The church's center of gravity is changing. According to The Expansion of Christianity by missiologist Timothy Yates, in 1900, most Christians were in the "sending countries" of Europe and North America. One hundred years later, in a proportion as high as 60-40, the balance has shifted to sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Pacific--Christendom's new center of gravity.
Yates also points out in his book that more than half of the world's 2 billion Christians are found in what were traditionally regarded as "mission fields." And the inhabitants of these mission fields are now being sent out as missionaries themselves.
The signs of growth worldwide indicate that today's Spirit-filled believers, in particular, are reaping the fruit of the evangelistic fervor of their forebears. Consider some statistics from Patrick Johnstone's Operation World:
In Latin America, the Pentecostal/charismatic movement is challenging the hegemony of the Catholic Church and now accounts for 28 percent of the world's Pentecostals.
In sub-Saharan Africa's growing African Independent Church (AIC) movement, Spirit-filled expressions of indigenous Christianity are the norm, making Christianity the dominant religion of that region.
From China's burgeoning unregistered churches to the exploding congregations of South Korea, many of Asia's 130 million evangelicals would identify themselves as Pentecostal or charismatic.
The expansion of the Pentecostal/ charismatic church worldwide may be attributed in part to the social context in which it has often sprouted. As Samuel Escobar explains in his book The New Global Mission, Pentecostalism has grown most rapidly among the socially marginalized and economically impoverished--sectors often overlooked in the church.
But he further notes, "After more than a century of existence and a process of institutionalization, several old Pentecostal churches are now middle or upper class in composition, thanks to the social mobility made possible by conversion experiences."
In a recent interview with Ministries Today, Grant McClung agreed, suggesting that the movement has become "more sophisticated." "This may become a problem unless we catch more of the early spirit of the 'missionaries with a one-way ticket,'" he says, referring to the age when missionaries left for the field with no plans--or resources--to return home.
McClung, the author of Globalbeliever.com and Azusa Street and Beyond, is field director for the Church of God Europe, overseeing the areas of Western Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. He is also associate professor of missions and church growth at the Church of God Theological Seminary in Cleveland, Tennessee.
While the missionaries of the 19th and early 20th centuries confronted disease, primitive conditions and geographical inaccessibility, the challenges of today are often more intangible.
David Shibley, founder and president of Global Advance, contends that militant Islam, postmodernism and universalism pose as the three major worldviews at odds with the gospel. "While Communism is not the threat it once was, the philosophy behind it is still alive and kicking," he adds. "This is the challenge of materialism--a worldview that places great value on material things and little value on spiritual things."
However, even in light of challenges such as these, one fact must be noted: the healthiest and most vibrant sectors of Christendom are those suffering the greatest economic, political and social upheaval.
As Howard Foltz, professor of global evangelization at Regent University School of Divinity, notes, the growth of the church in countries such as China (the largest Communist nation in the world) and Indonesia (the largest Islamic nation in the world) is staggering. "Wherever there is persecution and hostility toward the gospel, the church is growing faster because of it," he contends.
Missiologists argue that this unprecedented growth must be faced with a willingness on the part of the Western church to adjust traditional models of missions.
"Missions is no longer seen as solely the task of the Western church," Shibley says, noting that, as of the 1990s, more missionaries were deployed from non-Western nations than from Western nations. "It is the privilege of the worldwide church."
The implication of these statistics is that, although the need still exists for pioneer missionaries and church planters, tomorrow's missionaries will be "partners" rather than "parents." Foltz notes, the "controller/director" model that dominated missions from the Colonial era to the late 20th century is being replaced by a "servant/trainer" model.
It is widely accepted that indigenous evangelists are more effective at reaching a culture than are outsiders. However, Western missions agencies have often been reluctant to release the reigns and allow the national church to be self-supporting, self-propagating and self-theologizing.
While there is always the real possibility that an indigenous church will end up looking a lot different than the typical Western counterpart, the importance of a culturally authentic expression of the gospel cannot be understated.
"Too often, because American churches have had the financial resources, we have been too controlling overseas," McClung explains. "We need to set up new patterns of partnership with non-Western evangelists and missionaries in a final team effort to penetrate the darkness and finish the Commission we were given."
From the advent of the modern printing press--which many attribute to spawning the Protestant Reformation---to today's World Wide Web and satellite broadcasts, advancing technology has introduced new methods for completing the Great Commission.
