Imagine that you encountered in your travels a person who (O blessed man!) had never been exposed to the game of basketball – or any other game with a goal, for that matter. As you explain the sport to him, the wave of technical terms overwhelms him. He stops you with a confused look on his face. ‘What is the difference again between the court and the hoop?’ he asks. Think for a second how you would answer this question…
I imagine you would say that the ‘court’ is where everything happens. It is the field of play, the sphere of operations. It’s where basketball happens! The ‘hoop’? The hoop is the goal, the place we will get the ball to go if we are successful. It’s how we measure our efforts in the game!
A clarification of this kind needs to be made, I think, in Christian missions. Everyone who cares about missions knows that it involves ‘all nations’ in some way. Jesus in his Great Commission commanded us to disciple ‘all nations’ (panta ta ethnē). And for nearly forty years, we have been told in no uncertain terms that ‘all nations’ is the hoop of missions.
We have been told that the target toward which we are aiming in missions is the evangelization of ‘all nations’ (panta ta ethnē) – that some individuals from each and every ethnic grouping on the planet, however so many there may be (more than 16,000 by recent counts), would become disciples of Christ. In other words, the Great Commission actually shows us thousands of hoops, and we must put the ball into each one of them to complete our mission. These hoops are usually called ‘people groups’ and are defined by ethnicity, language, culture, etc. Thus, in the last four decades, immense effort has been invested in discovering the total number of people groups and the status of Christianity among them. Aspiring missionaries have been admonished to aim themselves toward those people groups that still lack a gospel witness of any kind, and not among those ethnic groups where Christianity has already gained a foothold.
I would contend that this is simply confusing the court for the hoop. Meaning, as the court, ‘all nations’ is the place where Christian missions happens. It is the arena where our disciple-making is done. In this view, Jesus commands us, ‘Disciple (defining our hoop) all nations (defining our court).’
As I will attempt to show in a later post, it makes most sense to understand ‘all nations’ in Matthew as a way to refer to all people everywhere collectively and not to each and every ethnic group individually. The disciples, who had previously received commands to not preach to the nations (ethnē), now receive Jesus’ commission to preach among all nations (panta ta ethnē). Before, the sphere of their work was limited to Jews. Now, they are to step onto a new court, a much larger court, to make disciples. They do so in the book of Acts. The ball is tipped off on Pentecost and play begins. Disciple-making efforts are bearing fruit among ‘all nations’ (panta ta ethnē); goals are being made from all over the Roman empire.
Now, almost two millennia later, we are on the same court, the ‘all nations’ court, playing the same game, trying to put the ball in the same hoop. We are ready to shoot from anywhere and everywhere on this worldwide court. We are no more trying to arrive at ‘all nations’ than a basketball player is trying to arrive at the court! This is where the game began, and we will be here until the buzzer sounds. We might also say that ‘all nations’ is not the finish line of missions; it is the theater of missions.
It’s not surprising, then, that we read in Romans 16 that the gospel has, in some sense, already been made known to all nations. How can this be? Obviously, if we’re speaking of the ball going in 16,000 different hoops, it’s simply inaccurate! But if Paul is speaking of ‘all nations’ as one big court, one big arena of missions, it makes perfect sense! The door has indeed been opened to all people, irrespective of their ethnicity. The whistle has blown and the feet of Christians pound up and down the floor. We are in ‘all nations’, yet ‘all nations’ still need the gospel. Little wonder that Jesus says that the gospel will be preached to ‘all nations’ before the end – the entire interadvental period has been characterized by the advance of the gospel! The difficulty of his words largely evaporates when we give up the idea of ‘all nations’ as a finish line and realize that ‘all nations’ has been the theater of missions since the early church.
This game doesn’t end when 16,000 baskets have been made. The game lasts until ‘the end of the world.’ (Matthew 28:20) As much as we like to talk about ‘finishing the mission’ by evangelizing the remaining ‘unreached people groups’, the New Testament does not depict the mission in those terms. Unlike tennis, a basketball game doesn’t end when a certain number of points have been scored, but when the time runs out. The Great Commission doesn’t leave us with a checklist of people groups, it leaves us with a worldwide field to cultivate, a mission to keep us occupied indefinitely.
The reason this hoop-court distinction matters is quite simple. Where do we shoot the ball? When we decide that each area of the court is a goal in itself, the game’s strategy becomes considerably more complex! The goal of traditional missions was (1) make disciples out of unbelievers. But now, a second goal has been appended. Modern missions sends us to (1) make disciples out of unbelievers (2) from each and every ethnolinguistic grouping on earth. This calls for a radical rethinking of all our missions strategy. If we don’t win unless we hit all 16,000 targets, why waste our time with a target that’s already been hit repeatedly?
Now, the traditional missions model has been shelved for so long, panic arises whenever we talk about abandoning the modern people-groups interpretation. People seem to think that no one cared about carrying the gospel to remote tribes and to places where there are no Christians at all until the late 20th century! But, truth be told, those of us who have no use for the finish line/hoop concept of the mission aren’t interested in shrinking the range of our missions endeavors, but expanding it! All ball players (and even some non-athletes like me) know that you need to ‘get open’ if you want to shoot. A crowded place in the court isn’t an ideal place to attempt a shot. For a skilled shooter, the empty areas of the court are tantalizing. That’s the kind of spot where baskets can be made! If you want to make disciples of unbelievers, there can be no better advice than to relocate to a place where unbelievers abound, regardless of their ethnicity!
As I said, I will have to make another post dealing with specific questions about the meaning of the phrase panta ta ethnē more directly. So… keep your guns loaded, but please don’t shoot me yet!