In the mid-18th century, 1% of Protestants lived outside of Western countries. Today, around 70% of all self-identified Christians live outside the West. How did this happen? What does it mean for the future of Christianity? To give an answer, we should consider what brought us to this point in missions history.
Hit the Beach with William Carey
Most believe that the modern missions movement began in 1792 when William Carey, the Baptist dissenter with a skin disease that made it impossible for him to be in the sun, published “An Enquiry.” The book is best known for addressing the question whether the Great Commission was still binding on Christians. John Ryland, expressing a dominant view from that day, famously told Carey, “When God is pleased to convert the heathen world, he will do it without your help or mine.” Others had more pragmatic objections. Two of the more comical reasons were that Europeans were incapable of learning an Asian language and they could not sustain themselves on Asian food.
Carey’s vision ultimately prevailed, and he landed in India a year later. The term “beachhead missions,” borrowing language from military terminology, refers to these early missionary efforts along the coast of new countries. The East India Company had opened ports of entry to new lands, and missionaries followed their trade routes to establish beachheads for gospel expansion.
Reading of Carey’s life, one will be hard-pressed not to be inspired. He arrived in India in 1793, but it would be eight years before he saw his first convert. Would your church have the same patience? Carey devoted his time to translating the Bible into Bengali, Sanskrit, Hindi, and Assamese. He translated the Bible into six languages and portions into 27 others. He also founded the oldest newspaper in India. When he lost support back in England, he oversaw a dye factory and lectured in Sanskrit.
When Adoniram Judson went out to Burma, he first stopped to visit Carey in India but didn’t want to stay because Carey was "reaching" India. The focus was on reaching a country, but missions was limited to coastlands. Pressing inland was dangerous. Most missionaries to Africa died of malaria, the average length of service of a missionary being two years. You can imagine why so many parents wanted to protect their children from mission boards.
Invade Inland with Hudson Taylor
Hudson Taylor headed to Shanghai under the China Evangelism Society in 1853, with a plan to reach “China.” After his initial work, Taylor realized there were many missionaries where he had come to serve. But few collaborated well, and no one worked away from the coast.
Some major world events were unfolding around the same time. The Opium Wars had forced China to open their interior to Western Europeans. Concurrently, medication for malaria had been developed. Taylor, a doctor by trade, became frustrated on the coast of China and headed inland where he found villages that had never heard of Jesus. With the interior opened by the British military might, China was accessible to the gospel.
The blond-haired and blue-eyed Taylor dyed his hair black and grew it long. As he began to dress like a Chinese philosopher, missionaries would make fun of him. But the Chinese began to respond to the gospel. When he asked his mission board for permission to go to the interior of China, they declined. So Taylor started China Inland Mission in 1865. His organization would later expand in Africa, in part due to one of his more famous converts, the wealthy cricket player, C. T. Studd. Taylor would be the first to promote “faith missions,” where one would completely trust God for provision, without telling anyone of the financial need. This method of fundraising dominated in the 19th and early 20th century. Some still follow it today. By 1895, there were 641 missionaries under his organization, which was more than the entire number of Protestant missionaries in China.
The emphasis moved away from the beach and toward the interior. Still, the focus was on reaching a country with the gospel.
Reach the Unreached with Townsend, MacGavern, and Winter
At Cam Townsend’s funeral in 1982, Billy Graham called him “one of the greatest missionaries of our time.” Ralph D. Winter, the preeminent missiologist of the late-20th century, listed Carey, Taylor, and Townsend as the three greatest missionaries of the modern era.
As a young man Townsend was sent to Guatemala to impact people in the interior part of the country. While handing out Spanish Bibles, an Indian famously asked him: “If your God is so great, why doesn't he speak my language?” Townsend promised that before he died he would give him the Bible in his language. It took him 15 years.
The conversation was transformational for Townsend as he realized there were multiple kinds of people in one country. As a result he founded Wycliffe Bible Translators, which is one of the largest mission organizations in the world. At the time Townsend guessed there were more than 200 languages in the world. He later realized there are over 5000.
