The amazing harvest of new believers continues across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. By contrast, the Church grows very slowly or even declines in the rest of the world. Although sometimes small in number, or away from public view, Christians now live and fellowship inside every country. World mission, migration, and globalization all spread the Church. It is not a European “white man’s religion”, but a global faith for all peoples. The majority of Christians today are Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans.
The unprecedented harvest of new believers continues across Africa, Asia and Latin America, in contrast to the relative stagnation or decline in the rest of the world. We are witnessing a remarkable story of a growing, spreading and diversifying Church. Christianity has slightly declined as a percentage of the world's population since 1900 - only the Protestant, Independent and Marginal MegaBlocs have defied this trend to gain a larger proportion of the world's population. Some of the most notable developments:
- Christianity re-affirmed as a global religion. The concept of Christianity as a European “white-man’s religion” is demonstrably a myth. Though sometimes small in number, all but concealed, or mostly members of a minority people group, there are now Christians living and fellowshipping in every country on earth. World mission, globalization and high migration rates have dispersed the Church into every corner of the world, both to previously unevangelized areas and back to traditionally Christian regions where the Church is in sharp decline.
- The astonishing shift of Christianity's centre of gravity to the Majority World. The tables reveal that, though Christianity's percentage in the world population has changed little, the proportions between the Majority World and the West/North have changed dramatically. This is praiseworthy, as hundreds of millions heard the good news for the first time in the past century. It is also an indication that the missionary efforts of the past 200 years have borne incredible fruit, though at times it was slow in coming. Years and generations of prayer and faithful service to the unevangelized world by both missionaries and indigenous Christians have not been in vain.
- The strength and growth of the Church in lands that now have, or have had in the past, severe persecution. Some examples of places where both persecution and Church growth are prominent include China, India, Sudan, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Iran and Myanmar, to name but a few.
Evangelical Christianity had been growing at a rate faster than any other world religion or global religious movement, although this claim can be disputed post-2020. The surge of evangelical missions after WWII was an astonishing success story, but most of the subsequent growth came from a new generation of indigenous evangelical movements around the world. Globally, evangelicals numbered 89 million (2.9%) in 1960, but by 2020 they were possibly as many as 625 million (7.9%). The growth rate peaked around 1990 at a 4.5% increase per year. With population growth rates for the world generally in decline, it is almost inevitable that all other rates will see a relative decline as well. In the last 5-10 years, the growth of the "Nones" (those affiliating to no organized religion), has accelerated rapidly - coming mostly out of nominal and mainline Christianity, but also notably out of evangelicals. However, this is happening mostly in the Europe, North America, and the Pacific, while evangelical growth in Africa, Asia, and Latin America continues to be remarkable. Even so, without an amazing outpouring of the Holy Spirit, such growth cannot be sustained in the longer term.
Renewal movements have grown at an unforeseen rate - from the birth of the Pentecostal movement at the beginning of the 20th Century, to the first stirrings of charismatic renewal in the 1950s and 1960s, to the Third Wave in the latter part of the 20th Century, and finally to the 21st Century and what many believe is a new (and possibly final) global outpouring of the Holy Spirit that exceeds them all. Pentecostals grew from 12 million in 1960 to 178 million in 2010; charismatics from 167 million in 1990 to 426 million in 2010. The charismatic renewal has touched many parts of the Church, in thousands of denominations, in nearly every country. Despite imperfections (sinful humans are involved, after all), charismatic renewal has revitalized the faith of approaching half a billion people in an era where opposition and temptation come from myriad quarters.
The gospel took root within hundreds of the world's least reached peoples. In many cases, peoples with no known believers ten or twenty years ago now have churches within them, some of them being thriving, growing churches now involved themselves in the Great Commission! The 1990s saw the most concerted attempt to analyze the need of the world - a process in which Operation World itself played a part. And 1995 saw the beginning of the Joshua Project List (JPL), originally a list of 1,583 of the world's least reached peoples. While this is expanded to now include all peoples in the world (16,350), the original list served as a catalyst for the Church to pray for, adopt and engage with every one of these least reached peoples. It also inspired national-level research in many countries where the 1,583 were found; this missiological and people group research by Majority World Christians has been a major step toward completion of the Great Commission. Much pioneering work remains, but praise God for miraculous opening of doors and receptivity to the gospel in new places - some once considered all but impossible to reach.
