Since the days of the pilgrims and puritans, America's faith landscape has been shaped by the faith of its immigrants. As the first European immigrants settled in the land now known as the United States, they planted churches and grew communities of faith. And, as American settlers moved westward, new churches were planted in the newly acquired U.S. territories.
Once Christianity was firmly established in America, Christians began sharing their faith abroad through missionaries. These first international missionaries sent from the U.S. quickly made their mark on the world. As the Gospel was embraced in the farthest corners of the earth, new churches were planted and Christian communities were established.
The U.S. sends more Christian missionaries abroad than does any other nation. According to the Gordon-Conwell's Center for the Study of Global Christianity, between 80,000 – 90,000 long-term American missionaries are currently serving around the world. The Center estimates that an additional 1.5 million Americans participate in short-term missions trips in a given year. And while America remains the most prolific sending nation in shear number of missionaries, the largest percentage per million Christians might surprise you: Palestine. America ranks ninth by the same calculation.
Missionary work has taken a surprising turn in recent years. America is now receiving missionaries on its own shores—more than 32,400 in 2010. These missionaries are coming to share the Gospel with Americans.
Many things have been written and said about the state of Christianity in America. But what most scholars and critics are considering as the "American Church" is only part of the real Christian landscape in the U.S. While it is irrefutable that faith markers such as Bible reading and church attendance have declined among churches dominated by Americans of European descent, this isn't the whole American story.
As in the early days of our nation, immigration is once again a significant driver of population growth and, as a result, of reshaping how faith is expressed in America. In a 2012 report, the U.S. Census Bureau projected that immigration would outpace the birth rate ("natural increase") in the nation. The variety of faith traditions among today's immigrants has made for a more diverse religious composition in America.
So now it seems that missions has come full circle, as those nations that were once the recipients of evangelization have begun arriving in America, bringing their faiths to our shores. Many of these new immigrants, from Latin America, Africa and Asia, are building strong, vibrant Christian communities in the United States.
Even as foreign missions decline in long-standing Christian churches, new missionaries are rising up from immigrant and first-generation American communities. Christian immigrants are not only sending financial resources to loved ones in the land of their birth but often are returning to share the Gospel of Christ as well.
The face of the Christian Church in America is constantly changing. It isn't surprising then that the face of American missions is changing as well.
Jesus called his followers to share the Gospel in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. In other words, He called believers to be a witness in their own city, in the surrounding area and across the world. How we as the diverse American church answer that calling changes depending on who is answering. Missions work for the Christian immigrant church may look different from that of the long-established church, but both are united in their shared commitment to the Great Commission. While some communities within the American Christian Church thrive, other communities are struggling. But for both groups, missions should remain a priority.
Global engagement moves people outside of their comfort zones into a place where God often works on their hearts. This is one message of the book of Jonah. The biggest problem for Jonah is not the conversion of pagan Assyrians but rather the ungodly attitudes inside the "orthodox" prophet. Missions work humbles us and makes us depend on God. Missions teaches us to love the "other"—something that doesn't come naturally. We are confronted with our own egocentrism, ethnocentrism and xenophobia. With the Church's mobilization for missions becoming more multi-directional, global engagement also makes us depend more on each other. The health of the global Church is not in the hands of the American Church and its missionary efforts. It is dependent on God mobilizing His whole Church, Americans included, to be engaged in His mission.