For instance, David Shibley points out that perhaps the greatest 20th century evangelistic tool arrived in the form of the JESUS film, which has resulted in more than 176 million conversions.
But technology's benefits can be deceptive at best and dangerous at worst. As Howard Foltz contends, "It is irrelevant to put typical Western teaching on the Web and send it around the globe thinking that it will relate to people in the 162 countries of the world--let alone the 12,000 people groups."
Television, radio, books and the Internet may end up doing more harm than good if they merely export a Western version of Christianity, without allowing theology to sprout and be cultivated in an indigenous context.
David Shibley notes that--whether using the printing press or the satellite---Christians from Martin Luther to Billy Graham have harnessed technology to spread the gospel.
However, citing the increasing global presence of Internet cafes and the educational opportunities that computers afford, he suggests that technology may more effectively be harnessed to serve the goals of training and discipleship.
But Shibley ultimately questions the suggestion that high-tech gadgetry will ever replace human contact. "The gospel will always remain relational at its roots," he says. "It takes breathing humans interacting with other breathing humans to experience the power of the resurrected Christ."
Additionally, Foltz notes that the notion that radio, television or Web broadcasts alone will reach unevangelized sectors of the globe is faulty.
"Just having the potential audience does not mean that they're listening," he contends. "And just because they're listening doesn't mean they understand."
THE AMERICAN SCENE
The growth of the church overseas often begs the question, "What will become of the United States?" The overall cultural decline and lack of growth in many churches juxtaposed with a burgeoning demand for Christian books, music, television and movies presents a conundrum for the American evangelist.
Scott Hinkle, an evangelist based in Phoenix, suggests that the booming Christian subculture is no indication of substantive revival. "It merely reflects the trends of our culture and society," says the president of Soulwinners International, a ministry that trains people for evangelism. "We are inundated by information on every level, but it doesn't mean that we're being transformed at our roots--at our hearts."
Some believe that the evangelistic fervor of the Pentecostal/charismatic movement has waned. "Many people finance missions overseas," says James Davis, an Assemblies of God evangelist and president of the Global Pastors Network. "But merely giving is not the end result of what God has called us to be and to do. We are not gaining lost ground."
And some question whether the church is really even digging deep to finance reaching the lost--let alone participating. "Only 2 percent of most churches' revenue goes to evangelism," Hinkle says. "We've become a 'remote control' society. If I pray and send a check, I've done the job."
However, evangelists such as Davis and Hinkle are optimistic when they observe new trends toward cooperation among American churches. "Fences are falling, territorialism is dying, partnership is flourishing," Davis says. "But this will pose a greater challenge for the evangelist to find a place, a function."
Although they admit that the public perception of the evangelist has taken a beating in recent years, both Hinkle and Davis point out that the stereotype of flamboyance and shady morals applied to evangelists can just as often be assigned to pastors.
"Because some evangelists are more in the media, we tend to remember their failures more than those of local pastors," Davis says. "But the impact of a pastor falling is greater than that of an evangelist--it's closer to home."
Hinkle agrees and traces the stereotype to a lack of accountability that has sometimes characterized evangelists' ministries. "I've made it my practice to be a part of a local church," says Hinkle, who bases his ministry at Phoenix First Assembly and holds credentials with Christ for the Nations Institute.
Davis encourages evangelists to pursue relationships that will offer accountability. "There needs to be guidelines and standards," he says. "And evangelists should stay away from the latest gimmicks and tricks of the trade."
THE UNFINISHED TASK
A 2002 study conducted by the U.S. Center for World Mission (USCWM) acknowledged the global growth of the Christian faith, but confirmed two key concerns:
The first is the growth of Islam as compared to that of the church. While strongly committed Christian groups (referred to in the study as "Great Commission Christians") are growing at a rate of 1.44 percent worldwide, Islam is expanding at 2.11 percent.
The second is the imbalance of resources devoted to evangelizing nominal Christians versus unreached people groups. Seventy-four percent of Protestant-missionary funds are supporting workers laboring among nominal Christian groups, versus 11 percent among Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus; 8 percent among tribal people; 4 percent among the nonreligious; 2 percent among Chinese folk religions and 1 percent among Jews.
As Howard Foltz notes, there is enough money to support the church, feed the hungry and expand the kingdom exponentially ... if the majority of Christians would merely tithe. Foltz cites George Barna's notoriously depressing 2003 stewardship study that indicated only 9 percent of evangelicals tithe.
