The worldwide church has experienced a significant shift in terms of geography and demographics. For the church here in Canada, it can no longer be business as usual. Is it time for the Presbyterian Church in Canada to reconsider its involvement in international ministries? After all, the world is considerably different now than it was and maybe our role as a missionary-sending church needs to change.
In his book The New Shape of World Christianity, Mark A. Noll, an historian from the University of Notre Dame, illuminates the following startling contrasts: more Christians attend church in China than in all of so-called “Christian Europe.” More Anglicans attend church in each of Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda than Anglicans in Britain and Canada and Episcopalians in the United States combined—and the number of Anglicans in the church in Nigeria is several times the number of those other African countries. More Presbyterians go to church in Ghana than in Scotland, and more are in congregations of the Uniting Presbyterian Church of South Africa than in the United States. Six to eight times more people attend the Yoido Full Gospel Church overseen by Yong Cho in Seoul, South Korea, than the total that worshipped in Canada’s 10 largest churches combined.
As the shape of global Christianity changes, it could even be said we are not so much a missionary-sending country as we are a missionary-receiving country. To illustrate, Noll claims: “This past week in Great Britain, at least 15,000 Christian foreign missionaries were hard at work evangelizing the locals. Most of those missionaries are from Africa and Asia.” Referring to work done by Philip Jenkins and Michael Nazar-Ali, Nolls shows that international missionaries are more likely to come from Brazil, South Korea, the Philippines and India, as they are to come from Canada, the United States and Great Britain. A quantum shift has taken place in terms of where missionaries are coming from and going to. We here in Canada used to send missionaries to places like Korea, Brazil and the Philippines. Now those countries are sending missionaries to Canada in a phenomenon known as “reverse missionaries.”
What do these changes mean for us here in Canada? How should we respond?
First, it is imperative we rediscover our missionary task. Over 60 years ago, the Reformed missiologist, J. H. Bavinck, claimed that missionary work is the very essence of the church, in the opening chapter of his book The Impact of Christianity on the Non-Christian World. “A church which ceases to be missionary in character no longer corresponds to what her Lord expects her to be and sooner or later she will experience the consequences of her neglect,” he argues. Maybe we already are experiencing those consequences.
Second, we should resist the temptation to separate the gospel from the social gospel. As Canadians, we are often so respectful of the other that we are afraid to share the gospel lest we offend their sensibilities or hamper their way of life. We are quite comfortable feeding the hungry and caring for the sick—the so-called social gospel—but quite reticent to share the good news of Jesus Christ directly. Sometimes, I think, we are of the opinion that people of other faiths are just fine they way they are. If we can help with material needs, that is enough. We need to recover the balance that Luke refers to in the opening words of the Acts of the Apostles: “All that Jesus began to do and teach.” We need to be involved in preaching and teaching the good news of Jesus as well as doing the things that Jesus did, such as feeding the hungry and healing the sick.
Third, the church should aggressively pursue partnerships. Sherron Kay George makes the case for partnerships in her very helpful book, Better Together: The Future of Presbyterian Mission. She says that churches have been talking about partnerships in mission for well over 80 years, but the actual practice is still in its infancy. As an example, I have been involved in a unique partnership with Light Presbyterian Church and their involvement in North Korea. Light Church is part of the Korean Presbyterian Church and not the Presbyterian Church in Canada. There is still much value in partnering together. Perhaps the PCC could align more closely, as a start, with the KPC, Christian Reformed Church and other Reformed denominations.
Fourth, we need to learn from South Koreans. Mark Noll devotes a whole chapter to the mission enterprise of Koreans in his book on global Christianity. Some Korean congregations in Canada probably have larger mission programs than the entire PCC. I remember travelling by ferry to a family cottage on Christian Island in the middle of Georgian Bay. On the ferry was a van from a Korean Presbyterian congregation from Toronto. I asked what they were doing. They explained that they were part of a team running a Vacation Bible School program for First Nations children on the island. Although the island was “Christian Island,” these Koreans considered it be so in name only.
Fifth, we should recognize, in the Canadian context, mission is increasingly moving to the congregational level and is short term. It is fair to say that the days of “send us your money and leave mission activity to the professionals” are over. Congregations want to be involved in mission firsthand. It is not enough for them to read reports; they crave the excitement of seeing and experiencing what God is doing in other parts of the world for themselves. Admittedly, short-term mission projects can be a challenge for the host missionary and host country. But I don’t think we can go back to the days of “just send me your cheque.” The world is too small. Going Global: A Congregation’s Introduction to Mission Beyond Our Borders by three staffers from Canadian Baptist Ministries gives helpful advice for how congregations can best be involved in short-term mission.
So, in answer to the question, is it time for the PCC to reconsider its involvement in international ministries? I would say, “Yes.”
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