The State of Global Missions in 2024

Article by

Professor, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Jesus gave his church the Great Commission almost two thousand years ago. Today, the task of making disciples of all nations remains the same. However, the world in which we live is in a constant state of change, so the issues affecting how we obey that commission change from decade to decade (and even from year to year). The last decade has been no exception. Based on conversations with missionary leaders stationed around the globe, several critical issues and trends are evident in 2024.

Before looking at the trends, let me clarify that this article is based on the conviction that the missionary task consists of effective entry, evangelism, disciple-making, healthy church formation, leadership development, and exit to partnership (Foundations, 13). Those disciples and churches are taught to obey everything Jesus commanded (Matthew 28:20), so all other biblical dimensions of Christian discipleship are included. This task is to be carried out among all peoples and in all places of the earth until Jesus returns. This understanding of the missionary task lies behind the issues and trends listed below.

Trend 1: Christianity’s Shifting Center of Gravity

Christianity’s center of gravity is now in the Global South and in East Asia. The largest missionary-sending country in the world remains the United States, but South Korea comes in second. This trend is poised to continue in the years ahead, as the population of Africa continues to grow exponentially. In light of the growing secularization of Europe and North America, with declining church membership and loosening theological convictions, the Global South and East Asia will likely play an increasingly prominent role in global missions and in the theological climate of the global church.

Prosperity ‘Gospel’

This trend leads to the most pressing issue in missions today. The churches of Latin America, Africa, and Asia are increasingly permeated by the prosperity gospel. In fact, it would be safe to say that prosperity teaching is the most common form of “Christian” thought and practice in many of these areas. Prosperity teaching may prove to be the greatest threat to biblical Christianity in the twenty-first century, on a level with Gnosticism in the early church.

This form of teaching easily syncretizes the animistic worldview that lies behind most expressions of formal religion in the Two-Thirds World. Religious practice is used to manipulate the spiritual world to obtain earthly blessings. In “Christian” prosperity teaching, both the true gospel and serious discipleship are lost. Partly because of weak discipleship and inadequate theological education by missionary-sending groups, this destructive movement threatens two centuries of fruitful missionary service in the Global South and East Asia.

The last few decades of Western evangelical missionary effort have been focused on unengaged and unreached people groups. This emphasis should certainly continue. The urgent need of the present hour, however, is to combine this attention to the unreached with the delivery of rigorous theological education and church-based discipleship in already-evangelized areas.

Mission Fields to Mission Forces

There is a positive side to the demographic shift of evangelical Christianity to the South and East. As already mentioned, South Korea is now a major contributor to the missionary enterprise. Other East Asian missionaries are also making their efforts felt around the globe. Some places that were recently mission fields are becoming mission forces. For example, missionaries from Latin America have proven to be highly effective in the Islamic world. Perhaps God is redeeming the seven-hundred-year Islamic occupation of the Iberian Peninsula by giving Hispanic Christians unusual insight into Islamic cultures. The African church is also beginning to awaken to its strength and its global responsibilities.

An ongoing trend in global mission will be its increasing internationalization. As the formerly Christian West slides increasingly into spiritual weakness, missionaries from the Two-Thirds World will play an increasingly greater role in the task. This shift raises two issues. One is that the West needs to be re-evangelized, and missionaries from the South and East need to join in that task. The second is that Western missionaries need to invest time and resources into mobilizing and equipping the missionary-sending capacity of the newer churches in the South and East.

Trend 2: Technological Advances

The rapid development of technology continues to influence mission efforts around the world. The global shutdown that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that the Internet is a powerful medium for evangelism, discipleship, and leadership training when direct personal contact is limited. Artificial intelligence (AI) holds amazing promise for translating the Bible and other Christian materials.

On the other hand, hostile governments have shown the power of technology to monitor evangelistic activities, expel gospel workers, and persecute local believers. The years following the outbreak of COVID have shown that forces antagonistic to the spread of the gospel have both an increased willingness and an enhanced ability to disrupt Christian missionary efforts, both in their own countries and beyond. AI in particular is a two-edged sword, and mission practitioners cannot ignore it. The rapid (and ongoing) development of AI is one of the most significant trends of the last few years, and the issues it raises will demand careful thought and attention in the years ahead.

Trend 3: Increased Access and Support

Due to technological advances, churches in the developed world have unprecedented access to mission fields around the world, in terms of both communication and travel. Local churches are currently invested in the task of missions like never before in church history. This is a good development. Research has shown that Christians who go on short-term mission trips give substantially more to missionary support and are much more likely to become long-term missionaries themselves.

