What’s happening to mission?

Articles and lectures are appearing about ‘shrinking congregations’ and ‘the waning enthusiasm for mission’.

      Statistics show that for a while up to the 1970s, New Zealand was the largest sender of missionaries per capita. It’s estimated that by 2000 the number had settled to about 1700 workers — but by 2023 only 700 were active.¹ That’s 1,000 fewer in 20 years.

     What in the typical New Zealand church might have contributed to a gradual waning of cross-cultural mission interest? Big-picture changes are involved, a deep philosophical shift leading to today’s increasingly secular generations. As the percentage of engaged Christians in the West is shrinking in each successive generation, when it comes to mission, even if every single young Christian were just as supportive of international ministry as older believers, there are fewer of them to sustain missions into the future.²

     Churches with much smaller congregations are not even in a position to cover all the bases at home let alone send their members overseas to do mission work. In practical terms, this shrinkage can also make raising support funds a bigger concern.

     There is lately a pandemic / war / severe weather effect, with some possibly-willing people finding themselves travel shy where they were not before. There’s a wariness, but also a weariness, around. Have you felt it? However, is the world today really more hazardous than it was for those early pioneering missionaries who died from disease, unsafe travel and the hostility of other cultures?

     The Rev. Scottie Reeve said in a recent article³ about the state of the church that as well as being used to an extraordinary level of comfort and convenience, we have also lost faith in the ability of large organised groups to make positive change. “Both a response to years of public leadership failures,” he wrote, “and a reflection of our increasing capitalistic individualism which struggles to cooperate … “

     At St John’s College in Auckland, a UK historian described how the Western world’s response to the other parts of the globe changed radically over a century with the invention of photography. Ordinary people in the late 19th and the 20th Century got to see the dreadful sights of millions dying and displaced by famines and war. We forget that humanitarian help started out as an integrated gospel response to these horrors by Christians, but became in recent decades an increasingly secular push to step in with aid — along with the cameras, of course. What’s that got to do with waning mission, you might ask? Well, for one thing, younger generations find it easy to work overseas to alleviate suffering, which many of them want to do, without considering Christian mission. A recent survey found that a significant number of young Christians don’t see much difference between aid workers and mission workers².

     Then there’s how we disciple youth. Too often, Scottie Reeve said, the fall back position is to entertain them. “We believed that if we could just ‘keep them in the room’ … then young people might sustain their commitment to Jesus. But as the culture has shifted, we’re realising that wasn’t enough.” Or to quote SIM NZ’s Andrew Smith (A Journey in Christian Apologetics & Philosophy), “The programmes designed to achieve a youth-focused church environment did not increase the number of conversions or increase church membership … those well-meaning efforts by the modern church also had the unintended consequence of marginalising and degrading older people’s ministries.”

Mission recipients: It’s estimated that only a tiny 1.7% of all the money given to missions globally is being spent sending workers where Christ is least known, the unreached people groups who make up 41.5% of world population. Yet the world-wide church has enough believers and financial resources to reach them all. There are over 54,000 evangelical Christians in the world for every unreached people group.⁵  

Statistics that encourage: The World Christian Database estimates that there are more than seven times more missionaries in the world today than in 1900, and contributing to that is a seismic shift. Among the top 10 countries sending missionaries in 2010 were Brazil, South Korea and India. The second ‘top ten’ included South Africa, Philippines, Mexico, China, Colombia and Nigeria.⁶ Mission workers today are sent from everywhere and received everywhere. A single church in Kenya has a dozen mission workers in New Zealand. Much of the new life in global mission is being grown by the witness of indigenous churches. In 2002 I visited a remote Ethiopian church at a place called Waka which began 60 years before when political prisoners returned home from a neighbouring region. By the time of my visit, local missionaries had spread out from Waka so that scores of people were making decisions for Christ each month and new churches were already too small. So can New Zealand churches ‘fold up’ their global mission effort and pack it away? No! The Lord is building his whole church. And here’s the thing: the centre of mission hasn’t moved, because it’s not about geography. It’s always centred in Christ. That Waka Church was nurtured by a couple from New Zealand when it was new. “If we Westerners can humbly pray, go and serve the blossoming churches and movements across the globe with our own resources and skills, we will see great fruit as the gospel is proclaimed throughout the world.“⁶ —Zoe Cromwell

Here’s a suggestion: Could you be a mobiliser? Is there someone in your church community that you could ‘shoulder-tap’ to see whether they would be a mission worker overseas – maybe even suggest a 3-way meeting between you, the person and a mission agency?

¹  Jay Matenga of NZ Missions Interlink at the 2023 Selwyn Lecture

²  From a research report by Barna

³  ‘End of Easter Camp – An Autopsy’  on https://www.catchnetwork.org.nz/

  Professor Brian Stanley, giving the 2023 Selwyn lecture


  John Morgan, ‘World Christianity is Undergoing a Seismic Shift’, 2019. (www.abwe.org)