Foundations: No.65 Autumn 2013

The Changing Architecture of Global Mission

The changing face of the world has led to heart searching on the part of churches and missions based in the West over their calling and the proper relationship between the two institutions. Theological rethinking leads to a rejection of the mission agency as a biblical form. Pragmatic considerations, however, lead to the acceptance of a plurality of structures for properly fulfilling the mission of the church.

Since New Testament times followers of Christ have sought to obey the Great Commission by making disciples and gathering them into local churches (Matt 28:16-20; Mark 13:10; 14:9; Luke 24:44-49; John 20:21; Acts 1:8). They have carried out that mission not as independent disciples but as groups. The shapes of these associations and the principles by which they operate have been hot topics among Protestants for over 200 years. In this paper I will explore this issue by examining biblical data on mission structures, historical examples of such structures, the current global situation and responses to that situation by churches and organisations in the UK.

The Growing Global Church

It has become commonplace today to talk about the phenomenal growth of the worldwide church. From being the religion of a minority of people living mostly in Europe and its colonies 200 years ago, the church has grown exponentially in many places so that today fully 63.2% of those who identify themselves as Christians are situated in the non-Western world. [1]  Philip Jenkins asserts that, “We are currently living through one of the transforming moments in the history of religion worldwide”. [2]  Over the past century, observes Jenkins, the centre of gravity in the Christian world has shifted inexorably southward, to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Today the largest communities on the planet that identify themselves as Christian are to be found in Africa and Latin America, with huge minority communities in places like China, South Korea and India. This tremendous expansion has been accomplished in great measure through the missionary movement of the last couple of centuries. [3] 

Furthermore, non-Western churches themselves are surging ahead in missions so that it is now estimated that there are more non-Western missionaries than Western ones. [4]  David Cho, the International Director of the Global Network of Mission Structures, tells us that “the national goal of the Korean church is to send out 100,000 missionaries in the next 20 years. The Chinese church and Filipino church have similar goals. We are witnessing an enormous shift in the center of gravity of foreign mission sending.” [5]  It is with such phenomena emerging that the Global Network of Mission Structures was set up. Addressing the ongoing task of world evangelisation, Cho adds, “The issue is not a lack of resources to reach the remaining unreached peoples. It is simply a matter of better coordination.” [6]  At face value, that seems extraordinarily reductionistic but taking it in the best possible light Cho is highlighting that coordination is needed to ensure the wisest allocation of resources in world mission.

Such global church growth gives us a lot to be thankful for. We live in a day in which we can see tremendous advances of the gospel in the world. But the statistics obscure three tragic realities. Firstly, large numbers of people who identify themselves as Christian have very little understanding of the gospel. In India, for instance, to be identified as Christian one has merely to belong to a community (caste or tribe) that has been so identified by society at large and enshrined in law.

Secondly, as Andrew Walls writes, this global church growth has been accompanied by a massive recession in the former heartland of the church, Europe and the countries that grew out of its colonial expansion, such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and even, as is increasingly evident, in the United States. [7] 

Thirdly, vast numbers of people, even in countries where the church has grown have as yet very little meaningful contact with the gospel, as Ralph Winter and Bruce Koch point out:

The fact is that the gospel often expands within a community but does not normally “jump” across boundaries between people, especially those that are created by hate or prejudice. Believers can readily influence their “near neighbours” whose language and culture they understand, but religion is often bound up with cultural identity. Therefore religious beliefs do not easily transfer from one group to another. [8] 

Winter and Koch demonstrate that if all disciples of Jesus Christ were to witness to their friends, relatives and neighbours there would still be billions of people cut off from the gospel. They break down this scenario so that we can see how many people, and how many communities (“people groups”) need to be approached in “frontier mission”. [9] 

Clearly these realities indicate that the age of mission is not over. The Lord Jesus told his disciples that “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt 24:14). But how are we to go about that? One of the big missiological discussions has been over the legitimacy and effectiveness of what we might call the architecture of missions. In recent decades, with the massive global changes we are witnessing, that discussion is once again calling for our attention. 

Structures of Redemptive Mission

In a seminal 1973 article, Ralph Winter, the late founder of the US Center for World Mission in Pasadena, California, asserted that God has used two distinct structures in his mission of redemption in the world. [10]  In the first case, local churches were started in NT times based on the model of the synagogue which had existed for over a hundred years throughout the Roman Empire. In the second, Paul’s apostolic band was formed to take the message of the Lord Jesus to places where such local churches did not yet exist. The apostolic band was not dependent on the local church of its origin (Antioch) either for authority or funds. Rather, the team moved about with freedom and independence.

