The Changing Mission Field

Dr Ian Burness, Bristol, England

It is only just over 200 years since William Carey set out for India from Northamptonshire 'expecting great things' and 'attempting great things' for God. Although a fresh awakening in missionary interest had been shown by some over the preceding decades of the eighteenth century, there was little real concern for the lost, and outreach to other lands was largely non­existent. Carey was used by God to spearhead a new thrust, and is rightly called 'the father of Modern Missions'. Before he left for India, he made an estimate that, of a world population of around 730 million, the vast majority had never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The exploits of Carey and those who followed him have stirred generations and still make challenging reading today. The sacrifices which they made in order to advance the cause of the gospel were immense. We can easily think that these were 'real missionaries', and that much missionary work in our modern age does not approach this standard. However, this attitude reflects a failure to recognise how radically the world has changed and how much the gospel has advanced, particularly in the last 30 years of this century.

A Changing World
The first striking fact is that Carey's world population of 730 million has now grown to 5.7 billion. This means there are now 5 billion more souls living on this planet than when this era began. The number grows each year and most of the growth takes place in the Third world, whereas in Europe and North America the population is largely static. Our growing world is a young world, one third being under the age of 15. When we look to the developing world we find that about 50% of the population are in this age group. These young people are often neglected in missionary work. We tend to target adults and try to reach them first. However, it is well known that most who come to faith in Christ do so in childhood or adolescence, and it is vital to specifically aim to reach them and also to train local Christians to do so.

Much of the developing world has become poorer as more people than ever before live in what is called 'absolute poverty'. One billion people now exist on £60 or less per annum. As the west increases its affluence, so the majority of the nations of Africa and some other parts of the world suffer negative growth. Their economic problems and declining standards have no obvious solutions. Breakdown in infra-structure, health-care, education and social cohesion all have far-reaching consequences.

However, to balance the gloom we must note that the most dramatic change in our world has been in the accelerating Christian growth as this century has progressed. The 'heathen darkness' has been penetrated in many areas; it is still there, but the light is shining strongly too. When this era began, the vast majority of evangelical Christians were found in Britain and North America. Britain became the main missionary-sending country for most of the nineteenth century, before being overtaken by America. In the 1960's the number of Christians in the developing world overtook those from the west for the first time, and this growth continues rapidly. The quality may be very mixed, but the fact is that most evangelical believers are to be found there. It is encouraging to know that as our missionary interest declines, they are now beginning to take up the torch and reach out to new areas.

A Changing Role
As a result of this development, the role of the missionary in many areas has also changed. In many parts the work is now in a third or fourth generation phase, and in such areas missionaries still remaining often fulfil a different role. Four stages of missionary endeavour have been identified by Ralph Martin and are worth consideration. The pioneer initiates the spread of the gospel by entering new areas and going to unreached peoples. As new converts are won they need guidance, teaching and grounding in their faith, and this requires the missionary to assume the role of the parent. As maturity increases and stable leadership emerges, control can be handed over to the local Christians. The missionary will recognise these God-given leaders and begin to work alongside them as a partner in the work of God. He may have abilities and gifts that are not yet available locally, but leadership is now shared. Finally, the participant stage is reached, when the missionary may be invited by local Christians to come and help them in a particular aspect of the work, he recognising leadership and authority that is established in the church.

There are many areas of the world that still need pioneering evangelism, but at present the majority of missionaries are engaged in serving the recently (or not so recently) developed churches. Indigenous Christians make the best evangelists, for when they present the gospel to their own people they have no cultural bridges to cross. However, the ability to teach the scriptures in a clear and relevant way takes a good deal longer to develop, and many missionaries now fulfil this role, along with that of training local leaders.

Institutions such as hospitals, clinics and schools were constructed during the early phase of missionary expansion as points of contact, and in response to human needs. These were staffed by committed missionary personnel. In time many of these passed to local control, and continue under local Christian management. Others still provide valuable facilities and, despite debate as to the validity of the mission hospital and mission station, continue to help thousands and are often for many the place of first contact with the gospel, and practical demonstration of Christian care in action. The list of other roles filled by missionaries is large and includes the translation, printing and distribution of literature, Emmaus correspondence courses, radio ministry, technical assistance, camp and childrens' work. A glance at the work types listed in Echoes Daily Prayer Guide gives an idea of the various roles now being filled as missionaries seek to spread the gospel, or strengthen the local church.

