The North American Church is finding itself in an odd position, where it is now receiving missionaries from the countries it once sent missionaries to. With this shifting of the "Christian center of gravity" away from the West, what role should the North American Church – with the U.S. still ranked as the top missionary-sending country in world history – now play in global mission?
Paul Borthwick, who teaches missions at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., and is a senior consultant for Development Associates International, explores this difficult question in his latest book, Western Christians in Global Mission: What's the Role of the North American Church?
Far from giving readers an easy answer, Borthwick takes them through nearly 100 pages of context, including statistics on the astounding growth of Christianity in Africa (11.7 million Christians in Africa in 1910 compared to 495 million Christians in 2010), a nine-point "State of the World" report, and an assessment of the North American Church.
Borthwick acknowledges in an interview with The Christian Post that some readers might be "impatient" with his book because it does not lay out "10 steps" that the North American Church needs to fulfill in global missions. Instead he offers a flexible answer to the question posed in the book's title.
"It's all about relationships and it depends," Borthwick told CP. "I think the USA church might be essential in pioneering situations and might be best just doing funding in other situations," said the missions expert who once led a megachurch's missions program that had nearly a million-dollar budget. "We might be good at cooperating and teaching theological education, and in other situation we'd be better off providing the funding for people to produce their own locally oriented books."
Understanding the History of Mission
Perhaps one of the most valuable information that the book offers to the lay Christian reader is helping them understand the heart of mission. Borthwick shares in the chapter called "Where Are We Now?" that African Christian leaders teach new believers about the sacrifices of early European missionaries.
"They (European missionaries who came to Ghana in 19th century) came with their earthly belongings packed in their own coffins, because they knew they would die there. Some 60 percent of those pioneers died in their first two years of service in Ghana, but they planted the seed of the gospel. The conference leaders wanted to remind these students that they were the fruit of those missionary's sacrifice," writes Borthwick.
The well-traveled missions expert also shares stories about the zeal of modern-day missionaries from Africa, Asia and Latin America – where Christianity is currently growing exponentially.
"I wish you had joined me at a conference related to an African church that gives 80 percent of its budget to crosscultural missions…," Borthwick writes in the chapter titled "An Appraisal of the Majority World Church."
He writes that at a conference he atttended, it's normal to hear "an appeal for people to go as crosscultural pioneer missionaries to Guinea-Bissau – for a minimum of fifteen years!"
Meanwhile, the house church movement in China is calling for 100,000 Chinese missionaries to join an initiative "to take the gospel across the Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim world and 'back to Jerusalem.'" The Chinese leaders are expecting that tens of thousands of Chinese missionaries will be martyred by answering this call.
"What a contrast to our North American context, in which our first question before we go is often, 'Is it safe there?' While we buy insurance plans with evacuation policies, the Chinese leaders call for a 10 percent martyrdom rate. Rugged faith indeed!"
Missionaries From Everywhere to Anywhere
Although Western nations have for a long time been the dominant missionary-sending countries, today it's Nigerian, Brazilian, South Korean (South Korea – about the size of Indiana – is the second most missionary-sending country, behind the U.S.) Christian missionaries who are being sent out, including to Europe and the United States, to make disciples of Jesus.
It is this realization, "the church going from everywhere to anywhere," that caused Borthwick to break down his "American-centric" worldview of missions.
"We were still convinced that the church in North America was the leader in global Christianity and that the rest of the world was our mission target," writes Borthwick about his mindset going into a conference in 1987, called Singapore 87: A Conference of Younger Leaders. "Our global Christianity paradigm assumed that the gospel would go 'from the West to the rest.' We had the resource; they were the poor. We were the missionaries; they were the recipients of our courageous efforts. The real needs were 'out there' somewhere, and we were the messenger of hope."
But that conference was the beginning of his "worldview reorientation" as he saw leaders for Nigeria and India talk about training and sending missionaries from their countries, and met Christians from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Kenya, Poland and the Middle East.
"We went to the conference expecting to hear how the church in North America was leading the global church into the new millennium. In contrast, we left the conference praying, 'Lord, please don't leave the church in North America behind as you move powerfully in the world.'
"Since that time, our lives have been more about joining the work of God in the world than leading the way."
The Role of the North American Church
Femi B. Adeleye of Ghana, general secretary for partnership and collaboration of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, writes in the book's foreword three popular but what he calls "unhelpful" opinions about the North American Church's role in global missions:
• God has finished with some parts of the world
• Since the center of mission-sending agencies has also shifted to previous recipients, those from pervious sending territories can rest from our labors or take a vacation
• Newly arrived missionaries lack the historical heritage of ownership, so how competent are they?
Borthwick throughout his book responds to these opinions and shows why they are wrong, offering areas where the North American Church can lead and other areas where it should follow. Through his interaction with Majority World (developing countries) leaders, he finds that one of their greatest requests from North American Christians is in the area of training and education. "Our libraries, seminaries, training institutions, books and trained faculty are viewed as tremendous resource to the Majority World Church," he writes.
One Majority World leader wrote to Borthwick saying that the Christian literature produced in North America "by far surpasses any other region or culture."
Another area where the North American Church can still lead is global leadership. "[I]t is still only the Western church leaders that can lead a global movement … Africans lead Africans, Asia leads Asians, Koreans lead Koreans, Chinese lead Chinese, … but Western leaders are still best at leading global international movement like Lausanne," Borthwick writes.
"The West is still at the center of global strategic vision and leadership training and thinking."
And another area the North American Church can play a leading role in is raising global leaders from the Majority World.
But the North American Church should lead with the spirit of humility, Borthwick emphasizes, keeping in mind that the word humility comes from the Latin root humus, meaning "soil." So humility means someone who is "close to the ground."
A missionary in Trinidad, Adele Calhoun, tells Borthwick that the Western Church being humble would look like "the North doing what it does in response to the desires, guidelines and initiatives of the South. The North doesn't tell the South or anyone else how to do their mission. We build relationships and listen. We may do 'nothing' but learn and pray and extend friendship."
"True servanthood is serving people in a way that they interpret as servanthood," Borthwick writes, noting that when Jesus washed his disciples' feet, they understood from their culture that he was acting as a servant.
In Borthwick's interview with CP, he says, "Does he play well with others? I think one of the challenges of the U.S. Church is do we know how to be involved in a team when we are not the leader, where someone else is dictating the agenda and we're joining that rather than asking them to join us. So I think the USA Church has a vital role, but the question is can we be second."