These two structures, Winter says, continue to turn up through Christian history. In medieval times diocesan local church structures were supp-lemented by the monastic movement, which was used to plant other churches based on the diocesan model in such places as Britain after the Angles and Saxons had invaded and wounded Celtic Christianity. Winter calls these structures modalities and sodalities. In the one, baptism was the initial route to membership and there was no barrier of age or sex. To join the other, however, a second decisive act was needed that would only be taken by the few who could accept that. [11] 

Winter asserts that the Protestant Reformers did not appreciate the medieval monastic orders as they should have done. The reformers (Luther was a monk himself, of course) highlighted the corruption that was endemic in the system. They denied any place for such orders. But to Winter they missed out on the very positive role the orders played throughout the medieval period in preserving and extending the mission of the church. It was this denial of the sodality that to Winter was “the greatest error of the Reformation and the greatest weakness of the Protestant tradition”. [12]  Later, the Pietist movement was itself a sodality, Winter asserts. But even this movement, along with Anabaptist communities, “dropped back to the level of biological growth” and so ceased to function as a sodality.

It was William Carey’s promotion of the use of “means” that brought the sodality back onto the Protestant stage. [13]  And within a few short decades the Protestant movement, using the opportunities made available to it by the colonial expansion of northern European powers, had been carried all over the world. But church-based mission societies like the Church Mission Society and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions were taken under the control of denominational powers, and other sodalities, the “Faith Missions” like Hudson Taylor’s China Inland Mission took up the baton.

Winter goes on to warn that today’s missionary societies are in danger of denying the efficacy of the very structure that has got them out to the frontiers. Many societies, he argues, plant churches and leave it at that. Winter asks, “Why don’t they also plant mission agencies?” Is it because of a mindset of Western agencies that finds it difficult to entrust the work of mission to those of the traditional receiving nations? The church, in countries where it has grown significantly, is in danger of not being able to continue the work of mission.

Although I think Winter’s article is stimulating and helpful in tracing these two structures through Christian history, the NT evidence, it seems to me, does not bear the weight that he loads on it. Eckhard Schnabel agrees. While there is plenty of evidence for the normative character of the local church (ekklēsia) there is very little NT data about the evangelistic band to go on. “This is another area”, he writes, “where Paul’s missionary work provides neither a paradigm nor principle or rules”. [14] 

Furthermore, Winter does not seem to take enough account of the cultural and ecclesiastical context of the eras through which the church and mission has passed. He rightly points out the diocesan pattern of the local church as being modelled after the Roman civic administrative pattern. [15]  But then the emergence of Christendom with the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire by Constantine in 313AD surely changed the shape of the church and its relationship to the world dramatically. It was the nexus of the church with political power and the corresponding corruption of the church that led to the emergence of the monastic orders.

Missionary Societies as a Phenomenon of Modernity

Mission historian Andrew Walls locates the phenomenon of the missionary as we have come to understand it, firmly in the church’s response to the culture of globalisation and modernity:

We can thus see that, while the element of cross-cultural diffusion runs throughout Christian history, it has never been dependent on any one instrument. The ‘missionary’ in the technical sense is one present, and historically important, example of a recurrent Christian phenomenon. [16] 

Cross-cultural diffusion (mission) is a constant in the history of the church but the “missionary” is just one particular expression of that. [17]  Walls traces the history of modern missionary societies to their roots in the idea of the “voluntary society” which itself was a product of a particular combination of political, economic, and religious conditions that arose at the end of the seventeenth century in Western Europe. In political terms, says Walls, “it required regimes permitting free association, a climate in which such association was not perceived by the state as a threat, a type of society in which individual consciousness was highly developed, in which it was not necessary or appropriate that all should look like their neighbours”. [18]  In economic terms there had to be a surplus of resources which were enjoyed by a broad spread of the population and a system in which this surplus could be moved around. In religious terms there had to exist church structures that allowed for such societies to form without them being perceived as a serious threat to religious life. Furthermore, for the agencies to operate there had to be a relationship between the West and the rest of the world which allowed for relative freedom and security in travel and settlement.

