The State of the Great Commission

In 1900, the most typical Christian in the world was a European man. Over the next quarter century, it might be a Nigerian woman.

That is perhaps the biggest global shift mentioned in the Lausanne Movement’s State of the Great Commission report. As Christianity declines in Europe and North America, it is growing rapidly in Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia.

Lausanne is named after a 1974 gathering in Switzerland of Christian leaders from 150 countries. A covenant signed at that event, and still observed today, “challenged Christians to work together to make Jesus Christ known throughout the world.”

“Mission is now from every continent to every continent,” the report states. “With the exception of Europe, every region in the world both sends and receives more missionaries than 50 years ago.”

Paul Kimbi (left) and Bryan Harmelink

The lengthy report covers far more information than could be discussed in one sitting, but we spoke with two Wycliffe Global Alliance leadership team members about some of its implications for Bible translation movements. Paul Kimbi is the Alliance’s consultant for Bible translation programmes. Bryan Harmelink is director for collaboration.  Here is an edited version of that conversation:

 

The Alliance thrives on this type of knowledge and strategic thinking, and is even sometimes cited as a source in this report. Did anything you read surprise you?

Paul Kimbi:

It’s not a surprise to me that we have these demographics in Africa. But one of the reasons attributed was an increase in democratic political space. I haven’t fully come to terms with that. I think the Great Commission and missions has always flowed to Africa, even in oligarchies and other situations that were not democracies. I don’t see any country in Africa, except religious countries, where there has been closing of the space for missions to flow in Africa.

Bryan Harmelink:

I have some questions – and I haven’t read the whole report yet – by the part about polycentric Christianity. In the master’s courses that I’ve developed, I want to shift the terminology that I use, away from polycentric to polylocal. The main question I have is about the word centre. The Holy Spirit is involved in a lot more places than what can be identified as centres. Using the term polycentric just kind of shifts the focus away from the Western centre to other centres. But I don’t think it goes far enough in recognition of the everywhere character of what God is doing in the world. And it doesn’t depend on what people identify as centres.

The difference from being seen as a mission field to being seen as a mission sending country – that’s significant. But yet it’s indicative of our – myself included – human condition of wanting to be at the centre. But everywhere that the Holy Spirit is working, where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, is where the church is found.

In terms of Christianity’s growth, what do you see in some African nations that is different from what the rest of the world might be experiencing now? What would surprise people in the rest of the world?

PK:

I’m thinking about the title of an article I read, From Christianising Africa to Africanising Christianity. I think there is a lot of Africanisation of Christianity and, to borrow from Bryan’s term, a lot of localisation of Christianity in many parts of Africa. So I agree with Bryan that if we talk about polycentres, if you came to a nation like Cameroon, the political capital and maybe the urban areas may commonly be (seen as) the centres. But when you go to the villages, that is where you are going to meet with robust Christianity. And the people in those villages are worshipping God in their own ways. So I think when the world talks about Christianity in Africa, it makes too much of a generalisation.

Part of the report talked about giving. And I’m not sure that it can capture what giving really is in the African context. Because if we measure giving just by monetary terms, we will never be able to capture the old woman in this village who looks for firewood in a forest near her farm, and then comes and offers it in church. It is given to the pastor. You will never measure this group of youths who went to till this farm and plant it for the pastor and the pastor will have these crops. This is something that is happening in Africa and in the local areas that I think may not be measured. Each village is owning Christianity in its own way. Trying to explain Christianity without using local concepts and local idioms and local culture —when the world sees Africa maybe it sees these broad categories but it doesn’t see these fine details of what is happening in the villages.

BH:

This reminds me of Simon Chan's book, Grassroots Asian Theology, where he says that you really don't know Asian theology unless you see how our faith is lived at the local, village level.

As more local expressions of Christianity appear, without many outside influences, how do Bible translation movements deal with the risks of things going in bad directions theologically?

PK:

I think that risk has always been there. When you think about Jewish reviews of Greek things, and the Hellenistic ways of doing things, that risk has always been there. That is the risk of what theologians have called syncretism. But what is syncretism?

BH:

It’s what the other person does but I never do.

PK:

Exactly. It is a way of perceiving the convenient ways of worshipping God in my culture. The tension is always there.

