The Changing Face of Missions (In Which the U.S. Falls Behind)

by Editor on September 27, 2013

An article in Christianity Today [1] recently commented on the hefty June 2013 report, “Christianity in its Global Context”. [2] The particular aspect of the Global Context report that Melissa Steffen chose to focus on is revealed by her article’s lengthy title, “The Surprising Countries Most Missionaries Are Sent From And Go To.’
I won’t reproduce Melissa’s ‘gleanings’ here but encourage you to go read her article if you’re interested [1]. Suffice it to say the results of the Global Context report are very telling with regard to the nations that are currently sending “missionaries” into the world. The USA still sends the most missionaries into the world, but when you look at it proportionately, against the number of church-going Christians in the sending nation, PALESTINE leads the bunch followed by Ireland, Malta and my near neighbor Samoa. The USA comes in 9th according to these ‘handicaps’. Of course, there are other ways to spin the data; missionaries per capita for instance would yield different results again.
Jay with Colleagues
Recently I was at a breakfast meeting with fellow mission leaders when one made a comment that Brazil was the largest sender of missionaries nowadays. I almost choked on my passionfruit pancakes. Before I had time to respond, the conversation had moved on so I just dismissed the comment as erroneous. That same morning a good friend and colleague from Brazil, a missionary in Kolkata India, sent me the link to Melissa Steffen’s article. God was obviously humbling me – happens often. In terms of total missionaries, Brazil is indeed up there, second only to the USA, with 34,000 missionaries being sent at the time the research was undertaken (2010).
In 2002 Philip Jenkins [3] stated the obvious to his largely non-Christian readership: the center of gravity for global Christianity has shifted. He wrote, “Soon, the phrase ‘a white Christian’ may sound like a curious oxymoron, as mildly surprising as ‘a Swedish Buddhist’.” Mission statistician and strategist, Patrick Johnston [4] more recently observed, “The globalization of the mission force… is an unprecedented phenomenon.” and notes that, “from 1980 onwards the massive increase in missions was in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and especially Asia.”
It seems the face of missions is rapidly changing along with the changing context(s) of Christianity.
Have you experienced this first hand? I have. I prepare Kiwis (New Zealanders) to work alongside a vast variety cultures in mission and development work. I also now routinely work with colleagues from many nationalities in my international roles.
Not so long ago you all you needed was a modicum of cultural sensitivity to engage cross-cultural work, now it’s essential to have a high level of “inter-cultural competence”. This competence is becoming more commonly known as CQ (Cultural Intelligence). David Livermore [5] is focusing on this growing subject in mission.
Does this surprise you that the United States ranks ninth in terms of sent missionaries?  And that Palestine ranks first?  How does this reality of a higher number of various cultures serving as missionaries affect your own work? 
Jay Matenga– Jay Matenga is based in New Zealand and has over 20 years experience as a reflective practitioner of mission mobilization.
Work: & World Evangelical Alliance Mission Commission Mobilization Taskforce.
Footnotes & links:
3. Jenkins, P. (2002). The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
4. The Future Of The Global Church: InterVarsity Press/Authentic Media/GMI, 2011
Photo above is Jay recently in Thailand with mission colleagues from Egypt, China, Peru and Brazil.
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  • petervandever

    Having spend alot of time in Samoa, they have no business being a sending nation. They need missions afresh. They don’t even have the gospel anymore. Fa’a Samoa has really, really, messed things up.

    • Jay Matenga

      Hey Peter, I appreciate your perspective as you’ve obviously seen some “stuff” over there. Nevertheless, God has and is doing some amazing things through our Samoan brothers and sisters. For sure, their culture can be quite different to Western nations and their Christian beliefs may seem nominal and traditional but there is a power-house of wealth in their culture that can, is, and will be used by God for His global purposes. They’re so close in cultural understanding to much of the non-Western world such that when God’s Spirit gets hold of and transforms a Samoan man or woman they can do what few Westerners can do in relating deeply to tribal or group oriented people who don’t have the gospel so that God is glorified there. I’m privileged to call many Samoans my friends and its an honour to work alongside them in mission. Nevertheless, I agree, like so many of our so-called “Christian” nations there is so much more Christ-work to be done.

      • petervandever

        Samoa has 1 in 2 women have a STI, over 90% poverty, and other issues. Pastors there live in better homes than the church they pastor….. list goes on…. was a missionary to Samoa.

        • petervandever, I have seen you around online and almost every comment you make is caustic and negative. I am curious about what you hope to accomplish with your approach. What do you see as the end result of your sarcastic remarks? What do you hope happens when you highlight errors?

          • petervandever

            Seen me around online?

            As far as samoa, I was a missionary there and am still a voter in American Samoa. I might have dealt with Fa’a Samoa once or twice. In fact, my blog, has much on the subject of how Christianity works in Samoa 🙂

      • petervandever

        Jesus said go in all the world and invite people to your church because their is wrong.”

  • cindyfinley

    Yeah, I think it’s somewhat surprising, but I find the globalization of the mission force exciting. Since I am a “white Christian,” how would you suggest I grow in “inter-cultural competence?” Thanks so much!

