A. T. Pierson and the Year 1900:
A Challenge for Our Day
by Todd Johnson
One hundred years ago many Christians believed that the world could be evangelized by the year 1900. At no other time in history, it seemed, had the opportunities been so great. One missions-minded pastor, A. T. Pierson, tirelessly pursued this vision from the 1870s until 1895÷when he finally gave it up as no longer feasible.
In 1881, Pierson published an article end-tied "Can the World Be Evangelized in Twenty Years?" It ran in several of the leading mission periodicals of the day. A friendly debate ensued that lasted through the dawn of the twentieth century.
Pierson and many others were convinced that the gospel could be preached to every creature by the year 1900 if the church woke up to its responsibility. Others felt that this would take more rime÷anywhere from decades to hundreds of thousands of years!
At the height of the debate, Pierson wrote a landmark book. The Crisis of Missions. Published in 1886, it quickly became a best seller.
The Crisis of Missions described in detail the tremendous opportunity the church of God had in China, India, Japan, and other major unevangelized countries. These countries, he said, were wide open to missionaries and missions. Great advances in all areas of science and technology had drastically improved the missionary outlook; the world was ready to be evangelized.
For Pierson, the crisis of missions was that the church will be judged according to how it fulfills its responsibility to bring the gospel to every creature. Those who have it within their power to share the good news must not withhold it from those who don't yet have it, he said. In light of the world's greater openness to the gospel, the church is faced with a colossal responsibility.
God gives each generation a special plan, he said, and unless we do our part to fulfill that plan, we will reap God's judgment: "In every generation a distinct and definite plan of Providence may be detected by the careful observer of God in history; and the true seers, the wisest and greatest in His eyes, are those who seek first to find out that plan and then fall into their place in it, and so serve their own generation by the Will of God."
But Why the Rush?
Pierson's answer was rather simple: God is not willing for any to perish. He loves all the nations and peoples of the world. The command is to "go into the world and preach the gospel to all creatures." The only way all creatures can hear the good news is if the bearers of the news bring it to them.
Further, "The opportunity of evangelization is practically limited to the lifetime of each generation .... Within that short period every new generation of Christian workers must accomplish whatever work they are to do for their fellow- men, for both they and the souls for whom they are held responsible are rapidly passing away."
For Pierson, evangelization meant going to the ends of the earth, placing a special priority on those areas we gospel had not yet been heard. "Paul yearned to press into regions beyond, where Christ had never been named," he wrote. "... That principle of evangelization must be the law of our Christian life if we are ever to overtake the regions beyond. We must practically feel that the call is loudest where the need is greatest and the darkness deepest"
Pierson promoted the idea of "the evangelization of the world in this generation," but he also took it a step further by placing the year 1900 in a prominent place. He led many to a faith that God would pour out His Spirit in such a way that the task of reaching every creature could be accomplished by the turn of the century.
Yet the world was not reached by 1900. Today we are still faced with a world that needs to be evangelized.
But if Pierson rightly saw his world as one that could speedily be evangelized, what can be said for our world a hundred years later? How difficult would it be for us to finish the job today? There are six areas that may provide clues to the answer.
Six Areas for Comparison
In January 1889 Pierson calculated the unevangelized population of the world at about a billion. "Nnmhal Protestants include millions of mere professors, members of state churches, formalists and ritualists, and millions more who, while they profess to be disciples, are actually immoral and infidel," he wrote.
But let us suppose that there are ten millions of true disciples who can be brought into line, and who by systematic effort can be made to furnish men and money for this work. Even with this tenth part of Christendom the world may be evangelized before the twentieth century dawns .... If we could so organize and utilize ten millions of disciples as that every one should be the means of reaching ... one hundred other souls, during the lifetime of this generation all the present population of the globe would be evangelized; . . . each of this ten million believers has only to reach between eight and nine souls every year for the twelve years that remain.
Today we figure the number of true disciples is somewhere around 300 million. The unevangelized population is close to three billion. That means in the next 12 years each true disciple needs to reach only 10 people. If we measure the size of our task in terms of a ratio of Christians to non-Christians, our job is ten times easier today than it was 100 years ago!
Is the watchword, "A Church for Every People by the Year 2000" less reasonable today than the similar goal suggested by A. T. Pierson 100 years ago?
Today the innovations of the late 19th century seem like ancient history. You can now travel anywhere in the world in less than 24 hours. A jet will soon take passengers from New York to Tokyo in an hour. With satellite communication, televised messages can reach every point on the globe at virtually the same instant.
What do these and a myriad of other technological wonders say about our ability to finish the job of world evangelization? If railroads and telegraphs challenged our forefathers to greater faith, should not Concorde jets and fiber-optic cables inspire us to new heights of expectation for the future?
3) Mission Agencies and Personnel
In another vein, although mission agencies met together at a number of large conferences, for the most part they tended to strategize and work by themselves.
Today, many agencies send teams of workers for mutual support and greater efficiency. In nearly every country of the world special inter-agency committees meet together in order to look at the larger task of the church. Cooperation is at what seems to be an all-time high.
In North America alone, the IFMA and EFMA have shown great promise in cooperation and unity. The Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, one of the greatest and most powerful mission forces in the world, has sponsored a couple of meetings to encourage North American evangelical missions to cooperate so they can complete the task by the year 2000.
There is a large and fast-growing contingent of missionaries from the non-Western world today. And those who go as missionaries, of course, face hardships, but most no longer work in fear of their lives, struggling merely to survive.
