by Frank Severn
I was at a conference on frontier missions where a key speaker began his presentation with the question, “Which is more strategic and important—to win 100 Russians to Christ or one Uzbek?”
I was at a conference on frontier missions where a key speaker began his presentation with the question, “Which is more strategic and important—to win 100 Russians to Christ or one Uzbek?”
To him, the answer was apparent. It is more strategic, and, therefore, more important to win one Uzbek rather than 100 Russians. His answer was based on at least two theological suppositions.
First, the command of Christ to make disciples of the nations means that the mission of the church is to see a church established among every people group. Once a church exists within any people, the task for mission is done, and we should redeploy resources to those peoples where no church exists (Matt. 28:18-20; Rom. 15:20).
Second, the missionary task is accomplished when the gospel has been preached among all the nations (peoples) (Matt. 24:14). A corollary to this second supposition is that once the gospel has been preached within a people, it is no longer to be considered unreached. Thus, the peoples of post-Christian Europe are no longer a frontier for missions, even though many individual Europeans of the present generation have never heard with understanding the gospel of God’s grace.
Both of these theological assumptions are based on interpreting the word “nations” (ethne) in Matthew 28:19 as “peoples-distinct ethnic or socio-linguistic groupings.”
I am greatly troubled by the speaker’s conclusion for at least two reasons. First, I do not pretend to understand the elective purposes of God. I do not know how many elect God has chosen from among the Russian people or the Uzbek people. I do know that both the 100 Russians and the one Uzbek are important to God. In the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin (Luke 15) Jesus teaches that heaven rejoices over one sinner who repents, even when the majority of the sheep are in the fold. Also, how am I to know that God might not desire one or more of the 100 Russian believers to be his agent to reach the one Uzbek?
Second, the speaker’s answer was based on the assumption that Russians have been reached because they have a church among them. There are two parts to that assumption. The first is the classification of “Christian” and “non-Christian” by many mission demographers. Any nation that has sizable numbers of its society who are members of a church within Christendom is considered part of the reached world. Whether or not that church preaches the historic, evangelical gospel (salvation by grace, based on Christ’s finished work, through faith alone, and based on the Scriptures) is not even considered. The second assumption is that the evangelical church of Russia is large enough to reach its own people.
Statistically the evangelical church in Russia is made up of less than .5 percent of the Russian population. It is a vibrant church. However, many towns, cities, and villages in Russia have no evangelical churches. God has given a window of opportunity to preach the gospel in this country. It is a time of harvest. It seems strategic to be aware of God’s movements in history and to redeploy resources to this harvest area. In fact, it may be as strategic to win 100 Russians as one Uzbek.
Mulling over the speaker’s question caused me to go back and carefully examine the theological issues, particularly the interpretation of Matthew 28:19-20. What does “Therefore, go make disciples of all nations” mean? What is the meaning of the panta ta ethne (of all nations)? None of the commentaries I read gave an ethnic meaning to the word “nations.” Most viewed it as the “Gentiles” or as the geopolitical entities in which the Gentiles lived. Several commentators pointed out that Matthew’s Jewish character assumed that the gospel would be preached among the Jews. Therefore, the church should seek to disciple both Jews and Gentiles.
The Great Commission in Luke, Matthew, and Acts emphasized the “ends of the earth,” “the uttermost parts of the earth,” and all the “nations of the earth.” Most commentators did not read ethnicity into panta ta ethne.
If you examine howthe early church interpreted and carried out the mandate of Christ in Acts, especially the Pauline mission, you discover that Paul’s strategy was more geographic than ethnic. Paul started with the Jews and turned to the Gentiles. He was, of course, the apostle to the Gentiles. But he became the clear, theological proponent of one body (church) made up of both Jew and Gentile.
