by Gerald O. Swank
As the church enters the last quarter of this century, there is a new sense of reality and urgency about the missionary task.
As the church enters the last quarter of this century, there is a new sense of reality and urgency about the missionary task. The chaos and confusion, wars, hunger, the Middle East problem, all of these are threatening the world. Then there is the imminent return of Jesus Christ. He must be near, nearer than we think. It therefore behooves the servants of the Lord to ask some questions about the unfinished task. What is it that God is doing in the world? What is it that still remains to be completed before the return of our Lord and Savior? In order to see these things in perspective let us first of all take a look at the past.
THE PAST ONE HUNDRED YEARS
Through the efforts of several denominational mission organizations, the missionary task got off to a good start in the early 19th century. The "faith missions" concept was pioneered by Hudson Taylor in 1865 when he began the China Inland Mission (now Overseas Missionary Fellowship). During the remainder of that century a number of other faith missions were begun, such as Africa Evangelical Fellowship (formerly South Africa General Mission), 1889; Gospel Missionary Union, 1892; Sudan Interior Mission, 1893; Africa Inland Mission, 1895; Gospel Missionary Union, 1892, Sudan Interior Mission, 1893; Africa Inland Mission, 1895; Christian and Missionary Alliance, 1897, to mention only a few. The major task of these missions was to evangelize and plant churches in the major countries of the world where there were no Christians and no churches. This emphasis in missions continued for many years into the 20th century.
In addition, both the interdenominational and denominational missions pioneered in the development of supportive structures in the fields of education, medicine and literature. The latter was especially marked by numerous Bible translations.
Since World War II there has been a new crop, of missionary organizations. These have been especially active in the area of radio and literature. A few have been emphasizing the need for planting churches in new areas, such as New Tribes Mission, United World Mission, and others.
Since World War II we have also seen the emergence of Third World churches. In every country of Sub-Saharan Africa, we have the autonomous national church. It is developing and maturing at a rapid rate. Missions continue to work with these churches, shoulder to shoulder.
At the risk of over-generalization we could say: (7) The pioneer church-planting phase of the 19th and early 20th century has largely closed;(2) Most missionaries are engaged in working with the established churches. Ralph Winter has produced statistics showing that 95 percent of the present North American missionary force is working with churches in the Third World. This leaves 5 percent of evangelicals working in cross-cultural situations where there are no established churches;(3) During this time there has been remarkable growth in Christianity. According to Winter: "The number of Christians in Africa and Asia is today thirteen times what it was in 1900, and by year 2000 will be 34 times as large." On the other hand, he reminds us: "Bluntly, the number of people yet to be won in Africa and Asia has more than doubled since 1900 and will be more than tripled by the end of the century."
The fact is that the mission forces are by no means uniformly distributed throughout the world. It has been pointed out that 83 percent of the non-Christian world is receiving only 5 percent of the missionary task force (Reaching the Unreached, Edward C.Pentecost, William Carey Library, 1974).
Even if every Christian reached his neighbor, we would still leave one-half of the world untouched and without the knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is obvious, therefore, that unless thousands of committed Christians leave their comfortable places of residence and move into cross-cultural situations, these two billion people will not know the Savior.
THE PRESENT SITUATION
In Africa, for example, one agency records to the glory of God that there are more than 4,400 churches organized into national fellowships in six countries. This agency is mainly involved in supportive ministries to these churches. In some of these countries, the churches are evangelizing, planting new churches and sending a few missionaries to countries other than their own. However, this latter is still on a very small scale. It is true that in many mission fields of the world there is little understanding of the missionary task among the Third World churches. This is one of the frightening aspects of the work that missions have done. They have often failed to provide the motivation and the stimulus to the churches they founded to continue on with the missionary task.
It is true of most agencies, that approximately 95 percent of their personnel are working with the established churches and the same is also true of their respective church organization that they have founded. They, too, are mainly concerned with their own development and what they can do to establish new churches contiguous to their own areas. Perhaps this is only natural because the needs are still very great.
Nevertheless, we must recognize that only a few are reaching out to the Muslims who are on the outside of the church planting circle. Therefore, very little effort is being made to plant churches in new areas and different cultures where there are no churches. It is true to say that the church leaders take their cues from the mission organizations that founded them. This is only natural. For even though the churches are now independent, they still look to their founding mission for their ethos. This means that the mission has a double responsibility, to not only teach the new churches the need for missionary activity, but also to provide the example for them by doing it themselves.
In spite of the tremendous number of believers around the world, there are literally millions of people outside the sound of the gospel. In fact, there are more unevangelized people in Nigeria today than at the turn of this century. In Winter’s chart, "Penetrating the Last Frontiers,” he shows 165 million Muslims in Africa and no Christian penetration; i.e., it is so minuscule as to make it impossible to show it on this scale.
We thank God for the accomplishments of his church. We know it is possible to win Muslims because it is being done by his grace. I know this to be especially true in Niger and Nigeria. Today the potential is much greater than at any time in the past.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE FUTURE?
The classic missionary task is to reach the unreached and plant the church of Jesus Christ in every land – in its cities and villages. It is this task of reaching the unreached that caused William Carey to kick off the gospel in the evangelical world of the latter 18th-century. However it is accomplished, this is what missions is all about. And yet the major share of our efforts-personnel, finance and time-go into the established churches. This has been a legitimate spiritual exercise of our gifts. It should not have been left undone. It has to be done. But what about the future?
We must go back to pioneering in the cities and villages among Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Communists.
We must find a whole new army of missionaries with this mentality and outlook who are ready to commit their lives to this task.
In fact, in the next decade, evangelicals need to double their forces from North America and the increase should go toward reaching the 2.4 billion. We stand at the threshold of the great advance of this century. In the last decade of this century, we must add another similar number to that which we have done. The percentages need to change radically to a 50-50 situation.
The Third World churches are also tooling up. Look at Korea with its East-West World Mission Center planning to send 10,000 missionaries by the year 2000. India now has an association with eight missionary societies. Brazil is preparing for a great missionary advance. The Chinese have had two world congresses and are preparing a number of missionaries to reenter the mainland whenever that is opened. If Korea can field 10,000 new missionaries, 500 a year for twenty years, what could North America, Europe and Latin America do, plus African and Asian churches?
A leading church statesman has told me that there is no possibility for North American churches to increase their missionary outreach and support. He sees the plateauing of IFMA and EFMA missionaries as predicting further decline. But to me this seems an unnecessarily pessimistic view, when I see what the younger churches are planning to do. Theirs is the enthusiasm and vision of youth. The North American missionary force has not increased over a five-year span, but there is no reason for it to stay that way. Let us believe that the plateau has just meant we are gathering strength and getting ready for the next great advance of mission. I believe we stand on the threshold of it today.
There must be deliberate planning on our part and a realistic view of the world in which we live. New goals, new faith and vision are needed to move into a new orbit while we continue supportive help to churches.
What are the alternatives? The possiblities I see are:
Unless missions take seriously this new orbit of mission we will continue in our present orbit. We will be extremely busy helping the churches to grow in the areas of responsive populations, but without penetrating into those blocs of non-Christians who have no Christian neighbors to reach them.
The non-Christian populations will continue to expand but without the opportunity to become Christian. By the year 2000 what inroads will we make into the shaded areas of Winter’s graphic, especially Asia and Muslim Africa? Can we really change the world?
The blocs of Muslim, Hindu, Chinese and others will continue without the knowledge of Jesus Christ.
Leave the job to the missionary efforts of the Third World churches.
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