Even within a local community, there are always those dynamics of cross examination and cross views. Even within a local community, there is always the move of the Holy Spirit. That is something we should keep our finger on to know that what we are doing, what God is revealing to us, shows that we are on track.

It’s an interesting line to walk – between wanting to let the Holy Spirit work and yet feeling responsibility for good doctrine.

BH:

It reminds me of a section from one of Andrew Walls’ writings. He uses a story of a visitor from outer space coming to earth at different points of the church’s history. The second century, then 325—one of the councils of the church—then 600 visiting a monk in Ireland. From there it jumps to the 19th century and a big mission conference in England. And then 1980 visiting a church in Nigeria. The space visitor’s conclusions are: At these different points in the history of the church, the church looks nothing like the church at other points in time. What the monks were doing in the year 600 would have been considered totally inappropriate by the mission and church leaders in England in the 1800s.

The point is, that same diversity happens in the church today. Forms of worship and preaching and other kinds of things. At the church that we attend here in Pennsylvania, people from other parts of the world would wonder if the Holy Spirit has even come to our church. That’s kind of an overstatement, but what is perceived as vitality in one place doesn’t exist in others. There are just these multiple cultural and other forms of worship and gathering as the church that are unrecognisable to some outside observer.

And so the risk of heresy has always been there. That’s why our real anchor has always been recognizing that the Body of Christ is the Spirit’s responsibility, and the Spirit of God is working through the church – even with the things that appear to be deviations from true doctrine.

This map from the Lausanne Movement shows projected change in the global Christian population from 2020 to 2050. The numbers indicate the regions (not countries) with the highest projected growth. In order, they are Middle Africa, Eastern Africa, Western Africa, Melanesia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Central America and Southern Africa.

The report talks about diaspora populations, and states that ‘unevangelised people cannot be solely defined geographically anymore.’ Historically, so much of Bible translation movements have been about people groups located in specific places. Does this change our strategies?

PK:

Going back to the statement about missions spiralling from everywhere to everywhere—that is pivotal. It needs to help us consider the strategies that we put in place for translation. It needs to help us shift from what has been called the traditional approach to translation—a translation project is conceived of as being done in a remote village in a remote place for an ethnic group. And that is because of that language based in that place. I think that is no longer the case. And it’s not just that it goes across the world. Even nationally, that remote village is in dispersion. It is in the urban areas. And it’s everywhere nationally, but it’s also everywhere internationally.

If you are considering a translation project, and you have that village in your mind and you say, ‘The speakers of this language live in this place’, I think you may end up with a Bible but without a people. Because if you go there, you may not find those speakers.

So the strategy has to change. And also what has to change would be the influences on the kinds of media – ‘We did this translation and it was a book, and we went to this place because the people live here. We had to engage them in literacy so that they read this book.’ That also needs to change. If the speakers of this language are everywhere, not just in this local enclave in Cameroon, but also in the streets of Maryland, then if it is mission you have to look for a way of reaching out to those, but also reaching out to these.

One of the change paradigms that is becoming in vogue now is what has been called multimodal translations. Multimodal and multimedia. How do I address people everywhere in a mode that is accessible and convenient to them? Perhaps I address those who are in the technologised part of the world with advanced technology and media, and I address those who are in the oral part of the world with oral technology and with modes that are more accessible to them.

So I think the idea of thinking of a translation as based in a confined geographic location is a little out of place now.

BH:

Most of the focus for decades was on the remote village. That was, in a sense, the SIL and Wycliffe kind of new frontier in the Bible translation movement since the Bible Societies at the beginning of the 20th century were primarily focused on national languages, as were most mission agencies. …  One of the shifts, then, to the significant contribution of SIL and the Wycliffe movement, has been working with the remote and marginalised peoples in hard-to-access parts of the world. But that has changed. There still are some of those remote villages, but just as Paul was saying, those communities are now scattered in their own country and their neighbouring countries and their continent and across the world. I remember from Mexico, when some colleagues realised that there was a larger population of one indigenous group living in Los Angeles than there was in the village area in Mexico. Their first thought was, ‘We need to find ways to distribute what we are doing here to that large population in the United States.’

