Four Men, Three Eras
Why is it that most believers today are not familiar with the following four men and the three world-changing eras that they set in motion over the last 200 years? Hopefully those who read this will not sit still and allow their generation to pass away without the insight, encouragement and inspiration that can come from examining the lives and ministries of these valiant pioneers of the modern missionary movement.
College students around the world used to be bowled over by Marxist thought. One powerful reason was that Communism had a “long look.” Communists claimed to know where history was heading, and that they were merely following inevitable trends.
Recently, evangelicals too have thought a lot about trends in history and their relationship to events to come. The massive response a while back to Hal Lindsey’s books and films about possible events in the future has shown us that people are responsive to a “where are we going?” approach to life.
In comparison to the Communists, Christians actually have the longest look, backed up by a mass of hard facts and heroic deeds. Yet for some reason, Christians often make little connection between discussion of prophecy and future events, and discussion of missions. They see the Bible as a book of prophecy, both in the past and for the future. Yet, as Bruce Ker has said so well, “The Bible is a missionary book throughout… The main line of argument that binds all of it together is the unfolding and gradual execution of a missionary purpose.”
Did I ever hear Ker’s thought in Sunday School? Maybe. But only in later years have I come to a new appreciation of the fact that the story of missions begins long before the Great Commission. The Bible is very clear: God told Abraham he was to be blessed and be a blessing to all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:1-3). Peter quoted this on the day he spoke in the temple (Acts 3:25). Paul quoted the same mandate in his letter to the Galatians (3:8).
Yet some Bible commentators imply that only the first part of that verse could have happened right away. They agree that Abraham was to begin to be blessed right away, but somehow they reason that two thousand years would have to pass before either Abraham or his descendants could begin “to be a blessing to all the families on earth.” They suggest that Christ needed to come first and institute His Great Commission - that Abraham’s lineage needed to wait around for 2,000 years before they would be called upon to go the ends of the earth to be a blessing to all the world’s peoples (I call this “The Theory of the Hibernating Mandate”).
A more recent and exciting interpretation observes that Israel, as far back as Abraham, was accountable to share that blessing with other nations. In the same way, since the time of the apostle Paul, every nation which has contained any significant number of “children of Abraham’s faith” has been similarly accountable. Both Israel and the other nations have mainly failed to carry out this mandate.
The greatest scandal in the Old Testament is that Israel tried to be blessed without trying very hard to be a blessing. However, let’s be careful: the average citizen of Israel was no more oblivious to the second part of Gen. 12:1-3 than the average Christian today is oblivious to the Great Commission! How easily our study Bibles overlook the veritable string of key passages in the Old Testament which exist to remind Israel (and us) of the missionary mandate: Gen.12:1-3, 18:18, 22:18, 28:14; Ex. 19:4-6; Deut. 28:10; 2 Chron. 6:33; Ps. 67, 96, 105; Isa. 40:5, 42:4, 49:6, 56:3, 6-8; Jer.12:14-17; Zech.2:1l; Mal. 1:11.
Likewise, today nations which have been singularly blessed by God may choose to resist and try to conceal any sense of their obligation to be a blessing to other nations. But that is not God’s will. “Unto whomsoever much is given,” it applies today. I believe it has been constantly applicable from the very moment when it was first given (Gen. 12:1-3). As individual Christians and as a nation we are responsible “to be a blessing to all the families of the earth.”
Thus, how many times in the average church today is the Great Commission mentioned? Even less often than it comes up in the Old Testament! Yet the commission applies. It applied then, and “As individual Christians and as a nation we are responsible to be a blessing to all the families of the earth.”
This mandate has been overlooked during most of the centuries since the apostles. Even our Protestant tradition plugged along for over 250 years minding its own business and its own blessings (like Israel of old) - until a young man of great faith and incredible endurance appeared on the scene.
The First Era
An “under thirty” young man, William Carey, got into trouble when he began to take the Great Commission seriously. When he had the opportunity to address a group of ministers, he challenged them to give a reason why the Great Commission did not apply to them. They rebuked him, saying, “When God chooses to win the heathen, He will do it without your help or ours.” He was unable to speak again on the subject, so he patiently wrote his analysis, “An Enquiry Into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens.”
