This is an article from the June-October 1990 issue: The Passing of a Giant

Crucial Issues in Missions Part 1

Working Toward the Year 2000

Crucial Issues in Missions Part 1

What a time to be peering into the future! It is as if a whole string of volcanoes has erupted in Eastern Europe, and almost the entire world is now clouded by massive and nearly impenetrable dust and fallout!

Do we expect in the nineties to see half of the world finally emerging from a cocoon of totalitarian imprisonment into the new life of beauty and movement the cocoon could never offer?

Or do we look on the massive turmoil in these recent revolutions as though we are confronting the first few warning movements of a dangerous beast that is reviving from an injection of stupefying toxins, but which will shortly arise under new leadership with renewed ferocity to terrorize the nineties?

Already East Germany has made a dubious achievement: for the first time one of its citizens has appeared as a Playboy centerfold. Does this mean we should expect soon to witness an explosion of long suppressed libertarian instincts which will allow a whole new host of nations into competition with the USA for world records in divorce rate, crime rate, drug addiction, pornography production, etc? Will these new "free" nations simply follow our example in spewing out the garbage of our amoralities over all the earth?

Or, will their chastened tastes react against the hollow affluence of our culturally approved greed and inspire our diluted Christianity to draw from deeper wells--wells that have been deepened by suffering and sacrificial obedience to our same Lord?

Surely these distinct alternatives will affect mission in the nineties. They are not mutually exclusive--more than one trend can take place at the same time. They will impact many of the forces and factors and transitions and issues which are already perceptible in the Christian world mission of the present.

Changes in Perspective

1. Mission Field Missionaries. The existence of a thriving "national" church in the so-called mission lands is no longer the only "great new fact of our time." As we burst into the nineties, not just church life, but a possibly more important indigenous mission movement is springing up from within those countries which were once "the mission field."

Of course, there never was anything new about a church on the mission field, because the process of expanding across cultural frontiers began as soon as outside the Jewish cultural tradition there were two or three gathered together in the name of Christ. Neither is there anything essentially new about mission field Christians becoming missionaries in their own right. The Western World itself is merely a mission field that has become a mission-sending base. And it is well known that most of the South Pacific was missionized by South Pacific Islanders themselves, learning foreign languages and going from island to island extending the Christian Movement.

Already there are over 50 indigenous mission agencies that are members of the India Missions Association. The Asia Missions Association is nearing twenty years of existence. The global level Third World Missions Association is picking up momentum. In Nigeria there is not only a strong association of Nigerian mission agencies, but one member mission alone is sending over 600 missionaries to untouched language groups in and outside of Nigeria.

What will be new in the nineties, however, is the astounding prominence and vastly larger muscle of this "Third World" Mission phenomenon in what will possibly overtake Western missions, in terms of total number of missionaries, by 1995 (Pate, 1989:45-46).

A crucial and still unsolved problem is no longer merely the collaboration of a global church movement, but the strategic interfacing of a global mission movement.

2. Business vs. service. A missionary once told me, "You can't mix love and business." I had argued that the loving service expressed in her clinic could not be duplicated dozens of times across the mountain area if it could not somehow become self-supporting, and in that sense a business. If, however, the U.S.- trained-medical workers insisted on using costly American shortcuts to save their own time and also the time of their native workers, their clinic services would not only remain a token effort, but could never survive as a purely national church activity without external subsidy.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of missions have spawned projects which have virtually been designed to require subsidy. We should have learned by now, by hard experience, that such projects uniformly spell disaster for "nationalization," because they do not pay for themselves. The mentality that no truly Christian service can be supported by those who benefit from it is self-defeating. The Apostle Paul surely did not sense a polarization between giving his services and selling his wares. In both he labored to serve, even though providing tents to shelter people may not seem to be as dramatically beneficial as medical service.

The tendency toward dependence on external subsidy was not so marked in the last century, and happily is not universal today. But it is one of the issues in this article least likely to be resolved in the nineties. Amazingly, projects with obvious business and economic dimensions are often the least likely to be designed to support themselves, while the non-business-like congregations seem almost everywhere to be readily nationalized.

3. Triumphalism vs. fatalism. We see both of these extremes. But it is to be devoutly hoped that during the nineties the Lausanne Statistics Task Force, or some other serious body, can bring into widespread public view a far superior picture than most people now have of the true status quo with regard to the growth of Christianity in comparison to other world religions. Surely there must be some remedy to wild quotations like "Muslims are growing at 16% and Hindus at 12%, while Christians are only growing at 9%." I have heard this precise phrase from the lips of three different prominent church leaders, but am entirely at a loss as to where such outlandish numbers came from. What is indisputable is that

1) population growth rates (apart from immigration) range from 0.6% per year in Germany to slightly over 3% for Egypt. But

2) the vital sector of the Christian sphere, which already numbers in the hundreds of millions, is growing by more than 6%, and there is no other religious or political bloc of comparable size with an even remotely comparable growth rate.

