This is an article from the November-December 1992 issue: Building the Mission Bridge

Facing the Final Frontiers

A Report to the Interdenominational Foreign Mission Assn.

Facing the Final Frontiers

This paper was given at the same IFMA meeting 10 years ago at which the IFMA Declaration was made.(See page 33. It is reprinted here to remind us of the critical issues that still need to be addressed as we reach toward the frontiers. --Editor

It seems to me highly appropriate that the IFMA should base this conference on the theme "Penetrating the 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. I am not saying the Faith Mission Movement is the first or the only upsurge of interest in missions. I am pointing to the striking uniqueness of its degree of emphasis on frontiers. Time would fail us to recount the many different times and places down through history when a renewed obedience to the Great Commission has moved hundreds, and perhaps even thousands, to the field. However, in order to better understand and better appreciate the frontier emphasis of the Faith Mission Movement, we may do well to trace the struggle in modern times for the development of the very concept of frontiers.

I. Faith Missions and the Emergence of a Frontier Mission Awareness

In William Carey's lifetime, the major organized Protestant response to the Great Commission was born. Perceptions about missions in his day left little room for--and little need for--much reflection about the relation of mission agencies to national churches. People back home did not think of frontiers as such because at that time frontiers were virtually wherever missionaries might be sent. On the other hand, while many thinkers did have in mind the strategy of planting a national church which would stand on its own feet, there was not yet any immediate need for the kind of elaborate analysis of mission/church relationships which, for example, Harold Fuller has recently written.

Indeed, the very fact that the William Carey era was able to succeed at all is a breathtaking tribute to the inherent poer of the gospel and the faithfulness of the Spirit of God. One society in England kept on sending missionaries to Ghana for over a third of a century without a single instance of any missionary living more than two years. However, not all coastlands were quite as disease ridden as Africa's west coast. Somehow, by the grace of God and as a result of commitment so intense as to be rarely found today, the gospel was finally planted in at least the coastlands here and there all around Asia, Africa and Latin America. While this era of the coastlands left untouched the vast interiors of the non-Western continents, it does at least give clear evidence of the birth and the growth of national churches almost everywhere missionaries undertook to work.

Harold Fuller's recent book, Mission/Church Dynamics, describes four stages in mission activity in the Faith Mission era. We see these same stages in the William Carey era. That is, as Fuller outlines it, 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, then, a third stage emerged in which paternal views gave way to partnership stage. The missionary and national associations were recognized as equals.

One of the well-known fields in the era of William Carey is the Hawaiian Islands. It moved through these four stages rapidly, being far enough along by 1865 so that not even continued partnership was considered necessary for the survival and ongoing growth of the national church, and thus with a certain amount of fanfare, all missionaries were brought home. At that point, the relationship of mission to national church could, and I believe should, have entered the fourth stage Harold Fuller mentions in his book. He suggests that beyond the pioneer, the paternal, and the partnership stages may be a participation stage in which expatriate workers effectively continue on, working under the national church. From this perspective I personally believe the doctrinaire evacuation in 1865 of all missionaries from Hawaii was not altogether wise. For one thing, it exposed the virtually defenseless national believers to the ways and wiles of an ever larger influx of non-Christian mainlanders.

Looking beyond Hawaii, however, we see that in 1865 practically all of the other mission efforts of the William Carey era were also moving into the Partnership and Participation stages. This was because they continued to be focused primarily on the coastlands, leaving vast inland areas where not even the first stage of pioneer work had begun. By contrast, in Hawaii there were no inland areas, so that withdrawal in that case could not as easily be questioned.

Nevertheless, it is fascinatingly symbolic that in the same year, 1865, when the missionaries were being brought home from Hawaii, a perceptive young man, Hudson Taylor, boldly stepped forward to propose that pioneer work begin in the interior of China. To do just that he founded what eventually became the granddaddy of the Faith Missions, the China Inland Mission. The rest of the story is well known. We recall that due to a great deal of opposition, however, the Faith Mission Movement, following Hudson Taylor's lead, did not by any means jump into being. At least twenty years went by before it really became even a small movement. Why this twenty-year delay? It would be hard to over-stress the earnest conflict of perspectives during those early developments. We must realize that the bulk of mission leaders were associated with the missions of the earlier, William Carey, era. Since they were understandably preoccupied with the demands of the well-established beachheads on the coastlands, they tended to despise and ignore the cries of younger leaders who were fascinated and challenged by Taylor's emphasis on the inland frontiers. Unfortunately, Taylor's humble and deferential plan not to publish his needs (a policy partly the result of all the criticism he received for even starting a new mission) was a plan that not only attracted a great deal of attention due to its novelty, but also distracted attention from the unique and strategic emphasis on frontiers which dominated all his thinking. Had this focus on frontiers not been the case, the Faith Mission Movement might more likely (and properly) have been called the Frontier Mission Movement, or the Inland Movement. However, central as Taylor's emphasis upon faith was, are we to believe his means were more important than his ends? That is, from our perspective today, does it seem logical that Taylor's faith in a God who would support him should be considered more significant than his faith in a God who would guide him and point him specifically towards peoples which could only be touched by a highly dangerous penetration of the frontier areas of the interior of China?

