Eric Carpenter blogged about 25 Things That Will Occur in the American Church During the Next 25 Years. I think it is a good list and the kind of conversation we need to be having. Ministry in the next 25 years will look very different from ministry in the last 25 and the church needs to be thinking about it now, rather than after everything has changed,
I looked his list over and agreed with a lot of what he wrote. One point that I really liked (actually two) had to do with missions programs. Here they are:
11. Because of cost the USA will send fewer missionaries overseas.
12. American churches will fund an increasing number of national missionaries in their home countries.
I agree in part with that. Definitely 11, as church giving continues to shrink as fewer and fewer religious people attend "church" and give to religious groups, I think you will see the average local church turn even more inward and that means cutting missionary funding (in terms of sending American missionaries to foreign countries) in favor of spending to sustain the local religious organization, keeping the lights on and the clergy paid. It is the second part that I thought was interesting. I am not sure many local churches are down with paying local, indigenous missionaries and evangelists although they should be. I think there is a subtle, or maybe not so subtle, notion of the American version of Christendom that sees America as the pinnacle of the Christian experiment. We often seem to be exporting American religion more than Christianity. When I see pastors in third world countries sporting Western style suits and ties I see that we seem just as concerned with expanding the American religious culture as we are in spreading the Gospel. It is a matter of control. American missionaries with connections in the U.S. are more easily controlled than an evangelist or church planter in Ethiopia that is supported from afar. So I am not as optimistic that the future will see more indigenous mission support but I also don't see a great future for groups like the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.
In spite of my skepticism I am hoping that Eric is right and I think that the new world of post Christendom in American Christianity will be fertile ground for a new type of cooperative "mission board" that is not based on denominational affiliation but perhaps based on nations or regions. As the church changes I agree with Eric that we will see a "barbell" shape in American Christianity with a group of really large "churches" on one end and a lot of very small, simpler churches on the other with very few of the medium sized churches many people are used to in the middle. Those smaller churches will lack the critical mass to support missionaries on their own and likely will be unaffiliated with a denominational missions board. This creates a new opportunity for cooperative missions groups that transcend denomination. Perhaps 7-8 small church groups that have an affinity for Haiti or Vietnam or Ecuador can pool their resources together to support a local missionary in those nations. Indigenous missionaries, especially in third world nations, are far more "affordable" because they don't bring American lifestyle expectations with them. They know the people they are ministering to and lack the "noble American coming to save you" stigma. I think indigenous missionaries and church planters are the way to go and I think there is a real opportunity for this model in the post-Christendom world. The question will come down to whether our American pride will allow us to trust our brothers in another country to "get it right" without the "benefit" of an American church upbringing.
Someone should write a polemic about the indigenous missionary model. Paging Dave Black!