Three Men, Three Eras
The Flow of Missions History
College students around the reversals, because they "know" world today are being bowled over that time is in their favor. by Marxist thought. One powerful reason is that Communism has a Recently, evangelicals, too, "long look." Communists claim to have thought alot about trends in know where history is heading, history and their relationship to and that they are merely following events to come. The massive reinevitable trends. They "never sponse to Hal Lindsey's books give up" as a result of momentary and recent films about possible events in the future has shown us that people are responsive to a "Where are we going?" kind of approach to life.
In comparison to the Communists, Christians actually have the longest look, backed up by a volume of facts. Yet for some reason, Christians often make little connection between discussion of prophecy and future events, and discussion of missions. They see the Bible as a book of prophecy, both in the past and for the future. Yet, as Bruce Ker has said so well, "The Bible is a missionary book throughout. . . The main line of argument that binds all of it together is the unfolding and gradual execution of a missionary purpose."
Did I even hear this in Sunday School? Maybe. But only recently have I come to a new appreciation of the fact that the story of missions begins long before the Great Commission. The Bible is very clear that God told Abraham he was to be blessed and be a blessing to all the families of the earth (Gen. 12: 1. 3). Peter quoted this on the day he spoke in the temple (Acts 3:25). Paul quoted the same mandate in his letter to the Galatians (3:8).
Yet some Bible commentators imply that only the first part of that verse could have happened right away. They agree that Abraham was to begin to be blessed right away, but somehow they reason that two thousand years would have to pass before either Abraham or his descendants could begin "to be a blessing to all the families of the earth." They suggest that Christ needed to come first and institute his Great Commission. (I call this "The Theory of the Hiberhating Mandate.")
A more recent and exciting interpretation observes that Israel, as far back as Abraham, was accountable to share that blessing with other nations. In the same way, since the time of the Apostle Paul, every nation which has contained any significant number of "children of Abraham's faith" has been similarly accountable (but both Israel and the other nations have mainly failed to carry out this mandate).
The greatest scandal in the Old Testament is that Israel tried to be blessed without trying very hard to be a blessing. However, let's be careful:
The average citizen of Israel was no more oblivious to the second part of Genesis 12:1 3 than the average Christian today is oblivious to the Great Commission! How easily our study Bibles overlook the veritable string of key passages in the Old Testament which exist to remind Israel (and us) of the missionary mandate: Gen 12:1 3, 18:18, 22:18, 28:14, Ex. 19:4 6, Mun. 16:22, Deut. 28:10, 32:21, 2 Cliron. 6:33, Ps. 69,96, 105, Isa. 40:5, 42:4, 49:6, 56:3, 6¬8, Jer. 12:14 17, Ez. 6:9, Zech. 2:11, Mal. 1:11.
Likewise, today, nations which have been singularly blessed by God may choose to resist and try to conceal any sense of their obligation to be a blessing to other nations. But that is not God's will. "Unto whomsoever much is given. of him shall much be required."
Thus, how many times in the average church today is the Great Commission mentioned? Even less often than it comes up in the Old Testament! Yet the commission applies. I believe it has been constantly applicable from the very moment when it was first given (Gen. 12:1 3). As individual Christians and as a nation we are responsible "to be a blessing to all the families of the earth."
This mandate has been overlooked during most of the centuries since the apostles. Even our Protestant tradition plugged along for over 250 years minding its own business and its own blessings (like Israel of old) until a young man of great faith and incredible endurance appeared of the scene.
An "under thirty" young man, William Carey, got into trouble when he began to take the Great Commission seriously. When he had the opportunity to address a group of ministers, he challenged them to give a reason why the Great Commission did not apply to them. They rebuked him, saying, "When God chooses to win the heathen, He will do it without your help or ours." He was unable to speak again on the subject, so he patiently wrote out his analysis, An Enquiry Into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens.
The resulting small book convinced a few of his friends to create a tiny missions agency, the "means" of which he had spoken. The structure was flimsy and weak, providing only the minimal backing he needed to go to India. However, the impact of his example reverberated throughout the English speaking world, and his little book became the Magna Carta of the Protestant missions movement.
William Carey was not the first Protestant missionary. For years the Moravians had sent people to Greenland, America and Africa. But his little book, in combination with the Evangelical Awakening, quickened vision and changed lives on both sides of the Atlantic. Response was almost instantaneous: a second missionary society was founded in London; two in Scotland; one in Holland; and then still another in England. By then it was apparent to all that Carey was right when he had insisted that organized efforts in the form of missions societies were essential to the success of the missionary endeavor.
In America, five college students, aroused by Carey's book, met to pray for God's direction in their lives. This unobtrusive prayer meeting, later known as the "Haystack Prayer Meeting," resulted in an American "means" the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions. Even more important, they started a student mission movement which became the example and forerunner of other student movements in missions to this day.
