By Paul Van Der Werf
Paul is the lead facilitator for SVM2 USA.
Lack of workers. Pure and simple. That is single most basic reason that we have not seen the fulfillment of the great commission. Lack of workers is the most basic reason why we have not seen the gospel take root among those with the greatest need of a gospel witness.
Historically and today, there have simply been too few workers going to the areas that are currently unreached.
While we may want to blame closed and hostile governments, small church mission budgets or fearful and myopic church members, the hopeful and exciting fact is that if there were sufficient Message Bearers going, then our generation could be the one to see the realization of God’s dream of global discipleship and worship.
But let’s take a step back and ask the question of why there are too few workers in the hardest places.
In analyzing the various barriers and gaps in seeing workers sent to the least reached, the reason that always rises to the top of the list is not college debt, the lure of the American dream or resistant parents (although these are in the top five).
No, the biggest hindrance to seeing workers raised up in our generation is you, and it’s me. You and I are the biggest hindrance because among ministries, churches and campuses, there is a severe lack of a long term call by those in leadership to the younger generation.
The main reason for the lack of cross cultural Message Bearers in our generation is a lack of a vision and intentionality of campus leaders, pastors and mission mobilizers to call and invite students to longer term global mission service.
Is there a still a need for long term workers [or are we good]?
This is an important question to answer. Let’s start by looking at the number of long term workers among the unreached people groups (areas where there are no local churches). Currently, there are 10,000 cross cultural workers working among the 1.6 billion people globally with no access to the gospel.
Amazingly that’s 5000 less workers among the least reached than there was one hundred years ago, despite the fact that the number of least reached peoples has nearly doubled to its current level of 1.6 billion while at the same time the number of evangelicals has exploded in the last century.
So, while we’ve seen the total number of missionaries increase greatly over the last century, the number of these workers that are working in the areas of the greatest need has actually decreased by a third.
With the current distribution of workers, in order for the gospel to reach each person among the least reach, each cross cultural currently would have the task of sharing the gospel with 160,000 people. In other words, it’s like having one Christian in a city the size of Tucson, AZ. Clearly, there is a need for more workers among the least reached.
And while several non-western countries and regions are beginning to send more and more long term workers, this does not mean that that the North American Church should relegate obedience to the great commission (the sending of workers) to only some countries, or to become so ‘specialized’ as a nation and send only money and trainers.
When Jesus gave the great commission to his followers two thousand years ago, His command was for all church communities globally. We need the churches in every nation to commit to call and send cross cultural message bearers in a sustained effort until the gospel takes root among all peoples.
Today we need Message Bearers [not just Missionaries]
What is a Message Bearer? The term Message Bearer is new term that more accurately encompasses the type of cross cultural workers that are needed to bring the gospel to those with the greatest need and the least opportunity of a gospel witness.
It refers to those who follow Christ’s call to go to the nations in order to bring the good news to those with the greatest need. Message Bearers are those that volunteer in response to the great commission to bear the Message of the gospel.
The term Message Bearer refers not only those who are traditionally termed missionaries because of their career long dedication to church planting and with their skill sets focused on ministry and evangelism.
Instead it also encompasses those in this generation that do not fit the traditional role and definition often attached to missionaries, but yet are using their God given skills, passions and availability and choosing to go longer term (2+ years) and live incarnationally among the poor for the sake of the gospel.
Calling this Generation [to go to the least reached]
Is there one single thing that can be done to catalyze a movement of workers to bring the gospel to the hardest places in the world? Well, unfortunately there is not one solitary thing that on its own is going to mobilize sufficient workers in our generation to see the fulfillment of the great commission.
Instead, there’re many crucial factors that need to be focused on including foundational teachings (the biblical basis of mission, sacrificial living, Lordship and obedience), small group peer encouragement, new models of financial sustainability to name a few.
However, there is one simple thing that is a necessary antecedent and ingredient to seeing many workers mobilized. Simply, there must be an invitation. There must be a call: a challenge to go.
Organizationally, on campuses and in fellowships nationwide, we, as leaders, need to evaluate if what we are calling and discipling our students to matches what Christ called his followers to. He said to seek first the Kingdom of God, to love God with our whole hearts and to love our neighbor.
In general, we are doing a good job following his model on those teachings. However, He also invited us to lift up our eyes to the harvest and to make disciples of all nations, to go to every culture and share his Good News with all creation. This is where our discipleship and the challenges we’re giving our students falls short.
In 2002, a nationwide survey of campus ministries and university campuses found that a long term mission challenge and invitation was given only 5% of the time in our campus ministries.
Overwhelmingly, when God’s heart for the nations is preached on, the invitation is not for life long or even mid-term (2+ years) going. Instead, the challenge is almost invariably a short term mission challenge.
Students are being charged with an invitation to ‘give up’ their Spring Breaks and give a week to ‘do missions’. Or, probably just as common, there is a general Lordship challenge given.
