Barriers to the Great Commission - Part2

In our previous article, we examined the main factors internal to the Church that stand in the way of the completion of the Great Commission. Put succinctly, a lack of discipleship is primary to why Christ’s final commands – including that of making disciples – continue to be largely ignored. Now we turn to look at some of the most significant external reasons why the Great Commission remains unfulfilled. 
As mentioned in the first instalment of this series (Burning Issues July 2023), there are still well over 2 billion people who do not have meaningful access to the good news.1 If we understand the Great Commission to include preaching the gospel to all creation (as per Mark 16:15), then sharing Jesus with over 2 billion unique individuals must be near the top of the list of barriers to its completion. Add to that more than 60,000 people being added to the unevangelised population every single day and you have an immense challenge. Christians ‘trying a little harder’ to share the good news is not going to overcome this hurdle. It will require a profound reimagining of what it means to be the Church and a re-ordering of global Christian priorities.

Instead of 2 billion-plus individuals, if we frame the challenge as 7388 unreached people groups, we are presented with a different but equally complex task: grounding the gospel into the ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and social realities of these groups such that it can flourish and sustainably produce good fruit.

Another dynamic making both challenges even more pronounced is that we are trying to hit a moving target, as it were. People reproduce, and each new generation needs to be reached anew. It is no myth that Christianity is only ever a generation away from extinction. Populations relocate and migrate, cultures shift and morph, languages evolve or go extinct, competing worldviews and faiths emerge, and technology creates new opportunities and challenges for the spread of the good news. Change is relentless, and so must our efforts be to share Jesus with the world. At several points in the last 190 years, Christian eschatology has prompted an intensification of the expectation of Christ’s return, whether in a particular prophesied year or merely ‘very soon’. This has often coincided with the expectation that the whole world would be evangelised in our lifetime. No surprise, since for many, Jesus’ return is necessarily tied to the world’s evangelisation (as per Matthew 24:14). Despite such expectation, the scale of the task remaining has only increased, with new ethnolinguistic people groups forming and unevangelised populations multiplying.

The Student Volunteer Movement (SVM) of the 1880s encapsulated the missiological anticipation of that era with their rallying cry “the evangelisation of the world in this generation”. It catalysed a surge of young people into mission. Many thousands were called by God through the SVM and its ambitions. Others were more sober minded in their expectations, one of them being John P. Jones (a missionary to India and scholar). Of the Great Commission and the SVM’s optimism, he wrote, “This enterprise is not only the greatest that the world has ever known; it is also the most difficult of achievement. Let us not fall into the error of thinking that Christianising the nations and bringing the world to the feet of our Lord is the task of a day or of a generation.”2

The heady days of the SVM, and indeed the height of the British missionary movement, occurred at the peak of the British Empire’s power and influence. The relationship of the missionary enterprise and the United Kingdom is fraught with complexity and should not be oversimplified3, but it is undeniable that those seeking to bring the good news to the ends of the earth found their reach mightily extended courtesy of an ‘empire on which the sun never set’. The great wealth of Britain in that era likewise enabled the channelling of funds to the missionary enterprise at a level previously unheard of.

The “Great American Century”4 heralded another global empire. The decade when the USA’s power peaked, in the aftermath of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, ran concurrent to the height of the AD2000 movement. AD2000’s vision of evangelising the world by the year 2000 was even more ambitious than that which the SVM could have ever expressed. Unfulfilled as it was, AD2000 nevertheless served as a vital catalyst to global evangelism and mission, and the ‘90s was a decade that saw the greatest increase in the number of Jesus-followers in history.5 It was likely no coincidence that this increase occurred not only when missionary fervour was high, but when America was the world’s only superpower and American wealth was unprecedented.

The events of 9/11 and its long aftermath, combined with recent American foreign policy and COVID, brought a sea change to the USA’s projection of power. With it, we see the erosion of the conditions which had allowed for rapid and widespread deployment of missionaries. Yes, problems are rife when God’s kingdom and human empire overlap, be it Rome, Spain, Britain, or the USA. Untangling the interwoven threads of world mission and Western imperialism is too delicate and complex a task for this article; it is the work of entire academic careers. But eras of globalisation, in contrast to inward-looking nationalism or even anarchy, seem to be the times when the gospel moves outward most rapidly.

It can be argued that we are no longer in a fully globalised era.6 This can be accounted for not only by the reduction of America’s willingness to be the world’s policeman, but also by the increasingly post-Christian framework of the West.

In past centuries, certain Western countries would have framed themselves, however erroneously, as vehicles of God’s civilising light to the nations. Today, God is mostly out of the picture in these same places. Missional endeavour to unreached areas is more likely to arouse ire than admiration from the very nations who send the most missionaries, be it the USA7 or South Korea.8 Ghastly comments in chat forums about the recently arrested (and mostly Afghan) workers with International Assistance Mission illustrates much of the West’s attitudes to religion generally, but Christian mission specifically.9 We may one day look back on this era as one where global mission was gloriously decolonialised, and where it truly became polycentric – ‘from everywhere to everywhere’ rather than just ‘from the West to the Rest’. There are promising signs. But a flowering of post-imperial, cross-cultural mission hasn’t yet truly emerged to fill the gap left by a combination of Western mission retreat and COVID-induced withdrawals. Additionally, the financial and organisational models of sending workers that served wealthy nations well from the late 18th to late 20th centuries will not serve, on their own, to sustain new mission movements from the Global South.

