Is the Era of Pioneer Missions Over?
In 1910, representatives from mission organizations working across the world met together in Edinburgh, Scotland for a World Missionary Conference that promised to be “a Grand Council for the Advancement of Missionary Science.” The vast majority of delegates were European or North American and those present discussed the missionary task in terms of “the Christian world” and “the non-Christian world.” In 1910, this division of the world made sense because the vast majority of those who identified as Christian lived in Europe in North America.
The 1910 World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh, Scotland
However, if we fast forward 100+ years, it seems both ridiculous and ethnocentric to talk about “the Christian world” and “the non-Christian world.” Europe today is quite secular and North America’s Christian heritage is fading quickly. Two-thirds of those who profess the Christian faith live in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The world is changed. No longer is the missionary task of the church a question of “the West to the rest.” Rather, as Allen Yeh has put it, twenty-first century mission is from everyone to everywhere. Around the world, there are vibrant churches on every inhabited continent and the number of truly unreached peoples is rapidly diminishing.
Westerner believers can no longer assume that they are “the missionaries” whose job is to bring the Gospel to the rest of the world. They can no longer assume that if they are not working among a particular country or people group, then nothing is happening. Western missionaries today would be short-sighted to go into a country and get to work “reaching the lost” without touching base and coordinating with local churches and believers to find out what they are already doing and how foreign missionaries can fit in to what is already happening. Today is an era of partnership.
So, is the era of pioneer missions over? Is there no place in the world today for foreign missionaries, especially Westerners, to do pioneer cross-cultural evangelism among unreached people groups? Should foreign missionaries primarily focus on supporting roles, partnering with indigenous Christians who are now at the forefront of pioneering among their own people?
The answer is yes and no.
On the one hand, there are still a massive amount of people in the world today who have not heard of Jesus Christ and live in places where there are no Christians and no churches. Somebody needs go tell them about Christ. Thailand, for example, has a population of over 66 million people and only about 500,000 Protestant believers. The country is about 95% Buddhists and there are many towns and villages without a single church. Who is going to proclaim the good news in these places? Thai and tribal churches are making efforts to do so but it's a big country with a lot of people. There is plenty of work to go around. There are many similar situations around the world where a good case can be made for the continuing presence of foreign missionaries engaged in pioneer evangelism and church planting.
On the other hand, even among mostly unreached people groups, churches exist. They may not be large numerically when compared to the overall population. But they know the language. They know the culture. And in some cases, there are three or more generations of local believers with established denominations, networks, schools, seminaries, publishing houses, etc. The national level leaders have a good grasp on where ministry is happening, where it is not, who is doing what where, and what kind of help they need to push forward in evangelism, discipleship, and church planting and development. In these circumstances, it would be foolish for a foreign missionary to enter the country and make plans on how to reach the nation for Christ without learning what Christian ministry is already happening, who is doing it, and how foreign missionaries might come alongside indigenous believers and other missionaries who are already there. We live in an era of partnership. Believers who feel called to proclaim the Gospel in another part of the world have a moral obligation to find out what is happening on the ground in the place where they are working and to seek out opportunities for partnership with local believers when possible.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
So where does that leave foreign missionaries? Should they focus on pioneer evangelism? Or slot into other roles that indigenous churches want them to do?
There is no “one-size-fits-all” answer but as much as possible, missionaries should seek to partner with local churches to do tasks that they are best suited for, which may not be pioneer evangelism.
Sometimes local believers want to launch a church plant or do outreach in a new area and could really use teammates. Missionaries can fill that role.
Sometimes missionaries have skills and experience in translation or publishing, theological education, pastoral counseling, IT and computing, or some other technical area that meets a need of local churches. Missionaries can fill those roles too.
When I was recently teaching at a Thai Bible study picnic in central Florida, the Thai pastor who invited me told the gathered group of Thai believers about our upcoming move back to Thailand where I will teach at Chiang Mai Theological Seminary. He explained that Thai people are better at sharing the Gospel with other Thai people than missionaries are. Thai are more receptive to another Thai coming into a neighborhood than a white foreigner.
And I thought to myself, “Yes, that’s true.” I like talking with Thai people about Christ and I enjoy opening the Scriptures with non-believers. And I have done so many times in Thailand. But all things considered, Thai Christians know the language and the culture far better than I do. They have an insider status that I don’t. Can God use a foreign missionary to reach people with the Gospel, disciple them, and plant churches. Sure. God can do anything. But is that the best full-time role for me serving God and his people in Thailand?
In the mind of our Thai pastor friend, teaching and training Thai Christian leaders at the seminary level is a good role for a missionary. Given my background, education, and previous experience, I can probably do more for Thai churches through formal and informal training of leaders than I could by devoting all my time to grassroots cross-cultural evangelism. That was the assessment of this Thai pastor, and I am inclined to agree. When we are in Thailand, I always want to be involved in local church ministry with Thai Christians, but I also want to teach and write to build up Thai churches and leaders.
I would not want to dogmatically say that the era of pioneer missions is over because it is not. But the roles of missionaries are changing. We live in an era of partnership with believers around the world. Missionaries still go from west to east to do evangelism and to plant churches, but they also go from east to west and south to north to do the same.
Whatever it is that missionaries do in today’s world, no matter where they are from, or where they are going, they need to be aware that God has gone before them and has likely already started something there. And when that’s the case, how can we best partner with God and his people around the world? That’s the question that we need to ask.