Around the same time Donald MacGavern, the controversial founder of the Church Growth Movement, was serving as a missionary in India, translating the Bible and developing strategies to reach different people groups. In his famous book, Understanding Church Growth, published in 1970, he argued that more people were likely to come to Christ if they heard the gospel from others in their own people group.
Still, up until 1974, mission organizations primarily viewed missions and the fulfillment of the Great Commission as the reaching of nations, geographically and politically defined. That changed when Winter and MacGavern gave a paper on unreached peoples. (They called them “hidden peoples.”) The paper, given toward the end of the Lausanne conference, completely reshaped modern missions strategy. The focus was no longer on places but people groups. Mission boards retooled their focus. Today, when you hear about missions you primarily hear the phrase “people groups.” Missionaries do not speak of reaching countries but specific people groups.
“Still, up until 1974, mission organizations primarily viewed missions and the fulfillment of the Great Commission as the reaching of nations, geographically and politically defined. That changed when Winter and MacGavern gave a paper on unreached peoples. (They called them “hidden peoples.”) The paper, given toward the end of the Lausanne conference, completely reshaped modern missions strategy.”
The Polycentric Mission of Today
That brings us to today. All three phases described above were Western-driven movements; the majority of the missionaries came from Western countries. But now the missions world is very different (due in part to the sacrificial work of those missionaries). Today, there are more Anglicans attending church in Kenya than in Britain, Canada, and the United States combined. There are more Presbyterians attending church in Ghana than in Scotland. Some have argued that by 2050, in the northern hemisphere alone, only one in five Christians will be non-Latino and white. This has led to a new phase in mission history—people being sent from everywhere to everywhere.
There are two ways people are being sent out. First, Christians from wealthy countries are going to less-developed countries. Brazilians to Pakistan. Koreans to Afghanistan. Salvidorians to Kenya. They are doing the work Ralph Winter (and now leaders like John Piper and David Platt) first encouraged. But there is another chord in the strand of polycentric mission: diaspora missions.
Today, Christians make up 50% of all diaspora people, with 158 million people living outside of their country of origin, living in either refugee camps or urban areas. In the last thirty years, post-Christian Europe has begun to receive migrants from the Muslim-dominated Middle East and the predominantly Christian world of Africa, Asia, and even Latin America. The movements of immigrants have created “religious diasporas.” These migrants see themselves not just as people who are moving, but people on mission. Today, there are roughly 15,000 foreign missionaries in Great Britain from Africa and Asia. Almost all of them are not “sent out” the way the West is accustomed to, but have migrated and now self-identify as missionaries.
Some have called this “reverse missions” as those from former mission fields send missionaries back to the Western world. Ike Nwaobasi, a Nigerian missionary with the Deeper Life Christian Church, learned German and planted three churches in Austria in which most of the worshipers were Austrian. Rev. Israel Olofinjana is a Nigerian pastor serving in a Baptist church in London. He has become well known for his advocacy of reverse mission and recently established the Centre for Missionaries from the Majority World to offer training and encouragement to cross-cultural workers.
The struggle moving forward will be to see if diaspora churches have impact on local populations. Diaspora Christians tend to interact amongst themselves due to familiarity with customs and language. This inhibits outsiders from joining the group. It might be the kids raised in these churches that will turn the tide in places where secularism dominates. Still, today's religious demographics are changing as faith-bearing migrants carry their religious convictions around the world, especially back to the Western countries that originally sent missionaries. Mission more than migration is what drove Christianity outside of the West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today in the West, migration is driving mission.
We can thank God for what he has done through imperfect missionaries, mission boards, and local churches. Countless articles could be written on the mistakes missionaries have made. It’s easy to criticize the past when you think your hindsight is 20/20. But because of God’s work through flawed missionaries, the church is more diverse now than ever in history. Today, we have a better picture of the final consummation than any other time in history, when people from every tongue, tribe and nation will worship together before the throne. God is on the move. For that, let’s rejoice.