In a voluntary society churches and individuals and other wider groupings can act freely together towards a common purpose. There was some resistance to the idea – why were they necessary when the church was already providing ministry? There was also some theological resistance to the extension of the church among far-flung nations. But William Carey’s arguments were not only theological. Having established the biblical basis for missions his arguments are also pragmatic – in Carey’s words, Christians were under obligation “to use means for the conversion of the heathens”. [19]  As Walls puts it, “There never was a theology of the voluntary society. The voluntary society is one of God’s theological jokes, whereby he makes tender mockery of his people when they take themselves too seriously.” [20]  The society arose because the churches of the time had no structure to advance the gospel in previously untouched areas. [21] 


Walls asserts, rightly I think, that the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries “saw a high degree of convergence of these conditions”, allowing missionary societies to flourish relatively unhindered. [22]  But, says Walls, those conditions have not continued into the present. The colonial system has passed. Even more markedly the economic system has led missionaries to be expensive commodities especially in comparison with the cost of living in the countries they have traditionally been sent to serve.

There have, furthermore, been huge religious changes as we have already seen. One result of the recession of the church in the West is that mission organisations based in these old missionary-sending countries are facing a serious shortfall in income to meet their ever-growing budget. [23]  This has led to some deep heart-searching on the part of those mission boards and leaders.

The vastly increased interconnectedness of the world has had a massive impact on both the way we view the needs of the world and the way we respond to them. Instant newsfeeds, the ease with which we can communicate with a church leader on the other side of the world, the convenience of international travel, and the ability to be understood through the widespread use of English as an additional language all mean that the need for the skilled culture-broker, of which the traditional missionary is the classic example (and by extension the mission society), is deemed by many to be redundant.

Opportunities for churches and individuals to give to missions (also a product of globalisation) have mushroomed resulting in many long-estab-lished mission agencies often struggling to pay their bills as erstwhile donors send their gifts elsewhere. Gordon Stewart, of AsiaLink, believes that the recent financial crisis has had an effect on the way British church members view mission agencies:

The present financial crisis and the uncertainty which that places on jobs, wages, pensions and student debt are squeezing church members. Christians are less willing to “give to mission” and those that do are much more discerning today than 20 years ago. They want to know who it is going to, how much is being kept for admin, how much is actually going to the “field”. They want good value for their hard-earned money. [24] 

The apparent high cost of sending a church member into missions via a mission agency has led some churches, especially bigger churches and newer churches, to cut out the “middleman” and organise things themselves. [25]  Some organisations and mission leaders have built their profile on the apparently high discrepancy between the cost of supporting a missionary from home and that of supporting “native missionaries”. [26] 

So the globalisation of mission has resulted in the formation of new structures, new patterns of funding, new channels of recruitment, and new ways of involvement for a new generation in the emerging global economic, political, and religious environment.

Theological Rethinking

The discussion over mission structures is one thread, and an important one, of larger discussions over the nature of mission. Those wider discussions coalesce around two questions: firstly, what exactly is it that the Lord has commissioned the church to do (or the role of the church in engaging the world materially, politically, environmentally, and socially as well as spiritually); and, secondly, how wide should mission be in terms of the work of perfecting the saints as opposed to the narrower task of reaching “unreached people groups”? [27]  The way you answer those questions has serious consequences for the kinds of structures you will advocate.

But no matter how these questions are answered the question remains, pragmatic considerations aside, is there any biblical basis for mission agencies at all? In the early 1970s the Strict Baptist Mission (as Grace Baptist Mission was then called) ceased to be run as a traditional missionary society to be replaced by a charitable trust with a council elected by the mission’s supporting churches. Chris Richards writes, “On the face of it there was not much difference but a profound change had taken place. The Mission now belonged to, and served, the churches.” [28]  One area that this impacted was on mission finances. “At a Council meeting sometime in the mid-seventies” writes Richards, “the Treasurer reported that there was a financial crisis…. Should this be shared with the churches? ‘No’, he said, ‘I think it should be kept within the family’. Yes, thought some – but who exactly is ‘the family’?” [29]  Ongoing discussions within the Council and the churches led to further clarification of their new paradigm. The 1977 Annual Report declared that “the Mission would no longer undertake work on behalf of the churches. In future the Mission would help the churches to do their work”. [30] 

