When what we know changes, the world changes and with it, everything. These words, from James Burke the scientific journalist, sum up the themes of his TV series and book, 'The Day the Universe Changed' (Little, Brown & Co, 1986), in which he examines pivotal moments in history when some aspect of science was 'known' until someone came along who challenged, and ultimately changed, that perception.

So before Pasteur, doctors 'knew' that disease was caused by 'bad air'. Before Galileo and Copernicus, people 'knew' the earth was at the centre of the universe. Similarly, discoveries and inventions have transformed the way we live for ever: Johannes Gutenberg's printing press in 1440; Alexander Bell's telephone in 1876; Fleming's penicillin in 1935; and the various scientists that contributed to the technology to produce the PC. These changes in 'the universe' meant people couldn't live the same way again. Indeed to do so would seem foolish in the extreme.

Just as there have been changes in the field of science, there have been profound changes in what we 'know' about the evangelisation of the world. But many UK churches are operating with information, which is decades out of date, or knowledge based upon a narrow segment of what God is doing. If we knew what was really happening, 'our world would change and with it everything else'. This would include the way potential missionary candidates are viewed, the way we talk about mission within church gatherings, the way we finance mission at leadership level, and the way we interact with mission agencies who are involved in recruiting and placing members of our church.

It's time to become knowledgeable so we can undergo a revolution in thinking and behaviour that matches the world as it is. If we keep operating in the dark, even the flat earth society would see us as a figure of fun.

In the first of a two-part feature we look at the ways in which world evangelisation has changed and some of the areas that are changing in the mission scene within the UK:

  • meet the new missionary giants – the big sending nations
  • find out where the unreached people groups live and how numerous they are
  • rethink what makes a person a missionary
  • discover how UK missionary agencies operate today.

So what do you need to know about world mission?

1. Not just 'west to the rest'.

For over 200 years the missionary movement has seen a stream of people sent from the UK, and later the US, to Africa, Asia and Latin America. Today the notion of the gospel 'from the west to the rest', has disappeared. The growth of the church in parts of world, and shrinkage of the church in parts of the 'west' has meant that there are more non-western Christians in the world.

The statistics are overwhelming. Missions statistician, David Barrett, records that in the 20th century, the Christian population in Africa exploded from an estimated eight or nine million in 1900 (8 to 9%) to some 335 million in 2000 (45%). In Asia the proportion of Christians grew from 2.3% in 1900, to 8.3% in 2000. The Atlas of World Christianity estimates that the number of Pentecostal Christians across South America grew 500% between 1960 and 1980.

The evangelical church in Argentina grew from 1m in 1980 to 3m in just 20 years, in Venezuela from 1 – 2.5m between 1990-2000. In Bogota, Columbia, Cesar Castellanos at MCI church has witnessed incredible church growth from 70 small groups to 20,000 cells in only eight years.

In Asia, the growth of the church in South Korea, China and Indonesia, means there are now more evangelical Christians in Asia than in North America. Singapore's churches are now the most evangelistically active in the world, with one missionary sent out per 1,000 Christians. In the Philippines 7% of the eight million overseas contract workers are evangelicals.The tentmaker movement of the Philippine church plans to recruit 200,000 BY 2010 to engage in mission. Already many serving as nannies and chambermaids have seen churches planted some in countries where Christianity is not welcomed.

Will Elphick, communications director for SIM-UK (which works in over 40 countries in Asia, Latin America and Asia) says: "The likelihood is that in the future the world's mission training centres will be located in India, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and The Philippines, as Asian churches take the lead in the next wave of evangelistic activity." Even if we acknowledge that some of this growth includes practices and beliefs that wouldn't pass our tests of orthodoxy, few would deny that when it comes to the evangelisation of the world, the role of the British church has changed. Chris Wigram national director of OMF UK told Christianity magazine: "One of the biggest impacts on OMF UK is the growth of the church in Asia. We have had to re-think and restructure such as changing the rules that previously prevented people from working in another culture within their own country."

