Gen Z reluctance is a major threat to Western missions

Gen Z reluctance is a major threat to Western missions May 28, 2024

Gen Z missions imperialism missionary
Credit: Flickr/EpicTop10

Generation Z (Gen Z) evangelicals are reluctant to engage in cross-cultural missions due to fears of imperialism and colonialism. This is a significant threat to the church and the mobilization of missionaries from the West.

To address this problem, it’s essential to disentangle the conflated identities of being Westerners and Christians. The hesitance stems from a concern that missionary work by Westerners is inherently imperialistic or colonialist, suggesting that missions imposes Western values and beliefs on other cultures under the guise of religious outreach. This Gen Z perspective, however, misinterprets both the essence of Christian missions and the identity of Christians themselves.

We’re Western Christians, Not Christian Westerners

First, we need to clarify the essence of Christian identity, which transcends national or cultural boundaries. The core of being a Christian is found in following Christ and adhering to his teachings, which includes the Great Commission— Jesus’ command to his disciples to spread his teachings to all nations (Matthew 28:19-20). This mandate is not grounded in the propagation of Western culture but in the proclamation of a universal message of redemption and hope.

(Don’t forget the obvious: Jesus was not a Westerner!).

The Gen Z argument that Western Christians should abstain from missions due to their cultural background utterly misconstrues their primary identity as followers of Christ, not as emissaries of Western civilization.

Missions is a Biblical Mandate

Second, the biblical mandate to engage in missions is not an endorsement of colonialism or imperialism. Throughout the New Testament, the approach to missionary labor is characterized by humility, service, and respect for cultural differences.

Paul’s missionary journeys, for example, demonstrate an adaptive approach to sharing the gospel. His preaching is tailored to the cultural and religious contexts of his audiences (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). Paul’s method underscores the distinction between sharing the message of Christ and imposing one’s own cultural norms. (And don’t forget all the big issues discussed at the Jerusalem council in Acts 15.)

Moreover, contemporary critiques of missions often overlook the significant shifts within the global Christian landscape. The center of gravity for Christianity has moved towards the Global South, with a growing number of missionaries originating from non-Western countries. This shift reflects a more diverse and global Christian identity that transcends Western hegemony.

Arguably, the concern over Western imperialism in missionary work fails to recognize the multiplicity of voices and approaches within the global Christian community.

Answering Gen Z Objections

  1. Missions as Extensions of Imperialism

A common criticism from Gen Z is that historical missions often paralleled imperialistic endeavors, with Western missionaries imposing their cultural values and religious beliefs on indigenous populations under the guise of evangelism.

Response:

It’s undeniable that certain historical missions coincided with imperialist expansions; yet, it’s also essential to distinguish between the actions motivated by geopolitical agendas and those driven by genuine evangelical zeal.

Contemporary missionary work has significantly evolved, emphasizing cultural sensitivity, mutual respect, and partnership with local churches. Organizations like the Lausanne Movement have been pivotal in promoting an ethos of humility and listening, aiming to learn from and empower local believers.

Today’s missionaries are often trained to approach cultures different from their own with an attitude of learning rather than imposition, reflecting a marked departure from past practices.

  1. The Risk of Cultural Imperialism

Critics argue that even with the best intentions, missionaries risk engaging in cultural imperialism, eroding local customs and traditions in favor of Western Christianity.

Response:

This concern, while valid, overlooks the increasing emphasis on contextualization within modern missions. Contextualization is all about interpreting, explaining, and applying the gospel within a particular cultural context in ways that are biblically faithful and culturally meaningful biblically faithful contextualization. Sound contextualization ensures that the gospel is understood within the cultural framework of the local community.

Far from eroding local cultures, contemporary missions strive to incarnate the gospel in culturally meaningful ways that celebrate local traditions and languages (even while challenging unbiblical aspects of culture).

Furthermore, the rise of indigenous missionary movements (where missions are led by those within the same cultural or regional context) challenges the charges that missions inherently entail Western cultural imposition.

  1. Missions Undermine Local Religions and Beliefs

Another critique posits that missions inherently disrespect and seek to supplant local traditions and beliefs, demonstrating a lack of religious pluralism.

Response:

The goal of Christian missions is not to undermine or disrespect other cultural traditions but to share the transformative hope of the gospel. This sharing can and should be done with respect for individuals’ rights to make their own religious choices. True faith is not compelled by a pressure that runs over conscience.

Modern missionary training includes understanding and respecting other faiths, fostering interreligious dialogue and cooperation. The emphasis is on witness and service, offering the message of Christ as an invitation rather than an imposition.

Not If But How

The crux of the issue, therefore, is not whether Western Christians should engage in cross-cultural missions but how they should approach it.

Let’s be honest: no one is perfect. I’ve seen other missionaries from non-Western countries act every bit as imperialistic (if not much more so) than countless Western missionaries. The problems that worry Gen Z are legitimate, but they’re hardly unique to the West. We’re all prone to it because we are cultural beings. We work from what we know.

A Christ-centered missionary work respects the dignity of individual people and cultures, seeking to share the gospel in ways that are sensitive to local contexts and avoid paternalism. It involves listening to and learning from the communities being served, fostering partnerships with local churches, and prioritizing the empowerment of local leaders. This approach aligns with the biblical principles of love, service, and mutual respect, countering the accusations of colonialism or imperialism.

In short, the reluctance of Generation Z’ers to pursue missionary work due to fears of colonialism and imperialism overlooks the fundamental nature of Christian identity and the biblical mandate for missions.

Being a Christian means following Christ’s call to share his message across cultural and national boundaries, not to propagate Western values. The challenge for contemporary missionaries is to embody a Christ-like approach that honors the integrity and worth of all cultures, ensuring that the focus remains on the gospel’s transformative power rather than on cultural imposition.

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