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The trouble with old paradigm mission

Last time I gave a bit of a description of old paradigm mission. I don’t believe that this old paradigm should be completely done away with. Even if some new paradigm came sweeping in, there would no doubt still be a place for pioneer missionaries from the West, as well as a place for churches who make gospel frontiers their sole focus.

There is definitely something old-fashioned about the old paradigm, which often invokes heroic stories of the pioneer missionaries of yesteryear. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it retains a strong appeal, at least for some of us. Certainly, the missionary hero still dominates our memories even when we can see the need for something new.

Yet the trouble with the old paradigm is not that it’s ‘old’, but that it’s a single mission paradigm.

A one-size-fits-all approach to mission is no longer possible.

It used to be that, by and large, Western Christians were the only gospel pioneers available, simply because most of the churches on the planet were their churches. There was a time when they could, with some justification perhaps, think of themselves as the guardians of the faith. That all changed in the last century. There are now a lot of other Christians on the scene, and they’re not from the West. Meanwhile, Western Christianity is declining, and you might even say that our lampstand has been moved.

A world in which Western Christians are no longer a majority is a world in which Westerners are not the only missionaries, not the only disciple-makers, and not the only ‘senders’ or leaders. It’s a world with many more categories than just ‘us’ and ‘unreached’, and far more to mission than just ‘outreach’.

Should we Westerners still be doing pioneering, then? It’s usually the cultural nearest neighbours who make the best pioneers. Timothy Tennent gives the example that Brazilian Christians may be better suited as witnesses in North Africa. Here in Tanzania, we can expect the best witness to come from local Tanzanian churches, or other East African churches, or if further afield, elsewhere in Africa.

In a world in which Westerners are not the only possible pioneers, it is possible that we are better suited to other tasks. And in a world of ever-growing non-Western churches, we should expect to look elsewhere for mission leadership, to non-Western cultures and traditions. Europe’s next generation of Christian leaders could be from Nigeria, for example.

If Westerners might not be the best pioneers, where do we fit in?

The answer to this question is not one we should simply try to come up with ourselves, but something best discovered alongside our non-Western church family. In order for us to understand our own part in the body, we need to recognise the parts being played by the rest of the body. Our part used to seem obvious, but today we shouldn’t assume we can figure it out on our own. Whatever our missiology or mission paradigms are, the presence of the non-Western churches is the real game-changer, and we should allow their presence to shape us.

It’s not that the traditional paradigm of mission is simply out of date or redundant — far from it. The issue is whether we’ve got room for more missionaries than just ourselves, and whether we’re ready to change our role appropriately. What is the most fitting part for us to play? Which mission societies and journals are embracing partnership with the churches of the majority world? What do our local churches stand to learn?

The old paradigm offers a choice between ‘going’ and ‘sending’. That choice may still not be totally invalid, but we must now explore some new questions — questions about not only what kind of activities but also who the missionaries are, questions not only for ‘overseas’ but also for our own neighbourhoods. Who are the churches outside our own culture and tradition? How is God working with, in, and through them? What can we learn from them? How can we join in with them?

Photo credit: Matthew Wiebe

Categories: Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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