Paul had a great desire to see the gospel spread outward from strategic, urban areas where he planted churches. His was a pioneer, missionary task. He was a foundation builder. Once the church was sufficiently established in a region, he went where the church did not exist (Rom. 15:20). At the same time, he appointed some from his missionary team to remain behind to further establish and strengthen churches. The word missionary (apostle, “sent one” in the nontechnical sense) is used of Timothy, Ephaproditus and others who were left behind to carry out this work. Thus, the Pauline missionary team was involved in both the pioneering stage and the establishing or strengthening stage of church planting.
As Bosch points out, “Paul thinks regionally, not ethnically. He chooses cities that have a representative character. In each of these he lays the foundations for a Christian community, clearly in the hope that, from these strategic centers, the gospel will be carried into the surrounding countryside and towns.”1
THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE "PEOPLE GROUP" EMPHASIS
It seems that the heavy “people group” emphasis began to develop after Donald McGavran’s book, The Bridges of God. This seminal book described how the gospel moves through the mosaic of society made up of “peoples” (sociolinguistic and ethnic groupings). In a key address at the first Lausanne conference, Ralph Winter described the great missionary task of reaching “people” groups that were totally unreached. This produced the concept of “hidden peoples” or “unreached peoples.” This movement has been greatly used of God to focus prayer and resources on the task of reaching these “unreached peoples.”
Of course, the Bible, especially in Revelation 5 and 7, portrays the redeemed as coming from every tribe, language, people, and nation. This certainly shows that the gospel will reach every division of mankind. (It seems that even here the word “nation” has more of a geopolitical meaning. Tribe and language would have more of an ethnic meaning.)
My concern is that “people group” theology so dominates mission thinking in North American churches that “true and valid” mission only occurs when we focus on the unrelated people groups that have no “significant missiological breakthrough” (no Bible, no church, no missionaries). The rest of the world is considered “reached,” even though the church may be very small and many towns, villages, and even large urban areas have no gospel witness.
It is also true that the great promise to Abraham that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” is being fulfilled as the church makes disciples of the nations and brings the good news of Christ to all people.
However, I must agree with the linguistic study of the word ethne in Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Kittel concludes that when the term ethne (in both its Greek and Hebrew forms) is used in the sense of Gentiles (and that is the predominant usage) “it is often with no sense of plurality of nations. The word is used non-sociologically (emphasis mine) to describe all individuals who do not belong to the chosen people.”2 This is how the majority of commentators interpreted “nations” in Matthew 28:19.
In other words, the task of the apostles and the church is to make disciples of all the Gentiles; to make disciples of all who are outside the community of faith beginning at Jerusalem unto the ends of the earth; and to reach all people everywhere who are not yet in Christ.
THE NATURE OF THE MISSIONARY TASK
There are two main objections to this broader view of the meaning of “nations.” First, it appears to classify all evangelistic activityas mission. This clouds the nature of the missionary task, which is to reach people on the frontiers of faith. It is important to make a distinction between evangelism and mission. This is a technical distinction, but nevertheless an important one. Every believer is to witness and be involved in evangelism. Near-neighbor evangelism should be a major priority for every believer and local church. This is not mission in its historical sense, although the meaning of “evangelist” in the first century is parallel with the use of missionary today. Here is one of the best definitions of a missionary that I have found:
Afterwards leaving their country, they performed the office of evangelist to those who had not yet heard the faith (emphasis mine). After laying the foundation of faith in foreign parts as the particular object of their mission, and after appointing others as shepherds of the flocks and committing to these the care of those that had been recently introduced, they went again to other regions and nations, with the grace and cooperation of God.3
A missionary lays the foundation of the faith in regions and among people where the church does not yet exist. In laying those foundations, he must see that the church is fully established with its own leadership. Therefore, the nature of mission is reaching beyond the borders of the church. It is most often cross-cultural. It involves crossing the frontiers of faith. It is not near-neighbor evangelism. Every Christian is to be a witness, but not every Christian is a missionary.
In our desire to protect the essence of mission, we dare not limit the command of Christ to disciple the nations. We must reexamine our widely held view that panta ta ethne is a sociological description, and is, therefore, interpreted “people group.” If we narrow mission to the task of only reaching the “unreached people groups,” we are guilty of passing over multitudes of “Gentiles/peoples” who live in neighborhoods, cities, regions, and nations where the church does not yet exist or where there are so few believers the gospel has yet to be fully preached there.
