by Jim Reapsome
Strange is it may seem, the church is holding up world evangelization.
As many mission agencies gear up for special projects tuned to "reaching the world by 2000," it’s helpful to ask, "What’s holding up world evangelization?"
Are we short of funds, short of missionaries? Do we lack the know-how? Is our problem a faltering zeal for missions? Or are we being checked by hostile political and religious systems? All of the above, and more.
In a time of booming churches in many parts of the world, and unprecedented responses to the gospel in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, it may appear at first glance ridiculous to assume that world evangelization is being held up. While we thank God that there are 1.1 billion more Christians now than there were in 1900, there are about three and a half billion more people in the world now than there were then. The unevangelized population stands at 1.3 billion today (more than one-fourth of the world), compared to 788 million in 1900. (Based on "Status of Global Mission, 1988," by David Barrett, in International Bulletin of Missionary Research, January, 1988.)
Therefore, to accomplish what remains to be done in world evangelization, we need to know what’s holding us up and we need to know what changes to make to reduce the bottlenecks. First, then, the obstacles.
That vintage comic strip character, Pogo, the swamp possum, used to say, "We have met the enemy and he is us." Strange is it may seem, the church is holding up world evangelization. Of course, the church is also responsible for the great advances made in missions in the last half-century. Without the church’s financial support, and without the church’s people, missions would be dead in the water. How then can we say that the church is holding up world evangelization?
Because many churches and many church members have yet to get excited about missions. Others give token support to missions. Many churches have higher priorities than missions, In many churches it’s a straggle to keep missions giving on a par with other budget items. Some churches are cutting back on missions.
So while we must give credit to the thousands of churches and millions of sacrificial donors and faithful prayer warriors, we must at the same time admit that there is much more that needs to be done and can be done. For the most part, in many churches, missions is still seen as the hobby of a relatively few enthusiasts-like the bird watchers and the backpackers. Missions is not seen as the heart and soul of the church. It is not seen as the responsibility of every church member.
From here on, this is going to sound extremely critical of the church, but keep in mind the criticisms do not spring from lack of deep appreciation for all that has been accomplished by the churches for the sake of worldwide missions. The criticisms must be aired, however, if we are going to get a handle on what’s holding up world evangelization.
LACK OF PRAYER
Probably every missions leader would begin by pointing to the lack of prayer. Missionary praying tends to be both general and superficial, rather than specific and thorough. Too often in some churches the emphasis has swung from prayer to intellectual prowess, methods, and strategies generated by committees.
Much missionary praying centers on the individual missionary, which, of course, is essential. But churches need to pray for missions in the larger context of the cosmic issues at stake. How can the barriers of Islam, Marxism, Hinduism, and Buddhism be broken down without prevailing, persistent prayer? How can we hope to gain a toehold for Jesus in resistant places without prayer? How can the pastors and churches in mission lands be emboldened to reach out without our prayer?
"For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Eph. 6:12).
"…for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds" (2 Cor. 10:4).
The church needs not only information about individual needs and crises, but about the overall state of things with the existing churches, governments, politics, religion, and economics, so Christians can pray more intelligently and more broadly. One venerable mission agency’s motto is, "By Prayer." Many others echo this theme in a variety of ways. This emphasis must be intensified in the church.
DOES WORLD EVANGELIZATION COME FIRST?
Next, there’s the matter of priorities. World evangelization presupposes the spiritual vitality of the church and prime commitment to missions. What’s holding up world evangelization is not primarily closing doors, hostile ideologies, or even war, but rather spiritual flabbiness. Even though there are unprecedented opportunities for advancement, the church is not on a wartime footing.
Instead, with rising wealth and a big-business mentality, the church has focused on homeside concerns like buildings, multiple staffs, and a comfortable lifestyle. Missions leaders ask, "Where is the church’s concept of militancy, of a mighty army willing to suffer, moving ahead with exultant determination to take the world by storm?" Where is the risk-taking, the launching out on God alone?
Missions leaders often wonder if they are the only ones taking risks and challenging the remaining strongholds of unbelief. They wonder if the churches are really behind them in commitment to world evangelization. They wonder if the churches take the Great Commission seriously enough to make it the program of the church, rather than a program. In effect, by insufficient vision, low levels of discipleship and obedience, the church has held back world evangelization.
Of course, in the broader sense, the evangelical communuity as a whole may be on thin ice, basking in a flurry of more and more programs, more and more specialized ministries, and a more comfortable existence with the world of success and pride. Alarms are going off about watered down theology, education, and morality in the evangelical camp, which is the seedbed of world evangelization. One of the critical issues, of course, is whether or not it is essential for all unbelievers around the world to hear the gospel. If the church fails to give a resounding yes, before long missions will dry up.
MANY MORE VOLUNTEERS NEEDED
Church priorities affect world evangelization because people and money are needed to reach the world. Some churches sit back and wait for people to volunteer to be missionaries and then are surprised when few, if any, do. Instead, they should be systematically and energetically looking for and people with the requisite gifts and qualities.
Sacrifice has become a dirty word in some circles. Too much talk about difficulties, dangers, closing doors, and needs at home make it possible to sidetrack world evangelization for more comfortable jobs here. In some ways, the broad gate of short-term projects and ministries now being entered by thousands of volunteers may not be the way to win the world, unless most of them make a long-term commitment to missions. That’s because to reach many of the toughest people requires learning two or three bridging languages. Many volunteers today will have to commit themselves to six to ten years of language study.