The resulting small book convinced a few of his friends to create a tiny missions agency, the “means” of which he had spoken. The structure was flimsy and weak, providing only the minimal backing he needed to go to India. However, the impact of his example reverberated throughout the English-speaking world, and his little book became the Magna Carta of the Protestant mission movement.
William Carey was not the first Protestant missionary. For years the Moravians had sent people to Greenland, America and Africa. But his little book, in combination with the Evangelical Awakening, quickened vision and changed lives on both sides of the Atlantic. Response was almost instantaneous: a second missionary society was founded in London; two in Scotland; one in Holland; and then still another in England. By then it was apparent to all that Carey was right when he had insisted that organized efforts in the form of missions societies were essential to the success of the missionary endeavor.
In America, five college students, aroused by Carey’s book, met to pray for God’s direction for their lives. This unobtrusive prayer meeting, later known as the “Haystack Prayer Meeting,” resulted in an American “means” - the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions. Even more important, they started a student mission movement which became the example and forerunner of other student movements in missions to this day.
In fact, during the first 25 years after Carey sailed to India, a dozen mission agencies were formed on both sides of the Atlantic, and the First Era in Protestant missions was off to a good start. Realistically speaking, however, missions in this First Era was a pitifully small shoestring operation, in relation to the major preoccupations of most Europeans and Americans in that day. The idea that we should organize in order to send missionaries did not come easily, but it eventually became an accepted pattern.
Carey’s influence led some women in Boston to form women’s missionary prayer groups, a trend which led to women becoming the main custodians of mission knowledge and motivation. After some years women began to go to the field as single missionaries. Finally, by 1865, unmarried American women established women’s mission boards which, like Roman Catholic women’s orders, only sent out single women as missionaries and were run entirely by single women at home.
In the First Era, progress on the field was painfully, agonizingly slow. Missionary after missionary succumbed to fever, especially in West Africa. Early missionaries were well aware that they were probably going to their death. Out of 35 who went to Ghana between 1835 and 1870, only two lived more than two years. Yet the Gospel took root and grew.
Where the Gospel went, the results were often amazing. As a result, in 1865, missionaries from the Hawaiian Islands (one of the earliest fields) began to go home. They believed the job was done. With their withdrawal, the First Era in missions began to decline. But another was about to begin.
The Second Era
One reason the Second Era began slowly is that many people were confused. There were already many missions in existence. Why more? Yet as Taylor pointed out, all existing agencies were confined to the coastlands of Africa and Asia, or islands in the Pacific. People questioned, “Why go to the interior if you haven’t finished the job on the coast?”
Finally, in the late 1880s existing agencies began to retool for new fields, and a rush of new mission agencies were born with the new inland emphasis: the Sudan Interior Mission, African Inland Mission, Heart of Africa Mission, Regions Beyond Missionary Union, as well as others whose names did not so clearly reflect their awareness of the new frontiers. The Second Era had arrived.
As in the early stage of the First Era, when things began to move, God brought forth a student movement. This one was more massive than before the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, history’s single most potent mission organization. In the 1880’s and 90’s there were only 1/37th as many college students as there are today, but the Student Volunteer Movement netted 100,000 volunteers who gave their lives to missions. Of these, 20,000 actually went overseas. As we see it now, the other 80,000 had to stay home to rebuild the foundations of the missions endeavor. They began the Laymen’s Missionary Movement and strengthened existing women’s missionary societies. However, as the fresh new college students of the Second Era burst on the scene overseas, they did not always fathom how the older missionaries of the First Era could have turned responsibility over to national leadership at the least educated levels of society. First Era missionaries were in the minority now, and the wisdom they had gained from their experience was by-passed by the large number of new college educated recruits. Thus, in the early stages of the Second Era, the new missionaries, instead of going to new frontiers, sometimes assumed leadership over existing churches, forcing First Era missionaries and national leadership (which had been painstakingly developed) into the background. In some cases this caused a huge step backward in mission strategy.
