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An Identity Crisis: Reflections from an International Missions Conference

Recently, I was at an international conference with mission leaders from around the world. I haven’t participated in many international mission conferences. At one of the first of such conferences that I did attend, in 2004, the conference organizers were discussing security measures to protect the mission leaders (largely from the global north) who assumed, in the wake of 9/11, that they could be targets of terrorism and a great loss for the global church. While there was some debate about whether this would be a loss or, in some ways, a gain for the global church, the conference I attended in 2023 had a strikingly different tone. The purpose of this conference was to look at current missional challenges and to think about the future of missions. The question was not “how to protect the mission leaders for the sake of the global church?”, but rather “what is the purpose of the mission leaders in the global church?” As I mentioned, I haven’t participated in many conferences like these, so I am limited in my ability to evaluate them. Yet, it seemed to me that one feature of this conference was a sense of identity crisis.

The crisis revolves around the established role of missionaries (or, if that terminology is too tainted, Christians working cross-culturally for churches and para-church organizations) in the face of major global shifts. Let me outline some of these shifts for missionaries:

  • From missions directed by the West to missions directed by the global church and, increasingly, the Majority World church
  • From being the center of the missionary narrative to being a part or even a marginal part in the story
  • From leadership positions and decision-makers to nodes in a network in which they consult and advise
  • From being a ministry leader to being a fundraiser and networker
  • From one who takes the gospel to another (receiving) context to being one who supports those taking the gospel to their own context or back to the sending context

These shifts for the missionaries relate to changing desires, capacities, and phenomena in local contexts:

  • From foreign leadership and expertise to local leadership
  • From wanting people (outsiders) and the power (money, education, networks, etc.) they bring to wanting shared networks, money, and power
  • From doing mission that is sensitive to colonialist tendencies to mission by locals in their own context or by locals becoming missionaries and going back to original sending context (often through migration)
  • From limited mobility (especially among impoverished countries) to high-speed mobility and globalization (through migration, internet, media, etc.)
  • From static contexts to constant change and instability
  • From missions in which the church in the global north is involved to a withdrawal of the church in the global north from global missions (evidenced by the decreased number of missionaries; decreased disposable income of the middle class and funding for missions; decreased numbers of Christians in churches; politics of isolation, etc.)
  • From language of missionary and missions to language of Christian worker

In light of these shifts, missionaries are asking about their role and about how to relate in different ways. While they are largely supportive of the dismantling of colonialist and paternalistic practices, of sharing power, gifts, and skills, and of the growing identity of the global church and mission from everywhere to everywhere, missionaries are unsure of their role. How do they use their gifts and strengths without imposing, exploiting, or subjugating? How do they relinquish control while also promoting accountability?

While those who are suffering the loss of power, this may seem like an identity crisis. Yet, it appears to be an opportunity for missions. While the relative power of the global north gave power to missionaries from the global north, missionaries are now having to adjust to having less power. Perhaps, the church from the global north was able to accomplish much, missions that ride on the back of political, economic, social, or cultural power normally contribute as much bad as it does good. With less power, missionaries can rediscover missions in the way of the cross, discovering the power of God in weakness. An example of missions in the way of the cross is the posturing of missionaries as bridge-builders, ambassadors, or in-betweeners. Cross-cultural missionaries often feel like misfits – out of place in their new home and never in place in their country of origin. In this out-of-placeness, missionaries can serve as translators of culture and ideas, mediators of difference, and models for engaging otherness. Missionaries can embrace a more marginal posture and serve “from below.” Missionaries can theologically reflect on the shifts, emphasizing coming as well as going, receiving as well as giving. Instead of holding onto projections of what the missionary is, they can hold to a vocation that looks to imitate and reflect the life of Christ.

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