A Fact and A Hypothesis

I believe that the British church now concentrates on sending missionaries to places which have been reached by the Gospel, rather than to places where there are very few Christians.

First let’s deal with the fact; over the last fifty years the church has grown at an amazing rate around the world. Places in Africa and Asia which were once considered unevangelised mission fields now have significant Christian populations. Not only that, but there are new mission movements developing in these places. It is important to remember that despite this massive growth of the church, there are still many places where there are almost no Christians.

So now on to the hypothesis. It is my suspicion that despite the growth of the Church in many parts of the world, the geographical spread of missionaries sent out from the UK has not changed in the last fifty years.

If you put the fact and the hypothesis together you end up with the situation (which I believe we are in) that the British church now concentrates on sending missionaries to places which have been reached by the Gospel, rather than to places where there are very few Christians. This is not a deliberate or planned situation, it has simply crept up on us while the world church has changed, but we have continued to do more or less the same thing.

I need to make a couple of observations at this point. Firstly, I believe that it is perfectly legitimate to send missionaries to support churches in other parts of the world; I just don’t believe that this should be the main focus of our mission work (which I contend it is). Secondly, I know that there are some agencies which do concentrate on sending people to places where there are very few Christians – I just don’t believe that there are enough agencies like this, or that they get the profile they need.

Of course, the big problem with this post is that my hypothesis is unproven. In the absence of any hard evidence either for or against it, I’m pretty sure that it is correct, but it would be good to have proof. So, I’d like to finish this short post with a plea for some help. Does anyone know of a source for information on the geographical distribution of British missionaries over the last one hundred years?

Somewhere along the line, this short blog post turned into a slightly longer article on Christian Today.

This post is more than a year old. It is quite possible that any links to other websites, pictures or media content will no longer be valid. Things change on the web and it is impossible for us to keep up to date with everything.

14 replies on “A Fact and A Hypothesis”

I crunched some stats from Operation World showing you are correct. See for details. However I don’t think it’s just lethargy. The places we send people are easy, safe(ish) and have accessible languages. Risk averse agencies operating in a litigious world are reluctant to take the risks of sending people to places where they will probably get killed.

A couple of things; OW stats may be the best we have, but I’m not convinced that they are accurate. I’d love to know of something more scholarly and solid. I agree that fear of litigation may be an issue (though in work with mission agency board, I’ve not heard this expressed), but I think inertia is a far bigger one!

First, I don’t think your hypothesis is either surprising or new. Since when has the Western world sent more people to unreached groups rather than to reached groups? Not for as long as I’ve been around, I don’t think! This has been a sore point and a weakness of the Western church for a long time.

Second, the “unreached first” approach may not be quite as bad as it looks. Given that the worldwide church has grown, that many of the newer churches are arguably culturally and linguistically much closer to the unreached areas than the Western church is, and that many of these newer churches are very missions-oriented, it stands to reason that the Western church in fact should focus on training and equipping the worldwide church for evangelism and discipleship, rather than focus on doing it ourselves as we have in the past. I don’t see reaching the unreached as a zero sum game where the Western church has to grab as many as it can, but a collaborative effort where churches around the world contribute whatever talents God has given them.

Though you are old, Ruedi, you are not that old! Any significant change in the deployment of missionaries would predate your career, but we don’t have the data to prove it one way or another.

I am sympathetic, but not wholly convinced about your second paragraph. I think that there are times when distant outsiders do make better advocates for the Gospel than people who are relatively local. I also wonder to what extent British missionaries working with the ‘reached’ are training people for cross-cultural ministry.

I’d have to go through some old, long left behind cupboards, but I do remember that when we started out 35 years ago, “reaching the unreached” and the unreached “10/40 window” were big buzz words. And they came with all kinds of statistics documenting the abysmal track record of the western church in that regard.

There are lots of anecdotal statistics and things in the US are pretty well documented, but I’m not aware of anything robust and diachronic that describes the situation from a UK standpoint (and that’s where I work, these days).

One BIG problem I foresee is finding data to support the argument that missions are sending to non-evangelised areas mainly because these are extremely sensitive areas. If the countries get wind of the fact missionaries are in their countries, then visas will get withdrawn and possibly workers will get imprisoned. The mission I work with cannot promote the work they are doing because of the sensitivity of countries they are working in. If missions are working in evangelised areas then it will probably be fine to publicise the data. Unfortunately I think this hypothesis will be unproven.
As a worker overseas, I am impressed with many (not all) of the mission organisations and the many unsung heroes working in extremely difficult situations for the sake of the gospel.

You are right that getting hold of the data would be difficult for security reasons. However, there is a more fundamental problem in getting hold of any serious data about mission personnel, in that agencies tend to be too busy to respond in a meaningful way to data collection.

There may be some help in Todd Johnson & Ken Ross (eds) Atlas of Global Christianity (Edinburgh University Press, 2009). In Part V, on Christian Mission, has a section on “Missionaries Sent and Received, 1910–2010”, and a sub-section on Europe, pp. 272-5 (roughly) with an essay by Kirsteen Kim. So, not Britain specifically, but it might be illuminating all the same.

Thanks for the point (accepted even if not proven) which encourages us to do more to reach the unreached. But I agree with those who point out that we can and should be involved in mobilising and training the newer churches to reach the unreached. I am familiar with many indigenous mission agencies, denominational and interdenominational, particularly in Africa. Thank God for them, but they are very short of trainers and resources in their Schools of Mission. This is a wide open door for Western missionaries to be involved. The Seminaries and Bible colleges (plentiful among the reached) are also short of teachers and books AND surprise surprise (like ours here) are not always mission-minded. They ignore the unreached who are not their tribe. They miss the marginalised (and thus unreached) even within their communities (especially children, special needs children, students). So missions while taking opportunities to shift personnel to unreached people groups should at the same time also realise that so-called reached areas still need missionaries who will be aware of the unreached and involved in mobilising, training, resourcing and teaming up with a far bigger and far more effective task force than we could ever have if we head off alone to pastures new.

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