by Michael Pocock
If we follow the apostle Paul, we’ll find his zeal and passion were exercised toward four groups.
Athletes know that single-minded focus often spells the difference between victory and defeat. The intensity of their focus shines through when we watch international gymnastics and ice skating competitions, for example. When the interviews are over, we wonder if the high price they paid for such concentration was worth it. Do these champions know anything about a balanced life?
Missionaries, agencies, and churches have discovered the values of focus as well, for recruiting, fund raising, and field strategies. A mission focus may be something like one unreached people group, or a wider body of people such as the 600,000 international students in the U.S. But where does balance enter the picture?
For example, a missionary with an outstanding record of 12 years as a church planter in Europe was dropped by his sending church. Even though his country has an evangelical population of only one-half of 1 percent, his church decided to focus on the unreached people in the 10-40 Window. This raises the issue of strategic focus at the expense of biblical balance.
In the 1950s Donald McGavran saw that the world missionary enterprise had grown to include a wide variety of ministries. He worried that much of this was not in keeping with the “main thing,” which to him was “the establishment of churches in all the responsive peoples of the world.”1 Consequently, many mission boards tuned their purpose statements to reflect McGavran’s concern.
In 1974 at the Lausanne Conference on World Evangelization, Ralph Winter argued that mission agencies were neglecting groups of people among whom no culturally relevant, viable, witnessing church had been established.2 He became known as the father of the unreached peoples movement.
Both McGavran and Winter have successfully helped us to focus on strategic priorities. At the same time, missiologists and practitioners alike have argued for a sense of biblical balance and proportion, lest the task of world evangelism be too narrowly defined. In that connection, I have chosen to review the priorities and activities of the apostle Paul, because he was a man of both focus and balance in his missionary career. My study centers on Romans 15, because there I believe Paul revealed four distinct categories of people who were the focus of his missionary ministry: (1) the unreached; (2) the newly reached; (3) the misled; and (4) the unfed.
Paul explained that by God’s grace he was a minister to the Gentiles (Rom. 15:14-11). His commission became the basis of his lifetime ambition “to preach the gospel where Christ was not known.” This was his commitment to what we call unreached, or frontier, peoples. He wanted to go to Spain where the gospel had not been preached, and where the church had not yet been established (Rom. 15:24). Should Paul’s priority be ours today? He said it was his ambition. Does that mean his personal concern should be ours?
Obviously, this was more than one man’s vision or ambition. Paul knew from the outset of his conversion that he would be Christ’s apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15; 26:17; Gal. 1:11-17). Although he was not around when the Lord Jesus Christ issued what we call his Great Commission to his apostles, Paul quickly grasped the essence of it. He knew that Christ’s concern squared with the call of Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3). Paul understood that God’s blessing was intended not just for Israel, and not just for nation-states as we understand them, but for all families or clans of the earth. Paul’s personal ambition was thus part of God’s larger plan for all believers.
Everyone is under divine obligation to the unreached, but Paul differentiated between his mission and that of others. He recognized that Peter had a different calling. Both were apostles, but Peter’s calling was to the Jews (Gal. 1:7, 8). However, Peter preached to Cornelius, a Gentile, and Paul ministered to Jews. Jesus had commanded Peter to “feed my sheep”(John 21:15-17). A pastoral mandate was also an apostolic mandate. Therefore, we must be careful not toimplythat what God has inspired one person to do is what every other believer should do as well.
THE NEWLY REACHED
As Paul prepared to go to Spain (unreached people), he planned to visit a newly reached people, the church at Rome (Rom. 1:11-13; 15:22-29). He wanted to minister to them and to receive their support for his mission to Spain. Of course, being Paul, he sensed a strong evangelistic obligation to the Romans as well (Rom. 1:15).
Although Paul constantly tried to reach the unreached, he made strong efforts to build up the newly reached. He wrote 12 (13, if you count Hebrews) letters to newly reached peoples and to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon.
Therefore, strengthening newly reached peoples, and helping existing churches in other cultures to reach out to their neighbors near and far, is a legitimate missionary task. It is unfortunate if in our concern for unreached peoples we give the impression that work among the newly reached is any less strategic and valuable.
Paul ministered to established churches that had perhaps not yet reached viability for carrying out the missionary mandate around them. He visited them and wrote to them, but was not chained to them. When we work with newly established churches, we must not be confined to their expectations, but should constantly seek to infuse them with missionary passion, while we ourselves seek to be released to work among the unreached.
