As developing nations set the pace in church growth, are Western missionaries still needed?

While church membership declines in Europe and levels off in North America, churches in the Third World are growing at an unprecedented rate. As a result, many observers say the next generation of church leaders will come largely from developing nations.

Patrick Johnstone, international research secretary of WEC International, says that since World War II we have witnessed “the first worldwide evangelical awakening.” He says the enormous growth of the church in the Third World has more than counteracted the West’s decline in church membership.

A New Day In Missions

As Third World churches enter adulthood, they are catching the missionary vision. Some 500 Filipino missionaries are serving in countries around the world, including the United States, Indonesia, and Thailand. In Brazil, Baptists and the Assemblies of God have sent about 230 missionaries to countries in Latin America, Europe, Africa, and North America. Mexican missionaries are working in the United States and Canada, and some 500 Guatemalan Christians are ministering outside their home country. In light of such developments, Western Christians might wonder if North American missionaries still have a place in the Third World.

Most Third World church leaders interviewed by CHRISTIANITY TODAY at the recent International Conference for Itinerant Evangelists agreed that North American missionaries are still needed. They note that the Great Commission applies to Western Christians as well as to the church in the Third World.

But the Third World leaders emphasized that the type of missionaries needed has changed greatly in the last few years. A number of developing nations no longer need missionaries who make a career of preaching, church planting, and supervising the work of indigenous Christians.

“The old picture of the Western missionaries coming and sort of taking control … probably is no longer valid,” said Saphir Athyal, principal of Union Biblical Seminary in Pune, India. “There is a younger generation of missionaries in North America who have an entirely different attitude.… Their whole attitude toward [Christians in the] Two-Thirds World [is to view them] as partners, and they’re willing to learn from Christians in the Two-Thirds World.” Athyal’s perception is shared by other Asian churchmen, as well as by leaders in Latin America and Africa.


“We need co-workers, not case workers,” said Isaac Ababio, who heads an evangelistic association in Ghana. In West Africa, many American missionaries already work in partnership with local ministries. Ababio said ministries in Ghana could use additional co-workers from the West, including Bible school teachers.

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Nathaniel Olutimayin, president of the 2 million—member Evangelical Churches of West Africa (ECWA), says a partnership between American and African Christians presents a stronger witness to the lost. The ECWA, based in Nigeria, has sent missionaries to Ghana, Niger, and Chad.

Olutimayin said Nigeria needs self-supporting Christian professionals (tentmaking missionaries) from the West, as well as teachers in its seminaries and Bible colleges. The country also needs help from Americans trained in radio and television work. Church planters are needed in Niger, Chad, and Ghana, Olutimayin said. However, for the cost of bringing in and supporting two American missionaries, he said his denomination could send out five Nigerians.

It is clear that the church in Africa takes the challenge of world evangelization seriously. Said René Daidanso Djongwe, associate general secretary of the Association of Evangelicals in Africa and Madagascar: “Christians [in Africa] have the Great Commission on their heart.… In 1982 I was in Korea, and our Korean brothers told me they were preparing to come to Africa. And I told them, ‘Don’t you know we are planning to come and evangelize you?’ ”


Rapid church growth came to Asia in the 1970s, about a decade after widespread revival broke out in Africa and Latin America.

“[In India, Christians] have to look at the world and be responsible for missions,” said Athyal. More than 3,000 Indian missionaries have learned new languages to do cross-cultural work inside their own country. In addition, Indian missionaries are working in other Asian countries and in Africa. In the next 15 to 20 years, Athyal expects to see more of an exchange of personnel and ideas between East and West.

In mainland China, the church is growing faster than ever before, according to Thomas Wang, who grew up in Beijing but now lives in Hong Kong. He estimates the church in China has grown from 1 million in 1949 to as many as 70 million today. Chinese Christians have also made a significant impact on the rest of the world.

When Mao Zedong came to power in 1949, Chinese were scattered in more than 20 countries, said Wang, who serves as general secretary of the Chinese Coordination Centre of World Evangelism. Today, some 5,000 Chinese congregations are scattered around the world. Overseas Chinese churches have not yet sent missionaries to the United States, but Wang cited a need for “cross feeding.”

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“America has been sending missionaries to us,” he said. “While we have gradually grown up, we should also pay back our debt.… I think the East/West missionary movement is going to have a cross-sending movement in the future more and more.”

Western missionaries are already on the “second line of service,” providing technical support to national churches in countries such as Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, and to a lesser extent, Taiwan and Japan, Wang said. “Missionaries still have to bear at least part of the burden in pioneering work” in other countries, including Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia, he added.

In Indonesia, the government restricts the entry of new missionaries and has refused to renew the visas of some long-time missionaries, said Chris Marantika, president of the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Indonesia. However, the government allows missionaries to do development and educational work on the island of Java, where Marantika’s seminary uses seven missionaries.

“We need missionaries, not to lead the school, but to educate Indonesians for what we call ‘Indonesiaization,’ ” Marantika said. Indonesian Christians are making plans to evangelize their own country. The Evangelical Theological Seminary of Indonesia has set a goal of planting one church in each of the 50,000 unreached villages by the year 2015.

How Can North Americans Help Evangelize Mexico?

A native of Ecuador, Galo Vasquez is a former crusade director for evangelist Luis Palau. Today he heads a Mexico City-based organization called Vision Evangelizadora Latino Americana (Latin American Evangelistic Vision). CHRISTIANITY TODAY asked Vasquez to describe how Christians in the United States can help evangelize Mexico.

