As we come alongside brothers and sisters around the world to engage in the missionary task, we need new terms and categories to describe what we are seeing.
After seeing the Earth from space, Apollo astronaut James Irwin recounted, “Seeing this has to change a man, has to make a man appreciate the creation of God and the love of God.” Similarly, having more access to those around the world today through a variety of means and getting a deeper sense of how God is working in the places they live has to change us. Many of our old categories and terms no longer work in the world today. As we come alongside brothers and sisters around the world to engage in the missionary task, we need new terms and categories to describe what we are seeing.
A Brief History of Terminology
Various terms have been used to describe large parts of the world, especially as it relates to areas where missionaries have been sent. The most common term in previous generations was “Third World.” Originally, “Third World” was intended to describe countries who were not aligned with the Capitalist West (First World) or the Communist East (Second World). However, “Third World” quickly lost this geopolitical meaning and began to be used to refer to places marked by “grinding poverty and uncontrollable population growth.” Due to this change in meaning, “Third World” has been perceived as a derogatory term in recent decades.
“Western” and “Non-Western” have sometimes been used to describe a perceived cultural distinction in very broad categories. However, these terms create a distinction between the West and “rest,” with the focus remaining on the West as the standard of comparison. Furthermore, countries such as Japan are not Western but are widely considered Northern and rich.
Two other terms have been broadly used in recent decades: Majority World and Global South. Majority World refers to the area where the majority of the people live in the world. This term is growing in popularity, and the Majority World generally corresponds to the areas also known as the Global South. Referring to countries in the Global South as the Majority World is helpful since it reminds us that approximately 80 percent of the world’s population lives in the Global South.
The Global South (shown in red on the map below) was first proposed as a descriptive term by Willy Brandt in the 1980s. “North” and “South” in this context does not refer strictly to a geographical divide. The distinction, rather, is “based on economic inequalities which have some cartographic continuity. In addition it emphasizes that both North and South are, together, drawn into global processes.” Significant diversity exists within the Global South, but from a missions perspective, countries in the Global South have historically been where most missionaries from the Global North have gone. However, the landscape in global Christianity is changing.
Kingj123, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Why Is the Global South Important?
Two decades ago, Philip Jenkins published his first edition of The Next Christendom with bold predictions about the changing face of global Christianity. He predicted that the Global South was going to play a much larger role in global Christianity, and especially in missions, in the coming decades. Predicting specific events is always difficult, but many of the broad trends he anticipated are happening today. Currently, 26 percent of the world’s Christians live in Africa, compared to 11 percent in North America. Further estimates indicate that 77 percent of Christians will live in the Global South by 2050. These trends have serious implications for global Christianity, the missionary task, and how we prepare our Sent Ones.
Shaping Global Christianity
With a large majority of Christians living in the Global South, we should expect global Christianity to look different in the coming decades. Christianity will look and sound more African, Asian, and South American than it has in the last 1,000 years. The influence on global denominations has already been observed in cases such as when African and Asian delegates to the 2019 United Methodist Church General Conference voted in favor of maintaining traditional Christian sexual ethics against a plan that would have affirmed LGBTQ pastors and same-sex marriage, a plan that was largely endorsed by North American delegates. The 2021 BMI Song of the Year was awarded to “Way Maker,” written by Sinach, a Nigerian gospel singer/songwriter. These are just a sample of the ways Christians in the Global South are already influencing global Christianity. And more is coming.
With a large majority of Christians living in the Global South, we should expect global Christianity to look different in the coming decades.
Shaping Global Missions
Countries that have historically been seen as missionary “receivers” are rapidly becoming missionary “senders.” Countries such as Brazil, South Korea, the Philippines, and China send large numbers of missionaries every year. Nearly half of all missionaries in the world are sent from countries in the Global South, and that figure is rising. Missionaries today are as likely to speak Mandarin, Tagalog, Hindi, Korean, or Yoruba as they are to speak English. Furthermore, countries from the Global South are sending missionaries to the Global North—to engage both diaspora communities and Americans and Europeans. As we send missionaries out from our churches in the Global North, we need to be aware that a vibrant church already exists in many places in the Global South.
We should rejoice about the church in the Global South taking responsibility for the Great Commission that Jesus gave to all believers in all places. And we need to prepare to serve alongside brothers and sisters from the Global South in fulfilling the missionary task.
Preparing Sent Ones
Another article will deal more extensively with how we can prepare to send missionaries to work in the Global South, because this element needs to be included in our training. We need to think carefully about how we evaluate different expressions of Christianity. For example, Are we observing unbiblical practices or merely differences in cultural expressions of faithful Christianity? We also need to address concepts of biblical partnership and how different cultures understand partnership. Along with partnership, we need to intentionally prepare for cross-cultural conflict and what are contextually appropriate methods of conflict resolution. We should rejoice about the church in the Global South taking responsibility for the Great Commission that Jesus gave to all believers in all places. And we need to prepare to serve alongside brothers and sisters from the Global South in fulfilling the missionary task.
 Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 4.
 Jonathan Rigg, An Everyday Geography of the Global South (London: Routledge, 2007), 3.
 “The Brandt Report: A Summary,” http://www.sharing.org/information-centre/reports/brandt-report-summary.
 Rigg, 3.
 Gina Zurlo, Global Christianity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2022).
 Kathy L. Gilbert, Heather Hahn, and Joey Butler, “2019 General Conference passes Traditional Plan,” UM News, 26 February 2019, https://www.umnews.org/en/news/gc2019-daily-feb-26.
 Gina A. Zurlo, Todd M. Johnson, and Peter F. Crossing, “World Christianity and Mission 2021: Questions about the Future,” International Bulletin of Mission Research 45.1 (2021): 15–25, https://doi.org/10.1177/2396939320966220.
Matthew Hirt (PhD in International Missions from SEBTS) has served in both pastoral ministry and international missions. He currently serves as missions faculty at the Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary, where he trains aspiring pastors and missionaries to be obedient to Christ in fulfilling the Great Commission. He is a contributing author and co-editor of the book Generational Disciple-Making: How Ordinary Followers of Jesus Are Transformed into Extraordinary Fishers of Men. He is also the author of the forthcoming book Peoples and Places: How Geography Impacts Missions Strategy. You can follow him on Twitter.