EDITOR’S NOTE: In what follows, M. David Sills, A. P. and Faye Stone Professor of Christian Missions and Cultural Anthropology at Southern Seminary, discusses his new book, Changing World, Unchanging Mission, with managing editor S. Craig Sanders.
Can you elaborate on the dynamic of globalization and its challenges?
The problem is a couple of years ago the UN told us — the world — that we were more urban than rural for the first time in the history of the planet. And the challenge for missions is that we have always been bad in the cities in comparison to what we’ve done in rural areas. For instance, I go into some community I’ve got one language to learn, one kind of food to get used to, one set of gatekeepers to meet and build relationships with. I know life here. And now I’ve found a way to share the gospel here. When you go to a place that’s a big city — just say New York — in Manhattan they speak 800 languages every day, and I’m in this big city block and I’ve got people here from Italy, China, Brazil, Ecuador, Austria, and Thailand all in this block and many, many more in this block, people as well. So I’m just saying it’s a multilevel maze, filled with trap doors. You think you’ve got it figured out, and so you’re a church planter there in that city, and you’re trying to reach the people in this neighborhood; how in the world do you do that?
Globalization just means you have people from all over those different ends of the continuum all in one city block, and you as a missionary have to know how you can reach and teach and plant churches in the major urban centers of the world. And it’s a challenge, and I think that we have not reckoned with the fact that we can’t do missions like we’ve always done out in the countryside when we go to the big cities. Things are going to have to start changing for that.
Missionaries must wisely prepare to meet the world that will greet them tomorrow. This will be possible only by approaching their ministries with an open Bible, an open newspaper, and an open mind.
How does the unchanging mission counteract global challenges?
Some people with their philosophy of missions just said, “Well, fine, let’s just embrace everything new and changing and we’ll just fit in really well.” But some things we should not change. Jesus gave us the Great Commission and we are to present the gospel and to call people to repent and no matter how much good we do, if we’re not tying the gospel to it, it’s not Christian missions. Our unchanging mission should never get lost in the mix. We don’t want to just live our lives in an ivory tower, but neither do we just want to embrace the world completely and forget the Bible. We’ve got to keep that balance of knowing the people to whom we minister, knowing their context so we can apply the Bible to it.