Then I think there have been and still are people thinking, The diaspora population is now living in a rich country. They have money. They can support the translation efforts going on in the homeland. I’m not saying either of these are wrong. But if we’re just limited to distribution or fundraising, I don’t think we’re quite where things need to be. Because these are people of that society and culture and language who live in different places.

Wycliffe Ethiopia is one of the only examples I know of an organisation that actually has what I could call a transnational translation team—where things are happening in particular languages in Ethiopia and in the diaspora community in the U.S. So it’s seeing it not just as a distribution question or as a fundraising question, although those are there as well, but taking advantage of technologies to have the team represent where the people are living across multiple nations. I think that’s a very important move.

 

Here is a look at global Christianity in four snapshots between 1900 and 2020, plus a projection for 2050. (The percentages indicate each region’s proportion of the global Christian population.) Note especially the decline of Europe and the rise of Africa.

As we end this conversation, are there cautions you would give Alliance organisation leaders as they look into the Lausanne report? Are there ways it could be misread?

BH:

In the section on the rise of Africa, my impression was, it’s so unfortunate to use the word “Africa,” because it was almost as if Africa was talked about as a country rather than a very complex continent. I was struck by the graphic, where the intention is to show how large the continent is by placing the U.S. in the Sahara Desert and West Africa, and showing all the countries they can fit into the continent. That graphic almost makes it appear like they are comparing country size to country size.

The comments made about Africa being more democratic—well, yes, you can find examples of that. But many counterexamples, also. It’s possible to talk about ‘the youth of Africa’ because of the population numbers under a certain age. But I think we in the Alliance need to be cautious about using even our area designations – yes, we have a director for the Americas and for Africa, but yet there is a complexity that can easily be dismissed by the use of those kinds of terms.

PK:

Even the way we dichotomise the world and we talk of the Global North and the Global South is, I think, coming from a dualistic worldview. We apply these binaries that do not necessarily exist. It brings overgeneralisations.

One other thing I would like to mention is the Great Commission. I think it’s assumed that everyone understands what the Great Commission is. From my reading, it seems to assume the Great Commission to just be the proclamation of the gospel. As the Alliance, we talk about holistic ministry. And that entails what has been called incarnational ministry. So the Great Commission touches on not just proclamation, it also touches on demonstration of the gospel.

BH:

In a couple of places it seemed that there was a tendency to talk about some form of global Christianity. From my perspective, that’s also a caution. Yes, the ideal is for the whole body of Christ to hold onto the core essentials of our faith. The life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ and the Body of Christ being what it is in the world. All the core things.

But I don’t think a global Christianity actually exists. We have multiple, local expressions of our faith that need to come together, maintaining that diversity in unity. The unfortunate possible misperception of global Christianity is that it’s some imposed form that everyone needs to conform to. We can talk about Christianity found globally, but I don’t think this idea of there being a global Christianity fits the local expressions of the church.

What implications does this “polylocal” focus have, then, for Bible translation movements?

PK:

One value we have as an Alliance is community, belonging to community and community expressed through interdependence. How can we leverage our gifts, our knowledge and resources so that we meet the needs and allow for effective participation in the mission of God? This requires the interdependence within the Bible translation movement. One metaphor we are using these days is ecosystem. The Bible translation movement is one big ecosystem with subsystems. All are interconnected and needed for the flourishing of the whole. It requires humility and humbly receiving and feeding feedback. For the Alliance in particular, we have participation streams, thus recognizing that there are areas of focus and that others may tend to do certain things better. A relationship of complementarity.

We need to be aware of the polylocal, polyphonic nature of the movement and allow space for participation of all and sundry with the understanding and overarching thought that this is the mission of God.

BH:

One of the lines quoted earlier from the Lausanne report was “Mission is now from every continent to every continent.” This is true, but it seems that the Bible translation movement is still moving toward this reality. If we consider who is involved in translating and working at the project level around the world, very significant changes have taken place.

However, if we look at other aspects of the movement, more change is needed for the decision-making, resourcing, and processes for quality assurance to be “polylocalised” within the global context. At this point, there are still significant carryovers from “the West to the rest” model of mission. Change is happening, but it is slow. I long for the day when the local expressions of the Body of Christ everywhere are participating as fully as possible in church and community-based processes of translation and quality assurance.

 

Story: Jim Killam, Wycliffe Global Alliance

To download charts and to read the entire Lausanne report, click here.

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