Seven Men, Four Eras in Protestant Mission History
It is clear that the Biblical mission mandate has quite often been overlooked during most of the centuries since the apostles. Even our Protestant tradition with all its focus on the Bible plugged along for over 250 years minding its own business and its own blessings (like Israel of old)—until a young man of great faith and incredible patience appeared on the scene—William Carey.
In this chapter we are going to focus in on the period following A.D. 1800, which his life and witness greatly affected. No other one person can be given as much credit for the vibrant new impetus of the last two hundred years. He was one of seven specific men whom God used, all of them working against conventional thinking. Four great “eras” of plunging forward into newly perceived frontiers, into new awareness resulted from their faith, vision and obedience. It took two of them to launch the third, and three more to push for the fourth era. Between the first three of these eras, we see two transitions of four “stages” of mission strategy. A third perplexing “transition” of strategy appeared as the fourth era unfolded. It is easier to see this in a diagram. Better still, the story.
The First Era
An “under thirty” young man, William Carey, got into trouble when he began to take the Great Commission seriously. When he had the opportunity as a young minister to address a group of older ministers, he challenged them to give a reason why the Great Commission did not apply to them. They rebuked him, saying, “When God chooses to win the heathen, He will do it without your help or ours.” He was unable to speak again on the subject, but a businessman asked him to write out his analysis, An Enquiry Into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens.
The resulting small book convinced a few of his friends to create a tiny mission agency, the “means” of which his Enquiry had spoken. This agency was flimsy and weak, providing only the minimal and sporadic backing he needed to go to India. However, the impact of his example reverberated throughout the English-speaking world, and his little book became the Magna Carta of the Protestant mission movement.
William Carey was not the first Protestant missionary. For years the Moravians had sent people to Greenland, America and Africa. But his little book, in combination with the Evangelical Awakening, quickened vision and changed lives on both sides of the Atlantic. Response was almost instantaneous: a second missionary society was founded in London; two in Scotland; one in Holland; and then still another in England. By then it was apparent to all that Carey was right when he had insisted that organized efforts in the form of mission societies were essential to the success of the missionary endeavor.
In America, five college students, aroused by Carey’s book and his letters, met to pray for God’s direction for their lives. This unobtrusive prayer meeting, later known as the “Haystack Prayer Meeting,” resulted in an American “means”—the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions. Even more important, those students started a student mission movement, the Student Missionary Inquiry, which became the example and forerunner of other student movements, even underlying the much later Student Volunteer Movement.
In fact, during the first 25 years after Carey sailed to India, a dozen mission agencies were formed on both sides of the Atlantic, and the First Era in Protestant missions was off to a good start, building much faster than later eras. Realistically speaking, however, missions in this First Era was a pitifully small shoe-string operation, in relation to the major preoccupations of most Europeans and Americans in that day. The idea that we should organize in order to send missionaries did not come easily, but it eventually became an accepted pattern.
Carey’s influence led some women in Boston to form women’s missionary prayer groups, a trend which led to women becoming the main custodians of mission knowledge and motivation. After some years women began to go to the field as single missionaries. Finally, by 1865, when more than half of all men in a large age-range were killed in the Civil War, unmarried American women established women’s mission boards which, like Roman Catholic women’s orders, only sent out single women as missionaries and were run entirely by single women at home.
There are two very bright notes about the First Era. One is the astonishing demonstration of love and sacrifice on the part of those who went out. Africa, especially, was a forbidding continent. All mission outreach to Africa prior to 1775 had totally failed. Of all Catholic efforts, all Moravian efforts, nothing remained. Not one missionary of any kind existed on the continent on the eve of the First Era. The gruesome statistics of almost inevitable sickness and death that haunted, yet did not daunt, the decades of truly valiant missionaries who went out after 1790 in virtually a suicidal stream cannot be matched by any other era or by any other cause. Very few missionaries to Africa in the first 60 years of the First Era survived more than two years.
As I have reflected on this measure of devotion I have been humbled to tears, for I wonder—if either my people or myself today could or would match that record? Can you imagine our Urbana students today going out into missionary work if they knew that for decade after decade 19 out of 20 of those going before them had not lived more than 24 months? No wonder they began going to the field with their belongings packed in caskets.
