by Ralph D. Winter
When I was asked to give the opening address at the 1979 Executives Retreat of the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association, the theme had already been chosen.
When I was asked to give the opening address at the 1979 Executives Retreat of the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association, the theme had already been chosen. As Ed Dayton put it in his preconference letter:
"The theme of the Conference will be the Unreached People(s) (which) is very broad (as a category)…However, our main thrust is those people among whom there are little or no Christians, the ones…called the Hidden People(s…pioneer situations where the difficult task of initial church planting is needed (parentheses mine)."
At the end of that study retreat, the representatives of the mission agencies sat down and tabulated their best estimates of the number of hidden or unreached people groups with which their organization would be engaged by 1990-ten years hence. The stunning tally: 5,908.
It was not necessary for me to know in advance the tally that came at the end of the week in order to recognize that potent new mood was developing all through mission circles with regard to the final frontiers-the final cultural and social barriers to the penetration of the gospel. Why else would the EFMA leaders have chosen to devote their entire retreat to this single theme?
In other words, the very existence of such a conference justifies the first point of this article: that it is possible for a widely diverse group of organizations to be caught up nearly simultaneously in a significant new perspective. Indeed, the intervening months since the EFMA retreat have given evidence of the rapid formation of a new world wide consciousness of unreached frontiers, made even more prominent by the world-level meetings in 1980 at Pattaya and Edinburgh.
The second major concern of this article is to describe the contrast between this new concern for frontiers, and the still strong concern for nationalization and withdrawal, that is, the predictable tension between two overlapping eras. We will try to analyze what seems to be a transition between the end of one era and the beginning of another, during which it is perfectly logical and legitimate (but exceedingly confusing) to note the stark contrast between the perspectives of the leading spokespersons for the two eras. Happily, however, this analysis, if successful, will tend to neutralize the apparent conflict and polarized divergence in current debate about (1) missions versus mission; (2) evangelism versus social action; (3) moratorium versus initiative; (4) partnership versus unilateral effort; (5) mission-church relation versus mission-mission relation; and (6) church-in-mission versus parachurch-structure-in mission.
STAGES OF MISSION ACTIVITY
Let us begin with the often observed fact that the type of activity of a mission agency among a given people group moves through stages. For example, David Vikner wrote some time ago defining three stages in the circumstances the Lutheran Church in America faced overseas. To my knowledge, the most detailed and significant description of stages of missionary work in a given situation is that of G. Thompson Brown of the Southern Presbyterian church. He found five stages. More recently an executive at the Evangelical Missionary Alliance meeting in London in November of 1979 suggested an alliterative sequence of stages, as follows:
- Stage 1: A Pioneer stage—first contact with a people group.
- Stage 2: A Paternal stage—expatriates train national leadership.
- Stage 3: A Partnership stage—national leaders work as equals with expatriates.
- Stage 4: A Participation stage—expatriates are no longer equal partners, but only participate by invitation.
Still a fourth person, a Reformed Church of America missionary, will give his three stages below. However, it is not at all important to this article to decide which of these four schemes is the best. All of them serve equally well as the basis for an important further question: Is it not possible for one field to be in one stage while another field is in another stage? It is perilously easy to think that if we are "turning things over to the nationals in Korea" we ought also to be "turning things over to the nationals in Zambia."
Along with this error we have sometimes thought that maybe the missionary should never have run things himself in the first place. That is, if we had just done things right it could have been partnership rather than pioneering even in the early stages. Note then that this thinking prevents us from believing that pioneering was ever entirely proper and that not until now is anyone very likely to rise above instinctive feelings of superiority and to put aside the long lamented colonial mentality. Do we not in fact feel definitely superior today about not feeling as superior as did the early missionaries?
The central thesis of this article is that today the Protestant tradition is in a slow, massive, agonizing transition between a Second Era and a Third (and final) Era, and that like two Kodachrome slides on the same screen, the partnership and participation stages of the Second Era confusingly overlap and tend to obscure the logic of the pioneer and paternal stages of the emerging Third Era.
