We asked five missions leaders in the Christian churches to answer several key questions about missions progress, obstacles, and opportunities:
Reggie Hundley is executive director of Missions Services Association, Knoxville, Tennessee.
Doug Lucas is president of Team Expansion, Louisville, Kentucky.
Doug Priest is executive director of Christian Missionary Fellowship, Indianapolis, Indiana.
Greg Pruett is president of Pioneer Bible Translators, Dallas, Texas.
Tony Twist is president of TCM International Institute, Indianapolis, Indiana.
Greg Pruett: Many are valuing working among the unreached peoples of the world, while others are overcoming poverty and social justice issues. Both are valuable and neither should be neglected. God is directing his church to teach people worldwide to obey Jesus and usher in the justice of Jesus’ kingdom.
Doug Lucas: In the 1970s, there was a bit of a pushback away from “works.” It almost seemed like some churches were emphasizing evangelism and/or church planting to the exclusion of transformational ministries like medical or social outreaches. In this latest decade, it’s refreshing to see some of those ministries back in play. So the hope is we can realize it’s not “either-or” but rather “both-and.”
Reggie Hundley: Today there is a growing emphasis on microfinance projects. In my youth, more than 40 years ago, I remember strong positions being voiced against any type of Christian endeavor that sought to create a financial benefit on the mission field. Such “social gospel” projects were believed to undermine the gospel. Missionaries continued to emphasize mission schools for education and mission clinics for treating disease, because these were obvious aids to the work of evangelism. The unintended consequence has been healthier, more educated Christians who have greater dependency on foreign financial support than anyone ever dreamed.
The new, focused emphasis on providing entrepreneurial opportunities allows converts to realize God cares for all of their life, provides the impoverished with hope their condition need not be permanent, creates situations that may put to rest the accusation that Christianity is a “Western religion,” and brings together multiple disciplines in mission activity in ways that once did not exist.
Tony Twist: Many of our churches and schools continue to place great emphasize on missions. It’s great to see so many young people coming to ICOM these days.
Doug Priest: There are many wonderful believers all across the world, and we are fortunate to be able to partner with them. We have never heard of many of these believers.
I just met a man who is supported by Connection Pointe Christian Church in Brownsburg, Indiana. For 20 years he has led a church planting movement in India that has some 200,000 house churches with about 2 million believers. Those numbers are astounding, and they continue to grow.
Another hopeful sign is the International Society for Urban Mission has started and is being led primarily by people from “our tribe.”
What problems, practices, or attitudes are the biggest barriers to missions breakthroughs?
Pruett: The low-hanging fruit has been picked. Many of the remaining “least reached” groups are in countries where missionaries are not welcome. Missionaries struggle to gain access to these countries, and their governments strive with equal vigor to keep them out.
Meanwhile, because these regimes are oppressive, the very people who are hardest to access in their homelands are immigrating to the United States. God has provided the strategic answer to making disciples among the remaining peoples, but churches in North America are not thoroughly capitalizing on the mission field that has come to them.
Priest: There are more Christian martyrs every year than ever before. For some, this has a deleterious effect. But the church continues to grow in many countries.
Lucas: At Team Expansion, we’re excited about trying to start new churches that are reproducible at every level. As you can imagine, then, it seems unthinkable to us we would try to start a missions breakthrough by any means that locals can’t reproduce.
So anything that requires huge inputs of cash, with an indefinite endgame, would not be a healthy practice to us. Jesus’ approach didn’t require it, nor should ours. The apostles didn’t implement a bunch of unsustainable practices, nor should we. In other words, sometimes we are the biggest barriers to mission breakthroughs.
But having said that, Romans 10 makes it clear we won’t see fruit unless someone goes there to pick it. (“How can they hear without someone preaching to them?” [v. 14].) To us, one of the biggest barriers is coming up with enough workers, along with the resources to send them.
Hundley: Continuing the traditional model of the U.S. church being the sole funding source of national preacher’s salaries and church buildings may be the greatest barrier to missions progress. This approach has been a large element of our independent church missions support and fund-raising for many decades. It is built largely upon our Western concept of the role of the preacher in the church and the necessity of a building.
In non-Western cultures, the role of the preacher may well be better suited to Paul’s example of tentmaker, and not every culture is best served by a single-use church structure. In some cultures, the legal ownership of such structures may actually create problems.
Twist: Beginning in the book of Acts and throughout history we see demonstrated the vital link between devotion to God and power to impact our world. The extent to which we model holiness in our lives in our ungodly culture is the extent to which he can work through us to change that culture.
