Missions is changing.
Our great-grandchildren will read about this moment in church history textbooks, if the Lord does not return first. Global changes are taking place that will forever affect the way churches fulfill the great commission, and our generation is standing at a major turning point in the history of the church.
I like to call this change the democratization of global missions. That is really a fancy way of saying that for the first time in history, every, single member of your local church can be directly involved in international missions. I am not referring to praying for missionaries or giving to support their cause. These crucial tasks have always been available to church members, and they are perhaps more important than ever. But now, every member can actually participate in cross-cultural ministry.
Let me explain.
Major shifts in global missions:
Two hundred years ago, the church saw the beginning of what we call the modern missions movement. Men like William Carey and Adoniram Judson would pack up their belongings, in a casket nonetheless, and travel across the ocean by ship for months to reach lost peoples in foreign lands. These were one-way trips. They made the journey to serve and ultimately die there. Great costs and sacrifice accompanied the select few that churches were able to send.
Sixty years ago, another shift occurred that was perhaps as significant as the first. As airplanes became a common and inexpensive mode of transportation, it no longer took two months to get to the nations. Now the trip would only take two days. Not only did this allow churches to send many more long-term workers, but it also meant churches could send a team of people to support the work of their long-term missionaries.
Short-term missions was a game-changer. Recent studies point out that significantly more people and perhaps dollars are dedicated to short-term mission work than residential overseas work. Regardless of your stance on the benefits of short-term work, it has radically changed the way we do international missions. Not least of these changes is the move to involve more people in a local church in the international missions task. At one point, a church could send key individuals and families to do residential overseas work. With the shift to short-term missions, a church could now send many more to be a part of international missions through short-term efforts. This widened the circle of those who could participate directly in cross-cultural ministry.
Today, a similar change is happening. No longer are the nations two months away, no longer are they 2 days away. Now, they are moving in across the street. At one time, our only hope of reaching the nations was sending a select few across the water to live in faraway lands. Eventually, we could support these people with teams from our churches. This involved many more. But now, the day has come when every, single member of a local church can be involved in international missions. Not only can we go to the nations, but the nations are coming us.
How do we respond?
We do not stop sending internationally. Yes, there are literally millions of international immigrants in the US (over 40 million, to give a number), and many of the world’s unreached people groups are now represented in communities across the United States. However, we must not back down from sending international missionaries. In fact, we are not sending enough. While there are unprecedented local opportunities now, any work in the US must be a supplement to engagement where the vast majority of the unreached still live.
We do need to seize this new day in missions. For the first time since the modern missions movement began, global migration patterns are providing a completely new point of access to the unreached world. That access point is your own backyard. With unreached people groups moving to the US by the thousands, global missions is now democratized and it can (and should) be an every-member ministry in your local church.
This means educating people in local congregations, partnering with other churches in your area, and finding and engaging the groups that God has placed around in your community. Imagine the picture of the global church that can exist in your community if your church works with other churches to plant more churches, all speaking different languages, worshipping in different cultures, and reaching out to the full spectrum of peoples that now call your community home.
It is a new day, indeed.
Keelan Cook serves as Senior Church Consultant for Union Baptist Association and Instructor of North American Missiology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. His primary areas of ministry focus include urban missiology, church planting, church revitalization, and unreached people groups.