The best way to see this clearly and avoid some of our emotional alliances with one era or the other is to sneak up on the present transition by taking a good look at the earlier and similar transition between the First and Second Eras.
THE FIRST ERA
There had been a number of organized outreaches to the Indians of North America, where, Beaver points out, Protestant missions actually began. Then, too, it was a little over a half century before Carey that the intrepid Moravians moved into the vacuum. But it took William Carey’s blueprint for an organized "means to evangelize the heathens" to produce the six often mentioned and self-consciously parallel organizations born in the 1790’s-the Baptist Missionary Society, the London Missionary Society, the Scottish Missionary Society, the Glasgow Missionary Society, the Netherlands Missionary Society, and the Church Missionary Society. You can tell they were aware of each other as their parallel names indicate. Of these six, only the London Missionary Society really boomed into being, with nearly 40 missionaries on the field by the end of its first five years. The Baptist Missionary Society eventually lost two of its first three Board members, and as a result parted ways with Carey. The Church Missionary Society as an agency helped to make up the as yet tiny First Era "movement" but couldn’t seem to find any recruits from its own England for over twenty years, and recruited German pietists instead.
But if nothing earlier can be called a movement, then at least this conjunction of mind and spirit in organized mission efforts can be understood to be the beginning of an era, the First Era of Protestant evangelical missions. As a matter of record, from essentially nothing before 1792, twelve societies were created in the next twenty-five years, and by 1810 the impetus had returned to America, building clearly in both countries on the great power of the Evangelical Awakening, known in America as the Great Awakening, plus the Second Awakening at the turn of the century. However, even with 40 years of such unusual revival as a backdrop, mission vision was hard to develop. When William Carey in 1791 proposed at a meeting of evangelical ministers that it was the obligation of Christians to organize mission societies to convert the heathen, he was brusquely told, "Sit down, young man!"
Ten years later, stirred by Carey’s extravagantly determined missionary endeavors in India, five other young men, this time in Massachusetts, left what came to be known as the Haystack Prayer Meeting and urgently petitioned their church leaders to send them overseas as missionaries. For four years in succession they were stalled off, and finally were able to gain the barest sliver of organizational backing only when they threatened to go to England and ship out under the London Missionary Society-this, despite their meticulous and respectful attention to the protocol and procedures of ecclesiastical policy during those four years.
Thus the First Era was not derived primarily from the initiative of church leaders but from a committed minority, born aloft by the radical personal renewal of the revivals, working in almost every instance in either interdenominational enterprise or in church-related agencies as yet untrammeled by ecclesiastical domination. The early denominational boards, even when they finally appeared, were supported by a separate budget voluntarily supported by congregations and individuals. Indeed, we may suppose that had the far corners of the earth awaited a majority vote of church leaders (even evangelical leaders), they, for the most part, would have been waiting still.
There are two very bright notes about the First Era. One is the astonishing demonstration of love and sacrifice on the part of those who went out. Africa, especially, was a forbidding continent. All mission outreach to Africa, prior to 1775, had totally failed. Of all Catholic efforts, all Moravian efforts, nothing remained. Not one missionary of any kind existed on the continent on the eve of the First Era. The gruesome statistics of almost inevitable sickness and death that haunted, yet did not daunt, the decades of truly valiant missionaries who went out after 1790 in virtually a suicidal stream cannot be matched by any other era or by any other cause. Very few missionaries to Africa in the first 60 years of this First Era survived more than two years. As I have reflected on this measure of devotion I have been humbled to tears, for I wonder-if I or my people today could or would match that record. Can you imagine our Urbana students today going out into missionary work if they knew that for decade after decade 19 out of 20 of those before them had died almost on arrival on the field?
