In the winter of A.D. 53–54, the apostle Paul and several of his associates departed from the city of Antioch and headed for the distant central highlands of Asia Minor. It was not the first time the Antioch Christians had said farewell to Paul, for this was his third missionary journey from their Syrian city. Eleven years before, he had gone out from Antioch on his first evangelistic tour with Barnabas and the young John Mark, and later he had traveled with Silas. Now he was accompanied by the half Jewish, half Asian-Greek Timothy and the Gentile Titus—strange foreign Christians who were themselves the products of Paul’s far-reaching missionary ministry.
The evangelistic party followed the Roman trade route from Antioch across Syria and Cilicia, five hundred miles or more into the upper country of the Province of Galatia. There they were joined by Gaius of Derbe, and they visited Timothy’s home area of Lystra and Iconium. Over the remainder of the winter they worked in Galatia and Phrygia to fortify the churches Paul had established on earlier journeys. Paul’s historian, Luke, wrote of that trip, “… he departed and went over all the country of Galatia and Phrygia in order, strengthening all the disciples” (Acts 18:23). On his previous visits to this region, Paul had gone to the Phrygian cities of Lystra, Iconium, and Derbe, so the mention of Galatia probably indicates that the gospel had spread northwardly since his last ministry in central Asia Minor.
As the spring of A.D. 54 arrived, they moved to the west and came to the town of Metropolis, where they reached an important fork in the busy Roman road. Behind them to the southeast lay Syria and Palestine, and far along the other road was the fertile Tigris-Euphrates Valley of Parthia and the even more remote land of India. From Metropolis Paul and his group followed the road into the heavily populated Province of Asia, where they descended through river valleys to the city of Ephesus—economic and religious capital of the province and the gateway to the wealth and the wisdom of the East. Located at the heart of a large Greek-speaking population and constantly visited by travelers from all over the Roman world, Ephesus was to become a strategic Christian center from which the gospel would spread far and wide over the empire and beyond.
The story of the apostle Paul’s evangelization of Ephesus and the whole Province of Asia is one of the most outstanding missionary accomplishments of history. If records were kept of all evangelistic triumphs, Paul’s victory at Ephesus would still remain unchallenged, for by the end of a brief two years “… all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:10).
Since the dawn of Christianity, the Church has been at its best when it has been the most militantly evangelistic. In those periods when it has made the greatest efforts to expand over the earth it has been refined by the most violent opposition. Such times of persecution have built into it a fierce dedication to take the gospel to every man at any necessary cost.
Unfortunately, the Church has never been able to maintain its most dedicated missionary enthusiasm over more than a few decades at a time. In contrast to its periods of greatness, the Church has been at its worst when it has failed to polarize public opinion about Jesus Christ, has retreated from the arena of open evangelism, and has closed itself behind the walls of its stained-glass sanctuaries.
Megalithic cathedrals, for all their aesthetic value, stand as sepulchral monuments to whole ages of religious feudalism, the crumbling remains of a sad era when the Church was reclusively introverted. Equally elaborate religious organizational structures have gathered about them their huddles of obedient serfs who ask only that the Church feed and protect them while they live and bury them securely when they die. Defensive Christianity places its priorities on visible symbols of power and invincibility, protected by its theological positions behind bulwarks of words, social orders, and claims to divine authority; while whole generations of unimpressed, uncommitted, and unevangelized people go by outside its unscalable walls.
The Church was never meant to be an impregnable fortress, out of reach of the common people. True, it was to be built on a rock, but it was to move out from its solid base of Christian security to proclaim the message of salvation to all men. It was not to be so much a depository of truth as a proclaimer of a heavenly message. It was not to be a far-off mountain hidden in clouds of mystery and religious awe, but an open plain made clear for all men in the light of divine revelation. The Church was to become an outgoing, proclaiming, evangelistic body of mutually loving brothers in Christ, dedicated thoroughly to the one all-consuming passion for the worldwide evangelization of the popular masses.
Jesus Christ commanded His Church to preach the gospel to every person in every ethnic society, but no generation of Christians has ever come close to fulfilling the Great Commission in its own times. Now, with the world’s population at nearly 4 billion and growing at the alarming rate of 70 million people annually, the likelihood of evangelizing the whole world seems increasingly remote, at least with present methods and attitudes.
One of the most illustrative descriptions of the demographic explosion is an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C. In an awesome display of white human skulls mounted on black cloth, the population scientists have shown that in Christ’s day there were only about 300 million people on the earth. It was not until the first English settlers arrived in America, a millennium and a half later, that the earth’s population first reached 500 million. It was another three centuries before the population had grown to 1 billion for the first time. Then, caught in the trap of his own productivity, man doubled his number in the next one hundred years, and in 1930 reached the astounding figure of 2 billion people. From the early Depression until the opening of the Space Age, man then added another billion to the score between 1930 and 1960. The following ten years produced another half billion persons. By the year A.D. 2000, the world apparently will have some 6.5 billion inhabitants, and demographic and ecological experts are saying we will enter the Age of Famines.
