A UK Missions Response to the Growth of the Global Church

Chris Binder | 11 Sep 2023

My first experience of overseas Christian ministry was a 6-month trip to South Asia as part of a team of young people, sent out from the UK. The understanding of what we were doing was shaped around Matthew 28:19. Our focus was going and making disciples.  We followed, both geographically and in our understanding of mission, in the footsteps of William Carey, the father of the modern missions movement. It was a deeply formative time for me. I discovered that I loved being in multicultural environments. On the other hand, I picked up some ideas about mission and cross-cultural ministry that it took me many years to realise were a lot more nuanced than I had thought. 

Carey’s era saw the establishment of a number of mission agencies, many of which continue to exist today. My own agency, now known as Interserve, started in the UK in the mid-19th century and focused on reaching out to women in the Asian subcontinent for its first 100 years. These societies came into being at a time when many European countries were expanding their influence around the world. David Bosch notes that:

‘There was something businesslike, something distinctly modern, about the launching of the new societies . . . Carey took his analogy neither from Scripture nor from theological tradition, but from the contemporary commercial world–the organisation of an overseas trading company . . . Carey proposed that, in similar fashion, a company of serious Christians might be formed with the objective of evangelising distant peoples. It should be an “instrumental” society, that is, a society established with a clearly defined purpose along explicitly formulated lines.’[1]

Today, many mission organisations continue to be made up of ‘serious Christians’ centred around a clearly defined purpose.

Today, many mission organisations continue to be made up of ‘serious Christians’ centred around a clearly defined purpose. Our organisations have changed over time, of course, but we can still readily recognise much of what Bosch describes from those early days of this ‘modern missions movement’ in our organisations’ cultures and ways of working. Carey’s influence lives on.

A Changing World

When Carey first went to India in 1793, 98 percent of Protestants lived in the Western world.[2] Today, in contrast, following the growth of the church around the world, two-thirds of Christians live outside the Western world. While there remain many communities with only a small or no known communities of followers of Jesus, the way in which the global church has grown means that we must re-evaluate how we engage in God’s mission together.

Challenges to Mission Thinking caused by our Changing Context

The way in which the global church has grown means that we must re-evaluate how we engage in God’s mission together.

Newer voices in the global church are bringing fresh perspectives and challenges to our understanding and practice of mission. We should weigh carefully what they say. Like the apostle Paul, our goal should be to ‘put no stumbling-block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited’ (2 Cor 6:3). Fresh perspectives provide an opportunity to explore if we have created stumbling blocks that we are not aware of.  

What are these stumbling blocks? They include a sense of superiority as a result of European enlightenment thinking,[3] the impact of colonialism[4]  and a danger that we become so focused on achieving our purpose that we unintentionally devalue, silence, and objectify the recipients of our ministry efforts. While a significant amount has been written in the last five years, this critique is not new.   Nearly 20 years earlier, academic David Smith came to a similar conclusion. ‘While mission is a biblical universal, the modern missionary movement was a specific, culturally conditioned initiative which, while amazingly successful in its time, is likely to become increasingly dysfunctional if the attempt is made to preserve it in the new context we have described.’[5] 

So, an increasing number of practitioners and scholars argue that the current way we practice mission and organise ourselves as mission societies is heavily influenced by the worldviews prevalent in Europe and North America through the 19th and much of the 20th centuries. Our understanding and practice of global missions is not global at all but bounded by a particular worldview and historical context. In contrast, much of the growth of the church in the 21st century is happening outside of western countries. Those who want to engage with our agencies from these newer non-western countries must adapt themselves to the dominant worldviews that continue to shape mission thinking, even as they question how helpful they are in the contexts where ministry is taking place. The key challenge, as David Smith puts it, is how to liberate mission from the modern missionary movement.

Responding to the Challenges

Interserve GBI is part of the Interserve International Fellowship, with teams around the world, focused on making Christ known among the peoples of Asia and the Arab World. Historically, most of our workers served as part of overseas teams. Now, around two-thirds work with Asian and Arab World communities here in the UK. As the church around the world grows and as the church within the UK becomes increasingly culturally and ethnically diverse, we need to address the challenges of this new global landscape.

Challenge: Our ‘international’ approach to mission is, essentially, a western approach.