A second bright spot in this First Era is the development of high quality insight into mission strategy. The movement had several great missiologists. In regard to home structure, they clearly understood the value of the mission structure being allowed a life of its own. For example, we read that the London Missionary Society experienced unprecedented and unequalled success, "due partly to its freedom from ecclesiastical supervision and partly to its formation from an almost equal number of ministers and laymen. In regard to field structure, we can take a note from Henry Venn who was related to the famous Clapham evangelicals and the son of a founder of the Church Missionary Society. Except for a few outdated terms, one of his most famous paragraphs sounds strangely modern:
Regarding the ultimate object of a Mission, viewed under its ecclesiastical result, to be the settlement of a Native Church under Native Pastors upon a self-supporting system, it should be borne in mind that the progress of a Mission mainly depends upon the training up and the location of Native Pastors; and that, as it has been happily expressed, the "euthanasia of a Mission" takes place when a missionary, surrounded by well-trained Native congregations under Native Pastors, is able to resign all pastoral work into their hands, and gradually relax his superintendance over the pastors themselves, ’till it insensibly ceases; and so the Mission passes into a settled Christian community. Then the missionary and all missionary agencies should be transferred to the ‘ ‘regions beyond."
Slow and painstaking though the labors of the First Era were, they did bear fruit, and the familiar series of stages can be observed which goes from no church in the pioneer stage to infant church in the paternal stage and to the more complicated mature church in the partnership and participation stage. Samuel Hoffman of the Reformed Church in America Board puts it well: "The Christian missionary who was loved as an evangelist and liked as a teacher, may find himself resented as an administrator."
Lucky is the missionary in whose own career this whole sequence of stages takes place. More likely the series represents the work in a specific field with a succession of missionaries, or it may be the experience of an agency which in its early period bursts out in work in a number of places and then after some years finds that most of its fields are mature at about the same time. But rightly or wrongly, this kind of succession is visible in the mission movement globally, as the fever for change and nationalization sweeps the thinking of almost all executives at once and leaps from continent to continent, affecting new fields still in earlier stages as well as old ones in the latter stages.
At any rate, by 1865 there was a strong consensus on both sides of the Atlantic that the missionary should go home when he had worked himself out of a job. Since the First Era focused primarily upon the coastlands of Asia and Africa, we are not surprised that literal withdrawal would come about first in a case where there were no inland territories. Thus, symbolizing the latter stages of the First Era was the withdrawal by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions of all missionaries from the Hawaiian Islands, then a separate country. This was done with legitimate pride and fanfare and fulfilled the highest expectations, then and now, of successful progress through the stages of missionary planting, watering and harvest.
Little did Venn know, however, when he penned the words I quoted above (about the euthanasia of the mission) that the final sentence of his paragraph (embodying his careful reference to withdrawing, and then going elsewhere) would not only often be left out of the quote, but that the entire quote would more or less drop from sight for almost a hundred years due to the sudden emergence of the Second Era.
THE SECOND ERA
A second, symbolic event of 1865 is even more significant, at least for the inauguration of the Second Era. A young man, after a short term and like Carey still under thirty, in the teeth of surrounding counter advice established the first of a whole new breed of missions emphasizing the inland territories. This second young upstart was given little but negative notice, but like William Carey, brooded over statistics, charts and maps. When he suggested that the inland peoples of China needed to be reached, he was told you could not get there, and he was asked if he wished to carry on his shoulders the blood of the young people he would thus send to their duties.
With only trade school medicine, without any university experience much less missiological training, and a checkered past in regard to his own individualistic behavior while he was on the field, he was merely one more of the weak things that God uses to confound the wise. Even his early anti-church-planting missionary strategy was breathtakingly erroneous by today’s church-planting standards. Yet God strangely honored him because his gaze was fixed upon the world’s least-reached peoples. Hudson Taylor had a divine wind behind him. The Holy Spirit spared him from many pitfalls, and it was his organization, the China Inland Mission-the most cooperative, servant organization yet to appear-that eventually served in one way or another over 6,000 missionaries, predominantly in the interior of China.