We also find another group whom I call misled people, the unbelievers in Judea (Rom. 15:31). Perhaps Paul meant the Roman authorities, but more likely he had the unbelieving Jews in mind, because they had caused him the most trouble throughout his ministry (Cf. Rom. 9-11).
Although Paul was deeply concerned about the unreached among the Gentiles, he continually sought out the Jews. His “heart’s desire and prayer” for the Jews was that they might be saved (Rom. 10:1). He even wished himself accursed for their sake (Rom. 9:2, 3).
Why do I single them out as a separate group? Because of their distinctive characteristics. The Jews had as much of the word of God as then existed in their own language and it was readily available in their synagogues. They had teachers and places to meet, but they had no life in Christ because they had been misled by their leaders.
If Paul were alive today, he would have the same burning conviction about the salvation of the Jews. May God lead the church today to carry out that same missionary conviction about the Jews.
On the other hand, my missiological category of misled people extends far beyond the Jews. In Paul’s day he did not confront the reality of large groups of nominal Christians with Bibles, ministers, and churches, but who were devoid of spiritual life in Christ. Today there are plenty of them.
These people have been misled by their leaders. They abound across Latin America, Europe, Africa, and Asia, as well as in North America, of course. Paul was deeply concerned about people like this (in his case, the Jews), even though his main ambition was to reach the unreached.
In light of this, we have to be careful when we focus on the 10-40 Window where most unreached people live. Of course, this is the area of greatest absolute need, but a too narrow focus on “the window” may hinder essential missionary outreach to Latin America, Europe, Africa south of the Sahara, and Southeast Asia.
There are believers and churches among misled people, but the picture is very uneven. Guatemala, for example, has a population of perhaps 30 percent evangelicals, but Venezuela has only 3 percent. The fact that both countries are nominally 98 percent Christian must not keep us from investing missionary resources there. Unless people have a personal relationship to Christ, their nominal status will not save them.
Believers and evangelical churches constitute tiny minorities of half of 1 percent throughout southern Europe, and only 7 percent in the United Kingdom and Germany. Europe generally is overwhelmed with secularism and New Age andneopaganthinking. Misled people, in spite of living in a Christian context, are lost people.
Of course, some churches in Europe are concerned about this, but they need missionary help from outside. The apostle Paul, a missionary who exemplified focus and balance, was desperately concerned for misled people, so we dare not lose sight of this group.
Ever since the days of the “social gospel,” some evangelicals have been ambivalent about including relief and development ministries as legitimate missionary work. Nevertheless, evangelicals have been in the vanguard of famine relief, medicine, education, agriculture, and community development since the early days of the modern missionary movement. For example, Robert Moffatt was famous for his “gospel and plough” strategy in southern Africa in the 19th century. Would the apostle Paul have included unfed people in his missionary vision?
We find in Romans 15:25-33 that the man whose passion was to reach the unreached, as well as the newly reached and the misled, also revealed a remarkable concern for the unfed. Actually, he put the unreached (Spain) and the newly reached (Rome) on the back burner in order to take care of a relief project. He explained that he would return to Jerusalem to take the relief money from Macedonia to the believers in Palestine.
This was not a quirk, because this had been his project for quite some time. He and Barnabas had been doing relief work ever since the Holy Spirit had shown the church in Antioch that there would be a famine in Palestine (Acts 11:27-30).
Incidentally, when Paul had to answer to the Jerusalem church for his doctrine, the elders approved him with the admonishment that he not forget the poor. He said that he was eager to do this very thing (Gal. 2:10).
Concern for the poor (whom I call the unfed) is at the heart of the gospel. We need not be ambivalent about it. It is not a sidetrack to “finishing the task.” It is the way Christians must be. Paul, a man of focus and balance, did not consider helping the unfed an obstacle to reaching the unreached, but an integral part of carrying out his mission. And so it was also for people like Zinzendorf, Wesley, Carey, and Bob Pierce.
The amazing thing about Paul was that he did not simply endorse these four priorities; he implemented them. One did not contradict the other. His ambition to reach the unreached was like the North Star, a magnetic pole giving him his central organizing principle. As he pursued his goal, he also ministered to the newly reached, the misled, and the unfed.
Pauline focus and balance must characterize our mission strategies and priorities.
1. Donald A. McGavran, “Today’s Task, Opportunity, and Imperative,” Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, rev. ed. (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1992), p. D-3.
2. Ralph D. Winter, “The Highest Priority: Cross-cultural Evangelism,” Let the Earth Hear His Voice (Minneapolis: World Wide Pub., 1974), pp. 213-258.
EMQ, Vol. 32, No. 2, pp. 160-164. Copyright © 1996 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.