So… let’s talk about some well-known expansions of Christianity. One of these was the growth of the church in the Roman Empire, and adjoining territories during the first 3 centuries. The church grew rapidly. If I remember right (and am quite prepared to be wrong), the church averaged growth of around 20% per year. That is pretty huge. Both Islam and Christianity is recently growing around 3%, more or less, per year. Some smaller religions are growing at a faster rate, but 20% is pretty huge for any group.
China has been an area of great growth of the church (both “underground” and “above ground”) in the 20th century. In recent years, people have been writing about the apparent growth of the underground church in Iran, mirroring in some ways the growth of Christianity in the Iranian diaspora. Perhaps a fourth one worth mentioning is the African Indigenous (or Initiated) Church (AIG) movement.
What do these movements have in common? One is that there was persecution. That cannot be discounted. However, persecution is not a magic growth formula. In fact, the Chinese church has undergone several waves of persecution going back to the 9th century AD. Of those waves of persecution, it seems as if the only that last of these resulted in growth (Maoist persecution).
Persecution can lead to resiliency, but that certainly doesn’t guarantee growth— perhaps nothing guarantees growth. But a few more things seem worth noting for these growth movements. There Christianity is
- …a religion of (relative) poverty. In some cases, Christianity in these movements was the religion of the poor, and the poorest of the poor. In other cases, Christianity is impoverished in terms of structure. Religious structure, in this case, refers to some things like complex organization, physical religious buildings, and paid clerical class within the church.
- … a religion of the people. It is started, expanded and propagated by locals, rather than foreigners, and often by laity rather than clergy.
- … a religion in which missionaries are not active. Or… if they are active, they are taking on a background, supportive role rather than a leading or controlling role. In fact, the AIC movement often found itself in conflict with missionaries. In China, the Christian church really began to grow after missionaries left the country. Successful missionary work done by foreigners there is now more often in terms of assisting with training or other support roles rather than leadership or apostolic tasks. Much of the early church growth in the Roman Empire happened in the 2nd and 3rd centuries when Apostles/Missionaries as a group were slowly fading away. By the 3rd century, they were barely recognized as a group. I would also suggest that the Iran church have thrived in the absence of foreign missionaries planting and leading churches, while in Iraq, the access of foreign mission workers has NOT been a boon. (Again, open to correction in this area.)
So suppose these three things are true? What does this mean for foreign missions? I would suggest three things.
- Missionaries today seem to be selected wrong. Many mission agencies, including the main one in my denomination, tend to select missionaries based on their “evangelistic spirit” and sense of calling to plant churches. Maybe, however, this is NOT what is needed. Maybe we need missionaries who support locals who are called to be evangelists, apostles, and churchplanters. Perhaps missionaries should be selected on their passion to serve locals rather than lead, and support locals rather than replace.
- Be very careful as to where missional churches send short-term mission teams. In many places in the world they can easily do great damage. And in places where they can go, they are more likely to be useful in supportive tasks requested by the receiving Christians, not doing the stuff that their sending churches think is needed.
- However, missionaries, in the broader sense of the term, should be everywhere. The church is universal and we tend to remember this when we learn and grow with and from each other. Perhaps this means having people who are less thought of as “missionaries” (leaders, evangelists, churchplanters) and more as cross-cultural workers, supporting local work, as requested by locals.
This last point may seem a bit odd, but it is pretty straightforward. When Christians come to the US to serve, they do so without much “hoopla.” Some may pastor churches or be involved in various ministries, but there is no presumption that as a foreigner that they must have a very specific role of leadership or task. Rather, the assumption is that there are needs, and if that person can meet that locally-determined need, then they can serve. What makes sense in the US, should perhaps be recognized as making sense elsewhere as well.