Asian Missions in the Twenty-first Century – An Asian Perspective

Asia today is a vast continent consisting of fifty nations, with 3.7 billion people making up sixty-one percent of the world’s population. They consist of thousands of diverse ethnic groups, speaking as many different languages, with a multiplicity of cultures, some of which go back to antiquity.

What Has God Been Doing in Asia?
Over the past century Asia’s encounter with modernity has propelled many Asian countries into the forefront of technological advances and economical development. Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore are already richer on a per capita basis than some Western colonial powers of yesteryears.

South Korea’s Samsung is the world’s largest consumer-electronics company today, and IBM’s personal computer division has now become a Chinese company named Lenovo. In the words of Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, “an increasing number of Asian societies are leapfrogging from the Third World into the First World.” Yet, hundreds of millions or more in places like Bangladesh—and many areas in rural China, India, Indonesia, Philippines, and so forth—remain mired in grinding poverty.

Over the same period, Christian missions have also met relative success. The World Christian Encyclopedia tells us that Christian numbers, as percentages of Asia’s population, have gone from 2.3% in 1900, to 4.7% in 1970, and to 8.5% in 2000. Today there are over 300 million Christians on the whole continent, many of whom would be evangelical in theology and freely operate in the ‘signs and wonders’ of the Holy Spirit.

In some places, the growth has been phenomenal, including better known examples like South Korea, as well as lesser known ones like Nepal and proliferating grassroots churches in many parts of India. And the story of the explosive growth of the Chinese Church has yet to be fully told! Clearly, God has blessed the labors of his servants in Asia.

What Is God Doing in the Asian Church?
This growth of the Church has not gone unnoticed by external observers. Reflecting on the future direction of world missions in the twenty-first century, the American spiritual writer, Richard Foster, in a “Pastoral Letter” from November 1999, wrote, “The twenty-first century will witness one of the greatest harvests of Christian mission ever. I concur with John Paul II that in the next century we will see a ‘new springtime’ for the gospel message.” Foster goes on to note that much of the energy for this will be found outside the West, but

“The really pivotal continent …is Asia. Throughout the twenty-first century Asia will be the rising culture, no doubt about that. The real question is whether the Christian witness in Asia is strong enough to ride the rise of Asian culture… I believe the Christian witness is strong enough. Chinese Christians have suffered tremendously and are deeper and stronger for it. They will teach the rest of us how to live for God. Korea… will teach the entire Christian world how to pray. And the signs of spiritual vitality in the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, India, and numerous other places are so encouraging that I believe the twenty-first century will be viewed as ‘the great century’ of advance for Christ and his kingdom. Let us pray that it may be so.”

This may appear astounding to those unfamiliar with Asian Christianity. For me, whatever doubts I had vanished after I attended the global mission conference, Ethne06, held in Bali in 2006.

At that meeting, some of the major mission networks from the non-Western world reported on their plans for the coming years. COMIBOM reported that by 2005, Latin American churches had sent out some eight thousand missionaries to over 150 countries. And more are in the pipeline. African churches were not to be outdone. For example, Timothy Olonade of the Nigerian Evangelical Missions Association noted that the Nigerian churches have sent out 5,200 missionaries to date. By 2020, their goal was to send out fifty thousand missionaries.

But it was the plans of Asian missions that took my breath away. Dr. Kang Sung Sam of the Korea World Missions Association reported that Korean churches have sent out eighteen thousand missionaries to date. By 2030, they hope to send 100,000. The Indian Missions Association, under Dr. K. Rajendran, covered 208 mission agencies with more than thirty thousand cross-cultural missionaries. Most of these are working within India’s borders, but a growing number are overseas.

Then there is the “Back-to-Jerusalem” movement of China’s house churches, based upon a vision that first emerged in the 1920s. The goal is to send out 100,000 missionaries within this generation along the ancient trade routes back to Jerusalem, going through the heartlands of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam along the way. Again, the Philippines Council of Evangelical Churches speaks of sending out 200,000 tentmakers in the form of migrant workers by 2010.

Over and above all these are the emerging mission movements from all the other countries in East and Southeast Asia. When added up, just the sheer numbers alone will have an overwhelming impact on the shape of world missions in the twenty-first century!

What Will It Take to Fulfill God’s Call?
Are all these a mere pipe-dream, a pie-in-the-sky? What will it take for the Asian Church to make these a reality? If the Asian Church is to fulfill God’s destiny for her, two considerations must be borne in mind, amongst others.

The first is that we must learn to depend fully upon God, and not on ourselves. The ever-present danger in Christian life and ministry is to place our primary dependence upon our abilities, strengths, money, organizational efforts, and human power and resources. All these will fail. The New Testament reminds us of this again and again. For example, reflecting on his own ministry to the Corinthians, Paul writes,

For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified… My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom but on God’s power. (1 Corinthians 2: 2-5)

Without a proper dependence upon God, there can be no real advance of the gospel. Time and again we see this truth played out in mission history.

The greatest evangelist of China in the first half of the twentieth century was John Sung. Christian missions to China had brought in thousands of missionaries, together with the best mission schools, universities, and hospitals. Yet the gospel made little progress. Sung was not unappreciative of the sacrificial labor of the missionaries. Nevertheless, he noted that what was preventing the Chinese Church from really growing were missionary control and over-dependency upon Western funds. Repeatedly, he urged the budding Chinese Church to cut its apron strings and move on toward independence and maturity.

Asked shortly before his death in 1944 about the future of the Chinese Church, Sung revealed that God had showed him that a great revival was coming—but all the missionaries would have to leave first. The history of the last sixty years shows that this was the most profound prophecy concerning the Chinese Church in the twentieth century. And as the saying goes, “The rest is history!”

The danger today is that Asian churches, with all their newfound riches, will repeat the same mistakes of mission history. God does not need our resources, money, degrees, or organizational expertise. He has shown again and again that his Church can grow fabulously without those things. Yet if we learn to humbly consecrate these things to him in genuine dependence, he can use them to bear much fruit for eternity.

The second important consideration is the need for genuine commitment and sacrifice. If the Church is to advance in Asia, these two things cannot be avoided. The house church movement in China, which is responsible for developing and implementing the Back-to-Jerusalem vision, understands this very well. Hence, their motto is “Sacrifice, abandonment, poverty, suffering, death.” The question is, Do other Christians in Asia understand this?

Recent efforts by some Asian missionaries, especially those from richer nations with advanced economies, have sometimes given rise to serious concern about whether in fact they do. But there are at the same time many signs of hope. I think of a Malaysian friend of mine who left a comfortable job as a nursing tutor in a leading hospital in Leeds, U.K., to work among teenage prostitutes in Thailand. In the past twenty years, God has used her to bring salvation and a new hope to many women.

Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Pray that God will grant that many in the Asian Church will learn to die with Christ, so that billions more will find life!

Hwa Yung is the Bishop of the Methodist Church in Malaysia. He was formerly the director for the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia, Trinity Theological College, Singapore.