Mission fields expand across the globe

By Elliott Wright

In today’s world, Christian mission flows in all directions.

The rapid growth of African, Asian, and Latin American missionaries, and the evolution of Western Europe into a mission field, are two of the major changes that have occurred in the hundred years between a historic World Missionary Conference of 1910 in Edinburgh, Scotland, and a global mission conference this month in the same city.

About 40 percent of the United Methodist Church’s missionaries, for example, are from Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
A century ago, as numerous speakers at Edinburgh 2010 pointed out, planet Earth could be divided into the “Christian world” of Europe and North America and the mission fields of Africa and Asia. In the view of the entirely Protestant participants in 1910, mission energy flowed from north to south, with denominational mission agencies usually in charge.

Today, the “global South”—Africa, parts of Asia, and Latin America—contain vibrant, growing churches and Christian communities, both mission-founded and indigenous. Many are Pentecostal or independent. Meanwhile, the older churches of the Northern Hemisphere have lost members to secularism or new forms of spirituality.

Impact of religious liberty. The Rev. Bertil Eksrom, a missionary in Brazil with the World Evangelical Alliance, speaking in a conference plenary session, saw the growth of all kinds of religious expressions as one sign of the growth of religious liberty in formerly closed societies.

Presbyterian, Pentecostal, and Methodist churches in South Korea send thousands of missionaries into the rest of the world.  Korea’s Yoido Full Gospel Church, whose leader, the Rev. Young-Hoon Lee, spoke in Edinburgh, has missionaries throughout Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe, with some in the United States and Western Europe.

The Rev. Tinyiko Sam Maluleke, president of the South Africa Council of Churches, said Africa had both benefited from and been a “victim of mission.” Much of the past, notably northern Christian assumptions of superiority, must be undone, he said.

Ideally, he added, mission is an exchange among equals and cannot be understood as what “the rich do to the poor, what men do to women, what people from the North do to people of the South.”

Maluleke also said the lack of any controls leads to “new challenges” of relationships and objectives. The awareness that mission today goes in all directions without clear lines of accountability figured in deliberations on how various Christian denominations or theological perspectives relate to one another in the context of evangelism and church growth.

An underlying consensus at the conference was that the various parts of the Christian family have done a better job historically of collaborating in providing humanitarian services than they have in evangelism aimed at church growth.

The World Council of Churches, the Vatican, and the World Evangelical Association are currently working on what could become guidelines on how churches respect one another’s members. The council represents Protestant and Orthodox churches.

New mission fields. Mission from Africa to the north is also happening today, although in what degree is not easily determined. Such work relates to migration, with African Christians, including United Methodists, moving to Europe for professional or economic reasons and then setting up churches or linking to existing denominations.

The Rev. Fidon R. Mwombeki, top executive of the United Evangelical Mission based in Wuppertal, Germany, said many of these emerging churches are independent of European church structures.

“They do start with the people from their own countries,” he explained, “but they are slowly getting a footing in Europe and with not a few European members and interested people.”

Maluleke, speaking in a press conference, commended this trend as good for north and south and wished it were more common.
“All sorts of problems stand in the way of getting into European countries—racism, immigration issues,” he said. “I celebrate the few and wish for more.”

Elliot Wright is a freelance writer based in New York. This article was distributed by United Methodist News Service.