Mission agencies who traditionally sent UK missionaries to parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America (such as SIM, CMS, OMF, AIM) find that now they support those churches very differently.
Summary. The role of the UK church in world mission has changed radically.

2. Two billion people need to hear

The statistics on church growth must not mask the considerable evangelistic need worldwide. Missiologists have identified a 10/40 window, (nothing to do with architecture) which describes an imaginary window that extends from West Africa to East Asia, from 10 degrees latitude north, to 40 degrees north of the equator. This region, encompasses the majority of the world's Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, comprising two thirds of the world's population and includes more than 90% of the unreached people groups in the world - more than 5,100 tribes and ethno-linguistic groups with little or no Gospel witness. Indeed there are currently two billion people who have no church within their sub-cultural group who can easily reach them. You may want to read that last sentence again.

This focus on the unreached of course has biblical precedent. The apostle Paul's ambition was to 'preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that (he) would not be building on someone else's foundation' (Romans 15:20). What would Paul make of the fact that just 1% of giving to overseas mission goes to work among people groups in the unevangelised or unreached category? (This statistic is based on data by David B. Barrett and Todd M. Johnson of Global Evangelisation Movement).

Paul would be encouraged that the world church's focus is changing. According to Rob Hay, consultant and researcher in Mission at Redcliffe College, the proportion of missionaries sent to unreached peoples has risen from 1-2% in 1970 to 28% today. In China the 'Back to Jerusalem' movement reflects a call from God for the Chinese Church to preach the Gospel and establish fellowships of believers in all the countries, cities, towns, and ethnic groups between China and Jerusalem, focused primarily on this 10/40 area.

Evangelicals have different understandings of the fate of those who have never heard the Gospel. But even if we acknowledge with Peter Cotterell (Mission and Meaninglessness, SPCK, 1990) and Norman Anderson (Christianity and World Religions, IVP, 1984), that the Bible may give us reasons for hope that God can reach the unevangelised outside of a verbal explanation of the Gospel, we would still have to acknowledge Christ's call to go. It seems a spiritual no-brainer to conclude that all things being equal, resources are better focused on the two billion unreached peoples than adding more missionary presence in countries already well served.

Mission agencies such as AWM and Frontiers in the Arab World, ECM in Europe, and OM, YWAM, CMS and WEC who have missionaries in unreached people groups, face the challenge of communicating the Gospel in areas with little or no Christian witness.
Summary. The need for mission is as vital as ever. Two billion people in the world don't have the opportunities to hear the gospel that Brits take for granted.

3. There are more missionaries than you thought

Missionary language carries with it a whole set of assumptions. Some are linked appropriately to the biblical notion of apostle (literally – sent one), and to the ongoing mission of the church. Others less helpfully conjure up the unhealthy aspects of colonialism, and a spiritual elite that few could hope to match.

Some analysts of UK mission have concluded that our thinking about mission has become unbiblical. Bryan Knell Church Relations director at Global Connections (formerly Evangelical Missionary Alliance) says: "The modern 'missionary' movement started from these shores. We were the 'Christian' nation; they were the 'heathen'. We were 'home' and they were the 'mission field'. We had it and they needed it. We were the senders and they were the receivers. Even if that might have been true once, it certainly is not true now. We need to remove the home/field barrier in our thinking and in every aspect of our mission."

John Ayrton, northern team leader at Interserve agrees: "It is actually about all of us being a disciple of Jesus wherever we are. Some serve Jesus in a cross-cultural context, others in the UK. When we prepared a home group resource titled 'Christian Life and Global Mission', we encouraged the group to pray for their members at work here in the UK as well as people working in overseas contexts in the same session. Both need our support."