According to many advocates of the 10/40 Window, Spaniards, Japanese, Russians, Polish, and so on are reached. The churches among these people should evangelize them. Mission work should move on to “unreached peoples.” The harsh reality is that among the people mentioned above less than .5 percent are evangelical Christians.
My question is, “Is this the Pauline concept of mission?” Were all the commentators wrong before the 1970s? Was looking at the expansion of the gospel in geographical and national terms wrong? Was it wrong to seek to “fully preach the gospel” throughout the Philippines or Spain or Russia so every person in those countries could encounter the good news of salvation? Was it wrong to see “disciple the nations” as having a church that demonstrates the life of the kingdom both intensively and extensively?
I realize missionaries should primarily be laying a foundation. Once the church is established so that it can effectively reach its own nation, we should move on. However, the Pauline model teaches that Paul wanted to move on because the areas of Macedonia and Asia Minor had churches in most important centers and towns. The gospel was an issue in the marketplace. Even so, he left some of his team behind to help strengthen and establish the churches they started.
I fear that our desire to reach every people group has led us to conclude that vast areas have been reached, when, in fact, the gospel is not known there, and the church has not penetrated large portions of the population. These areas should also be targets for mission.
This brings me to the second major objection to the broader, historic view of discipling the nations. If we say our task is to reach all the Gentiles (nations) or those outside the community of faith, then we tend to miss the “people groups” that have no church, no Bible, and no witness. We lack focus, and resources are not sufficiently concentrated on unreached peopleswho have no witness among them. I admit that often we have neglected the unreached peoples of our world. The Bible is clear that Christ died to save some from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation (Rev. 5:9ff). Here is the true ethnic emphasis. In fact, most likely “tribe” refers to clans (families) as well as people. It also appears that the word “nation” is more geopolitical than ethnic in this classification of the heritage of the redeemed. Mission should focus on reaching every sociolinguistic group of people where the church does not exist. This is a clear mandate of God. It would be good if every church would focus some of its mission resources on a people group “which has no church, no Bible, and no believers.” I certainly encourage churches to “adopt” unreached peoples.
FINISHING THE TASK—THE TRUE PICTURE
If it is true that God wants the gospel to reach every “people,” why am I concerned about the present focus of evangelical missions on “unreached peoples” growing out of an ethnic interpretation of “nations?” My concern is that in our desire to quantify the task and to demonstrate that we are nearing its completion, we are labeling whole areas of the world as reached based on a sociological definition of the Great Commission.
I read in magazines and journals that the most effective way for churches to maximize mission is to pick a people in the 10/40 Window (a helpful tool) and only support those missionaries or ministries focused on that people group. Missions is being narrowly defined. Meanwhile, countries, people, and regions are being declared reached and Christian where true evangelical Christianity hardly exists, and where vast numbers of people will never hear the gospel from an incarnate witness.
Do people who have no church, no Bible, and no believers need to be reached? Certainly! These are primary targets for mission. However, those people who live in countries and among people who may have a form of Christianity but who do not have an evangelical witness among them also need to be reached. I am concerned that we have been presenting information to the church on the nature of the task that bypasses great areas and peoples where the presence of real faith is hardly felt, and the gospel remains unknown in the marketplace.
I believe it is important to reach both 100 Russians and one Uzbek. Our heart and prayers should focus on the lost world where multitudes have yet to hear with understanding the glorious gospel of Christ. We should be discipling the nations.
1. David Bosch, Transforming Mission, Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1991, p. 130.
2. Gerald Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1964, vol. 2, p. 367.
3. Pamphilus Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, translated by Christian Frederick Cruse, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1855, p. 123.
