The Challenge of Missions in the Twenty-first Century

Contact between ethnic groups, whether resulting from
immigration, warfare and displacement, or tourism, is

How can we communicate the unchanging gospel of Jesus Christ in the midst of a changing world? This is one of the great missiological questions of our day. Gone are the days when the isolated West sent missionaries to unknown lands and people. Apart from isolated ethnic peoples in yet unreached regions, the world has taken on more of a global character.

Contact between ethnic groups, whether resulting from immigration, warfare and displacement, or tourism, is unprecedented. Times have changed. We have more opportunities and more resources; we are the benefactors of more past experience and research than any previous generation. The changing face of world missions presents unique challenges. One of these is preparing missionaries for effective cross-cultural witness and church planting. There are a number of areas in which our thinking must change in order to meet the challenges inherent in cross-cultural ministry. We must move:

1. From Western Cultural Superiority to Biblical Cultural Relativism
We are cultural beings. It is difficult and undesirable, if not impossible, to separate our form of Christianity from our culture. Yet Christianity is a universal religion not bound by one cultural expression of it. It is unavoidable that Western churches have a certain flavor that reflects elements of culture.

However, one should not expect that this flavor be reproduced in churches planted among other peoples. Their cultures, in need of transformation, are adequate, socio-cultural environments in which the gospel can take root. No cultural way of life or its Christian expression should be absolutized. It is in this sense that we might hold to cultural relativism, spoken of by Charles Kraft,1 without agreeing with all of Kraft’s applications. We recognize the baggage implied with such terminology due to the popular and non-technical usage of this concept which equates cultural relativism with ethical relativism. Yet we should be more concerned with the practical implications of the concept rather than the fear of misunderstanding.

On one hand, we must not impose our culture on those we seek to reach for Christ. This will result in disloyal cultural conversions that prevent the new church from taking root in its culture.

Allegiance to Christ should not necessarily entail disloyalty to all elements of cultural and religious structural form.2 Obviously, those elements which are clearly contradictory to scripture must be abandoned. But a paternalistic church which refuses to allow for cultural variables may attract those who are disenchanted with their own culture and way of life and are ready to embrace Western Christianity in order to receive not only salvation but also the “cargo” of Christianity. Without cross-cultural training, missionaries may unconsciously confound their cultural expression of Christianity with biblical absolutes or supracultural truth.3

On the other hand, cultural relativism should not be confused with absolute relativism which postulates that no absolute standards exist outside of culture. Neither, as mentioned above, should it be confounded with ethical relativism that insists that practices which exist in other cultures be allowed in all cultures. “Biblical relativism is an obligatory feature of our incarnational religion, for without it we would either absolutize human institutions or relativize God.”4

2. From Planting Institutions to Planting Indigenous, Contextualized Churches
Institutions, due in part to their emphasis on meeting societal needs, often draw from those marginalized by society.

Short-term needs are met; however, dependency easily sets in. Nationals are then employed by outsiders with outside funds. This can lead to “rice Christians” (people who have formally become Christians out of the need for survival). Not only are the models for these institutions (schools, orphanages, clinics, camps, etc.) often inadequate for meeting long-term needs, but they also distract from the essential task of planting reproductive fellowships of believers (i.e., churches). History teaches us that Western institutions related to missionary endeavors have often disrupted the culture to the point where undesired and unforeseen consequences have resulted.

Those institutions which follow initial church planting activity may be termed “second wave” ministry. They are good works but not essential to the missionary task nor mandated by the Word of God. We would do well to reflect on principles proposed by John Nevius in Planting and Developing of Missionary Churches:

New converts should continue in their occupations and provide witness where they live. Church programs and methods should only be developed which could be supported financially by the nationals. Gifted nationals should be developed for evangelistic work. Nationals should provide for their own church buildings without being dependent on outside resources.5

This would not preclude strategic partnership or sharing abundant resources with those less well endowed. But these institutions should not simply be the vision of the missionary who proposes, funds, and controls these ministries. If these ministries are not part of the vision of national churches, and under the auspices of local churches, then they effectively become parachurch ministries. Although these ministries are good and helpful extensions of a church-planting ministry, they can easily become “the tail that wags the dog.” And if not part of the vision and supported by the resources of the national churches, they are likely destined for perpetual dependency.

The broadened concept of “mission” which seems prevalent in our day equates all that the Church does as mission.6 We might ask ourselves if we have so diluted the term “missionary” that it has become a catch-all word with accrued baggage that allows for almost any kind of overseas work or anything vaguely connected with the gospel to be called “mission.”

As a result, we have career “missionaries” who bear little resemblance to the New Testament apostle or evangelist (perhaps the closest counterpart to the non-biblical term “missionary”). This is not to criticize the good work they have done, nor to impugn their motives; however, when “missionaries” are engaged in ministry that does not result in planting reproductive fellowships of saved, baptized disciples, then we do well to reevaluate our present situation. What does it say about our concept of mission when evangelicals are “disturbed by the continuing flood of church-planting teams into various people groups in the world”?7 Should we not rather be disturbed if this were not done?

Those ministries which result from church planting should be executed without neglecting the cultural and economic realities of the new churches. Such extra-ecclesial ministries easily divert personnel and resources to doing “missionary” work that is neither fundamental nor vital to the missionary mandate given to the Church.

These good works should be developed under the auspices of local churches and not funded and directed by “missionaries.” Should we ordain men and commit our churches to support them as camp directors, school teachers and principals, college and seminary professors, medical personnel, or orphanage workers, and then call them missionaries because of geographical displacement? Perhaps there are no easy answers, but we would be unwise to not raise the question.

