Thousands of delegates from nearly 200 countries sat in rapt silence as the chief missiologist rose to his feet to open the second world congress of the Great Commission Council. An imposing figure, the chief opened his long-awaited oration with unforgettable words: "The Great Commission will be fulfilled within the lifetime of most of us sitting here tonight!"
Armed with the latest figures and computerized maps, he showed that the unevangelized have dropped to less than 20 percent of the total population for the first time in history. The audience applauded when he reported, "We now have 760 million 'Great Commission Christians' actively sharing their faith—a 150 percent increase since 1970."
Apocryphal? Partly. There is no Great Commission Council or chief missiologist, but the speech's tone has been evident at many missions conferences I have attended, and the facts are accurate (see David Barrett's Statistical Table on Global Mission: 2000 and Patrick Johnstone's Operation World ).
But let's continue with the story.
The missiologist revealed a similar numeric cornucopia for Scripture distribution, Christian agencies and workers, use of the mass media, and income for global missions. But he saved the best for last. He boldly predicted that the remaining unreached people groups can be met by moving only 0.4 percent of the Christian workforce to countries in the 10/40 window.
"The end is in sight at long last!" he proclaimed.
Bedlam erupted in the great hall. Then a diminutive African delegate headed to the platform and reached for the microphone.
The audience quieted down. Her countenance was heavy with sorrow. "I am from the country that has been considered by many of you to be the greatest example of success in world missions," she began. She told how the church was planted over a century ago, and how today 85 percent of the people call themselves Christians. Much of the growth came from evangelical and Pentecostal churches, which exceed 25 percent of the total. Excitement grew in the hall as she described high interest in Bible study and prayer.
But then she asked, "Do any of you know where I am from?" Many guesses were called out, all of which were wrong. She finally said: "I am from Rwanda"—the same country in which, in 1994, 600,000 Tutsis and 400,000 Hutus died, many of them slaughtered with machetes as they huddled in churches.
"In all of your zeal for evangelism, you brought us Christ but never taught us how to live."
If the end is in sight, how do we explain Rwanda, as well as other so-called Christian countries where unrestrained materialism, oppression of the underprivileged, and deterioration of moral values increase annually? Surely these are not the consequences envisioned by our Lord when he said, "Go and make disciples … teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:18–20). To put it bluntly, something has gone wrong with the harvest.
To be sure, the church has always held its treasure in an earthen vessel. Blemishes are inevitable, no matter what we do. Nevertheless, the missions community must shoulder its share of the blame for the current state of affairs. The problem, I believe, is that we are perpetuating paradigms of world missions, some of which date back to the late 1800s, some of which are more modern creations. Tragically, many of the results that we enthusiastically applaud deviate pretty far from what Jesus taught and demonstrated by his life.
Legendary evangelist Dwight L. Moody correctly captured the mood of evangelicals at the end of the 19th century when he declared, "I look upon the world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, 'Moody, save all you can.' " Dreams of transforming society with the gospel had been dashed after the Civil War (since society would be transformed only by Christ when he returned in glory). This left only one option: a single-minded focus on evangelism as the mission of the church.
Even though times have changed in dramatic ways, I still hear many evangelicals calling to evangelize the maximum number of unreached people in the shortest possible time. In many evangelical mission organizations, there is little more than surface recognition of God's call for social justice to alleviate the burdens of ignorance, poverty, hunger, racism, the struggle for cultural identity, and other forms of oppression (Amos 5:21 ; Luke 3:10–14 , 4:18–21).
Os Guinness, in arguing that the church is "privately engaging, socially irrelevant," uses the Cheshire Cat analogy from Lewis Car roll's Alice in Wonderland. In this fable, the cat gradually loses its identity until all that remains is its famous lingering grin. Guinness writes that the church (and the missionary enterprise, I would add) has so removed social transformation from its agenda, only a "lingering grin" remains.
What a contrast to John Wesley's vision of the church as a body "compacted together in order, first, to save each his own soul; then to assist each other in working out salvation; and afterwards, as far as in them lies, to save all from present and future misery, to overturn the kingdom of Satan, and to set up the kingdom of Christ." Wesley and others demonstrated in the 18th and 19th centuries that disciples are made through evangelism coupled with sweeping social transformation.
To be sure, since the historic Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in 1974, a consensus has been growing that we can no longer em brace the lifeboat theory that focuses solely on rescuing drowning souls. As John Stott said, "If in the public ministry of Jesus the audible proclamation of the kingdom was accompanied by a visible demonstration of its arrival, words and deeds cannot be separated in our generation."
