Are there, under our changing conditions, still practical opportunities to reach the non-Christian part of mankind? This question is often answered rather skeptically. Since World War II mission leaders have often spoken about closed and closing doors. But it is absolutely wrong to become hypnotized by external and internal hindrances and therefore fall into paralyzing pessimism. This growing pessimism among professional missionaries is the greatest danger to Christian mission today. It can be observed in all churches.
Sometimes this pessimism is brought on by real disappointments and frustrations. Usually this results in a spiritual crisis. But the case becomes even serious if dispirited missionaries find a theological rationale for their evangelistic resignation.
There are, unfortunately, theologians at work today who supply them with such arguments. In his Fundamental Catechism Roman Catholic professor Hubertus Halbfass in Reutlingen states:
There must be no mission in the sense of converting people of other faiths.… People need the unintentional solidarity derived from the power of faith and love. Such mission will deepen the respect of another religion and care for nothing else than that the Hindu becomes a better Hindu, the Buddhist a better Buddhist, and the Muslim a better Muslim.
Such a misdirected theology of religion has in many cases induced missionaries to exchange the joyful task of evangelizing for a doubtful concept of “silent service” or noncommittal dialogue.
Let me point out some important features that can give us a much more optimistic view of the missionary situation ahead of us:
1. Although in large areas Western missionaries have been shut out, in most countries there is still legal freedom for missions. Some of these countries have in our day for the first time in history opened their borders at least for Christian medical missionaries. I can refer to Nepal, Bhutan, Afghanistan, and Yemen. The situation is indeed unstable in many Eastern regions. But this should induce us all the more to make the best use of the remaining time.
2. Often it is claimed that the proportion of Christians within the total world population is shrinking. But this does not mean that the missionary situation has become entirely sterile. On the contrary, there are large areas where the Gospel is spreading so effectively that the number of Christians is growing much faster than the natural increase of the population. There is hardly any country in Asia where there are not at least some pockets of receptive ethnic groups. Some Third World churches have doubled or tripled their membership during the last two decades. Through the big mass movement in Indonesia, which has been going on since 1966, half a million people have been added to the church, among them many ex-Muslims! The Korean churches have doubled during the last decade. The harassed new state of Bangladesh seems to offer a tremendous opportunity for Christian mission today. And on the basis of the present rate of church growth, the British missiologist D. Barret has estimated that Africa in the year 2000 will have about 350 million Christians and thereby will be a predominantly Christian continent.
3. The rapid social change in the Third World countries often creates an open mind among their population for the Christian message, presented in both word and deed. If the Gospel is presented in a way that offers new meaning and assurance within the changed conditions of life, many people are prepared to choose this way. Recently I received a letter from a missionary in Kalimantan (on the island of Borneo) who describes what he calls “a rather realistic worldly revival movement”: The Dajak tribes in remote parts of the island want to get out of their pagan culture, out of their dirty long houses, out of the unprogressive heathenism that keeps them down in poverty and fear of demons. This opportunity has been seized by a small independent church, the “Christian Church for Spreading the Gospel.” It mobilized its humbly educated people, gave an evangelistic training to forty young men, and stationed them in the new settlements erected with the aid of the Indonesian government. These Gembalas (shepherds) have a three-fold task: planting and nourishing churches, teaching in schools, and supervising new ways of rice cultivation. This newly established church is virtually independent of financial aid from outside!
4. Modern telecommunications makes it possible to interest many people in the Gospel who otherwise would never have the opportunity or the desire to attend a church. A Lutheran evangelist named Masaki working in Kobe, Japan, receives thousands of letters from Buddhists and Shintoists who have been captured by the straight forward gospel message he transmits every morning from several Japanese radio stations. And radio makes it possible to reach even those people who through the iron curtains of Communism and Islam are shut off from Christian preaching.
Three other features contribute to this encouraging picture: First, the troubled period since World War II has given birth to a new missionary movement. This movement has emerged especially within the revival-oriented groups and accounts for the fact that during the last two decades, despite many dropouts, the total number of Protestant missionaries has risen from 35,000 to 50,000.
The second feature is that we are witnessing a revival of religious interest among the young. This is true in many countries in the world, irrespective of political and confessional background. In many Asian countries student Bible unions of largely first-generation Christians have become the main forward movements of evangelism.
The third feature is even more thrilling: countries governed by militant atheistic Communism have experienced a new spiritual revival in their churches. Communist newspapers are compelled to complain that especially educated and young people indulge in Christian practices again. This is a real marvel. It confirms that God’s Word proves its power even against hatred and suppression. It is an eschatological sign that world history eventually will end with the conquest of the returning Lord!
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