by Stan Guthrie
2000—An evaluation and a look ahead
Welcome to A.D. 2000. Now what? Two decades ago, prominent evangelical missions strategists began pointing to this year as a sort of world evangelization finish line, capturing the imagination of millions of Christians with the watchword "a church for every people and the gospel for every person by A.D.2000." As late as 1993, with the deadline looming, missio-logist Peter Wagner of Fuller Theological Seminary stated boldly, "We have all the tools to fulfill the goal of the Great Commission by the end of the decade."
It’s time to see how we have done, and to chart what may be ahead as the missions enterprise stands at the threshold of the third millennium.
Clearly, great strides have been made. Every geopolitical country in the world has Christians, many of them evangelistically minded. The church is rapidly globalizing. Annual evangelical (5.4 percent) and Pentecostal (8.1 percent) growth rates are the fastest in the world for major religious groups.
David Hesselgrave, perhaps the dean of American evangelical missiologists, was a missionary in Kyoto, Japan from 1957 to 1962. He points to last October’s New World Mission Congress for the Third Millennium in Kyoto as evidence of the trend. "Who would have thought even one short generation ago that non-Western mission leaders would not only be taking the lead, but assuming full responsibility for convening one of the largest and most representative mission congresses of the decade?" Hesselgrave asked. "The upswing in non-Western missionary vision and missionary involvement could not have come at a better time. It is a sovereign work of our missionary God."
And yet, for all that, clearly the task remains undone. What follows are some areas of progress and problems in world evangelization.
Progress and problems
• Progress: Missiologists, starting with Donald McGavran and Ralph Winter, shifted the focus in missions strategy in the second half of the 20th century from the blunderbuss of countries to the scalpel of the world’s estimated 13,000 ethnolinguistic peoples. The strategy has been a public relations knockout, too.
The AD2000 and Beyond Movement’s Joshua Project list of people groups of at least 10,000 without a church of at least 100 members or an active church-planting movement stood at 1,739 in 1995. Today, the revised list has 1,596 groups. Of these, 500 have a church of 100 members, while 554 have a church-planting team. Only 194 of the groups have yet to be targeted or claimed, according to the Brigada Today e-mail service.
• Problem: Some 4,000 groups, with 1.1 billion people, have no churches able to reach their own people, missions statistician David Barrett says.
• Progress: The share of the world’s population that is unevangelized has fallen from 50.2 percent in 1900 to 44.3 percent in 1970 to 29.5 percent in 1990 to 25.7 percent in 2000, David Barrett and Todd Johnson say in the January, 2000, International Bulletin of Missionary Research.
• Problem: The number of people born in the non-Christian world grows by 129,000 a day, or 47 million a year, Barrett says.
• Progress: Scripture is present in 2,212 of the world’s 6,500 languages (including 928 New Testaments and 366 Bibles), the United Bible Societies reports. Today about 80 percent of the world’s people have access to the Bible in a language they can understand.
• Problems: Approximately 4,300 languages have no portion of the Scriptures (Wycliffe Bible Translators, however, aims to enter 1,000 new languages over the next decade. By 2025, the goal is to start work "in every language where Scripture is needed.") Additionally, 2 billion people in the world would not be able to read a Bible in their language even if they had one.
GLOBALIZATION OF THE CHURCH
• Progress: In 1960, an estimated 58 percent of the world’s Christians were Westerners. In 1990, just 38 percent were. The number of Western evangelicals has grown from 57.7 million in 1960 to 95.9 million in 1990, compared to the non-Western increase during that time from 29 million to 208 million. Some experts say there are more non-Western than Western missionaries. Partnerships between Western and non-Western schools, agencies, and churches in everything from strategies to missionary education are proliferating.
"I see growth and maturity in the Two-Thirds World mission agencies and an increasing percentage of Christians in China and India," said Kenneth Mulholland, president of the Evangelical Missiological Society and a former missionary to Central America for 15 years. "The leadership of the world Christian movement will shift to the Two-Thirds World; in many respects, it already has."
• Problems: Paul Borthwick of Development Associates International applauds the expanding global force, but he also notes some of its drawbacks. "Some non-Western missionaries have launched out with great zeal, but they are repeating the same mistakes as Western missionaries of 100 years ago, creating, in effect, a new generation of cultural imperialists," he says. "In addition, the romanticization of the non-Western missionary in the minds of the Western church has resulted in two dangerous trends- first, . . . that our Great Commission responsibility is over with the exception of sending money, and, second, . .. unhealthy dependency in the non-Western church."
THE "JESUS" FILM
• Progress: The film has been seen by 2 billion people in more than 500 languages.
• Problems: The "Jesus" film ministry is not a quick fix or a panacea, and, like any tool, it can be misused without proper teaching and follow-up. Such tools, Mulholland notes, "function at less than their full potential when divorced from church-planting movements." Additionally, there are still 6,000 languages in which the film is not available.
