SEOUL, South Korea–The Christian community is undergoing a paradigm shift away from the primacy of missionary-sending agencies toward centrality of the local church as the hub for missions, said an Australian Baptist at this week’s Baptist World Alliance General Council meeting in Seoul, South Korea.
“Missiologists have observed this paradigm shift in mission activity, in which local congregations in the developed world are entering into partnership with congregations in the developing world and channeling funds directly to those congregations,” said Margaret Cupit, who was born in China of missionary parents.
Cupit affirmed the shift toward greater local-church involvement as “an advance over positions held for many centuries and a return to the missionary position of the New Testament church.”
With Baptists’ emphasis on local-church autonomy, Cupit said it is surprising that hierarchal denominational and mission-agency structures ever developed. Today, however, “What was once uncritically accepted as the only way to do mission is being confronted by new forms of mission partnership,” she said.
Until the 1950s, missions “usually referred to either the sending of missionaries and the activities they undertook in another part of the world or the agency that send them,” she said.
“A theological summary was that mission was the transmission of faith, especially to the ‘heathen,’ expanding the reign of God and the founding of new churches. The term ‘mission’ presupposed a sender, those to whom the sender is sent and a task,” said Cupit. “The terminology presumed that the one who sends has the authority to send, generally the mission agency or the denominational church body.”
As a result of this approach, she said, Western mission agencies were often seen as an extension of Western economic and military power, and missionaries represented religious and cultural imperialists.
“This point of view is strongly challenged, because the Christian message can be integrating force if linked to the local culture and not seen as part of the dominant Western culture,” Cupit said.
Cupit characterized the new missionary movement as two-way involvement between churches in developed and developing worlds, where mutuality and equality exist. Each church enriches the other.
Speaking about her own church, McLean Baptist Church in northern Virginia, Cupit said that church members “know more precisely where their money is going and what it is achieving. They see that more is being done with their money as there is no longer the overhead that mission societies inevitably incur.”
Cupit, who served as a missionary in Papua, New Guinea, said: “The congregation can now identify with leaders and people from the third world, and some of them have become true friends. Those ‘indigenous people’ once prayed for occasionally are now real people who have struggles and face the daily challenges of life as do people in McLean. The congregation now prays for national leaders in their struggles and ministry whereas not so long ago mission prayers were mainly for American missionaries working overseas.”
What energizes her church, she said, is local and global missions involvement, not the tenuous connection through mission organizations.
“The passive and largely financial support of the denominational missionary agency is disappearing as younger leadership is emerging with a broader world view and desire to have part of the action,” said Cupit. “There is a reluctance to continue long-standing relationships in mission unless there are benefits of mutuality and partnership.”
Cupit urged mission agencies to embrace the new understanding of mission, instead of reacting against it.
“Local congregations need services that assist them to work effectively, making sensible, educated decisions that national agencies can provide,” she said.
“Mission agencies may have the role of introducing one community to another and this may gather momentum as it has done in many places,” she said. “Agencies could be more effective by moving beyond partnerships to networking where function can rule structure, rather than the other way around. They should serve to consult, inform, inspire and connect, letting the energy of local communities of faith take shape in various ways.”
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics and executive editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Robert M. Parham (1953 – 2017) was the founder and executive director of Baptist Center for Ethics from 1991 to 2017. He served as executive editor of EthicsDaily.com, BCE’s website, from its launch in 2002 until 2017.