A CONVERSATION ON THE NET
By Frank Severn
Recently, I came across a dialogue on the Internet between a missionary in Japan (part of the 10/40 Window but not considered unreached by many) and a mission researcher committed to identifying the unreached people. I will identify the missionary with the letter M and the researcher with the letter R. The context was the missionary’s objection to classifying Europe as “Christian,” and therefore, reached.—Frank Severn.
R: As a researcher into world Christianity, I couldn’t resist your post. I urge everyone to be very careful with terminology. I would not say that there are few Christians in Europe, or anywhere else. Europe on the whole is mostly Christian. France, for example, was 97 percent Christian in 1990. I think we would be more accurate to say that Christianity is widespread, but most believers do not actively practice their faith. I do not think we should say they do not believe. . . . This is a judgment call that is not our place to make! Only God knows the state of the heart. Rather, we should work and labor for the RENEWAL of Europe.
M: It seems to me that the bulk of missions literature and research these dayshas thrown out the basis of true faith in an attempt to present a positive view of God’s work in our world. I cringe to see a nation portrayed as “Christian” or “non-Christian.” There are no Christian nations to my knowledge. Because, as you say, Christianity is based on a personal relationship with God, no nation could be Christian. To say that France is (or was) 97 percent Christian is to ignore the evidence. I don’t know who could believe that a nation is composed of over 90 percent Christians and still not see any change in society as a result of that relationship with the Creator!
R: The reason I say this is that if we begin saying Europe isn’t Christian, then we have greatly expanded the “World A” or “10/40 Window” frontier. The 10/40 Window isn’t Christian at all. Most of its peoples have never heard of Christ. France, at least, is open and has had a witness. They’ve had a chance to make a choice!
M: Let’s not forget the purpose and origin of the 10/40 Window. The 10/40 Window is a tool to define where the greatest need is. If we need to expand it—even if we have to throw out the concept altogether—then so be it. Our task is to go to the whole world and make disciples.
M: Let me regress to say that I agree with the concept of the 10/40 Window. I am a missionary in the 10/40 Window. The 10/40 Window is NOT Scripture! It is a tool to help define areas of great need. If Europe is basically secular, it is NOT Christian. Let’s tell the truth as it is. If we have to let go of our definition of the 10/40 Window to hold on to truth (which I don’t think is the case), then I prefer to see the picture clear and to know the true needs!
R: I’m not trying to belittle workers in Europe and say they aren’t doing a worthwhile thing. I personally support people who minister in Europe! And there are many unreached groups in Europe . . . Muslim groups in particular. But let’s all be careful about what we say and think about the overall meaning and implications of our words.
M: . . . I don’t know how a person can be a believer and not practice faith. (I assume you meant not practicing an organized religion.) Is the 10/40 Window more important than the lost and unreached people it represents? I say no. Just because there was a time in Europe when many had a chance to hear the gospel, does that mean that now (perhaps generations later) we should abandon the many who have perhaps never heard? I hope our scheme of labeling people is not that dear to us. Let’s be careful that we use the tools we have to the best advantage!
M: Please take my words as coming in love and out of concern for the cause of missions. I mean no harm by what I say. However, your sentiments do seem to represent an attitude I have seen far too often in recent missions literature—the desire to show us on the winning side at all costs. I am on the winning side! I don’t have to look at a scoreboard to know that! My Captain has already won. If a census of Christians shows fewer believers than last year, I am not threatened. Let’s be careful to see fruit of true Christianity before we write off entire areas as reached because somebody was a missionary there years ago.
This dialogue highlights my concern. If Jesus’ command was to disciple all the nations (those outside the community of faith—both Jew and Gentile), then the church should be concerned about reaching the lost, and missions should concern themselves with taking the gospel and planting the church among the lost where the church does not exist or where the number and presence of true believers are so small that the church alone could not disciple its nation.
I concur with the accepted definition of an unreached people: a group without a believing community capable of discipling its people. By narrowing the mission of the church to those people who have never had “a significant missiological breakthrough” (no Scriptures, no church, no believers), we pass over multitudes of the lost who are still unreached. —Frank Severn.
Frank Severn is general director of SEND International (Farmington, Mich.).
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