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THE HISTORY AND STRATEGY OF MISSIONS

A quick look at the past 200 years of missions shows that major changes have occurred during the previous two centuries.  It also shows that the changes didn’t come easily.  These two centuries can be divided into three basic eras:

ERA 1:  1792 – 1865

William Carey struggled against the prevailing attitude of his day: “If God wants the heathen saved, he will do it without the intervention of Christians.”  In 1792 Carey wrote a booklet calling for believers to actively seek the conversion of the heathen.  A few friends immediately formed the first Protestant mission agency in England, and 1793 Carey, along with Joshua Marshman and William Ward, were sent to India.  They and others concentrated on the coastlands.

Carey’s writings and his personal example of courage and faith had a tremendous impact in the English-speaking world.  In America five students at Williams College were influenced by Carey.  Out of their now-famous Haystack Prayer Meeting the first American missions board was formed in 1810.  Two years later the first five missionaries were sent to India.

ERA 2:  1865 – 1974

Hudson Taylor inaugurated the Second Era when he founded the China Inland Mission.  After working for years on the coast of China, he became aware that people in the inland areas had no way of hearing the gospel.  He spent half his ministry promoting the idea of reaching beyond the coastlands to the unreached interiors.  As a result, after twenty years many mission agencies sprang up to meet this need.  Among them African Inland Missions, Sudan Interior Mission, South American Inland Mission and Baptist Mid-Missions.

Era Two got off to a slow start because the missions establishment was critical of the idea of penetrating the interiors.  Not only was it extremely dangerous work, but many felt that it would detract from the unfinished job on the coasts.  There was a transition period of about forty-five years until Era Two was firmly established, but by 1940 thousands of new churches had been planted in the rugged interiors.

ERA:  1974 –

Era Three began with Ralph Winter’s historic address at the 1974 Lausanne Congress on World Evangelism.  By the early 1970’s there was a growing mood that missions had successfully reached all the countries of the world and that there was little need for more western missionaries.  Winter dropped a bomb on the Lausanne Congress by pointing to the thousands of socially isolated people groups scattered throughout the nations who had no way of hearing the gospel.  It was no longer enough to say “we’re missionaries to Kenya”, but missionaries to specific unreached people groups within these countries or even in several countries.  Geography was no longer important.

Today the concept of unreached people groups is gaining momentum rapidly, but the transition between Era Two and Era Three has been long and hard.  Cameron Townsend began calling attention to these forgotten peoples over forty-five years ago.  As in the transition between Eras One and Two, the establishment was threatened by this new emphasis.  In the 1960’s mission agencies poured 90 percent of their resources into existing national churches in already missionized lands.  Even in the early 90’s, only 1.2 percent of mission funding and personnel were allocated to the 1.3 billion people who live in the least-evangelized world.  This is changing slowly as more and more people catch the vision of unreached people groups.

MISSIONS OR MINISTRY?

Some people argue that everything done in the name of Jesus is missions and that all Christians are missionaries.  One mission’s expert responds this way:  “If everything is missions, then nothing is missions.”  How do we distinguish outreach ministries such as “mission’s trips” to Chicago, evangelistic programs, etc. from other missions programs?  Or should we even bother?

GEOGRAPHICALLY 

At one time the “geographical distance” rule for missions made sense.  If a ministry was overseas, it was missions; if it was close to home, it wasn’t.  It was that simple.  However, with large foreign populations relocating in America, the “geographic distance” rule doesn’t fit was well as it once did.

CULTURALLY

Ralph Winter introduced the concept of “cultural distance” at the 1974 Lausanne Congress on World Evangelism.  This means that the cultural difference between the evangelist and the one being evangelized determines whether or not the ministry is missions.  To explain this, Winter introduced new terminology called the “E Scale of Evangelism.”  There are four levels on the scale ranging from the least, to the most cultural distance:  E-0, E-1, E-2, and E-3.

  • E-0 is renewal among nominal church members where no cultural difference exists.
  • E-1 is reaching out to strangers within one’s own culture and language (i.e. evangelism to the homeless).
  • E-2 is seeking to reach someone from a sister culture or someone who speaks a similar language (i.e. American’s evangelizing Australians).
  • E-3 occurs when evangelists work in a totally different culture and language from their own.

Acts 1:8, which commands us to evangelize in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth, alludes to the concept of geographical distance.  Samaria was not very far geographically from Jerusalem and Judea, but Samaritans were culturally removed from Jewish Christians.  Evangelizing in Judea would constitute E-1 evangelism, Samaria would be E-2, and beyond Samaria to the uttermost parts would be E-3.

Using this terminology we can distinguish between regular evangelism and missions.  While evangelism is a part of all missions work, the term evangelism should be used for E-0 and E-1 ministries.  The term missions can be reserved for cross-cultural evangelism, or E-2 and E-3 ministries.  Thus, every believer is to be an evangelist, but only some are missionaries.

E-1 is the most potent form of evangelism.  Therefore the goal of missions is for special E-2 and E-3 efforts to cross cultural barriers and establish viable Christian communities that will carry on the work with powerful E-1 evangelism.  The church grows best when Christians in all parts of the world reach out to win their cultural neighbors to Christ.  Missionaries should not do the job that local believers can do better.  However, E-2 and E-3 missionaries should be deployed to people groups where there is no viable church to do E-1 evangelism.

The fact is that most “missionaries” today are working in cultures where the church already exists.  Ralph Winter labels this Regular Missions and reserves the term Frontier Missions for pioneer work among unreached people groups.

MISSION LEADERS AGREE ON THE STRATEGY

In March 1982 a group of mission leaders came together in Chicago for a meeting sponsored by the Lausanne Strategy Working Group.  It was designed to help bring clarity and definition to the remaining missionary task.  Two basic definitions came from this meeting:

1. A People Group is a “a significantly large grouping of individuals who perceive themselves to have a common affinity for one another because of their shared language, religion, ethnicity, residence, occupation, class or caste situation, etc., or combinations of these.”  For evangelistic purposes it is “the largest group within which the Gospel can spread as a church planting movement without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance.”

2. An Unreached People Group is “a people group within which there is no indigenous community of believing Christians able to evangelize this people group, or they have such an immature or erroneous understanding of the gospel that as a practical matter, they cannot or should not evangelize.”

OTHER DEFINITIONS

MISSIONS:  The ministry of evangelism and planting churches to a people group who have no, or very limited access to the gospel or a Christian church.

MINISTRY:  The work of the church to their own church members and to the community in which they serve.

  • Feeding the Poor
  • Medical Care
  • Micro-Economic Development
  • Clean Water
  • Evangelism

Note:  Most of the ideas summarized in this document were compiled by Bill Anderson, an experienced missions pastor from Grand Rapids, Michigan.