A second bright spot in this First Era is the development of high quality insight into mission strategy. The movement had several great missiologists. In regard to the role of home structure, they clearly understood the value of the mission structure being allowed a life of its own. For example, we read that the London Missionary Society experienced unprecedented and unequaled success, “due partly to its freedom from ecclesiastical supervision and partly to its formation from an almost equal number of ministers and laymen.” In regard to field structure, we can take a note from Henry Venn who was related to the famous Clapham Evangelicals and the son of a founder of the Church Missionary Society. Except for a few outdated terms, one of his most famous paragraphs sounds strangely modern:
Regarding the ultimate object of a Mission, viewed under its ecclesiastical result, to be the settlement of a Native Church under Native Pastors upon a self-supporting system, it should be borne in mind that the progress of a Mission mainly depends upon the training up and the location of Native Pastors; and that, as it has been happily expressed, the “euthanasia of a Mission” takes place when a missionary, surrounded by well-trained Native congregations under Native Pastors, is able to resign all pastoral work into their hands, and gradually relax his superintendence over the pastors themselves, ’til it insensibly ceases; and so the Mission passes into a settled Christian community. Then the missionary and all missionary agencies should be transferred to the “regions beyond.”
Note well that while there was no thought here of the national church launching its own mission outreach to new pioneer fields! Nevertheless, we do see here something like stages of mission activity, described by Harold Fuller of SIM in the alliterative sequence:
Stage 1: A Pioneer stage—first contact with a people group.
Stage 2: A Paternal stage—expatriates train national leadership.
Stage 3: A Partnership stage—national leaders work as equals with expatriates.
Stage 4: A Participation stage—expatriates are no longer equal partners, but only participate by invitation.
Slow and painstaking though the labors of the First Era were, they did bear fruit, and the familiar series of stages can be observed which goes from no church in the pioneer stage to infant church in the paternal stage and to the more complicated mature church in the partnership and participation stages. Samuel Hoffman of the Reformed Church in America Board puts it well: “The Christian missionary who was loved as an evangelist and liked as a teacher, may find himself resented as an administrator.”
Rare is the missionary in whose own career this whole sequence of stages takes place. More likely the series represents the work in a specific field with a succession of missionaries, or it may be the experience of an agency which in its early period bursts out in work in a number of places and then after some years finds that most of its fields are mature at about the same time. But rightly or wrongly, this kind of succession is visible in the mission movement globally, as the fever for change and nationalization sweeps the thinking of almost all executives at once and leaps from continent to continent, wrongly affecting both new fields still in earlier stages, as well as old fields in the latter stages.
At any rate, by 1865 there was a strong consensus on both sides of the Atlantic that the missionary should go home when he had worked himself out of a job. Since the First Era focused primarily upon the coastlands of Asia and Africa, we are not surprised that literal withdrawal would come about first in a case where there were no inland territories. Thus, symbolizing the last two stages of the First Era was the withdrawal of all missionaries from the Hawaiian Islands, then a separate country. This was done with legitimate pride and fanfare and fulfilled the highest expectations, then and now, of successful progress through the stages of missionary planting, watering, and harvest. But it interfered with the initial stages of the Second Era, as we shall see.
The Second Era
A second symbolic event of 1865 is even more significant, at least for the inauguration of the Second Era. A young man, after a few years in China and like Carey still under thirty, in the teeth of counter advice, established the first of a whole new breed of mission agencies emphasizing the inland territories. This second young upstart was at first given little but negative notice, but like William Carey, he brooded over statistics, charts and maps. When he suggested that the inland peoples of China needed to be reached, he was told you could not get there, and he was asked if he wished to carry on his shoulders the blood of the young people he would thus send to their deaths. This accusing question stunned and staggered him. Groping for light, wandering on the beach, it seemed as if God finally spoke to resolve the ghastly thought: “You are not sending young people into the interior of China. I am.” The load lifted.