In 2020, COVID effectively slammed the brakes on global mission and evangelism. First came the lockdowns and the return of thousands of foreign Christian workers back to their home countries. Then came the economic downturns and the virtualisation of church life. With each passing month, the ability and determination of churches to send (or re-send) missionaries degraded further, and the vision of churches contracted ever closer to home. Meanwhile, COVID’s imposed isolations brought about an opportunity for many authoritarian regimes to entrench their power, including making it more difficult for missionaries to go or return to those lands. It would not be overly pessimistic to say that vision for foreign mission has declined in much of the Church. At the same time, financial giving to missions has decreased, while the means to send missionaries to where they are most needed has reduced, and hostility to Christian mission has increased. Sometimes, two steps backward need to be taken to enable three steps forward. God willing, we get to the three steps forward part soon!
When Jesus pronounced his disciples as his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8), they had literally the entire world as an unevangelised mission field! Our glacial rate of progress over the past 20 centuries is an indictment of the Church’s obedience to Christ’s commissioning – but not the point of this article. The gospel is now accessible to 72% of the world’s population, and 58% of the world’s ethnolinguistic peoples have the necessary critical mass of believers amongst them to trigger a movement to Christ.10 However, it is fair to generalise that the easy parts of this task are already done. The low-hanging fruit has already been picked.

The individuals and communities that are the least impacted by the good news of Jesus are for the most part the ones that are the most difficult to reach, for the following reasons:

Geographical Accessibility
The first places to be reached were the ones that were accessible and attractive to early apostolic outreach. Beyond Jerusalem and Caesarea, the gospel took root in major Roman colonial cities such as Antioch, Ephesus, Thessaloniki, Philippi, Athens, Alexandria, and of course, in Rome itself. Christian mission followed the old Roman roads throughout the empire, the Silk Road to the East, and latterly, shipping lanes to port cities around the world – all well-used paths of least resistance. If your civilisation or community wasn’t easily accessible from such routes, you would have to wait a few extra centuries to hear about Jesus. Such was the reality that led to the establishment of mission agencies such as China Inland Mission, Regions Beyond Missionary Union, Sudan Interior Mission, Heart of Africa Mission (now WEC), and more. The point is in the names themselves.

Until this day, the gospel has been slower to reach regions like the Sahel, the Himalayas, the Tibetan plateau, the remote valleys of New Guinea, or the deepest reaches of the Amazon rainforest.

Environmental Context
Some places, even if you can reach them, are fundamentally hard to live in. And yet, communities of people do precisely that – their cultures and lifestyles adapted to the difficult conditions. From the Inuit of the Arctic to the nomads of the Sahara, humans exist in harsh climates. Tibetan yak herders and Andean mining communities endure at altitudes at which it is impossible for most humans to thrive. Even if accessibility is not an issue, life can be unbearable if it is amidst unrelenting heat, sustained drought, unmonitored pollution, or unchecked violence. Who is rushing to be missionaries in such places and to the people who live there? Add to this the increasingly unpredictable and severe climate events of our day, and environmental factors present real challenges to mission.

Cultural Differences
Apart from physical environment, the sheer ‘otherness’ of certain cultures to our own – and of our own cultures to others – can be a profound barrier to the Great Commission. If you thought French or Spanish classes were a challenge, try Japanese or Arabic, or perhaps a language with no learning resources such as Adyghe or !Xóõ (a Khoisan clicking language). Western Christians have more in common in terms of worldview with a European atheist than with a Lao Buddhist or Rajastani Hindu. It takes years to learn language and culture well enough to navigate them proficiently, by which time most missionaries are leaving the field. It is reasonable to say, “then let the local believers do the work instead”. But what if there are none?

Intensifying Hostility
Many are the causes of hostility against those who bring the good news to places where it has never taken root before. Fear of strangers and fear of change are natural human instincts. Jesus’ ambassadors must work hard to prove the truth of their claims as well as their good intentions – especially if they come from a different background. Economic protectionism, nationalistic rivalry, conservative cultural values, and plain old racism all may explain why a local population does not welcome the message-bearer of Christ with open arms. And none of these address the specific issue of perceived proselytism. It may be that the religious authorities simply seek to maintain their monopoly over faith and the privilege this brings. It may be that their own religion is fiercely, even murderously, opposed to anyone leaving it. It may be that they mistake our culture, especially if we are Westerners, for the gospel we aim to present. Hollywood and misbehaving tourists have left a horrifically false impression of what it means to be a Christian. All of these misgivings are very real to those who experience them, and present very real barriers to the Great Commission.

But the final – and probably most challenging – factor explaining why the task remaining is the hardest part is one we shall explore in the next issue.
This article is an adaptation of a presentation given at the Flame International Conference in March 2023. It is the second of three addressing the barriers to the Great Commission.  You can watch/listen to the talks here.
2 Jones, John P (1911). The Modern Missionary Challenge: A study of the present day world missionary enterprise: its problems and results. Revell.
3 Stanley, Brian (1990). The Bible and the Flag: Protestant missions and British Imperialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Apollos Press.
4 Luce, Henry (February 17, 1941). “The American Century”. Life Magazine.
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