Theology of Mission in a Changing World - Overview
The Great Commission
"Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go.
When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said,
'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of
all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and
teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to
the very end of the age.' " (Matthew 28:16-20)
We are committed to world evangelism. However, the "look and feel" of the world Christian
movement and society are constantly changing. We are influenced by:
explosion in world population
political changes, actors and events
cultural differences and developments
Global outreach, church life, governance structures, denominational affiliations and doctrinal
distinctives vary from one place and time to another. We need to understand the issues and the
trends, to enable us to interpret the context in we are all living and working for Christ.
World historical and predicted populations (in millions)
Source: Dr Todd Johnson, Director of the Centre for the Study of Global Christianity
at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
The average Christian family in 1913 can be represented by a European family with few children
(although many European families were quite large at the time). Children went to Sunday
School. In 2013, the average Christian family is much more likely to be African or Latin
American, with more children. And people are increasingly living in cities.
In 2008, for the first time, the world's population was evenly split between urban and rural
areas. There were more than 400 cities over 1 million and 19 over 10 million. More developed
nations were about 74 per cent urban, while 44 per cent of residents of less developed countries
lived in urban areas. It is expected that 70 per cent of the world population will be urban by
2050. World mission needs to focus on cities.
The Impact of Culture on Mission
From the time of the birth of the church cultural trends have influenced the nature and
direction of the Christian community around the world. Members of the Body of Christ live and
operate within specific cultural environments.
Ministers emerging from Bible colleges in the West today are facing age gaps of up to 50 years
with their congregants or colleagues, becoming mired in disempowering governance procedures,
and not having their ideas taken seriously. In addition, fewer young people choose to enter the
ministry as a profession—presenting another challenge to the church. Young people in the West
easily drift away from church.
Where is the Christian church headed, in terms of its day to day expression? In order to answer
this question meaningfully it is important to understand our cultural setting, where we have
recently come from and how events that are unfolding in the world around us will impact our
identity and witness for Christ.
What is culture? It includes:
- shared history
- perceptions of the nature of government and how society should function
- common values
- art and architecture
- the nature of family/kinship and other relationships
- economic systems and segmentation
- political differences
- approaches to leadership
- treatment/celebration/commemoration of the stages of life
This means that expressions of the Christian message, the value of tradition and the shape of the
church, even many of its operational values, vary from one culture to another. What often
results is a mix of Biblical teaching, wrapped in conventions and changed to suit individuals,
often with elements rusted on that have nothing to do with the Gospel, and can help or hinder
proclamation and acceptance of the Message.
Our cultures define us more than we realise. We need to be aware of what cultural changes that
affect us mean in practice and know how to Christ cross-culturally.
The Church Has Historically Undergone Continuous Cultural Change.
Jewish versus Gentile Culture in the New Testament
In Jesus' day, there was not a unified, monolithic "Jewish culture". The Jewish historian
Josephus talks about three main schools of Judaism: the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the
Essenes (each of which had theological distinctives). From other sources we know of as many as
20 additional variations. Jesus encountered ethnic Jews, Samaritans, Hellenic Jews and non-
Jews, Roman administrators and soldiers, Arabs. On the Day of Pentecost:
"There were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.
Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus
and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from
Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs" (Acts 2:5, 9-11)
The earliest Christians had different cultures. Look at the book of Acts, which is our earliest
internal record of the history of the church.
Followers of Jesus Christ were not called "Christians" until further down the road historically, in
the context of the Hellenistic city of Antioch. Until then, the name that was used was a
descriptive term: "the people of the Way" or "the Nazarenes."
In Paul's letters and the book of Acts an assumption is made that the audience is predominantly
made up of Gentiles, some of whom started out as participants in Jewish culture. For example,
when Paul visited Philippi, he went out on the Sabbath (the traditional Jewish day of rest and
worship) to a place where people would be gathering for prayer (the small number of Jewish
men in Philippi meant there was not a synagogue in the city).
The Philippians were meeting on the Jewish holy day; praying to the Jewish God, reading the
Jewish Scriptures; and yet many of them were Gentiles in origin (consider also the story of the
Gentile Cornelius in Acts 10). These followers of Paul followed the rhythms of Jewish life; they
were sometimes referred to as "God-fearers". They were familiar with the Jewish calendar and
were deriving some sort of meaning out of observing these days. Many observers took the
Christian movement to be a sub-group of Judaism.
One of the greatest challenges facing Paul and others in leadership in the New Testament church
was "Judaisers", who insisted people accept Moses and become Jews ritually (including
submitting to the rite of circumcision) as part of their conversion to Jesus Christ. Paul rejected
the connection; it even led to an argument with the Apostle Peter:
"When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the
wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when
they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was
afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his
hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they
were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, "You
are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force
Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? We who are Jews by birth and not 'Gentile sinners' know
that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too,
have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by
observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified".