Response: We need to be open to new ways of organizing ourselves and fulfilling our calling. The increasing number of mission leaders from more community-minded cultures has helped to highlight a more community-based approach to mission. Bijoy Koshy contends, ‘Looking at the world through the lens of community changes the focus of our activity, putting narrow, goal-driven actions within a wider framework that will truly reveal to the world who Jesus is.’[6]  A community framework counters an overemphasis on task with a value on relationship without in any way decreasing (and possibly increasing) the missional impact.  

It is worth noting that the concept of mission in community resonates in the UK as well. We carried out a survey of 2700 Christians in the UK in 2022. 74% agreed that cross-cultural mission should involve bearing witness to God as a community of his people.[7] We may need to change the way we talk about what we do and the language we use but our research suggests that the Christian community, here in the UK at least, is receptive to thinking about mission in more community-oriented terms.

Challenge: The ‘modern missions paradigm’ can create obstacles to the Gospel.

Response: The best way for people to learn about their cultural blind spots is to work alongside and build up friendship and trust with others who do not have the same blind spots. International mission agencies are well placed to bring together workers from a range of different countries and cultures into one team.  With God’s grace, communities of Christ followers that cross social, cultural and ethnic boundaries will grow in their own discipleship and be better equipped to make disciples among those with whom they interact. Building culturally diverse teams is a way to better recognise the limits of our culturally bounded approaches.  

As the church around the world grows and as the church within the UK becomes increasingly culturally and ethnically diverse, we are trying to see that diversity reflected in our own Interserve team. We are starting to learn how we might serve and work alongside black majority and Asian churches in the UK. We are also actively working to recruit people from other parts of the world to join our national team. We need to learn from them!

Challenge: Much of the growth of Christianity, and momentum for mission, is outside of the West.

Response: We recognise that as westerners, it is not our place to be in charge anymore. We need to create the space for others to shape the conversations. At the same time, as westerners, we should not disengage. Paul’s analogy of the body of Christ as one body with many members is helpful. No part of the global Church can say to another, ‘I don’t need you’. Those from the traditional mission sending nations of the west cannot say to other parts of the global Church, ‘we don’t need you’. When we allow the relationships between different parts of the body to be skewed by who has the most money, or who holds the most power, that is the message that often comes across to those who are seen as having less.  At the same time, those from the parts of the world where the church is growing fastest and where passion for missions is strong cannot say to the nations where the church is becoming weaker, ‘we don’t need you’. In both cases the result is less than what God intends.  Our challenge as westerners is whether we are ready to cede power to others.


Our challenge as westerners is whether we are ready to cede power to others.

We are privileged to live in a time when God is building his Church around the world. Thanks to the work of the gospel, we get to be a part of his amazing, colourful, multicultural Kingdom. The call to mission remains and I believe mission agencies can continue to play a helpful role. However, the opportunities and challenges of the new global landscape have far-reaching implications for us. Change is never easy but, on the other hand, as the world around us changes, is not changing really an option?


  1. Bosch, D. J. (1991). Transforming Mission. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
  2. Eido Research. (2022). Interserve Assessment of Church Attitudes to Mission.
  3. Koshy, B. (2021, March 1). Innovation in Missions: A Global Perspective. Retrieved from Missio Nexus: https://missio-2021-onmission.s3.amazonaws.com/Transcripts/Bijoy+Koshy+Final.pdf
  4. Kwiyani, H. (2020a, October). Mission after George Floyd: on white supremacy, colonialism and world Christianity.Retrieved from Church Mission Society: Anvil Journal of Theology and Mission Volume 36 Issue 3: https://churchmissionsociety.org/anvil/mission-after-george-floyd-on-white-supremacy-colonialism-and-world-christianity-harvey-kwiyani-anvil-vol-36-issue-3/
  5. Nascimento, A. (2021). Evangelization or Colonization? Oxford: Regnum Books International.
  6. Smith, D. (2003). Mission after Christendom. London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd.
  7. Tenant, T. C. (2007). Theology in the Context of World Christianity. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Chris Binder is national director for Interserve Great Britain and Ireland (Home - Interserve.) He and his wife, Rachel, are partners with Interserve, having previously served in Central Asia and South-East Asia for 16 years. Chris has an MBA in international economic development from Eastern University.