The Great Commission in 2023: Being Strategic in Missions, Part 1
Let’s suppose that there is a town in Canada called Baptistville that has approximately 10,000 people in it. In the past 50 years, four Gospel-preaching Baptist churches have been started in that town, not to mention several other evangelical churches. A young church planter named George Smuchie comes to your church to present the idea of going to Baptistville to start a church there. He says that God has called him to do this. Would you support him? Why, or why not?
The issues in these questions are two-fold and tightly related. First, is George endeavoring to do something that is strategic? Second, does a person’s “calling” ever override common sense (or the first consideration)? After all, if I want to start a pizza shop in a little town, it makes sense to see how many pizza shops are already there. If there are 10 there already, then perhaps I should reconsider whether another is needed. But what about this? What happens then if I say that God told me to start the pizza shop in that town? That settles the matter. You should be supportive because God told me to do it, right?
You might think at this point that this is borderline ridiculous, but it happens with great frequency in missions. Someone surrenders to missionary work, and then in no time he or she announces that he or she is being directed, or called, to a particular field. In some instances this decision is not based on careful research, but rather on a previous missions trip, a missions presentation or perhaps on someone’s advice. These sources of information may be helpful, but they also may not provide understanding regarding the places where the need is greatest. This may be the reason why we have so many places in the world where there are no missionaries at all.
The Lack of Missionaries in Unreached Places
Although I would not agree with many of the premises of the World Christian Encyclopedia, 3rd edition, (Zurlo and Johnson),1 the authors contribute some helpful information regarding the presence of the Gospel message in three different sections of the world. World A is described as unreached because people who live in this region have practically no opportunity to hear the Gospel. They could and probably would go through their entire lives without hearing this wonderful message of salvation. Roughly one-third of the human population live in World A, yet only 2.5% of our missionaries serve here. So how could the God who authored the Great Commission “call” so few to parts of the world like Indonesia, Central Asia and North Africa (all in World A)?
On the other hand, there are some countries that have had a solid missionary presence for over 100 years. And the missionaries there have done an outstanding job of planting churches, training nationals, translating the Scriptures and Christian books, and starting camps and even national mission boards. So do we really need more church-planting missionaries on these fields? One friend of mine began in a Latin American country, learned the language, started a church and then realized that he was not really needed there. Native church planters and pastors were available to do the job. So he switched to a North African nation where the need was much greater.
It is difficult whenever we begin to talk about need. How needy must a field be to be considered “strategic?” If you are asking this right now, that is a great question. I am quite sure that wherever you are at this time, whether in the USA or outside of it, it is pagan. Last time I checked, every country is. However, next we need to examine the strength of the church. Not too long ago I was asked to speak at a missions conference in a country that had a long history of evangelical missions. What I saw there was a fellowship of 100 churches with solid pastors who were trying to create a missionary sending agency for their fellowship. Most of them would say that they no longer needed new missionaries in their country. Not my words — theirs!
New Testament Teaching on Missions
So what does the New Testament say about this? I would like to mention two texts that relate to the matter of targeting areas of the world that do not have the Gospel.
Acts 1:8 — The Great Commission
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. (ESV)
Jesus restates his Great Commission in terms of how the commission will be accomplished. Since the disciples had little success up to this point in impacting the Jewish world for Christ, how could they make a difference when the target was now to be widened to the entire world? This thought had to be foremost in their minds. They were not bold, nor did they possess exceptional abilities. Rather, they were ordinary men. The answer to this disparity between the person’s abilities and the extent of the task is God’s power. God would empower them personally through His Spirit to spread the message throughout the Gentile world.
So what does this have to do with the idea of extending into unreached areas? The way that the areas of the world are arranged is in ever-widening circles: Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, ends of the earth. The final level of outreach is the “ends of the earth.” Who knows how far this is from Jerusalem, but the point is that the church is supposed to go to the very edges of the planet to reach others with the gospel. Implicit in this command is the idea of pushing out into new territories where the gospel has not been preached. The church is never to be content with the progress of the gospel; rather, it is to research what the need is, and direct its resources towards meeting that need.
Romans 15:18–24 — Paul’s Personal Missionary Strategy
A second text actually expresses the personal missionary strategy of Paul; this is the rule by which he lived. Although we may not be constrained by the Lord regarding the details of Paul’s personal Great Commission strategy since he was an apostle, should we not give some level of thought to pushing out to places where people have no Gospel message?
For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God—so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written,
“Those who have never been told of him will see,
and those who have never heard will understand.”
This is the reason why I have so often been hindered from coming to you. But now, since I no longer have any room for work in these regions, and since I have longed for many years to come to you, I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be helped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a while. (ESV)
Here are the key elements that we see in this text:
- Paul refuses to take credit for what others have done in their work of spreading the Gospel (18).
- Paul fully preaches the Gospel of Christ from Jerusalem all of the way to Illyricum by the power of the Spirit (19).
- Paul’s strategy was to preach Christ in unreached areas, places defined by Paul as areas where the Gospel had not yet been preached (20). The reason for this is given: that he would not build his ministry on another man’s foundation.
- This very rule actually hindered Paul from targeting Rome with the Gospel (21-22).
- He now heads for Rome to use it as a launch-pad to reach into Spain, an unreached part of the Roman Empire (23-24). In this respect he hopes that the church in Rome would help him to carry out this mission (“and to be brought on my way thitherward by you”).
So we see that Paul had made incredible progress in fulfilling his calling. He was God’s apostle to the Gentiles. He had already evangelized and discipled people in the key cities of four provinces, and then he saw his mission as extending into Spain. Since this new area was probably a Latin-speaking region, it makes sense that he might need some support personnel to accompany him to Spain, given his lack of knowledge of this language.
Paul’s reason for this sort of pioneering strategy seems to be solidly grounded upon the idea that the church is to be built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets (Eph. 2:20). So Paul diligently applied this rule to his church-planting ministry everywhere. If someone else planted the church in Rome, then he would not go to minister there; rather, he would look for a region that had no Gospel witness. So why did Paul go to Rome? This was exceptional; he went to seek assistance from the churches in Rome for the Spanish venture.
If we say that we should adopt this rule, then we should all practice pioneer missions as Paul did. But there are several problems with this. First, this rule belongs to the apostolic band of men. It was their mandate to lay the foundation of the church. Since you and I are not apostles, we need not adopt this as a rule of practice. Second, since others during Paul’s day — like Aquila and Priscilla, Apollos, and many others — did not practice this rule, I think that we can see that it was not considered normative even in that day.
I guess that we are off the hook. Not hardly! Although I would say that we need not adopt this as a rule for all of our missionary work, we should consider it as a principle to be applied to the church to some extent. So let’s begin with World A. As I already mentioned, we only have 2.5% percent of our missionary force in there. I would venture to say that if we were to evaluate who we support in our churches, we would find that few work in World A. So why is this? We don’t strategize on the big picture in missions. And since we don’t strategize, we don’t bring the neediest parts of the world before our people’s eyes. Why do we have many missionaries in Brazil, but hardly anyone in Turkey? Why do we have many in the Philippines, but almost no one in Indonesia? Turkey and Indonesia have such low percentages of believers that they are considered “unreached.” So my question is, when was the last time that you heard someone talk about these needy places?
As discussed by Neal Cushman on The Steve Noble Show on Jan. 5
1 Gina A. Zurlo and Todd M. Johnson, World Christian Encyclopedia, 3rd edition (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019).