Prayer movements and networks multiplied and grew as God's people joined together to pray on an unprecedented scale and with greater focus and breadth. Movements on local, national and international levels are praying for communities, nations, peoples and thematic issues as well. Sustained, informed, impassioned intercession is occurring as never before and throughout the globe. There are simply too many grassroots movements to list and more than anyone can keep track of, but International Prayer Connect (IPC) links hundreds of prayer networks and ministries to focus prayer on common global concerns.
- Grassroots prayer networks are emerging in every part of the world. There is great diversity in their expression, but several common threads are present throughout – they are usually youth-oriented, informal, part of wider relational networks, bustling with creative energy and passionate sung worship, and usually charismatic in style. They normally carry an intense burden for the area of their intercessory remit, be that local, national, or global.
- Days of prayer for countries and nations. Dozens of countries dedicate one day each year to pray for their nation. These days are observed nationally, but concerned believers from around the globe often participate from their own locales as well. Some are specifically held to mobilize prayer from abroad for less reached nations.
- Days or networks of prayer for specific peoples, vulnerable groups or special issues. Believers in any country can join in prayer for the persecuted Church (International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church), for Muslims (the 30-Days Prayer Network), for unreached peoples or regions (Global Prayer Digest, Praying Through the Arabian Peninsula, others), for groups and areas of great need (Call to Prayer for Victims of Sex Trade Trafficking, Viva Network World Weekend of Prayer for Children at Risk) and many more.
Aid, development and charity work across the globe escalated through the 1980s and 1990s and continue to this day. The civil sector (NGOs) is now the eighth-largest economy in the world, worth over $1 trillion per year globally. Praise God that, more than before, the needs of the most vulnerable and needy are being addressed. Also give thanks for:
- A more holistic understanding of evangelical mission within the Church. Ministry that cares for orphans and widows, uplifts the poor, brings liberty to the oppressed and sets captives free reflects the heart of God, the values of the Scriptures and the role of the Church. Caring for the downtrodden and vulnerable and demonstrating practically Christ's love are increasingly — and rightly — the focused activities of evangelical ministry. At many times, evangelicals in particular have lacked a healthy balance of spiritual ministry and practical ministry (as if the purposes of God could be so easily compartmentalized!). Give thanks for the Church's increasing understanding that Christ's Kingdom can and must transform every aspect of life and community.
- Doors to many places and peoples previously closed are open to aid workers, educators, technical tradesmen and virtually any other occupation. Believers have opportunities to enter countries and serve with NGOs, to see redemptive changes occur in communities, to collaborate with other altruistic-minded people and organizations. Just as significant are the opportunities to present an excellent witness for God's transforming love through practical assistance to those in need.Pray that this global trend might continue to pave roads for the spread of the gospel to those among whom Christians wish to serve, to non-Christians labouring alongside Jesus' followers and to community and government leaders who are themselves potentially great change-makers for the Kingdom of God.
The globalization of the Great Commission movement has profoundly changed the face of mission. Since the late 1970s, there has been a surge of interest and involvement in missions from the Majority World. Mission sending has recently gained or maintained momentum in countries such as Ethiopia, Nigeria, Brazil, Philippines, South Korea and others. Involvement by the more traditional sending regions of North America, Europe and the Pacific has stayed level at best and often declined. The world missions force is more multicultural and multinational than ever before. It faces challenges - and solutions - distinct to the 21st Century.
- The Majority World Church as the dominant force in mission sending. The USA remains the largest sending nation of foreign missionaries, but South Korea has replaced the UK as the second largest. India's missionary movement flourishes even as the foreign missionary presence within India dries up. India trails the USA in total workers; although the vast majority of India's missionaries serve within India, many work in a cross-cultural environment. According to some reliable sources, China's population of missionaries (those who go and are sent out as such from their churches) exceeds even the USA, although the large majority remain within China itself. Mission from the Majority World is shaped by several factors:
- The increasing number of national sending agencies and associations. This is especially true among newer Churches who send workers from the first or second generation of believers. Central and East Asia as well as Eastern Europe are encouraging examples of this in the past decade. Growing numbers of countries are forming sending structures to facilitate sending workers from their nations to the world. Most countries with sizeable evangelical populations have mission associations that connect and resource mission structures within the country.
