A missionary friend in Europe wrote and informed me that many European countries have not had a gospel witness for quite some time. Why has there not been a gospel witness in some places for over four-hundred years? This question troubled me in terms of missions strategy. While I don't have an exhaustive answer, I do have an idea concerning contemporary missions approaches.
Most missions experts would agree that Europe has been missionized. That is, countries like France, Germany and many others have been reached with the gospel. That is not to say that these countries have been evangelized. Today, the vast majority of European citizens do not know Christ. But, Christianity once flourished in this part of the world. Missionaries were sent from various European churches to other countries for gospel advance. In light of such, the thinking is that no need exists to send missionaries to countries that have been reached and that already have churches actively involved in missions themselves.
Today, we may begin to ask the question about the extent of Christian influence in these countries. At the same time, many missions organizations have adopted a strategy that involves concentration on the unreached people groups of the world. And, rightly so. When our Lord told us to make disciples of all nations, He was not referring to nation states. He was referring to the vast number of ethnic or people groups scattered across the globe. The thinking is that when all the people groups are reached, then the way is clear for Christ to return. The unfinished task will have been finished.
Consider these statements from the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. "We will lead Southern Baptists to be on mission with God to bring all the peoples of the world to saving faith in Jesus Christ." Note the emphasis on "peoples." This emphasis of course is a New Testament emphasis and therefore correct. Further, the IMB notes, "God has called His people to proclaim His name among all peoples. This is our task. But 4,992 people groups, live in The Last Frontier--the part of the world with little or no access to the gospel. That's 1.6 billion people who have virtually no chance of hearing the good news of Jesus Christ." Again, the emphasis on people groups is paramount and The Last Frontier is the critical focus.
At the same time, some have taken a New Testament approach and turned it into a pragmatic approach that lacks biblical mooring. Too many have adopted a missions strategy that places the emphasis upon checking groups off the list as opposed to an emphasis upon souls. Some would consider a people group reached when even just a few have heard the gospel, embraced it in an intellectual sense, and been given minimum training in regard to church life. A time table is imposed in many cases and missionaries move on whether a solid foundation has been established or not. Often, after the missionaries have left, the so-called converts fall into syncretism at best and back into full blown paganism at worst. But, they've been reached, and that's what's important in this approach when no consideration is given to other biblical dynamics in terms of missions.
A few of those dynamics may be highlighted. First, we must see that all people within the people groups are sinners in need of Christ. They must not be ignored simply because we are bent on finishing the unfinished task. Compassion for people as people, not as statistics, demands faithful evangelism and discipleship.
Second, we are not called to simply reach the nations/people groups. We are called to make disciples of the nations/people groups. That command requires that we continue to work with a group until solid churches are established upon biblical foundations of theology and practice. We must not leave the sheep to wolves. They must be prepared to stand firm in the gospel before we move on. Part of Paul's work was to strengthen the churches he had planted. This work too is part of full-orbed biblical missions.
Third, our task is not to usher in the second coming as quickly as possible, as if we could do such a thing anyway. Again, our task is to make disciples. Christ will come again at the appointed time. Our responsibility in the meantime is to be faithful to proclaim the gospel to the nations and to the individuals within those nations. The primary way to proclaim the gospel to those individuals is to plant solid churches that they may engage in faithful evangelism. Yet, a significant number of persons will have to be evangelized for those churches to be planted and a significant amount of time will have to be devoted to making those churches evangelistic outposts for the gospel.
Fourth, it is difficult to see how God is glorified with pragmatic approaches that relegate individual souls to a secondary position. Our Lord Jesus won people one at a time. He went first to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and then turned to the Gentiles. The apostles did the same. Each time Paul would enter a new city he would go first to the synagogue and then to the Gentiles. He did this over and over again. In so doing, a witness to the lost sheep of the house of Israel was not forsaken for an exclusive focus on the new frontier.
Fifth, when whole nation states like those in Europe mentioned above begin to apostatize, it seems in keeping with the Great Commission to send missionaries to those places even as we continue to take the gospel to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, that is, the Jews, even to this day. If one is concerned with pure pragmatics, he will ignore those nation states filled with lost people. If one does not strategize in keeping with the New Testament concept of people groups, the unreached people groups and The Final Frontier may ignored for some time. If one has a biblically balanced approach to missions, then one may rightly emphasize both contexts as appropriate missions targets.
Consider this piece from Dr. Albert Mohler. "Over the past two centuries or so, France has transformed itself into one of the most secularized cultures on earth. The worldview of the French is increasingly devoid of any Christian reference, and a particularly radical form of secularism fills much of the nation's public space."
"Now, The Telegraph [London] reports that British evangelicals are targeting France as a mission field -- a field more lacking in Christian witness than Africa or Asia. From the article:
'New figures show that the modern missionary is eschewing countries such as Nigeria, Papua New Guinea or India in favour of that unlikely heart of darkness: France. The latest edition of Religious Trends, a compilation of Christian statistics published last week, shows that France overtook Kenya last year as the leading destination for British mission agencies.'
'In further evidence that Europe is increasingly seen as more spiritually needy than Africa or Asia, in third place is another country with strong Roman Catholic roots, Spain.'
'There has been a crisis of confidence in Christianity across Europe,' said Martin Thompson of the Church Mission Society. 'We are beginning to see Europe as a strategic priority.' According to France Mission, there are more mediums and occult practitioners in France than there are registered doctors, and practising Muslims outnumber practising evangelical Christians by 12 to one.'"
Mohler comments, "That is an amazing statistic -- practicing Muslims outnumber practicing evangelical Christians by twelve to one. No wonder the nation now appears as a 'strategic priority' for missions." Indeed, this notion of Mohler's and those whom he cites that France is a strategic priority for missions is in keeping with a full orbed understanding of the Great Commission and the advance of God's Kingdom in this world.
Consider the possible consequences if we do not see France as a strategic priority for missions. Mohler continues, "Meanwhile, the French birth rate has dropped to 1.9 per couple -- below the replacement rate. Now, the French government proposes to reward mothers who have a third child with a stipend of up to $1,250 per month."
"Writing last year in The Telegraph [London], columnist Barbara Amiel observed: 'France is facing the problem that dare not speak its name. Though French law prohibits the census from any reference to ethnic background or religion, many demographers estimate that as much as 20 [to] 30 percent of the population under 25 is now Muslim.... Given current birthrates, it is not impossible that in 25 years France will have a Muslim majority. The consequences are dynamic: Is it possible that secular France might become an Islamic state?'"
Mohler's question implies that it certainly is a possibility. Thus, not only does a concern for souls drive us to send missionaries back to France, but, so do the consequences for the nation and indeed the rest of the world if France were to become and Islamic state. It would be yet another command post for Islam to propagate its message of hate and method of conquest to other parts of Europe and beyond. Not only would war be a definite result, so too would the loss of the gospel in more countries. As the result of Islamic advance, the gospel could perhaps be lost, one way or another, in countries where it is still embraced. These are serious issues indeed.
Let us remain focused on The Last Frontier. At the same time, let us pick up the mantle again and head to Europe with the gospel. Let us head to places like Belgium for example. To our missionary friends on the front lines everywhere, I say, thank you, preach the word (2 Tim. 4:2), and don't grow weary in well doing (Gal. 6:9), for your labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58).