When we think of cross-cultural, overseas missions we may have in our minds that mission has been done in the same way since Jesus gave the Great Commission in Matt 28:16-20. But this is not the case.
As the church has grown, mission has been carried out in different ways over the last 2000 years. The way we have done mission has been shaped by what is known as the Modern Missionary Movement. This movement began in the late 1700s, and its most well- known leader was William Carey. At this time most Christians were European, and Carey felt God’s call to take the Gospel to other parts of the world. It may surprise you that Carey experienced tremendous opposition. Many Protestant Christians believed that the Great Commission only applied to the Apostles, and that it had nothing to do with us. When Carey presented his vision for overseas, cross cultural mission, a senior church leader rebuked him: “Young man, sit down; when God is pleased to convert the heathen world, He will do it without your help or mine.”1 Nevertheless, with God’s leading, Carey was a pioneer in a missionary movement that took the Gospel to all corners of the world over the next 200 years.
The New Zealand Open Brethren churches were strongly involved in this missionary movement. James Kirk is often remembered as our first overseas missionary, riding from Owaka to Wellington in 1896 and leaving his bicycle leaning against a building as he boarded a ship to Argentina, in response to God’s call to take the Gospel to the unreached. (Actually, the first NZ Open Brethren overseas missionary was probably Houlton Forlong, several years earlier). These missionaries were amazing servants of God who accomplished much, often at great personal cost. But times have changed, and our missionary involvement has also changed.
Let’s think about the situation in which people like William Carey and James Kirk engaged in overseas mission. 1. It was the period of global colonisation by European nations. The relationship between colonisation and the modern missionary movement was complex. Often colonial governments did not like missionaries, and sometimes drove them out of mission fields. Missionaries sometimes spoke out against the harsh effects of colonisation and tried to defend the people they were evangelising. On the other hand, the colonial period often gave western missionaries protection and access to places where they could carry out missionary work. 2. In this period western missionaries came from industrialised and technologically developing nations, and there was a strong sense of cultural superiority and ethno-centrism that permeated western thinking. This is not to say that all missionaries of the period accepted this worldview, but it affected many to different degrees. 3. Industrialisation meant that missionaries often came to the mission field with significant financial resources. 4. In this period most Christians in the world were Europeans.
The world we live in is no longer the same and this affects how we do mission. 1. The colonial era is over, and we now live in a post-colonial world. Post-colonial nations still feel the humiliation of colonialism, and often see missionaries as part of the colonial process. 2. Technology has become globalised but western ethnocentrism remains strong, “Our way is the right way.” 3. The financial imbalance between the western and non- western world has grown, and western missionaries often find themselves regarded as wealthy people on the mission field. 4. The greatest change is that most Christians are no longer white people and most Christians no longer live in the “western” world. This is a result of the Holy Spirit’s work and the work of the countless missionaries during the Modern Missionary Movement. In 1910 two- thirds of the world’s Christians lived in Europe, in 2010 that figure was one quarter. In 1910 Christians in Sub- Sahara Africa made up 1.4% of the world’s Christians; in 2010 they made up 23.6%. And on the statistics roll.2 One hundred years ago no one predicted that the church would grow in this way. “Come and see what God has done, his awesome deeds for mankind” (Ps66.5 NIV).
These changes mean that for us, Christians in NZ in the 21st century, missionary involvement has also changed. The Gospel hasn’t changed, the Great Commission hasn’t changed, but the way we go about overseas mission has changed. Over the next twelve months I will reflect on what mission means for us in light of these changes but let me put in a nutshell. Western Christians are no longer the main people bringing the Gospel to the unreached. In places like Myanmar, where we lived for twelve years, and in many other places in the world, it is the local Christians who are involved in missionary work, evangelism and church planting. These churches are young and full of zeal, and we were often left in awe at the energy and commitment of these Christians. Now we need to think of mission in terms of how we can join in on God’s work with the local churches in the so-called “mission field.” How can we contribute? What gifts can we bring to the table? As part of we must set aside western ethnocentrism and learn from our brothers and sisters in other places, “so that we may work together for the truth” (3 John 8 NIV).
JOHN DE JONG
John is married to Rebecca. They both grew up in West Auckland and met at Lincoln Road Bible Chapel, which is still their home church. In 2005 they moved to Yangon, Myanmar, to work with the church there. They took Adam (two-and-a-half years old) and Grace (10 months) with them. Sarah and Charlotte were born over there. John taught Old Testament and Hebrew at the Myanmar Evangelical Graduate School of Theology (MEGST), along with preaching and teaching in the local church. Rebecca was involved in women’s and children’s ministry, as well as home schooling the children. They returned to Auckland to live in October 2017, and John has found work lecturing in Biblical and Intercultural studies at Laidlaw College, based at the Henderson campus.