Pastoral Perspectives

The Future of Missions

According to the United Nations, over one billion youths live in the world today; that means one person in five is between the ages of 15 and 24. The millennial generation will change things significantly, and the massive size of this generation will predictably change the way missions will operate for decades and decades to come.

In recent times, tens of millions of baby boomers will retire during the next decade. This generation (like myself) will certainly impact scores of missionary endeavours around the world as aging boomers retire from Christian service. It is imperative for churches and agencies alike to prepare now for a significant turnover in their workforce due to the coming retirement of this age group.

Throughout the first two eras of the modern missionary movement, beginning with William Carey in the 18th century and ending sometime in the latter half of the last century, the definition of missions was clear: missions was the job of missionaries who travelled overseas with a lifetime commitment to bring the gospel message to those who had never heard.  The role of mission committees in the churches was to support the missionaries in their task, and the distinction between missions and other ministries in the church was clear.  However, times have changed. 

It will be critical for ministry leaders to anticipate and prepare for this coming change in modus operandi. There are basically two seemingly contradictory ways to actively get ready for this impending scenario.

In times past, missions is initiated by those who are “sent”. In Acts 13:2-4, recounting an incident that occurred in the church at Antioch, the distinction between other ministries of the church and missions is clear in this passage. The church at Antioch had a responsibility to be Christ’s witness in their local context, but they also set apart Paul and Barnabas for a distinct task that was fulfilled beyond the boundaries of the church, i.e. they were sent out to initiate the kingdom in a context where the church had no influence. The church did not directly benefit or grow numerically through this process. On the contrary, they sacrificed their “best and brightest” in order to see other churches being planted elsewhere.

Looking at missions today, the future of instant global communication is absolutely not tied to a desk. Ask any teenager or preteen. They’d much rather have a cell phone than a computer. They’re experts at texting and rarely or never use e-mail. Authors Thom and Jess Rainer say that about 70 percent of millennials are friends with someone from a different ethnic or racial background and that 87 percent of millennials are willing to marry someone outside their racial or ethnic group.

(The Millennials: Connecting to American’s Largest Generation).

The face of the mission-sending world is changing dramatically as the center of gravity is shifting from the Western World to the Majority World. Those who were previously receivers of missionaries have now become some of the most vital mission-sending churches in the world. For example, Brazil, Korea, and India are among the top ten mission-sending countries. China has hopes of equipping 20,000 missionaries in the next twenty years. Nigeria has the fourth largest number of evangelical Christians in the world, and is one of the fastest-growing mission-sending countries. Over 20,000 Africans currently serve as missionaries outside their own countries. In fact, this is a cause for great rejoicing! At the same time, these changing dynamics have left many mission organisations in the West struggling to understand their future role.

Over the past several decades, an increasingly interconnected and globalised world has given rise to hundreds of networks in every field of mission. Through these networks, ministries around the world are meeting, sharing information and resources, and collectively working together to respond to some of the greatest challenges and opportunities of our day. These mission networks are now playing a vital role in shaping Great Commission strategies and the future of the world mission movement.

Missions research tells us that “The worst thing you can possibly do with millennials is treat them like children, talk down to them, or make them feel disrespected; one of the worst possible responses is for a leader to outright negate those aspirations or to indicate a bored unwillingness to even consider them.”

Today, the idea of proving yourself through experience doesn’t exist. Actually, it’s quite the opposite. Most twentysomethings think they should have more responsibility than given and potentially a higher influence into the overall direction of the company. Because they’ve thought through some things in theory, they assume they know best – and others should recognise what they have to offer.

What may become of our generation of missionaries is emerging. True Way should support, encourage, train and serve missionaries to make every attempt to capitalise on their strengths and collaborate with them to maximise their impact on the world. Adjusting to these changes will be difficult; the very nature of missions is to meet people where they are, adapt to their culture and help them become Christ-like in their approach to life. Millennials have much to learn. They must be shepherded into becoming obedient servants of Jesus for the sake of Gospel expansion.

Rev Tan Cheng Huat

July 30, 2017