As the resurrected Christ spoke to his followers, he commanded them to go into all nations to preach the gospel and make disciples, teaching them to obey all he commanded them. In modern Western Christian circles, this Great Commission has inspired faithful missionaries to plant churches across the globe.
In today’s well-connected world, it’s easy to believe that the gospel has been proclaimed everywhere and to all people, but according to the Joshua Project, 3 billion people have never been introduced to Jesus. How is this possible?
A Plentiful Harvest
Over 40 percent of the population is made up of unreached people groups (UPGs) who live in places with little to no access to the gospel. This area, known as the 10/40 Window, includes much of North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia and has been the focus of foreign mission efforts within the North American church. Unfortunately, less than two percent of Western Christian giving is directed to this region.
Christ’s teaching emphasizes wise stewardship. In missions, wise stewardship means more lives are reached and can be discipled. According to Excellence in Giving, a leading philanthropic advisory firm, ministries planting churches among UPGs in response to the Great Commission have made a costly mistake: focusing on sending Western missionaries, instead of entrusting the gospel to faithful national, nearby missionaries. As a result, we have failed to make disciples in so many unreached areas.
While many desired to be Jesus’ hands and feet, this approach ignored the biblical precedent that honors the leadership and teaching of local churches. In When Helping Hurts, Brian Fikkert describes similar efforts as doing “unintentional harm while trying to do good.”
Local Churches, Larger Impact
Consider instead how the apostles did missions. A few apostles entrusted the gospel to faithful, local leadership, those “who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2)—and then they left. The apostles offered support to these locals through visits and continued encouragement and communication via letters. They equipped local leaders, and then the apostles entrusted the teaching of the gospel to them.
It’s been 2,000 years since the apostles helped spread the Good News, and Western Christians have largely departed from this New Testament model. Western missionaries are instead uprooting their lives, moving to a foreign country, learning a language, and spending decades in one place, all while largely failing to defer to local church leadership.
But the apostle’s model is still the most effective. “The gospel spreads naturally and in contextual ways when nationals are in charge of the work,” says Juan Wagenveld, president and founder of the Multiplication Network. “The gospel is no longer a seedling transplanted from foreign lands. It is now a local seed that is planted on indigenous soil. The message is better understood, the people more receptive and the church healthier and less dependent on outside factors. Investing in nationals training nationals is not only the way of the future but the way now.”
As the apostles saw, native people and local churches should be leading, teaching, and training. They are exponentially more effective, culturally aware, and linguistically able. And yet they remain underutilized and underestimated.
A new wave in global missions hopes to break this trend. Western organizations like The Timothy Initiative seek to reach unreached places by supporting local churches and ministries who serve on the front lines.
Warren Smith recently interviewed Jared Nelms of The Timothy Initiative (TTI) on the MinistryWatch podcast about “a new model for missionary work.” Organizations like TTI equip indigenous churches whom, according to Nelms, “God has placed … in proximity to the unreached peoples and places, and equipped them with language and culture and skills that Western Christians don’t possess.”
The problem, Smith reinforces, is that we tend to forget these faithful indigenous believers when we seek to reach a place with the good news of Jesus’ love.
Nelms agrees: “The goal is always [to] get the local, indigenous people at the forefront and at the center of the church, and train and equip them so they can take it forward.”
Indigenous ministries, like the ones supported by TTI, are 23 times more cost-effective than American-led church planting efforts. The numbers are even more dramatic when it comes to supporting long-term missionaries. The cost of training one American missionary to plant churches is 50 times higher than supporting a local pastor. And yet, the vast majority of our funds go to sending Western missionaries to places with many existing churches and Christians.
A New Wave in Global Discipleship
The Return Mandate invites Western Christians to reconsider what it means to be faithful in missions by encouraging the sending of nationals and refocusing mission’s strategies to provide thoughtful and enfranchised support to national church planters to reach and disciple nearby unreached peoples.
Anyone with a passion for foreign mission work, especially those in the Western church, must embrace a theology of humility, where God is glorified without competition over who is credited for the work. The American church must also realize that missions work is not reserved for a fringe group of people who enjoy international travel—how can we challenge each of our brothers and sisters in Christ to participate wholeheartedly in the gospel mandate?
“There is always room for partnership between Westerners and nationals in missions,” says Wagenveld. “The role of the Westerner should increasingly be a supporting role so that the model of nationals training nationals is emphasized. This is the way forward.”
As much as $12 billion is given annually to send Westerners to reached people groups. If even a small percentage of this went to support the model Wagenveld is describing where nationals lead and train nationals, exponentially more people would be reached and discipled.
Therefore, we must research best practices in finding national partnerships that reach their own and nearby unreached peoples worldwide, while approaching those relationships with transparency and accountability. The Return Mandate provides a Giving Guide and additional resources to help evaluate and vet prospective organizations.
“We have a great opportunity to [get] the gospel to every people and every place,” says Nelms. “We have a way, more than ever in human history, to see every people and every place reached.” The gospel is a gift for everyone, and we have the opportunity–and responsibility–to support and entrust the gospel to effective indigenous leaders until all have heard this good news and are discipled.