by Robertson McQuilkin
Current strategic “tidal waves” are assessed. The author also considers other factors in determining priority, but rejects concentrating on any one of them.
Confusion reigns when it comes to assessing our evangelistic responsibility. Every decade or so the wave of a new theory crashes ashore. Theoreticians who teach and write books, as well as practitioners who lead missions, bob about furiously seeking to stem the tide or to ride the wave. Our impressive conclaves and private skirmishes seem dominated either by enthusiastic and often uncritical promoters of the new wave, or the veterans who scramble to synthesize older, devoutly held verities with the implications of the newly ascendent idea.
In seeking to come to terms with the "hidden" (or unreached, or frontier) people tidal wave, I have reflected on my own pilgrimage. In my youth I thought of evangelistic priorities in simple terms: How many people are lost? It seemed clear to me that since God loves the whole world of people, and indeed grieves that even one should perish, I must see the world through his eyes and assess the need in terms of how many people are without Christ and without hope. This seemed an elementary way to measure the loss to the Kingdom of darkness, and the personal agony of immortal souls lost for eternity.
Seen in such a light, Asia loomed far above the rest of the world as our primary responsibility. The place to begin was with the fact that one nation (India) had more lost people than the continents of North America, South America, and Africa combined. But China was larger yet, so I headed for China. When that door closed, we went as close to the border as we could and ministered in Japan with one hundred million lost people. A diagram of the church’s evangelistic responsibility from this perspective yields the following profile:
NUMBER OF LOST PEOPLE
As we ministered in Japan, we discovered that not all segments of the population were equally responsive. We labored simultaneously in a village of 2,000 people, another of 5,000, a town of 20,000 and a city of 70,000. In the city, the church quickly grew to a self-sustaining membership, ready to call a full-time pastor. The church established in the town of 20,000 was soon prospering, though the growth was slower than in the city. The work in the town of 5,000 was inherited from another missionary who had worked there for many years. The work had been established 20 years earlier. After I had built with vigor on the labors of others, there were still only four believers who had come to Christ from that community and remained in the fellowship of the church. The work in the village of 2,000 people also represented the labors of a resident missionary for more than a decade. In the end, there was no church and no convert.
In those days I concluded that my own responsibility (and possibly the responsibility of the church-at-large) was to cooperate with God the Holy Spirit and concentrate on those who would respond to the gospel message. Later the church growth movement swept ashore as the wave of the future. I discovered the official theory of concentration on the responsive. Since I had always wrestled with the biblical issues, I rejoiced to see the new movement and wrote an early exposition of the theology of the responsive people concept (How Biblical is the Church Growth Movement? Moody Press, 1974). Clearly, the Bible teaches both in principle and in the direct explication of the church’s responsibility in evangelism that we are to concentrate on the responsive. Taking this single principle as the guide for assigning evangelistic priority, our graph looks like this:
RESPONSIVENESS: RATE OF GROWTH
So far, this seems fairly simple. One looks first at the number of lost people and then asks, Who among these are the most responsive? But is it that simple? On returning to the United States in the role of training and sending missionaries, I found it necessary to face another important factor: What task force is already engaged in seeking to reach this people or nation for Christ? "Task Force" has to do with the proportion of true believers in a nation or among a people, and with the number of Christian workers available. In the case of the responsibility of the North American church, "Christian worker" would be defined as the missionary task force.
It was obvious that some areas had far larger Christian populations even though the number of those outside of Christ was also enormous. The missionary task force ranges from one per 8,000 in Bolivia, to some Arab lands where the ratio is one per 2,000,000, to the many smaller tribes and peoples where there is no witness at all. At this time, another tidal wave began to form. Increasingly we heard about "unreached peoples" and "hidden peoples." Before long, it was said that this concept alone should define evangelistic responsibility of the church.
It soon became apparent that a very important factor in assessing our responsibility was the task force presently assigned the evangelistic responsibility. For want of a more accurate means of assessment, the following graph uses Patrick Johnstone’s estimate of the proportion of evangelicals in a given nation.
UNREACHED COMPARED WITH PROPORTION OF EVANGELICALS
(Range is from near zero lo 20% in the case of Kenyn. Graph indicates weight of responsibility of the church elsewhere.)
In assessing the responsibility of the North American church, it is necessary to indicate the missionary task force. The following graph covers some representative nations.
The relative importance or priority of evangelistic responsibility varies greatly from graph to graph, depending on the principle used for assessing responsibility. Every smaller group of people with no gospel witness automatically stands at the top of that particular graph, but with the entrance of even one missionary it moves immediately to the bottom of the graph. This is not true of larger nations and groups of people in which very great numbers of missionaries would be necessary to reduce the level of responsibility even slightly. For example, in the case of India a doubling of the present missionary task force would only slightly reduce the responsibility of the North American church for this great land when viewed in comparison to our investment in other nations.