It used to be that the prophets of doom were the sidewalk preachers, but now they are the scientists. The apocalyptic climax of history once preached only in revival meetings and supported somewhat extravagantly with claims of divine revelation now is declared by the scientists with charts and carefully researched prognostications. It has become obvious that if the Church is ever to evangelize the world it must greatly increase its level of missionary activity and establish a broader base of operations very quickly, or else be forever too late to fulfill the Great Commission.
The Church, however, has a terrible problem. By some quirk in the evangelical mind many churches appear to be satisfied or at least willing to settle for a token presence in each country rather than a serious attempt to fulfill the actual commands of Christ. They rejoice over a few sheaves of gathered grain, while ignoring the massive harvest still standing in the fields. Their magazines and sermons abound with tales of missionary heroes, great personal sacrifices, and inspirational reports, but they never tell the American people that by and large the Church is only establishing a token presence in each land rather than a pervading witness. They do not say that missionaries often fail to reach the major cultural groups because they spend most of their time working with the more impressionable ethnic minorities who are seeking to improve their social status. Seldom do American contributors learn that much of their money goes into establishing Western institutions and funding a great many busy but not evangelistic activities, such as hospitals, elementary schools, orphanages, and other charitable works that in today’s secular society can often be better sponsored by other agencies.
The Great Commission looms like a monolith above the religious horizon, challenging the Church to dedicate itself to the highest claims of the gospel. It must be understood that there is now no feasible way that the world can be reached by foreign missionaries alone; for even if the whole Church were suddenly to reverse its pattern of cultural isolation and make a serious attempt at total evangelization, we are already past the point of any possibility of making enough converts fast enough to evangelize the world by traditional missionary methods.
The only hope for the total evangelization of the world is to teach the Christian believers of each nation to evangelize their own people and to incite in each country the conditions in which spontaneous lay movements of church expansion may occur. In short, the Church must abandon its stained-glass sanctuaries and take the gospel out into the streets.
It has become clear to many who know the work of evangelical missionary ministry that the present degree of activity and accomplishments simply will not evangelize the world in this generation. There must be a radical change at every level of missionary endeavor if we are to take seriously the demands of the Great Commission.
For too long the work of foreign missionaries has been patterned after Western colonialism or else has built its methods on reactions to that historical period. Even the present emphasis on the establishing of indigenous churches came about as a corrective measure to offset the problems of paternalistic missionary methods. The Church ought to have been indigenously building upon the integrity of all believers from the very beginning, but so many activities were directed by foreigners and so many national believers were limited to unimportant and irresponsible tasks that some corrective measure became necessary. Therefore, there arose the emphasis on the indigenous-church principle that the national church should be self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating.
As the plan has developed, however, there are certain problems. In many countries the evangelical churches have fulfilled the basic requirements of the indigenous-church plan, but still find themselves despairingly short of the total evangelization of their surrounding populations. It is also possible for a national church to be fully indigenous without being based on other New Testament principles. For example, the Chinese communists adopted the indigenous-church principle in their Three-Self Movement, which only led the evangelical churches astray from New Testament Christianity. The indigenization of the church is a necessary step in world evangelization, but it by no means includes all the needed factors for the fulfillment of the Great Commission.
It can safely be stated that no national church will prosper and grow at any realistic rate that is not founded on the indigenous-church principle, set down so aptly by Melvin L. Hodges (The Indigenous Church, Springfield, Missouri: Gospel Publishing House, 1953) and other missionary writers. The missionary is a transplanted example of the Christian life; it is only as the native people of a land, endemic to their society and autochthonal to their culture, become active proclaimers of the gospel that there can be any natural church growth. A national church overly dependent on missionary leadership is like a wig—it looks as though it grew, but it is totally incapable of growing of its own life.
The indigenous-church idea must not be seen as an end product of missions, but as a beginning base from which the real task of the Church may be accomplished. Much of the work of evangelical missions over the past decades has been that of repairing the serious mistakes of the previous hundred years. Now a fresh approach must be based on New Testament principles to make a serious attempt at fulfilling the Great Commission in our times.
What we need is a new matrix, a whole new way of looking at the missionary challenge. If our goal is to establish a token presence in each country, then we have already done quite well; but if the Great Commission demands that every man, woman, and child on the face of the earth have a fair opportunity to accept or reject the gospel of Jesus Christ, then we are lagging almost hopelessly behind.
In search of a workable plan for worldwide evangelization, we must go back to the New Testament and base our global ministry on apostolic patterns and standards. To do this, we turn to the Apostle Paul, who said, “I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting” (1 Tim. 1:16).
In the first century, the Apostle Paul provided both a prototype for the modern missionary and a working model for a practical method of total world evangelization. His methods were especially observable at Ephesus, where after two years in that focal city in the Province of Asia, “… all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:10). The sequence of events in Paul’s Ephesian campaign offers us an efficient plan that, if applied to the late twentieth century, could conceivably evangelize the world.
