In his book Western Christians in Global Missions: What’s the Role of the North American Church?, author Paul Borthwick works to analyze the global context of the missionary endeavor and to determine what the role of the North American church should be in that endeavor, given our particular missional history along with other social, cultural, and socio-economic factors.
On the whole, Borthwick’s goal is to help those in the North American church to “develop full involvement in the global purposes of God, in ways relevant to the realities of the global church.” Borthwick goes about accomplishing this first through an analysis of the world – to include the North American church and that of the Majority World – and then by offering ideas on how to operate within the world that has been described, such that local responses can be brought together with global realities to make for better international cooperation and cross-cultural involvement.
In the contextual analysis section of his book, Borthwick lays out the current state of the global church. Perhaps the primary factor that Borthwick brings to the forefront of the discussion is the great shift in that has taken place in what demographics make up the majority of the faith. Thus, he notes, Christianity has become less of of a wealthy, white, Western thing, and has in turn become much more of a non-wealthy, non-white, non-Western thing.
The global center of Christianity has left the West, making for a different world than what existed a hundred years ago.
This shift is further complicated by this Majority World not only being of a lower socio-economic status than Christians have traditionally been in the Western incarnation of the faith, but there are theological and environmental barriers as well.
This new world requires new approaches to missions (though indeed, older approaches to missions had various problems even without this shift). At present the United States houses a church that looks to mission agencies over action by the local church and have a general lack of competency in dealing with contexts of lower income or those involving suffering.
This is not to say that the Majority World church is perfect – it has its own issues such as prosperity theology – but it does mean that Western missions needs to learn how to navigate this new world.
This shift does not have to be one that sees less involvement of the Western church, but it does have to be one that sees the Western church look to the true Biblical basis for missions and sees the Western church take a role of partnership and servanthood rather than leadership and power. Western missionaries need to listen to listen to the advice, feedback and training of our non-Western counterparts.
This is a sharp move away from the traditional mindset where Western Christians have merely been in the position of helping and providing resources to the non-Westerns; it recognizes that Western Christians need the help of non-Westerns too. Instead of this older model, Borthwick suggests a model of partnership where there is a genuine sharing of resources as opposed to a one-way transfer.
This is such that the Western church commits itself to find where God is working and joining in that endeavor rather than working to control the change that is taking place.
This sort of partnership and servanthood requires the Western church to do something that it is uncomfortable with, that is, to be needy, to be sacrificial rather than merely generous, to listen to the advice and views of those in the areas that we seek to minister that we can know how to minister with them in their particular context since there is not one-size-fits-all model to missionary work.
In summary, Borthwick notes that the global church needs to become an interdependent team, working together and bringing together the different strengths and weaknesses of each group.
On the whole, Borthwick offers a lucid engagement of the present state of affairs in the majority world and in the western church.
Borthwick’s main argument is one of coming into partnership with those areas in which we desire to do missionary work, rather than approaching them with a sort of savior mentality or of a one-way transfer or aide and resources. In this Borthwick rightly calls the Western church to humility and servanthood, providing a way in which to fight against the prideful individualism that is so rampant in the contemporary Western church scene.
Those areas where Borthwick’s argument might be critiqued are mainly in the details rather than in the overall thrust of the argument.
For instance, Borthwick uses Philip Jenkins’ assessment of the global church in The Next Christendom as a key element in his analysis of where the demographics of Christianity are at present. Yet it must be taken into account that Jenkins in his work uses the widest possible understanding of ‘Christian’ – basically, anybody who ascribes the name to themselves.
This offers a slightly skewed picture of what counts as Christianity worldwide to those who have somewhat more stringent criteria for orthodoxy. While taking orthodoxy into account might change the picture slightly, it is unlikely to change it so much that Borthwick’s point is lost, but it is still true that he underplays this element in his writing.
That aside, the call to humility is one that the Western church should take seriously, not only because of our perceived economic and cultural superiority but also in terms of our perceived theological superiority, realizing that even with the pedigree of Luther, Calvin, Aquinas, Wesley and Edwards in our history that we may still learn something from those outside of our historical stream.
Due to our long history of individualism – stretching all the way back to the Enlightenment, if not all the way back to Athens – this call to humility is greatly needed.
The Western church has had a history of merely creating converts both here and abroad, and of throwing money at whatever problem comes their way, of seeing other parts of the world as inferior places that need to be helped, that need to be fixed through our involvement. This is a sharp change from the way that missions have historically been done.
One downside to Borthwick’s model is that it does seem to primarily apply to those areas in which there is already a Christian presence, especially an orthodox Christian presence.
Thus, if there is no Christian presence in the area already, or if the presence that is there is squarely heretical, it is unlikely that churches from the US that value orthodoxy will have any desire – or should have any desire – to partner with said churches. It seems that if the true gospel is going to be introduced to an area that doesn’t know the true gospel, that a certain amount of leadership will be required on the part of the missionary group, and Borthwick gives little thought in the book to how to practice servanthood and partnership in a situation where there is no non-heretical church to join with, to allow to teach you.
Thus, Borthwick’s argument would do well to factor in how to balance leadership versus partnership in areas that are still essentially pagan (especially considering that his primary source for calling almost all areas Christian is somebody who applies no ‘standards’ for what qualifies as Christian).
Borthwick does do well in reminding us of the prideful wealth and individualism present in our culture and in ourselves, of our lack of desire to be served (and often even to serve).
Borthwick challenges us to work to learn from those whom we wish to serve, and to be served by them in turn.
Perhaps more than anything Borthwick has challenges us in the way that we have approached the wealth and comfort of our own culture in contrast to that of the rest of the world, challenging us to take into account suffering and the way that it can be and is used by God.
The book should confirm our sense that mission is something that was started by God, and that we as the Western Christians are not the heroes of the story; that that honor goes to God through his son Jesus Christ.
Ordained PCA | MDiv
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