The Last Frontier
The world is about to see the most concentrated missionary effort in history. It will be the final assault by the most potent missionary force ever gathered.
This last great missionary surge will see the return of the pith helmeted Bible warrior or at least the principles which sent him to the wilds of Africa and beyond.
The modern day battalions of William Careys will be made up mostly of young people whose zeal has been fired by this awesome statistic: 2 billion people have no opportunity to hear about Jesus today.
They make up the world's unreached people, a vast collection of 16.750 distinct groups who will have no chance of hearing the gospel unless there is a major rethink on mission strategy.
Making these statements is a middle aged, balding former anthropologist and missionary called Dr Ralph Winter. He is the General Director of the US Centre for World Mission. The centre is based in a former college campus in Pasadena, California and has a staff of 130. It is the base for perhaps the most concentrated study on mission strategy in the world today.
And one of its conclusions: There are two apparently conflicting impressions about mission work in the world today. One impression is that a straggling band of underpaid, overworked, independent minded missionaries have brought Christ into virtually every country of the world, says Dr Winter.'With the help of God they opened 85 per cent of the schools in Africa and established 600 hospitals in India. Today Africa and Asia have at least one million evangelical Christians and about a thousand new churches open their doors every week.
'What a fantastic achievement.'
'But,' warns Dr Winter, 'On the other hand the unfinished task looks mammoth. Five out of six non Christians can never hear the gospel even if the current mission efforts keep expanding.
Most of these non Christians are Hindu, Muslim or Chinese. No church exists in their culture. They are hidden the Hidden Peoples. Pioneer missionaries must be sent if they are to be reached.
Dr. Winter argues that 'the true tragedy today is that most of the world's non Christians remain buried out of sight while devout but unaware Christians are concentrating their efforts on these who ore already rescued
'This is partly understandable. In any rescue operation, as more and more victims are pulled out there is an increasing need to care for those victims medical aid through treatment for shock and so on.' The cries of those who had been rescued were more apparent than the voices of still buried victims.
'As a result most rescue workers can become involved in caring for those already rescued even though the majority of the population remains buried with time running out. Today 50,000 of 55,000 protestant missionaries serve 1) the existing churches; 2) the newly founded churches; 3) the people within cultures where the gospel has already penetrated.'
By comparison there were no national full time Christian workers among the Hidden Peoples and only one of every 171 full time workers tried to reach them. 'The 'visible' needy have gained most of the attention.'
Dr. Winter who is married with four daughters is a fascinating man to interview. He talks in measured, thoughtful tones, often using his hands to emphasize a point. Of medium height and a conservative dresser, his hopes for the future are far from conservative.
After spending only a couple of hours with him as I did during his recent UK visit you can't fail to be infected by his intense vision of a glorious final missionary era, which sees a church for every people by the year 2,000.
Dr. Winter says the Hidden Peoples can only be reached by a missionary going into their society. 'The idea is very simple. It's a basic, primary mission. The main aim of the US Centre for World Mission is to find out where these Hidden Peoples are and to mobilise Christian missionary work to reach them.'
The Bible knows all about the culturally distinct people who make up the Hidden Peoples. When Jesus commanded his followers to make disciples of all nations he was referring to the distinct cultural groupings of the world, Dr Winter believes.
'He wasn't referring to the members of the United Nations. If you look up your Oxford English Dictionary you'll find that the word nation has only recently been applied to countries. All down through the history of the English language its meaning has been sub nation or cultural groupings.'
The Hidden Peoples or nations are dotted throughout the world. In fact Dr Winter's centre has pinpointed 16,750. They add up to a staggering 2.456 billion people or more than half of the world's population. 'It's an overwhelming number, but it's also immensely feasible to reach them', he says.
Hidden Peoples can be anywhere even in London. 'In this city you may have a group of people, for example from the Punjab in India, within whose social traditions there are no Christians at all. There is no one who speaks their language orunderstands them who is a Christian.'
Dr. Winter divides the Hidden Peoples into four groups. The first is the tribal group the smallest in terms of the total number of people but the biggest of all in terms of work required.
'There are more languages, more complexities to be dealt with in this category than in all the other categories put together. There are a total of 100 200 million people in this group. For example Papua New Guinea has more untouched languages than any other single place on the earth. And in Southern Russia there are hundreds and hundreds of diverse groups.'
The three other major groups are more well known the Chinese, the Hindus and the Muslims. 'Muslims speak 580 different languages. Even among the explicitly Chinese people there are at least 200 different mutually unintelligble varieties of Chinese. Hundreds and hundreds of
sub groups need to be penetrated in China.'