Do you still subscribe to an emphasis on concentrating missions work in the “10/40 Window.” Why or why not? Why has this idea become controversial?
Priest: I have personally never been a fan of favoring one geographical area at the expense of others. Lost people are lost people, regardless of where they live in the world. People should not be criticized or made to feel as “second-class citizens” if they feel the call of God to work in areas outside of the 10/40 Window. One reason there are so few missionaries in the 10/40 Window is because many countries located there forbid entry to missionaries.
Lucas: The 10/40 Window was always a bit of a metaphor. There is no doubt that 90 percent of the world’s poorest people live in that region. And there are probably 2 or 3 billion people who still don’t have a viable chance to hear the gospel there. So yes, we still subscribe to it. It’s not controversial to us because, to win the lost, one must find them. And that’s where the vast majority of them live.
Pruett: Wherever the other major world religions thrive, few missionaries are working compared to the population. According to the Joshua Project website, there are only 3 missionaries for every 1 million Muslims, and only around 6 missionaries are sent among every 1 million Hindus or Buddhists. These are the most neglected populations, and their homelands overlap well with the 10/40 Window. So it is helpful to focus attention on this area of need.
The idea is controversial because the areas of great need do not precisely overlap with the 10/40 Window. If God calls a person to work in an area just outside that zone, then an emphasis on the 10/40 Window will deemphasize their mission opportunity, even though it may be strategic.
When I worked in West Africa, we estimated we were located just inside the 10/40 Window, and my nearby friends worked just outside the 10/40 Window among the same people group. We would joke with them that their work was less strategic than ours, because we were ministering in the 10/40 Window.
The tool is helpful, in general, to point out some areas of great need, but it should not be applied legalistically.
Hundley: I believe the concept of the “10/40 Window” continues to help individuals recognize the “unreached” populations of the world. But it can become an obstacle to an effective missions model. Focusing only on that window causes us to miss the vital importance of post-Christian nations and their strategic location. People living in post-Christian nations and cultures have an equal need for the presence of missionary activity.
Twist: We are not the only Christians. There are many windows around the world where brothers and sisters we do not know are working, including the “10/40.” More awareness of kingdom work throughout the world might free us to focus efforts more strategically on “windows” we can best impact.
In a rapidly decaying American culture, maybe it’s our own window. Much of the world still looks through it regularly.
How has the emphasis on “unreached people groups” advanced the cause of the gospel or confused our agenda for missions?
Priest: This paradigm has been the major mission strategy since 1974. The concept, which anthropologists basically rejected 30 years ago, sees people groups as having tight boundaries when, in reality, the boundaries are much looser than we are led to believe.
And the strategy behind the theory works best in rural areas, while the world is becoming rapidly urban. The UPG theory has been very important and many have been mobilized into mission service by the theory. But it is time to discover new strategies that work in urban areas. I much prefer the term “unreached people.”
Lucas: The concept of unreached people groups wasn’t really invented by Ralph Winter or Donald McGavran. Ethnolinguistic divisions have been around for centuries. On the Day of Pentecost, God caused the disciples to speak in the languages of the people who were present. He did this because it was the most effective way to prick their hearts. Three thousand people responded.
So in our minds, the biblical approach for any new situation is to look at the city or village “through people group eyes.” If certain unreached people groups have chosen to intermingle in their housing or work situation, it still doesn’t mean they would respond to Christ if you speak to them in a foreign tongue.
I’ll share an example. We have a team launching a church planting movement in a large city in Spain. In this city, there are thousands of immigrants from Central and South America.
If our workers took the path of least resistance, and merely preached to any who would respond, lots of Central and South Americans would come, and after that, Spaniards would automatically stay away; that’s because, by and large, many Spaniards are prejudiced against these immigrants.
So a building or house full of Central and South Americans suddenly ceases to become an attractive place of worship for middle-class Spaniards. The truth is, to reach middle-class Spaniards, the house or building needs to “look like” middle-class Spaniards, at least in the beginning. (Now after they become Christians, and they learn they’re not supposed to be prejudiced, then we could always sprinkle in an abundant amount of foreigners and there’d be no problem.)
This illustrates the way we need to always start the work with “people group eyes.”
Pruett: The idea of unreached people groups helps highlight what remains of obeying the commission of Jesus. It directs missionaries to “preach the gospel where Christ was not known” (Romans 15:20).
