A Kenyan friend of mine is the pastor of a church founded by a white missionary three decades ago. The missionary recently decided to retire, and he left without training native Kenyans for ministry. It was up to my friend Dennis to pick up the pieces. Thanks to the help of friends in the West, Dennis received the theological training he needed to fill the leadership vacuum. Today he's back in Kenya and beginning the slow process of rebuilding the church.
Dennis' church in Kenya, along with many others in the developing world, are only beginning to recover from a long-held missions strategy that firmly believed white was right. But times are changing. After two centuries of Western missionary work, a staggering 70% of the world's evangelical Christians are now non-Western. Evangelicals in the developing world may still desire Western church assistance, but they rarely want Western control.
Today, the world's largest evangelical churches are not in London or New York, but in South Korea, where nearly 20% of the world's evangelical Christians now live. In 1900, there were 8.8 million Christians in Africa; today, there are more than 300 million. The new international complexion of evangelicalism means that a movement once thought to be distinctly European and American is being reinvigorated with input from nations once (and sometimes still) thought to be on the missions frontier.
All over the developing world, in places such as Africa and South America, seminaries are springing up, pastors are being trained, and Christianity is being conducted more in tune with local cultures and customs than ever before. Dennis says he is thankful for his Western training, but he knows that Kenya faces economic, political, cultural, and even theological challenges a relatively affluent American could never imagine. For instance, how does he cope with the economic and health crises devastating his part of the world?
Missions can't be immune from these shifting sands. Billy Graham and other Western missionaries and evangelists know that now is the time to tell future generations that West isn't always best. It seems that Graham wants Amsterdam 2000 to recognize this new reality.
It may seem obvious to outsiders, but for Western evangelicals to accept (at least intellectually) that the average evangelical is no longer white and Western is something like the evangelical equivalent of Copernicus discovering that the earth revolves around the sun.
For decades and even centuries, Western evangelicals have seen themselves as the chief executives of evangelicalism, and as such strongly suggested that non-Western evangelicals were like children--best seen but not heard. Many in the West, it seems, saw their economic prosperity as proof of the superiority of Western culture.
Unsettling questions are now being raised, and Western and non-Western evangelicals have begun to come together to search for answers. How does the increased prominence of evangelicals in the developing world alter or amplify what it means to be an evangelical? To what extent should evangelicals tailor the Christian message to appeal to local animist, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist cultures? Who speaks for evangelicals? How should evangelicals globally come together to represent Jesus to a hurting world?
The Amsterdam conference, for example, will have representatives from 190 countries and territories. And lest evangelicalism be too closely linked to the English language, translations into at least 25 different languages will be available. It has taken a while, but Western evangelicals seem ever so slowly to be "getting it."
For evangelicals of color, these gestures can't come a moment too soon. In recent decades, non-Western evangelicals have moved beyond Western theology and are formulating versions of Christian theology that travel well in places like Buenos Aires, Seoul, and Nairobi. For example, where Western theology tends to be individualistic--focusing on a person's relationship with Christ--non-Western theology emphasizes the Christian's faith within a larger community of believers. Non-Western theology also tends to emphasize the importance of economic justice in light of Third World debt and the so-called "digital divide." These new perspectives on traditional Christian teachings about justice and community can help uncover many theological blind spots in Western Christianity.
What does this paradigm shift mean for the future of evangelical missions? First, it means that there's no longer an "over there." Evangelicals all over the world will send missionaries all over the world. In the United States alone, there are already more than 16,000 missionaries from other countries. Many of these missionaries, like Stephen Kasamba of Uganda, are driven to reintroduce Jesus to a country partly responsible for sharing Jesus with their mothers and grandmothers. He told Christianity Today recently of a time when an American missionary in Uganda told his grandfather, "Today, we are coming to you to preach the Gospel, but tomorrow, you shall bring the Gospel to us."
Second, the time is coming--and may already be here--when evangelicals in the non-Western world will be able to evangelize their own nations with little or no help from the West. Think of it as an illustration of the old adage about teaching a man to fish. Dennis, my friend from Kenya, received theological training in the West, but he and other evangelicals in the developing world are longing for the day when they'll be able to train Christians in their native lands.
Amsterdam 2000 or any other conference probably won't soothe all the evangelical growing pains. But Western evangelicals should be proud that they have taken at least a few baby steps toward accepting the many cultural and theological contributions their non-Western brothers and sisters bring to the question of how to be the church in the 21st century.