I am not sure the parallel is true today, but the Second Era apparently needed not only a new vision but a lot of new organizations. Taylor began not merely to preach about inland frontiers and start an English frontier mission. He went to Scandinavia and the Continent to challenge people to start new agencies. As a result, directly or indirectly, over 40 new agencies took shape to compose the faith missions that rightly should be called frontier missions as the names of many of them still indicate: China Inland Mission, Sudan Interior Mission, Africa Inland Mission, Heart of Africa Mission, Unevangelized Fields Mission, Regions Beyond Missionary Union.
Reminiscent of the awakenings preceeding the First Era, the Second Era also drew great strength from Moody’s campaigns. Against all advice, Moody not only went to England which, relative to his background in America, was quite sophisticated, but also went to the universities where he had not the least credential. But there the power of his faith converted his leading heckler. There the Cambridge Seven arose and vowed not to go to the field without taking 100 with them. From there one of the Studds journeyed to America and converted John R. Mott to missions. When Moody came back, he organized a student convention in which history’s single most potent mission organization was born-the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, which drew its board of directors from each of the campus organizations of that day. Under Mott’s leadership that new movement soon set U.S. colleges aflame with vision for the frontiers. Although in those days college populations were less than 3 percent of what they are today, one hundred thousand volunteered for missions during Mott’s period. These committed students eventually gained the backing of the existing campus organizations, the denominations and the mission boards, if only because as they grew older they took over the positions of leadership. Thus those who stayed home were as important as those who went. It didn’t hurt a pastor or a businessman to have volunteered to go overseas in his college days. By a stroke of genius the Presbyterians jumped Robert E. Speer at the age of 24 into the secretaryship of their mission board. Other students who stayed home had by 1907 founded the Laymen’s Missionary Movement, which established 3,500 offices across America and in seven years quadrupled giving to missions in most of the major denominations.
Even the First Era mission agencies were caught up in the new wind. In England the Church Missionary Society, for example, took 66 years to grow to 130 missionaries on the field in 1865, another 22 to grow to over 400 by 1887; but only seven years later, by the time Moody completed his third period in England, the 400 had risen to 900; six years later, to 1,134. The same phenomenonal growth was true of other older missions, likewise carried along by the new emphasis upon the frontiers. By the time of the historic Edinburgh World Missionary Conference of 1910 the consolidation of the new impetus was complete. It was no longer an uphill climb for the Second Era to make its point. The First Era had ended; the Second Era had hit its stride.
For us today it is highly important to note the overlap of these first two eras. The 45 year period between 1865 and 1910 (compare 1934 to 1980 today) was a transition between the strategy appropriate to the mature stages of Era 1, the Coastlands era, and the strategy appropriate to the pioneering stages of Era 2, the Inland era. Early in this transitional period Taylor’s emphasis on new frontiers got very little hearing. Late in the transition, missionary activity in mature fields got very little hearing. Kefa Sempangi, in A Distant Grief, records how the rush of new recruits so outnumbered the older missionaries that even in well established fields they sometimes failed to preserve the degree of nationalization and indigenization of the past.
Instead of preparing the mature fields to join in mission to inland territories, all too often whole new organizations geared for frontiers and began from scratch with Western personnel. The frontier emphasis was so strong that by 1910 mission structures working only in relatively Christianized territories were not even invited to the Edinburgh conference which epitomized the inland emphasis of the Second Era.
As we shall see, Second Era volunteers eventually left their own pioneer stage behind and began to reinvent (not recall) the mature field perspectives of the First Era.
THE THIRD ERA
Shortly after the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910, there ensued the shattering World Wars and the world-wide collapse of the colonial apparatus. By 1945 many overseas churches were prepared not only for the withdrawal of the colonial powers, but for the absence of the missionary as well. While there was no very widespread outcry, "Missionary Go Home," as some supposed, nevertheless things were different now, as even the people in the pews at home ultimately sensed. Pioneer and paternal were no longer the relevant stages, but partnership and participation. Now 90 percent of the missionaries were working in advanced fields where the church was strong and in which it was quite reasonable for pioneer types of missionaries to be replaced. This change was success, not failure. It was not in itself a theological shift. The new field situation produced a new kind of mission awareness-a success-and-withdrawal awareness. And, only incidentally, the mature national churches became capable effacing social issues as did evangelical churches in the middle of the last century.
