In the New Testament the Christian missionary is synonymous with the Christian man. Strictly speaking the Christian mission is synonymous with evangelism. The missionary enterprise is the most important thing that has happened and is happening in history, because it is addressed to the profoundest problem in history, namely, the alienation of men from the living God.
The younger churches of Asia and Africa, as well as the “older” churches of the West, are today engaged in this mission. But for more than a century the Christian missionary enterprise was promulgated from its strategic position in the West. Men and women left their natural context in Europe and America for an unnatural and largely non-Christian context, under the leadership of God, with a view to winning men and areas of life to Christ.
Today no enterprise is so thwarted and threatened by forces all around it as the missionary venture. It has been pushed out of China, banned from the Soviet Union, is slowly being ejected from Africa, and its future is questionable in India. All over the world doors are closing to Christian missions as they have been traditionally understood.
The fact should sober us. Evidences are not lacking that God’s judgment has in some measure fallen upon the policies and practices of “Western mission.” The closed doors demand of us, first of all, a profound repentance and re-evaluation. Yet there is something thrilling here too. The fact of the closed doors actually throws open the door and the imperative of indigenous (“native”) mission. And while it apparently closes off Western mission, it does so only seemingly. Our responsibility has not terminated, for we as well as members of the overseas churches are united in the body of Christ. As parts of the same body we share a common responsibility for one another. We must not disown or ignore them, nor they us, in this hour of challenge; we need each other, and we need one another’s gifts. For the repentant Western missionary, closed doors should constitute a creative demand.
Perhaps too much is being said today about the “end” of mission from West to East, and even of the retiring of the term “mission.” Certainly the East is no longer understood only as a mission field but has itself become a mission center, whereas the West is now also a mission field. So long as Christ’s commission to the ends of the earth applies, the mandate of mission from one end of the earth to any other will pertain. So long as there is Gospel for the whole world, there will be mission in the whole world. And so long as the Missio Dei applies, we shall have the Missio Ecclesia.
But the precariousness of contemporary Western mission is difficult to exaggerate. For the first time in about a century, the Christian missionary enterprise has become almost insuperably difficult. When pioneer missionaries went out at the beginning of the nineteenth century, they died with fearful frequency due largely to the absence of antibiotics and modern medical knowledge. Nevertheless they went out to establish the Christian Church as she now is, coexistensive with the whole inhabited earth. Finally medicine caught up, and for about one hundred years mission has been relatively safer. It is not so any longer. Not inanimate nature but animate nations are rising up to strike us down. For the first time since the challenge of Mohammedanism in the eighth century, mission is faced with massive and sometimes organized opposition in the form of vibrant, awakened (and often positive) nationalism, virulent, raging communism, and incipient, omnipresent secularism. For the Westerner, there is no more insecure or perilous calling in the world today than to the Christian missionary enterprise. One may prepare himself for years in a language, move his family and earthly belongings to a foreign field, and then be summarily dismissed and ejected with no questions asked. Today (at least initially) the possession of a white face is often a decided handicap. The missionary enterprise offers a young man no earthly certainty, only uncertainties and insecurities.
One is reminded of Garibaldi’s classic and terse address to his troops on the eve of the French entry into Rome: “Let those who wish to continue the war come with me. I offer neither pay, nor quarters, nor provision. I offer hunger, thirst, forced marches, battles, and death.” Four thousand men followed Garibaldi that night. A greater than Garibaldi stands in our midst today, invisibly and imperiously, offering no more, asking no less. He offers only the provision of His presence (and “it is enough”!), and asks far more—a heart burning for the salvation of men and nations, and a mind ready to think.
That the missionary enterprise has entered a new day is abundantly evident. Because of the obedience of yesterday’s pioneer missionaries, the Church is planted today in almost every nation of the earth. Should a missionary ignore or intentionally bypass the already existing church in the land to which he goes, he displays bad faith not only towards his predecessors and contemporaries but towards the Holy Spirit who brought the church into existence. Today the emphasis rightly falls not upon the missionary and his labors but upon the Younger Churches and their life. As we hear so often, the missionary is no longer master and church builder but servant and church member. The peril in the well-known emphasis of “the new day” is that, in stressing the new “servanthood” of the missionary, it may appear to young men and women concerned for mission that their qualifications are significantly downgraded and demeaned. Such is far from being the case. The qualifications are greater—in humility and grace. The demands are higher—in flexibility and initiative. The Younger Churches are telling us today that the crying need from their overseas brothers is not quantity (more missionaries) but quality (better missionaries). Indeed, our time—the time of closed doors—calls for a quality of missionary commitment which really deserves the designation of statesmanship.