In other words, looked at from the home side, the movement understandably gained the name "the faith mission movement." Looked at overseas, it could just as readily have been called "the frontier mission movement." The Faith Mission Movement was indeed the first mission movement to be aimed at some place else besides where missions had been focused for a hundred years. It is the first movement in which this distinction was crucial. Thus, while the Faith Mission Movement is to this day characterized by a faithful looking to the Lord for support, it is, in my opinion, even more significantly characterized by the Pauline passion to go to new places where the gospel has never been preached. Today as then, arguments more readily arise over the way funds are "reached" than over the way frontiers are "reached." People may support us just because (and so long as) we are willing to suffer "somewhere." God supports us because we are willing to reach the neediest, most desperate, and most helpless peoples, even though we may have to suffer in the process.

Thus, in the era of the growth of the Faith Mission Movement, despite the partial misunderstanding on the part of the people back home, there was clearly (among the leaders of that movement at least) an acute awareness of the special concern of God for the frontiers. They discovered that on that subject, God was indeed willing to arrange for their support. Today we look back with amazement upon what resulted--a mammoth, far-reaching upsurge in the entire Protestant mission movement, the like of which we have never seen before or since. Very soon, not just the new "faith" missions but also the older denominational boards caught the fever for the frontiers. This new emphasis became so central all across the board that by 1910, as is well known, the first world level meeting of mission leaders at Edinburgh took as an organizing principle the decision to limit participation to agencies sending missionaries "among non-Christian peoples." The somewhat clumsy, continent-by-continent implementation of this decision, whether ideal or not, is evidence of their developed concern for the frontiers. In the process they incidentally received a lot of flack from agencies they ruled out.

In any case, although this movement to new frontiers began in England, its spiritual power, even in England, 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 branches of British Faith Mission structures as well as inspiring many new distinctively American beginnings. Again, mainly due to the SVMFM, the center of gravity of world mission had by the end of the First World War decisively moved to North America. Precisely then, in 1917, seventy-five years ago, IFMA was born. It is interesting that the word foreign rather than faith was used in the IFMA title. I believe it would have been most appropriate had it become the Interdenominational Inland Mission Association or the Interdenominational Frontier Mission Association. But, in view of the terminology of the still powerful Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, it was no doubt generally understood that foreign meant frontiers, and that all frontiers were foreign--this in spite of the strong emergence of the new inland emphasis versus the coast- land beachheads.

While it is not quite true to say that the entire impetus of the Faith Mission Movement is represented within the membership of the IFMA, it certainly is fair to say that the IFMA more than any other single organized entity today does represent the Faith Mission legacy, which is thus a specifically Frontier Mission legacy. Older missions converted over to frontiers, but the Faith Missions were born for frontiers instead of for well-established fields.

It is relevant to point out that during the existence of the IFMA, many other frontier mission carrier vehicles have bitten the dust. What a tragedy! Suppose, for example, the SVM had not shortsightedly allowed its board of directors to be appointed by five other organizations that were eventually to go liberal. Or, suppose the Edinburgh 1910 leaders had not unthinkingly committed the future of that tradition to an International Missionary Council not clearly constituted by mission leaders, tending increasingly to ignore mission structures as such and to cater to denominational leadership for understanding, support and guidance. Suppose two vastly influential movements--the Young People's Missionary Movement and the Laymen's Missionary Movement--had not compromised themselves with the political mechanics of the increasingly mixed traditions of the mainline denominations. And, suppose the Student Foreign Mission Fellowship (founded in 1936 by mainly IFMA-related young people) had not acquiesced to a somewhat similar alliance with a nurture-oriented organization but instead had maintained its autonomy in an exclusively mission emphasis. Or, even, let's suppose the Christian and Missionary Alliance had given up its early commitment to an across-the-board promotion of the frontiers among all groups becoming, rather, first a mission board and later a denomination in its own right. If any of these frontier vision carrying societies had survived, we might not be able to say, as, unfortunately, we can, that more than any other major structure surviving today, the IFMA stands out significantly as the principal carrier vehicle for the frontier mission vision of the original Faith Mission Movement.

