A key conviction of mine is that the Great Commission was not given just to Southern Baptists, nor for that matter, just to the Evangelical churches of North America. It was given to the entire Body of Christ around the world. One of the practical implications of this conviction is that we, as individual members of the Body, are to work as a team in coordination with the rest of the Body, in order to most effectively do what Jesus, the Head of the Body, has commanded us to do.
Patrick Johnstone, in The Church is Bigger than You Think (1998), addressing the issue of overall evangelical growth in the world, states:
"The real growth has been in Latin America, Africa, and Asia… In 1960, non-Western Evangelicals were half as numerous as Western Evangelicals. But by 2000 they will be four times more numerous, and if such growth rates continue, in the year 2010 they will be seven times more numerous."
With the growth of the evangelical movement in the "third world" has also come a dramatically increased missionary-sending capacity.
On a team, each player has his/her role to play, based on the comparative strengths and abilities each one brings to the table. In baseball, for instance, the lead-off batter is generally relatively fast, with a good ability to get on base a high percentage of the time. The clean-up batter, however, is generally strong, with a relatively good ability to drive batters home who are already on base.
What the churches in many "third world" contexts bring to the table is: 1) a vast pool of potential human resources, that is to say, a great number of missionary candidates ready and willing to go; 2) spiritual vitality that in many cases surpasses that of their former Western mentors; and 3) open doors, in both the social and diplomatic aspects, into many areas of the world and people groups that are becoming increasingly more difficult for Westerners to reach.
I was recently made aware that, in Spain today, for every Western Evangelical missionary who arrives, there are two Latin American Evangelical missionaries. This figure does not include the tens of thousands of "non-intentional missionaries" who come as immigrants.
A friend of mine from Argentina, who leads an evangelical humanitarian aid organization based out of Spain, told me recently how the fact that he was from a "third world" country opened many doors for him in Indonesia after the Tsunami. At first, he said, they assumed he was from Spain. But later, upon finding out he was from Argentina, the locals noticeably warmed up to him, and, as a result, several effective doors of ministry were opened.
In addition, I have observed how, often, the most effective workers among Muslims, both in Spain, and in North Africa, are Latin Americans.
What the missionaries from the "third world" often lack, however, is the financial support and mission infrastructure necessary to convert what they have to offer into strategic missionary contribution in the more relatively unreached areas of the world. I have personally seen several extremely gifted and dedicated missionary workers be forced to return to their countries of origin in Latin America, due to lack of financial support and/or adequate supervision on the field. There is no telling how many have never made it due to the same reasons.
On the other hand, in world missions today, one of the relative strengths of the North American church is our financial sending capability. We also have much to offer in the line of expertise gained from years of experience, and highly developed infrastructures.
Although it pains us to admit it, the reality is that, since the war in Iraq, the ability of North Americans to make an effective evangelistic impact in much of the world has been significantly reduced.
I am NOT suggesting, therefore, that we ought to stop sending American missionaries, and begin giving all of our money to support "third world" missionaries. There are complex issues involved, including unhealthy dependency, accountability for use of funds, paternalism, etc. I DO think, however, that we need to give more and more serious reflection as to how we spend our missions dollars, and what is the overall best stewardship of the resources entrusted to us by God.
Since this issue is too complex to do it justice in one post, I plan to continue to write on other aspects of this subject on further posts. But, for now, I leave it open for your response and comments…