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Innovating Our Missiology for North America

In The State of Missiology Today: Global Innovations in Christian Witness, Charles Van Engen proposes ten innovations in missiology compared to the missiology of the mid-1960s:

  1. Indigeneity, people groups, multi-individual conversion, contextualization
  2. Strategies of mission, diffusion of innovations, mobilization of mission efforts to evangelize those who are not yet followers of Jesus, formation of societies of church growth, publications
  3. Social sciences employed in missiological analysis: for example, cultural anthropology, linguistics, communication theory, language learning, sociology
  4. Mission history reexamined and reread from the point of view of the expansion of the church
  5. Biblical theology of mission, Bible and mission, theological perspectives in missiology
  6. Revivals and awakenings that have impacted the health and growth of the church
  7. Studies of the growth or decline of local congregations, cell-based churches, megachurches
  8. Leadership, theological education, theological education by extension
  9. Spiritual issues in mission, issues of spiritual power
  10. Ecclesiological issues of the nature of the church and its mission, Church Next, the mission of the local congregation

These innovations were foundational for the formation of church planting strategies over the last forty years. However, just as in history there has not been one universal and constant missiology driving mission in North America, the future will also not have a universal and constant missiology driving mission. To say it another way, there may be multiple narratives that mobilize people into missions and church planting in North America, and these factors have probably been working in the background for several decades and will continue in increasing measure as we approach the midcentury.
There are a handful of crucial issues that are and will continue to affect mission and ecclesiology in North America with increasing measure, perhaps forcing even greater innovation in missiology and mission strategy than what we have seen since the Church Growth movement. I briefly describe four of them here as a way to stoke our imagination towards the future:

1. The decline of large denominations and the rise of pseudo-denominations.

While I’ve mentioned before that the future of church planting should not be dependent on the decline narrative, the reality is that the largest denominations in North America (Catholic, Baptist, and Methodism) are all in membership decline. Some of the decline can be attributed membership transfer into other denominations and non-denominational churches. However, since so much of the American religious landscape has been shaped by these three forces, it is left to be seen what happens when they each operate in lesser prominence than the last fifty decades.

2. The demographic composition of mission and organizational leadership.

Mission in North America has been strategized, executed, and recorded predominantly by white males. While I assume the gospel-orientation of mission will continue as leadership diversifies, I would expect gradual variation in tone and perhaps even in strategy as others continue to grow in influence through thought-leadership and organizational leadership. The Church Planting Manifesto for 21st-Century North America affirms this in Principle #12:

Men and women leading in mission—from different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds—is a demonstration of the power of the gospel.

3. Innovation in technology and economic models.

American missiology has followed the development of the social sciences, but also the development of economics and organizational management. As these things begin to evolve, I would expect our missiology to accommodate. Also, we have not fully grappled with how artificial intelligence will become a factor in how humans believe, behave, and belong. But already we are implicitly aware of how advanced technology is changing how we perceive identity and human connectivity.

4. The effects of culture’s evolving understanding of the nature of man, especially gender and sexuality.

James E. White recently wrote a book about ministry to Generation-Z and I believe he’s right to point out that what makes this generation unique in modern history is their accepting nature of gender and sexual fluidity. In a podcast I recorded with him, he argues that anthropology is probably the biggest theological issue the American Church is experiencing right now. Very few issues have split large denominations and congregations in the way this issue has. While it is left to be seen how this will affect the mechanics of church planting, there is no doubt that some theological innovation will happen among both liberals and conservatives to accommodate new understandings of family and leadership.
There is already popular Christian writing in each one of these areas, especially as to how they pertain to ethics and social responsibility. I would expect that it will be harder to escape these issues as we move our missiology forward towards the midcentury. While missiology should be clearly rooted in Scripture, as a discipline and as a lens for mission strategy, it is profoundly shaped by world events and the evolution of ideas. This inevitably shapes how mission is reimagined and told to the next generation.
To that end, may our efforts in studying the Bible and studying the culture make us better vision casters and storytellers of God’s mission.