Dr Winter told me that in India social analysts had discovered 3,000 'nations'. 'The gospel has really substantially penetrated only 21 of these 3,000 human societies. There are some Christians in about 50 others but there are 2,900 social traditions in India within which there is not a church. There may be a Christian here and there but there is no worshipping tradition within that group.'
Why had the Hidden Peoples been so neglected? 'Neglect is the wrong word. To some extent I think it's an omission, an unintentional omission. It's not that we've been doing the wrong thing; we've simply been very very busy.
'It's not for nothing that 1000 churches open their doors on every Sunday in Africa and Asia for the first time. It's not for nothing that 85 percent of all the schools in Africa are there because of Christian mission. We've been incredibly busy.'
Dr. Winter firmly believes that the world is entering the final era of mission in which the gospel will be preached to every 'nation' thus fulfilling Jesus' prophecy about his return to the earth (Matt 24:14).
He pinpoints three eras of mission in the recent history of the Church The first era began around 1792 with the pioneer missionary efforts of people like William Carey. This was an era of basic primary mission. 'Missionaries simply left their homeland, went to new countries and started preaching the gospel wherever they landed. It was pretty much coastlands mission.'
The second missionary surge started around 1865 when Hudson Taylor noted that massive inland areas of countries were still totally untouched by the gospel. 'This the second era is now pretty much to a close. At the moment we're sending missionaries to other countries merely to work with churches that are already there. And of course that's a result of success not failure.'
'But we are now entering the third era, which I believe will be the last era of mission.'
And he believes that the best way of reaching every nation in this final era is through the old¬style pioneer missionary approach of William Carey.
'All mechanisms, whether it's tv, radio, Bible translation or children's evangelism are good methods. But they all fall to the ground before the simple old fashioned approach of the missionary who goes and sits where they sit; who stays long enough not only to know new people, but to be known and to gain the confidence of them.
'There is no substitute for the simple missionary.'
But don't most churches believe that pioneer mission work is finished? 'Yes. I think that's very plain.' So a whole lot of re education has to be done? 'Massive. But I don't think it's impossible.'
And Dr Winter believes that young people hold the key. He predicts that two different sets of mission agencies may develop a younger university led division pioneering the final assault on the last frontier of world mission. And an older division still mainly working with overseas national churches.
Dr Winter issued a call to Britain's young Christians to help lead this final assault. 'We've got to rebuild pioneer mission perspective in the churches and the student world, in the mission agencies and the overseas churches.'
There was a very urgent need for a new student movement in the world of mission. A student volunteer movement for frontier missions had really fuelled the tires and given the muscle to the second era of mission between 1886 and 1891. 'They catapulted 100,000 people into lifelong missionary commitment.'
This student movement had 'whirled up into a movement of immense power. It went all over the world. Various national Christian councils were founded in its wing. it had an enormous influence.'
But he predicts that there will be opposition to new mission moves from within the Christian world 'There is a considerate, sincere mindset in opposition.'
How will the current mission agencies have to alter their approach in this final era? What have you got to say to missions in Britain? 'What! would say would be of very little influence. But examples speak louder than words. And two of the best examples are Operation Mobilisation and Youth With A Mission. 1 think the older missions are going to be run a merry, merry chase by these two. Not that they've got everything perfectly right. But they've certainly captured the imagination of young people and students.'
And he predicted the formation of a whole host of new missions like YWAM and OM. 'That's what happened at the beginning of the second era. Forty new missions came into being before the older missions really began to retool for the second era.' But he also believes that 'many of the older missions are exceedingly spry in their old age. And organisations have a delightful way of putting in brand new younger leadership. I fret there's a great deal of alertness and sensitivity in mission. But it's like an ocean liner. You don't just swing around, there's momentum there. It takes 25 miles for Queen Elizabeth Ii to turn around, whereas a tug boat might be able to turn around in 25 yards.
'The bigger and the older the mission is, the stronger a burden it can carry but the more time it takes to change its course.'
Dr Winter backs up his call to young people with evidence of a spectacular upsurge recently in interest in mission work among young Christians. A missionary convention for young people held in the US every three years vividly illustrates this. At each convention the young people attending were asked to sign a card saying they were available for overseas missionary work.
The percentage had been going down every year. In 1970. 8 per cent of the 12,000 people at the convention said they would work overseas. By 1973 there had been a dramatic change. Attendance had grown to 14,000. There had been no alteration in the theme of the convention, no special appeal for missionary work. But the percentage of those interested in going overseas spectacularly jumped from 8 per cent to 28 per cent. In 1976 it jumped again to 51 per cent.
