Refresh: A Theology of Today’s Mission
Gospel spreading was in large part due to Western people bringing the gospel message to foreign places through official church mission work or by other means, such as business, commerce, and colonial expansion. 

Refresh:  A Theology of Today’s Mission

There are 2.4 billion people who identify as Christian in the world. Christians live in nearly every region of the world. The religion is not ruled by a dominant culture nor is there only one official language of the Bible. This makes Christianity significantly multicultural and multilingual. 

Gospel spreading was in large part due to Western people bringing the gospel message to foreign places through official church mission work or by other means, such as business, commerce, and colonial expansion. 

These days it seems Western mission is floating in a sea of uncertainty about its role in global mission. The West is no longer the most dominant force in mission, nor does it need to be. The fruit of its work is born in the many expressions of the global church. And these expressions are asserting themselves over how they want to do missions in their own cultural context. 

Moving Missions asked a noted leader in South Asian missional theology about his views pertaining to a theology of mission in this period of global Christianity. 

What Paradigmatic Changes Must Occur in Today’s Mission?

To explore this question, let us have a fresh understanding of the mission of God, and then we can talk about a theology of missions from a Non-western perspective.

When we talk about a theology of mission for the non-Western world, it is so important that we understand the God of the mission and the mission of God. We need to understand mission based on the Word of God. We also need to understand God’s mission in light of the big picture of the Bible or the big story of the Bible and then how to do theology in culture.

Understanding Mission from a Biblical Theology Perspective

When we talk about Biblical theology of missions, what we mean to do is to answer the question, “What does the Bible teach about mission?” After understanding what the Bible teaches, we also need to find answers to the question as to how it applies in the world in which we live today. 

According to Chris Wright, a former Professor from a reputed Bible College in India, “All the great sections of the canon of Scripture, all the great episodes of the Bible story, all the great doctrines of biblical faith, cohere around the Bible’s central character – the living God and his plan and purpose for all of creation.” So God has a mission for this world that He created.” 

Therefore, theology of mission should not be discussed on purely Western or non-Western terms. It should be based on and originating from the heart of God. This mission of God can be simply stated as His universal plan of redemption through Jesus Christ and his sacrificial death on the cross. This is the essence of God’s mission. However, implementing this mission has produced much disagreement among global mission leaders today.

Missional Theology and the Existing Colonial Paradigm

Though the universal mission of God is unique, its expression may look different from culture to culture. God’s plan is for the whole world and not for just a few regions of the world or a few sets of people. Even so, over nearly three hundred years, the mission movement largely originated from the West. We need to appreciate the tremendous sacrifices made by thousands of Western missionaries who traveled to different parts of the world spreading the gospel and for laying down their own lives for the sake of the work. 

However, we also need to assess the current realities of mission, especially on the basis of the global shift of Christianity. Christian leadership has shifted dramatically to the non-Western world. The majority of the Christians are no longer in the West.

After the initial years of missionary endeavors from the West, gradually the desire to colonize, educate, civilize, and institutionalize the nations became the missionary goal. This resulted in a feeling of Western superiority and prejudice on the mission fields. Over time, Western paradigms and thinking became the norm in the Western Mission fields. They brought the gospel and taught people as they understood it. Slowly the churches became more westernized, with less of the gospel being assimilated in local cultures. The clergy began using western terminology in services with dress codes, worship patterns, music styles, preaching and teaching styles. This resulted in a dichotomy between theology and culture, rather than theology as a local cultural expression.  

Paradigm Issues with the Current Mission Model

The West to the Rest is the idea that Christianity only spreads from the west. This is no longer the case. Today there are a significant number of indigenous church leaders in almost every region of the world. Western leaders must recognize them and encourage them rather than continuing the colonial paradigm of western control.

Mission Agency Verses Church-Centric Mission. The western colonial paradigm of missions brought in the idea of parachurch-based mission in which church is peripheral to the missionary enterprise itself. Slowly the centrality of church in mission was lost and church became peripheral to the vision of God. 

The Influence of Western Theological Education Models.  Seminary education has its own strengths and weaknesses, but today a seminary degree rather than anointing of the Holy Spirit has become the criteria for missionary service. What is taught in seminary is not determined by the indigenous leaders. The criteria and conditions for theological training, including accreditation, laid down by the West are hindering the progress of the gospel rather than accelerating it. 

Theological education is rooted in western systematic theology. Non-Western leaders received training in the West, so naturally they passed on what they learned in Non-Western countries. However, 90% of the people trained in Western seminaries are not actively involved in pioneering missions. Whereas 90% of those involved in pioneering efforts do not have any formal theological education. 

Teacher or Practitioner?  Who should lead missions these days?” What should leadership criteria be based on? For example, Western mission is led generally by academically focused seminary trained teachers. This has produced more teachers than practitioners. While many non-Western Mission leaders are not well trained in seminary academics, they function more as mission practitioners than teachers. Meaning, they are more involved in casting out demons, healing the sick, and helping people overcome difficult life issues.  

Bible Translation. We appreciate the pioneering effort of Western missionaries who crossed language barriers to translate the Bible into over 1,000 languages. Still, the translation task is far from complete. Of the 7,360 languages in the world only 704 languages have the full Bible. That means 2.1 billion people in the world do not have access to God’s whole counsel in their language. There are only 1,551 languages that have a full New Testament.  In the past, translation needs were decided based on Western socio-linguistic criteria. Now it is important that local churches make determinations based on their own cultural criteria as to who should have a translation. 

Money, Power, and the Non-Western World. Non-Western leaders are grateful for the West’s sacrificial generosity in funding missions. But often that generosity comes with expectations that mission work will be done the western way. Or that training will use their western curriculum and teaching methods.  Sadly, many western ideas are thrusted upon non-western people simply because they need the funding. This has forced many non-Western mission leaders to make compromises for the sake of survival. 

A Theology of Mission for the Non-Western World

God is a God of the universe, not a God of the East or the West. The cry from the non-Western world is that they be seen as equal partners in missions. A refresh of modern mission theology should be Biblically-sound, Christ-centric, Church-centric, and Great Commission focused.

A Church-centric mission theology involves a complex network of churches and missions led by itinerant apostolic-like leaders who are committed to doing a culturally based theology based on sound biblical theology. It should include leadership development for a world-wide global multiplication of churches based on first century mission practices. 

Theological Questions from a Non-Western Cultural Context

  • Can I follow Christ and remain in my own culture?
  • How can we address the social, economic, education, gender inequalities, and prejudices in our own cultural setting based on sound doctrine?
  • How can we encourage and recognize the less privileged non-Western leaders, many of whom are better mission practitioners?
  • How can we equip “untrained” shepherds in our own church and cultural settings? 
  • How can non-Western best practices be shared with the rest of the world?
  • How can we have the best Bible tools in our own languages in this generation?
  • Will Western mission be willing to come along side us as encouragers?

Characteristics of Mission in the 21st century

  • Inclusive with mutual respect
  • Led by Apostolic style teams (Pauline teams)
  • Theology is done with local cultural understanding
  • Biblical principles challenge aspects of local culture
  • Nationally led initiatives in church planting, Bible translation, theological education, and research.
  • Western and the non-western people working through healthy partnerships  

About the Author

Dr. Raju Singh has decades of service in South Asian missions. His network is responsible for thousands of churches being planted, thousands of leaders being trained, and now Bibles being translated into many languages.