Does Mexico grant visas to career missionaries?

No. Mexico’s constitution does not allow for full-time missionaries. But there are ways to do missionary work in Mexico. The most common way is to come as a tourist. A tourist can stay for as long as 180 days, then leave Mexico for a couple of days, and return for another 180 days.

Another way is to come as a professional who assists a local organization that is doing Christian work. A professional can obtain a two-year visa, which is renewable.

What are the professions of most foreign missionaries who are working in Mexico?

Most of them are teachers, researchers, and media specialists. But that doesn’t mean they are limited to that type of work. Many foreign workers are involved in theological education, evangelism, and church planting. But legally they cannot run the mission work. If you are invited by a Mexican organization, and you come on a professional visa, you have to work under a Mexican leader. That government policy has helped develop our national Christian leadership more quickly.

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Within the last five years I have noticed that mission organizations are sensing a stronger call to Mexico. And there is a new openness in Mexico toward missionaries.

Is new openness being shown on the part of the Mexican government, the church, or society in general?

All three, in varying degrees. Mexico tries to present an image that it is capable of handling its own matters. But that is beginning to change due to a number of circumstances, including an internal political crisis, the world’s second-largest foreign debt, and the double earthquake that almost destroyed downtown Mexico City in 1985. These circumstances have created a new attitude in Mexican society. Also, the church is more willing to join efforts with outside groups. And there is a new attitude at the official level. Some people in government have become Christians, and there is a new dialogue going on.

Is there a strong evangelical church in Mexico?

It’s not very strong when you think of the 125 years the gospel has been preached in Mexico. Evangelical Protestants make up 3.5 percent of the national population.

Mexico City has only 700 to 900 churches, Catholic and Protestant, to serve the needs of 22 million people. In contrast, Guatemala City, with a population of 800,000, has 1,200 churches. The greatest church growth in Mexico has taken place in the southeastern part of the country, mainly because of the influence of the rapidly growing Guatemalan church.

My organization is doing research to determine exactly how many churches are in Mexico City, where they are located, their sizes, how many pastors, how many Sunday schools, how many missionaries, and how many theological institutions. We are also trying to identify factors that contribute to church growth.

How great is the missionary challenge in Mexico?

Mexico represents the greatest challenge for missions today, in part because Mexico City is the largest urban area in the world. If we want to learn how to reach urban areas, Mexico City is the place to build our model.

We have to approach evangelism differently in Mexico. It is illegal to broadcast religious programs on radio and television. And we can’t publish religious articles in the newspapers and magazines. So we have to find new ways to conquer urban areas. We need missionaries by the hundreds who will join forces with the national church.

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My organization is trying to recruit 40 couples, both Latin American and North American, to work in Mexico City. They would help us reach our goal of establishing 10,000 evangelistic home Bible studies in Mexico City by the year 2000. These Bible studies would be the seed for new churches. There’s no time to plant churches the traditional way.

Latin America

“We as a church [in Latin America] are also responsible for the evangelization of the whole world,” said Galo Vasquez, president of the Mexico City-based Latin American Evangelistic Vision. Brazil, Peru, Mexico, and Argentina have sent missionaries to Spain, Portugal, and other European countries. And several Latin American churches have sent workers to other Latin American countries.

“There are [Latin American] countries where the churches are strong enough to carry on the work [of evangelizing their own country],” Vasquez said. “But that doesn’t mean necessarily that the church is closed to missionaries from other parts of the world to come and help them.”

Those countries need specialized missionaries “to complement the work that is already going on,” Vasquez added. But church-planting missionaries are also needed. “There is a strong feeling that we need to awake the missionary force to the pioneering kind of approach,” he said. “There are a lot of towns and villages where the church of Jesus has not been established.”

Out of a Latin American population of 400 million, he said, only 11 percent are evangelical Christians. “There’s a tremendous need for evangelization in Latin America. And in order to do that we need a missionary force that will join with us.…”

Guatemala’s Virgilio Zapata, president of the Confraternity of Evangelicals in Latin America, says the need for North American missionaries varies greatly from country to country. “In spite of the fact that missionaries have left El Salvador [due to guerrilla warfare], the church is growing very fast,” he said. “A lot of personal [evanglistic] work is being done by displaced persons.”

For the most part, he said, church-planting missionaries are not needed in El Salvador, Chile, Brazil, Guatemala, Venezuela, Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Argentina. However, Bolivia, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, Guyana, and Suriname still need preaching missionaries.

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Future Leaders Of The Church

Western Christians are already looking to the Third World for deeper insight into many areas of Christian life and ministry. Consider the following:

• Paul Yonggi Cho, a Korean who pastors the world’s largest church, is widely recognized for his expertise in the areas of prayer and church growth.

• The church in China has flourished, despite the efforts of the late Mao Zedong to obliterate all visible signs of Christian faith. Believers in parts of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, where converting to Christianity can mean being disowned, jailed, or even executed, also serve as examples of faithfulness in the face of intense opposition.

• Christians in India, Africa, and some parts of Latin America are teaching Western Christians lessons about spiritual warfare. The battle between good and evil is a vivid reality in the lives of Christians who encounter the spirit world when they evangelize groups that worship pagan deities.

While Third World churches evangelize their own countries and send missionaries to other lands, they still welcome help from the West. It is up to Western Christians to supply the needed expertise, and the willingness to work in partnership with established churches in developing nations.

By Ron Lee.

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