    • Jay Matenga

      Cindy, taking the time to “understand” is crucial. Often the things that get in the way are reactionary prejudices from our cultural background/worldview. While “our way” may seem right, and our rights may seem authoritative, Jesus’ modelled a humble sacrificial attitude that Paul encourages us to follow (see Philippians 2). While He had rights (authority) and righteousness (the right way to do things) as God, He didn’t consider them to be grasped, but he “laid aside”, “gave up”, “surrendered”, “left behind” (all shades of meaning behind the Greek word kenosis) those things for the sake of God’s will, and He served, even though it killed Him – but He was then REWARDED. I’m sure you can extrapolate some practical ways you can walk a mile in His shoes in this way by walking a mile in theirs as you’re able. As Angie said, it’s not an easy road – but I’m with you, it’s an exciting one!

      • cindyfinley

        Thanks, Jay. And Angie. Jesus did the ultimate “walk in their shoes,” didn’t he? I’m actually doing a walk-through of Philippians and am moving into 2:6-11 this week. I’m with you and believe that as we fix our eyes on Jesus, really fix our eyes on him, beholding him in his glory, an inside-out transformation is ignited in which we become more and more like him. And you’re right. We have to, will want to try on these new creation ways with JOY set before us, just as it was for Jesus. So…here’s what I glean from your reply:

        1. Stay with Jesus.
        2. Learn about the culture of the people you are loving.
        3. Ask God to reveal areas of cultural pride and even harmful preference.
        4. Choose to put off the former ways, as able, and put on new practices.
        5. Seek to not only do the new practices, but understand the hearts and minds of those you are alongside.


        • Jay Matenga

          Right on the button Cindy!

          I think the ‘humility’ we’re called to emulate from Jesus is what Paul is getting at in Phil 2:3, “…consider others better than yourselves.” When it comes to cultural differences we have a HARD time doing that. I can’t imagine how frustrating it must have been for Jesus. It pops up now and again in the gospels (e.g. Matt 15:16), “are you still so DULL”?! 😉

          How does one really “understand”? In my experience it takes exposure – a willingness to walk among and be with rather than watch (and critique) from afar. It can be a fearful thing to put yourself in a vulnerable position as a learner and ‘submit’ to the ways of those from another culture but I’ve never been disappointed. Such submission doesn’t mean becoming less than who you were born to be and who your culture has determined you to be, it actually helps you become so much more. And it doesn’t take long for the fear to disperse. After all, there’s no fear in love (1 John 4:18) and love is what we’re called to in this process. I like to define love as “a compassionate intentionality to seek the good of another” (or, moved to intelligently bless). It’s action that seeks the best of those He puts there before you (your “neighbour”). It’s empowered by “Christ in you”, a supernatural empowerment that wells up from the Spirit as we remain yoked to Jesus. In other words, grace.

          So yes, all that to say I wholeheartedly agree with you and think you should keep walking through the harvest gathering up those gleanings because with them you’re spinning gold! Haha.

          Thanks for engaging, it was nice chatting. All His very best as you continue on your grand adventure.


  • Richelle Wright

    this does not surprise me at all. working at an international school for tcks – most of the students were mks – and the demographics of the school are changing dramatically – the number of african, south american, asian and european missionaries is literally exploding, while the number of n. american mks remains constant. and it definitely is impacting the school as they try to best serve, care for and teach their students…

    brazil did not surprise me. we know and work with several brazilian missos serving in w. africa, in our locale. did not, however, expect palestine to top that list. fascinating stats.

    • Jay Matenga

      Thanks for the observational insight Richelle. That’s gold to a mobilization researcher such as myself. A great indicator of the changing face of mission and one I hadn’t considered.

  • Thanks for bringing this topic to the conversation here at A Life Overseas, Jay. We see missions mobilization happening here in Bolivia. It not at all an easy road, but I see it as a very important one for the universal church. People must go. Amen.

    • Jay Matenga

      Thanks Angie! It isn’t an easy road, but a necessary one. Each nation will need to find its own unique path though. The temptation is to follow the well trod Western route to mission but it’s often too hard on the beautiful feet of the non-Westerners. We continue to welcome new paradigms in mission sending/receiving and activity.

  • Thomas Speckhardt

    Increasing globalization has brought cross-cultural engagement to our
    door. The high percentage of expatriates and migrants in international
    cities provides an opportunity for dialogue on faith with the entire
    world. Just as the Areopagus served as a forum in Roman times,
    international capital cities today are the ‘marketplace of ideas’. We
    must all become conversant in other cultures right where we are. People
    are being sent to us at a higher rate than we are sending.

    • Jay Matenga

      Thomas, if only our churches at the receiving end had your insight!

      The mission oriented opportunities inside traditional sending nations are HUGE considering our immigration realities, but the pews remain full of people largely ignorant of the opportunities – perhaps because ignorance is bliss? If not bliss, it certainly is easier. As Angie observed, it’s not the easiest road to embrace the diversity being presented to us, while at the same time remaining confident in who God has shaped us to be. In my own country (not so long ago the largest sender of missionaries per capita – but alas, no more) we are struggling with the implications of Asian migration and many Christians are holding a resistant posture rather than a welcoming one. It’s very difficult to embrace difference when you treasure your own values so passionately.

      In socio-cultural terms, defence of your worldview is deeply ingrained. It is at the heart of much of our prejudice. If our “ways” are threatened by those who prefer a different way we resist the differences and defend our norms. This resistance/defence mechanism can look ghastly to the outsider, but to those involved it’s merely survival. We all still have a long way to go before strongly defended borders are safely dissolved. I believe it takes a supernatural transformation of the human heart to do so, and even then it requires a process of renewing the mind before we can be confident enough to move toward some sort of unity within diversity.

      For sure, start where you are and surrender to God’s leading, and you’ll be AMAZED at where He leads you – I know I continually am.

      Thanks for your excellent contribution.


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