As part of England’s lower class, with only trade school medicine, without any university experience much less missiological training, and a checkered past in regard to his own individualistic behavior while he was on the field, he was merely one more of the weak things that God uses to confound the wise. Even his early anti-church-planting missionary strategy was breathtakingly erroneous by today’s church-planting insights. Yet God strangely honored him because his gaze was fixed upon the world’s peoples who had never heard. Hudson Taylor
had a divine wind behind him. The Holy Spirit spared him from many pitfalls, and it was his organization, the China Inland Mission (now Overseas Missionary Fellowship)—the most cooperative, servant organization yet to appear—that eventually served in one way or another over 6,000 missionaries, predominantly in the interior of China. It took 20 years for other missions to begin to join Taylor in his special emphasis—the inland frontiers.
One reason the Second Era began slowly is that many people were confused. There were already many missions in existence. Why more? Yet as Taylor pointed out, all existing agencies were focused on the coastlands of Africa and Asia, or islands in the Pacific. People questioned, “Why go to the interior if you haven’t finished the job on the coast?”
I am not sure the parallel is true today, but the Second Era apparently needed not only a new vision but a lot of new organizations. Taylor not only started an English frontier mission, he went to Scandinavia and the Continent to challenge people to start new agencies. As a result, directly or indirectly, over 40 new agencies took shape to compose “the faith mission movement” that rightly should be called frontier missions as the names of many of them still indicate: China Inland Mission, Sudan Interior Mission, Africa Inland Mission, Heart of Africa Mission, Unevangelized Fields Mission, Regions Beyond Missionary Union. Taylor was more concerned for the cause than for a career. At the end of his life he had spent only half of his years of ministry in China. In countless trips back and forth from China he spent half of his time as a mobilizer on the home front. For Taylor, the cause of Christ, not his mission, and not even China, was the ultimate focus of his concern.
As in the early stage of the First Era, when things began to move, God brought forth a student movement. This one was more massive than before—the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, history’s single most potent mission organization. In the 1880s and 90s there were only 1/37th as many college students as there are today, but the Student Volunteer Movement netted 100,000 volunteers who gave their lives to missions. Twenty-thousand actually went overseas. As we see it now, the other 80,000 had to stay home to deepen the foundations of the mission endeavor and support system. They strengthened existing women’s missionary societies and began the Laymen’s Missionary Movement which in ten years quadrupled the giving to missions of the churches involved.
However, as the fresh new college students of the Second Era burst on the scene overseas, they did not always fathom how the older missionaries of the First Era could have turned responsibility over to national leadership who lived at the least educated levels of society. First Era missionaries were in the minority now, and the wisdom they had gained from their experience was bypassed by the large number of new college-educated recruits. Thus, for decades in the early stages of the Second Era, the new college-trained missionaries, instead of going to new frontiers, sometimes assumed leadership over existing churches, not heeding the experience of previous mission workers. As a result they often forced into the background First Era missionaries and national leadership (which had been painstakingly developed). In some cases this caused a huge step backward in mission strategy.
By 1925, however, the largest mission movement in history was in full swing. By then Second Era missionaries were finally learning the basic lessons they had first ignored, and produced an incredible record. They had planted churches in a thousand new places, mainly “inland,” and by 1940 the reality of the “younger churches” around the world was widely acclaimed as the “great new fact of our time.” The strength of these churches led both national leaders and missionaries to assume that all additional frontiers could simply be mopped up by the ordinary evangelism of the churches scattered throughout the world. More and more people wondered if, in fact, missionaries were no longer needed so badly! Once more, as in 1865, it seemed logical to send missionaries home from many areas of the world.
For us today it is highly important to note the overlap of these first two eras. The 45 year period between 1865 and 1910 (compare 1934 to 1980) was a transition between the strategy appropriate to the mature stages of Era 1, the Coastlands era, and the strategy appropriate to the pioneering stages of Era 2, the Inland era.
Not long after the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910, there ensued the shattering World Wars and the worldwide collapse of the colonial apparatus. By 1945 many overseas churches were anticipating not only the withdrawal of the colonial powers, but the absence of the missionary as well. While there was no very widespread outcry of, “Missionary Go Home,” as some might suppose, nevertheless things were different now, as even the people in the pews at home ultimately sensed. Pioneer and paternal were no longer the relevant stages, but partnership and participation.
In 1967, the total number of career missionaries from America began to decline. Why? Christians had been led to believe that all necessary beachheads had been established. By 1967, over 90 percent of all missionaries from North America were working with strong national churches that had been in existence for some time.