But what about the EFMA? Does it not also have a distinctively frontier mission emphasis? Does it not, in a very real sense, also represent the Faith Mission Movement? Obviously it would be foolhardy to overlook the fact that the thermal explosion of the 1890-1920 period is indeed considerably reflected in the mood and consecrated efforts of the older EFMA agencies especially. However, the specific origin and emphasis of the EFMA derives mainly from the simple fact that the 2nd World War catapulted ten million Americans out across the world into direct contact with existing mission fields, the post- war result being the largest burst of new agencies ever to be formed in so short a period. Moreover, the predominant characteristic of these new, mostly "service missions" was the concern for aiding and abetting the efforts of existing missions in many technical frontiers, but not necessarily mission frontiers.

The other element in the EFMA is, of course, the strong presence of the mission boards of a number of evangelical denominations. Many of these, as I have said, were in fact distinctly frontier groups, especially in their earlier efforts. But is it possible that denominational boards, readily accepting a permanent tie between their churches at home and the new churches overseas, face a slightly greater temptation to prolong their ministry to the overseas national churches? May they more easily tend to misinterpret their mission function as being simply and permanently service to the overseas churches? In some cases this is happening. In any case, it is certainly true that the mood of the moment of history in which the EFMA was formed was not a mood of pioneering in the strict sense in which Frontiers are being discussed these days. It was, it seems to me, more a mood of carrying forward, expanding and reinforcing existing beachheads. On the other hand, nothing I have said here will prevent the EFMA agencies from a new emphasis upon the frontiers. Indeed, we also see that happening before our eyes. The International Foursquare Gospel has already adopted a goal of reaching 100 Unreached groups by 1990. And at the EFMA Executives Retreat in 1979, a poll of the agencies present indicated that they had engaged or intended to engage close to 6,000 groups by 1990.

Finally, what I have said thus far is not intended in any sense to encourage the IFMA to boast. Indeed, my intention is to make as clear as I can how much more likely it is that God would not forgive the IFMA should it fail to be the very first and foremost today to respond to the challenge of the new frontiers. I am happy to say I believe the IFMA is in some respects taking the lead. I think, for example, that it is reasonable and natural for the IFMA to have been the first of these two major mission associations to establish a Frontier Peoples Committee. Once more, "Why, reasonable?" Because the IFMA was literally born out of a passion for specifically new work versus follow-through work, and as an association had more than a quarter of a century lead over the EFMA in its existence and commitment to such frontiers.

Now let us turn to a consideration of the frontiers themselves.

II. The Physical Nature of Mission Frontiers

The various uses of the word frontier as found listed in the dictionary mostly do not concern us. A frontier is technically a boundary. Even the various uses of the word within the world of missions across the centuries are too diverse to concern us. The specific significance of the word for our use today should, I believe, rest upon the more recent history of deliberations in national and international evangelical gatherings. However, in order to describe both the physical nature and spiritual need represented by the frontiers, we face two quite separate subjects. The nature of these frontiers is that they are a certain type of group of people, a Biblical concept not talked about much in America today. But then, the need of these frontier groups, which we will take up later, is that they lack something that is both theologically and missiologically crucial.

My own earliest attempt at a conceptualization of the physical nature of frontiers was set forth in a brief essay I was asked to write for the 1974 ICOWE meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland. I was certainly not inventing anything, but merely stressing 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. Certainly, individuals are not necessarily excluded from concern by the Biblical concept of nation. However, even when we turn to Mark 16:15, we discover that the long-accepted phrase "to every creature" found both in the King James version and the New King James version, is more exactly translated "to all creation," as in the New American Standard Bible. Thus the correct translation does not speak of individuals, but leaves the precise breakdown open. In my opinion, the phrase "all creation" can very easily be understood to refer to the Biblical table of nations found in Genesis 10.

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 of the four cases. In the fourth, 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 non-identical peoples. If what we notice here is true, it has profound meaning for mission strategy.

