What’s Wrong with Missions. . . .and Why It’s Still Right (a look at Barna’s latest research, Part 2)

by Editor on October 3, 2020

by Rebecca Hopkins

Editor’s Note: In Part 1, we looked at the findings from Barna’s latest research on The Future of Missions. Today we talk to Ted Esler, president of Missio Nexus on the current trend of deconstruction of missions.

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If you want to get people excited about joining missions, you may need to have a conversation about its past—the questionable parts.

“When we look generationally about concerns about missions’ past and specifically about colonialism, young adults are more inclined to say, ‘yeah, that’s something I want to talk through. I want to wrestle through that if that’s something I’m considering giving my life to,’” said Savannah Kimberlin, director of published research, to a group of CEOs and recruiters for Christian nonprofits during a recent online presentation of Barna’s The Future of Missions study.

She told the group that this reality has really both “rocked the boat” in previous presentations and resonated with people. 

“I want to make sure I don’t miss this moment,” she said. “Let’s not ignore the past. Let’s have conversations about it.”

The Barna research shows that: 

  • 34 percent of young Christians (aged 18 to 34 years) agree with the statement “in the past, mission work has been unethical.” Just 22 percent of older Christians believe that.
  • 42 percent of young Christians (aged 18 to 35 years)  agree that “Christian mission is tainted by its association with colonialism.” Just 29 percent of older adults agree with that. 
  • Young African Americans, Hispanics and other minorities are particularly concerned about both statements. 

The trend of deconstructing missions has been on the radar of Ted Esler, president of Missio Nexus, a network of 360 Christian nonprofits and churches which have 30,000 people serving all over the world.  Before Missio Nexus’s annual leadership conference this year was cancelled for a virtual 40-day time of prayer, deconstruction in missions was its main topic. 

“I would say that missions is like any other human endeavor—it’s trapped in its time and its era,” Esler said in a recent interview.

But while younger generations are hungry for conversations about missions’ past and its ethics, Esler is still confident in its foundations. 

“We’re deconstructing everything by today’s standards, not realizing that people were working in a different era,” he said. “I’m not arguing that the model of missions we’re using is sacrosanct, but the concept of missions is valid. Things will change, but this will be weathered. Missions to me is transcendent over our current historical situation.”  

Mission pioneers who are now considered regressive were actually progressive in their time, he argued. For example, William Carey, considered the father of modern missions, sought to abolish the practice of widow burning in India, despite even his own country of Britain’s initial acceptance of the practice in its colony. 

“So, is he a colonist dude?” Esler asked. “I guess he is. He was a Brit who went to India as a missionary. But in relationship to what was going on around him, he was progressive.”

Modern Americans are, in general, less enthusiastic about religion and Christianity, Barna research has shown. But deconstruction could create an advantage in missions, Kimberlin said.

“It is actually a beautiful gift because we are getting to reset our clocks with Gen Z,” Kimberlin said. “We have deconstructed all the way down to a generation now who are not carrying baggage of religious hurts, or dos and don’ts about how to be good Christians. They don’t want to play that game. What a beautiful moment to reset the clocks and teach a generation about authentic, life-changing Christianity that really transforms hearts and minds and is life-giving.”

Esler also urged the “near record number of attendees” of Kimberlin’s presentation to continue to listen to welcome “God’s heart” for the younger generations. 

“The next generation is going to be coming along and doing some things different,” he said to the attendees of the virtual presentation. “My challenge for you today is that you would see things in light of God’s heart for every generation. There might be things that frustrate you, but let’s try to see the positives as we go through this presentation today.”

Relationships between current missionaries and younger generations are key, the study shows.

Younger Christians who personally know a missionary are:

  • More likely to give to missions (58 percent vs. 46 percent)
  • Pray for global workers (54 percent vs. 45 percent) 
  • Go on a short-term missions trip (40 percent vs. 30 percent)
  • Go on longer-term missions (22 percent vs. 9 percent)

But younger Christians who know missionaries also are more likely (16 percent vs. 7 percent) to believe that mission work, if not done properly, can create unhealthy dependence. They also are more likely (17 percent vs. 10 percent) to believe that “Christianity should fix its reputation before doing more missions.”

That’s all the more reason to meet them with conversation in their concerns, Kimberlin said.

“We need to take steps to do as much as we can to break down those barriers and those walls,” Kimberlin said. “As these young people are wrestling through their concerns and their questions about who they’re going to be, if they can see and speak with someone who can represent what they’re aiming for and what they’re considering being, then their likelihood to consider going on missions themselves jumps.”

One particular group that is especially concerned about missions’ past is African Americans—which also happens to be one of the most willing to serve overseas in the future. More on this tension—and possibility—in Part 3 of the Future of Missions. 

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Rebecca Hopkins wants to help people feel heard, seen and welcome. She spent the first half of her life moving around as an Army kid and the past 14 years trying to grow roots on three different Indonesian islands while her husband took to the skies as a pilot. She now works in Colorado for Paraclete Mission Group and writes about issues related to non-profit and cross-cultural work. Trained a journalist and shaped by the rich diversity of Indonesia, she loves dialogue, understanding, and truths that last longer than her latest address. You can find her online at www.rebeccahopkins.org.

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