This is the first post in a 3-part series by Tim Keesee on the role of American missionaries in the 21st century. He is the author of Dispatches from the Front: Stories of Gospel Advance in the World's Difficult Places.
The Center of the Missions Universe?
There is a spot near the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, a little marble circle that marks where the ancient Chinese believed was the very center of the universe.
Today this cosmic bull’s-eye is just a place for grinning tourists to stand and have their pictures taken. Many other ancient peoples had similar beliefs about their realm being at the center of things. Why else, for example, would one say, “All roads lead to Rome”?
When it comes to The Great Commission, I’m afraid that for too long, many of us here in America believe (or at least behave) as if we are at the center of the missions universe. Whether spoken or unspoken, the attitude is that our heritage, resources, seminaries, organizations, and obedience are critical to the breadth and depth of gospel work throughout the world.
The fact is most missionaries are not Americans (apologies to my Dutch, Peruvian, Arab, Ukrainian, Canadian, Chinese, Ethiopian, Brazilian, British, and Korean co-laborers in the Commission, to name several whom I know personally, who already know this). But a little perspective is important—not to put any people, including Americans, “in their place,” but to see Christ our King in His commanding place and rejoice in confidence over the unstoppable, God-driven gospel at work everywhere!
A Success Story
In the missions realm, our world is very different from the one in which William Carey, Adoniram Judson, and Hudson Taylor lived. They and other missionary trail blazers inspired their generations to take up The Great Commission—a term which Taylor first popularized. In the 19th and 20th centuries, missionary ranks were filled mostly by those from the English-speaking world: British, American, and Canadian.
As they crossed continents and cultures with the gospel, the way was costly and often marked with untimely graves, but it was successful—God’s gospel purposes always are! And so, things changed. People from more and more nations, tongues, and tribes were saved through faith in Christ, churches sprang up, and these believers began sharing the gospel with their own countrymen.
In the twentieth century, political boundaries grew dramatically (from just over 50 independent countries in 1900 to nearly 200 a century later) and so also grew the political barriers to western missionaries. Yet, not surprisingly, the advance of the gospel was unhindered. In the past generation, tremendous growth in churches has taken place in parts of Latin America, Africa, and Asia—the largest growth has been in China in the past twenty-five years, primarily through the house church movement.
Today there are tens of millions of believers that God brought to himself largely apart from any western influence. Before the opening of China, we in the West could pray for China but not go; but behind the Bamboo Curtain, the Lord was doing a marvelous work through the Chinese themselves—surpassing in scope and fervency all work previously done in China and producing a truly indigenous church.
“We Don’t Skip”
So today, missionary ranks are much more diverse than in the past. These intrepid believers are penetrating more and more gospel-destitute places and are often better equipped to face the mosaic of cultures, dialects, and whatever al-Wannabe terrorist group holds sway in the region.
Not long ago, I was in the Horn of Africa, where Islam is losing ground among the Oromo, a people group numbering 30 million that stretches across Ethiopia’s Great Rift Valley and into Somalia. I traveled with a young Oromo missionary named Gulilat in a remote region of Ethiopia, where gospel advance has sometimes been met with violent opposition from the terrorists of al-Shabab, Somalia’s chief export.
As we talked over how he and other Oromo believers were planting churches, many of which could be reached only by foot or hoof, I asked Gulilat, “Given the vastness of the territory, the limits of your resources, and the Islamic threat, which villages do you target?” He looked at me puzzled as if the thought had never crossed his mind. “All of them,” he replied matter-of-factly. “We don’t skip.”
Gulilat and a host of other brothers and sisters—unnumbered and unnamed—are the foot soldiers of the gospel’s advance worldwide!
How do goers and senders in America relate to this global gospel force that Christ is assembling and sending out? That’s the question to explore in the next two posts.
Read Part 2.
Tim Keesee is the founder and executive director of Frontline Missions International, which for the past 20 years has served to advance the gospel in some of the world’s most difficult places. He has traveled to 80 countries, reporting on the church from the former Iron Curtain countries to war-torn Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is the executive producer of the popular DVD documentary series, Dispatches from the Front, and the author of Dispatches from the Front: Stories of Gospel Advance in the World's Difficult Places (excerpt).