However, lest anyone think that the concept of frontiers I am describing here is based upon merely a phenomenon of New Testament Greek, let us go back to the book of Genesis. In chapter 10, where we see the table of nations, a key word used for the units described is the word mishpahah. A few verses later, in 12:3, where their redemption is mentioned, the same word occurs. This word comes into English often as families or kindreds, but really has no exact English translation. One thing we do know about the word is that when the children of Israel entered the Promised Land, there were 12 tribes but 60 mishpahah. Two of the tribes were so small as to be referred to as mishpahah. That is, they were both a tribe (goyim) and apparently also of the size of one of the mishpahah. The other ten tribes were larger and averaged a half dozen mishpahah within them. It is especially significant that in the remainder of Genesis, in all five instances where it is clearly said that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are to be blessed and through whom all of the kindreds or peoples of the earth would be blessed, the word mishpahah alternates with goyim. That is, in the first and last instances, the word is goyim, while in the middle three instances the word is mishpahah, the smaller entity. In the Septuagint, all five cases are translated uniformly ta ethne, which is the Greek word in the Great Commission of Matthew 28. In none of these instances does the Bible speak with the typical American perspective which would be inclined to translate the key clause, "to be a blessing to all of the individuals of the earth.

Parenthetically, when American mission leaders prior to the 1910 Edinburgh conference parceled out the remaining task of missions, it is interesting to note that they did it on the basis of the number of individuals to be won, not the number of peoples to be discipled. I confess I still find myself slipping into that American pattern of thinking. When I was a kid, the key verse of 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 individual souls. 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. For one thing, we must be willing to allow individuals the Christian liberty to seek and to enjoy their own group fellowship so long as this is not seen as an escape from the very real Christian unity and solidarity which God expects from all of those who are bought by the blood of the Lamb.

Before leaving this subject, let us be sure to identify just one thing that we do not mean. There have been legitimate fears abroad that in defining frontiers, we would fall prey accidentally to the American cultural emphasis upon anthropological, sociological, or humanistically defined categories. I personally believe that the Bible almost always refers to units that could be called ethnolinguistic. This is because normal affinities in human societies are developed genetically, and thus there is literally a blood bond in most cases. I certainly do not believe there is any reason to go beyond this Biblical recognition of the usual source of human affinities as we try to do our work today. However, one thing we can do, and I believe we must do, is to try to think God's thoughts after Him in the endeavor to understand just why such resulting units are important to Him. If we are willing to do that then I don't believe we have to go very far before we recognize that one of the significant traits of all such units is the virtually automatic communication which takes place within them. That is, the most efficient missionary target is not necessarily a group tied by common biological genes but one which has common, current, effective, internal communication.

It is true that as various mission thinkers have been groping toward a definition of people group, some definitions may not seem to have been derived from the Bible at all. For me, at least, 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. I myself have recently made a new attempt to describe such groups in a manner harmonious with the intent of the Bible, and have come up with what might be called an evangelistic definition as follows: "The nature of the group of people significant for mission strategy is that such a group is the maximum size within which the Gospel can spread as a church planting movement without encountering barriers of acceptance or understanding." May we, for this discussion at least, call such a group a Unimax People, that is, a group unified in communication, maximum in size. Now, 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.

This definition, then, speaks both of size and the quality of internal communication. In order for communication to be evangelistically effective, the size of a Unimax People will normally be relatively small--smaller and more unified than a modern country. How small is it? The two words mishpahah and goyim are used almost synonymously (for example, in Gen. 10:5, 10:20, 10:31 and 10:32), but goyim always comes second and apparently tends to be the larger of the two entities. The same would be true of the words translated languages and tribes, as we have seen. Wycliffe, for example, tries to deal with languages, while Gospel Recordings must deal with sub- dialects due to variations in pronunciation. Thus we must count more tribal peoples to be reached than Wycliffe lists languages to be translated. That is, "a Unimax People" may often be smaller than a language or tribal group. I have in my own writings tried to allow for the possibility that there are entities both larger and smaller than the size of a given Unimax People or Biblical nation of strategic interest to missionaries. Since the mishpahah is a fairly small unit, I have in the past classified it as minisphere by contrast to still smaller units that could be called microspheres and larger units that could be called macrospheres, (e.g. a larger tribe) and still larger units that could be called megaspheres (e.g., the Semites).

An example can also be drawn from that largest ethnolinguistic unit on this planet--the Han Chinese. Remember that we do not refer to China. Not all peoples in China belong to the Han Chinese megasphere, and some Han Chinese peoples (like the Minnan in Taiwan) are mainly outside of China. We further note that the Han megasphere contains a number of macrospheres--the Mandarin, the Cantonese, the Minnan, the Swatow, the Hakka, etc. But these units are not only too large to be mishpahah but are internally too diverse to be considered Unimax Peoples. Does the massive Cantonese bloc fit my definition, "the largest group within which the Gospel can spread as a church planting movement without encountering barriers of acceptance and understanding?" I think not. Now that the Gospel is clearly loose among the Cantonese, will it spread to touch all Cantonese peoples automatically? I think not. Do we still have to take seriously the dialects and differences within the Cantonese macrosphere? I think so. That is, neither the Han Chinese nor the Cantonese represent units sufficiently unified to be called a Unimax People.