Parts of the Gentile church today still use models from Judaism/the Jerusalem church.
Acts 2:44-46 is often quoted as the norm for Christian relationships, but these patterns
(eg shared living) were generally not adopted by non-Jewish Christians. The latter were
Christians in their own cultural settings.
We have inherited the notion that God dwells in particular buildings, and sanctify those
buildings. We use terms such as "going to church", "the House of God", or "the presence
of God", in inaccurate ways.
Clothing worn by priests is a reminder of the Old Testament priesthood.
The teaching that priests stand between people and God, to intercede, is widespread but
is not Biblical.
Clergy versus "Laity"
Differentiating between professional clergy and the rest of the Body of Christ is not
Biblical. It ends up excluding most Christians from service.
It is important not to become too legalistic, applying one cultural tradition (including ours) to
Many of the major splits in the Christian movement have resulted from rejection of the legalistic
application of old cultures not supported by the Gospel.
There are some absolutes. In Acts 15 these centred on matters of morality and worship.
Fast Forward - brief overview of mega-trends in the 20th century:
Post Industrial, Post Modern
A little over one hundred years ago the Western world was in transition to the 20th century.
Most of the globe was controlled by a handful of colonial powers and strong class structures
prevailed. Aviation was in its infancy. The political structures in Europe were being challenged
by Bolshevism and other winds of change. Most leaders did not believe armed conflict was
imminent. Social structures were relatively sound. New political parties demanded access to
wealth. The USA was isolationist. Darwinism was having an impact on thinking about the origins
and nature of all things.
In Australia the economy was growing. Melbourne was the second largest city in the world, in
terms of population. Roman Catholic and Protestant interests were at ideological loggerheads
(reflected in the political divide, partly because of the mixed origins of European settlement and
the make-up of the workforce), but Australia was generally regarded as a "Christian country".
The commitment to Empire was almost absolute.
Since then, there have been two world wars, a Great Depression (and several other major
economic shocks), a protracted Cold War, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union and its satellites
and client states, decolonisation (leading to the birth of dozens of new nation states), several
moon and Mars landings (and exploration beyond), the Arab Spring, an information revolution
and an explosion in the population of the world (linked in large part to amazing leaps forward in
The majority of scientists ever to have lived are alive today. Islam has emerged as a force in the
global political economy. The global influence of the United States has waxed and waned. The
world has become a global village. God has variously been declared "dead", female and "part
of every one of us". Western countries have become much more pluralistic in make-up. The
planet has become warmer. And we are in another new century.
Contemporary Christianity in the West
The shape, size and influence of Christianity in the West have changed dramatically during the
past 100 years.
- In Western Europe, interest in Christianity and personal faith in Christ has fallen, and it
has become perhaps the most secular region in the world, with most people being
Christian in name only. For example, Spain has some 28,000 towns and villages without a
single evangelical church; France is in a similar situation.
- There is less talk of "Christian countries", even in societies with strong Judeo-Christian
roots (although Civic Religion continues to be strong in the US, where the political power
of Christian groups to the right on the political continuum waxes and wanes, largely in
response to external threats).
- In Australia, church attendance has dropped alarmingly; many of the stereotypes that
were strong just fifty years ago are disappearing, as young people (many of whom remain
spiritually "aware") look for alternative belief systems/channels, or adopt none at all.
- People who have abandoned church have not abandoned groups.
- Biblical literacy is low and most denominations in the West have chronic trouble
recruiting new ministers/priests.
- Personal and financial investment in world evangelism on the part of the vast majority of
Christians remains miniscule and much of the current Christian literature remains
- There is a spotlight on "mega-churches", with very large congregations and resources,
and the capacity to influence political trends and social justice.
- Tools designed to assess attitudinal research of church goers have assumed an important
place in influencing the nature of church relationships and programs.
- Church hopping has become a widespread pattern, as members abandon old
denominational ties (brand loyalties); cross-denominational structures are likely to
- Church programs compete with sophisticated secular entertainment and support
- The church must have credible responses and effective voices regarding emerging ethical
issues, eg environmental degradation, global warming, stem cell research
- Western churches that are able to tap into contemporary worship styles continue to be at
the forefront in growth trends.
The church around the world has also undergone significant change. Christians with European
backgrounds are now in the minority, but continue to have (disproportionate) access to
resources. While there is an emphasis on church growth and the emergence of mega-churches,
mass evangelism has largely shifted to the developing world. Rapidly changing means of
communication have revolutionised the way the message is promulgated. The growth of
denominations has been exponential.
