This is an article from the January-February 2005 issue: Which Peoples Need Priority Attention? (Part 2)

Deja vu All Over Again

Lausanne 30 Years Later

Deja vu All Over Again

“Modern” people like new things: the smell of a new car, getting a new cell phone out of its box, checking out the features of the latest gadget or gizmo — such things get our juices flowing. This is a by-product of a material-focused culture, and I suspect that many people in the non-Western world react differently.

Likewise, in the Western Church we want our mission programs to reflect the “latest thing”, too. We wonder: what is Willow Creek or Saddleback doing about this issue? Such a train of thought can lead us to doubt that older ideas are still valuable or useful; sometimes that’s true, and sometimes it is not.
Take, for example, the priority of focusing on the world’s unreached peoples in what we at the USCWM have called the Third Era of mission history. Some have asked, “What is the ‘next’ emphasis, and is there a Fourth Era?” Is the “next new thing” the world’s cities? The poor? AIDS/HIV victims? Street children? The disabled of the world?

The problem with any of these issues or emphases is not that one is more important than another, but that they can inhibit clarification of sequence and priority in world mission, i.e., whom should we seek to reach first so that others will have opportunity? Yet people with a heart for one particular issue or emphasis don’t like it if you don’t choose their issue or emphasis as the highest priority for everyone.

This helps to explain why some people have obscured or neglected Ralph Winter’s seminal presentation at the 1974 Lausanne Consultation on World Evangelization. In that presentation, titled “The Highest Priority: Cross-Cultural Evangelism”, Winter emphasized a basic point that had been overlooked: until a church movement has taken root in a culture, the gospel doesn’t spread among that people.

In other words, without the Church present, there is no outreach to children, disabled, or others in that people group. There is simply no one there to do it. Winter was not claiming that unreached peoples—as they came to be known—are more important than other peoples, but emphasizing they are the priority to be reached because once the Church is present in each culture, the door is opened for all kinds of subsequent ministry. The crucial issue, then, is access, or to scrutinize each people group for the presence or absence of the Church.

If and when others are tempted to call their emphasis the next frontier, we should think a bit deeper and take a longer view. When we’re tempted to look for the “next new thing”, we should remember that we haven’t yet accomplished the foundational, priority task Winter portrayed 30 years ago.

When we look at lists and statistics on peoples — like we have in this issue of Mission Frontiers — we are looking for where the most important steps could be taken to open each people group to the gospel. Let’s take this information to heart, to the Lord in prayer, and to our colleagues in consultation.


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