1. A Single Purpose: Underlying all evangelistic activities there must be a unified, cooperative agreement that the primary task of the Church is to fulfill the Great Commission. The Church will not have completed that original assignment until every man, woman, and child on the face of the earth shall have had a fair chance to understand the significance of the gospel, had an opportunity to accept or reject Jesus Christ as his Savior and Lord, and had the continued prospect of worshiping God in a community of Christian believers.
The primary purpose of Jesus Christ in the world must never become a secondary cause in His Church.
2. Preliminary Planning: Before missionary activities are initiated in a country, the mission board and the missionaries must thoroughly research the proposed field and choose strategic locations for their vital evangelistic centers. When a national church is involved, the same principle applies that all major moves should be part of a total plan. Particular care should be given to the patterns of social movement so that the natural flow of population will carry the gospel where the evangelists want it to go.
Evangelization on a worldwide scale requires preliminary planning and careful strategy. The planning is as critical as the execution in reaching the world for Christ.
3. Cooperative Teamwork: It is impossible for single individual efforts to reach the world for Christ. Missionaries must unite their activities into cooperative teamwork of interdependent ministries, setting aside all competitiveness with one another in favor of presenting a unified front to the real enemies of church growth.
The apostolic pattern of evangelism requires the teamwork of dedicated people laboring effectively toward a single predetermined goal.
4. A Basic Nucleus: Because the masses are irrational and respond only affirmatively or negatively to symbolic images, individual prospects should first be attracted to a basic nucleus of believers who represent in microcosm what the church is to be when it is grown. Nothing vital should be left out of the preparation of these first believers, for they should exhibit the whole spectrum of apostolic doctrine, religious experience, fundamental practices, and basic priorities.
Before an evangelist can take the gospel to the masses, he must first form a nucleus of properly oriented believers with whom the new converts may identify.
5. Mass Communications: One-to-one witnessing is certainly to be encouraged, but the Church will never reach the whole world without mass evangelism. Somehow the gospel must be communicated to large numbers of people to the point that it becomes an issue in the community. Mass evangelism is most effective when it is operated in a cycle of drawing prospective believers from the masses, assimilating them into the churches, and returning to the masses again for another group of prospects.
To evangelize large numbers of people, the missionary must somehow bring his message to the attention of the public and break down the masses into workable groups of favorable individual contacts.
6. Establish Congregations: The previous stages of the method are all aimed at preparation for the major task of establishing communities of Christian believers in thriving congregations. The Church of Jesus Christ exists in its entirety wherever it is manifested, beginning with two or three believers gathered together. It is in the very nature of the Christian experience to desire to join together in churches.
Effective mass evangelization always requires that the resulting converts be established in responsible Christian congregations.
7. Trained National Leaders: There will never be enough foreign missionaries to evangelize the whole earth. The only way the world can be reached is for the missionaries to teach the people of each country to evangelize their own people and to incite the conditions in which spontaneous lay movements of church expansion will occur. The teaching of pastors and other church leaders must be on a practical level that best trains them and motivates them for fervent service.
If church growth is to result from massive lay movements, it is essential that the people of each country be taught to pastor their own churches, lead their own evangelistic programs, and direct their own national organizations.
8. Maintain Momentum: The natural tendency of a movement is to grow by stages, the phases of rapid expansion coming farther and farther apart until growth becomes insignificant. The missionary cannot allow this to happen to his evangelistic movement, because his goal is total evangelization. He maintains momentum through a vision for continuous growth, the constant development of fresh leadership, a realistic method of financing his operations, and the application of the New Testament ministries of preaching, teaching, and believing for miracles.
The success of world missions is not to be measured against past accomplishments or present gains, but by the fulfillment of the total claims of the Great Commission and the response of the Church to plan and maintain a missionary vision.
9. Overcome Opposition: Sooner or later, an attempt at total world evangelization must come into life-or-death struggles with the other religions and philosophies of the planet. The Church must be sure to establish a strong base of believers and sympathizers before serious confrontations occur, otherwise it may find itself outnumbered and outmaneuvered. The Church must not purposely initiate a violent confrontation, neither should it return violence for violence. The Church cannot be stopped by opposition, for only social acceptance can control it.
When the growing Christian community becomes large enough to be a force in the society, its evangelistic action will provoke a responding counteraction from the major religions of the area. This often occurs when the economy and balance of power are most seriously affected.
10. A Missionary Church: Churches begun on sound missionary principles will themselves become missionary-minded congregations who will share in the concepts of world evangelization and cooperate in the cause. As national churches become increasingly evangelistic in their outlook and practice, missionaries can branch out into other supporting tasks to increase the depth of the evangelistic channel and expand the flow of new converts into the Church.
The only way the world can possibly be won for Christ is for every believer to be an evangelistic witness and for every church to become a center for missionary activity.
George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”
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