ST. LOUIS, Mo. – The global shift in Christianity to the southern hemisphere began decades ago, but the next generation of western missionaries was largely unaware of it.
More than 22,000 college and university students joined Urbana's second day of events to discover the missions calling to their next stage in life. The pastor of a flourishing church in Africa, however, challenged the traditional western approach to evangelizing the world outside North America, warning students not to be "cowboys."
"The world has changed," Oscar Muriu, senior pastor of Nairobi Chapel in Kenya, told the thousands of seated students Thursday night. "Our definition of what it means to be Christian is going to be increasingly defined by the 2/3 world and our paradigm of missions must of necessity, therefore, change."
There are more Protestants and Evangelicals in Nigeria today than in Europe and America put together, Muriu noted. His church alone grew from 20 people in 1991 to over 3,000 people. Africa is said to be experiencing the fastest growth of Christianity with 8.5 million converts per year.
Still, the western attitude toward African Christianity is largely unchanging.
"The tendency might be to dismiss African Christianity as emotionalism with little substance," said Muriu.
But the church in the West is on the decline, more believers in the 2/3 world realize, and the majority of Christians is now found in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Christianity is no longer a "White man's religion," Tite Tienou, professor of theology of mission at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill., told students at a seminar.
Many students at Urbana, the majority of whom are Caucasian, had been unaware of the global Christian movement even as they had planned to set foot in a foreign country to do mission works in the next coming years.
"I guess I don't know enough," said Jessica Siffring, a freshman at the University of Minnesota Duluth. She had planned to volunteer at an orphanage in Zimbabwe and get plugged into a local ministry but now realized the need to change her mission agenda and become more educated on the issues at play.
"If mission agendas are rewritten by the majority church, the focus of missions will change," Muriu highlighted. "And what we call 'reverse missions' will take center stage."
Muriu alluded to America as now being the third largest mission field and the third largest pagan country in the world as the church in the 2/3 world is "alive and robust."
"The spirit of God is blowing in a new direction," he said.
Nevertheless, the African church needs the American church and vice versa.
"It may be that the African church will always be dependent on the North American church ... but no part only ever receives and never gives back," he said, as he called for interdependency among the churches around the world.
Addressing a crowd of students who will comprise the next batch of missionaries, Muriu made sure he pointed them in the right direction with the right missionary mindset.
"Come as a new paradigm missionary ... as people who are learners and not a cowboy.
"Our goal is not independence. Our goal is interdependence. For this is the body of Christ"