“… and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8
If we think about being witnesses for Jesus ‘to the ends of the earth’, pioneers such as Hudson Taylor, Amy Carmichael and Jim Elliott probably come to mind. But what about the church’s responsibility to share the gospel with all the peoples of the earth in the 21st century? Inevitably, each of us is aware of only a tiny fraction of the global Christian mission effort yet many of us assume that the gospel is indeed being taken to the ends of the earth regardless of our own involvement. However, the reality is that there are still billions of people in the world who haven’t heard the gospel and there is a huge global imbalance as to where mission workers are sent. If the workers are indeed few and the harvest is plentiful, surely we have a responsibility to make sure that we’re not all reaping in the same field?
So why is it that so many churches in the UK support workers or organisations in, for example, Uganda and Romania, while other countries are completely overlooked? If we’re honest, there are many parts of the world that we wouldn’t have a clue how to pray for, let alone support mission efforts there. Part of the problem is that there are genuine, valid reasons why some parts of the world are more difficult to send people to than others. It is also true that for a variety of reasons some people groups are simply less receptive to the gospel than others. The challenge for us, both collectively and as individual churches and organisations, is: what are we doing to actively overcome these problems so that we are more equipped to send people to the unreached parts of the world?
However, this is only part of the story. There are also challenges relating to the way that we view our missional calling. Instead of asking how our lives fit in with God’s plan, we tend to think in terms of how God’s plan fits into our lives. If we’re not careful, the question shifts from whether we are called to mission overseas, to whether we want to do mission overseas. Many Christians pursue a career in their home culture with little thought given to whether they’ve been ‘called’ to it or not. Add to this the dilemma that some speakers and books on mission say that all are called to go, while others say that no one should go without a specific calling. Robert Elliott Speer, a former secretary of the American Presbyterian Mission, claimed that: “A misunderstanding of the missionary call, who receives it, and how it comes to people has probably kept more people from going to the mission field than any other reason.”
Another important area where our cultural mindset intersects with our involvement in world mission is our attitude to risk. Certainly it is right for churches and agencies to avoid taking unnecessary risks with the safety of their mission partners and their families - but do we no longer believe in necessary risks? The Cape Town Commitment has the following to say: “Suffering may be necessary in our missionary engagement as witnesses to Christ, as it was for his apostles and the Old Testament prophets. Being willing to suffer is an acid test for the genuineness of our mission. God can use suffering, persecution and martyrdom to advance his mission. Martyrdom is a form of witness which Christ has promised especially to honour. Many Christians living in comfort and prosperity need to hear again the call of Christ to be willing to suffer for him.”
Finally, what about the unreached people living amongst us? Today’s global society often provides opportunities to witness locally to people from many different parts of the world – including those areas that are hard to reach with the gospel. Ministry to communities in our own towns still needs to be undertaken with sensitivity and cross-cultural awareness, but offers a chance for church members to engage in, learn about and participate in God’s mission to reach the lost, without the need for overseas travel.
It’s time for the UK church to think seriously about our part in taking the gospel to ‘the ends of the earth’. The bottom line is that if we are to reach the world, we can’t all send people to the same places. Perhaps we need to reconsider our local church’s involvement in mission and take a more strategic approach.