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would now be followed by someone else’s “watering” (1 Corinthians 3:6) So when I speak of missions in this chapter, I generally refer to the Christian church’s ongoing effort to carry on Paul’s strategy: preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ and planting His church among groups of people who have not yet been reached.
In the past we had the so-called motive of saving souls. We were convinced that if not baptized, people in the masses would go to hell. Now, thanks be to God, we believe that all people and all religions are already living in the grace and love of God and will be saved by God’s mercy.3 Sister Emmanuelle of Cairo, Egypt, said, “Today we don’t talk about conversion any more. We talk about being friends. My job is to prove that God is love and to bring courage to these people.”4 It is natural to want to believe in a God who saves all men no matter what they believe or do. But it is not biblical.5 Essential teachings of Scripture must be rejected to believe in such a God. Listen to the words of the Son of God
when He called the apostle Paul into missionary service:
“I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in
3. Time (27 December 1982): 52.
4. Ibid., 56.
5. For the detailed support of this claim, see chapter 4, “The Supremacy of Christ as the Conscious Focus of All Saving Faith,” in John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions, 2nd ed., revised and expanded (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2003).
which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” (Acts 26:16–18) This is an empty commission if in fact the eyes of the nations don’t need to be opened and they don’t need to turn from darkness to light, and don’t need to escape the power of Satan to come to God, and don’t need the forgiveness of sins that comes only by faith in Christ, who is preached by the Lord’s ambassadors. Paul did not give his life as a missionary to Asia and Macedonia and Greece and Rome and Spain to inform people they were already saved. He gave himself that “by all means [he] might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).
So when Paul’s message about Christ was rejected (for example, at Antioch by the Jews), he said, “Since you thrust [the Word of God] aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46). At stake in missionary outreach to unreached peoples is eternal life!
Conversion to Christ from any and every other allegiance is precisely the aim:
“There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
His invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him.
Apart from the special, saving grace of God, people are dead in sin, darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God, and hardened in heart (Ephesians 2:1; 4:18). And the means God has ordained to administer that special saving grace is the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. (Romans 1:14–16)
THE EFFECTS UNIVERSALISM MISSIONSOF ON The notion that people are saved without hearing the gospel has wreaked havoc on the missions effort of denominations and churches that minimize the biblical teaching of human lostness without Christ. Between 1953 and 1980, the overseas missionary force of mainline Protestant churches of North America decreased from 9,844 to 2,813, while the missionary force of evangelical Protestants, who take this biblical teaching more seriously, increased by more than 200 percent. The Christian and Missionary Alliance, for example, with its 200,000 members, supports 40 percent more missionaries than the United Methodist Church, with its 9.5 million members. There is amazing missionary power in taking seriously all the Word of God.6 Many Christians thought the end of the colonial era after the Second World War was also the end of foreign missions. The gospel had more or less penetrated every country in the world. But what we have become keenly aware
6. In 1980 the Division of Overseas Ministries of the National Council of Churches had a membership of thirty-two missions representing just under five thousand missionaries. Income approached $200 million annually. The Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association represented ninety interdenominational mission boards with roughly 10,700 missionaries and an income of $150 million. The Evangelical Foreign Missions Association had a membership of eighty-two mission agencies representing more than ten thousand missionaries and an income of $350 million.
During the decade of the seventies, the DOM (the more liberal group) lost 3,462 missionaries, while the IFMA and EFMA (the more evangelical groups) gained 3,785. Incomewise, the DOM increased by $28 million or 24 percent while the IFMA/EFMA increased by $285 million or 293 percent.
Peter Wagner, On the Crest of the Wave (Ventura, Calif.: Regal, 1983), 77–8.
of in the last generation is that the command of Jesus to make disciples of “every nation” does not refer to political nations as we know them today. Nor does it mean every individual, as though the great commission could not be completed until every individual were made a disciple.
WHAT ARE “PEOPLE GROUPS”?
We are increasingly aware that the intention of God is for every “people group” to be evangelized—that a thriving church be planted in every group. No one can exactly define what a people group is. But we get a rough idea from passages
like Revelation 7:9:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.
It is almost impossible to draw precise distinction between “nations,” “tribes,” “peoples,” and “languages.” But what is clear is that God’s redemptive purpose is not complete just because there are disciples of Jesus in all twentyfirst-century “nations,” i.e., political states. Within those countries are thousands of tribes and castes and subcultures and languages.
