The WHERE of Missions

What differentiates one mission field from another?

In other words, is there any difference in being a missionary in South America and being a missionary in the Middle East? In China and in Western Europe? Is one more ‘real’ missions than the other? Last week, my friend suggested two big answers to that question:

1. The chance that a person in a particular place has to hear the Gospel.

2. The ability of the national church to reach the community it is in.

This answer comes in opposition both to the ‘we-just-need-missionaries-all-over’ view, and also to the ‘we-need-missionaries-where-there’s-lots-of-unbelievers’ view. There’s a lot riding on the answer to this question, whichever view you take. What’s at stake?

  • where your church sends its missions dollars
  • where a new missionary decides to go and serve
  • where missions organizations center their strategies

In short, this question is the WHERE of missions. In short, though I agree with my friend, I think we still see the answer a bit differently. I agree that ‘lower chances’ of hearing the Gospel and ‘lower ability’ of national churches equals a greater need for missionaries. But I would just as soon drop two letters: ‘-er.’ Places that have a low chance of hearing the Gospel and where the national churches have a low ability to reach their community qualify as being needy of missionaries. Regardless of how they stack up against other locales. Meaning, if there’s a great need in one place, what does it matter how it relates to another place?* Going there is a wise investment of your life and obedience to the command as given to us by the Lord. An aspiring missionary need not search in desperation for the ‘neediest’ place on Earth – a place where there is still a huge amount of Great Commission work to be done is sufficient. 

For instance, if it is shown that a person living in X-landia has a 15% chance to hear the Gospel, does that mean they no longer need missionaries? Or does the number need to be higher, say 30%? There have been increasing attempts in recent years to emphasize just how small a chance a person has in a given place to hear the Gospel. I definitely get that, and want people to see the same thing about China. But to say your country needs missionaries more than X-landia is not the same as saying X-landia does not need missionaries. I think there are places needier of missionaries than China (e.g. North Africa) and less needy of missionaries than China (e.g. Central America) – but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a huge amount of Great Commission work to be done in all of these places.

This still leaves the question of how much work is a ‘huge amount’ – still subjective, I know. But this leads us to a discussion of what exactly the work of the Great Commission is, and beyond the scope of a single post. This is obviously just scratching the surface of a very important topic, but just some initial thoughts…

* In the past several decades, there has been a growing attention paid to the ‘unreached groups’ of the world. This perspective would not hesitate to insist that it indeed matters very much how one needy place compares to another. This is a considerably different take on the Great Commission than I am assuming here. More on this to come…

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9 Comments on “The WHERE of Missions”

  1. Chris Gardner December 12, 2011 at 11:56 pm #

    Good post. The truth is that missionaries with the right outlook are hard to find. It isn’t about one geography it is about one desire, to see the unreached reached with the gospel. Everyone has to decide what they are going to DO. We have had plenty of talking. There are some questions that could really turn the whole thing on its head.

    1. Only a 15% chance to hear the gospel in certain country.
    2. Easy accesability to hear the gospel in the USA because of media.
    3. TV stations that are preaching the gospel so that any person in a certain area could hear the gospel.

    I for one say lets not worry about what others need to do. Lets give our lives to see a WORLD reached with the gospel. I am starting from Peru, I am glad to know that I have a colaborer starting from China. How about lets meet in the middle somewhere. 🙂

    • Vengador December 15, 2011 at 8:21 am #

      Thanks for the comment, bro.
      You bring up an easy-to-ignore factor in the how-likely-to-hear considerations: the role of media.
      I would love to learn from people who know about such things…
      – how do we compare the ‘chance’ that different forms of media gives the unreached?
      – how do we compute the ‘chance’ that media gives the unreached?

  2. forbidthemnot December 13, 2011 at 1:56 pm #

    And then you throw in a weirdo like me who’s field is entirely non-geographical and growing at pandemic levels! 🙂

    And you throw in the less publicized facts about various fields that change the percentages – like the fact that the city in which I am based and where my parents have served as missionaries for 23 years is in the US, but 90% of it is un-churched. Yes, Harbin (for example) has 9 x’s the population of our entire state, but if that 90% holds true across the board (It’s probably worse in the rural communities, since there are entire counties without a good church) that means only 10% of Montana goes to church anywhere. Then you throw in the vast number of LDS, JW and other “churches” that are not teaching truth and you have the better part of a million souls that need the gospel. But since the state is slightly larger than Japan and the people are spread out over 147,000 sq miles, does that diminish the need?

    To me “where” is simple. And it isn’t based on statistics. It’s based on the leading of the Holy Spirit. God sent Philip into the wilderness for one soul. Strategy is super important, we need to have a plan, but it should never supersede the leading of God. I once said in my heart that I would never go to Russia because EVERYONE was going there at the time. Next thing I knew, not only had God put me there but I’d been there for ten years! The great commission says “all nations”, “all the world”, “every creature” and the “uttermost parts of the earth”. I say let’s get on our faces, ask the Lord where He wants us and then get up and go. Even when we are “on the field” God wants us in a particular “where” every day. And I need to get to mine so I better get off of here! 🙂

    By the way, someone with a 30% chance of hearing the gospel has a minimum of a 70% chance of going to hell.

