Trusting local agency: discerning our future in mission

The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) Missions Commission held its global consultation in February. When they were planning the event back in 2019, they chose as their theme – ‘Our Missions Future’.

But as stories and data began to emerge from churches during the Covid-19 pandemic, another theme emerged: ‘the importance of local control of missions activity’. This led the WEA to change their theme to ‘Our Missions Future: local impact, ripples and waves’.

The Missions Commission described the changes they see around the world:

‘local believers taking responsibility for spreading the gospel in indigenous forms and whole-of-life ways. And the gospel is spreading rapidly in places previously thought to be resistant, because of these localised and holistic expressions of faith in Jesus.’ 1

That commitment to ‘localised and holistic expressions of faith in Jesus’ is shared by OMF. We talk about the need for our work to be indigenous and integral. I want to focus on the first of these.

A focus on the local

When the word ‘indigenous’ is used in missions it’s about the local: local people, local place, local proclamation of the gospel in word, deed and character. Crucially, it’s about local people setting the agenda for place (where), people (who) and proclamation (what and how) in mission. Since the late eighteenth century, missionaries have talked about the goal of mission being to plant indigenous churches. Such churches were to be Three-Self churches: self-propagating, self-governing, and self-supporting. Later in the twentieth century, a fourth self was added: self-theologising. But even with a goal crafted around establishing indigenous churches, until recently much mission work has been dominated by mission strategies developed elsewhere, far from the local context and without being co-created with local leaders. Hence the local emphasis in the 2023 WEA Missions Commission consultation.

Until recently much mission work has been dominated by mission strategies developed elsewhere, far from the local context and without being co-created with local leaders.

What does this mean for us in OMF?

First, it means recognising that local leadership and local followers of Christ are the key agents in mission, not outsiders. This is not to say that cross-cultural workers from the UK and Ireland or elsewhere no longer have a part to play in overseas mission. We do, but our role must change. In his recent book, Subversive Mission: Serving as Outsiders in a World of Need, Craig Greenfield describes the role of outsiders as essentially one of alongsiders, who follow the lead of insiders.

If mission is reduced to sending missionaries, or defined by geography, we hinder local churches from seeing that mission is what they as a whole community are sent to do, beginning right where they are. A key emphasis in the WEA Missions Commission consultation was the need ‘to see local believers, who are actively witnessing to Jesus in the communities, endorsed as missionaries.’

In the words of Interserve’s International Director Bijoy Koshy:

‘The future of mission… rests with our ability to allow the National Church to take centre stage in our mission endeavours. However, we can never really embark on what this will look like if we do not get off our high horses.’ [2]

Second, if local Christians are key to the future of mission in their context, this should lead us to ask different questions about our role. Instead of asking ‘how many missionaries can OMF (UK) send?’, we need to first ask, ‘what is the best way for OMF (UK) to serve East Asian churches so that they can extend their witness in East Asia and beyond?’ This will mean coming alongside our sisters and brothers in Christ in ways that increase our ability to humbly listen and crucially, to discern – with local Christians – how we might participate in God’s mission in their context.

We need to first ask, ‘what is the best way for OMF (UK) to serve East Asian churches so that they can extend their witness in East Asia and beyond?’

Supporting and encouraging

In OMF (UK) we are committed to indigenous mission – to investing in the local.

For us, that currently means:

  • Sending workers from the UK – especially those equipped to partner with and serve under local Christians;
  • Supporting local training initiatives in evangelism, discipleship and theological education, and collaborating with like-minded organisations with similar aims;
  • Encouraging opportunities to listen to East Asian church leaders as part of the process of discerning what future faithful participation in God’s mission will look like for OMF (UK).

In this fast-changing landscape of mission, discernment is our most urgent task.

In OMF we have always believed in cultivating a prayerful dependence on God in order for us to discern our participation in his mission. So we will want to consider these words from Harvey Kwiyani, leader of Global Connections, a network of churches and agencies engaging in mission:

‘Could it be that, by not trusting local agency, the missionaries get in the way of the work of the Spirit of God?’[3]

 

Dr. Peter Rowan
OMF (UK) Co-National Director

Notes

1 World Evangelical Alliance: bit.ly/wea-23

2 Making Missions Fit: Discerning Innovative Shifts in Missions” Presentation by Bijoy Koshy to Nexus On Mission conference 2021

3 Read Harvey’s blog post at go.omf.org/needed.

Written by Dr Peter Rowan

OMF (UK) Co-National Director

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