great commission

Trends in North American Missions Today that Excite Me

by Keelan Coook

I first shared the trends in this article a couple of years ago, and I thought it would be interesting to revisit these trends today. I’m encouraged to say all three seem to have continued to develop, and I am encouraged by the growth of the North American church in these areas. There is still much room to grow, but I am hopeful.

The first three trends I shared previously, and they all concern the shifting face of the North American population. Increasingly, North American churches are realizing that North America is a mission field but many different mission fields. The staggering growth of the foreign born population in recent decades brought some of the least reached people in the world within arms reach of local churches. Furthermore, cities are increasingly diverse, and that means many cultures on top of each other that all need contextualized expressions of the gospel. Needless to say, churches must realize that no cultural expression of the gospel is “one size fits all.” Each of these first three trends take this new reality in North America seriously.

Churches must realize that no cultural expression of the gospel is “one size fits all.”
— Keelan Cook

The final trend is one that I am adding this time. For a long time, church planting has been a priority conversation in North American missions. For some, the traditional planter-pastor model of church planting is roughly equivalent to North American missions. However, the priority is changing as a renewal movement swells concerning the large number of unhealthy and declining churches across America. 

Diaspora Missions as a Church-based Missions Strategy

Diaspora missions is the fancy term for working with people groups when they migrate somewhere other than their home. For example, engaging unreached people groups in America would be considered “diaspora missions.” Of course, I am biased on this one, because it is what we do with the Peoples Next Door Project. In fact, it is what this website is all about!

Nevertheless, the rise of both awareness and activity concerning unreached peoples in the United States is one of the most exciting trends in missions today. Only a few years ago, it was common for the reality of unreached peoples in North America to never cross the mind of an average church member. That is a far smaller number today. In fact, it seems as though more and more missions agencies and local churches are talking about the changing face of America and the need to reach the growing number of international and unreached peoples.

Of course, various strategies are being developed, but I think local church-based strategies stand out among them as the most important. The old “find a guy and resource him” strategy is not the leading edge of this work. Instead, training and equipping local churches to discover and engage people groups around them with simple, reproducible church planting strategies seems to be the better road. Of course, there will always be places for that missions specialist or resourced pastor/planter. However, that model simply does not scale to the size of the problem. It usually leads to addition rather than multiplication. 

Moving forward, my hope is that we see a focus on local church equipping that (a) gives them a heart for the nations in their own community, (b) empowers them to actually go out and meet these people in a way where they can do cultural acquisition, and (c) gives them simple tools for leading Bible studies that can become church plants.

The Rise of “Apostolic” Church Planting Methods in North America

Alongside the above trend is the gaining momentum of “apostolic” methods of church planting in North America. In this model, the planter usually does not become the pastor of the church. Instead, they plant a church, help it move toward health and reproducibility, and then move on to start another. It is called “apostolic” because it is more akin to Paul’s model in the New Testament. This is, of course, different than the planter-pastor model where one or more guys move somewhere to start a church and eventually pastor it. I do believe there is a place for the more traditional North American Church Planting model, and I am excited about the uptick in that as well.

With that said, there are some important convictions I believe the apostolic approach brings to the table. First off, the model focuses on reproducibility and multiplication. In other words, this model is not about planting only one church but initiates conversations about reproduction from the very beginning. Second, the emphasis is on growth through conversion, not transfer. In other words, this model most often starts with a group of unbelievers in an evangelistic Bible study that can become a church. Comparatively, the more traditional church plants tend to grow primarily through transfer growth, or existing Christians who switch churches or move into the area. Finally, it shifts the paradigm of mission from a “come and see” model to a “go and tell” model.

Of course, apostolic models will have some hurdles in our context, and that needs to be stated. In the days ahead, I would love to see some good dialogue between advocates of both models so best practices can develop. If you want to know more about this, JD Payne wrote a helpful book on the issue fittingly titled, Apostolic Church Planting.

No Longer “The West to the Rest”

The third one is nothing new, but it sure does excite me. I have written before about how missions is changing, and this may be the most important way. Since the beginning of the modern missions movement some two hundred years ago, missions has largely been seen as a Western enterprise. In other words, developed nations in the West would send missionaries to developing, unreached nations in the East and South. However, this is no longer the case. Missions is from everywhere to everywhere now.