Why being a goer is different [and why intentionality and living deliberately is essential]
The problem with a general Lordship challenge is that it doesn’t take into account the numerous and significant barriers, distractions and obstacles that exist for a student to go from zero to serving long term overseas.
The obstacles are so significant that those that are to be the goers from our generation need to live intentionally and purposefully each step of the way.
Johnny, a twenty-six year old Message Bearer who is currently overseas initiating a church planting effort among a Muslim group reflected on his journey: “My wife and I are now living overseas and beginning a long term work among an unengaged people group. You know,” he said shaking his head, “I decided to do missions eight years ago.
I never thought it’d take this long to actually go. And you know what, it’s been hard. Each step of the way, I’ve had to be deliberate…”
It’s hard for Message Bearers like Johnny because each step of the way, they have to go against the tide. It’s not only societal expectations and the lure of materialism and the American dream that they have to navigate.
It’s even being purposeful in their friendships and relationships, and being willing to continue to press forward when the people they love most, their family and friends, don’t completely embrace their decision to go to bring the gospel so far away and in such places.
We as leaders and mobilizers can help to see many more students respond by seeking to create a culture within our campuses and fellowships in which students are regularly exposed to God’s global heart and purpose, excited with the adventure and meaning that is found in selfless living and global obedience and equipped with practical and achievable next steps toward longer term overseas service.
The seeing a movement of workers in our generation is going to require intentionality, creativity and perseverance at the leadership levels of our churches, ministries, fellowships and campuses as we seek to serve and send those students who are choosing to go.
There is a Major Mission Movement Today! [But is this good news or bad news?]
Currently, there is a widespread call to go, and we’re seeing almost unparalleled response and involvement in going to the nations. That would be amazingly good except for two things. First, those that are going are overwhelmingly going for short term (most for less than a month).
And second, only a very small percentage of short term trips (less than 5%) go to unreached areas. The movement that is happening right now is made up of hundreds of thousands of short term volunteers.
It’s become a part of the culture of most Christian campuses and most campus fellowships for large portions of their students to participate in short term missions trips (usually a month or less).
The reason why this is not cause to jump for joy and to put things in autopilot boils down to the fact that the unreached will cannot be reached through short term missions.
The fulfillment of the great commission (i.e. for disciples to be made in every people group) will require long term teams that will go, live and learn among each given people and culture.
Short term teams can serve many good purposes, but thinking that they will directly reach the least reached is like thinking that recruiting only boy scouts will be sufficient to create peace keeping forces in the war torn parts of the world like Somalia or Darfur.
While short term missions can help in the meeting of human needs and in the training and as a step in the individual’s lives of the short term volunteers, it’s simply not effective for the work of reaching the least reached.
The Role of Mobilizers and Leaders on Campuses and Campus Fellowships: Helping Students Understand It’s Possible and It’s Important
The role of campus and student leaders in seeing the raising up and mobilizing of new message bearers from our generation is paramount. It is absolutely essential.
Again, the principle barrier in seeing students activated toward being long term Message Bearers is leadership. Those of us that are currently influencing students have set the bar way too low. What is the ultimate cause and challenge that students on your campus are receiving from you or other influencers on your campus?
Going to Mexico over Spring Break? And guess what? Students are responding. Students are going. This generation is engaging in short term missions at an incredibly high rate. However, we have set the bar too low.
For decades, it was commonly believed that it was impossible for a human to run a mile in less than four minutes. It had never been done. For decades, none of the elite runners could do it. However, on a windy spring day in 1954, a young English runner broke that barrier. In the next decade, dozens broke the four minute mile.
As leaders, we need to our faith and the challenge and calling that we’re discipling our students toward to equal that of Christ. This generation is crying out for God given and faith filled vision and life purpose.
We need to call students to lives of abandoned devotion, wholehearted obedience, passionate worship and intercession and in uncompromising livelong involvement in the great commission.
When it comes to taking the gospel to the least reached, we need to double and quadruple our efforts to help students to go and bear the Message incarnationally among the global poor and least reached.
Is there hope [and is it possible]?
The exciting thing is that if you are reading this article, you are a part of the key to seeing the completion of the great commission in our generation. For thousands of years, those that have gone before us have prayed and worked toward the same goal. Today, it is within sight. And it is going to happen.
As student and campus leaders, we all have the opportunity and responsibility to steward our talents, positions and influence well. When is the last time that you invited an individual that you were discipling to lift their eyes up to the nations and prayerfully consider going for longer term?
When was the last time that a clear challenge to go bear the Message to the least reached was given in a large group setting on your campus? How much of your time and resources have you put toward specific efforts to create a culture that encourages long term cross cultural Message Bearers to be raised up from your campus?
Someday, the gospel will be preached to all nations. Will it be in our generation? And if it is in our generation, years later when you are asked, “What was it like to be a part of the fulfillment of the great commission? What did you do to be a part of it?” What will you say?