    • Vengador December 15, 2011 at 8:40 am #

      I don’t think it diminishes the need, but I think it redefines it. Geography matters big time to me. Because my church can’t effectively evangelize people a hundred miles away. Meaning, unless you’re in one of a couple places in Montana, the most you’re going to be realistically capable of reaching is a few hundred homes. Besides this, though the percentage of ‘unchurched’ in Montana may truly be comparable to a country like Japan, the church:people ratio is way better.

      More on this in the next post, but I’m of the opinion: number of unbelievers / number of churches = relative need. And throw population density in there somehow. Where are you starting a church? Who are you going to be reaching?

      My buddy’s blog that encouraged me to write this post is still making a valid point: the presence of ‘unchurched’ people alone does not mean more churches are needed. It means people are not responding. I’m not saying there’s enough churches in Montana, but I’m saying that they are not nearly as needy as most places in the world. You’re talking about maybe thirty or forty TIMES more churches per unbeliever than China… and there’s places a lot worse than here!

  3. Joseph December 14, 2011 at 2:10 pm #

    You mentioned the unreached people groups approach. You should check out the SBC stats on the issue. There are some incredible discrepancies. The IMB lists the Han Chinese in China as “reached,” but the Han Chinese in 69 other places like Cuba, Bangladesh, Barbados, France, and Switzerland are labeled “unreached.” Not including Thailand, which has 5.6 million Chinese, the other 68 countries listed have just a little over 3 million Han Chinese combined.

    In China you can find at least 3 million people in any major city that have never heard the gospel. It makes more sense (at least from a Chinese missions perspective) to target the billion plus unreached Chinese in China rather than the 20 Chinese people in Dominica (kid you not, that’s one of the IMB’s targeted unreached people groups). Additionally, since many Chinese living abroad are migrant workers, many will eventually spend the majority of their lives in China anyways.

    • Vengador December 16, 2011 at 8:12 pm #

      Wow – had no idea. I had heard that the IMB is no longer sending new missionaries to predominantly Han places, and the few IMB guys I know seem to confirm that, but I had no idea that they would go on to label the other pockets of Han worldwide as unreached. I will have to check that out. Some of the people-groups strategists seem to be willing to subdivide the Han Chinese every which way, apparently in hopes of affirming the obvious need of Han cities for the Gospel.
      I’m starting to realize that there’s really two kinds of reasons people get excited about this people groups approach. One kind is theological – ‘we have to approach the task like this because it’s what was mandated.’ The other kind is strategic – ‘we have to approach the task like this because it’s the most effective way to reach people.’
      Both obviously need to be addressed, but I’m not always sure which set of reasons is motivating who. I wonder what’s behind the IMB’s classification of Han Chinese?

      • Joseph December 17, 2011 at 8:47 am #

        I think there’s a third reason-“rhetorical.” It makes the the great commission a much more manageable task and one that can be quantitatively defined with statistics. Thus missions is easier to talk about and rally supporters. It sounds more professional to say “there are X number of unreached people groups and we plan to reach them all in this decade” than to say “most of the world is lost and we plan to share the gospel with as many as we can until Christ returns.”

        Churches in our circles do essentially the same thing. They generally do some sort of “every nation” approach. Churches usually won’t take us on if they already have someone in China. On the other hand, one of the first things a pastor will say if he is interested in us is something like “we don’t have anyone in China.” I’m not saying it’s wrong to diversify missions efforts, but we should guard against the impulse to think about the great commission in quantitative terms. “How can we complete the great commission?” is the wrong question to ask (whether it be people groups or lights/pins on a map in the back). We should be asking: How can we be faithful in the great commission?

      • Vengador December 17, 2011 at 9:36 am #

        Ouch… I’m glad you said it and not me! Absolutely brutal, and I fear it may be a larger motivation than we might want to admit. It is certainly more self-congratulatory to say ‘we’re almost there!’ than to confess that we’re not close to ‘done.’

        Also, very well-put way to express the similarity in two seemingly opposed philosophies.

        Thanks for the great insight!

    • Vengador December 16, 2011 at 8:12 pm #

      Wow – had no idea. I had heard that the IMB is no longer sending new missionaries to predominantly Han places, and the few IMB guys I know seem to confirm that, but I had no idea that they would go on to label the other pockets of Han worldwide as unreached. I will have to check that out. Some of the people-groups strategists seem to be willing to subdivide the Han Chinese every which way, apparently in hopes of affirming the obvious need of Han cities for the Gospel.
      I’m starting to realize that there’s really two kinds of reasons people get excited about this people groups approach. One kind is theological – ‘we have to approach the task like this because it’s what was mandated.’ The other kind is strategic – ‘we have to approach the task like this because it’s the most effective way to reach people.’
      Both obviously need to be addressed, but I’m not always sure which set of reasons is motivating who. I wonder what’s behind the IMB’s classification of Han Chinese?

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