International Missions: A Greater Focus on Unreached Peoples
The united missionary impulse of the Advent Christian Church in North America is in danger of flickering out. To be sure, some local Advent Christian churches and individuals exhibit a strong passion for the spread of God’s kingdom. But looking at the “united” mission of our churches through the International Missions of Advent Christian General Conference, there is much evidence for a noticeable decrease in mission fervor.
Surveying the last 118 years of Advent Christian denominational mission history, we see the number of full-time career missionaries peak in the 1960s. That decade saw the number of missionaries reach over thirty. Since then we have experienced a steady decline in missionary numbers. Today we have only three career missionaries, none of which are natives of North America. If we look at a different indicator, the establishment of initial missionary work on foreign soil, we will be shocked. The last time a full-time North American Advent Christian missionary established an initial work was 1958, sixty years ago! According to David A. Dean’s book Who Will Go for Us?, Rev. Robert Fillinger was the last to do this in Mexico.
Some may object, citing John Middlewood’s establishment of a mission in Thailand in the early 2000s. But Middlewood initially established his mission as an independent missionary and only later affiliated the work with ACGC. Finally, as the number of worldwide Advent Christian ministries began to increase dramatically in the 1990s, this did not reflect the establishment of new works by North American Advent Christian missionaries. Most of these new works, for example the Advent Christian churches in Liberia, were established by indigenous workers and later became affiliated with the Advent Christian General Conference. Most of these are best classified as ministry partners, not mission works. It has been heartening to see the global expansion of the Advent Christian church over the last few decades. Truly there are more evangelical Christians in the world that emphasize Christ’s second coming in conjunction with a conditional immortality theology than we realized. And there are very likely more to be discovered! But the vast majority of this recent expansion cannot be attributed to the work of North American Advent Christian missionaries. All this paints a picture of an increasingly unfruitful North American denominational missionary effort.
Could this simply be the result of a general societal trend away from centralized denominational organization in favor of more local networking? Can it be explained as a symptom of the growing trend of unhealthy and dying churches within the denomination? Is it the result of not having a clear leadership development structure for our churches? The current state of our denomination’s missionary work is probably attributable to all these things and more.
ACGC may have little or no control over these factors, but there is one thing we can control: our ministry vision for International Missions. Our vision for mission over the last several decades became blurred at best. With the growing number of affiliated partner ministries worldwide, our International Missions leadership staff has had to give increasing time and effort to fostering these relationships and working to connect churches in North America with them in healthy ways. It is these you read about most frequently in our news publications. Among some in the denomination there is a justified assumption that our vision for ministry now centers around the support of “nationals.” This is certainly a valid approach. There are mission organizations dedicated entirely to the support of indigenous Christian workers. But is it the focus of our mission efforts? Or, better yet, should it be the focus of our mission efforts?
Before I answer this question, let me mention a few more things that further contributed to a blurred vision for International Missions. Those who have followed the dramatic shift in global Christianity’s center of gravity from Western nations to the Global South in the last half-century are also aware of the tremendous need for leadership training in the church of the Global South. As Advent Christian ministries and churches begin multiplying in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, we feel this need acutely. How can we in International Missions help meet this need? On top of that is the critical need for growing ministries in our cities in North America? Until the development of ACGC’s new strategic plan, this was the responsibility of the missions department. And finally, there are the myriad specialized forms of Kingdom mission such as well-digging, child-sponsorship, community development, water purification, orphan care, health care, construction of church buildings and many, many more. Let me be clear that all of these needs, approaches, and strategies have a legitimate role in spreading God’s kingdom. But surely it is obvious Advent Christian International Missions is not equipped to do most of these things. That’s why we need the rest of the body of Christ.
What therefore, defines our vision and mission in Advent Christian International Missions? It may seem obvious, but it is worth noting that we are a denominational mission. We are not a para-church or non-denominational mission. The work and fruit of our mission is done in Advent Christian soil. We are an evangelical people rooted firmly in the blessed hope of the imminent return of Christ. International Missions exists as the united expression of God’s mission from our North American Advent Christian churches.
Through much prayer, fasting, and discussion over the last year, we have come face to face with the limits of our resources. I am referring to finances, staffing, time, and energy. With these in mind, our vision and mission has been formulated as a principle of kingdom stewardship. In Matthew 25:14-30, Jesus told a parable about a man who went away on a journey and gave talents to his servants to invest while he was away. This parable is set within the context of a large section of Jesus’ teaching on the end of the age and his second coming, making it all the more relevant to us today. This parable has forced us to ask ourselves if we are faithfully making the most of what the Lord has entrusted to us.
In the previous chapter of Matthew, Jesus stated, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). The Greek word translated “nations” is the dative plural form of ethnos, which could also be translated “peoples” or “people groups.” It does not refer to countries, the way we often us the term “nations.” The same word appears in Christ’s Great Commission, “…make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Expressed here by the clear command of Christ, it has always been God’s biblical mandate for his people to be on mission to the peoples of the world.
In recent decades, missiologists have brought definition to the concept of “people group.” The Joshua Project defines a “people group” as a group in which a) all individuals understand each other reasonably well, and b) cultural/relational barriers to the spread of the gospel are minimal. The Joshua Project classifies people groups by their “reached” status. An unreached people group is one in which if there is a Christian witness at all it is numerically too small to evangelize the people group without outside assistance.
Of the more than 16,000 people groups in the world, 7,042 of them are still unreached today. That’s nearly 42 percent of all people groups, containing approximately 3.1 billion individuals! Much more can be said about unreached people groups, but I won’t take the space in this article to do so. If God’s priority is to make Christ known among all the people groups of the world, it must also be our priority to focus our attention and efforts where Christ’s name is not yet known and worshiped. Therefore, the vision of Advent Christian International Missions is to see Christ glorified among all the peoples of the world. Our mission (i.e. how we intend to see the vision fulfilled) is to establish reproducing churches among the unreached peoples of the world. We don’t plan to do this alone, however. We believe we must work in cooperative relationships with other evangelical denominational missions and para-church missions.
As we begin to look at ourselves through the lens of our new vision and mission, some facts present themselves as indicators of changes that need to be made. First, if we look at the 31 politically defined countries (including the United States and Canada) in which there are Advent Christian ministries, the majority of the people groups in 26 of those countries are classified as reached. Only five (India, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, and Myanmar) contain a majority of unreached people groups. A second fact relates to our International Missions budget. According to the 2017 budget, only 27 percent of it flows to areas where the majority of people groups are unreached. These two indicators show the work we have ahead to truly prioritize the establishment of reproducing churches among unreached peoples. It will take prayerful and careful discernment as we begin to apply the vision and mission to who we are and what we do. Missionaries need to be raised up, partnerships need to be established, and support will need to be raised, all for the purpose of seeing Christ glorified through his church established among “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9).
For questions or comments concerning Advent Christian International Missions, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.