On the other hand, family has become god in many churches, thereby throttling many potential missionaries. Many people who have yet to hear of Jesus Christ can only be reached by single missionaries. Some churches are putting the married state, home comfort, and the education and happiness of children before world evangelization. As long as Christians see a missionary career as negating family values, we won’t get the job done. Churches must teach that God’s will for world evangelization and God’s will for the family can perfectly mesh in satisfying harmony.
Churches are just not producing the number of missionaries needed to maintain the status quo, let alone to make any headway against burgeoning world population. As American culture becomes softer, it will become more difficult to find people totally committed to the will of God, regardless of cost. It takes spiritually tough people to submit to God’s will and stick with it. The church must be the breeding ground and nursery for these kind of people. Part of this can be accomplished when world needs and opportunities are consistently and refreshingly given to children and youth.
MUCH MORE MONEY NEEDED
Many churches feel pushed to the limit when it comes to financing missions and the last thing they want to hear is another appeal for money. But as those churches grow and bring in more believers they will have ample resources to expand their missions budgets. Obviously, the same people can’t be pledged again and again, but you would be surprised how many people go to church week after week and never give a dime to missions, or to anything for that matter. Year after year the statistics for charitable giving show the same thing: most of the money comes from relatively few people.
Therefore, it’s not wrong to say that a lack of giving is holding up world evangelization. Even if no more were sent, costs would keep on going up, just like they do for your church and family. Speaking generally, given the affluence of the churches, the escalating cost of missions is not insurmountable. But what happens? Affluence has a way of numbing our concern for missions.
What disheartens many missions leaders is the great disparity between the vast number of relatively wealthy church members and the growing number of accepted missionary candidates who can’t get to the field because they lack support. Missionary giving must be more than surplus giving, it must be sacrificial giving.
Churches should begin to address the issue of huge inheritances. Economists report that persons now over 65 own 40 percent of the nation’s personal wealth, about $1 trillion in all. And three out of four elderly families own their own homes, most of them free and clear. One economist said, "Never before has a retiring generation been so well-heeled, and never before have so many been destined to inherit so much." Ought not mission agencies be counted in when wills are made? With world evangelization standing in need of ever-increasing funds, Christians cannot blithely leave their money to their children.
APATHY AND COMPLACENCY
What’s the root problem in the churches? In two words, apathy and complacency. We lack the will. We are not nearly serious enough about the task before us. If every Christian pitched in, much more could be accomplished much more quickly. Said an Indian student studying at a U.S. seminary, "If your people were as interested in getting into my country as my people are in getting into yours, you would have no problem."
Spiritual lacks-therein lies the problem for world evangelization. Probably it has always been true that the greatest barriers to reaching the world for Christ are to be found within rather than outside the church. In any case, it is certainly true today.
Recognizing our problems is one thing, doing something about them is another. Much has been accomplished in the last three decades especially to broaden the scope of missions awareness in churches. Pacesetter churches (see below) have shown increasing missions support and church growth at home are not antithetical. In fact, usually, but not always, growing churches are excited about world missions.
Then, too, a number of churches would like to do more to assist world evangelization, but they don’t know how. They struggle with who and what projects to support, and for how much. These churches don’t need a spiritual kick in the pants, they want and need practical guidance, the kind offered by the Association of Church Missions Committees (Box ACMC, Wheaton, III. 60189).
"TOM’S TOP TWENTY"
We asked Tom Telford, northeast regional director for the Association of Church Missions Committees (ACMC, address above), to pick the "top 20" missions churches in the U.S. Publishing this list risks leaving out many good missions-minded churches, but we nevertheless felt it would be worth it to help our readers to put the foregoing article in perspective, and to encourage other churches to seek the counsel of ACMC and the churches on the list for further help. Tom graciously consented to the task and found it hard to limit his picks to 20, so we agreed to go with 23 churches.-The Editors.
1. Los Gatos Christian Church, Los Gatos, Calif.
2. Spanish River Presbyterian Church, Boca Raton, Fla.
3. Church of the Savior, Wayne, Pa.
4. Emmanuel Faith Community Church, Escondido, Calif.
5. Briarwood Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, Ala.
6. Family Bible Church, Willow Grove, Pa. (under 200).
7. Long Hill Chapel, Chatham, N.J.
8. New Life in Christ Church, Fredericksburg, Va. (450).
9. Grace Church, Edina, Minn.
10. Grace Chapel, Lexington, Mass.
11. Christian Fellowship Church, Evansville, Ind.
12. Candia Congregational Church, Candia, N.H. (under 200).
13. Ward Presbyterian Church, Livonia, Mich.
14. College Church in Wheaton, Wheaton, Ill.
15. Park Street Church, Boston, Mass.
16. Reinhardt Bible Church, Dallas, Tex.
17. Overlake Christian Church, Kirkland, Wash.
18. Elmbrook Church, Waukesha, Wis.
19. Hinson Memorial Baptist Church, Portland, Ore.
20. Lake Avenue Congregational Church, Pasadena, Calif.
21. Grace Community Church, Panorama City, Calif.
22. Calvary Independent Church, Lancaster, Pa.
23. Chelten Baptist Church, Dresner, Pa.
Copyright © 1988 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.