by Gary Corwin
We short cut the biblical mandate by dodging crucial theological and missiological issues.
Few questions are more timely for the missions community than the scope and parameters of frontier missions. While on the surface the question might seem to require little more than a simple response about geography, ministry which is both Christian and strategic requires that at least we consider two other critical dimensions of the question, the theological and the missiological. Without them, the geographic dimension means little.
Over the last decade and a half an astounding shift has taken place. The concept of unreached peoples (versus unreached people) is on the lips of virtually everyone concerned with the mission of Christ’s church. This has been a remarkable boon to world evangelization, reflected in the strategic outreach planning of agencies and churches, and in the mobilization of new resources to see the task completed. It has not been without its downside, however.
The downside of the unreached peoples concept is the imprecise and confusing communication which surrounds it. The all-important term "unreached peoples" itself, for example, implies a division of the world into two parts-reached peoples and unreached peoples. This is fair enough, as far as it goes. What has occurred, however, is a loss of theological and missiological clarity in the use of this term, as well as other terms dependent on it. And because "unreached" is used in so many contexts, it is no exaggeration to say confusion reigns. The fact that such basic terms as "mission" or "missions" are built on a definition of the unreached, compounds the problem.
It is not surprising to find that when some of our most basic definitions have lacked theological and/or missiological clarity, a number of our operating assumptions are in error. These can perhaps be most easily described in a minimizing/maximizing paradigm:
In order to maximize closure speed in missions or world evangelization (AD 2000 emphasis), many have minimized the missiological task ("evangelizing" rather than "making disciples"; assuming that any who call themselves Christians really are) and have attempted to maximize the missionary task force ("Great Commission Christians" defined as any who are interested in evangelism/mission). This has been accomplished largely by minimizing foundational theology (especially "justification by grace through faith" as our bedrock doctrinal commitment; and the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 as our bedrock mandate).
For the sake of clarity, we shall look now at the parts of this paradigm in greater detail.
MAXIMIZING THE CLOSURE SPEED AND MINIMIZING THE MISSIOLOGICAL TASK
One of the serious flaws in the AD 2000 movement (the term here is used generically, not organizationally) is that it consistently understates the disciple-making task of the church ("baptize .. . teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you"), as outlined in the Great Commission (Matt.28:18-20). The teaching or "discipling" task of the church (in the Navigators sense of the term) is essentially ignored.
The resulting operational definition of the "unreached" ("without adequate numbers and resources to evangelize their own people group without outside cross-cultural assistance") is then interpreted in the same minimalist way. Though the definition is fine if understood in light of the full-orbed nature of the discipling task, it has rather consistently been downplayed in such a way as to minimize the importance of the teaching/enabling function.
This would not have been quite so bad had not the term "unreached peoples" also often been identified almost exclusively with the particular region known as the "10/ 40 Window" (the part of the Northern Hemisphere from 10 degrees to 40 degrees latitude, from North Africa to Asia). The question is then posed, "If reaching unreached peoples is the essence of mission, and if all but the stragglers among the unreached peoples are to be found within this ‘window,’ then what in the world are mission agencies doing in the rest of the world? And aren’t they almost criminal in not deploying their resources more effectively?"
While the argument may not always be slated so bluntly, the message seems to permeate almost everything published on the subject. Although it does have some strategic value as a global analysis (its communication value actually seems most prized), it minimizes the biblical task and fails almost totally to take into account the practical considerations of God’s call, temperament, and giftedness which also influence an individual’s deployment. It should come as no surprise to any of us that not everyone is capable of functioning well in the very different world of tentmaking ministry (essential to entrance into so much of the "10/40 Window"). Nor in many cases would such deployment constitute the best use of particular gifts and abilities.
The problem is only compounded through triumphalistic approaches to the year AD 2000. It has even been argued that we must not revise our statistical paradigm (to reflect reality more closely) because it would mean that we would have "to stop talking about evangelizing the world by the year 2000."1 In response one cannot help but think of Sir Isaac Newton’s timeless advice, "Keep the phenomenon; change the theory." Which deserves our allegiance, after all, our Lord’s mandate for disciple-making, or our own success-oriented prognostications?