The facts, however, were not that simple. Unnoticed by most everyone, another era in missions had begun.
The Third Era
This era was begun by a pair of young men of the Student Volunteer Movement—Cameron Townsend and Donald McGavran. Cameron Townsend was in so much of a hurry to get to the mission field that he didn’t bother to finish college. He went to Guatemala as a “Second Era” missionary, building on work which had been done in the past. In that country, as in all other mission fields, there was plenty to do by missionaries working with established national churches.
But Townsend was alert enough to notice (and it was pointed out by older missionaries) that the majority of Guatemala’s population did not speak Spanish. As he moved from village to village, trying to distribute scriptures written in the Spanish language, he realized that Spanish evangelism would never reach all of Guatemala’s people. He was further convinced of this when, legend has it, an Indian asked him, “If your God is so smart, why can’t He speak our language?” He was befriended by a group of older missionaries who had already concluded the indigenous “Indian” populations needed to be reached in their own languages. He was just 23 when he began to move on the basis of this new perspective.
Surely Cameron Townsend is one person comparable to William Carey and Hudson Taylor. Like Carey and Taylor, Townsend saw that there were still unreached frontiers, and for almost a half century he waved the flag for the overlooked tribal peoples of the world. He started out hoping to encourage older boards to reach out to tribal people. Like Carey and Taylor, he ended up in 1934 starting his own mission agency, later called Wycliffe Bible Translators, which is dedicated to reaching these new frontiers. At first he thought there must be about 500 unreached tribal groups in the world. (He was judging by the large number of tribal languages in Mexico alone). Later, he revised his figure to 1,000, then 2,000, and now it is over 5,000. As his conception of the enormity of the task has increased, the size of his organization has increased, numbering over 6,000 adult workers.
At the very same time Townsend was ruminating in Guatemala, Donald McGavran was beginning to yield to the seriousness, not of linguistic barriers, but of India’s amazing
social and cultural barriers. Townsend acted on, and promoted, the reality of linguistically diverse (and overlooked) tribes; McGavran highlighted and promoted the social and cultural diversity of a more nearly universal category he labeled “homogeneous units,” which today are more often called “people groups.” Paul Hiebert, a missionary anthropologist, has employed the terminology of “horizontal segmentation” for the tribes, where each occupies its own turf, and “vertical segmentation” for groups distinguished not by geography but by rigid social or cultural differences. McGavran’s terminology described both kinds even though he was mainly thinking about the more subtle vertical segmentation.
Once such a social group is penetrated, by diligently taking advantage of a missiological breakthrough along social lines, McGavran’s strategic concept of a “bridge of God” to that people group comes into the picture. The corollary of this truth is the fact that until such a breakthrough is made, normal evangelism and church planting cannot take place.
McGavran did not found a new mission (Townsend did so only when the existing missions did not adequately respond to the tribal challenge). But, McGavran built the largest school of mission in the world and his active efforts and writings spawned both the Church Growth Movement and indirectly the frontier mission movement, the one devoted to expanding within already penetrated groups, and the other (which he did not contemplate until his last few years) devoted to deliberately approaching the remaining unpenetrated groups.
As with Taylor before them, for twenty years Townsend and McGavran attracted little attention. But by the 1950s both had wide audiences. In 1980, 46 years from Townsend’s 1934 organizational move, a 1910-like conference was held, focusing precisely on the forgotten groups these two men had emphasized. The Edinburgh-1980 World Consultation on Frontier Missions was the largest mission meeting in history, measured by the number of mission agencies sending delegates. And wonder of wonders, 57 Third World agencies sent delegates. This meeting is the sleeper of the Third Era! Also, a simultaneous youth meeting, the International Student Consultation on Frontier Missions, pointed the way for all future mission meetings to include significant youth participation. It later started the International Journal of Frontier Missiology (its hundreds of keen articles are all available on the web, www.ijfm.org).
As happened in the early stages of the first two eras, the Third Era has spawned a number of new mission agencies. Some, like the New Tribes Mission, carry in their names reference to this new emphasis. The names of others, such as Gospel Recordings and Mission Aviation Fellowship, refer to the new technologies necessary for the reaching of tribal and other isolated peoples of the world. Some Second Era agencies, like the Regions Beyond Missionary Union, have never ceased to stress frontiers, and have merely increased their staff so they can penetrate further—to people groups previously overlooked.
