One word says it all for 30 years of North American foreign mission agencies: growth—staggering, surprising growth.

The economic prosperity of American churches (and American society generally), religious freedom, and the entrepreneurial spirit have all coalesced to give birth to more agencies than there have ever been. While some smaller agencies threw in their lot with larger ones, new ones arrived and hit the trail for money and recruits at a feverish pace. Today some 700-plus agencies serve overseas.

The younger agencies tended to seize on some unique, narrowly focused ministry, or they successfully captured youth’s zeal to do something on short notice that could be seen to make a difference in some hurting part of the world—Youth With a Mission and Operation Mobilization, for example. Some new agencies, like Mission to the World of the Presbyterian Church in America and the Mission Society for United Methodists, owed their birth to new evangelical groupings in U.S. mainline churches.

In terms of money, agencies reporting figures to the latest Missions Advanced Research and Communication Center (MARC) survey said they have received more than $1 billion for overseas work, which is an all-time high. Less than 20 years ago the total was $317 million. In terms of personnel, in 1956 there were some 30,000 North American Protestant missionaries; today there are 68,000.

Hidden in that 68,000 total is a highly significant trend: 30,000 of these people are short-term, as opposed to career, missionaries. Only 6 years ago short-termers numbered 18,000, and 30 years ago the idea was barely thinkable. You volunteered for a lifetime commitment to foreign missions—or not at all.

What missionaries actually do has also changed, from traditional pioneering to institutional work. Probably no more than a quarter of today’s missionaries are now front-line troops doing raw evangelism. This is true partly because churches have been planted in astounding numbers during the last three decades—in fact, foreign missionaries have an enviable track record of accomplishing what they set out to do. It is also true because institutional work absorbs more and more money and more and more people in such ministries as schools, hospitals, radio stations, and printing and publishing establishments. Today the missionary vocation, short-term or long-term, is basically the same as any existing vocation in the U.S.

But pioneering hasn’t been forgotten, thanks to new impetus to track down and evangelize pockets of people yet to be touched with the gospel. If the church-growth movement forced missionaries to use social science research to plant churches among responsive peoples, the unreached-peoples movement has forced them to forge unique strategies to gain a hearing among narrowly focused tribal entities.

Also, in the last decade or two, U.S. missionaries have looked over their shoulders to find thousands and thousands of coworkers joining their ranks—not from stateside churches, but from churches that previous generations of missionaries had founded. World evangelism is in fact now the task of the world church. And that is perhaps the most significant trend of all.

James W. Reapsome is director of Evangelical Missions Information Service and editor of Evangelical Missions Quarterly, Wheaton, Illinois.

Donald McGavran

“What makes the church grow?” That question continues to pique Donald McGavran’s interest as intensely at 88 as it did when he was a young missionary.

When the youthful missionary’ found himself “exiled” to a remote area of India, the Yale-educated Ph.D. spent years “growing” a church—and the thesis for what was to become the church-growth movement. When he returned to the U.S. in 1954 after 30 years in India—when most career missionaries would be planning retirement—McGavran developed his ideas and preached them wherever he could get a hearing.

Moving to Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of World Mission in 1966, McGavran’s ideas gave rise to the church-growth movement that has since spread worldwide.

W. Cameron Townsend (1896–1982)

What’s a Bible salesman to do. Cam Townsend wondered, when the Spanish-language Bibles you’re selling cannot be read by most of the Guatemalan Indians to whom you’re trying to sell them. So Townsend learned their language, devised an alphabet, and worked for 12 years to translate the New Testament. He also found time to start a clinic, press, coffee cooperative, and five schools. Town send’s translation efforts led to the establishment of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, and then to Wycliffe Bible Translators.

When U.S. international involvement and the foreign mission enterprise both expanded after World War II, so did Wycliffe, and linguists penetrated remote tribes in more and more countries. Still, when Townsend died in 1982, his lifetime dream of extending the Bible to all people in all known languages was still unfulfilled: there are still some 3,000 tongues to go.

Ralph Winter

Called everything from genius to visionary to impractical agitator, Ralph Winter has had an impact on world missions like few others in this generation. His U.S. Center for World Mission in Pasadena is a beehive of activity, stirring people and organizations to reach the world’s hidden peoples with the gospel.

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Garnering a fistful of scholarly degrees in his youth, Winter went to Guatemala where he and other missionaries launched TEE—theological education by extension. When he joined the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary, he taught missions and advocated TEE. There he observed Donald McGavran’s church-I growth principles, and developed his own: reaching people I groups with no church. Today, Winter and his U.S. Center occupy a leading edge of missions research.

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