World Consultancies

More widely, how have mission organisations adapted to the changing environment? Ten years ago, Brian Knell of Global Connections wrote a paper in which he traced the recent history of UK-based missions and noted a subtle shift that took place sometime during the 1980s when mission societies, as they invariable were called, began to call themselves mission agencies[31]  The life-long service expected of mission societies in which missionaries felt like family, had been replaced by a more pragmatic orientation around task and project. Missionaries in agencies were no longer expected to forge family-like relationships with others in the agency. Their call was not for life but for however long it seemed expedient. This change was gradual and may not have completely overtaken all the member groups of Global Connections (which was formerly known as the Evangelical Missionary Alliance). But it was quite apparent that such a change had taken place. This shift was in response, Knell argues, to changing attitudes towards missionaries in the churches (in which we might hear such comments as “Don’t they spoil cultures, and aren’t we all missionaries anyway?”) and the changing global situation in which such factors as difficulties with securing long-term visas, the education of children, and the shifting needs of host churches make life-long membership of a mission organisation more and more untenable.

Knell goes on to suggest that as churches demand more personal involvement in global missions further changes need to take place, and are indeed taking place already, such that mission agencies need to morph into “world consultancies”. This change, he argues, must come as a response to the demand for more choice and the distrust of organisations that is characteristic of Generation X, and must be focussed on the provision of services. This is all a far cry from the sodality-model of Ralph Winter.

So how are UK-based missions continuing to adapt to the present situation? In response to a blog post, Eddie Arthur, CEO of Wycliffe, UK agrees that churches must do the sending and mission agencies are there to support and help them in doing so. [32]  He also admits that mission agencies, including his own, have tended to have a low view of the church but thinks that this is changing rapidly. [33] 

OMF likewise, believes that the local church should be the sending body. The document “OMF and the Local Church: An Initial Overview” seeks to lay down the principle of local church involvement in the sending and supporting of missionaries with the mission agency while also recognising that the practicalities of pastoral care and ministry involvement far from the church may not be straightforward. [34]  One implication of this is where there is shared responsibility:

In deciding the balance of responsibility between OMF and the local church a rule of thumb would be that areas where a church would normally expect to pastor its own members and ministers remain their responsibility. Matters that are related to ministry within OMF will be primarily OMF’s responsibility.

ReachAcross, also, has been through a major restructuring process over the last ten years explicitly to transform it from being a more traditional missionary society to being a mission agency. [35] 

Another organisation that has been through a similar change is Serving in Mission (SIM). Keith Walker, the outgoing UK Director, explained the change as moving from being a traditional mission society to a community whose members’ ministry is defined by a Partnership Agreement between the home church, the SIM home office, the field leadership, and the missionary. [36]  This change started off in the 1990s but only last year was introduced globally across the mission. In the deployment of a new missionary his or her home church gets to have a significant input in defining their ministry and is responsible for their pastoral care and financial support. Walker believes that the changes make the mission’s view of the local church much stronger. We are committed, he says, to “enabling churches to fulfil their mission globally”.

Members of Albania Evangelical Mission usually have a single sending church plus two or three others who take an interest and support with prayer and finance. Each is considered to be independent of mission control. Rather, the mission sees its role as supporting both expatriate and local workers. Workers from overseas try to fit into a local Albanian church and exercise their ministry in that setting. Director Paul Davies admits that there is sometimes a tension for missionaries between the concerns of their sending church and those of the local church with whom they are working. This is especially so in situations where a missionary becomes a pastor of an Albanian church. [37] 

In 2009 Crosslinks underwent a major review of their purpose and ethos which resulted in the restructuring of the mission. The creation of a Church and Member Team is the result of a desire to esteem the role of the local church in the sending of missionaries. Nevertheless, the governance of the mission is as a society independent of local church control (though governed by a General Council which includes a member of the Church of England’s General Synod):

At its most fundamental level Crosslinks exists as a voluntary society. Membership is open to any individual who signs the Basis of the Society and the Statement of Faith… and give a written undertaking… that they have been a supporter of the Society by prayer and gifts for at least a year, and that they continue to support the Society in the same manner. [38] 

There has clearly been a widespread review of attitudes towards the place of the local church in mission among UK-based mission organisations. In some cases there have been changes in governance but the architecture of mission organisations continues to be diverse.

