by Darren Carlson
We cannot pit church planters against theological educators.
Are we able to usher in the return of Christ simply by reaching all peoples? Over the last century Christianity has expanded at an amazing rate. Most of the growth, though initiated by missionaries from the West, is now outside of the influence of Western missionaries. With this expansion has come challenges, but we plow ahead, pushing the gospel forward to all the people groups of the world, praying they will gladly turn to Christ.
The Rush to Reach
At the 1974 Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, Ralph Winter argued that having a church in every country did not mean we had met the goal of seeing Christians among all people groups. Winter’s understanding of people groups was combined with the command of the Matthew 28 commission to “go” and the 24:14 promise to create the motivation for going, the priority of evangelism, and the grounds for work among the unengaged. Embedded in the Olivet Discourse is the tantalizing sentence: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” Some indeed believe that Matthew 24:14 is the formula to bring about the eschaton.
As a result, some agencies forgo language training, instead using interpreters to reach out as quickly as possible. Some missionaries, for the sake of speed, employ methods of sharing the gospel that often compromise their integrity.
Our need for speed is most apparent in the way many view church planting as if it were the golden ticket to seeing the nations believe in Christ. Some even advocate that in order to speed up the process, culture acclimation, language learning, evangelism, and discipleship should all take place simultaneously.
People Groups and Matthew 24:14: Questioning the Application and Exegesis
There are three reasons why we should question the assumed understanding of people groups in the context of Matthew 24:14.
People groups are not static. They are always changing. An obvious problem is that some people groups that never heard the gospel no longer exist, meaning that if Matthew 24:14 is a formula for the end of missions, it can’t actually happen.
The passage should be read as descriptive, not prescriptive. There are many passages calling people to go, preach, and make disciples—but this isn’t one of them. Rather, it describes what God’s people obediently take part in until he returns.
Context. Matthew 24:34 reads, “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” If we believe Jesus isn’t coming back until we reach all the unreached people groups, does that mean our generation won’t die until it happens? The Olivet Discourse is theologically rich and full of exegetical landmines, but there are much clearer passages that ought to motivate us to go.
Who Is Reached? Questioning the Formula
Two percent! This arbitrary number is used to decide whether a people group is reached. It’s been determined that if two percent of each people group is Christian, then they have a viable church movement, and we can add them to the reached list. Those who believe Matthew 24:14 is a formula for action must admit the passage can’t mean that all people groups must be reached, but that they must have the gospel proclaimed to them.
If a Chinese believer showed up in an unreached people group in the Middle East and preached the gospel, would that town count as one that has had the gospel proclaimed to it? What about countries and people groups that previously had large numbers of Christians, but now see their numbers dwindling? Is Greece (where less than one percent of the population is evangelical) unreached? What about Rwanda, where over ninety percent of the country claimed to be Christian when the 1994 genocide took place? It seems the two percent benchmark needs some flexibility.
Part of our problem rises from omitting the call for discipleship as part of the Great Commission and excluding it as part of our definition of reached. In other words, we are excited about reaching, but not so interested in teaching. Too often, we have given the nations the gospel and consider the box checked.
The joy of the nations will not flourish if we do not teach. If there is no discipleship, there is no worship. If there are no pastors who know their Bibles, there will be no worship. The task of reaching is not a task that will be completed. A person is only reached when he or she makes a profession of faith and is baptized, discipled, and brought into a mature faith that overcomes until the end.
Deepening the Roots
This leads to the great need for theological education—namely, discipleship and teaching people to rightly handle the word of truth. Training and discipleship are synonymous.
With such an under-discipled global Church, what are we to do? One response could be that all theological education must occur in the church and is accomplished within planted churches. The problem is that most church planters don’t have the basic tools of hermeneutics available to them—they need help. If we disregard the need for training (formal or informal), the gospel and the plain message of scripture will become so diluted that churches will move further away from Christian faith.
If churches are transformed by the power of the gospel and a deeper understanding of scripture, many social issues will also be addressed. For example, Gaba Bible Institute in Uganda offers a child development program as part of their theological training. This is because care for children through sponsorships and other worthy ministries is indiscernibly Christian. They are meeting the need by training people to think in a Christian manner about the implications of gospel ministry.
Reaching and Teaching Together
We cannot pit church planters against theological educators. However, numerous pastors and church leaders are so under-equipped that the churches and people groups we are supposedly reaching will soon be unreached again. There are many national pastors who have planted seven churches in six months with very little understanding of scripture.
How can the Western Church help? At the 1910 Edinburgh international missionary conference, Vedanayagam Azariah asked the delegates for partnership, not paternalism. Here is where we can start. Churches around the world have much to offer each other, and while the West has been prominent, we do not need to lead. But how can we partner with the worldwide Church to provide theological education?
1. Serve the Church around the world as someone who is its equal. Place yourself under others’ authority. Don’t bring strategies for evangelism, fundraising, or discipleship. Strategy is culture-based, and most leaders around the world will be better at this than you. However, we can teach others to rightly handle the word of truth.
2. Teach in such a way that can be replicated. For example, Leadership Resources International (LRI) trains pastors around the world (see Craig Parro’s article on page 26). Their program, Training National Trainers, focuses on replication. The results in Brazil have been fascinating. The church that hosts them now hosts thirty groups of pastors twice a year in different locations to take them through the LRI material.
3. Teach the pastors who are reaching the least-reached groups. As an example, the organization I work for partners with a ministry in India called Reach All Nations. They are seeing many people come to Christ, but they need help with discipleship. We send teams to partner with and learn from them, while also providing training over a 3-year period that will equip them to rightly handle scripture.
While in East Africa, I turned to my local friend and asked him if he thought we needed to send long-term church planters or short-term teaching teams. He responded that the problem was not a lack of church planters, but a lack of training. He wished missionaries would train local pastors instead of starting churches. Is the West listening?
Darren Carlson is founder/ president of Training Leaders International (TLI). He oversees the general direction of TLI and serves as an advocate for pastors who have little access to formal training and thoughtful cross-cultural theological engagement.
EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 1, pp. 106-108. Copyright © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.