EFMA confronts ‘Third Era’
The Mission Executives Retreat of the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association brought together 170 mission leaders from roughly 80 agencies to wrestle with strategic plans for a "third era" in evangelical missionary endeavor. It was probably the largest gathering of mission agencies around this theme since Edinburgh 1910. The theme, "Reaching Unreached Peoples--A Strategy for the 1980's", pointed to a keen concern for planting churches among identifiable un-reached peoples.
The keynote address given by Dr. Ralph Winter gave an historical perspective on the past eras in missionary outreach. Whether considered "epochs", "cycles", or "eras", Winter pointed to the success pattern of the planting, watering, and harvesting of missionary enterprise. The withdrawal of missionaries from the Hawaiian Islands in 1865, according to Winter, symbolized that an era was finishing. Yet, he quickly points out, Hudson Taylor's initiative into the inland areas of China that same year heralded the beginning of a brand new era of missionary endeavor. Dozens of new agencies were born as unreached areas were identified. Winter, quoting Henry Venn, a famous mission strategist from the last century, stated, "Missionaries can be withdrawn with legitimate pride and fanfare when the job is done, but personnel must then be transferred to the 'regions beyond.Mission leaders agreed with Winter that a new "third era" was upon us. Wade Coggins, EFMA's Executive Director, stated that the new era we face will be greater than the former "because of the increased worldwide base from which to reach the lost." He was speaking of the strong national churches around the world which, rather than being merely recipients of mission work, now in many cases are ready and willing to assist in evangelizing new unreached frontiers. Because of their help in such outreach, "this could and should be the last era," added Winter. "We can complete the job."
Winter also challenged some of the assumptions in evangelicalism today. "We must not assume too confidently that a spiritually healthy evangelism will necessarily lead to strong missionary efforts," he said. "Protestant mission efforts mean evangelicalism but evangelicalism does not necessarily spell missions." The entrance into a new era is usually the work of a committed minority, whose "generosity, experience and enterprise is released by a creative new missionary beginning."
Winter sketched the sacrificial labors of those who carried the Protestant evangelical community into each of the previous eras. "As I have reflected upon this," he stated, "I have been humbled to tears. For I wonder if my people today could or would match this record. Can you imagine our Urbana students today going into missionary work if they knew, as these others did, that decade after decade 19 out of 20 died almost upon arrival on the field?"
Mission leaders were very responsive, almost overwhelmingly so, to the challenge of the new era. "It's a fact that the remaining frontiers today are not geographical as they were in Hudson Taylor's day," Winter noted. "Now they are, for the most part, subtle, cultural differences that, being invisible, make the people behind them Hidden People." Agency delegates picked up the challenge of the new era by identifying and committing them selves to reaching by 1990 at least the 5,908 Hidden People groups which are mostly contiguous to present mission fields.