Friday, June 2, 2023

The Graying (and Browning) of Frontier Missiology

As I write this, I’m sitting on a plane, reflecting on a conference I just attended which was geared towards engaging unreached and unengaged Muslim people groups.

Not my first conference on this important topic. Twenty years ago, I was the youngest in the room.

But now – as a middle-aged, overweight man on Rogaine -- I’m still one of the youngest in the room.

My balding head even has some gray hair now. And my wonderful colleagues who are committed to reaching the unreached are all graying also. Let’s just say we do not appear to be using “Just for Men” hair dye. We might call this the graying of frontier missiology.

I believe I first heard this phrase from Brad Gill, editor of IJFM. But as I age, it becomes all the more apparent.

Even the Majority World unreached-peoples-advocates in the room are older, and grayer. It is indeed thrilling to see so many MBBs in these conversations as well: they will, one day, outnumber Westerners. The room is not just getting “grayer” it is also getting “browner” with less “white” people. So our understanding of the unreached peoples concept needs both intergenerational and intercultural analysis.

I am still filled with a passion to “reached the unreached.” The telos of the motus Dei extends to all peoples. The Great I AM is no mere tribal or national deity. The basis for our passion to see Jesus worshipped by ALL ethne is biblically clear and compelling. It should break our collective heart to see this truth minimized in some corners of mission.

But today, where are all the younger generations in the UPG rooms and conversations? Among western evangelicals, in another twenty years, will there even be any groups to embrace and champion the concept of unreached peoples?

I’m not going to identify all the reasons for the apparent lack of buy-in from younger generation Western Christians (theological drift is part of the reason – but that is for another post). And I will also try not to be reductionistic. But let me offer a couple thoughts.

In the West, Gen Z (including Millennials) are the most stressed out and anxious generation alive today. They have grown up in a fast-paced digital era characterized by constant connectivity and exposure to social media. This constant online presence can contribute to feelings of comparison, self-doubt, and FOMO. They have also lived through several significant global traumatic events at key periods in their lives. While Gen X and Boomers want to thrive, Gen Z just wants to survive.

In light of this, let’s look at some of the language employed in frontier missiology:

Finishing the Task | Reaching the Unreached | Changing the World | Fulfilling the Great Commission | Saving People from Hell |Mobilizing for the Frontlines | {Insert Other Military Metaphors Here}

These slogans appeal to some generations. They provide a sense of responsible, manageable urgency for Boomers and Gen Xers. But for Millennials and Gen Z, the same urgency might simply add to their stress and anxiety. For Gen Z to be told that they need to rescue a mission in decline or to imply that they are responsible for the status of world evangelization seems counterproductive.

Additionally, we might benefit from more holistic and self-critical perspectives on mission. We have scales for the progress of evangelization, but we might also include scales for the progress of transformation. For example, if we say that Arab Muslims are the least-reached and least-engaged people cluster in the world, then we might say that American evangelicals are the least-transformed people cluster in the world. Many younger American Christians and Majority World leaders are absolutely disillusioned by the moral and political compromise they see in the American church. To give our lives for the unreached while ignoring the problems “at home” looks like escapism and hypocrisy.

So the UPG discourse needs to re-theologize some of our posturing: not the concept, but the language/framework we use to discuss it. This may help not only with mobilization but even with clarifying the UPG concept itself. Newbigin was prescient in this regard:

“I find it strange that conferences about mission and evangelism are often pervaded… by a kind of anxiety and guilt – as though it were a program that we have a responsibility to carry out and about which we’ve not been very successful. Isn’t it remarkable that according to the New Testament the whole thing begins with an enormous explosion of joy? The disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy and were continually in the temple praising God! It seems to me, the resurrection of Jesus was a kind of nuclear explosion which sent out a radioactive cloud, not lethal, but life-giving, and the mission of the church is simply the continuing communication of that joy – joy in the Lord” (Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History, 121).

Instead of an urgency of responsibility perhaps we need an urgency of joy and love. Or instead of urgency we can speak of an apostolic calmness or a non-anxious resolve.

The Bible Project’s visual commentary on Genesis 1 points out that in contrast to the Babylonian and Egyptian creation myths, we have an all-powerful Royal Artist creating the cosmos -- not from violence -- but in order and peace and harmony. This kind of language matches the narrative aspirations of both Gen Z and the cultural values of much of Asia and Africa.

And through faith in Christ, the “new creation” is breaking into the present, including the “glory and honor of the nations” (Rev 21:26). Through our love and unity, the world will know (Jn. 13:35). Jesus says, “I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5). He is “healing the nations” (Rev 22:2).

Let’s start a conversation to rethink our framework for mission to peoples who have precious few believers and local churches. By using biblical concepts that focus on hospitality, joy, healing, life, justice, and empowerment, it might be possible to appeal to the aspirations and values of Millennials, Gen Z, and Majority World MBBs while providing a positive and less stressful framework for the motus Dei which is to redeem the nations back to himself. One third of the world has yet to hear.

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