Problems with Church Control

Turning over power and influence to sending churches is a risky venture. Writing out of the American experience, Paul Borthwick cautions churches from becoming quasi-mission agencies: “Churches operating autonomously as mission agencies tread on very dangerous ground. They may repeat the same errors or become the very bureaucracies they’re rebelling against.” [39]  In the same vein, Stan Guthrie points out that the increasing control of mission by local churches can sometimes come with a high price. When a church takes on full responsibility for its missionary personnel those missionaries become vulnerable to changes in that church. A church split, for instance, can result in the abandonment of a mission project by personnel who no longer have the support of their fractured fellowship. (The question of which part of the split church the returning missionaries are to side with is a vexing pastoral issue at a time of great stress and at the moment when pastoral care may not be available.) Or the church may shake up their whole approach to global mission resulting in their missionaries no longer fitting their new paradigm. Guthrie tells the story of one Bible translator who was recalled because his home church was only going to support church planting! [40] 

Is this a good enough argument, though, for maintaining a traditional approach? It is true that mission agencies have built up a huge amount of expertise in ministry in the diverse contexts of the globe. Churches that decide to go it alone without consulting with such expertise are surely naive and irresponsible. But this is not a killer argument against a greater share of responsibility and control resting in the lap of the local church. After all, mission agencies, like churches, can split or go through a paradigm shift in ministry approach, and often do. Borthwick voices the concerns of local churches in demanding more involvement. [41] 

Jim Sayers, Deputy Mission Coordinator of GBM, reports that another result of the structural changes in a mission can be the pluralisation of philosophies of ministry. [42]  After all, if a number of local churches send their personnel into ministry, those missionaries may have a range of approaches to that ministry. If individuals from different churches with different emphases are to work on the same field it will take clear understanding to ensure that they can work together effectively. Again, this is surely also the case in more traditional missionary societies but perhaps in times gone by a drastic mismatch between a mission agency and a new recruit was often prevented by careful vetting of the candidates during the selection process. The necessity for carefully worked out arrangements for cooperation in ministry is, nevertheless, clear no matter what the structure.

Creative Solutions to Twenty-first Century Opportunities

The globalisation of missions also throws up another new challenge which local churches and denominations in places like the United Kingdom have only recently begun to think through – the arrival of gospel workers on our shores from countries that were until recently thought of as the “mission field”. They may or may not arrive with any structure behind them. Do we have the structures to ensure that they are welcomed, guided, and even held to account (2 John 10)? What if they are under the leadership of strongly hierarchical mission directors who dictate their methods from afar without any reference to their hosts? Do we allow them to make the same mistakes that we made a century ago in their homelands or do we seek to open up channels of fellowship in the gospel to seek for something better?

The Valley Commandos project in South Wales is one recently formed creative structure. Evangelical churches in the cities of Newport, Cardiff and Swansea have long been burdened to help the small gospel fellowships in the valleys that have been struggling to maintain their witness in a context of great spiritual and social deprivation. So some of these churches have joined together to promote church planting and strengthening in each of the 23 valleys in this densely populated area and are partnering with Wales Evangelical School of Theology, SaRang Church in Seoul and Acts29 Europe to resource this vision. The paradigm shift that is going on in mission in our day must surely call for such creative thinking.

Mission structures emerge as people respond in concert to the commission of the Lord Jesus to continue his work on earth in the power of the Spirit. Those structures must be rooted in a right biblical theology and a realistic practical perspective of the global and local situation. The biblical basis for the local church is indisputable. (And though we may struggle to agree on the precise arrangements we must all at least be working to express the unity of the church by seeking fellowship with others in bodies like Affinity.) Arguments for a particular organisational structure as the biblical vehicle for global mission are not convincing. Rather, the application of biblically-informed wisdom to the task of mission and the needs of mission personnel may result in a plurality of structures in different times and in different places. Schnabel agrees. It may be that a mission agency is just what is needed: “…it stands to reason to pool knowledge, expertise and resources in sending missionaries”. [43]  Even some of those who have previously seen no place for agencies that are not under church control recognise this – GBM in recent years has begun to partner with a number of mission agencies that have field-led teams. While the worker is on the field they are accountable to the field leader. But mutual reporting between agencies and an annual review of the situation by mission leaders and home-church elders ensures proper accountability. “It’s a bit of a trade-off” admits Jim Sayers. [44]  Such a trade-off may be just what is needed to glorify God in the ongoing mission of the church in the twenty-first century.