There is a negative side to this trend, however. Christians, by and large, are generous people. Western Christians, on average, are wealthy by global standards. When they see needs, they like to give their resources to meet those needs. But that generosity can have unintended consequences. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, evangelical missionaries learned about those consequences the hard way, and principles of indigenization were forged to preserve the health of the new churches. Those principles became standard practice for evangelical missionaries around the world. (See, for example, Roland Allen’s 1912 book Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?)

“Some places that were recently mission fields are becoming mission forces.”

However, many Western churches directly involved in the mission field often know neither the lessons learned nor the principles derived from those lessons. The result is that many new churches in the Two-Thirds World are awash in foreign money, and the results have been destructive for church health. The trend is unhelpful foreign financial involvement in church life on the mission field. The issue is how to channel this well-meant generosity in ways that do not create unhealthy dependency.

Trend 4: International Churches

Another trend is the increased interest in planting international churches globally. The last few decades have seen a welcome increase in attention given to ecclesiology in the West, with enhanced concern for biblical church structures and overall church health. A recent feature of this movement has been increased engagement in planting international churches in global cities around the world.

These churches have real value. In an increasingly mobile age, global cities house people from every country under the sun. These expatriates (“expats”) usually return to their home countries at some point. Churches that actively evangelize these expats perform a valuable service. In addition, healthy international churches provide a context for expat Christians to grow in their faith and to be nurtured in their outreach to the educational, business, or diplomatic contexts in which they work.

Danger comes, however, when these international churches come to be regarded as a primary means of fulfilling the Great Commission. Uncontextualized churches ministering in a foreign language (like English) have limited impact on most unreached peoples. Even in global cities, fewer people can have deep conversations in English than most expats realize, and international churches look and feel far more foreign than is evident to anyone who has not gone deep in the local language and culture. Most of those with no access to the gospel will be reached only in their heart language by workers willing to go deep in the local community and culture. They will be reached through planting healthy, indigenous, reproducing churches that are self-supported, self-governed, and self-propagating.

Planting international churches is a good thing. However, heart-language work aimed at planting indigenous churches remains the central component of the missionary task. This focus should be primary in global missions, with international churches serving as another tool in the toolbox.

Trend 5: Decreasing Missionary Resilience

Not too long ago, missionaries left for the field without much hope of ever seeing their homes and families again. Sometimes packing belongings in their own coffins, they would sail for months, expecting hardship and even death for the sake of the gospel. Their perseverance in the face of suffering laid the foundation for the global expansion of the church. Today, it is not uncommon for missionaries to return to their home country after a few years or even months. Many missionary candidates seem ill-equipped for the stress of culture shock or the rigors of life overseas. This points to a troubling trend: missionary resilience is a growing issue on the mission field.

The current cultural climate in the West encourages entitlement, resentment, and fragility rather than grit, perseverance, and sacrifice. This cultural trend inevitably infiltrates the church and affects those whom the church sends as missionaries. The need for member care, both during the application process for missionary service and after arriving on the field, continues to go up.

Churches aiming to send their people into missionary service will need to address these issues at every level of the discipleship process. Mission agencies will find themselves dealing with subconscious entitlement and emotional fragility more and more in the years to come, and thus have opportunities now to begin building structures for ongoing training, evaluation, and care.

Trend 6: Rising Global Population

One final trend needs to be mentioned. Seventy years ago, there were fewer than three billion people on the planet. Today, there are more than eight billion. Some of the highest rates of growth are among peoples and in places where the gospel is known the least.

At present, global evangelization is not keeping pace with global population growth. Of the eight billion people alive today, around four billion are in unreached people groups, and many more have never heard the gospel even if they technically have access to it. Meanwhile, evangelicals are well under 10 percent of the world’s total population.

That means we have a great opportunity before us. Most people in the world have yet to hear and believe the only message that can save them. The missionary task is urgent. The greatest issue in global missions today is obedience. Who will go?

Jesus remains King. His mission will be fulfilled. Just as the task of mission does not change, neither does the bedrock certainty of his sovereignty. Christians today can embark on global mission with joyful confidence, knowing that our God reigns and his plan for the ages will be completed. We need to be wise in our dealings with the world, so we need to act on the trends and issues we see develop. However, we can do so with boldness, knowing that his royal rule can never fail.

serves as Associate Professor of Christian Missions at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Vice President for Global Training at the International Mission Board. He lived and worked in Central Asia for twenty years.