In fact, during the first 25 years after Carey sailed to India, a dozen mission agencies were formed on both sides of the Atlantic, and the 1st era in Protestant missions was off to a good start. Realistically speaking, however, missions in this 1st era was a pitifully small shoe-string operation, in relation to the major preoccupations of most Europeans and Americans in that day. The idea that we should organize in order to send missionaries did not come easily, but it eventually became an accepted pattern.
Carey's influence led some women in Boston to form women's missionary prayer groups, a trend which led to women becoming the main custodians of mission knowledge and motivation. After some years women began to go to the field as single missionaries. Finally, by 1865, unmarried American women established women's mission boards which, like Roman Catholic women's orders, only sent out single women as missionaries and were run entirely by single women at home.In the 1st Era, progress on the field was painfully, agonizingly slow. Missionary after missionary succumbed to fever, especially in West Africa. Early missionaries were well aware that they were probably going to their death. Out of 35 who went to Ghana between 1835 and 1870, only two lived more than two years. Yet the Gospel took root and grew.
Where the Gospel went, the results were often amazing. As a result, in 1865, missionaries from the Hawaiian Islands (one of the earliest fields) began to go home. They believed the job was done. With their withdrawal, the 1st Era in missions began to decline. But another was about to begin.
Hudson Taylor, also under thirty, was considered impertinent because he thought he should start a new mission organization. With much trepidation he did so in 1865, even though that was the year missionaries were being brought home from Hawaii. It took 20 years for other missions to be gin to join Taylor in his special emphasis the untouched, inland frontiers.
One reason the 2nd Era began slowly is that many people were confused. There were already many missions in existence. Why more? Yet as Taylor pointed out, all existing agencies were confined to the coastlands of Africa and Asia, or islands in the Pacific. People questioned, "Why go to the interior if you haven't finished the job on the coast?"
Finally, in the late 1880's, existing agencies began to re tool for new fields, and a rash of new mission agencies were born with the new inland emphasis: the Sudan Interior Mission, Africa Inland Mission, Heart of Africa Mission, Regions Beyond Missionary Union, as well as others whose names did not so clearly reflect their awareness of the new frontiers. The 2nd Era had arrived.
As in the early stage of the 1st Era, when things began to move, God brought forth a student movement. This one was more massive than before the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions. In the 1880's and 1890's there were only 1/37th as many college students as there are today, but the Student Volunteer Movement netted 100,000 volunteers who gave their lives to missions. 20,000 actually went overseas. As we see it now, the other 80,000 had to stay home to rebuild the foundations of the missions endeavor. They began the Laymen's Missionary Movement and strengthened existing women's missionary societies.
However, as the fresh new college students of the 2nd Era burst on the scene overseas, they did not always fathom how the older missionaries of the 1st Era could have turned responsibility over to national leadership at the least educated levels of society. 1st Era missionaries were in the minority now, and the wisdom they had gained from their experience was bypassed by the large number of the new college educated recruits. Thus, in the early stages of the 2nd Era, the new missionaries, instead of going to new frontiers, sometimes assumed leadership over existing churches, forcing 1st Era missionaries and national leadership (which had been painstakingly developed) into the background. In some cases this caused a huge step backward in mission strategy.
By 1925, however, the 'largest mission movement in history was in full swing. By then 2nd Era missionaries had finally learned the basic lessons they had first ignored, and produced an incredible record. They had planted churches in a thousand new places, mainly "inland," and by 1940 the reality of the "younger churches" around the world was widely acclaimed as the "great new fact of out time." The strength of these churches led both national churches and missionaries to assume that all additional frontiers could simply be mopped up by the ordinary evangelism of the churches scattered throughout the world. More and more people wondered if, in fact, missionaries weren't needed so badly! Once more, as in 1865, it seemed logical to send missionaries home from many areas of the world.
In 1967, the total number of career missionaries from America began to decline (and it has continued to do so to this day). Why? Christians had been led to believe that all necessary beacheads had been established. By 1967, over 90 percent of. all missionaries from North America were working with strong natinal churches that had been in existence for some time.
The facts, however, were not that simple. Unnoticed by most everyone, another era had begun.
Third Era: Cameron Townsend "To the Hidden People!"
This era was begun by another young man. Cameron Townsend, a Student Volunteer in Los Angeles, was in so much of a hurry to get to the mission field that he didn't bother to finish college. He went to Guatemala as a "2nd Era" missionary, building on work which had been done in the past. In that country, as in all other mission fields, there was plenty to do by missionaries working with established national churches. But Townsend was alert enough to notice that the majority of Guatemala's population did not speak Spanish. As he moved from village to village, trying to distribute scriptures written in the Spanish language, he began to realize that Spanish evangelism would never reach all Guatemala's people. He was further convinced of this when an Indian asked him, "If your God is so smart, why can't he speak our language?" He was just 23 when he began to move on the basis of this new perspective. In our time, there is any one person comparable to William Carey and Hudson Taylor, I believe it is Cameron Townsend. Like Carey and Taylor, Townsend saw that there were still unreached frontiers, and for almost a half century he has waved the flag for the overlooked tribal peoples of the world. He started out hoping to help older boards reach out to tribal people. Like Carey and Taylor, he ended up starting his own mission, Wycliffe Bible Translators, which is dedicated to reaching these new frontiers. At first he thought there must be about 500 unreached tribal groups in the world. (He was judging by the large number of tribal languages in Mexico alone.) Later, he revised his figure to 1,000, then 2,000, and now it is closer to 5,000. As his conception of the enormity of the task has increased, the size of his organization has increased. Today it numbers over 4,000 adult workers.