More recently many have begun to realize that tribal peoples are not the only forgotten peoples. Many other groups, some in the middle of partially Christianized areas, have been completely overlooked. These peoples, including overlooked tribals, are being called the “Unreached Peoples” and are defined by ethnic or sociological traits to be peoples so different from the cultural traditions of any existing church that specifically cross-cultural mission strategies (rather than ordinary evangelistic techniques) are necessary to achieve the missiological breakthrough essential to the planting of truly indigenous churches within their particular cultural traditions.
If the First Era was a new awareness of mission responsibility, characterized by reaching coastland peoples and the Second Era was an additional awareness, emphasizing inland territories, the Third Era began a new awareness of the more difficult-to-define, non-geographical category which we have called “Unreached Peoples”—people groups which are either socially or culturally isolated. Because this concept has been so hard to define, the Third Era has been even slower getting started than the Second Era. Cameron Townsend and Donald McGavran began calling attention to bypassed peoples for 40 years but not until 1980 had any major attention been given to them. More tragic still, many mission agencies have essentially forgotten the pioneering techniques of the First and Second Eras. Thus, they have needed to reinvent the wheel as they learned once more how to approach groups of people completely untouched by the gospel.
We know that there are thousands of people groups in the “Unreached Peoples” category, which can be gathered in clusters of similar peoples, these clusters being far fewer in number. Yet, each single people will require a separate, new missionary beachhead. Is this too much? Can this be done? Yes it can!
The Fourth Era
We need to be alert to the appearance in the last few years of other frontiers of mission, other new awarenesses of mission responsibility. The First Era of Coastland church planting is well established. So is the Second, Inland Era. Even the Third, Unreached People Era is widely embraced. People are now talking about a Fourth Era. Candidates for that label include the often-mentioned challenge of looming urban populations, which both preserve existing people groups as well as break down differences and create new groups. Another new awareness is the welcome surge of so-called Third World Mission Agencies. Related is the frontier which has been called Diaspora Missiology, which attempts to understand the massive movement of thousand of peoples from their traditional homelands. Then there is the colossal development of a movement to two-week “short terms,” which gives millions a cross-cultural experience yet eats up many times the total cost of all long-term missionaries—a “new awareness” of mixed value. Similarly there is the new challenge of many churches deciding to bypass seasoned agencies to send out their own missionaries with little pre-field or on-field guidance, teamwork or encouragement—a word for this development is “The Phenomenon of Disintermediation.” Some would hail this as a challenging new awareness, but as such it is dubious. A similar mixed blessing, though not new, but growing, is the shift to sending just money overseas not missionaries, paying local believers to reach out to nearby peoples. I hope this does not get promoted as a fourth era.
However, one new awareness would seem to be more significant than any of the other contenders for the Fourth Era label. It is the challenge to understand and implement a clearly broader-than-common interpretation of the Great Commission.
Curiously, in the 19th Century, prior to the American Civil War, Evangelical initiatives made unprecedented, truly momentous changes in society. This was possible because Evangelicals held influential positions in the civil order, and, as a result, both social and personal salvation were feasible—and vigorously pursued. But the ten million people who lived in the USA in 1820 were flooded with an additional thirty million by 1870. In another thirty years the vast majority of Evangelicals were non-college people, and did not run the country, and understandably focused on more modest good works. As the 20th century wore on their 157 Bible Institutes gradually became colleges and universities and their influence mounted once again as thousands of Evangelicals entered the professions, became university professors. Most Evangelical young people now went to college. Accordingly, Evangelicals regained the awareness that the Gospel would be greatly empowered as they sought to bring about God’s will on earth, since it is deeds that both reveal God’s character and give meaning that is essential to the words of the Gospel.
This recovered perspective may require a second thought for Evangelicals, who earlier in the 20th century tended to view the salvation of man as God’s primary concern. A passage in Ezekiel sheds important light on this common idea. After 35 chapters of woes, Israel is now to be blessed, and then, unexpectedly in Ezekiel 36:22, God says, “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name.” Here we see that God has bigger purposes than human redemption.
