GlobalPlus: Missionary Trends


Nigerian missionaries in Jerusalem.

Indigenous missions transforming global religious landscape: No longer ‘the West to the rest’

By Kerby Goff*

The mission leader and four other young men set out from Chittagong, a large port city on the southeastern coast of Bangladesh, to provide support to rural children caught up in fighting between the military and a local rebel group.

A recent gunfight shut down travel between villages, leaving many young people without access to school in the remote hill country where the leader’s brother lived.

His brother had warned them about the dangers; but they were resolute. All the missionaries brought with them were a guitar and a camera.

After a five-hour bus ride up the mountains, Nobel, not his real name for safety concerns, and his missionary team traveled by canoe two more hours to the first village. There they taught songs and Bible stories to the children, all the while looking over their shoulders for rebel soldiers.

The daring journey by indigenous workers does not fit into the narrative, for better or worse, that has developed over centuries regarding Christian missionaries.

Whether they are viewed as symbols of Western imperialism or heroes of the faith, most Western onlookers do tend to share one common stereotype: Christian missionaries are predominantly white and Western.

Yet missionaries like Nobel are not anomalies in the field of global Christian mission. There are more than 5.6 million non-Western Christian workers and missionaries working around the world today.

No longer is Christian missions a project of the West to the rest.

Almost half of the 425,000 foreign missionaries in the world are non-Western, according to the World Christian Database. There are Brazilians serving in India, Chinese serving in Central Asia, Nigerians planting megachurches in Europe, and even Texas, and Koreans serving everywhere.

To ignore this reality is to miss one of the great transformations of missions in the modern age.

The rest of the story

While the existence of those who travel to propagate their faith is as old as religion, the past 200 years of Protestant missionary efforts hold a unique place in the collective memory of the Western world.

In the U.S. and England, missionary periodicals and biographies were widely circulated and shaped the collective imagination. Even non-religious literature, such as the novel Jane Eyre and newspapers like The New York Times, featured missionaries and missionary topics.

Not that these depictions were always accurate.

From the beginning of the modern Protestant missionary movement, non-Western voices played a visible, even if minor, role.

Consider the early feminist educator and Christian convert Pandita Ramabai of India and the Chinese mission statesman Cheng Jingyi, who worked for an independent, unified Chinese Christian church.

They were among the thousands of native preachers, missionary leaders and educators, many sponsored by Western mission agencies, who would become the foundation of a global movement that today knows no borders.

But it was not until the period after the end of World War I that a major shift occurred in thinking about global missions.


Korean missionaries in Africa.

The rise of the Global South

Both missionary leaders and popular culture began to rethink traditional missions following the horrific global conflict that ended in 1918.

The colonial missionary movement was recast as a project of Western cultural imperialism, and both scholarship and popular culture took up this perspective increasingly over the past century.

At the same time, indigenous Christian movements emerged across the world—from African-initiated churches in Sub-Saharan Africa to the Chinese founded “local church” movement of Witness Lee.

Formerly Western-centered denominations saw their control diminish with such developments as the growth of Presbyterianism in South Korea or the expansion of Anglicanism in Kenya and Nigeria.

Today, the extent to which Christians from the global south are initiating missions to countries in both their own regions and in the West—Chinese missionaries in Pakistan, Nigerian missionaries in Europe, Brazilian missionaries in the Middle East—is fundamentally changing the nature and future of Christian missions.

In the early 20th century, Chinese Christians and American missionaries envisioned China as God’s instrument to “take the Gospel” back to Jerusalem.

The Chinese “Back to Jerusalem Movement” is one example of this rebalancing of missionary aims.

More recently, Korean missionaries have moved further west, to the U.S., in attempts to re-Christianize “modern Rome,” and Nigerian Pentecostal missionaries are pursuing “reverse mission” to re-Christianize Europe.

Public awareness is catching up with developments on the ground in part because of high-profile cases such as an international incident in 2007 when 23 South Korean missionaries were taken hostage in Afghanistan.

This crisis helped bring to Western eyes the transformation which mission scholars and most non-Western Christians have known for some time: Missionaries now embark from every region of the world to every region of the world.

Indigenous missions revive and reshape Christianity

In addition to “recovering” indigenous contributions to global mission over centuries, recent scholarship has also shown how little success Western missions ever had in winning over non-Christians.

If cultural imperialism is measured in terms of conversions, colonial missionaries were dismal failures: Most missionaries saw very few conversions in their lifetime. Indigenously initiated and locally led Christian movements expanded only after missionaries left.

The expansion of Christianity in the global south is largely the result of indigenous Christians who, on their own initiative and in their own way, built on those missionary origins, Philip Jenkins noted in his book, The Next Christendom.

In 1910, 80 percent of all the world’s Christians lived in Europe and North America. By 2015, sixty-five percent of the world’s Christians could be found in Africa, Asia and Latin America. If it weren’t for global south to north migration, this number might be even higher.

As historian Mark Knoll has argued, 20th-century Christian expansion in the global south tends to follow similar patterns as Christian growth in the 18th and 19th centuries in the U.S.

Missionaries left behind an open religious market and important skills, practices and resources upon which indigenous Christians built.