Seemingly in conflict, however, there developed another awareness, to Second Era thinkers a retrograde step backwards-the increasing awareness of a large number of by-passed places, the still unfinished task. This even newer awareness was the old challenge of the unfinished. Billy Graham and Carl Henry spearheaded the Berlin Congress in 1966. There was the Chicago Consultation on Frontier Peoples in 1972. The Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization brought unreached peoples into focus in 1974, the same year the organizing call for the 1980 World Consultation on Frontier Missions was formally proposed by an international group of missiologists. In 1978 Osei-Mensah, at the Asian Leadership conference on World Evangelization, proposed the penetration of all hidden peoples by the year 2000. In 1979 the EFMA Executives Retreat, as we have already seen, focused on hidden peoples. The same year the IFMA executives took a closer look at Hindu, Muslim and Chinese fields. In 1980 both the Lausanne-sponsored Consultation on World Evangelization at Pattaya, Thailand, and the Edinburgh World Consultation on Frontier Missions added further interest on a world level.
It began to be clear to many that there was quite properly a great difference between a pioneer field and an advanced field, and that, by definition, hidden peoples-those people groups without an indigenous church of their own-were not the ones crying, "Missionary, go home!"
Thus the wonderful late Second Era awareness of the reality of success and consequent withdrawal became confused and blurred in the minds of many with the early Third Era awareness of the need for pioneering the remaining people groups. Once more two Kodachrome slides were being projected on the same screen at once, just as had been the case in the transition period between the First and Second Eras. Consider the difference between the picture projected by films of the Wycliffe Bible Translators and the reports from agencies that were dealing only with national churches having a history of 50 or more years and communicant memberships in six digits. If Taylor was the early prophet of the Second Era, perhaps Cameron Townsend is rightly the early prophet of the Third Era, since his organization, Wycliffe Bible Translators, today symbolizes the Third Era emphasis upon not coastland or inland eras, but by-passed, hidden peoples.
However, the confusion resulting from the apparent conflict of these two slides – these two pictures, these two perspectives – is not quite as tragic as if a person sees only one of the two. We must understand the demanding, delicate traits of the end of the Second Era-the most successful era in the history of missions – and at the same time understand the often dramatically opposite, apparently retrograde characteristics of the beginning of the Third Era. More and more people are seeing both separately. One who does is the missionary Sam Hoffman, whom I have already quoted. He has beautifully summed up the painful transition.
Many missionaries should avoid slipping into the roles of teacher and administrator. If a missionary’s gift is evangelism, he must escape being captured by the national church with all its needs and must keep the focus of his ministry on the unreached. By his example he will be a witness to the national church that its existence is not the ultimate fulfillment of our missionary outreach, but rather just a beginning – just a beachhead in the establishment of God’s kingdom in its land.
The picture of the missionary moving on to new and unreached fields will also be a helpful model for the sending church. Too often missionaries who were ministering to the needs of the national church have eventually returned home with the message, "Mission accomplished! I have worked myself out of a job." The false message the sending church gets is that the day of foreign missions is over and the job is done (with 2,800,000,000 people yet to be reached!) Our missionaries need to be challenged: "Don’t go home. Move on!"…
There must always be a growing edge to a sending church’s mission outreach. As earlier plantings bear fruit and as national churches form, the sending church must be constantly creating new beginnings to replace these earlier ministries. This in itself will help the sending church and its missionaries avoid the danger of hindering the maturing of the national church by staying too long.