3. From Conversion as Implying Cultural Discontinuity to Conversion as Involving Worldview
Transformation Missionaries should have strong convictions. They will be confronted with undreamed-of challenges to their own worldview assumptions. But they must also learn to distinguish between convictions rooted in scripture and those culture-informed convictions that, while leading to legitimate implications in their socio-cultural context, should not be elevated to the level of scriptural truth. The failure to differentiate between these kinds of convictions will result in what some have called “weaker brother missionaries,” having strong convictions that they inflict on others without distinguishing transcendent ethical norms from convention and cultural conditioning.

There are shared areas of conscience between the messenger of the gospel and the recipients through which the Spirit of God can begin his work of conviction. The missionary risks emphasizing certain areas of conscience informed by cultural variables which find no resonance in the conscience of the receptor. This may lead to change which may only be superficial conformity and which leads to believers having compartmentalized lives.8 On the surface, the forms are foreign (Christian), but at the deeper level converts continue to attach meanings from their pre-Christian allegiances. The result can be called Christopagan syncretism.9 Just as cultural Gentiles were not required to become cultural Jews (circumcision, etc.) in order to convert, we must not present conversion as a break from culture per se, but from those elements found in all cultures that are incompatible with kingdom living.

4. From Inadequate Training Models to More Thorough Missiological Training
The complexities of cross-cultural ministry demand not only a solid theological foundation and strong convictions, but also a relational and analytical competence by which one can enter a strange culture and develop an effective strategy for witness. The training of missionaries should provide tools for understanding the socio-cultural adequacy of the host culture and to see how God can work with its sub-ideals toward radical transformation at the worldview level. We are grateful for the training being provided by schools which God has raised up. However, it is rare that someone is ready for effective cross-cultural ministry after four years of post-high school education. Neither does seminary training necessarily equip one for non-Western ministry but provides additional time and study opportunities and an outlet for practical experience.

This does not deny that many people, who have had neither the opportunity nor the encouragement for adequate pre-field preparation, have had effective ministries. But the idea should be banished that only minimal training is required since one will be ministering in primitive societies or among technologically-undeveloped peoples.

You may think you know more than those to whom you minister, but you must know them, their history, their culture, their real and felt needs, their cognitive framework, their kinship relationships, their organizational principles, in short, their way of life, if you want to reach them.

There are no shortcuts to acquiring linguistic and cultural competence. We would do well to insist on raising the bar for missionary training. At the very least we should expect some exposure to the disciplines of a biblical theology of missions, history of missions, studies in world religions, and some exposure to cultural anthropology.

Few cultures accord to youth the prestige they receive in Western society. We need to recognize that youth is not necessarily an asset in ministry. Youth compounded with inexperience equals disaster. We should question the wisdom of sending freshly-minted graduates without intensive missiological studies to minister in a foreign context with the additional pressures of language acquisition, lifestyle adjustments, and child-rearing.

One might reasonably ask how old, how long, how much? There are no simple answers partly due to the differences in gifts, opportunities, and place of service. The point is that we should not be quick in sending missionaries who have not been adequately prepared, who have not developed relational and theological skills, and who have not demonstrated abilities and effectiveness in the area of their calling. Cross-cultural competency cannot be learned in a classroom. However, pre-field training can help prepare missionaries for the challenges of ministering in another culture and for the culture stress associated with the strangeness of one’s new surroundings.

My experience and observations have led me to conclude, with David Hesselgrave, speaking about the matter of voluntarism, that “the result of our approach has been the sending of many relatively untrained missionaries to accomplish a task which is ill defined and in which they have not had much experience.”10 This observation can be applied more generally to pre-field equipping of missionary candidates. The solutions to these issues may not be easily forthcoming; however, it is time to raise the bar in order to meet the immense mission challenges of our day.


1. Kraft, Charles H. 1996. Anthropology for Christian Workers. Maryknoll, New York, USA: Orbis Books.

2. Ibid.

3. Hesselgrave, David. 1991. Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Zondervan.

4. Nida, Eugene. 1952. God’s Word in Man’s Language. New York: Harper, 282.

5. Willis Jr., Avery T. 1998. Missiology: An Introduction to the Foundations, History, and Strategies of World Missions. eds. John Mark Terry, Ebbie Smith, and Justice Anderson, 256.

6. Hesselgrave, David. 2001. “Evangelical Mission in 2001 and Beyond—Who Will Set the Agenda?” Trinity World Forum, Spring.

7. Engel, James F. and William A. Dyrness. 2000. Changing the Mind of Missions: Where Have We Gone Wrong. Downers Grove, Illinois, USA: InterVarsity Press, 151.

8. Priest, Robert J. 1994. “Missionary Elenctics: Conscience and Culture.” Missiology 22(3):291-315.

9. Kraft. 1996.

10. Hesselgrave, David. 2000. Planting Churches Cross-Culturally. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Baker Books, 99.

Dr. Stephen M. Davis is associate pastor and director of missions at Calvary Baptist Church in Pennsylvania (USA) and adjunct professor of missiology at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. He has been a church planter in the US, France, and Romania, and currently coordinates and teaches in seminary extensions in Russia, Ukraine, Peru, Romania, and South Africa. Davis is also involved in developing training opportunities for house church leaders in China and in training Arab Christians in Beirut, Lebanon, for ministry in the Muslim world.