The US is being supplanted as the number one sender of missionaries, as countries like Brazil, China, and South Korea become missionary sending forces around the globe. Missions is no longer “the West to the rest.” When I served in West Africa, I worked with a whole team of Brazilian missionaries. They often made better missionaries than we Americans, too. They took a fraction of the money we used and did more imbedded missions work.

In addition, many of the international peoples that are coming to the US come evangelized. Much to most of the church planting in North America right now is not being done by us. It is being done by groups moving in from the Global South and starting churches for their own people. The question this raises for us is, how do we partner with them, both as they send overseas and as they come here and establish churches? How do we help equip and fan the flame without trying to control or manipulate their work?

The Rise of Replanting

In the past two years since I first named the above trends, a focus on replanting dying churches has emerged, and that is worth noting. Certainly, revitalization has been a topic for a while, but as the generational turnover and rapid cultural shifts in our nation are occurring, there is a resulting wave of declining churches. Among SBC churches, we regularly celebrate the fact that we are planting somewhere just over 1,000 churches per year, but many do not know that we are closing just under a 1,000 a year as well. Church planting is necessary and needed, but if we’re ever going to multiply, we have to close the back door. 

The process of replanting steps into that gap. Replanting is often a more radical process than traditional revitalization. Essentially, it’s the process of relaunching a church with a different identity and structure after a period of intense assessment and reconfiguration. Recently, Mark Clifton of the North American Mission Board noted that over 200 churches have been replanted through cooperative efforts by local associations and conventions.

Instead of just waiting for these churches to die out while trying to plant a new one next door, this concept of replanting and revitalizing existing congregations is gaining momentum. For me, that is an encouraging sign. It reveals that the care of existing congregations and the desire to see them once again involved in the Great Commission should, at least in some instances, take priority over expediency.

Marriage vs. Missions

by Will Jackson

“Should I marry or should I devote my life to missions?”

In serving a local church in a college town, I hear this question asked a lot. As students are being saved, experiencing growth, and processing their futures, specific passages of Scriptures can be very gripping. 1 Corinthians 7 is one such passage that presents a host of marriage-related issues to its readers.  Specifically, 1 Corinthians 7:25-35 often causes young Christians to consider Paul’s wisdom that the married person is “anxious over worldly things” instead of “things of the Lord”—a gut check for the one desiring marriage. I’ve seen engaged couples begin walking through premarital counseling come across this passage and think, “oh no!” and question everything about their upcoming nuptials. 

This brings us to the question at hand for the person feeling guilty about his or her desire for marriage — “Should I marry or should I devote my life to missions?”

The Apostle Paul seems to answer, “ . . . yes, maybe.”

PROHIBITION VS. PROMOTION

If we consult Paul in 1 Corinthians 7, we see less of a prohibition against marriage and more of a universal promotion of Great Commission activity. Verses 25-35 read: 

“Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.”

Where do we start?

First, we know Paul was certainly an advocate for marriage. He is, after all, the biblical author most quoted at  Christian weddings. When we think of classic passages concerning roles in marriage, we go to Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3—both authored by the Apostle. Paul especially shows a high regard for marriage in the way he illustrates Jesus’ relationship with his bride—the church. Seemingly, however, Paul speaks harsh words about holy matrimony in this particular passage. 

But upon a closer look, we find that Paul is not making a theological statement when he “speaks against marriage” in 1 Corinthians 7, as Paul’s theology of marriage is founded on the celebration of marriage in Genesis 2. Instead, he is making a contextually practical one.

Let’s dive in.

The Oxymoron of a Married Bachelor

We first notice a potential contradiction in Paul’s argument when he says “it is good for a person to remain as he is” in verse 26 (i.e. to stay married or stay single). However, he says later, “let those who have wives live as though they had none” in verse 29.  Stay married but live like a bachelor . . . ?

I think verse 28 brings helpful clarity to see there is no contradiction at all: 

“But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that.”

It would seem that when Paul identifies the need to “live as though they had [no wife]” in verse 29, he assumes an audience that was typified by distracted marriages. See also his words in verses 32-35 in which Paul speaks to the way many married persons are “anxious about worldly things” within their marriage and are “divided from their devotion unto the Lord.” That is to say, throughout Paul’s journeys, he had likely witnessed more marriages that were all-consumingly-inward rather than Great-Commissionly-outward. Therefore, this present encouragement—to live as a married bachelor—is presented with a bit of hyperbolic flare.

