The Greatest Tragedy in the World
Even after almost two thousand years of missions, over half of the world’s people groups are considered unreached. These unreached people groups represent over one-third of the world’s population.
This is an astounding reality when we consider how quickly Coca-Cola went from its invention in 1896 to being recognized by 95 percent of the world’s population today. Our weak efforts are even more startling when we consider how quickly the Internet has covered and changed virtually every aspect of our world in the few short decades of its existence. So many innovations have managed to advance globally for profit, yet Christian expansion has not grown at nearly the same rate. Even though we are fighting against our sin nature and the prince of this world, surely we must admit that our efforts hardly reflect the kind of commitment that should correspond to the significance of a person’s soul and the glory of Christ.
Someone has said that if Christianity is one-tenth as true as we claim, we should be ten times more excited about it than we are. Twenty centuries after Christ, untold millions are still unreached. The grievous burden we feel when we think of the thousands of people groups sitting in darkness should drive us to pray for them and for those who are trying to reach them.
Even so, it is a terrible mistake with eternal consequences to reduce missions to a formula such as “Missions equals reaching the unreached,” especially if we do not clearly define what it means to reach them.
Given the clear instructions in the Great Commission, we should not consider undiscipled people to be reached, as if discipling them is a subsequent step in Christian ministry. Those who have been discipled and taught to observe all that Christ commanded are truly reached.
The tragedy of the world is not that it is unreached but that it is undiscipled.
Reaching and Teaching
So, what exactly does God call missionaries to do? Are we to reach all the unreached? Can we do this by preaching the good news in a one-week evangelistic crusade? Or are we to teach those we reach through preaching? In the Great Commission Jesus called us to go and make disciples of all people groups (panta ta ethnē), to baptize them and to teach them to obey all he has commanded us.
The question of the Great Commission should never be reduced to a dichotomy of reaching or teaching, but as two sides of the same coin.
Our role is to reach and teach.
It is clear from history that God calls and gifts some to dedicate themselves more to pioneer reaching and evangelism, while he gifts and calls others to teach and disciple. Perhaps this distinction results in some being called and Spirit guided to serve in certain areas where their gift is best utilized. However, never assume that reachers do not have to teach or teachers do not have to reach. Some indeed have the gift of evangelism, but we are all to evangelize. Some have the gift of giving, but we all are to give. In light of the needs of the world reality today and the coming realities racing toward us, how should we respond?
The struggle to balance reaching the unreached and discipling and teaching them should always be just that—a struggle. When we capitulate to a predetermined decision independent of the specific and particular facts of a given context, we have lost balance. Every missionary looking to the future and considering the needs of the hour feels the tension of knowing his or her role in the face of the surrounding realities. Certainly, God both leads his people and sovereignly determines every event they encounter (Eph 1:11). He also guides by an awareness of needs, personal gifts and opportunities, and by giving his people the desires of their hearts when they are delighting themselves in him.
The need for speed that drives some missions efforts today causes them to streamline the missionary task to something humanly manageable, and sometimes jettisons the half of the Great Commission that requires missionaries to stay and teach the people all God has commanded them. On the other hand, a desire to always be “the teacher” and not entrust nationals with the work keeps some missionaries from moving on to reach others.
There is no formula, biblical or otherwise, that would give clear direction regarding the whos and wheres and whens. The Holy Spirit guides Christians to the places and ministries God has prepared in advance for each one of us (Ephesians 2:10), and he alone should be the one to move them on.
Editor’s note: This excerpt is adapted from Changing World, Unchanging Mission (IVP, 2015).