By 1925, however, the largest mission movement m history was in full swing. By then Second Era missionaries had finally learned the basic lessons they had first ignored, and produced an incredible record. They had planted churches in a thousand new places, mainly “inland,” and by 1940 the reality of the “younger churches” around the world was widely acclaimed as the “great new fact of our time.” The strength of these churches led both national leaders and missionaries to assume that all additional frontiers could simply be mopped up by the ordinary evangelism of the churches scattered throughout the world. More and more people wondered if, in fact, missionaries weren’t needed so badly! Once more, as in 1865, it seemed logical to send missionaries home from many areas of the world.
In 1967, the total number of career missionaries from America began to decline (and it has continued to do so to this day). Why? Christians had been led to believe that all necessary beachheads had been established. By 1967, over 90 percent of all missionaries from North America were working with strong national churches that had been in existence for some time.
The facts, however, were not that simple. Unnoticed by most everyone, another era in missions had begun.
The Third Era
This era was begun by two other young men, both Student Volunteers of the Second Era: W. Cameron Townsend and Donald A. McGavran.
Cameron Townsend, from Los Angeles, was in so much of a hurry to get to Central America that he didn’t bother to finish college. In Guatemala, as in all other mission fields, there was plenty to do by missionaries working with established national churches. But Townsend was alert enough to notice that the majority of the population did not speak Spanish. As he moved from village to village, trying to distribute scriptures written in the Spanish language, he began to realize along with certain other missionaries that Spanish evangelism would never reach all the people of Guatemala. He was further convinced of this when an Indian asked him, “if your God is so smart, why can’t he speak our language?” He was just twenty-three when he began to move on the basis of this new perspective.
If, in our time there is any one person closely comparable to William Carey and Hudson Taylor, I believe it is Cameron Townsend. Like Carey and Taylor, Townsend saw that there were still unreached frontiers, and for almost a half century he waved the flag for the overlooked tribal peoples of the world. He started out hoping to help older boards reach out to tribal people. But when they did not properly respond to the tribal challenge, like Carey and Taylor, he ended up starting his own mission, Wycliffe Bible Translators, dedicated to reaching these new frontiers. At first he thought there must be about 500 unreached tribal groups in the world. (He was judging by the large number of tribal languages in Mexico alone.) Later, he revised his figure to 1,000, then 2,000 and now it is closer to 5,000. As his conception of the enormity of the task has increased, the size of his organization has increased. Today it numbers well over 5,000 adult workers.
At the very same time Townsend and his friends were struggling with the challenge of linguistically isolated populations, Donald McGavran was beginning to yield to the seriousness of India’s ailing social barriers. While Townsend “discovered” the tribes, McGavran discovered a more nearly universal category he labeled “homogeneous units,” which today are more often called “people groups”.
India, where McGavran worked, will serve as an example. It is a country of 3,000 sub-nations. Although almost 100 have some Christians among them, only 21 of these have substantial numbers of Christians. This means that over 2,900 of the sub-nations of India still have not been “penetrated” with the gospel of Christ so as to have a witnessing church which is native to their particular social or people group.
Unlike Carey, Taylor and Townsend, McGavran did not found a new mission. Rather, his efforts and writings spawned both the church growth movement and the frontier mission movement, the one devoted to expanding within already penetrated groups, and the other devoted to deliberate approaches to the remaining unpenetrated groups, whether tribal or otherwise.
As with Carey and Taylor before them, for twenty years neither Townsend nor McGavran attracted much attention. However, by the 1950’s both had wide audiences.
As happened in the early stages of the first two eras, the Third Era has spawned a number of new mission agencies. Some, like the New Tribes Mission, carry in their names reference to this new emphasis of unreached peoples. The names of others, such as Gospel Recordings and Mission Aviation Fellowship, refer to the new technologies necessary for the reaching of tribal and other isolated peoples of the world. Some Second Era agencies, like Regions Beyond Missionary Union, have never ceased to stress frontiers, and have merely increased their staff so they can penetrate farther to people groups previously overlooked.
