WHEATON, Ill. – One of the world’s top missiologists shared with thousands of missionaries on Tuesday what he considers the biggest trend in global mission at a mission conference that takes place only once in four years.
Dr. Ralph D. Winter, founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission, says the biggest trend in world mission is the polarization occurring among mission agencies that either focus exclusively on personal salvation or, in contrast, physical needs when they should be doing both.
Christians have the responsibility to not only share the Gospel and help get people into heaven, the renowned missiologist said, but also “getting God into this world” and glorifying God on Earth.
“Evangelism is the highest priority, but it becomes weak and lacks credibility if it does not generate committed believers who will tackle the world’s problem,” Winter maintained in his presentation at the Korea World Mission Conference 2008.
“What is the use of evangelism if it produces Christians who don’t act, who don’t do, who don’t follow God’s will? All they do is sing in church,” he passionately declared. “It is what happens in the world that is at least as important as what happens in church.
He added, “We are getting fancier and fancier at church worship. We know how to do church, [but] we don’t know how to be the church.”
Drawing from history, Winter laid out how confusion in the reformation, in missions today, and among Christians in the 20th century led to the loss of glory for God and disrespect for evangelicals.
Following the reformation, Christians became confused with the role of faith versus works in relation to salvation, Winter explained. The reformation fought against the idea that works alone can get someone into heaven, but then many people began to only focus on faith and ignored the Bible’s teaching of faith-inspired action.
Winter pointed to the Scripture passage James 2:20 where it “plainly” states, “Faith without works is dead.”
In addition to the confusion between faith and works, the reformation is also often misunderstood as a division based on theological differences when it is more a cultural breakaway movement, Winter argues.
The reformation was German-speaking churches breaking away from a Mediterranean/Roman Catholic culture, the missiologist said. This is similar to present-day mission field breakaways as “[attempts] to resist a foreign missionary culture” with national believers wanting to start their own churches.
Then there was confusion in missions today where some groups only do relief and development work and do not lead people to a personal relationship with Christ, while others do solely the opposite.
“The biblical record shows that Jesus accompanied his work with his deeds, works of mercy,” Winter emphasized.
He cited 19th century Presbyterian missions to Korea and Africa where the foreign missionaries not only brought the Gospel message but also made major contributions to the nation. He called for a return in mission to spreading the Gospel while participating in social action.
Besides the confusion in missions today, Winter also said there is confusion in 20th century Christian history where evangelicals started to focus on prophecy and eschatology. These evangelicals were mostly non-intellectuals and lacked influence in society and thus retreated from the public square.
There were some evangelicals in the 20th century, however, that retained the earlier concern for society but lost the concern for repentance and faith in individuals.
As a result, the United States “inherited and still receives” from the 20th century a “huge and serious” polarization over primacy of evangelization over action.
Winter argues that evangelization and action must go together to respond to people who ask why there is so much evil in the world. Christians must fight the huge evil in the world or risk having people think there must be no God or if there is a God He is not all-powerful and loving since there is so much evil in the world.
Critics wonder why Christians are not out there fighting the problems and thus question the validity of their faith. Some might see believers’ inaction as either they don’t care or they don’t make a difference.
But the famed missiologist sees the eve of a new era of Christianity and missions where more evangelicals are seeing the need and having the influence to fight the evil in the world. The number of evangelicals in Congress, for example, is larger than ever before, Winter pointed out.
“God wants his will to be done on Earth and not just in heaven,” Winter reminded the conference audience. "If we cannot unite words and deeds we will continue on the polarization characteristic of the 20th century," he added. "We need to go back to 19th century where evangelicals were wealthy, influential” and made social impact, Winter said.
The biggest trend in global mission today is the polarization of some doing good things and some saying good things when the two need to be put together, he said.
“We are saved as individuals, [but] we must serve in teams," the USCWM founder concluded.