- Partnerships between Global North and South workers and agencies. The North is learning to work as equals with or even serve under the leadership of those from the Global South. International agencies increasingly see their new recruits come from countries in the Majority World.
- The emergence of distinctive mission movements and visions for reaching the unreached. God has long placed on the hearts of believers around the world desires and plans for reaching the nations. Some have been pursued across many decades — the Back to Jerusalem vision among the Han Chinese aims to retrace the historic Silk Road trade routes between Asia and the Mediterranean, with 100,000 Chinese church-planting evangelists sharing Jesus along the way. Other visions have been birthed more recently, such as Nigeria's Vision 5015 to send 50,000 workers in 15 years with the gospel across the north of Africa, also toward Jerusalem. Latin American movements send workers to North Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Pacific Islanders, building on the Deep Sea Canoe vision, send workers to other indigenous peoples.
- New methods of sending workers to the least reached are being explored. Modern Protestant mission has, for the past two centuries, been propelled with great success by the mission agency structure, even despite its failures and limitations. This model will continue to provide an excellent means of sending and supporting the world's mission force among the nations. But in some cases, changes in global politics and economics necessitate developing new models and paradigms of mission work. Some of these are highly successful, others are not, while others wait with birth pangs.
- Affinity partnering networks have formed across agencies for shared vision and focus. This focus might apply to a people, a region or a religious bloc. Such networks provide partnership, shared resources, research initiatives and, in some cases, umbrella groups serving pioneer workers from all agencies reaching the target peoples. Most of these operate in sensitive, creative-access contexts, so listing them by name would be unhelpful to their cause.
- Relief and development work by mission agencies allows many believers, passionate about social causes and the gospel, to serve abroad. World Vision, World Relief, Tearfund and MedAir are just a few familiar names among hundreds, if not thousands, of such agencies. Others, however, serve Christ but work through secular international NGOs such as the UN, Medécins Sans Frontières, Oxfam, CARE International and others.
- Experts in business, industry, education or other fields serve as lay workers around the world. Outstanding opportunities for such exist, in many cases, among the least reached. While some serve through agencies, others go on their own or with loose connections to networks. For many professionals with a passion for the Great Commission, it makes no sense to re-train to work, for example, as a pastor or evangelist, when open doors and natural peer networks already exist for lawyers, engineers, architects and entrepreneurs.
- Believers living in diaspora are increasingly a strong mission force. Filipinos, South Koreans, Chinese, South Asians and Nigerians in particular see opportunities for such Kingdom service. When such diasporas lock into the power of these millions of potential tentmakers, the awakening of intentional missional living will reap an abundant harvest in their host countries.There are strengths and weaknesses involved in each method, and finding new ways forward is never tidy. Pray that devoted followers of Christ might, with passion, urgency, wisdom and discernment, seize available opportunities to more effectively reach the world's least reached.
- Areas of crisis and tension draw increased attention to fields of great need. Consider:
- The heightened awareness, globally, of the size, complexity and evangelistic challenges of the Muslim world - largely through events of 9/11 - birthed in many believers a burden for Muslims. In the past 20 years, more Muslims than ever before have come to Christ, more workers serve in Muslim heartlands, more agencies focus on these regions and more sustained intercession is given for these peoples precious to God. There are the beginnings of what may well become a flood of Muslims discovering Jesus, demonstrating His Lordship over all peoples.
- Political crises in Buddhist strongholds such as Tibet, Thailand and Cambodia similarly caused increased interest in the Buddhist world, long a tough mission challenge with little progress. Mongolia, Cambodia and Vietnam, all strongly influenced by Buddhism, now see unprecedented Christian growth. A trickle of first fruits is also occurring among Tibetan peoples. May the rest of the Buddhist world soon experience the same.
- The upheaval in the Hindu world has likewise drawn greater attention to this large swathe of the human population. Civil war and continued turmoil in Nepal, unrest, religious violence and persecution in certain parts of India and the continued plight of the Dalits/Untouchables have all attracted prayer, mobilization and ministry on a great scale. This, in turn, has yielded incredible growth in the Church in Nepal and India. Pray, however, for an awakening of focus and a harvest force to work among higher caste and middle class Hindus.
Collaboration of the Church on a global level now shapes the prospects for finishing the Great Commission task. Praise God for:
- Shared focus and vision. Global movements significantly shaped the course of world mission in the past generation. In addition to the GDOP and LCWE mentioned above, a handful of movements gathered Christian leaders to collaborate in ministry efforts.
