Some Unfinished Business
If you've been around in evangelical circles lately, you know that many people's attitudes towards missions are being shaped by two common misconceptions:
Myth 1: Pioneer missions is out of date. Why? There are Christians in almost every country who can now finish the job by themselves.
Myth 2: The task is too big.
Why? We haven't won the world to Christ in 2,000 years. God must have other plans. Besides, it just isn't realistic to try to keep up with the population explosion.
Have you swallowed these misleading statements about the condition of world missions today? Each statement contains an element of truth, but a close look at the facts will show that these two myths are entirely unfounded.
Is Pioneering Over?
Believe it or not, there are at least a million evangelical Christians in almost all of the countries of Asia and Africa. This fact alone adds some fascinating new dimensions to our concept of world evangelization. But does this mean that pioneering must be over? The shocker is that if we think in terms of what the Bible calls nations, the one country of India, for example, contains 3,000 nations, and less than 100 of them have any evangelical Christians at all. "What, then," you may ask, "do you mean by 'nations'?"
Checking back to the wording of the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19), it doesn't say, "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all countries." It says, "all nations."
Of course, in grade school we learned that each country has a different kind of people. But in college we learned that countries are much more complicated. We discovered that the significant groupings of the world are really not countries but the specific ethnic or social groups within them, which the Bible has always taken seriously, calling them nations. Nowhere in the Bible is there a word which can be properly translated country.
Warning you will miss the point of dozens of key passages in the Bible where the English word nation is used if you think it is referring to the kind of geographical and political entity which we call a country.
In other words, a biblical approach suggests that pioneering is the delicate, initial task of getting a foothold within each ethnic unit, people group, tribethat is, nation. This requires us to plant a growing, evangelizing indigenous church (at least a cluster of congregations) that is culturally natural to each specific "nation." By using this biblical definition of nation, pioneering activity is not necessarily over once such a foothold is gained in only one of the people groups within a country. (Remember, pioneering is not necessarily a pith helmeted activity.)
Bad definition: Pioneering = a foothold in all 200 countries. (This is almost true now.)
Good definition: Pioneering = a foothold in all 22,000 nations. (An estimated 16,750 such nations still need their own indigenous church).
All right then: only by talking about countries is pioneering almost over. Pioneering by the culturally sensitive definition the Bible gives us is clearly not over. But wait a minute! Is it then too big a task? What will it take to tackle the challenge defined by the Bible: "This gospel shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come" (Matt. 24:14)?
Is the Task too Big?
It certainly is a rude awakening if we have been thinking all along in terms of reaching countries. Does God really want us to bother with every measly people group? Why did he allow the word nation in modern times to become a synonym for political state? Have we been tricked? If we've got to go to every nation, not just to every country, does this really make the task too big? That's almost ,000 tribal groups and thousands of different Chinese, Hindu, and Muslim groups, and . . .No, wait a minute! Isn't it easier to deal with 16,750 groups than to go directly after three billion individuals?
Here's a secret. The biblical strategy of reaching nations rather than merely countries or individuals blasts the whole problem of the three billion into real feasibility, If we are just out after individuals, three billion really is awesome (and reaching countries is a tokenism). But the strategy of getting a culturally indigenous, selfreproducing foothold in 16,750 societies is not so unthinkable. (A shorthand phrase you need to know is hidden people. This is a technical label for these groups where there is not yet the kind of foothold we've described.)
Depending on one's theology, it may never be possible to win every individual in the world to Christ. But that doesn't mean evangelical Christians around the world should give up trying to reach all nations. Working both separately and together, we must consider it a prime strategy to attempt to plant at least a small fellowship of true believers within every one of the 16,750 hidden people groups. A current phrase used to describe this attempt is "A church for every people by the year 2000."
Of course, even this goal may not end our work on earth. However, the biblical logic seems to be that ordinary individuals in hidden people groups can only have a fair chance of accepting Christ if someone from outside their group (you?) has taken the pains to perform that delicate initial "pioneering" task of building a fellowship of believers right within that individual's own society. When you think about it, that was Paul's special ministry. He did lots of things, but basically (Gal. 2:7) he let Peter reach out to his own people while he concentrated on planting fellowships (churches) in which the Gentiles could for the first time find their own people in charge, and their own culture the wavelength of lifestyle.
This kind of strategic thinking (in terms of nations) is not only biblical, but has been and is being talked about all over the world as conferences and congresses. This startling perspective defines the "new frontiers' of our time; indeed, the final frontiers! With college students and others catching on all across the country, the tide is turning, the misconceptions in the pew are being broken down. Pessimism and hopelessness are being replaced by cautious, realistic planning.
Is Now the Time?
Twice before has the attention of evangelical forces been arrested by a major new sense of challenge. The first time followed on the heels of the "Evangelical Awakening" of the eighteenth century. Built on the statistics of a devout and determined young man, William Carey, the movement was fueled by college students and shook believers into action, pioneering on the coastlands of Asia and Africa.
The second time followed on the heels of new revivals, built on the statistics of another devout, determined young man, Hudson Taylor. The movement was also powered by students in the massive Student Volunteer Movement, which spurred believers on to action, pioneering this time in the inland territories.
Today we have entered a third and apparently final era, followed on the heels Of significant renewal of church life. Once more another young man, Cameron Townsend, has led the way into pockets of overlooked people groups, and the pioneering for today includes all hidden peoples, tribal or otherwise. Again, unprecedented student interest is part of today's picture.
All the major mission agencies are aware of the new era. The Sudan Interior Mission has a full time man investigating new fields. The Africa Inland Mission is rapidly retooling. TEAM has been constantly reaching out to new fields. So has the Regions Beyond Missionary Union. On and on. No major mission (or even smaller one) is unaware of the challenge of the hidden peoples.
Now, if I were speaking to you in person, at this point my voice would drop to a conspiratorial whisper. Why? Because if you take seriously the facts of this article, you may immediately be branded as a zealot or at least as a weirdo. Your former friends and acquaintances who have not yet laid hold of any compelling world wide strategy may soon get a shifty look in their eyes and say under their breath, "Here comes old missions statistics again.” They'll label you a fanatic. You'll have to pioneer right in your local fellowship. Satan, "the god of this world," is in no mood for a major onslaught upon the people he is holding in darkness.
Is now really the time?
Yes, there is indeed some unfinished business.