• Progress: The World By 2000 radio initiative, launched in 1985 to provide Christian programming to the 279 "megalanguages" of at least a million speakers without it, says only 91 languages still lack a gospel witness by radio. An estimated 10 to 15 additional languages annually are receiving such programming.
• Problems: World By 2000 has changed its name to World By Radio, in recognition of the fact that the original goal has not been fulfilled. Indeed, more languages are added to the list every year, as populations swell.
CHRISTIAN PUBLISHING AND MEDIA
• Progress: Annually there are 25,000 new commercial Christian books, plus 20 million Bibles distributed, Barrett and Johnson say. There are 4,000 Christian radio and TV stations with more than 2 billion people listening and watching. There is enough evangelism going on to evangelize the world 77 times over.
• Problem: Evangelism is distributed very unevenly worldwide, Barrett has said over and over. And in cases where new outreach encounters resistant peoples or governments, the reaction is often far from welcoming. When FEBA Radio began beaming Christian programming into The Maldives in the local language in 1998, the government of the nearly 100 percent Muslim nation jailed suspected Maldivian believers and expelled foreign workers. And while Christian groups continue to report gospel receptivity among India’s poorest classes, the northern Hindu heart-Sand remains, with a few notable exceptions, untouched.
"The world Christian movement has largely stalled in relation to the Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist blocs of unreached peoples," Ralph Winter, founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission, stated candidly at the GCOWE ’97 conference in Pretoria, South Africa. "We cannot reasonably expect to achieve the marvelous goals of the AD2000 Movement without a significant change in strategy. More of the same will not be enough."
Jay Gary, who directs the Christian Futures Network in Colorado Springs, says the key to completing the Great Commission is courage-"the courage of mission leadership to recognize that it has propagated a scandal of evangelization, in raising the rhetoric of closure without changing (its) field deployment priorities among the unreached.
"To my knowledge," he added, "only Youth With A Mission and the… Southern Baptists have significantly changed their deployment rates among the unreached peoples in the ’90s. And both have now hit a glass ceiling far below 20 percent of their missionary forces."
Looking into the future, absent divine revelation, is perilous business. While some late 20th century trends in world missions will undoubtedly continue, others will emerge, unlocked for and unplanned for. Who, after all, predicted the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union? The explosion of the Internet? The Asian financial crisis? Dolly, the cloned sheep?
Secular seers agree that the electronic information revolution of the ’90s will continue but will morph into new forms with unanticipated consequences. The Internet, for example, is eroding the information hegemony long enjoyed by dictatorships as disparate as China’s and Saudi Arabia’s. Such technology can be a double-edged microchip for missions, however. While whole, previously restricted nations now may have the opportunity to hear the gospel through electronic means, they also are being exposed to the computer-enhanced images of a global culture focused mainly on materialism, not the deep questions of life.
Borthwick points out that while technology makes completing the Great Commission possible, it has also brought about "a corresponding information overload resulting in complacency in the North American church."
Hesselgrave, echoing Kenneth Kantzer, says he is tempted to be a short-term pessimist but a long-term optimist. "If the futurologists I have read are correct, 21st century missionaries will inherit a challenging and even chaotic world," he said. "But natural disasters, social upheaval, moral decline, and religious confusion entail opportunities to demonstrate concern, togetherness, holiness, and commitment. The new century will probably not be to our liking. But it will certainly present tremendous opportunities to demonstrate the truth and power of Christ."
The flip side, though, may be a temptation to broaden, and thus weaken, the missionary mandate, Hesselgrave fears. Noting that mission has become increasingly understood as holistic-"inclusive of a wide variety of ameliorative humanitarian, social, and even political efforts"-since the Lausanne conference in 1974, he says the priority task of proclamation risks being marginalized.
"The importance of this broader understanding for the year 2000 and beyond can hardly be overstated," Hesselgrave said. "Why? Because there are strong indications that the 21st century will be marked by major sociopolitical upheavals and a succession of natural disasters. Unless this new-among evangelicals-understanding of mission is successfully challenged, the likelihood of retaining the biblical priority of world evangelization in the face of unprecedented needs of every kind will become increasingly difficult."
Jay Gary is one who argues for a broader "Ecumenical Mission Paradigm." He said, "The divide between evangelism and social action among evangelicals has been healed by a growing emphasis on community and national transformation. This model of ministry, or paradigm of how the kingdom comes, will likely supersede the Industrial Era models of ‘evangelism’ or ‘discipleship.’ Within five years we will see efforts by evangelicals to quantify the concept of ‘transformation’ with quality of life indicators."
Another missiological minefield is the current postmodern theological climate. A culture of tolerance and the increasingly common experience of rubbing shoulders with decent, hardworking Hindus and Buddhists cause some evangelicals to question old biblical certainties about judgment and the afterlife. What happens to all those who, "through no fault of their own," it is said, never hear of God’s offer of salvation in Christ? What of Muslims who are said to be doing their best to follow the "God" they know? Isn’t Allah just a murky version of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Does divine punishment consist of eternal separation from God in hell, or annihilation?