- The The Lausanne Movement launched in 1974, with Billy Graham as its driving force. No other meeting - not since Acts 15 - has had as far-reaching and monumental an impact on world mission as that gathering in Lausanne in 1974. Just two of the many key results of this gathering are the Lausanne Covenant (the evangelical manifesto and statement of faith) and the emergence of "people group" thinking - an area previously unheard of or ignored. Lausanne, along with the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), and the Pentecostal World Fellowship are the key fellowships linking together the world's evangelicals.
- The AD2000 and Beyond Movement, launched in 1989, proved to be the most global, focused movement for world evangelization in the Church's history, especially as it was sustained for over a decade. Events such as the Global Consultations on World Evangelism in 1995 (Seoul) and 1997 (Pretoria) were essential for setting the tone for global mission in the following years. Its ministry ended in January 2001, according to its charter, but the effects continue to impact the 21st Century.
- The Ethne Movement followed from a series of consultations and conferences carrying parts of the AD2000 Movement beyond the year 2000. The specific and only focus of this movement remains collaborating across countries and regions to reach the world's remaining unreached peoples.
- Other movements have emerged to connect ministries and churches, to mobilize and inspire and to focus attention on specific challenges while maintaining a global scope. Some key examples: Go20/20, Empowered21, Jesus Celebration 2033, Transform World (with its focus on reaching children), Call2All, Finishing the Task, and many others.
- Shared ministry and resources. It is difficult to measure the impact of multiple means of ministry to non-believers — personal witness, literature, Scripture translation, Christian audio resources, TV, the Internet and the many other tools God uses. But the cumulative effects of multiple layers of ministry greatly increase the likelihood of non-Christians hearing the gospel and the possibility of response.
- Scripture availability and translation. Through the combined ministries of the Bible Societies and Bible translation agencies, 95% of the world's population has access to Scripture in a language they can understand, though not always in a heart language. The remaining 5% represents over 300 million people. Vision 2025 aims to see a Bible translation programme started in every language that needs one by the year 2025 - since 1999, new translation programmes for 617 languages have started for communities with no known Scriptures. This equals 82% of the 750 programmes known to Wycliffe started by all organizations during this same time. The Epic Partnership unites WBT (Bible translation), YWAM (training young people for evangelism), Cru (audio/visual resources and national partnerships) and IMB (church planting strategies) to reach the estimated four billion people who learn primarily through the spoken rather than the written word.
- Audio resources. The 10K Challenge is an initiative to see in this generation a recording work started in 4,400 more heart languages. This will bring the total number of languages in which GRN has made recordings up to the 10,000 mark. The World by Radio consortium of Christian broadcasting agencies committed to provide Christian radio programming for every person on earth in a language they could understand.
- The JESUS film has had several billion individual viewings worldwide since 1979, through the work of more than 1,500 Christian agencies. This has yielded over 200 million responses. Available in over 1,000 languages, well over 99% of the world's population should be able to view the film in a language they know.
- Media ministries are ever more crucial in the 21st Century as electronic and digital media come to dominate the world of communication. Christian satellite TV (especially in the Middle East and West Asia), EHC, FCBH, digital audio Bibles and more could be added to these multiple layers of global gospel coverage.
- The Internet as a tool for evangelism, discipleship, fellowship, worship and training is limited only by the creativity and commitment of Christians. The possibilities are endless. This tool, probably more than any other, will shape the nature of the Church and mission as the 21st Century unfolds. Paired inexorably with this is the phenomenal spread of mobile phones and their potential for evangelism and ministry.
- Research organizations and networks. Previously conducted by but a handful of individuals or agency offices, global collaboration among these entities is increasing. National and global-level research groups help piece together the status of global Christianity and world evangelization; they present findings and, in doing so, shape mission strategy, mobilize workers and fuel prayer. Praise God for a spirit of collegiality in this essential work. Pray for more believers with the right skills and giftings who are willing and eager to be involved. The sobering fact is that, even with all this activity, probably 24-27% of the world's population have not had the good news presented to them in a way they could appreciate and meaningfully respond to.
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Content taken or adapted from Operation World, 7th Edition (2010) and Pray for the World (2015). Both books are published by InterVarsity Press. All rights reserved.