So the remaining task of Frontier Missions no longer is conceived mainly in geographic terms. The question now is “How many unreached people groups are there, and where are they found?”7 In his inspiring book published in 1998, Patrick Johnstone says, “We reckon that there are now nearly 13,000 distinct ethno-linguistic peoples in the countries of the world.” Of these, he says that about 3,500 “are still pioneer fields for mission endeavor. The indigenous Church is either non-existent or still too small or culturally marginalized to impact their entire people in this generation without
7. For a detailed exploration of the biblical support for thinking of the great commission in terms of reaching people groups, see chapter 4, “The Supremacy of Christ as the Conscious Focus of All Saving Faith,” in Let the Nations Be Glad. An excellent discussion of the definition of “unreached peoples” and the problem of counting and locating them is given by Ralph Winter in “Unreached Peoples: The Development of the Concept,” International Journal of Frontier Missions 1 (1984): 129–61.
outside help. Of these probably about 1,200–1,500 peoples have either no indigenous church at all or no residential cross-cultural team of missionaries seeking to reach them.”8 In reality, the statistics are now changing so fast that the reader should consult websites like frontiermissions.org for the most recent state of world evangelization. Concealed within these numbers is the heartrending fact that about 2 billion people live in unevangelized people groups. They are found mainly in the Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Animist peoples of the so-called 10/40 Window.9
MISSION IS FINISHABLE, NOT EVANGELISMBUT To keep us sober in our estimates of the remaining task of reaching the unreached people groups of the world, Ralph Winter reminds us of two facts.
First, evangelism can never be finished, but missions can be finished. The reason is this: Missions has the unique task of crossing language and culture barriers to penetrate a people group and establish a church movement; but evangelism is the ongoing task of sharing the gospel among people within the same culture. This fact allows us to talk realistically about “closure”—the completion of the missionary task—even if there may be millions of people yet to be won to Christ in all the people groups of the world where the church has been planted.
The second fact Winter reminds us of is that there are probably more people groups than the ones listed among the 13,000 ethnolinguistic groups mentioned above. He illustrates by pointing out that tribal divisions along the lines of mutually unintelligible dialects may vary, depending on whether the dialect is spoken or written. So, for example, Wycliffe Bible Translators may detect that a translation of the Bible is readable in a dialect covering a wide area, while Gospel Recordings may determine that seven or more different audio recordings are needed because of the audible distinctions in the larger dialect.
Thus, Winter asks, which level of people group did Jesus have in mind when He said, “This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the
8. Patrick Johnstone, The Church Is Bigger Than You Think (Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus, 1998), 105–7.
9. The 10/40 Window refers to the rectangular area on a global map measured horizontally from West Africa to East Asia and vertically from the tenth to the fortieth latitude north of the equator.
whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14)? Winter’s answer: “We’ll find out…the closer we get to the situation. In the meantime we need to live with guesses.… We can only learn more as we go! And at this hour greater human resources are looming into view than have ever been available to the unfinished task!”10 The point of these observations is that the job of Frontier Missions is not complete. In fact, the vast majority of missionaries are working in “fields” where the church has been planted for decades. The need for Frontier Missions is great. The Lord’s command to disciple the remaining unreached groups is still in force. And my burden in this chapter is to kindle a desire in your heart to be part of the last chapter of the greatest story in the world.
DRAMATIC GROWTHThere are historical as well as theological reasons for the hope that the task of world missions is finishable. The following chart is truly amazing. It shows a picture of the progress over the two-thousand-year history of the preaching of the gospel.11
10. Ralph Winter, “When Jesus Said...,” Missions Frontiers 17, no. 11–12 (November/December, 1995): 56.
11. Johnstone, The Church Is Bigger Than You Think, 105, emphasis added.
It is interesting to see how few of the world’s people had been reached by 1800. The number of peoples reached had considerably increased by 1900, but even then more than half the peoples of the world were still completely unreached. The dramatic change has been in the latter part of this century.
Although many people are still unreached, the number is only a fraction of that of 100 years ago. The goal is attainable in our generation—if we mobilize in prayer and effort and work together to disciple the remaining least reached peoples.12 Even though there is an ongoing and urgent need for more frontier missionaries to penetrate the final unreached peoples with the gospel, it seems that the momentum of closure is accelerating. In addition to the ironclad promise of Jesus in Matthew 24:14 that the gospel will penetrate all the peoples, there is the empirical evidence that this is in fact happening, and at an increasing rate. It is “A Finishable Task.”
BECOMING WORLD CHRISTIANSI would like to believe that many of you who read this chapter are on the brink of setting a new course of commitment to missions: some a new commitment to go to a frontier people, others a new path of education, others a new use of your vocation in a culture less saturated by the church, others a new lifestyle and a new pattern of giving and praying and reading. I want to push you over the brink. I would like to make the cause of missions so attractive that you will no longer be able to resist its magnetism.
Not that I believe everyone will become a missionary, or even should become one. But I pray that every reader of this book might become what David Bryant calls a “World Christian”—that you would reorder your life
around God’s global cause. In his inspiring book In the Gap, Bryant defines
World Christians as those Christians who say: