Western Christians in Global Mission: What’s the Role of the North American Church? Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012. 224 pp. Paperback. $11.33..
In his helpful 2012 book, Paul Borthwick is asking a critical question every congregation and ministry with global dimensions should be asking: What is the role of the North American church in God’s global mission?
Dr. Borthwick writes from a decidedly North American church background, but demonstrates deep awareness of the global context. Though he has never lived outside the US for any extended time, he worked for many years as a missions minister for a large church with a vast global footprint. He has traveled widely, listened to global leaders for decades, researched extensively, and now teaches missions at Gordon College while serving as a senior consultant for Development Associates International. He has been a guest speaker around the globe and has served as guest faculty internationally as well as being a contributor to many missions journals.
The book is divided into two sections. In part one, Borthwick provides a wealth of data to show how much our world has changed from the days when the church was dominated by Europe and North America. He traces and documents the global trends that are reshaping the world, such as migration, increasing economic disparity, and theological realignment.
Readers looking for quotable data to educate people about how the world has changed will find this section to be a goldmine.
Borthwick not only gives an excellent big picture vision of the state of world Christianity, he also provides a helpful appraisal of the North American church and the Majority World church, both of which are realistic but hopeful. The reader comes away seeing not just how much the world has changed but how each part can contribute well to the whole. This section alone is worth the price of the book and sets the table for the conversation each congregation and missions committee needs to have soon. Many needed adaptations will naturally flow when churches understand the new reality.
Part two is more opinion and less data, but it is well reasoned and supported as Borthwick unpacks the meaning of two phenomena for those of us in North America. First, he examines the global transformation of Christianity. Then, he analyzes the strengths and weakness of the West relative to the rest of the world. His appeal for respectful partnership is compelling. He outlines well what Americans do well, what we don’t do well, and what we need to learn. At MRN, we have found his views to be well founded and useful in our equipping work with American and global churches.
I found the most compelling idea in the book, and the one that has stuck with me now after a couple of years, is his treatment of the metaphor of passing the baton. He points out that in a relay race, when a runner hands off the baton, he or she stops running. This is exactly what the North American church does not need to do at this juncture. Just because we are not in charge of setting vision for world Christianity, which now has greater numbers than the West and much capable national leadership, does not mean we should disengage. The kingdom of God is about relationships, not just tasks. We engaged in global partnerships that created the expectation of on-going relationships and mutual support.
Borthwick helped me to see more clearly that the mission of God is not a project we can start and turn over. It is a complex web of relationships we serve as part of God’s global community called the body of Christ. We are family, and need to remain connected as family even if our roles change through the passing of time and transitions between generations. The North American church has a role to play moving forward, and we cannot just walk away and take care of ourselves because the global church is gaining power and we have our own issues to face. To be of benefit to the global church we must humble ourselves, learn to posture ourselves as servants, and listen deeply for a long time before responding.
In particular, Americans’ optimism, problem-solving skills, and leadership training ability are needed in a world often resigned to being stuck in fate and hopelessness. But, our “can do” spirit can also create dependency and passivity and reduce people to projects as we function from a position of control and dominance. We need global partnerships, just as any other part of the world does, for what we will gain from them.
Among the strengths of the Majority World, Borthwick mentions: zeal for the Lord; zeal for missions; expectancy; and rugged, sacrificial faith. Borthwick says the great concerns for the Majority World church are abuse of power, making converts not disciples, prosperity theology, and ignoring societal transformation.
Some of my favorite quotes include:
- “As a colleague from Fiji reminded me, ‘Your Jerusalem is my ends of the earth.’ ” (38)
- “My advice: if you want to be a cessationist, don’t travel! The church in the Majority World did not get the memo.” (45)
- When he asked a Nigerian believer why they had more healings, the man said, “You have more doctors. . . . If God doesn’t heal us, we die.” (45)
- “Global relevance demands global involvement.” (65)
- “Someone once described an expert as a person who has made every possible mistake and tried to learn from them. In this regard, it is possible that the history of crosscultural mission over the last two hundred years has rendered North American experts.” (68–69)
- “A brother in Zimbabwe reminded me, ‘What you in the West call “Globalization” we call “Americanization.” ’ ” (75)
- “The bottom line is this: moving ahead together will take time, listening and long-term relational credibility.” (106)
- “The big question is not ‘Where do we fit?’ but ‘What is God doing?’ ” (111)
- “Paul Gupta expresses his conviction that for true reciprocal partnerships to work, ‘Every partner must bring resources to the table. If all the parties do not bring resources, it is not partnership; it is ownership, and there will be controlling dynamics from the side of the owner.’ ” (130)
- “Building crosscultural relationships is easier if we accept the fact that 40 percent of the time we will have no idea what’s going on.” (133–34)
- “Don’t come thinking that you are coming to fix Africa. You cannot fix Africa.” (134)
- “From most of the world’s perspective, the USA doesn’t have friends in the world; it has ‘interests.’ ” (135)
- “When we hear the word partnership, what comes to our mind is that this is another way for the White man to control us.” (150)
For many non-charismatic believers (i.e., cessationists), Borthwick’s rather expansive view of the boundaries of the kingdom may be a challenge. So much of the growth of the kingdom of God in the Majority World is filled with fellowships that practice and teach signs and wonders that are deeply troublesome to many in North America who do not expect such activity from God. Regardless of how a reader may respond to these phenomena, it is a powerful reality that must be taken into consideration. It cannot be discounted nor easily swept away as simply error. Something powerful is happening, and it is bringing glory to Jesus. As much as I wish Borthwick provided more help with critical discernment regarding this aspect of global missions, this was not really part of the purpose of this book, so it seems unfair to fault him for it.
Missions Resource Network
Bedford, Texas, USA