As happened in the early stages of the first two eras, the 3rd Era has spawned a number of new mission agencies. Some, like the New Tribes Mission, carry in their names reference to this new emphasis. The names of others, such as Gospel Recordings and Mission Aviation Fellowship, refer to the new technologies neccessary for the reaching of tribal and other isolated peoples of the world. Some 2nd Era agencies, like Regions Beyond Missionary Union, have never ceased to stress frontiers, and have merely increased their staff so they can penetrate further to people groups previously overlooked.
More recently many have begun to realize that tribal peoples are not the only forgotten peoples. Many other groups, some in the middle of partially Christianized areas, have been completely overlooked. These peoples are being called the 'Hidden Peoples" and are defined by ethnic or sociological traits to be people so different from the cultural traditions of any existing church that missions (rather than evangelism) strategies are necessary for the planting of indigenous churches within their particular traditions.
India will serve as an example. It is a country of 3,000 sub nations. Some of these have been penetrated with the Gospel of Christ. In fact, about 100 have some Christians among them. Only 21 have substantial numbers of Christians. This means that over 2,900 of the sub nations of India still have no church which is native to their particular social or people group. Such are India's "Hidden Peoples." However, don't give up! Almost 25 percent of these "Hidden Peoples" have been profoundly influenced by the work of Christ in other sectors.
If the 1st Era was characterized by reaching coastland peoples and the 2nd Era by inland territories, the 3rd Era must be characterized by the more difficult to define, non¬geographical category which we have called "Hidden Peoples"people groups which are socially isolated. Because this concept has been so hard to define, the 3rd Era has been even slower getting started than the 2nd Era. Cameron Townsend began calling attention to forgotten peoples in 1934, but only recently has any major attention been given to them. More tragic still, we have essentially forgotten the pioneering techniques of the 1st and 2nd Eras, so we almost need to re invent the wheel as we learn again how to approach groups of people completely untouched by the gospel!
However, as the timeline shows, there is an increasing number of events which are focusing the church's attention on the unfinished task in missions. We are no longer content to glory in the really amazing achievements of the mission movement.
We know that there are at least 16,750 people groups in the "Hidden People" category. Each one will require a separate, new missionary beachhead. Is this too much? Can this be done? Is there any realism in the slogan gaining currency, "A Church for Every People by the Year 2000"?
Can We Do It?
The task is not as difficult as it may seem, for several surprising reasons. In the first place, the task is not an American one, nor even a Western one. It will involve Christians from every continent of the world. In 1980, we know of over 400 mission agencies in the non western world, which are sending over 10,000 missionaries and the number is increasing.
More significant is the fact that when a beachhead is established within a culture, the normal evangelistic process which God expects every Christian to be involved in replaces the mission strategy, because the mission task of "breaking in" is finished. Thus, establishing a beachhead in each "Hidden People" group by the year 2000 is a goal readily within our grasp.
Furthermore, "closed countries" are less and less of a problem, because the modern world is becoming more and more interdependent. There are literally no countries today which admit no foreigners. Many of the countries considered "completely closed" like Saudi Arabia are in actual fact avidly recruiting thousands of skilled people from other nations. And the truth is, they prefer devout Christians to boozing, womanizing secular Westerners.
Thus certain exciting meetings in 1980 the COWE meeting in Thailand [see Mission Frontiers, August 1980] the World Consultation on Frontier Missions in Edinburgh, and the associated International Student Consultation on Frontier Missions [see Mission Frontiers, December 1980] in the same city are all flash points of new departure in the heating up of the 3rd Era.
Meanwhile, key 2nd Era mission agencies like the Sudan Interior Mission are turning their attention to new fields. SIM's Gerald Swank has located over a dozen new beachheads where SIM is seeking to begin again. The Missouri Synod Lutherap Church has voted to triple its missionary force by 1990 in order to open 10 new major fields where they will reach Hidden Peoples. Dozens of examples could be given.
At this writing, at least 1,000 local churches are consciously stepping forward into the 3rd Era with new concern for remaining frontiers. ACMC [Association of Church Missions Committees] is a vital new force, getting stronger every day, which is offering help to any church which wants to get serious about the Great Commission.
No one organization has ever been able to do what a movement can do. We all can thank God that the 3rd Era is now an authentic reality, pulling all vital Evangelical efforts into perspective, and the single motivating force of the Abrahamic mandate and the Great commission are giving new compelling purpose to our generation.
"And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations [ethne, peoples], and then the end will come. . ." Matthew 24:14