THE APOSTOLIC PROTOTYPE
The finest definition we have found of the character of missionary statesmanship comes from the pen of the prototype missionary statesman, the Apostle Paul. It is expressed in the opening verses of Paul’s classic, the Epistle to the Romans. The first seven verses constitute one long sentence in which Paul uses twice the little Greek preposition of purpose éis, meaning “unto.” This word “unto” is the key unlocking the meaning of missionary statesmanship, or its ancient semi-equivalent, apostleship. After his opening words, “Paul, slave of Christ, called to be an apostle” (important opening words!), we have the operative phrase, “separated unto the gospel of God” (which he proceeds to define), “… unto the obedience of faith among all the nations for his name’s sake.” Now there were two great “unto’s,” two great preoccupations in the Apostle’s life: the first was the gospel of God—the Word; and the second was the nations of men—the world.
Paul’s first preoccupation was the Gospel—the Word. He pored over it, he pondered it; and with his heart and soul, pen and voice, he pounded it out on the anvil of his time. The finished product of Paul’s separation unto the Gospel is preserved for us in some measure in his 13 New Testament Epistles which make up half our New Testament masterpieces of monumental thought.
But Paul was not separated unto the Gospel for its own sake. He was separated unto the Gospel, as he writes himself, “unto the obedience of faith among all the nations.” He was separated unto the Word for the sake of the world. The missionary statesman must be a man of both the Word and the world. He would know the Word like a scholar and the world like a Secretary of State. He must labor to be unrivaled in his appropriation of the Bible message, and be second to none in his alertness to the world situation. A missionary statesman must be both a gospel man and a global man, reverent and relevant, whose passion is the glory of the Name through the disciplining of the nations. The primary character of missionary statesmanship, then, may be provisionally defined as a deep separation unto the Word for the sake of the world.
ADDRESSING THE WORLD
Although missionary statesmanship demands an unparalleled alertness to the political, social, economic, intellectual, and spiritual vicissitudes of the world of men, its principal message is not to be drawn from that world. It is to be drawn from another source and applied to that world. The message of the missionary statesman must be no less than his principal preoccupation, the Word of God, which is the Gospel. And certainly the Gospel, is at least and at center the news that the one true God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, has intersected history in the person of his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, just as he had promised in the Scriptures of the Old Testament. Furthermore, this Son was a man of the lineage of David who slugged it out with the evil all his life up to the Cross, where by taking our sins upon himself, he forever maimed sin and killed death dead. Then by an unprecedented resurrection from the dead, he was designated the Son of God, and is now King of kings, Lord of lords, and actually lives as Sovereign in the hearts of every person who by faith has received his offer of salvation and his office of Lord. Those who know him by faith make up his holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, and through her he is working out his purposes in the world. One day he shall return in glory to sit as Judge over the world, directing the secular and the fleshly to hell and the faithful and believing to heaven, and every knee shall bow in that day and every tongue shall confess that he is Lord, to the glory of God, and then he himself shall give over his dignity to God the Father, so that God may be all in all, for ever.
The outline given above is the body of the Gospel. The heart of the Gospel is God’s gracious offer of fellowship and friendship with man, which means our acceptance before God, the forgiveness of every sin, and the very presence and power of God in the person of the Holy Spirit in his life. Such gospel benefits have been provided by the work of the crucified and living Christ, and we receive them by faith alone.
I stand in awe before this great Gospel. It requires more than a lifetime to plumb its depths, apply its healing, and proclaim its truth. Its message, its marvelous news, must be the principal and paramount burden of missionary statesmanship. To summarize, then, we understand the primary character of missionary statesmanship to be a separation unto the Word of God and the world of men, and the principal message of missionary statesmanship to be the Word of God, the Gospel.