During the third of a century when it was easy to assume that everything had gone wrong in China, some theologians developed a theology that excused us from concern over the growth rate of Christianity. However, the adverse comparisons in the quotation up above, besides being untrue, unnecessarily undermine the entire Christian world mission.

4. The sending culture vs. the receiving culture. The nineties will not likely improve greatly the ability of the general citizenry in a sending country to see themselves as those from other countries see them. Yet nothing is more obvious and embarrassing to those of us who have lived in a foreign country for any length of time than the tendency of our people back home to take the worst of the other country and compare it with the best of our own, the sending country. That is no way to see ourselves as we really are!

Americans rail against poor populations overseas supporting themselves by supplying the American appetite for drugs, while not wanting to recall the onerous "opium wars" which Western governments have continued to pursue for more than a hundred years. Are we Americans overlooking our gigantic international cigarette market, which is not only subsidized in this country, but with the help of our federal government is literally forced upon certain South East Asian nations by political processes attempting to "protect" our own drug growers? Noriega and Panama's government are not the only ones that have been involved in pushing drugs! What if our exports to Thailand prompted their troops to invade North Carolina and burn the tobacco plantations--the source of our enforced export of that highly addictive drug? What if they circled the White House, seized Bush and flew him off for trial in Bangkok?

Do we realize we have a hundred times as many alcoholics as hard drug addicts? Will we send troops to smash our own distilleries, or to Scotland to take care of their export whisky production?

We are told that certain Japanese government publications warn against and caricature certain foreign visitors. These documents are surely as outrageous as they are outlandish. But, unfortunately, we can find the same desperate provincialities in our own country wherever people are as isolated from personal contact with foreigners as most Japanese are. Probably no one force in world history has done more to reduce these kinds of phobias than the activities of the Christian world mission. But the nineties are much too short for any great change to take place--except within the Christian movement itself.

Changes in Concepts of Task and Purpose

5. The nature of the task. One of the most urgent areas of reflection and transition, yes even at this late date in history, is in the area of understanding the basic task of the Christian World Mission. In the eighties great progress has been made in recognizing the wholeness of the Gospel. This is reinforced by new understanding of the full meaning of the word "blessing" as it occurs in the Genesis version of the Great Commission, namely Gen 12:1-3; 18:18; 22:18 (Abraham); 26:4,5 (Isaac) ; and 28:14 (Jacob/Israel). One nation is blessed, and all nations are to be blessed. What does this mean? Tony Campolo tells us that it does not mean finally being able to afford a BMW!

In English the word blessing implies merely a benefit--not also a relationship, as in the Hebrew barak. Americans, even American missionaries, typically do not understand the full significance of the privileges, obligations, and permanent benefits of the family relationship. Yet a relationship of just this significance is implied in the Hebrew barak. The implications here are profound, and exceed the normal intent of the evangelistic Gospel. For example, in a family relationship you do not choose between evangelism and social action!

Will the nineties bring us closer to the full meaning and implications of making into one family people from every tribe and tongue and people? Is the hymn still ahead of most of usƒ"Who serves my Father as a son is surely kin to me" (Oxenham:1913)?

6. The true receptivity of world religions. This century has emphasized anthropological insights about cultural relativism, and many missionaries today are strikingly better equipped to understand the strong and weak points of all human cultures. But is it still possible for us to reject entire religio-cultural systems en toto? We have semantic "snarl" words such as syncretism and accommodation for anything tainted with foreign religion. Yet it is precisely in the area of religion, and specifically in the quest for best words for God, that we may have our best points of contact with other religious systems.

How can we believe, on the one hand, that all humankind derives from God's creative handiwork, and on the other hand expect in our mission contacts to find none of that handiwork still remaining? Why need we quibble about the use of the word Allah for God? Arabic-speaking Christians for centuries before Mohammed came along prayed to Allah. The New Testament itself employs a deeply deficient term for God in the Greek theos. Only centuries later, for English speakers, the word God, despite its pagan origin, was adapted and newly charged with meaning.

Phil Parshall's recent book, The Cross and the Crescent, goes light years in the right direction. Will the nineties allow us to realize that some of the most devout Muslims are closer to the Kingdom than 1) shaky Muslims who are apparently coming our way only due to their rejection of their own faith, or 2) purely "culture Christians" who don't really believe and obey anything? Isn't the Islamic cultural tradition--prayers, mosque and entire way of life--far more redeemable than the ancient Hellenic way of life with which Paul was willing to work?

