I believe the Great Commission (as commonly interpreted from Matthew 28, etc) is a task that can be finished (based in part on Matthew 24:14 and Revelation 7:9).
The primary reason the task has not been accomplished: Gospel witness requires Gospel presence. Romans 10:14-15 asks us, “How can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent?”
There are a variety of reasons why people don’t go, or—having gone—why they don’t stay long enough to be effective. Stan Parks, VP of Global Strategies for Beyond, recently told someone in my hearing that “the price of entry for movements for most workers who are brand new to the field is ten years”—that is, it takes a decade of language acquisition, cultural learning, relationship building, and daily work to lay the foundation for a movement to erupt. Ten years is longer than most people envision going to the field for; and it’s longer than many workers have been able to stay for.
If this is the case, what is the answer? There are no silver bullets, but part of the answer is to increase our ability to mobilize workers ‘from anywhere to anywhere.’ There are two reasons for this.
First, it’s been my experience that when someone says ‘there aren’t enough workers,’ they really mean ‘there don’t seem to be enough believers in our country who want to go to another country and people.’ Mobilizing sufficient workers globally means mobilizing workers from more places than just our own country.
Second, mission workers come in three different varieties, which I’ll label as ‘far’ (those who come from distant lands and languages to engage this people group), ‘near’ (those who come from the same or nearby country and the same or related languages), or ‘same’ (those who come from the same language and culture).
When Billy Graham preaches to Americans, he is a ‘same-culture’ worker. When a Mandarin-speaking Han Chinese witnesses to Mandarin-speaking Hui, they are ‘near-culture.’ When an American goes to work with Somalis, they are ‘far-culture.’ Obviously, Gospel work done by ‘same-culture’ workers is most effective and efficient. We can see this in the fact that the best (and most common) person to evangelize children is their parents. It’s not just spiritual authority and influence. They share the same language and culture: it’s easier to communicate the Gospel.
Next to ‘same-culture,’ ‘near-culture’ can be very effective. I was heavily influenced in my formative years by a New Zealand evangelist who shared at our church multiple times during my life. We shared a mostly common language, a lot of similar cultural touchstones, and he could have a deep impact.
When neither ‘same-culture’ nor ‘near-culture’ workers are available, the Gospel logically must be brought from ‘far away,’ cross-culturally over linguistic and cultural barriers. Every people group was first reached by a ‘far’ worker: someone had to go from Judea, to Samaria, to the uttermost parts of the earth first.
This task of ‘incarnating’ the Gospel into a culture is the ‘missiological goal’ represented in the ‘reached/unreached’ concept: a people group is ‘unreached’ simply if there are no ‘same-culture’ workers that can do the task. To put it another way: The Great Commission does not require everyone to go to a distant culture to make disciples. It commands us all to be disciple-makers, wherever we are, whoever we are around; and it implies that all ethne are to be discipled. Therefore, someone (many ones, actually) must logically be involved in bring the Gospel over ‘far’ barriers, just as much as many other ones must logically bring the Gospel to ‘near’ people. Both our neighbors and people far off should have the opportunity to hear.
Again, logically, we should really only send ‘far’ workers when ‘near’ workers are unavailable (because ‘same’ and ‘near’ workers are so much more effective). But, there’s nuance: the reason for unavailability can vary from a lack of any believers at all, to a lack of willingness on the part of believers. To complicate things, let’s go against the stereotype in some of our brains: ‘far’ workers do not have to come from the West. In fact, logically, most won’t come from the West. For one thing, Western nations are sending fewer workers. For another, we know the center of Christianity has shifted: there are more Christians outside the West than inside it.
What we need is ‘globalized sending’: get ‘same’ and ‘near’ workers where available; send ‘far’ workers where they aren’t, and ideally send ‘far’ workers from places that are as ‘near’ as possible (‘near-far’?!). ‘Globalized sending’ has actually been happening for some time. Catholic missionary societies have always been very good at this. Big ‘multinational’ Protestant organizations like YWAM, OM, WEC, Wycliffe, etc. have done it for decades. It does seem like we’re hearing ‘more’ about globalized sending—not because it’s new, but:
(1) We have stronger visibility into the sending process. We not only hear rumblings of this happening, but now we can interact with cross-cultural missionaries from various parts of the world at conferences, on the internet, on social media, through email and so forth.
(2) We are finding not just international sending structures but local groups that can send to nearby settings. Ethiopians to Somalia/Sudan, Nigerians to various nearby cultures, Indians crossing culture lines, Chinese and Koreans to Central Asia, etc.
(3) Less well known, but making a bit of a buzz when people encounter it: some rapidly multiplying movements are even mobilizing “same-culture” workers in ‘far’ lands: helping people who are refugees “within”the movement’s zone of influence to become believers, get discipled and resourced, and then sending them back into their home cultures - where they are explosively more able (and often bolder) than cross-cultural workers (and especially Westerners) would ever be. Using this model they are seeing enormous growth.
Some of these sending processes simply need encouragement, resourcing, and tools. These things do not necessarily need to be Western. There could be African or Asian, South Asian, East Asian, Southeast Asian, Latino, European tools, all of which may be more appropriate to the local situation than any Western tool.
Some of these sending processes still encounter problems, challenges, and bugs. Some may decry the processes because of these bugs, but really, local agencies probably have just as many bugs as Western sending agencies have. Debugging the process of sending non-western workers, in the long run, is a critical need, not a sign it needs to be abandoned.
Finally, perhaps the biggest question about sending processes is funding and sustaining workers over time, regardless of where they come from. Money is a huge issue that can't be easily touched in one article but must be addressed and solved in individual instances. On one hand, we know money can corrupt and cause dependency; on the other hand, ‘people have to eat’ and ‘a worker is worthy of his hire.’ Several potential solutions to this have been used, ranging from international fundraising to business as mission to tent making.
I believe Westerners still need to send workers. I don’t advocate a model that would “outsource risk” from the West: e.g. we send money, they send workers and endure all the pain and difficulties. But I am acknowledging the flip side of this coin: while the West needs to send workers, at least an equivalent per capita rate of workers should come from other regions. It’s important that the whole body of Christ does everything it can to help every part of the body mobilize workers to send to every other part. We are all in this Great Commission together.