Experts on Christian witness and outreach reflect on new opportunities in changing populations, attitudes and technology
As political unrest, environmental crises, famine and warfare fuel the movement of people around the globe, the line between local and global missions is blurring. Some Canadian church leaders feel that line may even become extinct – presenting both incredible opportunities for spreading the gospel and unique challenges as well.
You could say the traditional mission model of "the West to the rest" has been turned on its head – and many Canadian mission groups agree.
According to Russell Wolf, executive director of SIM (Serving in Mission) Canada, the organization’s biggest mission field at the moment is Canada. While the group has missionaries in approximately 40 countries and has been traditionally known as a "sending agency," a majority of SIM Canada’s missionaries are currently serving here on home soil.
The organization’s mandate is "to make Christ known where He is least known," which perhaps says a lot about the state of Christianity in the Great White North.
"I think for the Canadian Church, the face of global mission has changed by the fact that God continues to bring the mission field right here to our own backyard. Also with technology, the opportunity to share and equip people to share God’s Word in developing countries is becoming easier to access and is available online," Wolf explains.
Although SIM International still considers its Canadian branch a sending rather than receiving agency, Wolf believes that may change slightly going forward. "If you name a people group, they are living here in Canada. We have a rainbow of people here."
Learning in Türkiye
This past October the World Evangelical Alliance hosted a forum on The Future of the Gospel. Participants from 61 nations came together in Istanbul, Türkiye, to explore the unique opportunities and challenges that exist in world mission as it’s reshaped by globalization and technology.
Joel Gordon, director of ministry partnerships and innovation at The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC), came home with two big takeaways. "Global mission is increasingly evident and changing in my own context, which is Toronto," he says. "And the other piece is a realization that around the globe, wherever God’s people are, mission is happening in those places and from those places to everywhere else in the world."
The traditional mission model of "the West to the rest" has been turned on its head.
Gordon highlights the importance of love and unity among Christians in Canada, noting it’s an important part of evangelism, and is countercultural and radical compared to what the world is used to seeing.
"That love provides us with an opportunity to welcome newcomers, seeing them as image bearers of God, and truly as our brothers and sisters, who have as much to offer our Church in Canada as our Church in Canada has to offer them. When I see Christian newcomers in Toronto, I try to see them as missionaries who God has sent into our context.
"We have many Christians coming from Nigeria where there’s 10,000 to 50,000 people in a church," says Gordon. "They’re coming with ideas, and gifts, and energy, and vibrancy, and music and other ways of living out the gospel that need to be embraced in the Canadian context in order for us to be more effective in reaching all people."
David Guretzki, the EFC’s president and CEO, also attended the forum in Istanbul. He left thinking about the impact of technology on evangelism and about global mission within our local context.
It’s imperative we break down those siloes and get more conversation flowing between Christian ethnic groups in Canada.
On the local front he emphasizes we need to learn from our global brothers and sisters, "Not only because they have so much to teach, but because they’re already here. Missionaries are here from around the world, but I’m convinced we’re still siloed from them. Of the ethnic groups that are here in Canada, many are first and second generation, and they form their own communities, their own churches, so they’re still siloed from the broader Church," Guretzki explains.
He says it’s imperative we break down those siloes and get more conversation flowing between Christian ethnic groups in Canada. "The Nigerians, Ghanaians and Chinese, for example, may have a whole lot more to say about evangelizing Canada, but [the pride of multigenerational Canadians is] sometimes still an issue that prevents us from breaking down these silos."
God is already there
Canadians have much to learn from Christians outside North America and Western countries, agrees Andy Harrington, executive director of Canadian Foodgrains Bank.
"The Church in many parts of the Majority World often has a more communal basis. When people are hungry, they’ll band together. When one is hurting we’re all hurting. That’s a lesson for [Canadians] to learn," he says.
Canadian Foodgrains Bank is a partnership of 15 Canadian churches and agencies focused on ending hunger around the world. Working in 36 countries with 126 active projects, the organization funds food programs to help people recover from earthquakes (recent examples include Turkïye and Syria), and survive drought (such as in East Africa). People in these areas are facing extreme hunger.
Instead of thinking about "mission as bringing God to these places," Harrington says, "actually God is already there, wanting to teach us things from watching our brothers and sisters in the Majority World and how they act. I would say this is a lesson for the Church in the West."
Harrington sees three primary challenges Canadian Christian groups are facing as world mission evolves. First, in a polarized and divided culture, we need to learn how to communicate in a calm and truthful way – to be a uniting place, not a dividing place. Second, we need to give the younger generation agency and involve them in decision making within the Church as he believes they are increasingly becoming a lost generation. Third, Harrington points out we need to learn how to communicate hope in a world full of darkness.