Christians in the first century, whether married or not, needed continual re-centering as disciples of Jesus. Whereas they were new creations regenerated by the Spirit-empowered gospel, they remained weak vessels prone to stray from the path. Here, in 1 Corinthians 7, we see another example of Paul recalibrating Christians for the sake of kingdom advancement.

This recalibration brings us to our second observation. While Paul was undeniably an advocate for earthly marriage, he was even more so a herald for Jesus’ Second Coming.

Notice the emphasis provided in the phrases within verses 26, 29, and 31: “view of the present distress” (v. 26), “appointed time” (v. 29), “present form of this world” (v. 31). Each of these draws into mind the New Testament principle that Christians are living in the “last days” (see Acts 2:17, Heb. 1:2, 2 Tim. 3:1).  Universally, it would seem, the apostles took seriously the command to live in anticipation of Christ’s return. Jesus himself said he would come swiftly and without warning. Therefore, his disciples were not to delay in the completion of their task (Matthew 24-25).

The call is simple. Jesus is coming back, and he has called his disciples to maximally pursue the Great Commission until he does.

This is Paul’s framework for the appeals on marriage and singleness in 1 Corinthians 7.

It isn’t that Paul saw marriage as an absolute obstacle to missions. Instead, he wanted his readers to understand that marriage and singleness must be understood through the lens of Jesus’ calling first to be Great-Commission-Christians. In other words, in light of this fading present age, do whatever propels your devotion to the expansion of Christ’s kingdom. For some, this will be a green light to marry; for others, a life of singleness will best serve the Lord. Marriage and missions are not competing entities in God’s economy.

Maximally Pursue the Great Commission

So, where do you find yourself? Are you single and ready (or not ready) to mingle? Dating and considering engagement? Happily married? Widowed?

With whatever the Lord has gifted you, maximally pursue the Great Commission. Consider these warnings and perform a quick assessment of your life:

To the one presently gifted with singleness…

  • Don’t believe the lie that singles are second-rate people. It may be cliché, but two of Christianity’s heroes were single. One is responsible for the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles and the other—well, we worship him as God. Your life is not incomplete because you aren’t married—for we know our true selves will be made manifest when Jesus returns to resurrect us—as eternal singles.

  • Don’t believe the lie that your life is more expendable. It may be logical for the one with no responsibilities to care for family members to travel to the most dangerous parts of the world to share the gospel, but it isn’t because that person is “less valuable.” When we consider the cost of following Jesus (“to live is Christ, and to die is gain,” Philippians 1:21), we are reminded this applies to all Christians.

  • Don’t believe the lie that singles can only reach singles. Continue to build relationships with people from all walks of life and widely share the gospel, invest in younger believers, and participate in the mutual edification of all types of saints.

  • Don’t believe the lie that marriage is evil. You may well be called to marriage. Heed Paul’s wisdom provided in the rest of 1 Corinthians 7. Are you (appropriately and in step with Christian holiness) burning with passion? Has God presented a suitable companion with whom you can better walk with Christ? Maybe you should marry.

To the one presently gifted with marriage…

  • Don’t believe the lie that being married means you must throw up a white picket fence on Elm Street. You and your spouse can be mobilized together to virtually any place on the planet to spread the Good News.

  • Don’t believe the lie that you and your spouse must operate with two independently separate ministries. This is a big one. Indeed, one spouse may directly invest in persons the other spouse has little contact with, but being married means the two are now one. As such, a Great-Commission marriage is a joint effort. When one spouse mentors someone in the gospel, they do so as an extension of the couple’s ministry as a team.

  • Don’t believe the lie that married couples can only reach married couples. Marriage can be such a beautiful display of the gospel—namely in its rhythms of repentance, forgiveness, and mutual self-sacrifice. Invite singles into your home and be vulnerable for the sake of celebrating Christ’s love.

  • Don’t believe the lie that marriage is evil. You didn’t make a mistake when you said your “I Do’s” and to undo this covenant would be sinful. God, in His perfect providence, arranged your marriage. Congratulations! Because you are married, you successfully found the one for you and it would seem God gave you into marriage so that you would be a better missionary. Maximize your marital union for the Great Commission.

The call to give our lives for the spread of the gospel to the nations supersedes our marital status, but we shouldn’t view these as mutually exclusive. Live where the Lord has you. Give your life for His higher purposes. As Paul said, “secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.”


Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 

Feature image by IMB.