The other day, we had a bit of a shindig in our village, celebrating the graduation of our first Iski literacy class. It was a fun time. The people did mini-dramas depicting different Iski historical moments, they had singing groups perform songs they had written especially for the occasion, there were speeches, there was food, and there were lots of visitors. Like I said, it was a really fun time…well, mostly fun. The visitors kind of put a damper on things for part of it.
We had people from four neighboring language groups come to witness the graduation. After the main event was over, our Iski guys opened up the podium for a Question & Answer time, in case visitors had any questions for our team in regards to the literacy program. It turned out that they DID have questions, just not the kind we were looking for.
No one from these other groups was particularly concerned with the orthographic decisions we’d made when developing the Iski alphabet. They weren’t overly interested in the post-literacy library that we are working on developing. They didn’t even really seem to care when the next class would start up. What they REALLY wanted to know was, “When will this be done for US?”
Four separate times that afternoon, we had leaders from these other language groups stand up and ask us,* via PNG’s simple trade language, if they could have the same work that we are doing among the Iski done among their people. They said, “We see that you are teaching the Iski to read and write their language. We know that you will be giving them God’s talk in their language. We are just like them. We don’t have God’s talk, and we have no one to help us. We want this to happen in our villages too. Will you send missionaries to us? We want missionaries to help our people.”
Annnd…cue the awkward staring. What are we supposed to say to that? Our team (3 families) is already taking on more than we can handle trying to make God’s Word available to the Iski. Our co-workers are putting in crazy hours writing lessons and translating Scripture in preparation for teaching the Iski early next year, and Rochelle and I are still trying to learn the Iski language. The honest-to-goodness answer is that we aren’t going to be able to do anything for these other people groups for quite a long time (if ever). Our hands are already full.
Even after the Iski hear the Gospel, and a local church is established in our village, there will still be many other Iski villages that will need attention before they, as a people, will be able to start thinking about sending out cross-cultural church-planting teams to other people groups.**
The reality of the situation is that it’s probably going to be a long time before these neighboring people groups get anything at all resembling a missionary. A really long time. And during that time, a lot of their people are going to die having never heard the message of the cross.
I’ve run across this kind of situation before, and it hit me in the gut then just like it did this time. Entire people groups are BEGGING for people to come live with them and teach them God’s Word, but there’s no one available to help them. There are no Christians who are willing to go to them. There is no one we can send their way.
As I think about it, I can’t help but contrast this situation with what I grew up with in the States: Evangelical churches EVERYWHERE, Christian radio, Christian movies, Christian books, Christian music, Christian podcasts, Christian websites…all in my language, all accessible ALL THE TIME.
I’ve heard it said before that the Great Commission was really just a call for the Church to engage in discipleship. Where this discipleship is carried out is more or less irrelevant. As long as the Church is “telling people about Jesus” and “encouraging one another in the faith” then we are fulfilling the Great Commission. You don’t need to GO to take part in the Great Commission.
This is, in my opinion, a harmful and inaccurate summary of Christ’s parting words to His followers.
Since I know this can be a touchy subject with some people, I’ll preface any further talk with a quick disclaimer: WHAT I’M NOT SAYING is that Christians who are living in places where the Gospel is readily available are somehow engaged in a work of lesser value, or that they should all move somewhere where the Gospel has yet to go. I’M NOT SAYING THAT.
We, the Church, have been charged to “go and make disciples of all the nations.” That, of course, includes areas that already have access to the Gospel. A key part of “making disciples” is helping those who are young in their faith grow to maturity, as well as reaching out to those who have access to God’s Word but have not personally engaged with it. There HAS TO BE an active Christian presence that remains in the places that have already been reached with the message of salvation. Otherwise, we would be ignoring half of the Great Commission.
That being said, if we can agree that the Great Commission implicitly demands a Christian presence in areas where the Gospel is readily available to the masses, then it should be fairly easy for us to acknowledge the EXPLICIT idea that there HAS TO BE an active Christian presence spread out among those people groups who have yet to hear the Gospel message! Otherwise, we are ignoring half of the Great Commission.
If we can accept that the Great Commission was given with two separate audiences in mind – both the reached and the unreached – then we MUST be willing to own up to the disproportionate amount of resources the Church is expending on each group. The disparity in the numbers is completely insane. I’m not going to spell out a bunch of sad and depressing statistics here, but suffice it to say, the tables are about as uneven as if you sat a hippo on one side of a teeter-totter and a Chihuahua on the other.
If the Great Commission is comprised of two parts, both equally valid, both equally important, both equally God-given, then why is the Church’s engagement with the two parts so drastically UNEQUAL?
How is it that the Church somehow views it as acceptable for some language groups*** to have so many Christians present in them that they consistently have to have multiple services on a given Sunday to fit all their believers into their buildings, while at the same time over two thousand other language groups have absolutely NO WAY to hear a simple explanation of the Redemption story anywhere in their entire people group?
Why are there so many pastoral resumes flying around in reached language groups, while mission agencies targeting unreached peoples can hardly find willing candidates to train and send out?
Why have I had to look into so many pleading, desperate faces and tell them that there is no one available to come and tell them about Jesus, when I know full well that every single American church I have EVER BEEN IN IN MY LIFE has had enough people in it to spare at least one couple to the work of taking the Gospel to those who don’t have access to it?
So, back to the summary statement I criticized earlier: You don’t need to GO to take part in the Great Commission. Sure, on an individual level that’s true, but a lot more Christians DO NEED TO GO if the Church as a whole is ever going to be able to claim obedience in regards to the Great Commission. And, since most of the individual Christians who read a blog post like this will dismiss its message almost instantly as being irrelevant to their situation in life, you, personally, might need to GO.
*Beseech us, would be more accurate.
**Remember, these are different language groups from the Iski, with different cultures, beliefs, and world views. Even if it is Iski believers who eventually undertake the project, it will STILL be a cross-cultural outreach, with all the barriers that such an endeavor entails.
***I’m looking at you, English speakers.