The Bible is thus not only about how man can be reconciled to God but, perhaps, how reconciled man working with God can together destroy the Kingdom of Darkness, putting away both human evil and natural evil (such as disease germs). Note well: First John 3:8: “The Son of God appeared for this purpose, that He might destroy the works of the Devil.” Was that what Jesus meant when He said “I will build my church and fortress of Hell will be unable to resist its onslaught” (Matt. 16:14).
We come away from these verses with the impression that drawing people into the church is not the end product but, significantly, the beginning of the involvement of redeemed people in the work of the Son of God. But we must not forget that good works today, even if greatly strengthened by expanding technology and wealth, are nevertheless futile apart from transformed individuals. Yet, it is still true, as Jesus explained, that He would build His church not just to assure His people a place in heaven but to break down the gates of hell and, in effect, destroy the Kingdom of Darkness.
Thus, toward the year 2000 Evangelicals gradually moved to recover Jesus’ primary emphasis on the extension of the Kingdom, that is, God’s will on earth, rather than focusing primarily on getting personal salvation to individuals. More and more, apparently, no longer pray the Lord’s prayer thinking that they are waiting until they die or Jesus comes to see the Kingdom come.
Missionaries in particular have used their intuition, knowledge of the Bible and personal love to demonstrate through their deeds—in this world—the character of God and His glory thus empowering their evangelism. But now that longstanding missionary intuition is often being reinforced by a theology that no longer sees evangelism and social action as two different things but as part and parcel of a single Biblical “Gospel of the Kingdom” in which both words and deeds are recognized as essential in communicating God’s love, power and authority. That is, it is more and more often realized that words need deeds to make them meaningful—technically, both wordless deeds and deedless words are ineffective. Even a purely spoken sermon depends on references to deeds. This is why the Bible is so full of graphic examples of good deeds. This is why the usual conversion of Muslims to Christ turns on the integrity of the witness rather on the words they speak.
This increasing interest in the New Testament emphasis on the Gospel of the Kingdom then challenges both missionaries and lay believers with a nuanced understanding of God’s mission as encompassing every believer, albeit with different types of roles and expectations. It means that every Perspectives student can and must be able to sense a personal mission that in some way helps fulfill this broader-than-conventional interpretation of the Great Commission—even if they are not going to become a pastor or go to work in the classical and still crucial “cross-cultural pioneering” that is normally called missionary. Why? Because our evangelism is degraded if those sending the evangelist do not display the character of God. In this sense we are all called to a mission as soldiers in the conflict between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Darkness.
Thus, if a believer’s 40-hour work week does not contribute directly or indirectly to that Cause, and if for that reason our daily work has not become a holy calling, then basic changes are in order, since we are all called to do “Our Utmost for His Highest” (His highest, not highest pay). This concept of a Kingdom Era, a Fourth Era, is a huge expansion of conventional mission perspective since it demands that every believer find his or her place in the Kingdom effort.
To understand why this transition to Kingdom thinking has taken so long, it is helpful to remember that millions of Evangelicals in the early part of the 20th century were non-college people whose dozens of Bible institutes did not lead them into the professions much less to public office, Congress or the White House. Their range of thinking was reasonably narrowed significantly, as in the case of the beautiful music of the so-called “Negro Spirituals.” Those hymns were produced by slaves who understandably did not contemplate transformation of this world but focused on the glories of Heaven later on. Thus, millions of non-college Evangelicals took almost a century to become the influential college-level movement of today.
By the middle of the last century three key Evangelicals, all of them professors in higher education, came out with books that heralded what was to come.
Each of the four Eras is based on a certain kind of new, deeper awareness without subtracting anything from any earlier era. It does not just mean getting to the door of every Unreached People, but how to enter, what to do. The Fourth, Kingdom Era, means, for example, that fighting all corruption, injustice, poverty or human trafficking must be seen as mainstream portrayals of God’s love and righteousness in the unfolding of His will on earth. Good deeds on the part of existing believers thus undergird and make understandable our evangelistic efforts. Equally so is the testimony of the good deeds resulting in the lives of our converts who follow Christ. And today we are able to tackle far larger problems than ever before.
