This is an article from the October-November 1982 issue: Mission Agencies and the Final Frontier

Facing the Frontiers

Facing the Frontiers

It seems to me highly appropriate that the IFMA should base this conference on the theme of "Penetrating Frontiers." It is my understanding of the history of Christian missions that the Faith Mission Movement, which is primarily embodied in the IFMA, is the only movement of its size and scope which ever embodied at its origin the penetration of frontiers as its specific, major goal.

1. Faith Missions and the Emergence of a Frontier Awareness

In William Carey's lifetime, the major organized Protestant response to the Great Commission was born. At that time frontiers were virtually wherever missionaries might be sent. While many thinkers did have in mind the strategy of planting a national church which would stand on its own two feet, there was not yet any immediate need for an elaborate analysis of mission/church relationships such as has recently been made.

There was a pioneer stage, before any national church existed. Presently this gave way to a paternal stage in which missionaries led the church and trained national leaders so they could take over pastorates and even professorships in theological seminaries. Gradually, a third stage, partnership emerged, in which the missionary/national association as recognized equals became the order of the day. The Hawaiian Islands moved through these three stages rapidly being far enough along by 1865 so that all missionaries were brought home.

In that very same year, Hudson Taylor boldly proposed that pioneer work begin in the interior of China. To do that, he founded under God the China Inland Mission. Due to a great deal of opposition, however, the Faith Mission Movement, following his lead, did not by any means jump into being. It would be hard to overstress the earnest conflict of perspectives during these early developments. The bulk of mission leaders were associated with ongoing, well established beachheads on the coastlands, and tended to despise and ignore the cries of younger leaders who were fascinated and challenged by Taylor's emphasis on pioneering in the inland frontiers.

Thus, in the era of the birth and growth of the Faith Mission Movement, there was clearly (among the leaders of that movement at least) an acute awareness of the special concern of Cod for the frontiers. Today we look back with amazement upon what resulted  a mammoth, farreaching upsurge in the entire Protestant mission movement, the like of which we have never seen before nor since.Although this movement to new frontiers began in England, its spiritual power derived greatly from the passionate ministry of an American named D. L. Moody. Also, thanks in part to the Student Volunteer Movement that sprouted up in America, the Faith Mission Movement took root in American soil, producing American branches of British Faith Mission structures as well as inspiring many new distinctly American beginnings. Again, mainly due to the SVMFM, the center of gravity of world missions had by the end of the First World War decisively moved to North America. Precisely then, in 1917, sixty five years ago, the IFMA was born.

The IFMA was thus literally born out of a passion for specifically new work rather than followthrough work.

2. The Physical Nature of Mission Frontiers

In a brief essay I was asked to write for the 1974 International Consultation on World Evangelization (ICOWE) meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, I stressed the fact that the Bible gives strategic attention to nations an entity which is smaller than a country but larger than either an individual or what Americans call a nuclear family.

It must be admitted that Americans and other English speaking people sense a certain amount of culture shock whenever they first discover that the Great Commission in Matthew speaks explicitly of the discipling of nations not countries nor individuals. Even when we turn to Mark 16:15, we discover that the long accepted phrase "to every creature," found both in the King James and the New King James, is more exactly translated "to all creation."

Especially curious is the case of Revelation 21:3, where a loud voice from the throne of the New Jerusalem says, "Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His peoples and God Himself shall be among them." In this case not even the ordinarily literal New American Standard Bible is willing to translate "and they shall be His peoples" (in the plural) as it is in the Greek text. In the book of Revelation, the word peoples in the plural occurs four times, 7:9, 11:9, 17:15, and then in 21:3. The New American Standard Bible dutifully and rigorously translates the word in the plural in only the first three cases. In the forth, even the American translators are apparently not able to envision the possibility that at the end of time the people of God will be a redeemed humanity still consisting of an aggregate of nonidentical peoples. If what we notice here is true, it has profound meaning for mission strategy.

When I was a kid, the key verse in the Bible was "he that winneth souls is wise," and personal work was the chief priority and strategy of my church. Later I got acquainted with the Navigators, who stressed follow up, and also with the world of missions with its emphasis upon a church planting type of follow up as the chief priority and strategy. Only recently have I begun to rearrange my thought patterns to conform to the perspective of the Commissioning of Abraham in Genesis, and to the Great Commission itself which speaks of the discipling of peoples.

However, the fact that God spoke to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob about the peoples of the earth rather than the people (individuals) of the earth certainly does not mean that God is unconcerned about the winning of individuals. I do not have to throw away what I learned as a youth. But I do believe now that the distinction between individuals versus peoples in these passages means that the Bible itself takes seriously the cultural and linguistic traditions of the individuals we seek to win to Christ.Various mission thinkers have been groping toward a definition of people group For me, a significant point concerns the potential such groups have for rapid, nearly automatic, internal communication. Since this is the trait that is so significant to missionary communicators, this is undoubtedly the reason such an entity has been highlighted in the Bible all along.

For want of a better word I have decided to call such a group a Unimax People, that is, a group unified in communication, maximum in size. While this definition does not apparently employ Biblical language, I believe it describes an entity important to the Bible, reflecting the Bible's missionary concern for relentless and rapid evangelism as its reason for importance. In other words, what is crucial about a Unimax People is the size of the group, not just the unified condition of the group.

Let us take, for example, the Cantonese speaking Chinese. They are part of a larger Han Chinese world and are themselves composed of many smaller, quite distinct subgroups. Using terminology I have employed in the past and starting from the largest to the smallest, the Han Chinese are a megasphere or a megapeople. Since there are units smaller than the Cantonese sphere, to which we must as missionary stragegist pay specific attention,. I have called a mass of humanity as large as the Cantonese a macrosphere, or macropeople.