Whether we call the missionary a mission partner or mission worker is less important than whether mission, in its biblical understanding, permeates the life of the church, rather than being the domain of a few keenies who gather monthly to pray. If we really are all missionaries (seeking to live for Christ where we are, and taking the opportunity to give verbal explanation where possible) then as Knell puts it: "mission starts from the end of the pew and reaches to the rest of the world."

This paradigm shift in thinking can go too far according to Richard Tiplady, British Director of ECM International (who work in Europe) and author of World of Difference: "There has been no universally accepted term to replace 'missionary', and although I agree that we are all missionaries in one sense, we mustn't underplay the considerable sacrifice that a believer faces when they move cultures and languages."
Summary. We honour our mission partners best by standing with them in serving Gospel needs at home as fellow servants of the call to mission.

4. Mission agencies are adapting

Myths circulate about the value of using mission agencies. I have heard it said disparagingly that mission agencies "will take almost anyone, providing they can point to a 'call' and raise their own support". I have heard pastors privately admit that they were relieved when a mission agency took the misfit they didn't know what to do with!

The post-modern generation, who cast a critical eye on institutions, perceive the structure and methods of the traditional missions to be outdated, noting with alarm that some agencies retain their missionaries for an average of just seven years and wonder what's gone wrong. New churches, such as Newfrontiers, have typically bypassed the traditional mission altogether. Bryan Knell told Christianity: "Mission agencies have had to face a new climate. Post-modern Christians are more sceptical of institutions and keen to ask hard questions of them including: how are you spending money? And what are you accomplishing?"

The truth is that mission agencies are slowly responding to a variety of pressures. The UK mission force has declined from 6,281 in 1990 to 4,876 in 2003 – a drop of almost a quarter in just 13 years. Supporters tend to be older in age and many agencies struggle to raise the finance to run the home-based staff. In some cases mission has been poorly communicated; not all missionaries on furlough are as competent at communicating mission as they are at doing mission.

Partly as a result of these pressures, agencies are upping their game; they have had to adapt, streamline, improve their communication, and focus their strategy. Psychometric testing, regular staff appraisals and fundraising targets have all been imported from the corporate world, while mission communication has thankfully well and truly left the Xerox newsletter era. In fact some mission agencies have been accused of becoming so management focused that they squeeze out the immediacy of following God.

"The debate is not a new one. Historically God seems to have raised up 'faith based' missions to challenge the more management focused agencies," explains Tiplady. "YWAM and OM were that way when they started. Perhaps the New churches, who more typically send workers direct without using a mission agency, are the contemporary signs of that. There is an ongoing tension about this in many mission agencies."

It would be fair to say that there is a healthy debate being conducted. Once a mission has decided that entrepreneurial leadership matters as much as missionary skills (and of course there is overlap), then it's not long before they start asking the hard questions about 'the mission' of the mission. And when the pounds and pence flow less regularly, you are bound to pay more attention to value for money. But this needn't be a bad thing. Money can be a good sign of God's leading. Crosslinks general secretary, Andy Lines says: "We look for the church to which we send mission partners to be willing to make some financial contribution to their ministry, as an indication that they really need the ministry."

Studies suggest that appropriate appraisal of staff, rather than being a burden, can help the missionary to quantify aspects of their service and spot areas for ongoing development. Acknowledging that ministry cannot operate to the same parameters as a business doesn't mean that having an eye on the bottom line makes the mission cross-eyed. Faith is not in conflict with a management strategy, which includes clear focus, wise marshalling of resources, and sensible appraisal of staff performance that evaluates how they are doing with the tasks God has given. If a church or network of churches sends people direct, it better have a good way of making sure these things are accomplished.

Summary. Most mission partners benefit from the oversight and support of a specialist mission agency.

My history teacher used to say, "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing." He was wrong. A little knowledge, used widely can change your world and the impact of your church. You will already have your own ideas of how things need to change, don't wait untill next month when we will look in more detail at the ramifications of the changing scene for the UK church. But if you feel you must wait, for now you can content yourself that flat earthers and Luddites won't be able to smile at your lack of knowledge.