Timothy L. Smith wrote his truly surprising Revivalism and Social Reform in 1957, describing the long forgotten all out Evangelical assault of the evils of this world which occurred in the earlier century.
David O. Moberg came out in 1967, and 1972, with his arresting writings on The Great Reversal, which further described the new responsibilities resulting from increased wealth and influence in society.
The increasing momentum of this renewed perspective can be seen in the fact that while conventional evangelism and church-planting mission agencies in the USA grew 2.7% from 2001 to 2006, relief and development agencies grew 75%. The impetus of the three thinkers mentioned was not all that happened, but those three can reasonably be considered the pioneers of a long-growing and now momentous Kingdom Era of American Evangelicals and their mission agencies in the 20th and 21st centuries. Thus we now have “Seven Men and Four Eras.”
When did the Fourth Era begin? Why not say that by the time the transition was a foregone conclusion—when Moberg weighed in, in 1967. Even now the awareness is not yet widely shared. As before, it overlaps the preceding era in a transition of considerable heated debate and confusion, a transition from 1967 until 2000. By the latter date the once new “awareness of Unreached Peoples” was no longer new, even though the last Unreached People was not yet reached.
Can We Do It?
Despite the dauntingly larger implications of a Kingdom Era, the task is not as difficult as it may seem for several surprising reasons.
In the first place, the great Evangelical missions like SIM and AIM have for a hundred years been making monumental contributions to society (e.g. building roads and bridges, vocational schools, providing better seeds and animal husbandry, etc.) even though those endeavors may not have been what some donors have wanted to hear.
Also, the task is not merely an American one, nor even a Western one. It will clearly involve Christians in every continent of the world. Believers living in the Global South are already becoming involved in countless praiseworthy initiatives involving deed-empowered evangelism.
One thing is very clear. In most cases the will of God cannot come on earth if all we do is to encourage individuals to do good works. Most of the major problems cannot be solved by individuals. We must expect to start many new businesses and even new mission structures that will specifically tackle such problems—whether that means cooperating with China as it is forthrightly facing the terror of widespread corruption (and is considering Christianity as part of the solution) or working with secular organizations in fighting to extinction the many plagues of deadly viruses, bacteria and parasites (like Malaria).
Basic to the concept of a Fourth Era, is the fact that the enormously increased wealth and influence of both Western Evangelicals and the second and third generations etc. of the new believers in the rest of the world means that we can be expected to move beyond micro good deeds to take on some of the largest problems facing humanity in the world today. We can hope that as believers are able they will add organized muscle and insight to existing (and not-yet-launched) efforts to deal with macro-problems such as world poverty, global slavery, or the eradication of deadly diseases. As this happens the reputations of both Evangelicals and the God Whom they serve will be significantly improved, God will be glorified, and our evangelism greatly empowered.
Very important is the fact that once a beachhead is established cross-culturally within an untouched culture, the specialized mission task of creating a “Missiological Breakthrough” is at that point complete and the full implications of the Kingdom Era can then become the responsibility of all new believers, not just the missionaries.
Furthermore, “closed countries” are less and less of a problem, because the modern world is becoming more and more open and interdependent. There are literally no countries today that admit no foreigners. Many of the countries long considered “completely closed”—like -- Arabia—are in actual fact avidly recruiting thousands of skilled people from other nations. And the truth is, they prefer devout Christians to boozing, womanizing, secular Westerners. Christians with a sense of mission must become more and more prominent in these enterprises whether working directly for foreign countries or for external efforts to alleviate poverty and disease.
But our work in the Third and Fourth Eras has many other advantages. Not only do we have, potentially, a worldwide network of churches that can be aroused to their central mission. We know roughly how many groups need to be reached—how many doors we need to knock on. Now, we need to be much clearer about what to do to go through those doors. Best of all, nothing can obscure the fact that the Unreached Peoples Era and the Kingdom Era could well be the final eras. No serious believer today dare overlook the fact that God has not asked us to assist in the expansion of the Kingdom of God into every nation, tribe and tongue without intending it to be done. No generation has less excuse than ours if we do not go all out to do what is clearly His will.
Originally published in Frontiers in Mission: Surmounting Barriers to the Missio Dei, 4th edition (2008), Pasadena: WCIU Press, 308-16.