Changes in Missions – Part 3

Posted on February 7, 2013 by Dr. Jerry Rankin in Rankin Connecting

RankinConnectingI can recall world maps distributed by the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention posted on bulletin boards in churches. Countries were colored red where missionaries were serving, leaving the impression that that country was now being evangelized because there was a missionary presence. There was a display at mission headquarters that highlighted new fields entered each year.

Following World War II there was a vast expansion of new countries and nations colored on the map, but vast areas of the world were still white. Missionaries were restricted to countries that were open to a Christian witness, so that left many others untouched in the communist block of Eastern Europe and those predominantly Muslim. In order to reach the whole world, creative access strategies have emerged that are bringing down those barriers, but that is another topic.

Missionaries of my generation realized deploying a handful of personnel to a new nation was far from evangelizing populations numbering in the millions. But that carried the conviction that once the gospel was planted, believers and churches would eventually multiply to touch the whole country.

However, a startling reality began to emerge. Churches did multiply and the gospel did spread, but it followed ethnic lines within homogeneous people who had an affinity of language and culture. Indonesian missionaries concentrated on the Javanese and Chinese-Indonesians because they were populous and responsive. Churches spread among them but did not bridge to the Madurese and Sundanese living in their midst or to hundreds of other people groups on remote islands.

Researchers and mission leaders began to highlight this historical flow of the gospel and identify the many ignored “hidden peoples” of the world who were being neglected in our mission strategies. We were confronted with a radical misperception of the Great Commission driving the mission vision. When Jesus said to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19) the terminology he used did not refer to geopolitical units we know as countries on our maps; this is a relative modern development since the era of colonialism.

Jesus was instructing his followers to make disciples–followers of Christ–of the “panta ta ethne”–literally, all the “ethnos” or ethnic, linguistically distinctive cultures of the world.  Sociologists and anthropologists have identified and documented more than 11,000 of them; over half of them were still unreached as recently as 30 years ago and most had not even heard the name of Jesus.

Mission strategy took a radical shift to focus on not just having an evangelistic witness in as many countries as possible, but to engaging lostness and reaching every distinct people group. For many missionaries it did not require transferring countries, but embracing a different perspective on the task. National churches and Christians were challenged with the responsibility to be witnesses cross-culturally rather than just reaching out to their own kind.

Missionaries in Indonesia began to focus on reaching the Madurese, Sundanese, Balinese, Bugis and Minangkabau. Missionaries in Pakistan were no longer satisfied to plant churches among Pakistanis but were taking the gospel to the Sindhi, the Baluchi, Punjabi and Pashtu. Those in West Africa had been successful in evangelizing Nigeria, Togo, Ghana and Liberia, but they began to focus reaching the Kanuri, Fulani, Sereer and others previously isolated from a Christian witness.

After 160 years of mission efforts, Southern Baptist missionaries had reached only 338 people groups in taking the gospel to 137 countries. In the last 20 years more than a hundred people groups a year have been engaged with the gospel for the first time. We have found unreached people groups were not unreached because they were resistant to the gospel; they had just never heard. It is amazing that after 2000 years we are just now comprehending the essence of the Great Commission and disciples are systematically being made among the peoples of the world.

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