Robertson McQuilkin, who served 12 years in Japan as a church planter and 22 years as president of Columbia International University, sees our understanding of the fate of the unevangelized as pivotal. "The most critical issue for missions in the 21st century is theological," he said. "Are those who have never heard of Christ’s saving grace certainly lost? If there is any question about this, the heroic sacrifices of missionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries will not be forthcoming in the 21st. The surprise is that few would have thought, in 1974, that such would become a major theological issue among those calling themselves evangelical."
For his part, Jay Gary, author of The Star of 2000 and consultation director of GCOWE 2000 in 1989, predicts "a revolution in our understanding of the Great Commission… from a closed view of history to an open view of history. …"
"Within 20 years, the ‘already, not yet’ consensus could shift to an ‘already, much more’ theology," he added. "So instead of asking, ‘What is the key to completing the Great Commission in our lifetimes, we will likely ask . . ., ‘What is the key to global transformation?’"
Some of the trends expected to continue into the new millennium relate to missions mobilization. Western financial assistance of non-Western movements is likely to continue as long as the West continues to be the wealthiest world region. While noting that such arrangements can be highly effective in terms of costs and cultural understanding, observers such as Borthwick point to the risks of financial dependency on the part of non-Westerners and complacency on the part of Western givers.
Stated McQuilkin, who has spoken of the dangers of Westerners sending money to non-Western missionaries, "Given the rise of the younger churches’ missionary movement since Lausanne, will we find a way for wealthy churches to partner with poor churches without grave spiritual damage to both?"
Related to that issue is the short-term missions phenomenon. MARC-World Vision has reported that American lay people involved in short-term missions annually exploded from about 20,000 in 1979 to 120,000 in 1989. According to the 1998-2000 edition of MARC’s Mission Handbook, the number of short-termers sent by agencies serving from two weeks to a year increased from 38,968 in 1992 to 63,995 in 1996. (The Handbook says the numbers are not directly comparable.) The increase in long-term, overseas personnel during that time, however, from 32,634 to 33,074, was a paltry 1.3 percent.
Mulholland, dean and professor of missions and ministry studies at Columbia Biblical Seminary and School of Missions, notes, "Church involvement and ownership have increased dramatically. More churches, especially the megachurches, bypass the historic agencies, but they reinvent the wheel, fail to provide adequate training and supervision, and hinder coordinated efforts on the field because of the radical independence of their missionary force."
Hesselgrave says there is "profound ambiguity" concerning the new mission board and church involvement. "On the one hand, one can only applaud the rising tide of missionary vision and involvement on the part of local churches," he stated. "On the other hand, more and more missionaries are short term and ‘nonprofessional’-leading to what Ralph Winter has called the ‘amateurization’ of Christian mission. The growth in mission boards and church involvement has not been matched by a commensurate growth in the understanding of either the mission or the church."
Missions thinkers interviewed for this article indicate that those seeking to finish the missions task must acknowledge that it is likely to be a tough and tortuous job. Gary says that while it will probably take only two or three more generations to evangelize the 25 percent of the world’s population without access to the gospel, making disciples will take far longer.
"The emergence of indigenous and growing churches among the… remaining unreached peoples will take longer," he said. "It will take a combination of factors, such as pluralism and intercivilizational dialogues, plus missionary deployment, to see long-term changes emerge. This is an area where those who sow many never know those who reap. By the year 2033, we will realize that we must measure our progress in world missions by centuries, not just decades."
"Make disciples, not converts," Borthwick advised. "We have emphasized the making of evangelical-experience converts, which has at times resulted in an anemic church and in nominal Christians."
McQuilkin has seen enough of that in America. "The key to completing the Great Commission is the energizing power of the Holy Spirit, but the key to unleashing that power is obedient faith, and I’m not all that confident the American church is connecting with him on those terms," McQuilkin said.
On the verge of the 21st century, obedient faith is a familiar formula, far removed from all the latest "cutting edge" marketing blitzes, media tools, and strategic plans, as helpful as they may be.
Hesselgrave advocates returning to the Bible and learning from history. "A new church in our town advertises that it has adopted a ‘new way of doing church.’ Church and mission strategists generally urge us to ‘think in new ways’ and be willing to take ‘new risks.’ Well and good," Hesselgrave said. "God gave us 1,350 or so cubic centimeters of cortical tissues so that we could think.
"But all thinking is not Spirit-directed. All that is new is not ipso facto good," he continued. "The Bible is old; the gospel is old; the Great Commission is old. And the date January 1, 2000, should serve to remind us that the church has had some 2,000 years of missionary involvement, from which we have much to learn."
EMQ, Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 98-104. Copyright © 2000 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.