Estimates of the number of missionaries in the world range from 100,000 to 200,000. Compared with the number of non-Christians in the world, that means that since 1890, the worldwide Christian missionary force has increased in size somewhere between seven and 14 times.
The lack of personnel is no excuse for not finishing the task of world evangelization by A.D. 2000.
Much is said from time to time about the generous giving of disciples. There are thirty or forty millions of Protestant Church members to-day, and twelve millions of dollars is the utmost aggregate sum that is given to foreign missions by these Christians; whereas, if everyone of them gave one cent a day, it would amount to over one hundred millions, and if every one of them gave three cents a day, it would yield over three hundred and twenty-five millions a year!
There is something wrong when, in the coffers of American and British Christians, there lie twenty-five thousand millions (25 billion) of dollars, and God cannot get for the whole work of foreign evangelization more than twelve millions of that immense summit (From The Greatest Work in The World. 1891, pp. 37-38.)
Today, just as it did 100 years ago, the church dedicates a mere pittance of its income to missions. David Barrett in his "Annual Statistical Table on Global Mission: 1988" wrote, "Only 0.1 percent (of all Christians' income) goes (toward) outreach abroad, and under one-tenth of this goes (toward) outreach to the unreached non-Christian world" (Int'l. Bulletin of Missionary Research, January 1988, pp. 16-17).
According to this same chart, the $25 billion Pierson said was in the coffers of Christians in 1890 has now risen to $8.2 trillion. Even taking into account the effects of inflation, today's figure is at least 50 times what it was in 1890! Compared with the larger non-Christian population to be reached, the church as a whole today has a financial base almost 20 times what it had in 1890.
Finances should be no obstacle for the church to complete its task!
In the 1880s and '90s, the Y.M.C.A. was powerful and supplied many people willing to go themselves and to mobilize others for missionary service. But Christian Endeavor, which would eventually affect millions, was just getting started in 1881. The Student Volunteer Movement wasn't launched until 1886 and made little contribution to world evangelization before 1900.
Today we have Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship and the Urbana conventions, Campus Crusade for Christ with its mission emphasis, and the Navigators and hundreds of other student groups that build missions into their discipleship process.
Specialized groups like Caleb Resources (see this issue of Mission Frontiers, p. 6) seek to serve young people in increasing their mission vision. Last year over 30,000 students were exposed to mission vision through the Caleb Resources traveling team ministry.
Student movements, obviously, are not limited to the Western world. Thousands of Two-Thirds world students have committed their lives for overseas service. We don't have to look to the dawn of the 21st century to find adequate numbers of missionaries to finish the job. They come from every part of the world and are ready to be deployed today.
Robert Arthington of Leeds, England, for example, suggested there may have been anywhere from 80,000 to 100,000 unreached tribes in the world ... though he wasn't sure. Leeds realized that trial evangelization in each field would be necessary before one could be sure how far the gospel would travel before encountering barriers.
Today we have massive computer databases with great quantities of information on all parts of the world. The disciplines of anthropology and sociology have opened doors of understanding into many previously unknown and unreached peoples.
A number of mission leaders have said they believe it is no lack of research that hold us back from completing the task. Hundreds of unreached peoples and unevangelized populations have been cataloged: yet most remain untargeted today.
A Matter of Faith and Obedience
We have shown that, in proportion to the population that has yet to be reached with the gospel, evangelical Christians have ten times as many people available to complete the task as they did in 1890; they have a missionary force that is somewhere between seven and 14 times as large, and they have a financial base that is close to 20 times what it was in 1890.
Looked at through the eyes of faith, the task that confronted our brothers and sisters in the nineteenth century was not above their means; they simply failed to rise to the challenge. Today the task is even less daunting.
We do not want to underestimate the difficulties involved, but there is no compelling reason we must fail to reach the world by the year 2000. If we will rise to the occasion, we could see a church for every people by the year 2000. It is only a matter of faith and obedience.
An Appeal to Make Plans
Is the church taking its job seriously, when worldwide it has such poor plans to evangelize the remaining unreached peoples?
In January 1989, about 200 mission leaders are scheduled to meet in Singapore. All 200 of them have a common bond: the agencies they represent have adopted plans to evangelize the world by the year 2000. Their plans differ. One organization intends to reach one billion people with the gospel. Another wants to plant daughter organizations in every country of the world. A third says it wants to give Jesus a 2000th birthday present: a world that is "half Christian."
These and hundreds of other plans like them are noble. But when the meeting in Singapore is through, will the mission leaders come away with anything more than a greater awareness of each other's plans? Will they have finally planned together to finish the task?
That these leaders intend to meet may indicate that the church is finally ready to take its job seriously. But let us pray that, when they meet, they will not merely discuss how to do better what they already intend to do. Let us pray they will see the necessity of looking at the entire world and that, working back from the year 2000, they will map out a comprehensive plan to reach the remaining unreached peoples.
Let us pray that, in order to harness the church's forces most efficiently without overlap in efforts, they will jointly specify which of their agencies will take responsibility to evangelize which unreached peoples. Let us pray that the Central Asian Turkic Speakers and hundreds of other unevangelized peoples will finally be targeted to hear the gospel.
In July of 1882 someone wrote concerning the task of world evangelization, "Surely this is not an impossible task . . . More than eighteen hundred years have passed since Jesus said, 'Go into all the world'; and why should the church wait a hundred years longer before inaugurating a work that will reach every nation, tribe and people?" (quoted in Missionary Review, July 1882, p. 251).
A hundred years have passed. How much longer must we wait?