The essence of the missiological problem with the current paradigm is that it sees the task of missions only in terms of evangelism, rather than the biblical standard of disciple-making. I do agree that we ought to define evangelism in terms of clear proclamation rather than conversion. Gospel proclamation is, after all, a fragrance of life unto those being saved and a fragrance of death unto those who are perishing (2 Cor. 2:14-16). Conversion, by contrast, is the effective work of God’s Spirit in the lives of the elect. But neither proclamation nor conversion is the whole story as far as the Bible is concerned. It was not the whole story for Jesus, and, by his command, it is not for us. The task we are assigned is disciple-making-not as redefined by the Church Growth School to simply mean evangelism-but as Jesus himself defined it: "baptizing them … and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded."
The missiological beauty in this latter kind of disciple-making is that it includes teaching obedience to the Great Commission itself, thus multiplying the task force available to complete the global task. I cannot help wondering sometimes whether our fascination in the Western church with the year AD 2000 does not stern at least partially from ethnocentrism. Perhaps subconsciously we see the handwriting on the wall, and because we desire so much to finish the task while our hand is still on the global missions throttle, we scale down the ultimate task to the image of our own capabilities. I also wonder if we don’t tend to assume that we deserve to be the ones to finish the task and usher in the Lord’s return. If there is any truth in either of these motivations, our brethren in the churches of Africa, Asia, and Latin America certainly deserve something better from us.
MAXIMIZING THE MISSIONARY TASK FORCE AND MINIMIZING FOUNDATIONAL THEOLOGY
Far more troubling for me than any minimizing of the missiological task has been the minimizing of our theological foundations. While there is some value in pointing out the distinction between those geographic areas where people at least name the name of Christ in some fashion, and those places where they do not, this is not an adequate criterion for measuring the completion of the task. It may be useful for highlighting where the unreached are least reached and where we need to be giving more attention, to be sure, but blurring our definition of what it means to be a Christian only hinders our ability to describe the fullness of the task.
A Canadian friend recently shared with me how his government was defining success in the national railway system: success equaled achieving delivery within one-half hour of the scheduled arrival 60 percent of the time. Using this anemic criterion, the railway system administration felt quite good about its performance. Never mind that fewer and fewer citizens were using the trains. I wonder if our understanding of success in the task of world evangelization may not be equally as anemic.
If we are serious about the authority of the Bible, and about the lordship and saviorhood of Jesus Christ (the basic tenets that have traditionally defined evangelicals), then we cannot ignore more than a billion people simply because they call themselves "Christian." Abraham Lincoln once asked "If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs does he have?" The answer, of course, was four. It does not matter what you call a dog’s tail, a dog has four legs. The definition of biblical Christianity is no less clear.
Therefore, we cannot escape the need for theological markers in our pursuit of the task. This is not a call for denominational distinctives, but for fidelity to the essentials of saving faith. Fuzziness on this point has resulted in inadequate definitions of "evangelism" as it relates to the gospel message, and of "Great Commission Christians" as that term relates to the evangelism task force. Make no mistake, evangelism has not taken place unless the core message of justification by grace through faith alone has been communicated. And neither Great Commission Christianity nor biblical Christianity (the only kind that saves) exist where this principle has not been embraced.
It is true that no Christian tradition has a monopoly on this principle, and that in every tradition there may be some members who embrace it. It is also true, however, that in significant parts of the so-called "Christian" world, the percentage of true believers is so small that a lack of focused missionary endeavor would constitute nothing short of practical heresy. It is not enough to say, "No church is a hundred percent Great Commission Christian and no church is zero percent Great Commission Christian," and assume that the issue is solved.2
WHERE DO WE STAND TODAY?
We can no longer afford (if we ever could) the luxury of a "sound bite" missiology that majors in catchy slogans, but minimizes the realities of the task for the sake of short-term mobilization goals. What is required now is the best theological and missiological thinking we can muster. It should be generous and it should be gracious toward those who see things differently, but its first priority must be faithfulness to the Word of God and the lordship of Christ. We must see obedience to his commands as our highest duty.