It's also true that evangelicals hold different views about the relationship between evangelism and social justice. Some say social transformation is a consequence of evangelism; others, that it is a bridge to evangelism (people see our demonstrated concern for their needs and thus give the gospel a hearing); others still, that it is a full partner with evangelism.
To my mind, partnership is the only option that takes seriously the call to both evangelism and social justice, the full-orbed mandate of working for the kingdom of God. The story of modern missions shows that anything less truncates the gospel of the kingdom.
The Altar of Success
Jesus' central concern was not to convert as many people as possible during his ministry but to empower a new generation of believers to extend his kingdom throughout all of society. In short, his call in the Great Commission was to make disciples, not converts. He accepted that only a minority would respond to his call. As I read the New Testament as a whole, numerical growth seems to be the fruit of a pure and blameless church, not a goal in itself.
So why has there been such a preoccupation with mobilizing the church to make the maximum number of converts? To a high degree, of course, it reflects the prevailing outlook since the time of Moody. But it also reflects a response to a mandate, during the historic Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in 1974, to be better stewards in all that we are called to do. Lausanne delegates called for strategic thinking characterized by environmental analysis, identification of the unreached, goal-setting, church-planting, and evaluation.
This was long overdue. We were largely failing to penetrate the vast numbers of unevangelized people groups worldwide. A large part of the church had become passive and held secular managerial practices as suspect. This unease, still widespread in some quarters, also reflected a legitimate concern about undertaking human initiatives without proper reliance on the Holy Spirit.
The call for change gave rise to strategies that produce results. Consequently, numerical church growth emerged as a primary measurable objective. Donald J. McGavran, the strongest advocate of what came to be known as church-growth theory, contended that numerical church growth is the "chief and irreplaceable goal of world mission." Proponents of numerical growth were quick to point out that God is not willing for any to perish.
In my career as a strategic thinker and researcher I also have echoed some of these themes. But over the course of the last two decades, I have found myself increasingly wrestling with the sober warning of Jesus: "Small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it" (Matthew 7:14).
Far too many claims of numerical success are based on partial or misleading indicators—for example, the number who come forward or who pray the sinner's prayer. Such actions can be motivated by many things apart from interest in the gospel—sometimes it's just social pressure or courtesy. One Japanese leader confided a number of years ago, "If we counted the number of reported conversions since the end of World War II, we would have more Christians than people."
In some missions circles, evangelism is still defined as verbal presentation of the plan of salvation, much like skillful selling in the secular world. Missionaries are thus tempted to use mass media (TV, radio, literature, and film) as the secular world uses them—to tell people about our "product." Once this occurs, regardless of response, a person (or even a people group) is often declared as "reached" or evangelized.
On the other hand, our tendency to abandon so-called unproductive fields or strategies violates the lessons of church history. Consider the Quichua Indians of Ecuador, who were considered foremost among the resistant people groups of their time. Even though 70 years of missionary activity yielded only a handful of converts, a vast people movement broke out in 1965 that established a thriving and vital church. One missionary was identified as the person of greatest spiritual influence on those who later became followers of Christ, even though she went to her death having seen no converts.
In our zeal for mass conversion and standard strategies, we overlook the fact that evangelism requires far more than effective methods. The gospel is not a consumer product to be marketed by drawing from a strategic toolkit. People come to faith in Christ through a uniquely personal process that takes place over time and is the result of multiple influences. Our message should be spoken by a changed life reflected in daily actions rather than by carefully honed words. Somehow we have forgotten Peter's charge (1 Peter 3:15) to give a reason for the hope that is within us (assuming that someone notices and asks).
Missions would be better served by returning to the example of Jesus, who walked and lived among those whom he served, who took time to understand their spiritual awareness, fears, and dreams. I believe it is time to admit that our worship at the altar of success all too often reflects secular preoccupations rather than biblical fidelity. The Lausanne Covenant speaks prophetically to this issue:
We acknowledge that we ourselves are not immune to worldliness of thought and action, that is, to a surrender to secularism … desirous to insure a response to the gospel, we have compromised our message, manipulated our hearers through pressure techniques, and have become unduly preoccupied with statistics or even dishonest in our use of them.
Though we must continue to plan our missions efforts wisely, we should do so in humble, prayerful dependence on God's leading, exercising great caution when we use secular models. We should also inculcate in ourselves a healthy sense of caution as plans are implemented, setting aside numerical growth as a sign of success.
Bang for the Buck
Matters are made even worse because churches and agencies in all parts of the world find themselves in competition for increasingly scarce financial resources. The western model of capital-intensive, high-salaried ministry sustained by energetic fundraising has not been lost on the nonwestern Christian world. Contrary to the model of Jesus and his disciples, the most frequently heard lament worldwide centers on the extent to which ministry is hampered by inadequate funds.
