Learning from the Majority World Church

‘The spread of the Christian gospel and the growth of the church across the world over two thousand years have largely been due to the work of countless unnamed Christians who gossiped the good news in their own language and among peoples of their own culture.
They are in the records of God, rarely noted in the register of man.’

So begins David Killingray’s chapter in the newly published volume Shaping Christianity in Greater China: Indigenous Christians in Focus (Oxford: Regnum, 2017). This is one of 17 contributions in a book, that began as a conference in 2015, aimed at shifting attention away from the Western missionary and toward the contributions of indigenous Christians in building the Chinese church.

As the majority world church continues to grow, we witness the emergence of various indigenous mission movements taking the gospel to all sorts of places.

According to Bruce Koch, ‘The non-Western missionary force grew eight times faster than its Western counterparts between the years 1990 and 2000.’1
Brazil, South Korea and India are in the top ten senders of the world’s circa 400,000 international Christian missionaries.2

How should we respond to the significant things happening in the majority world church?

First, we must surely pay attention and listen!

Whether in volumes of church history or systematic theology, voices from the West have been loud and prominent. But things are changing. It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who famously said,

‘The first service that one owes to others… consists in listening to them…’

Bonhoeffer was concerned about Christians not listening to non-Christians but his words could equally apply to the urgent need for Christians to listen to one another in the world-wide Church. The Western mission movement does a lot of talking when it should be listening.

The call to listen is a common refrain in the early chapters of Revelation. The book opens with seven prophetic messages to individual churches. But even though each church receives a message specific to its situation, the instruction at the end of each message is addressed to all the churches:

‘Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’

Each church has something to learn from the rest.

So the second thing we can do is to learn.

No single mission organisation has a monopoly on mission. We need to deepen our fellowship with other parts of the worldwide Church and its mission movements.
To embrace and strengthen ways that enable us to learn from others, so that the fuller message communicated by the Spirit can be heard, understood and put into practice.
There’s a tendency to concentrate so much on what we are saying and doing in our field of mission that we fail to appreciate the bigger picture, and so miss the ways in which God is moving his mission forward.

Those of us within the Western mission movement need to do more to listen to those voices we tend to see as being on the margins in places where we have long histories of service.
Today those very places are often at the centre of what God is doing in mission.

As David Smith points out,

‘the deep spiritual sickness afflicting the rich North might actually be healed when the voices from the other world are heard and understood.’3

In his article Kirk Matthews tells us about the Mongolian church and its growing missionary movement. Here’s an example of God at work – typically carrying out his mission from the periphery – giving us an opportunity to learn from a young church, travelling light, agile, full of prayer and faith.

As new patterns of mission continue to emerge in majority world contexts, traditional mission agencies such as OMF will have opportunities to listen, learn from, and encourage such movements.

Two groups of people in particular need our encouragement and support.

In his analysis of the global diffusion of evangelicalism in the years 1945-2000, Brian Stanley writes that

‘In Asia, Africa and Latin America also, the key actors in mission were frequently young people or women.’

These are so often the anonymous, unsung evangelists and leaders who have ‘gossiped the good news in their own language and among peoples of their own culture’, taken the initiative and ‘transformed existing mission structures, invented new ones or operated with very little structure at all.’4

Dr. Peter Rowan

1. Perspectives on the World Christian Movement,
4th Edition, 2009

2. Christianity Today 27 July, 2013, 2010 statistics

3. Mission After Christendom, 2003:131

4. The Global Diffusion of Evangelicalism,
Leicester: IVP, 2013:91