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.” 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.”
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.” I think these openings might be significant for missionary engagement as well. They are, “an element of performance,” “an interactive character,” “a collaborative character,” “a turn to the visual,” and “a spiritual element.” 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.”
- Collaborative Character: Artists are “longing to work together” 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.” 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.
 James F. Engel and William A. Dyrness, Changing the Mind of Missions: Where Have We Gone Wrong? (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Books, 2000). 147.
 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.
 William A. Dyrness, Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue, Engaging Culture (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2001).
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