There are ways to misapply the term unreached. When quoting the statistics, for example, some confuse the number of languages with the number of people groups. There are 7,100 languages in the world (see www.ethnologue.com). These languages are divided among about 16,600 people groups (see http://joshuaproject.net). Some language groups are spoken by only one people group, but others are spoken by many people groups. Of the 16,600 people groups, 6,900 are considered unreached. That term can also cause confusion because it implies that everyone not unreached is reached with the gospel, which is not true. The term least reached is clearer because it shows that the situation is a continuum.
Jesus said, “Preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15). The full scope of mission is the whole of creation and not only the least reached. The term least reached does help missionaries and churches know where the gaps are and how to invest their efforts strategically to more effectively make disciples of all nations.
Where are the greatest opportunities for evangelism and/or church planting in the world today? How are missionaries in our movement seizing these opportunities? What opportunities are we missing?
Pruett: The capacity of the North American church is vast, but the engagement in strategic missions is still only a small fraction of what would be possible if the churches were to fully engage in obeying the command of Jesus. Key missional milestones could be accomplished in the coming decades:
• By 2030, begin teaching people to follow Jesus and begin translating Scripture in every remaining people and language group that needs it—rendering obsolete the terms unengaged people group and Scripture-less language.
• By 2050, cross the remaining language barriers with church and Scripture so that churches with New Testaments will be transforming every language community.
• By 2075, cross the remaining culture barriers with church and Scripture so that there will be churches with New Testaments transforming every people group.
• By 2100, render completely obsolete the terms Bible-less and unreached.
Lucas: There are great opportunities on every continent, with every people. The greatest opportunities are likely in the places that are least evangelized. These are the people about whom Paul spoke in Romans 15:20.
We should always keep preaching in the places where there are churches; but we have to address the places where there are none. It’s not either/or; it’s both/and.
Priest: I believe one underdeveloped area is campus ministry overseas. I also think many churches here should involve themselves in a church-based child sponsorship emphasis. And I am a proponent of holistic ministry rather than just concentrating on the spiritual side of things.
How is missions support from Western Christians changing, and how has this affected missionaries’ work?
Priest: A generation ago about the only people who traveled the world were missionaries, students, tourists, and business people. Today, many people travel the world, and many of them wish to be involved in missions. The statistics show that for every long-term missionary sent out (one who stays longer than two years) there are 60 people who go on short-term missionary trips. So the nature of missions has been changed. Because the church is so strong in much of the world, local Christians often work with short-term missionaries.
One very good sign is that people are beginning to learn their well-intentioned efforts have often produced dependency. One of the most important books everybody should read is When Helping Hurts. Another is Toxic Charity.
Pruett: I see an ongoing movement in churches to consolidate their mission support into fewer ministries, but doing them better. It’s great when the church decides to focus on what you are doing, but not as much fun when you are outside the scope. Overall, this is a positive trend because the churches will have a stronger connection with the mission work their church is doing.
Twist: As the American church continues to struggle against an increasingly intolerant culture, I believe missions support will decline. International partnerships, cost-effective strategies, creativity, and a “back-to-basic” focus on radical discipleship will become increasingly important.
Hundley: On average, a mission recruit must spend much more time than 30 years ago to raise full support and reach the field.
Congregations today tend to prefer giving larger amounts of support (though not full living link) to a smaller number of supported missionaries and ministries. In some ways, this is preferable because less time is needed in reporting to supporters, and there is less intense travel during furlough periods.
On the other hand, congregations are also more prone to moving support to another ministry, creating a larger negative impact when such a change occurs.
Congregations are requiring increased accountability, as they should, for the support provided to any ministry. Thus the missionary or ministry leader must be prepared to complete more reports than in the past.
There is also a trend among individuals not to give all missions support through the local congregation. These individuals are more prone to committing support intermittently based on emotional appeals rather than regular monthly support.
This creates additional fund-raising opportunities when a missionary stays with a family within a supporting church, but it makes support increasingly more dependent on emotional appeals than relationships.
What one question about missions would you like to ask the North American church?
Lucas: Are we really praying what Jesus asked us to pray in Matthew 9—that God would raise up harvesters for people who are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd?
And if God did that, what would it look like? How would they know they are called? Who would send them and how would they be supported? Where would they be trained and how would we match them with the best opportunities?
These are questions we must address if we are to finish the Great Commission.
Priest: Who in your church would you suggest should become a missionary, and will you challenge them to this calling?