This is not to diminish the role Western missions played in sowing the seeds for the remarkable growth.

Over the past decade, economists and sociologists have demonstrated how non-Western Christianity’s colonial origins have indirectly shaped subsequent societal growth, highlighting the importance of missionary emphasis on democracy and civil society, literacy and education, medical training and the inclusion of girls and women in these endeavors.

Christians of the global south have used these skills and opportunities to establish their own influence throughout the globe.

This has not been without some conflict.

As recent Christian immigrants, especially missionaries, hold more traditional religious and cultural values, their efforts to “engage the culture” can often come across as hostile to liberal Western values.

This has been evident within the worldwide Anglican communion as African bishops have considered the U.S. a “mission field” and provided an alternative affiliation to the American Episcopal hierarchy. More recent splits in the global United Methodist Church have followed similar patterns.

Such tensions are not unusual.

Recently, scholars studying colonial Protestant missionaries also are increasingly pointing out how, from early on, the mission field often influenced the missionaries as much or more than they were influenced.

Jay Riley Case, in his account of this dynamic among American Protestant missionaries, shows how one of the most “successful” missionary ventures of the 19th century—the emergence of Karen Christianity in Burma—was actually initiated, expanded, and sustained by indigenous Karen Christians, often in the face of American missionary apathy and resistance.

Both historical and contemporary research on Christian missionaries—Protestant and Catholic—is emphasizing the agency and initiative of non-Western Christians.


Christian missionaries rock 32nd Street.

The future

Nobel’s introduction to missionary work likewise occurred in parallel with Western initiatives. Growing up as an orphan in Bangladesh, Nobel had frequent contact with Western missionaries who regularly visited the locally run orphanage.

Hearing their stories of faith and risk, he was inspired to follow in their footsteps. Following high school, Nobel joined an American-based international missionary organization and attended one of their training schools.

Nobel is now connected to an international cosmopolitan class of missionaries that is increasingly decentralized. He’s held leadership positions over both local and Western missionaries and initiated new missionary projects with funding from this network.

While benefiting from Western connections, today’s non-Western missionaries participate in regional conferences of indigenous leaders, cross nearby borders on self-initiated missions, and depend upon local languages and knowledge.

Far from being passive recipients or objects of Western initiative, the growing cadre of indigenous missionaries are pioneers, both contributors and entrepreneurs, within this global field of Christian missions.

Nigerian pastor Michael Efueye started in London as a missionary from Nigerian church House on the Rock to plant an extension of this Nigerian megachurch.

Indian convert K.P. Yohanan began one of the largest international missionary organizations supporting local Indian missionaries.

Like Pandita Ramabai and Cheng Jingyi before them, today’s non-Western missionaries, particularly the leaders, have translated the Christian faith into understandings and aims that make sense to them and for the people they represent.

While the legacy of Western missionaries is mixed, national Christians have appropriated the resources and patterns of religion left behind.

As Nobel, and others like him, venture out in hopes of making a difference, they are transforming perceptions of who a Christian missionary is and transgressing traditional geographical boundaries of religion.

Whether this draws peoples of different nationalities together, time will tell.

However, the center of gravity has decidedly shifted, and observers of global religion would do well to take note.

*Kerby Goff is a doctoral student in sociology at Pennsylvania State University, and is a researcher for the Association of Religion Data Archives.

Resources:

Association of Religion Data Archives: Search nearly 1,000 surveys and find citations for several hundred journal articles for comprehensive information on topics such as missions and the globalization of religion.

ARDA National Profiles: View religious, demographic, socio-economic and public opinion data for all nations with populations of more than 2 million.

The World Christian Database provides comprehensive statistical information on world religions, Christian denominations, and people groups.

Articles:

Burgess, Richard. Bringing Back the Gospel: Reverse Mission among Nigerian Pentecostals in Britain. The article discusses the concept ‘reverse mission’ in relation to Nigerian-initiated Pentecostal churches in Britain.

Kim, Rebecca Y. Why are missionaries in America? A case study of a Korean mission movement in the United States. The article is based on an in-depth case study of one of the largest missionary-sending agencies in South Korea that sends many of its missionaries to the United States

Prado, Oswaldo. A New Way of Sending Missionaries: Lessons from Brazil. The article explores the growth of Brazilian Protestantism to become a force in international missions.

Books:

Case, Jay Riley. An Unpredictable Gospel: American Evangelicals and World Christianity, 1812-1920. The author examines the efforts of early American evangelical missionaries, finding the ministries that were most successful were those that empowered the local population and adapted to local cultures. In fact, he writes, influence often flowed the other way, with missionaries serving as conduits for ideas that shaped American evangelicalism.

Jenkins, Philip. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. 3rd ed. The book explores the remarkable expansion of Christianity in the global South–in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Robert, Dana Lee. Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion. The work examines Christian missions and their relationship to the current globalization of Christianity.

Sanneh, Lamin O. Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity. The book looks at how Christianity, long the dominant religion of the West, is becoming the principal faith in much of the postcolonial world–a development that marks a momentous shift in the religion’s very center of gravity.

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Image by Young Sok Yun 윤영석, via Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

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