Breaking through the one-third barrier: collaboration for the kingdom

Loun Ling Lee is a Trustee of OMF (UK) and Editor of Lausanne Global Analysis. She gave the 2022 Drysdale Lecture at Nazarene Theological College to mark the launch of the  Bridging Worlds: Centre for East and Southeast Asian Christianity at the institution. Her topic was the Future of Mission: Strategic Role of Asian Mission in Global Christianity and here she explores that theme and the value of collaboration in the future of mission.

To find out more about Bridging Worlds, read our interview with Reverend MiJa Wi, the centre director, here.

For the past century, Christians have consistently made up approximately one-third of the world’s population. The world will still likely be about 35% Christian by 2050, according to World Christian Database. This is sometimes known as the ‘one-third barrier’ of global Christianity. How can this barrier be broken?

At first glance there has been little change in the status of global Christianity over the past 100 years. But this masks dramatic changes in the geography of global Christianity. The steady decline of Christianity in the Global North (33%) has now been surpassed by the rise of Christianity in the Global South (67%). It has been projected that by 2050, 2.6 billion or 77% of all Christians will be in the Global South.

This shift of the centre of gravity of the church from the North to the South is not merely demographic. It is also reflected in the vitality and growing influence of non-Western Christianity.

The Christian population in Asia grew twice as fast as the general population over the 20th century. About 60 percent of the global population live in Asia yet this region is still the least evangelised , with 8.2 percent Christians in 2020.

Asia, formerly a mainly missionary-receiving continent, now has many countries also sending missionaries. The Korean mission movement started in 1907, though has grown dramatically since the 1980s. India, the Philippines and China are also increasingly sending Christian missionaries overseas. In 2020, Asia sent 91,000 missionaries to Europe’s 80,900.[1]

Are there ways for East and West to collaborate for the extension of God’s kingdom?

Korea: addressing growing pains
Between 1988 and 2013, the Korean Church emerged as a leading missionary-sending force in Asia. Korean missiologist Steve Moon highlights favourable government policies, a surplus of seminary graduates and sacrificial giving as factors behind this growth.[2]

However, ‘the recent slowdown in the rate of growth [in missionary sending] reminds us of the need to address the growing pains of the Korean missionary movement,’ writes Moon.[3] Concerns include missionary care, leadership development and working in partnership.
Would the Korean missions thrive again by addressing these concerns? The Korean mission and church leaders need to consider these issues seriously, confront them with honest reflection, and respond through strategic action. At the same time, will Western missions, with longer and richer mission experience, help by sharing their expertise and resources?

Singapore: going to the marketplace
My home church, Grace (Singapore Chinese Christian) Church started their missions programme almost 50 years ago. Over the years, I have been blessed in this journey of missions with the church, being my home church and my faithful supporter. We have witnessed God’s calling upon our brothers and sisters in Christ to pray, to give, and to go wherever He sends. Our conviction, embraced by the leadership team, is that the Great Commission is Jesus’ mission statement for the church. Missions is the responsibility of every believer and leader.

Church members are being mobilised and equipped through missions education—sermons, workshops, prayer meetings, Sunday School, culminating in the Annual Missions Convention. In addition, other means include: regular missions news and updates in church bulletins; missions display on notice boards; frequent sharing by missionaries (in person and virtually) during Sunday services; interacting with and praying for missionaries through care groups.

At Grace Church’s recent 49th Missions Convention, our Senior Pastor Rev Chua Yeow San highlighted the need to adopt a new approach:

‘…we need to renew our mission mindset and strategy. With religious freedom on the decline globally, and 80% of the world’s population living where missionary activity is illegal, we need a new mission workforce that is geographically closer to the unreached. We need to work with a new generation of innovative, bold, entrepreneurial, and creative marketplace Christians. They are making Kingdom impact in their sphere of influence, be it in the arts, media, science, technology, architecture, medicine, etc. We need to mobilise them if we are serious about global missions.'[4]

Emerging missions
In recent years, new Asian missions have emerged from countries such as China, Cambodia, Bhutan, and amongst Asian diasporas in the West.

One example is the missional leadership trainings in Cambodia for pastors and leaders on topics such as ‘Mission of the Church’ and ‘Missional Leadership in Buddhist Contexts’.
The key party conducting them is Shalom Mission Cambodia, an indigenous organisation involved in church planting, leadership training, and community development. Its vision is to plant a church in every province in Cambodia and develop true disciples of Jesus Christ who will transform their communities holistically.

How can we encourage and strengthen these new mission movements?

The Future of Missions: Partnership and Collaboration

‘The future of mission is polycentric (from everyone to everywhere), and that the entire global church—whether denominational or geographic or age or gender or ethnicity—needs to work together to bring the Gospel to the nations,’ says Professor Allen Yeh of Intercultural Studies and Missiology at Biola University. As the Asian church and missions have matured (and are still growing) significantly over the past 100 years, mission leaders should encourage greater and deeper intercultural partnerships, such as that between Asian and organisations in the Global South such as African and Brazilian missions, and Asian and Western missions. This will strengthen Christianity globally, thus breaking through the ‘one-third barrier’ of global Christianity.

Asian mission movements were spearheaded and inspired by Western missions historically. As missional churches in Asia reflect on the past and plan for the future, we invite the church in the West to partner with us in not only sustaining the growth of Asian missions but also in reviving Western missions. Is there a strategic role for Asian missions in the future of Western missions?

Intercultural partnership will work well only if there is a strong emphasis on relationship — a relational partnership which reflects mutuality and reciprocity. To conclude, let us reflect on questions for both East and West in missions, with special implications for OMF:

  • What resources and expertise could Western missions share with Asian missions that will strengthen them, e.g. in member care, intercultural training, leadership development?
    • Are the resources and expertise in these areas used by OMF in Asia sufficiently contextualized or still very Western in approaches?
  • How far are we experiencing the ‘practices of partnership’ in giving, receiving, working, praying, rejoicing, struggling, and suffering? And how far is this practice distorted by uneven distribution of power and money?
    • Is OMF’s key leadership dominated by Westerners even though it is an international mission?
  • What lessons can the West learn from Asian missions? For example, in inter-religious dialogues, as Christians in Asia have the rich experience of being effective witnesses for Christ in the midst of multi-faith communities.
    • How often do OMF in the West invite Asian speakers in their conferences, webinars, training programmes, and lectures?
  • Will Western churches and agencies receive into their midst Asian leaders and mission workers? Some call this ‘reverse missions’. Are we willing to learn and receive help from those we serve?
    • Will OMF UK?

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  1. Todd, T. and Zurlo, G. eds., World Christian Encyclopedia, 3rd edition (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press: 2020).
  2. Moon, Steve Sang-Cheol, The Korean Missionary Movement: Dynamics and Trends 1988-2013 (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2016).
  3. Moon, Steve Sang-Cheol, “Missions from Korea 2016: Sustainability and revitalization”, International Bulletin of Mission Research, April 2016.
  4. Chua, Yeow San, “Missions – New Wine, New Wineskins”, Grace (SCC) Church 49th Mission Convention Handbook, June 2022, p2.