In other words, what is crucial about a Unimax People is the size of the group, not just the unified condition of the group. Since there are units smaller than the Cantonese sphere to which we must as missionary strategists pay specific attention, that is why I have called a mass of humanity as large as the Cantonese a macrosphere. The terminology I have employed in the past allows for both minispheres and microspheres within the Cantonese macrosphere. Starting from the largest to the smallest, the Han Chinese are a megasphere or a megapeople, the Cantonese are a macrosphere or a macropeople. But it is the 50 or so sub-groups of Cantonese that are Unimax Peoples, which I have called minispheres or minipeoples. The still smaller clan level, secret society units, for example, are the microspheres or micropeoples. In this series of mega, 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.

This brings us to the doorstep of our next consideration. 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 still 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 this distinctive, spiritual, breakthrough ministry which is unique to the function of a mission agency?

III. 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, the Frontier People 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 is absent from those groups called Frontier Peoples by the new IFMA committee?" 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? This issue has to be one of the most fascinating, exciting and strategic issues in missions today. It is not enough any longer to get by with phrases such as "turning the work over to the nationals." What kind of work? Which nationals?, etc. , are some of the questions left unanswered. But I do not believe that we need to be overly concerned about some measurement that can infallibly tell us exactly when a mission agency could disengage in whole or in part.

For one thing, it is a myth that mission agencies do not know how to disengage, or that they have not been doing this for a long time. It is also a myth that this is easy to do. Finally, for me at least, there is something self-correcting about the whole process so long as the remaining frontiers are kept in view. 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 may precisely not be to try to distinguish technically between what is and what is now no longer a mission frontier. In all cases we must either deal with unquestionable frontiers or be active in promoting outreach to unquestionable frontiers. Thus in all mission activity today, just so long as the unquestionable frontiers are kept clear, we cannot go far wrong. It is the Pauline trait that wherever he was, whatever he was doing, he kept clearly in mind the unquestionable frontiers. In this sense Paul was never not a missionary. I have come to believe that the distinctive work of a mission agency is both to work for, not merely to work in the opening up of new fields among truly frontier peoples, the unquestionable frontiers.

I do not mind where a mission sends its people or spends its money so long as the unquestionably Frontier Peoples, living in the darkest, most hopeless and least likely places, are the fairly direct goal of the activity. In this sense all missionaries wherever they are working can and must be frontier minded.

Speaking personally, I don't mind if missionaries are sent where people 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 people 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. What grieves me is to see the massive investments we have made in church buildings and in school programs, colleges and seminaries both at home and abroad which in almost all cases fail almost completely in taking seriously the debt of all believers to those at the ends of the earth.

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 all its work everywhere with the very last tribe and tongue and peoples of the earth uppermost in mind. This means 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 the Gospel. This leads us to a brief reflection on the wide role of a mission agency.

IV. 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. In 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. Granted that the mission agencies are the technical people most likely to know how effectively to achieve a genuine breakthrough into a new Unimax People. And, if they forget how, that's pretty bad. But as I have tried to understand the challenge of the frontiers today, I must confess that the major obstacle I 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 (as is the widespread perspective of young people and many pastors today). Many large churches are restive, thinking about overseas churches, and begin to wonder if pastors back home do not know better than the missionary how churches are supposed to be run--and so why not send local church people from the U.S. directly to take a hand in the life of the churches overseas? Or people back home get the idea that the national churches are the best ones to do the job because their people don't cost as much and "they already know the language."

What people back home don't understand is that almost by definition true frontier peoples precisely don't have any such national workers. Groups lacking national workers are not ever in the picture seen by the home church anymore. The very existence of frontier peoples is not understood in the home churches nor in the overseas churches. Thus the missions themselves 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 percent 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 people group 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 national evangelists simply are not to be found, where work must start from scratch. For a time I actually believe we will do well to use new recruits 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. The full mandate of the mission in the home situation must now be recognized.


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

  1. Encourage voluntary participation of member agencies in an enlarged public relations activity which can seed articles into Christian publications, develop common study materials and courses for local churches and student groups, get behind the Wherever magazine and the Today's Mission magazine and help expand circulation of the Evangelical Missions Quarterly 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 2,000. 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 groups will be helped by this.
  3. Recommend agencies seriously consider involvement in a nationwide frontier emphasis prayer campaign such as the Frontier Fellowship being tried by the North Africa Mission, Africa Inland Mission, Regions Beyond Missionary Union and SEND International.


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