A reliance on carelessly contrived and often unstated theological and missiological assumptions has resulted in mission malaise and congregational confusion about appropriate missionary work-no small impact. The antidote, of course, is not to encourage a standing pat with dead wood, stick-in-the-mud, never-change-anything missions. That is certainly not my purpose, nor is my purpose to grind any particular axe on behalf of SIM.
The antidote, rather, begins with recognizing that many fine mission organizations today feel they have been all but written out of the "frontier mission" script, and that their efforts are viewed as second-class at best. This is reflected, I believe, in the typically poor attendance of mission agencies at "frontier mission" gatherings. (Although many actually do participate in various forums in which reaching unreached peoples is a primary commitment and focus.) At the same time, the ill effects of congregational confusion are only beginning to be felt in the form of reduced giving and recruitment for strategic ministries that do not fit the narrow profile of frontier (read: "that which is really important") missions.
The evangelical missions community has largely glossed over or ignored differences related to this question for more than a decade, much to the detriment of long-term strategic and mobilizing goals. This has been possible because one side of the discussion has largely disengaged itself, not feeling particularly understood or appreciated by the "frontier" crowd. Some have perhaps felt intimidated, fearing that to raise legitimate questions about the rhetoric and inferences of the frontier missions movement would likely be considered akin to attacking motherhood.
The time has come to face our differences squarely and to seek, in a spirit of humility, a clearer vision of the way forward. What follows are some thoughts on how that might be accomplished.
WHAT ARE THE APPROPRIATE RESPONSES FOR THE EVANGELICAL MISSIONS COMMUNITY?
1. Return to our moorings and affirm a fuller definition of what constitutes frontier missions, namely, taking the gospel of Jesus Christ to the unreached where they are least reached.
2. Consider resurrecting the term "hidden peoples" as a means of communicating this fuller and more global definition.
3. Affirm the full biblical formulation of the church’s missionary task "to make disciples," rather than just to evangelize.
4. In affirming "disciple-making" as a task, define it in biblical terms (Matt, 28:19, 20), rather than in subjective social science ones. As such it includes not only evangelism and enfolding ("baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit"), but also "teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you."
5. Affirm in light of the above both the legitimacy and absolute necessity of cross-cultural missionary endeavor from all continents, to all continents. Affirm at the same time all ministries which promote partnering and an internationalization of the missionary task force.
6. Reaffirm our unashamed commitment to the foundational doctrines of evangelical theology, including the bedrock Reformation principle of "justification by grace through faith alone." Implied in this is a commitment to cease using definitions of "Christians" or even "Great Commission Christians" in ways which minimize the watershed importance of saving faith as biblically defined. While a broader definition of the terms may be appropriate in certain contexts, general usage of them in this way is hardly appropriate to a missions community which calls itself evangelical and is committed to the Scriptures as its final authority.
7. Define more precisely and realistically what we are trusting God to accomplish through his people in world missions by AD 2000. Given the larger task before us which we have discussed above, my own feeling is that our goal should be to see every known unreached people group effectively engaged by that year. Such a goal is achievable and it acknowledges anew that it is God alone who "gives the increase." We only plant and water.
8. Affirm the usefulness of the "10/ 40 Window" as a graphic display of the region where the majority of the unreached "are least reached." Encourage a focus on this area as a challenge to new workers, without denigrating essential work going on elsewhere. Our communication should make clear that employment of properly gifted new workers, rather than redeployment of present workers, is the crucial issue.
9. Seek the forgiveness of mission agencies hurt by unhelpful or careless rhetoric of the past, and encourage their full participation in the forging of new and more helpful strategies for the future.
THE CONCLUSION OF THE MATTER
When all is said and done, all our definitions and prognostications are not the last word on the subject. The Lord will accomplish his holy will in reaching the world, with us, or without us. What a loss to us, however, if we miss out, or cause others to miss out, on all that he intends to do.
1. International Journal of Frontier Missions, Vol. 8, No. 2, April, 1991, p. 66.
2. Ibid., p. 65, 66.
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