Millennials and the Mission of God Explores the Future of Christian Missions
In this day of frequent jeremiads blasted out in tweets of 140 characters or less, sincere conversation is endangered. Yet, deep, intentional conversation in our reflections on the mission of God and the participation of Christians in it is crucial for missions' continued relevance in the 21st century. When such conversation occurs, it is a gift; it is often a surprise.
Such is the conversation I have enjoyed with Carolyn C. Wason for the last three years. In October 2014, the Evangelical Missiological Society issued a call for papers concerning contemporary problems in mission. In my view, a critical problem is the wide disaffection of millennials toward Christianity and even of many Christian millennials toward Western missions. They ask how Western missions, burdened by past abuses, can possibly be a viable vehicle of God's message of grace today, and even if missions is positively transformed, what assurance is there that its practitioners might not be as equally blind to their errors as were previous generations of missionaries?
In 2014, Carolyn happened to be a student - an exceptional one, now pursuing graduate studies in anthropology at the University of Oxford - in her final year of the Missiology and Anthropology program at Eastern University. As a Christian millennial skeptical of Christian missions, Carolyn bravely accepted my invitation to have an extended conversation concerning this generation problem facing mission. Our paper was in the form of a dialogue between a millennial Christian and a member of the baby boomer generation, the latter convinced of the value of Christian missions. Our consequent dialogue, which occurred in writing, was not easy. It was often hard to really hear what the other was saying, and to respond concisely and meaningfully. We couldn't see at that time; however, our real work lay ahead.
The outcome of our six-month conversation was a paper entitled, "A Cross-Generational Conversation Concerning the Future of Western Missions." First presented in the northeast regional conference of the EMS, it was subsequently chosen to be presented at the EMS national conference in Dallas, Texas in September 2015. At the conference we were assigned the unfortunate hour of eight o'clock in the morning on Sunday - the last day of the conference. I advised Carolyn who Skyped in from Maine not to be discouraged if only five or ten people attended. To our surprise the room was packed with more in the hallway! The paper generated robust discussion - even debate! Millennials expressed that ours was the only presentation in the conference they really wanted to hear! Afterward, as Carolyn and I reflected on the unusually strong reception in two missiological conferences, we concluded the topic was vital and our conversation should be continued.
And so, Millennials and the Mission of God: A Prophetic Dialogue was born. What began as a project of a few months became a two-year dialogue. As Carolyn writes in the preface:
As it turns out, writing a thoughtful critique of another author's work is considerably more difficult when that author critiques you right back. But that was the point of our paper, and it's the point of this book. This is a conversation. Not the kind of conversation that any of us normally have-the kind where I'm only silent because I'm waiting for my turn to reply and not because I'm actually listening; where I talk over you and you talk over me, and we all end up further affirming our own beliefs and denouncing that of the other. I can say with certainty that my views on Western missions (and my views on Baby-Boomers) have changed since we began this, and I suspect Andrew could say the same. I hope, Reader, that whatever your own views are, you will enter this conversation willing to stand up for what you believe as well as being willing to change your mind.
Our conversation's focus was the validity of Christian missions. In exploring this we discussed important related topics: can millennials find their place in the church? Is there a stream in Christian spirituality, which millennials might authentically embrace, that subsequently might facilitate the renewal of Christian missions? What place does social justice and sabbath rest have in Christian missions? How can evangelism separate itself from the political agenda of many conservative evangelicals?
Carolyn and I do not pretend to offer definitive answers to these questions. We are starting a conversation, and we hope readers will lend their voices to this ongoing dialogue. The future of Christian missions is at stake!
Andrew F. Bush, DMin., is the chair of the Global Studies and Mission Department at Eastern University. He speaks widely in churches, conferences and colleges. He has served internationally for thirty years and remains active in mission service in the Philippines and Palestine.