by Jim Reapsome
“Uttermost” simply meant everyone everywhere. To people like me, it clearly defined the scope of missionary outreach.
Those of us who grew up on the King James Version of the Bible knew that the church’s mission extended “unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The word “uttermost” rang with a dynamic thrust because it sounded like we should leave no stone unturned until people in the remotest parts of the world heard about Jesus. “Uttermost” simply meant everyone everywhere. To people like me, it clearly defined the scope of missionary outreach.
Naturally, because Jesus promised power to his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, we assumed our mission had specific geographical parameters. So we prayed and worked for his witnesses to take the good news to every last country in the world. Our view fit neatly with the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19. We’re supposed to go and teach “all nations,” or “go to the uttermost parts.” That was the simple, indisputable foundation of the church’s missionary duty.
Much later in life I learned that “nations” are not political entities, but clusters of people with similar ethnic and cultural characteristics. Thus, the Good News Bible says go to “all peoples everywhere.”
Therefore, we began to focus our missionary efforts on “people groups,” not nations. As a result, our task became incredibly complicated, because whereas we could look at a map and identify countries, we could not do anything so simple with peoples.
We could not even nail down some of these people groups to one location. Because of wars, famines, and religious and political upheavals, they often migrated from place to place. Some stayed put while others moved on. Peoples from all over the world migrated to New York City, London, Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, Brussels, and Los Angeles—not your usual mission fields. But these were only segments of the same peoples that stayed in Mexico, Iran, India, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Nigeria.
Therefore, our convenient handle to measure the progress of the gospel and the growth of the church—according to the traditional concepts in Matthew 28:19 and Acts 1:8—was about as helpful as a left-handed monkey wrench. Nevertheless, startling things have happened since the primary focus of pioneer missionary work shifted from nations to peoples. We now know much more about peoples than we ever did before, thanks to painstaking research and collaboration among mission agencies. Reaching unreached peoples has replaced the old compulsion to take the gospel to the uttermost parts.
At the same time, political and economic changes in the world have doomed the “uttermost parts” framework for mission activity. There are no more uttermost parts. That pot of gold at the end of the missionary advance rainbow has been obliterated because the uttermost parts are everywhere. The people of “the regions beyond” now live across the street and down the block. They pack our universities, medical schools, and technological industries. The “ends of the earth” have come full circle and landed where we started.
Despite what many faithful Christians think, our missionary task is no longer just from here to there. It must also be from here to here, because this is where the people from the former uttermost parts now live, work, and worship at their own growing mosques and temples.
In Acts 1:8, Jesus pictured the ripple effect of gospel outreach as the church advanced from Jerusalem. Now the last ripple has crashed on the far shore of the lake, as it were, and has come back to where we dropped the stone. Peoples from everywhere call “Jerusalem” their home.
However, I detect fairly little recognition of this monumental change. We admit we should do something about evangelizing Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims in New York City, Houston, Chicago, and Los Angeles. We know that thousands of absolutely outstanding representatives of peoples from all over the world study in our universities. But the general feeling is that our mission is still out there, not here. We can’t seem to rid our psyches ofthe notion that the uttermost parts are somewhere on different continents than our own.
I’veencountered lots of arguments for sending missionaries out there and not here. The main one is that churches support people out there more readily than here. This argument is really a confession that people in our churches, rather than mission agencies, set our strategies. It’s also a confession that we allow money to determine strategy.
What would happen if our agencies geared up a significant educational program to bury the uttermost parts? Why not tell their friends that half of their missionaries are going to work among peoples here? This is where God has brought these peoples. We need to get in step with what he has done. Matthew 28:19 and Acts 1:8 have come full circle in the logistical sense, but our obligation remains unchanged: be witnesses for Jesus and teach the good news to all peoples everywhere, both in Uzbekistan and in Urbana, Tajikistan and Toledo.
EMQ, Vol. 35, No. 1, pp. 6-7. Copyright © 1999 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.