Between January 30 and February 3, 2023 the World Evangelical Alliance Mission Commission (WEAMC) held its 15th Global Consultation, with the theme: “Our Missions Future: local impact, ripples and waves.” Over 170 participants from 33 nations engaged deeply in numerous conversations during the four-day consultation, popularly known as GC23.
The four-year cycle of WEAMC Global Consultations was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the seven-year interval between GC16 in Panama and GC23, much had changed in the WEAMC. An almost complete turnover of operational leadership and a refreshed vision drove the development of new structures, systems, and strategies to “strengthen participation in God’s mission”, the WEAMC’s core purpose.
The changes were evident as participants gathered for GC23. Well over 50% had never attended a WEAMC event in the past. A transition to a new generation was also evident. 60% of the participants were born after 1965 (the birth year of the first so called GenXers), a first for WEAMC. Similarly, almost 30% of the participants were female, a far larger percentage than in the past but still not representative of the proportion of females involved in missions service. A little over 50% of the participants were non-Western.
WEAMC Executive Director, Dr Jay Mātenga, appointed in 2020 just prior to the pandemic, stated in the GC23 handbook that “Innovation is usually unorthodox by nature. New ideas or concepts should not be quickly judged. It is often in tensions of disagreement that the best ways forward are found.” In her opening address, Dr Ruth, WEAMC chair, likened this to eating at a bring-and-share meal, where some items brought to the table may taste strange, but are nevertheless welcome as their ingredients bring a unique flavor to the recipe for ‘our missions future’. These forewarnings proved helpful as the participants wrestled with thought-provoking and assumption-challenging presentations.
“Our Missions Future” was chosen as the theme for the consultation in 2019. But as testimonies of integral mission undertaken by local believers in places where the gospel is least represented started became more noticeable during the pandemic, the importance of local control of missions activity came into stark focus. The addition of “local impact, ripples and waves” expresses what WEAMC leaders see happening in missions around the world: local believers taking responsibility for spreading the gospel in indigenous forms and whole-of-life ways. And the gospel is spreading rapidly in places previous thought to be resistant, because of these localized and holistic expressions of faith in Jesus.
Indigenous expressions and expansion of faith in Jesus are not new to world Christianity. WEA Secretary General, Bishop Dr Thomas Schirrmacher highlighted this in his greeting to GC23 via video. He observed that, “the World Evangelical Alliance, from the very beginning, has sought to provide the gospel to all ethnic groups and languages in the world. Nowadays, we are, among all religions and among all Christian bodies, the tradition that is far ahead in the number of languages used to worship God. Thousands of languages each week are used to worship God within churches that are evangelically aligned. This indigenous history of WEA becomes more important every day, not only because we want to reach out, but because the number of indigenous people that shape the evangelical family worldwide is growing rapidly, and they deserve to be fully present at the table.”
As part of the introduction to GC23 Drs Mātenga and Ruth invited participants to introduce themselves to their table group, concluding their self-introduction with “I am present”, to which their table group responded with one voice, “we see you”, informed by the Māori expression of greeting, “tēnā koe” (literally, “you [are] there”). Increasing the visibility of others became a connective thread during GC23. Not to eclipse those who are traditionally visible in missions, but to recognize those less seen. Majority World participants in God’s mission have been well seen by the WEAMC for some time. Majority World participants working in their own localities, not so much.
In her first presentation, Dr Gina Zurlo, a researcher of Global Christianity, revealed the significance of indigenous/local believers in the spread of faith in Jesus in their regions and to near-cultures. Ken Katayama, President of Crossover Global, affirmed this with live testimony from some of his organization’s local church planters. Dave Coles of Beyond, a missions agency with research interests, provided further evidence of what God is doing through highly indigenous movements to Christ from other faith backgrounds. Dr Bijoy Koshy, International Director of Interserve, a missionary deploying agency, spoke of the frustration experienced by host believers who are restricted from participating fully in missions activities where expatriate members of missions agencies act as gatekeepers and arbiters of what should be done (or not done) in church and missions.
Zurlo’s second session, on the role of women in the spread of Global Christianity, was one of the most impactful in terms of helping a large proportion of the global Church and missions to be better “seen”. The presentation of her research, revealing the dominant role of women in church health and growth, despite clear obstacles (systems and attitudes), prompted robust discussion. This was further illustrated in a testimony by a Crossover Global leader from a Muslim background who shared how their indigenous movement began with the faith of his sister and the enthusiastic evangelism of his mother.
With reference to artificial restrictions placed on the participation of women in God’s mission, Dr Mātenga noted in a post-GC23 interview that “much resource is wasted in the kingdom of God simply because there’s not an opportunity for it to be used.” He went on to affirm that, “The WEAMC wants to see as many people involved in God’s mission as possible, and the barriers removed (because) much energy and resource is lost simply because women have to fight to find ways to serve the way that God has called and gifted them.”
In a similar way, Mātenga desires to see local believers, who are actively witnessing to Jesus in the communities, endorsed as missionaries, noting that “these are our co-laborers in the gospel, and they deserve full acknowledgement of their participation in the mission of God.” This is not to diminish the expatriate, but a significant role-shift is recommended. In one of the concluding sessions, Craig Greenfield, author and founder of Alongsiders, a youth discipleship movement, provided an alternative framing of the expatriate “outsider”. He encouraged expatriates to take up a posture of support and enhancement, exhibiting the spiritual gift of self-control, while following the lead of the local “insiders”. In this way “the outsider becomes the alongsider”, rather than the controller of missions in a given context.
“We need to embrace the fact that we are co-creating ‘our missions future’ with one another” said Mātenga. “It is my prayer that all of God’s people will be free to engage in all of God’s mission, following the leading of the Holy Spirit, with all of the gifts God has provided, without anyone having to fight against hindrances constructed by traditional missions systems, structures or strategies.