4 Surprising Trends in Christian Mission

After arriving at Gordon-Conwell, I was able to help out in the Center for the Study of Global Christianity as a student worker. If you’re not familiar with CSGC, they have been instrumental in mapping Christian mission to help the missionaries and organizations strategically approach Christian missions. They’re widely cited in CNN, BBC, and really anyone else who looks for stats on Christian demographics, particularly martyrdom. The team has written widely on the topic including the massive Atlas of Global Christianity and the World Christian Database. I was re-reading an article by Dr. Todd Johnson and Bert Hickman (J&H), and it was just too good to keep to myself. You’ll find the original article at this link, but I’ve copied the trends below. All quotes are from the article.

1. There is enough evangelism to reach everyone in the world.

Yes, you read that right.

There is enough evangelism in the world today for every person to hear a one-hour presentation of the gospel every other day for an entire year.

“This amounts to over 1,136 billion hours of evangelism, ranging from personal communication to TV and radio broadcasting.” Of course, we’d expect some places to have more evangelism than others, but Johnson and Hickman don’t have great news for us. “Asia and Northern Africa, which have the largest non-Christian populations, also receive the fewest hours of evangelism on a per-capita basis.” Some of this can be explained by the hostility against Christianity in those places, but Christianity is focused on those places, right? Well… Not really. Or at all.

2. Most Christian outreach never reaches non-Christians.

J&H find over 85% of all Christian evangelism is aimed at other Christians and does not reach non-Christians. This could be categorized in a number of ways, but it is particularly related to cross-denominational missions. It’s not just the West, who has been rightly and severely criticized for its mission work in the Global South (e.g., colonialism). “What is surprising today is how missionaries from the Global South have also been drawn into mission primarily to other Christians. Deployment studies in Nigeria and India have shown this to be the case, although there is a perceptible shift in the past decade toward work among non-Christians.”

3. Christians are out of contact with Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists.

Recent research reveals that as many as 86% of all Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists do not personally know a Christian.” J&H reflect, “This has to be viewed negatively in light of the strong biblical theme of incarnation that is at the heart of Christian witness. Christians should know and love their neighbors! In the 21st century it is important to realize that the responsibility for reaching Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists is too large for the missionary enterprise. While missionaries will always be at the forefront of innovative strategies, the whole church needs to participate in inviting people of other faiths to consider Jesus Christ. Note that Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists are increasingly found living in traditionally “Christian” lands.”

4. And yet, many of the most responsive peoples are Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist.

As of 2010, 91% of most responsive peoples to the gospel were Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist and reside in China, India, and Afghanistan.

“Our analysis in the World Christian Database reveals that of the top 100 most responsive people groups over 1 million in size, 22 are Tribal (9% of the total by population), 31 are Hindu (48%), 31 are Muslim (25%), and 4 are Buddhist (9%). The five most responsive of these are the Jinyu of China (Buddhist), the Khandeshi of India (Tribal), the Southern Pathan of Afghanistan (Muslim), the Magadhi Bihari of India (Hindu) and the Maitili of India (Hindu).

Why are these trends happening?

Johnson and Hickman list 7 reasons for these trends, but I’ve summarized them in four points below (see the article above for their full analysis).

1. A general lack of knowledge

Five of Johnson and Hickman’s 7 points lament the lack of knowledge among Christians, but it’s worse with evangelicals. Several surveys show a general lack of knowledge about basic geography, world history, global cultures, and particularly other religions. It’s hard to know where mission is needed most when one can’t even identify Afghanistan on a map. Worse still, American Christians lack knowledge about the Bible. Johnson and Hickman report that the most widely known Bible verse among adult and teen believers is “God helps those who help themselves”—which is not in the Bible and conflicts with the basic message of Scripture. (Barna Research Online, “Religious Beliefs Vary Widely by Denomination,” June 25, 2001).

I may add that a lack of knowledge about biblical interpretation is a massive obstacle. Even among those who can quote the Bible, many think they are not “interpreting” the Bible at all, but are simply “reading it” and taking it at face value. To paraphrase Boromir, “One does not simply [read the Bible.]”

2. An Over-Emphasis on a “Clash of Civilizations”

“Too much attention has been given to conflict between Muslims and Christians. In 1800, one third of the world’s population was either Christian or Muslim. Today, it is 55% of the world and could grow to two thirds before 2100. This underlines the necessity of pursuing good relations between Christians and Muslims rather than focusing only on the potential for conflict. For example, in the context of a stimulating discussion on whether or not Christians and Muslims wordship the same God, Miroslav Volf’s Allah: A Christian Response (HarperOne, 2011) also examines the basis Christians and Muslims have for working together on issues facing their communities.” (Volf’s Allah is available for $2.99 right now)

3. Lack of hospitality and friendship with non-Christians.

Since around 86% of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists do not personally know a Christian, we can confidently say Christians have become rather insular as a whole. “Christians should know and love their neighbors. The whole church needs to participate in inviting people of other faiths to consider Jesus Christ.” Again, this is hard to do when the “us vs. them” mentality is popular within Christianity.

What can do we do to change these trends?

For those who work directly in missions, Johnson and Hickman have several strategies to employ. Thankfully, they have several points that the rest of us who do not directly work with or send out missionaries can consider and work on as we support our missionaries.

1. Empower churches  to interact in religiously diverse communities

Johnson and Hickman write: “Many Christians seem to fear religiously diverse communities rather than seeing them as opportunities to impact many different people. As a result, there can be a tendency, if not to avoid these diverse communities, then to stay isolated in a Christian community within them. What might happen if missionaries intentionally went to religiously diverse communities to reach religionists of different backgrounds? What might happen if church members living in religiously diverse communities could be trained to interact with, rather than fear or avoid, adherents of a variety of religions?”

2. Deepen knowledge and theology of world religions  in congregations and missionaries

To fight ignorance and fear, we have to focus on education. If we can understand other faiths “including their histories, significant figures, sacred writings, and beliefs and practices,” we will better be ale to understand the “similarities and differences between Christianity and other religions,” (J&H, 20). However, “mission strategy is eroded if congregations and missionaries do not go beyond the surface to understand the theology of world religions,” (ibid).

3. Training in Civility

It is a shame that this has to be spelled out. “Christians can be at times so focused on being right that we fail to see the ‘other’ as equally made in God’s image and worthy of our love and respect. While civility within the church is recognized as a virtue, civility to those outside the church should be equally so. Mission strategy is strengthened by the civility that congregations and missionaries practice toward other religionists,” (J&H, 20). J&H recommend Richard Mouw’s Uncommon Decency: Civility in an Uncivil World (IVP, 2010) for this “often neglected area.” In addition, as education in one area advances, you will see a transformation taking place. Gestures, phrases, and signals that many don’t know are offensive to others will begin to disappear.

Though this might be a tough pill to swallow, we have to come to grips with the reality that Christians need more education to effectively carry out the Great Commission. Education and ridding ourselves of an insular attitude will definitely help us going forward.
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