Changing Means
Most of the first generation of missionary pioneers left home never to return. Disease, distance, and an unswerving commitment were all factors contributing to this. In time a pattern of a 5 to 7 year term developed, with a furlough between terms to revisit the homeland. Missionary service was for life; you were expected to last the course for the times and conditions demanded it. Today there are few areas of the world that are not accessible within a few hours. Travel has become relatively cheap and much easier, so missionary mobility has increased. An emphasis on shorter terms, the needs of families and the changing nature of the work, have all served to alter the perception that a lifetime of service must be in one area.

The revival of the role of the 'tentmaker', which it is interesting to note was recognised in the first 'Missionary Echo' in 1872, has made most 'closed' countries accessible to those who will deliberately seek employment there in order to use the openings this will present to spread the gospel. For too long we have lived with the concept of 'closing doors', when in fact more doors are open now than ever before to those who are prepared to use different means to go through them.

Short-term service has its advocates and detractors, and sometimes strong opinions are held about this form of service. There is no doubt that many have provided valuable assistance and support to overworked missionaries, and brought with them a skill or technical ability that has benefitted the work. About a fifth of those who spend a period on short-term service, return as long-term missionaries.

However, we must still recognise that the process of learning a language, understanding and adapting to a new culture is not a short term experience. Time, effort and hard work are necessary and there are no short-cuts in this process. If the gospel is to be effectively and clearly communicated, and the word of God taught to believers, long-term commitment is still required, and many years of service anticipated.

Changing Focus
A great deal of the missionary emphasis from Britain has centred on our former areas of Empire and trade. Thus, Africa and India have received a great deal of attention, although not exclusively. It is noteworthy that missionaries from assemblies have worked at some time in over 130 countries, reminding us how global this effort has been. However, from time to time we need to take a fresh 'look at the field', and identify what are the main unreached areas of the world, focusing our attention and prayers on these. Many good sources have done this for us and we now know that one huge, largely untouched, area of the world is the Muslim world, consisting of about 1 billion people, who are very resistant to the gospel. We cannot excuse ourselves by claiming that this area is too hard and so focus our attention elsewhere. This has been done for too long, and the growth of Islam in the U.K. must make us aware of the advances being made around the world. We need to wake up, start to pray earnestly and see what we can do to reach this huge field.

Immense opportunities were presented when Eastern Europe opened and many were quick to rush in, sometimes forgetting that in many of these lands work had been established for many years, and these mature believers did not always appreciate everything we in the west had to offer. As in any area of the world there must be an understanding of local culture and conditions, accompanied by a willingness to work alongside local Christians. The opportunities need to be taken with spiritual discernment.

On our doorstep lies Western Europe, the community of which we are part, now largely a spiritual desert with a tiny proportion of evangelical believers in many lands. Sophisticated, cultured and affluent, seemingly so resistant to the gospel of Christ, yet needing the message of saving grace; our nearest neighbours cannot be ignored.

An Unchanging Commission
For some Christians in Britain, missionary outreach is no longer on the agenda, and even if it is, the priority given is generally low. The perception of many is that the need is greater here at home in post- Christian Britain, and it is true that spiritual need in our land is greater than ever. Inflated figures of church growth from some parts of the world distort the picture, and it is easy to forget that growth is more than numbers; depth, maturity, stability and a deepening understanding of God's word are also involved. Even allowing for this growth, we must not forget there are around 2 billion people in our world today who have never heard the gospel.

The assemblies have had a missionary impact far in excess of their numbers. William Neatby writing his history over 90 years ago called this great thrust 'the truest glory' of the assembly movement. Outreach at home and abroad are closely linked. If our vision is constricted at home it will also be abroad. The assembly with a vision for those around its doors almost inevitably has a deep concern for those serving abroad, and the progress of the gospel throughout the world.

The command and commission of Christ is operative until 'the end of the age.' Whether that point is near or not, the responsibility is ours in our generation, and in a rapidly changing world to use the means and resources God has given us today to make Christ known among the nations. If we don't respond, then God will use someone else. He is not inhibited by our disobedience. But how much blessing we may miss by failure to take the last command of our Lord Jesus Christ with the seriousness it demands.