we recoil and think there must be a way of protecting it.
Lots of agencies have good processes and structures. These are based on history, on charity law (we have responsibilities for Health and Safety, strategy, finance etc), on power. But how much of this will future mission need?
Money, people and legislation will require that there are some structures: though not necessarily all western in style. My hope is that the structures become light enough to empower networks and facilitate movements rather than being the conduit through which everything is done. That what emerges comes from us being in relationship with Christ, as part of his church; branches of the vine who are bearing fruit in new and varied places…… not organisations whose business model is to produce a mission product or service.
I heard Ted Esler of Missio Nexus on the Global Missions podcast the other day suggesting that the mission remains the same but the strategy needs to change. But maybe what we need is less strategy and more anarchy, more people who are passionate about a cause. Who are willing to tear down statues of history and redefine what ‘mission’ might signify so that we have a richer, deeper appreciation for the reconciling work that God is doing in the world.
In the future, the mission organisations that survive will be flexible to what mission workers want, responsive to the local leadership’s guidance and vision, relational in its culture, lean and agile in its operations and taking a learning approach to all it does.
Perhaps two pictures will suffice for a conclusion. The first is of a group of people from every part of the globe reading and interpreting the Bible together; learning together, a hermeneutical community made up of diverse cultures who strive for unity and the glory of God (John 17). The second is of the small boy with his five loaves and two fish. Offered to Jesus they were able to transform the lives of 5000 hungry people. Ultimately as mission workers and organisations, we offer what we have so that Jesus can use us in whatever way he wishes, even to break us and share us with others, so that God’s wider purpose can be seen.