The keen insight of this missionary is difficult to heed, due to ominous structural changes in the very apparatus of mission. He continues:
It is difficult for the RCA to do pioneer mission work. We are deeply committed to cooperative, ecumenical relationships with sister denominations, including the national churches in the countries of our foreign mission work. Consequently, in speaking of world mission relationships, the Handbook of the General Program Council (GPC) states that "individual action shall be undertaken by the GPC only in exceptional circumstances and only for programs which the council believes it must undertake even though it can secure no partners." This individual action "shall be undertaken by the GPC only after thorough consultation with our traditional partners in mission and other church bodies directly affected by our action." It "shall be continued in that form for the shortest possible period. The council shall make an intensive effort to secure other denominations, agencies, or judicatories as partners in that program."…
The sending churches that make pioneer evangelism their priority in missions will avoid many of the problems discussed above. Their concern will not be, "How are we getting along with the national church?" Rather, their concern will be how to gain a hearing for the gospel from non-Christians. The calling of an additional missionary will not be the climax of a long negotiation with national church leaders but a rapid response to a door opened by the Holy Spirit. . .
But the sad fact is that some see only the end of the Second Era. Hoffman sadly concludes:
We have permitted the existence of the national churches to limit our vision and participation in world mission outreach. Our focus now is on the national church, even though it may be only one percent of the population and completely ineffective or uninterested in reaching the other 99 percent.
Equally possible, but not equally dangerous, is the outlook that sees only the other slide, only the beginning of the Third Era. I wonder if it is not far worse to fail to see the unfinished task than it is to fail to understand the complex church-mission tensions in the final years of the Second Era. In fact, looking back for wisdom from the earlier transition between the First Era and the Second Era, we note that there perhaps had to be some ground-breaking new missions virtually out of contact with the older boards. Even so, the era began slowly. Eventually it pulled the old boards with it. Finally, so many new people went out so quickly that, as we have seen, the danger was that the mature insights of the First Era were sometimes lost in the shuffle. We ought not to have to do that again, if only we can get through to college students with high quality knowledge of missions befoe they ever graduate. But already Youth with a Mission and Operation Mobilization are there, and they are only now getting in touch with the mature missiology of the Second Era. Hudson Taylor’s mission eventually grew beyond his reluctance to plant churches. I wonder what YWAM and OM will be like in another ten years?
Wade Coggins has said that the new era we face will be (and must be) greater than any previous one "because of the increased world-wide base from which to reach out to the lost." The presence of strong indigenous churches around the world is still "the great new fact of our time." While we do not want their existence to tempt us to consider them the end project of missionary outreach, we surely do not want them, along with the older missions, to be the basis of a new beginning of outreach to bypassed peoples.
How exciting to see 57 different Asian and African agencies send 58 delegates to Edinburgh. We must expect to see the Asian and African churches join into the efforts to reach the 16,750 remaining cultural traditions. Yet one must remember that it is no more reasonable to try to tie them to us, to Western agencies, and to demand that they work with us or to demand that they always allow us to work with them in new missionary efforts, than it is practical to suppose that every move made by churches in this country be made in tandem with some other church body here. If all goes well, the Third Era can and must be dominated by non-Western initiatives.
In the West, however, the Third Era requires a rather major reconditioning and retooling of mission strategy, as well as an extensive rebuilding of pioneer mission perspective in the home church and on college campuses. A serious handicap in beginning the Third Era is the fact that the remaining frontiers today are not geographical as they were in Hudson Taylor’s day. For a time we thought mainly in terms of tribal peoples. They still represent the largest single category of hidden people groups. But now we realize that subtle cultural differences, being invisible, make even city sub-spheres hidden peoples.
But our work in the Third Era has many other advantages. We have potentially a world-wide network of churches that can be aroused to their central mission. Best of all, nothing can obscure the fact that this could and should be the final era. No serious believer today dare overlook the fact that God has not asked us to reach every nation, tribe and tongue without intending it to be done. No generation has less excuse than ours if we do as he asks.
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