The early twentieth century was marked by the beginning of the charismatic, or Pentecostal,
- On December 26 1900, a group of Christians in the United States who had been praying
and reading the Bible reported that they had been filled with the Holy Spirit and had
spoken in tongues. This movement rapidly spread throughout both the world, giving birth
to hundreds of Pentecostal denominations, the largest being the Assemblies of God.
- Though initially separate from traditional churches (in large part due to
misunderstandings on both sides), since the 1960s there have been charismatic
movements in many Roman Catholic (largely in Latin America), Protestant and Orthodox
- Pentecostal churches in the West are moving to more mainline forms of expression,
however a number of movements, or streams (eg those with a prophetic emphasis), stand
out from the majority.
- Most of the largest churches/Christian movements in the world today are charismatic or
The Church in the "Developing World"
In the so-called Developing World the number of Christians has been growing exponentially.
- For the first time in history, there are more Christians in Africa and Asia than in
traditionally "Christian" countries.
- This has occurred as the developing world is increasingly urbanised.
- Significant numbers of Roman Catholic, Protestant and Pentecostal churches have been
established in these continents, as well as many independent movements, especially in
Africa (some of which are characterised by syncretism and extra-Biblical features),
continue to be formed.
- As the world population mushrooms, especially in the developing world, the challenges of
keeping up with evangelism are significant.
- In spite of persecution, the church in China is by far the largest Christian community in
the world, and (while numbers fluctuate and are difficult to gauge) is growing rapidly.
- Translating the Bible into new languages took off in the 20th century, especially with the
computer age, however there are still hundreds of dialects without any part of the
There has been a growing interest in ecumenism within many mainstream denominations in the
latter half of the century.
- Several denominations joined together to form the Uniting Church, and the Catholic and
Orthodox churches have discussed the possibility of restoring links.
- The World Council of Churches was formed in 1948 (however the Roman Catholic Church
is not a member).
- Despite a growing hope of unity, doctrinal differences have also been growing.
- In the nineteenth century various teachings that were unacceptable to the rest of the
church became official Roman Catholic dogma, including papal infallibility and the
immaculate conception and sinlessness of Mary; these developments extend the formal
gulf between Roman Catholics, Orthodox churches and Protestant denominations.
New Leadership Styles
21st Century Christian leadership is going to be very different (but similar to) older models.
- Denominations, home groups, house churches, virtual Christian communities, orders, and
so on are witnessing ongoing re-shaping of the nature of leadership, against the
background of the need for effective leaders who are godly but, at the same time,
reflect what is appropriate in contemporary leadership styles.
- In some denominations, there has been a shift to team leadership, incorporating varieties
of ministries and gifts; these changes have led many churches into more "corporate"
structures and hierarchies, with mixed results.
Within the Protestant denominations there are growing gaps between "liberal" and conservative
- Liberal Christianity looks upon the Bible as a collection of narratives, or myths, that
explain Christian understanding; this invariably leads to a willingness to interpret
scripture without believing in its inspiration or inerrancy, and without accepting the
supernatural (eg the Virgin Birth, the miracles and resurrection of Christ) as literal.
In 1962, Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council.
- There were both a new climate of Catholic-Protestant relationships and sweeping
changes brought about by the Council, including allowing and encouraging ordinary
Catholics to read the Bible, permitting the Mass to be conducted in the vernacular; and
accepting that Christians could be found outside of the formal Roman Catholic structure.
- However, much of the core teaching of the Roman Catholic Church was reaffirmed.
Moral and Leadership Issues
Protestant denominations are divided on numerous social issues.
- These include whether or not to permit women to become church ministers, the
acceptability of divorce/re-marriage, sexual immorality and homosexuality, particularly
in ministry. The most liberal churches have emphasised tolerance and are now allowing
sexual relations outside of marriage and promotion of gay priests. The unity of the world
Anglican communion is under threat because of polarisation around these developments.
- In some countries Christians are continuing to debate the extent to which secular society
can and should be Christianised, and the role of the church in shaping political
- Moral scandals in churches (Catholic and Protestant) in the West have contributed to a
growth of anti-clericalism.
Social Justice Issues
As Christians in the modern era, we are "salt" and "light" in our world. The church has a
defining role in approaching the major social justice issues of the age (and must do so).
- The Christian message has practical responses to AIDS, food security, family planning,
economic inequalities, repressive governments, racism, conflicts, refugees, gender
imbalances, industrial relations, the rule of law, human rights and global warming.
Growth of Cults
The late 19th/early 20th century era saw the emergence of a range of cults, largely driven by
millennial emphases, given concerns about international conflicts and the end of the world and
questions about the capacity of traditional Christian churches to answer those concerns.