Brazil and Africa lead the way
While the Canadian mission field is certainly full of opportunity, world mission across the globe is being met increasingly by missionaries from the Majority World. Don Little, missiologist-at-large with Pioneers Canada, points out in Pioneers’ fall 2023 newsletter that Christians from the Global South (Africa, Latin America and developing parts of Asia) often outnumber Western missionaries, marking a big contrast from previous generations.
Little contrasts the year 1900, when 82 per cent of all Christians lived in Europe and North America, with the year 2020, by which point that figure has plummeted to 33 per cent. The majority of Christians now live in Latin America (612 million) and Africa (667 million). (Little’s data source is the Lausanne Movement.)
Wafik Wahba, professor of global Christianity and mission at Tyndale University in Toronto, says a recent trend he’s noticed is that Brazil is becoming one of the largest sending countries of missionaries in the world. It’s a trend he’s excited about.
"The global Church being involved in missions is wonderful. It’s the whole world sending missionaries to the whole world, and that’s an amazing trend."
Creative uses of technology
Originally from Egypt and having travelled extensively throughout the Middle East and North Africa, Wahba has seen technology evolve and shape world mission over several decades. Beginning with satellite television that opened evangelism in otherwise closed Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia during the 1990s, he says finding creative ways to leverage technology to spread the gospel is important.
"Now social media has developed way beyond that, all the way to the AI [artificial intelligence] generation. People can read the Bible off their cell phones, through apps, there’s YouTube and TikTok," Wahba explains.
Joel Gordon has also noted the prevalence of cell phones and the popularity of social media around the world as a new reality that presents missionaries with an entry point, especially for younger generations.
"There’s a common language that social media brings to the next generation. Whether you’re in South Africa or Nunavut, a 16-year-old with a phone and internet access is going to know what TikTok is, and that’s a common language we can use as an entry point. We don’t want to stay there, but we can use that as a springboard to proclaiming the Good News and finding innovative ways to leverage that technology for disciple making," says Gordon.
On the other side of that coin, he notes digital media literacy is important. "We have to think about the harms and addictive nature of these platforms. We need to give young followers the Jesus tools to be able to navigate that and know how to use these platforms as followers of Christ."
When it comes to creative ways to share the gospel as part of global mission, Gordon says video storytelling is an untapped asset. "Video storytelling is the greatest tool in our age that we have to be able to compel people toward Jesus, and for them to have a picture of what it means to be adopted into God’s family. I don’t think we quite understand the power and influence that smartphones and video-based communication has," he says.
At the forum in Istanbul, Guretzki says, the "promises and perils of technology" was a hot topic. Noting he is wary of the potential pitfalls of technology when it comes to mission, he is energized by how the younger generation is finding ways to use it for evangelism. One such example was a young man from Pakistan who developed a virtual reality tour of the Holy Land.
"People can immerse themselves in this virtual reality of the Holy Land, and hundreds of people have come to Christ because of it," says Guretzki.
Bible translation is another area of world mission that has been benefiting from technology. Guretzki heard exciting reports from Wycliffe Canada at the forum. The time to translate the Bible into an Indigenous language has been cut drastically thanks to computer advancements. Now with AI on the scene, translation of Scripture is poised to take another huge leap forward.
So, what does all of this mean for Canadian churches and mission groups moving forward? Wahba says creative projects are needed to attract missionaries to serve in both the local and global context.
"The challenge is a lack of commitment from the younger generation. They want to commit to a project for a year or two, but not like the older generations of missionaries who would commit to five, ten, 15 years. Issues that have to do with social justice, poverty, economic injustice, humanitarian aid, along with preaching the gospel – that’s what they’re interested in," he says.
It’s the whole world sending missionaries to the whole world, and that’s an amazing trend.
He also notes financial support from local churches is often hard to come by unless the missionary is presenting a creative project they can support. Wolf has seen the same issue in his role at SIM Canada. "The financial barriers are huge, and that could be why missionaries in Canada are growing," Wolf explains. "It’s hard for people in today’s society, especially the 20- to 45-year-olds, to invest in something that isn’t tangible."
At Gordon’s home church in Willowdale in north-central Toronto, there are 27 different nations represented in a small congregation of about a hundred, illustrating the future of world mission in our own context. He sees it as an example of what’s to come.
"When you think about Revelation 7:9 where believers will be standing, witnessing and worshipping together from every nation, and with every tongue represented, I believe we’re getting a foretaste of that right now in my local church."
is a writer, book author and speaker in Uxbridge, Ont. (