The modern missionary movement is now about 225 years old, if you mark its beginning with the journey of William Carey to India in 1792. Of course, students of missions history recognize that missions hardly began with Carey. It dates to the New Testament era and the great missionary apostle, Paul. Moreover, looking at Old Testament texts like Psalm 67, one could argue that there was an implicit missionary mandate for the nation of Israel, if not an overt one.
Nevertheless, the past two centuries have seen a remarkable number of men and women leave home and family to travel to another country as missionaries. While many were western Protestants from England and the United States, an increasing percentage of the global missionary force includes Majority World members whose ancestors were once the target of missionaries. Now their descendants are sending missionaries into the regions beyond. According to a 2013 study done by The Center for the Study of Global Christianity, 400,000 missionaries were dispatched into the world in 2010. It is no surprise that the United States ranked first in terms of sheer numbers of missionaries sent (127,000), but it was only ninth in missionaries sent per million church members (614 per million). Brazil came in second among sending countries, dispatching 34,000 missionaries. Palestine came in first in terms sending rate, with over 3,000 missionaries per million church members! France, Spain, and Italy came in third through fifth in the sending of missionaries, with the first two sending 21,000 each and Italy sending 20,000.
Unfortunately, the study does not distinguish between evangelicals and mainline denominationists or even Roman Catholics who were sent, most of whom hold a radically different theological orientation than evangelical missionaries. Assuming that Roman Catholicism makes up about 50% of the whole of surveyed Christendom, then the Roman Catholics likely account for about one half of the missionaries sent. Of those 200,000, France, Spain, and Italy would account for about 30% of the Roman Catholic missionary force, as there is little evangelical presence in any of these countries. Given the number of Renewalists (the term the survey uses to describe some variety of Pentecostals) reckoned in the survey, that number can likely be halved again, leaving a global evangelical missionary force of no more than 100,000.1 Even this number is likely inflated, because many of the evangelical missionaries engage in ministries other than Great Commission evangelism and its entailments. But aside from that, and accounting for a global population outside of the Christian faith at about 6 billion people, this leaves us with one missionary responsible for 60,000 people to evangelize—a staggering number.
Let’s think of the world another way. According to the 2010 Pew Research Center report, “The Global Religious Landscape,” India, the world’s second most populous country, has 94% of the world’s Hindus (973 million). China, the world’s most populous country, has 50% of the world’s Buddhists (244 million) and 72% of the world’s folk religionists (294 million). We haven’t accounted for Muslims, of which 13% (209 million) of the global whole (1.5 billion) live in Indonesia, another 11% (176 million) live in India, with another 10% (167 million) living in Pakistan. Were I so inclined, I could pile-on with more statistics from around the world, but I think that the point has been well made. By the best possible consideration, there are still more than 6 billion people whose eternal destiny looks bleak.
Whatever one thinks of these numbers, one thing is clear: despite 225 years of Protestant missionary advance, the world is still largely unevangelized. I understand that missiologists have more precise ways of marking the unevangelized or underevangelized people groups of the world, and it isn’t my purpose to dispute these definitions. What is of concern is the stark reality that the unfinished task is now larger than it has ever been in the history of humanity. Even with an optimistic assumption that there are 100,000 missionaries of the evangelical variety, the work that God has called Christians to do is still largely undone.
My burden and purpose with these essays is to declare yet again the church’s duty to focus on the unfinished task. Recently, someone I know told of his burden to plant a church in a part of the United States that already has churches on every corner. In the county in which he is working, there are something like 30 Southern Baptist churches already there, likely all of whom preach the gospel and some, no doubt, who do so very well. I am not arguing that no American church planting efforts should be undertaken, for clearly there are places where there are legitimate needs. However, when one considers the world as a whole, there is certainly a far greater need for missionary activity beyond our own borders.
I was once introduced as “the voice of the Holy Spirit for missions.” This is a title I hope fits. As a Christian theologian, I understand that God uses means for the accomplishment of His will—instruments in His hands to do His bidding. Oh, that God would raise up another Herrnhut with its one-hundred-year prayer meeting and a leader like Zinzendorf who led in the sending out of more than 220 missionaries into 10 countries in his lifetime! I could only hope to reach his achievement. There is still much to do to fulfill the Great Commission, and the mandate to do it has yet to be rescinded. We must continue to keep world evangelism before our eyes and continue to thrust out good men and women into the harvest fields waiting for workers. Here am I, Lord, send me!
1Reasons for not including Renewalists among the evangelicals are too numerous to include in this brief essay. Some certainly are, while others, such as Prosperity Gospelers, hardly represent historic evangelicalism.
This essay is by Jeff Straub, Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.