NORTH AMERICAN MISSIONARY FORCE AS A PROPORTION OF POPULATION
Assessing evangelistic responsibility is not simplified by taking a single element and making it the sole criterion. To do this only distorts and confuses. Young people, deeply moved by the challenge of the unreached, or "hidden people," are responding to it. But there is a great deal of frustration because the question of accessibility has not been emphasized in the analysis of the least-reached frontier peoples. Accessibility would have to do with two questions: The freedom of believers in a nation to evangelize and the freedom for evangelism by a foreigner. Responsibility decreases with restricted freedom. We must recognize at the outset that a courageous church does not accept restrictions as easily as a pampered or fearful church. Nevertheless, if there are true restrictions, it seems in the nature of the case to reduce the level of responsibility. So, another responsibility graph looks like this (top, p. 9):
In assessing the church’s responsibility, the question of accessibility must be integrated both with the challenge to young people to go and the strategy developed by those who would send them.
In evaluating the current tidal wave and in seeking to integrate it into a biblical whole, we must give priority to reach the unreached. However, we must not do this by giving the impression that this is the only legitimate criterion. As we have seen, there are many other factors necessary for establishing priority.
ACCESSIBILITY: MISSIONARY ENTRANCE, FREEDOM TO EVANGELIZE
Another complicating factor is the sociological concept of a "people." The idea of a distinct ethnolinguistic group is not new. We know the task that remains, to reach perhaps four or five thousand such clearly identifiable groups. But when we go beyond this and seek to identify a culturally homogeneous and isolated group, the endeavor becomes much less certain. This concept is a legitimate tool for identifying groups of people who have been bypassed, even though they may be living among others who are being reached. It is good strategy to identify this kind of group, so that the approach can be modified and the neglect corrected.
But if such a deceptively precise sociological definition is made the basis for all strategy, we are in trouble. The evangelization of the enormous city of Osaka should not depend on our ability to identify a "hidden people" such as the barbers of Osaka. Young people, stirred to complete the task, should not have a hesitancy about going to Spain or Mexico City, even though there are viable, witnessing churches in both areas. We are talking about millions and millions of people who have not heard the gospel. If reinforcements do not come, they will never have the opportunity to hear the gospel. It is not necessary to identify a sociologically precisely defined "people" to validate our responsibility to go to these geographical areas.
I do not know whether this kind of sociological theory will prove more lasting than other theories. Certainly it must not be made the sole or even the primary focus of the Great Commission. Contemporary definitions should not be imposed on biblical language and thus, in a circular action, be made the basis for undergirding the theory with divine authority. The approach is valid, but it must be proved in the arena of empirical effectiveness. When the theory is used to deflect the church from biblically mandated principles for assessing responsibility, we have erred.
Given the complexity of assessing the evangelistic responsibility of the church, is it possible to combine all of the factors involved to develop a single strategy? I am not convinced it is. Even combining them in a single graph is most complicated. Furthermore, the combination could be made in an infinite variety of ways, depending on the relative weight one gives to one factor as over against the other factors. Here is one way of combining these factors, representing my own assessment of the relative importance of each. The size and depth of darkness is intended to indicate the priority of responsibility for evangelism.
I have chosen to use nation-states rather than more homogeneous "nations" (peoples), because the data for nation-states in all categories needing comparison is accessible. As more complete data becomes available on the peoples of the world, the same comparisons can be made among them. India is not included because the number of lost people is so great that a scale including India would reduce all others except China to relative insignificance.
If the graph looks complicated and difficult to understand, think of what the reality of developing a mission strategy must be. Is it not possible to make things simpler? Perhaps it is. The typical way of "making things simple" is to concentrate on one factor and ignore the others. But this only complicates the task of fully obeying Christ’s Great Commission.
On the graph of all six factors, a small nation like Algeria is highly visible. An unreached tribe, though very small in number, would be even more prominent if fully accessible and potentially responsive. As soon as it were penetrated, however, it would greatly diminish as a responsibility of the world-wide church. Considering all factors highlights the neglect of the church for those peoples largely bypassed, but it does not view them as the only legitimate present responsibility, nor does it make any single unreached people more important than other, larger concentrations of lost people.
Spain appears as a prime need, even though it is not so rated by some strategists. Kenya, like many other responsive nations, has a very low profile. On the other hand, India, which does not appear, would not only dominate such a graph because of the number of lost people, but also because the missionary task force is so small (1/500,000), the evangelical community so small (.4%), and the accessibility is good to national witness and to some foreigners.
This profile represents my own assessment of priorities. Others would view the various factors with different emphases. My point is not to promote my own agenda, but rather to insist that there are at least six factors that must be considered in defining the evangelistic responsibility of the church.
It is legitimate for a mission or even for a movement to espouse one factor as its own particular responsibility. That may be the key to its success. Surely a single-minded commitment to a simple objective such as "the Bibleless tribes" has essential ingredients for success. But these specialties must be promoted in the context of the complete responsibility of the entire church and not marketed as the sole legitimate enterprise worthy of the support of a local congregation or the church at large.
In bringing together all the biblical data, we may not consider our task complete until every person has heard with understanding the way of life, and until a Christian congregation has been established in every community. If this is an adequate description of the church’s evangelistic responsibility, would not a simple assessment of the degree to which that task is being accomplished in any people, tribe, nation, or tongue be a central point of reference into which any emerging insight or theory must be integrated? If this is so, then those which have little or no Christian presence must certainly be given top priority, whether a (1) geographical area, (2) a politically defined nation, or (3) a sociological group of individuals who perceive themselves to have a common affinity.
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