I am disturbed to observe the extent to which churches and agencies have lost sight of the basic principle that God expects his people to use the resources they have, no matter how meager, unless he directs differently (Philippians 4:12–19). The tragic outcome is a debilitating dependency on outside funding that virtually nullifies local initiative.
It is now generally accepted that fundraising is an inevitable necessity for world-mission organizations. So savvy marketers are hired to tailor their mission pitches to contemporary donors, persuading donors that their mission agency delivers "the most bang for the buck"—meaning greater numbers are generated by a ministry.
Few ministries today are free from the need to raise funds by means of modern marketing techniques. And the temptation is to make a priority of "salable" ministries—especially evangelism of the lost. But what happens when other legitimate ministry needs do not match donor priorities? Things like leadership development or social justice are downscaled or even abandoned because they cannot pay for themselves.
Certainly some donors have become enamored with a success mentality, especially major institutional or private donors, and need to be cautioned about the possibility of "muzzling the ox" (Deuteronomy 25:4) by failing to support the very issues that are closest to the heart of our Lord. Nevertheless, reform must originate with those who ask for funds. We must be willing to take a decisive step away from donor-driven ministry and place faith in the Lord's commitment to provide all that we legitimately need. God has declared that the cattle on a thousand hills are his (Psalm 50:10), that he alone will provide for those who "seek first his kingdom and his righteousness" (Matthew 7:33). It is often his plan to impress upon donors their need to respond generously, but this decision must be motivated by the King, not by direct marketers.
This reform begins, of course, with a willingness to abandon the specious assumption that a healthy ministry always must grow. God, on the other hand, may be far more concerned with abandoning unproductive programs, downscaling where necessary, and living within the means he provides—and doing so with gratitude. I suggest a return to an old, old way of fundraising: prayer and fasting. Admittedly this sounds pat, perhaps even naïve to some. But the longer I've wrestled with these issues, the more I'm convinced it is at least the place to start. There is no better acknowledgment of Christ's lordship than to allow him to choose how and in what fashion he will meet valid needs.
Missions Beyond Growth
I praise God that in the last two centuries at least some Christian presence has been built up in all but a handful of the world's people groups. It is entirely appropriate to rejoice in what God has accomplished through an untold number of obedient servants.
Nevertheless, I believe we must acknowledge that the time has arrived when we are called by our Lord to move away from continued evangelistic mobilization and to build upon that existing Christian presence. In short, we must make disciples of these nations by making a renewed commitment to spiritual formation, not to numerical growth. We should make it our aim to transform a stumbling and needy world church into a potent force for Christ and his kingdom.
This will call for repentance accompanied by sharp and even wrenching changes in world-mission paradigms and practices, which though appropriate in an earlier era, are sadly out of step with today's realities.
James Engel is founder of Development Associates Inter national and professor emeritus at Eastern College. He is coauthor of the classic Promotional Strategy: An Integrated Marketing Communication Approach (now in its ninth edition). With William Dyrness he wrote Changing the Mind of Missions (InterVarsity).
Recent Christianity Today stories about missions include:
A Woman's Place | Women reaching women is key to the future of missions. (Aug. 4, 2000)
Meeting Noah's Other Children | For years our congregation had done short-term missions projects. Then the Afar of Africa expanded our vision. (Aug. 7, 2000)
The Future of Missions? | A global gathering affirms new models while developing countries criticize North American approaches. (October 18, 1999)
Do Churches Send Wrong People? | Missions expert says churches doing poor job of evaluating candidates. (May 18, 1998)
Missions Leaders Refocus on Planting New Churches | Plans to reach unevangelized groups worldwide. (Aug. 11,1997)
Missions Leaders Seek to 'De-Westernize' Gospel | InterVarsity focuses on bringing ethnic and racial diversity. (Feb. 3, 1997)
Who Will Evangelize the World in 2000 A.D.? is a 1990 address using David Barrett's Statistical Table on Global Missions.
For a detailed explanation of unreached people groups and a geographic chart , visit the Mission Frontiers site .
Hudson Taylor , one of the first European missionaries to impact China, employed the form of fundraising that Engel endorses in the article above: Prayer. Read some of Taylor's testimonies about God's provision .
To read about the making of Operation World , an international prayer guide mentioned in the story, click here .
To order the electronic version of Operation World visit the Global Mapping International site . The regular print version can be purchased at the Christianity Online bookstore.
Copyright © 2000 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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