It could be argued that Christians feel a lack of confidence when giving--wondering how much of their hard-earned money is actually going to evangelizing the unreached and how much is being spent on propping up institutional structures in the Western world.
For instance, the USCWM study notes that the church spends more money dealing with "ecclesiastical crime" than is spent on foreign missions---$18 billion, versus $17 billion. And the $17 billion spent on missions is only .001 percent of the Christian church's total annual income of $15.5 trillion.
But, lest we labor under the assumption that money is the fuel of missions, the facts suggest that a commitment to spread the gospel often overcomes a seeming lack of resources. Take, for instance, two nations that have come to the forefront in sending missionaries worldwide: Nigeria and South Korea.
With an average annual income of $280 per person (.9 percent of the income per person in the United States), most Nigerian believers are challenged to keep food on the table, yet, in Operation World, Patrick Johnstone estimates that 3,700 Nigerian missionaries are working in more than 50 countries.
Or, consider that South Korean believers, with an average income of $10,550 per person (34 percent of the income per person in the United States), are currently supporting more than 12,000 missionaries in 156 countries.
USCWM further confirms that if money were the key to converting unbelievers, the United States would be a veritable hotbed of revival: While an average of $1,400 is spent to reach every new convert in Mozambique, it takes $1.5 million to convert and baptize one American.
The passion and initiative for global evangelism embraced by the global church are indications that the unfinished task of the Great Commission will be accomplished. But Western believers must adopt a spirit of flexibility and humility, building long-term partnerships and practicing servanthood.
As Foltz notes, the goal of a missionary should always be analogous to that of a farmer. "Dig deep, plough a straight furrow, go far," he says. "Don't think merely about sowing the seed--think about the harvest."
Three Tasks for the 21st Century
How your church can participate in the Great Commission.
A Holistic Message: More than ever, the church has an opportunity to alleviate human suffering. As David Shibley, founder and president of Global Advance, explains, "The gospel must be communicated as a 'three-fold' chord: proclamation, humanitarian works done in Jesus' name and demonstrations of the power of the risen Christ."
For instance, numerous opportunities exist for Western churches to partner with the church overseas through organizations such as World Relief (WR), the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals.
Recently, WR (www.worldrelief.org) has channeled extensive resources to churches in sub-Saharan Africa, where--in the nations of Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Lesotho and Botswana---the organization estimates that 40 percent of the population are infected with AIDS.
"Only a change in the way people live can turn the tide," WR's president, Clive Calver, contends. "Behavioral change at the grass-roots level is the only hope for Africa's embattled communities. Only the church can play a unique and leading role in turning the tide of despair."
Passing the Torch: As missionary models shift, the Western church must not only evangelize the unreached, but it must also equip indigenous leaders to do so. David Shibley notes that "the quickest, most cost-effective and culturally relevant way to fulfill the Great Commission is to equip national pastors and other ministry leaders--especially in developing countries."
To do this, however, the vast resources and educational wealth of the Western church must be redirected to prepare future generations of church leaders in the global church. Organizations such as Shibley's Global Advance (www.globaladvance.org) provide on-site training to pastors and leaders in areas where ministerial education is otherwise inaccessible.
Opportunities abound for the Western church to participate in such ventures by providing educational materials for national pastors or by sending leaders overseas to equip pastors and ministers. Organizations such as Global Pastors Network (www.globalpastors network.org) and International School of Ministry (www.isom.org) specialize in harnessing Internet and electronic curriculum technology to train pastors in areas where formal theological education is nonexistent.
The World Next Door: According to the 2000 U.S. Census, more than 11 percent of the population is foreign-born. Churches in growing urban areas are presented with immense opportunities for reaching out to immigrants through teaching English, job placement and assistance in finding housing.
Often, those ministering among immigrants in the United States find them more open toward a presentation of the gospel than they would be on their home turfs. Additionally, increasing political and religious oppression in some nations has brought asylum-seekers to the United States from nations where traditional missionary activity is illegal.
As James Davis, an Assemblies of God evangelist and president of the Global Pastors Network, notes, future evangelistic efforts in the United States may demand the same level of flexibility and sensitivity required of foreign missionaries--and a greater commitment to diversity on the part of the local church. "By 2050, Hispanics will be the majority ethnic group in the United States," he says. "The church must be intentional about crossing these bridges.
Matthew Green is associate editor for Ministries Today.