7. The Myth of Closed Countries. In the nineties this never-correct concept will hopefully be broken down almost completely. It is fueled by those who have certain specialized mission services to offer. It has been a favorite theme for those who stress "tentmaking" or who are in the Bible-smuggling business, but it tends to paint an unrealistic picture which serves to undermine obedience to the Great Commission. This emphasis may not only divert monies from worthy agencies which are doing unpublishable work in "closed countries," but it may also reduce the guilt level of those who do not in any event wish to support the Christian world mission.

8. The Number of Unreached Peoples. The decade begins with great progress in this area. It is already clear that different evangelistic approaches inevitably produce different numbers. For example 500,000-watt radio stations (whose prices per minute are high) , or travelling film teams (whose soundtracks cost over $25,000 per language) cannot think in terms of thousands of languages and peoples, but aim to penetrate the trade languages of a rather small number of major groups (e.g. 280 languages spoken by a million or more people is the radio goal, and perhaps a thousand separate languages are being targeted by Campus Crusades' film approach).

On the other hand, groups like the Wycliffe Bible Translators, using the comparatively inexpensive printed page, feel sure that all peoples can read from print media in not much more than 6,000 written languages.

Meanwhile, those who use audio cassettes have discovered that two or three groups which happily share the same printed version of the Bible can't agree at all on pronunciation (when using a recorder or on local radio). They find they cannot retain listeners whose dialects are substantially different, even though they may use the same printed book, since the printed page helpfully omits many of the nuances of the spoken word. Thus, cassette ministries like Gospel Recordings find they must target at least twice as many groups as Wycliffe counts in order for everyone to be receptive to the cassettes they produce.

For many missiologists, the most strategic goal is that there might be a viable, indigenous, evangelizing church movement within every human culture--that is, within every community sufficiently homogeneous to enable all to hear and understand in their own milieu. If such an internal witness is lacking, such groups are defined (by a widely representative Lausanne-sponsored meeting in March of 1982), as "Unreached Peoples." It follows that a still different total number is inevitable if this kind of group is being counted. It is also true, embarrassingly, that this number can only be estimated until all clusters of such groups are actually penetrated and the necessary homogeneity is confirmed.

This is so crucial a goal, and is so foundational to mission, that I have thought it justified to coin a term for the basic concept behind this March 1982 definition. I have suggested the term Unimax peoples, since, as defined, the concept involves the maximum sized groups still sufficiently unified to allow "the spread of a church planting movement without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance."

It is fascinating to note that when we think in terms of the necessity of a separate missionary penetration of the kind just described for every unimax group, the significance of political boundaries and even great geographical distances may often be ruled out. This is perhaps more obviously true of Bible translation. Once the Bible is in the language of the people in one place, it does not need to be translated all over again for that same group on the other side of a national border or across the ocean unless there has been sufficient time and isolation to allow divergent language and cultural development. Similarly, wherever a viable, indigenous, evangelizing church movement exists in one portion of a unimax group, it would be inefficient to initiate pioneer missionary work all over again in another part of the same group, even thousands of miles away. In that case, instead of undertaking brand new missionary efforts, the existing church within the same unimax group is the best source upon which to draw. And in that case it is ordinary evangelism, not pioneer mission strategy, that is in order.

Careful compilations of two or three thousand groups already exist. These compilations, according to the '82 definition, 1) list some Unreached Peoples (unimax peoples) more than once if their people are found in more than one country, and 2) often list as a single group what are actually clusters of unreached unimax groups, but at least 3) include virtually all remaining unreached unimax groups within these clusters. Nevertheless, it is fairly safe to say that once church planting efforts take place in these clusters, these lists of 2,000 to 3,000 groups will turn out not to include many more than 12,000 total Unreached Peoples--by the March 1982 definition. The Lausanne Statistics Task Force has agreed on 12,000 as a reasonable estimate of the number of these relatively small people groups. Even as we enter the nineties, the task of making new missionary penetrations into 12,000 new cultures is being parcelled out to the various sectors of the mission sending base all over the world--continent by continent, country by country, and even denomination by denomination.

Thus, all of this lays down one of the most concrete and significant mandates for the nineties: reach all such (unimax) groups by A.D. 2000. Or, to use more precise language: establish by the year 2000 a viable, indigenous evangelizing church movement within every people which is the largest group within which the Gospel can spread by a church planting movement without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance.

(For the other 14 issues in this searching analysis of the decade ahead, see the November 1990 Mission Executive Section in Mission Frontiers.)


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