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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Moving Missions to the 21st Century

Written by: on October 18, 2018

I am convinced that the Church cannot continue to do global missions in the 21st century as she did in the 20th century. The world is not the same as it was 100 or even 50 years ago, and as culture and context changes, so must the means through which we proclaim the unchanging gospel of Jesus Christ. Consider the great American Evangelist, Billy Graham, who travelled the world preaching to large crowds and giving altar calls. I know many who were saved at such events, being moved by the stories and music. These conversions were genuine—Truth was proclaimed, lives were changed, Jesus was praised. At the same time, churches had “Ladies Missionary Societies” that raised funds for missionaries and Sunday School teachers told stories about missionaries in jungle lands sharing Bible stories with tribal people, inspiring children to give their “offering” to help the poor savages. I’m not disparaging these things, I believe that they were perfectly adapted to their time and place in the world; but, like rotary dial telephones, console televisions, and cassette tapes, they aren’t adapted to the 21st century.

Old models are becoming obsolete, but transitioning to new models proves challenging. Missionaries have long been funded by donors “back home,” a practice that is on the decline. “North American Christian financial commitment to world missions is in sharp retrenchment.”[1] Another present reality is that global connectivity has changed the way that people move into a new culture. A hundred years ago, a missionary moving overseas would literally pack her belongings in her coffin, not expecting to return to her country of origin until she occupied that coffin herself. Today, a millennial missionary might consider his time as a missionary as one of several careers he plans to explore over the course of his life.  Furthermore, missionaries are able to stay connected to loved ones back home via the Internet, a practice that is proving to be a hindrance to their integration and adaptation on the field. Fritz Kling, in his book Meeting of the Waters, predicts, “In the coming years global church leaders …will increasingly need to try out experimental, innovative, and even uncomfortable ideas.”[2]

As mission agencies seek to abandon archaic models in favour of models that are relevant to the 21st century, perhaps some of those “experimental, innovative, and even uncomfortable ideas” will be found in the world of arts. Art typically reflects culture, revealing where the culture IS, and might help us to discern what mission might look like in the modern context. In Visual Faith (Engaging Culture), Dyrness identifies several characteristics of modern art that might “suggest openings for Christian engagement.”[3] I think these openings might be significant for missionary engagement as well.  They are, “an element of performance,”[4] “an interactive character,”[5] “a collaborative character,”[6] “a turn to the visual,”[7] and “a spiritual element.”[8] Let’s look at each one individually.

  • Element of Performance: Dyrness explains that modern art is not only about the final product, but the process of creation. Missionary and evangelistic endeavours of the past focused on counting the number of “saved souls,” viewing salvation as something tied to a specific time and place. Today, many recognize that people come to Christ through a process, and the movement from unbelief to belief is more of a spectrum than on/off switch. Missions in the 21st century needs to consider process and learn to measure movement along the spectrum rather than count “raised hands.”
  • Interactive Character: Missions was classically viewed as a one-way transaction, from the missionary to the lost. Today missions had become a dialogue, where within the context of a faith community, the lost are invited to belong and participate long before they believe. Dyrness discusses the rise of “shock-art,” which is clearly meant to provoke a response. In a similar way, I’ll often notice that those pre-Christians who are hanging out in our faith community will use strong profanity or bring up controversial issues to see how we react. What Dyrness says of shock artists is true of these people as well. “In a sense, these artists are presenting a contemporary morality play, but they are asking for someone to provide the moral of the story.”[9]
  • Collaborative Character: Artists are “longing to work together”[10] not only with other artists, but with those who would typically be considered “consumers.” I believe that collaboration is the way forward in missions, leaving behind every hint of colonialism and moving to the place where missions is no longer FOR or TO a particular people group, but WITH.
  • Turn to the Visual: With Facebook and Instagram and YouTube (oh my!), the world has become increasingly visual. Dyrness observes that “These developments are a threat to a culture that is centered in the Word.”[11] But he also explains that this could be an opportunity for this generation to “forge a new alliance” between word and image. The gospel must take expression in visual arts in order for it to speak to the world today.
  • Spiritual Element: Dyrness wisely observes that over the course of history, when the Church pulled away from visual arts that spirituality lost its visual expression. At the same time, in its rejection of the Church, art lost its spirituality. But now the art world is hungry and open to spirituality, and that that opening is Good News for the Church. As art looks for its lost soul, Christians on mission need create room for the Church to welcome artists.

All of these element are clues, to which the mission world needs to pay attention. It’s time to change how we spread the gospel! Jesus is relevant to the world today, but if we continue to use outdated delivery systems, we’ll fail to make Him known.

[1] James F. Engel and William A. Dyrness, Changing the Mind of Missions: Where Have We Gone Wrong? (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Books, 2000). 147.

[2] Fritz Kling, The Meeting of the Waters: 7 Global Currents That Will Propel the Future Church, 1st ed (Colorado Springs, Colo: David C. Cook, 2010). 20.

[3] William A. Dyrness, Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue, Engaging Culture (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2001).

[4] Dyrness. 123.

[5] Dyrness. 123.

[6] Dyrness. 126

[7] Dyrness. 129.

[8] Dyrness. 132.

[9] Dyrness. 126.

[10] Dyrness. 127.

[11] Dyrness. 129.