- These included the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and the Worldwide Church of God
- Groups such as the Moonies emerged later in the century, along with New Age and
syncretistic belief systems (including the cyclical visibility of niche "churches" that
combine Christian tenets with alternative philosophies and practices, such as Buddhism).
- The end of the 20th century witnessed the birth of new cults, driven by millennial
concerns, and diminished influence on the part of others (eg Freemasonry).
In Eastern Europe and the USSR, Christians were persecuted by communist dictatorships, starting
with the 1905 and 1917 revolutions and the USSR's sphere of influence after World War II.
With the failure of communism in Europe, Orthodox churches began to openly flourish again,
however they also created barriers to non-Orthodox churches and missionaries.
Churches in Asia (especially in China) entered periods of persecution after Communist takeovers,
starting with Mao Zedong's victory in 1949.
- Other societies under Communism/Marxism have experienced varying levels of
- In Latin America, Marxists tried to mix their faith with Christian tradition and Liberation
Theology emerged in Roman Catholic communities, predominantly in Latin America, but
was strongly opposed by Rome.
The Resurgence/Radicalisation of Islam
The 20th Century saw the resurgence, radicalisation and geographical expansion of Islam.
- This resurgence was fuelled by the decolonisation experience, economic muscle linked to
rising oil prices, charismatic leadership of groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Al
Qaeda, dissatisfaction over the status of the Middle East and the promotion of high moral
standards (in the context of moral decline in the West).
- The dominant vision is total global Islamisation (but schisms in the world-wide Muslim
community prevail; a "civilisation of clashes").
- Persecution of Christians in Muslim countries continues unabated (while Muslim leaders
demand equality in the West).
- Some experts believe Islam will be the dominant religion in Europe by the end of the 21st
- The jury is still out on the effectiveness of Christian-Muslim inter-faith dialogue.
The level of persecution and martyrdom of Christians has been higher during the past hundred
years than at any other time in history.
- The principal sources of persecution have been: communism, Islam and Hinduism, as well
as nationalists who have opposed links between older religions and the colonial powers.
- Countries such as Saudi Arabia still prohibit converting from Islam, on the pain of death
- Some countries (eg Russian Federation and its satellites, and Israel) ban evangelism to
protect powerful indigenous religious systems.
The past fifty years have seen exponential growth and change in communication tools and costs.
- Consider life without fast and affordable air travel, mobile phones, DVDs, mp3s, ipads,
iPods, the Internet, androids, Skype, Viber, FaceBook, Twitter, YouTube (connecting
people across borders and cultures) and an avalanche of cheap Christian literature.
- More information/misinformation is at out fingertips than ever before in human history.
- People living in traditionally "closed" societies can be reached with the Gospel via the
Internet and satellite.
- The Christian community can operate in "virtual" space.
- There is a plethora of teaching options available to Christian leaders.
- IT is increasingly used for Bible translation, cutting years off reaching people groups.
Re-Defining The Shape of Missions
The history of missions is characterised by great successes, frustrations and failures, but the
need for global witness has not diminished.
- Since the late 20th century, there has been greater emphasis on indigenous leadership,
tempered by those with interests in maintaining historical models (often with greater
resources), travel patterns, legal issues, access, training and the opportunities of
globalisation of the Christian community, with outreach in both directions.
- There is a renewed understanding of "marketplace ministry" (Christians reaching people
in their work spheres) and local missions in the West.
- Hundreds of millions of people live in countries other than those in which they were born
- international migration brings traditional (including "closed") mission fields into the
heart of our society.
- Geographical boundaries are less relevant and globalisation has "reduced" the size of the
world and is creating a globalised church.
- There remain billions of people who have never had the Gospel explained to them in
terms they can understand.
- Mission acknowledges spiritual warfare and power encounters as never before outside the
first couple of centuries of Christianity.
- A notable area of growth is missionaries emanating from the developing world. For
example, the Back To Jerusalem movement, begun in China by Chinese believers, aims to
send missionaries to all of the Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim peoples who live between
China and Jerusalem.
- Older models of evangelism and discipleship are being re-evaluated, to ensure we are
simultaneously geared to the times and take advantage of the unparalleled opportunities
delivered by current and future technology, while anchored to God's purpose and truth.
As you follow developments in world mission and trends in the global Christian movement, look
for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in paradigm shifts that are taking place.
Jesus Christ will build His church; the form it takes and the extent to which we can be involved
need to be both Biblically sound and flexible in expression.
We need to be self-aware, missions-motivated and highly strategic in our thinking, while walking
in obedience to/reliance on the Holy Spirit and in partnership with the rest of the Body of