In this series of  macro-mini, micro it is the next to the smallest unit, the minisphere, that should, I believe, be considered the mission relevant, Biblically important Unimax People. The macro is one notch too large to be sufficiently unified, while the micro is unnecessarily small, being part of a larger, still unified group.

We can say, using this terminology, that the distinctive breakthrough activity of a mission is not complete if it has merely penetrated a mega or macrosphere, and if there are still minispheres or what I have called Unimax Peoples stilt unpenetrated. On the other hand, the unique and distinctive breakthrough activity of a mission agency (as compared to the work of evangelism) may, in fact., be over long before all the tiny microspheres within a Unimax People have been penetrated.

What then is the distinctive, spiritual breakthrough ministry which is unique to the function of a mission agency?

3. The Spiritual Need of the Frontier Peoples

I believe that all groups continue to have spiritual needs, both before and after penetration by the Gospel has taken place. However, Frontier Peoples have a special kind of need with which ordinary evangelism cannot readily cope. To use language we have already employed, we may ask the question, "What crucial, measurable element do so called Frontier Peoples lack?" Or the other side of the coin: what does a mission agency have to accomplish within a Unimax People in order for that group no longer to be considered a frontier?

There is something self correcting about the whole process of staying on or moving to new fields, so long as the remaining frontiers are kept in view. It is frontier vision that is important. By comparison, engagement versus disengagement is secondary.

Thus, it seems to me that the most important practical response of the IFMA agencies to the new emphasis upon the remaining frontiers is to distinguish technically between what is and what is now no longer a mission frontier. I do not mind where a mission sends its people or spends its money so long as the fairly direct goal of the activity is unquestionably Frontier Peoples  those most in need of the gospel and least likely to be reached. In this sense all missionaries, whereever they are working, can and must be frontier minded.

A massive educational campaign will be necessary...

Speaking personally, I don't mind if missionaries are sent where peopie already have the Bible in their own language. It matters what they go for. Do they either go to frontiers or to stir up interest in frontiers? What grieves me greatly is the willingness I see (both at home and abroad) to settle for a gospel that merely blesses peopie but does not lay upon them also the Biblical mandate to be a blessing to all the families of the earth. I thus sometimes wonder if there can be any Biblical Christianity that is not frontier mission minded.

It is not enough that every mission engages in some frontier work somewhere. It is the unique distinctive of a mission agency that it must do what is necessary to make sure that all churches everywhere maintain as their highest concern the peoples that have not yet heard. This leads us to a brief reflection on the wide role of a mission agency.

4. The Full Mandate of the Mission Agency

I used to believe very simply that the most distinctive role of a mission is not the nurture of a national church once it is planted, but the constant moving on and on to the remaining frontiers. ln this view the missions are the construction companies. Once a building is built they do not convert over to being management experts who then stay on to help the people who inhabit the new building to do their work better. No, they fold up shop and go elsewhere to break ground again.

However, more recently I have begun to wonder whether the full mandate of the mission society is not much more than such an illustration would allow. As I have tried to understand the challenge of frontiers today, I must confess that the major obstacle I now see to the goal of a Church for Every People by the Year 2000 is not at all the unwillingness or inability of the agencies. It is rather that the very existence of frontier peoples is not understood in the home churches nor in the overseas churches. Thus the missions face a dilemma. They are by birthright prepared for the frontiers but no one else is. Sunday school materials reflect either the church situation overseas or nothing at all about missions. Christian schools, colleges and seminaries, both at home and abroad, 98% of the time talk about fields where there is an existing church. On the other hand, resource wise, we have more reason to believe that in a sustained drive we really can reach every last peopie on the face of the earth by the year 2000. This is especially true if the overseas churches boom in to help.

But today everywhere you look it seems like we are back in Hudson Taylor's day. A massive educational campaign will be necessary if we are going to make any really significant stride forward. God in our time is raising up many new eager young people. But the major infrastructure of their nurture and development is almost totally missing. It has taken me a long time to come to the place where I now believe the full mandate of the mission must be understood to include a great deal more educational effort. We have spent years introducing the people back home to the existence of the national churches now on our older fields. Now we must re educate them to understand that there are still many places we must go, where there are no national evangelists and where work must start from scratch. For a time I actually believe we may do well to use new people to rebuild the home base of awareness before starting again to ship people out as fast as they are ready. We face a retirement avalanche in the next few years. We could send out 25,000 new missionaries in the next ten years and barely hold our own. We need massive new resources of both personnel and funds. Consequently we must recognize the full mandate of the mission in the home situation.


That IFMA missions, in response to the crisis of misunderstanding regarding the frontiers among pastors, laypeople and students take the following action:

  1. Encourage voluntary participation of member agencies in an enlarged public relations activitywhich can seed articles into Christian publications, develop common study materials and courses for local churches and student groups, get behind Wherever magazine and the Today's Mission magazine and help expand circulation of the EMQ as well, develop joint efforts on campuses wherever possible, employing the IFMA designation rather than the individual mission name as a first step forward.
  2. Help people back home to see the great challenge in less discouraging terms: Why not parcel out the remaining task in measurable people goals? I believe the IFMA mission force ought to be willing to take on 20% of the remaining peoples Biblically defined. Then it should be simple to see just what each agency might try to accomplish by the year 2000. Back in 1909 great goal setting took place because the total number of individuals yet to be won was parceled out so that the major agencies knew concretely what they were responsible for. Both the agencies and the people will be helped by this.
  3. Recommend agencies seriously to consider involvement in a nationwide frontier emphasis prayer campaign such as the Frontier Fellowship being tried by the NAM, AIM, RBMU and SEND, Intl. Such a campaign should motivate and educate on a daily basis the American evangelicals of all ages and of all church persuasions.


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