About the Author

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Jennifer Williamson

Jenn Williamson is a wife and mother of two adult sons. Before moving to France in 2010, she was the women's pastor at Life Center Foursquare Church in Spokane, WA. As a missionary with Greater Europe Mission, she is involved in church planting and mentoring emerging leaders. Jenn benefitted from French mentors during her transition to the field, and recognizes that cross-cultural ministry success depends on being well integrated into the host culture. Academic research into missionary sustainability and cultural adaptation confirmed her own experience and gave her the vision to create Elan, an organization aimed at helping missionaries transition to the field in France through the participation of French partners.

10 responses to “Moving Missions to the 21st Century”

  1. mm Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Jenn,

    YES, this was a wonderful Blog. I get asked all the time how missions must change for our day. Your writing was intriguing to me. The next time I am asked about the future of missions, specifically missions fundraising, I should respond, “I don’t know, but I know a missionary in France who could help!”

    Your words on COLLABORATIVE CHARACTER were extremely helpful, and I think that is the answer I was looking for. It is not transactional any more, it is collaborative (as you put it–WITH). Working together to reach the lost! Am I on the right path?

    • Hey Jay, I’m pretty sure I don’t have the answers, but I hope I’m asking good questions that might help us rethink and adapt. The truth is, the modern missions movement of the 20th century was tightly linked to colonialism and capitalism. Most mission agencies are still taking their cues from the corporate world. I do think that WITH is the posture that Jesus took (Emmanuel–God with us, not God to us or God for us.) “With” requires death to self, incarnation in a foreign context, and foot washing as a way of life. “With” also requires by-in from those in the receiving country. “With” cannot be imposed, it must be received. And “with” happens when we arrive humble and helpless (like a baby in a manger), and learn and love and listen before we begin to speak.

  2. mm M Webb says:

    Jennifer,
    Nice before and after type of introduction. I especially like the way you led with missions, Billy Graham, and jungle ministry references. Jungle Pilot was one of the books that inspired me into missionary aviation!
    I like your logic on changing how we spread the Gospel. Yet, I wonder about the responsibility to make Him known to the world. I believe it is a shared responsibility with the Holy Spirit. In faith, obedience, submission, and humility I think we must be good stewards of the Good News. Some are called, challenged, and given a cause to make disciples, teach, heal, and mentor the lost into a saving relationship with Christ.
    Does art fit? Of course, especially if it is God honoring, contextually appropriate, and focuses the recipient back towards Christ.
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

    • Hey Mike,

      I’m not sure I understand what you mean by, “I wonder about the responsibility to make Him known to the world.” What are you wondering about? I agree that the Holy Spirit leads and empowers the work, no doubt about that! And I also agree that we all have different roles.

  3. Jenn,

    This was a very compelling reflection on the need of missions to adapt and evolve. Thanks so much for your work on this post.

    I find that this commitment to adaptation has even changed how I try to talk. Sometimes language can be unintentionally offensive and exclusionary. One example is calling someone “lost”. I don’t mean to diminish the joy and sense of being found which is the experience of many. But how can we collaborate together with others when we group them into an us/them divide? One way to address this is to emphasize we are all on a journey being drawn into God’s heart. What do you think?

    • Yes, I agree! Language is so important. Thanks for pointing out how the term “lost” creates an us/them divide. I do thinkg it sound haughty and that is not my intent. I don’t think it’s a term I use in my spoken language life, (we typically just call people either Christians or PEC (pas encore Chrétien, if a distinction is needed at all), but I do need to find a better way to make the distinction in my written language.

      And yet, I do believe that we can collaborate with people who are different than us. Different does not have to equal divided. For Elan, we wrote into the statutes that the board has to always be composed of equal numbers of “French” and “non-French.” “Non-French” was not meant to be derrogatory, but a replacement for having to list out all of the other nationalities. So perhaps “non-Christian,” could be used in the same way without creating a divide, but simply acknowledging the differences among us. I agree that faith typicall moves along a spectrum, so I like the idea of being on a journey, but that would define many of my non-Christian friends in a way they would not describe themselves either.

      This is tricky! I’ll keep thinking on it! Thanks for asking such a stimulating question.

  4. mm Trisha Welstad says:

    Jenn, Yes! Missions must adapt and change just as local evangelism and ministry must change. The church in the US and everywhere else must adapt to the culture with the same message of good news…with technology and media being a primary means for engagement, people are even more in need of good news. Our lead pastor just shared a story this morning of praying for a server in a restaurant. she was so moved because no one had ever prayed for her, ever. Wow. It is easy to forget how much ministry needs to be done to share Jesus and in creative ways no less. I am interested in hearing more stories of how your community uses the arts and community to innovatively live the gospel!

    • We don’t have the answers, but we are trying to ask the right questions! Right now we have an Art Exhibition on the theme of Forgiveness in our Chruch/co-working office space. There are two artists with exhibits, one photographer and one fashion designer. Having these images/objects in our midst has provoked some great conversations.

      An artist friend one told me that most people are giving out answers–especially Christian missionaries; but art asks a question. That has been the effect of this exhibition. It asks and stimulates the asking of good questions.

  5. Greg says:

    Great beginning Jenn!
    Love the cross over to a topic is important to both of our hearts. I have seen many examples of the “shock” statements as a means to test our sincerity to love someone. This idea of collaboration is key to seeing our role as mentors working ourselves out of a job so others we mentor than become mentors. You did an excellent job making this weeks topic/book relevant to your passion and dissertation. Finding creative solutions does seem to be where I am living my life and my recent meetings.

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