If evangelical mission was software, we are seeing the launch of version 5.0. Borrowing from other church historians (especially Ralph Winter) here’s a simplified version history.
Missions 1.0: nothing at all
Shortly after the Reformation, the Catholic mission orders such as the Franciscans, Dominicans and Jesuits had the fields all to themselves. Through these brilliant missionaries, with their mass-baptism programmes and their culturally sensitive outreach to elites, the Catholic church gained more converts than it had lost through the European schism.
Mission 2.0: The invention of the NGO
The mission agency was invented at the end of the 18th century. It was a Swiss-army-knife-type operation that developed all the necessary skills to recruit and manage a flow of Christians from the Protestant world (mostly Europe and the US) to the non-Christian countries, and also to the Catholic and Orthodox lands.
Mission 3.0: Inland
A generation or so after NGOs got a foothold on the coasts and trading posts, a new wave of pioneers took the gospel beyond coastal cities like Shanghai or Kolkata into the inland regions. This was the era of leaders like Hudson Taylor, trusting God for missionaries in every province of China, and of a new generation of NGOs like the China Inland Mission, the Unevangelized Fields Mission and the Heart of Africa Mission (later WEC).
Mission 4.0: Unreached peoples
Fast forward to 1974 (and pass over other developments like two world wars, the liberal/conservative split and Pentecostal and charismatic renewal). An understanding of unreached peoples took hold in the missions community. Even though a church was present in every country, many people were still isolated from the gospel by cultural barriers. Missions 4.0 built networks to discover and reach every cultural group–hence NGOs like Wycliffe Bible Translators and Gospel Recordings; books like Operation World; and strategies and networks that tried to catalyze new Christian movements so that everyone could meet Christ within a language and culture in which they felt at home.
Missions 5.0 Pluralism
Just as computer software has had to adapt from life on a single PC to appearing on many interlinked devices of differing shapes and capacities, so the simplicities of Mission 2.0 have been replaced by an increasingly universal pluralism. Cultures are all shaped by the same forces. Universally, people are moving into cities, leaving poverty and its diseases behind, getting access to travel and information. And cultures are being jumbled together. Ever-more people work with, live next to, or worship alongside people from different cultures. Ever-more unreached peoples have Christian near-neighbours.
Evangelical mission is still based on its original version 2.0 coding, despite extensive tweaks at versions 3.0 and 4.0 that extended its life. It’s time for a re-write.
The need of the hour is to spread vision and skills for cross-cultural mission onto a variety of ‘devices’ such as local Christians, local churches, local specialist agencies, short-term trippers, schoolchildren, students, professionals, refugees, migrants and retirees. This is evangelical mission 5.0. Mission agencies, instead of being swiss-army-knife, we-can-do-it organizations, need to be–I would argue–like ‘the cloud’, resourcing everything everywhere, knitting networks together and in those ways making cross-cultural kingdom-spreading a realistic option for Christians in every context.