Starting in the 1970s, others, often disciples of McGavran, began to define even more clearly the extent of the so-called “Unreached Peoples.” They pointed out that many of these other, equally-forgotten peoples, can be found in the middle of partially Christianized areas, yet somehow have been completely overlooked by missionaries and national church alike. Sometimes called “Hidden Peoples,” these groups are usually called the Unreached Peoples and are defined by ethnic or sociological traits to be people so different from the cultural traditions of any existing church that mission (rather than evangelism) strategies are necessary for the planting of indigenous churches within their particular traditions.
If the First Era was characterized by reaching the coastlands and the Second Era by inland territories, the Third Era must be characterized by reaching the socially isolated Unreached Peoples. Because this concept has been so hard to define, the Third Era has been even slower getting started than the Second Era. Cameron Townsend began calling attention to forgotten tribal peoples in 1934, and McGavran to the sociological barriers in 1935, but only since the 1970’s has any major attention been given to the Unreached Peoples of the world, wherever they are found. Tragically, except for a few missions like Wycliffe, most agencies have forgotten the pioneering techniques of the First and Second Eras, so we almost needed to reinvent the wheel in learning again how to approach groups of people completely untouched by the gospel!
We know that there are about 10,000 people groups in the Unreached Peoples category, gathered in clusters of similar peoples, these clusters numbering not more than 3,000. Each individual people will require a separate, new missionary beachhead. Is this too much? Can this be done? Is there any realism in the slogan gaining currency, “A Church for Every People by the Year 2000?” The AD 2000 Movement adds “and the Gospel for Every Person” which, of course, cannot be accomplished unless each people is first penetrated.
Can We Do It?
The task is not as difficult as it may seem, for several surprising reasons. In the first place, the task is not an American one, nor even a Western one. It will involve Christians from every continent of the world. Today there are over 800 mission agencies in the non-Western world, which are sending tens of thousands of missionaries and those being sent are rapidly increasing.
More significant is the fact that when a beachhead is established within a culture, the normal evangelistic process which God expects every Christian to be involved in replaces the missions strategy, because the mission task of breaking in is finished. Thus, establishing a beachhead in each “Unreached People” group by the year 2000 is a goal readily within our grasp.
Furthermore, “closed countries” are less and less of a problem, because the modern world is becoming more and more interdependent. There are literally no countries today which admit no foreigners. Many of the countries considered “completely closed” like Saudi Arabia are in actual fact avidly recruiting thousands of skilled people from other nations. And the truth is, they prefer devout Christians to boozing, womanizing, secular Westerners.
Thus certain exciting meetings in l980 - The COWE meeting in Thailand, the World Consultation on Frontier Missions in Edinburgh, and the Associated International Student Consultation on Frontier Missions in the same city were all flash points of new departure in the heating-up of the Third Era.
More than any other global network, the AD 2000 and Beyond Movement has brought all of this in focus, gaining the collaboration of local committees in more than 100 countries by late 1994.
Meanwhile, key Second Era mission agencies like SIM International are turning more and more of their attention to new fields. SIM’s Gerald Swank has located over a dozen new beachheads where they are seeking to begin again. The Missouri Synod Lutheran Church voted to triple its missionary force by 1990 in order to open ten major fields where they will reach Unreached Peoples. The Baptist General Conference, as a denomination chose Unreached Peoples to be its highest denominational priority. The Four Square International voted as a denomination to make great strides to reach unreached peoples. YWAM spawned a whole new division of Frontier Missions, adding dozens of long term missionaries to their successful short-term work. The Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Church more completely redefined its objectives in terms of unreached peoples than any other mission. Dozens of other examples could be given. More than 100 mission agencies are now working with the Adopt-A-People movement. In well over half of all the remaining 10,000 groups work has already begun or is soon to begin.
But our work in the Third Era has many other advantages. We have potentially a worldwide network of churches that can be aroused to their central mission. Best of all, nothing can obscure the fact that this could and should be the final era. No serious believer today dare overlook the fact that God has not asked us to reach every nation, tribe and tongue without intending it to be done. No generation has less excuse than ours if we do not do as He asks.