'It's a landslide. There is a new openness and availability to mission. If these young people ever get their teeth into the problem, the American church would never know what had happened to it. It would just be shaken to the core by the number of young people who are open to go to the very ends of the earth. They are fearless, they are not afraid. It's a very exciting era.'
And this extraordinary upsurge of interest in mission was not just limited to the United States. For example the Mission 80 conference in Switzerland was swamped by twice the number of young people expected to attend.
Dr Winter believes that 'if any generation in history has ever been so clearly capable of doing its job, it is ours. We have a much stronger base to work from than ever before. The number of Christians around the world is truly astronomical.
'There are more Christians today than there were people in the world a few centuries ago. All these vital, earnest, eager bright young people are the salt of the earth. They are the most potent force on this planet. Just get them headed in the right direction and every people every nation will have a church by the year 2000.'
Dr Winter says that a third of the world's population are Christians, or call themselves Christians. Of this figure Dr Winter and his colleagues estimate that 239 million are truly personally committed Christians. Some estimates drop as low as 160 million.
'That's. an awful lot of people and they are scattered all over. They are in all levels of society and they provide a much stronger and bigger base for mission work than any preceding era.
'it involves Christians in the whole world. Right now there are 200 different mission agencies that we can count in the non Western world and they are becoming more
numerous every day. Westerners are not the only missionaries today. This international flavour is exciting it's the Japanese linking arms with the Nigerian, with a fellow from Wales, and expressing Christ's love to a totally different culture.
'An international move of the Spirit is going to be moving among these different cultures, areas and traditions. This is thrilling and exciting.'
He believes that the pioneer missionaries of this final era will be involved in every aspect of missionary work medical, as well as directly evangelistic. 'A pioneer missionary by definition, is involved in everything that pertains to human need and incidentally always has been. It's only recently that missionaries have been parcelled out so technically.
'Whatever the problems are, whether people's teeth need attention,whether they have economic trouble, whether they drink too much, whatever the problem, a person who truly loves with the love of Christ will face and grab all those problems.'
Dr Winter speaks from experience the experience of 10 years as a missionary in Guatemala. 'We were involved with the whole spectrum of human need. And almost all mission work is involved in that whole spectrum. It's a wonderful thing that in all angles of human history there is no organisation whose mandate is broader.'
He believes that the most important aim of pioneer missionaries will be to gain the confidence of the people. A very, very difficult task. 'There's nothing more difficult than for a missionary to come in from the outside. A lot of mistakes have been made in mission work. On the other hand it's very very easy to find fault and there are many horror stories about stupid missionaries.'1 remember when / was doing my graduate work in anthropology that my professor was always reeling off stories about missionaries. That was one of the things that brought me into missions because I thought to myself good heavens, wherever the anthropologists have tramped they've always bumped into missionaries. I came to two conclusions missionaries are everywhere and they're the ones that stay. They might make mistakes but they stay long enough to correct them.'
Dr Winter believes that, in general, local churches in Britain were not interested enough in mission. 'The interest of ordinary Christians in local churches has to be revitalised. People have just sort of lost interest in mission. Mission work seems to be no longer all that interesting to local Christians. But! believe that once the Hidden People become visible, become known to local churches, the Church is going to be electrified.And he believes that the best way to grab the attention of the average churchgoer is to give him the overall picture to show him that 16,000 'nations' need to be reached with the gospel.
'1 think people have been clobbered by pieces of a jigsaw puzzle for too long. They've got to be shown the whole picture and to be shown that the job is not too big; that we can take it on.'
Missionaries throughout the world were the most extensively deployed force with the longest¬term commitment, the greatest internal knowledge of what they were doing, with the highest integrity and the greatest record of success of any enterprise in human history.
'And yet young people are so unaware of what is happening in mission around the world. They only know what is happening in their local situation. They must be given a composite picture of mission in the world and its vast potential. There has got to be a compelling move almost to retool the whole understanding of people.'
Dr Winter said that often the biggest obstacle in making people rethink about mission are people who 'know all about missions. They are the most hopeless people to retool because they know it all backwards ... are completely up to date with mission in the second era.
'But they are totally out of it when it comes to third era thinking. Every time you say something about the third era their carefully achieved knowledge of the second era blocks it out, jams the broadcast as it were. So a little knowledge is a very dangerous thing right now in missions.'
A church for every people by the year 2,000 is Dr Winter's rallying cry. It must be more than a dream.
Where are today's C T Studds, William Careys. Hudson Taylors and Livingstones? Stand up and be counted.