THE DIVINE STRATEGY
We come now to the priority strategy of missionary statesmanship. Human strategy in a divine enterprise is a dangerous affair, for “His thoughts are not our thoughts.” One may become more concerned with human strategy than with the Spirit of God, whose purpose it is to develop strategy and to lead us in it. Nevertheless, God has seen fit to reveal to us in his Word his own priority pattern and strategy of mission.
It seems clear not only from the New Testament but also the Old that God’s major missionary strategy through the ages has been to reach the nations through their great cities. In Jonah, for example, which is the major missionary epistle of the Old Testament, one will notice that in calling his prophet, God stated three times, “go to Nineveh,” adding pointedly, “that great city” (1:1–2; 3:2–3; and cf. 4:11). If Assyria, the major world empire of mid-Old Testament times, was to be influenced for God, then her capital city of Nineveh was the strategic beachhead.
We have a further example of God’s missionary strategy in New Testament times. When the gospel witness was fully established in Jerusalem, God moved Paul to establish churches in the great cities of the Roman Empire, namely, in Ephesus, the key city of Asia Minor; in Philippi, the capital city of Macedonia; in Corinth, the commercial key to Greece; and to establish connection with the Christians in the city of Rome, the seat of the Roman Empire. Paul’s work was so successful that Roland Allen, in his Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s Or Ours, writes: “In little less than ten years St. Paul established the Church in four provinces of the (Roman) Empire, Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia, and Asia. Before 47 A.D. there were no churches in these provinces; in 57 A.D., St. Paul could speak as if his work there were done.…” What was it that made Paul’s missionary work so extraordinarily successful? Allen points out in his opening chapter, “Strategic Centres,” that it was due partly to his being guided by certain principles in the selection of his places of work. Every major city in which Paul worked had four distinct features: it was a center of Roman administration, of Greek civilization, of Jewish influence; and of world commerce. In other words, here were centers of government, culture, religion, and business.
Paul’s plan was that these cities should become the “centers of light” for their whole province; that from these key cities the outlying territories and eventually the whole nation would be evangelized. Most cities in which Paul worked were cosmopolitan, not provincial, and as such were especially fitted to be centers for the dissemination of the world-wide Gospel. They were the crossroads of the Roman Empire.
There is, and always will be, an important place for rural, “bush,” and out-of-the-way mission. It has been the glory of the Christian Church that she has gone to regions where no one else dared or desired to traverse to bring the Gospel and its healing accompaniments. And God continues to call men and women to arduous pioneer work.
Yet the prime strategy, if Scripture is to give us a lead and the Apostle is correct, must lie with the regnant “centers of light,” the teeming and seemingly impenetrable metropolises from which the truth of the Gospel can radiate into all the corners of the province and nation. The cities must be “occupied for Christ.”
When we learn that less than one of every 100 persons walking the continent of Asia is a Christian, we know that something is wrong. When we hear from Dr. James Robinson of Harlem’s Church of the Master the sobering news that he saw more trained Christian workers on two mid-western American university campuses than in all of Asia, we sense again something is wrong. Indeed something is deeply wrong. But we know this Saving Fact: there is nothing wrong with God and his Gospel. God is not frustrated; nor is he dismayed. God is God. We may hope that the wrongs of our time may in some measure be righted as men who love this god and his Gospel, separate themselves unto his Word for the sake of his world, and plant themselves with resolution in the life of the churches, within the strategic centers of our time, as servants and statesmen of the most high God.
Jacob J. Vellenga served on the National Board of Administration of the United Presbyterian Church from 1948–54. Since 1958 he has served the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. as Associate Executive. He holds the A.B. degree from Monmouth College, the B.D. from Pittsburgh-Xenia Seminary, Th.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and D.D. from Monmouth College, Illinois.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
More from this Issue
Read These Next
- TrendingA Tale of Two New York City PastorsOne formed me. The other entertained me.
- From the MagazineWhen Politics Saved 25 Million LivesTwenty years ago, Republicans, Democrats, evangelicals, gay activists, and African leaders joined forces to combat AIDS. Will their legacy survive today’s partisanship?
- Editor's PickTheological Education Can’t Catch Up to Global Church GrowthUnless seminaries leave the ivory tower for local leaders in the public square. Like these ones have.