RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–If you were a European Christian on the eve of 1000 A.D., you had bigger problems than Y2K’s impact on your holiday plans. You faced threats like starvation or extinction at the hands of barbarians.
And that was on good days.
The Dark Ages in Europe didn’t get their name for nothing. Rape and pillage were big; civility wasn’t.
“The Northmen cease not to slay and carry into captivity the Christian people, to destroy the churches and to burn the towns,” reported a witness to the grim time. “Everywhere there is nothing but dead bodies — clergy and laymen, nobles and common people, women and children.”
The church itself was weak, riddled with error and corruption in the West and marginalized in its Mideastern birthplace by several centuries of Islamic advance. Christendom’s next systematic push beyond the borders of its European “ghetto” — nearly two centuries of Crusades against Muslims beginning in 1095 — was at best a “pathetic misunderstanding of the Great Commission,” says evangelical missiologist Ralph Winter. At worst, it was a greedy grab for land and mindless slaughter of Muslims, Jews, other Christians and anyone else in their path.
But Winter urges us not to subscribe to the “BO-BO” theory of church history: that Christian missions somehow “Blinked Off” after the New Testament era and “Blinked On” again at the dawn of Protestantism. God didn’t take a 1,500-year nap, and he had plenty of servants who carried the name of Jesus far and wide during those centuries.
Some went willingly, others in chains. Christian slaves dragged away to northern Europe by the Vikings carried the gospel with them and won over many of their captors. Some among the great monastic orders heroically attempted to purify the church and evangelize the world — all while preserving Western civilization from destruction.
Even after the Protestant Reformation geared up in the 16th century, Catholic missions continued to take the lead outside Europe. “By and large, the Reformers were not focused on missions,” observes Avery Willis, the Southern Baptist International Mission Board’s chief of overseas operations.
Some of the early Reformers believed the Great Commission applied only to the Apostles. They also were preoccupied with a life-and-death struggle with Rome for spiritual and temporal power in Europe. In any case, with some exceptions, Protestants did little to reach the world for more than two centuries after Luther.
Little, that is, until William Carey (1761-1834) burst onto the scene. Carey, the “father of modern missions,” may be the man of the millennium when it comes to obeying the Great Commission and inspiring others to follow. When this English cobbler rose at a Baptist ministers’ meeting in 1789 to ask whether Christ’s command “to teach all nations” still applied, one leading minister was said to have replied: “Sit down, young man. … When God wants to convert the world, he can do it without your help.”
Undaunted, Carey persisted. His revolutionary 1792 call to obedience, “An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens” — and his own four decades of service in India — stoked the fire. So did the great spiritual awakenings in Great Britain and America.
The “Great Century” of Christian missions followed throughout the 1800s, with advance upon advance. The “First Wave,” pioneered by Carey, swept the world’s coastlines. Robert Morrison, first Protestant missionary to China, arrived in 1807. American Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson went to Burma in 1813. Later in the century, J. Hudson Taylor and his China Inland Mission — along with giants like David Livingstone of Africa — modeled the “Second Wave,” pushing the gospel into the interior.
Missionary denominations took shape in America and Europe, including the Southern Baptist Convention, formed in 1845. The convention immediately created Domestic and Foreign Mission boards and began work in China and Africa. Southern Baptists had sent a cumulative total of more than 13,000 missionaries overseas by the 1990s.
Lottie Moon (1840-1912), appointed to China in 1873, epitomized the mission spirit, giving her life for China and sending epistles home challenging Southern Baptists to send reinforcements to reach China’s lost millions.
The tireless work of the Southern Baptist Woman’s Missionary Union (formed in 1888) and other great women’s mission movements founded during the century provided crucial spiritual and material support to answer the cries of Moon and others for help.
The Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions formed in 1886, eventually sending more than 20,000 missionaries abroad. Many mission leaders thought the task of world evangelization would be completed by 1900.
It wasn’t, but they remained convinced the “Christian century” was dawning. The historic 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, declared the “Church is confronted today with a literally worldwide opportunity to make Christ known.”
Then came World War I, communism, global economic depression and World War II bringing missions nearly to a standstill. After World War II, the Western colonial empires quickly receded, but missions exploded like never before.
“After 1950, you have this tremendous surge of missions, much of it coming out of the fact that Americans were introduced to so many parts of the world during the war,” Willis says. Even more than the 19th, “this has been the ‘great century’ of missions advance. It’s also been the great century of population advance. It took until around 1800 to get the first billion people and 1927 to get the second. Now we’re at 6 billion. We must have great advance in missions just to reach the numbers of people we’re dealing with.”
Correspondingly, missions strategy has shifted once again — or returned to its biblical roots, if you analyze what Scripture from Genesis to Revelation says about reaching “the nations.” The great “Third Wave” of missions transcends geography and focuses on evangelizing entire untouched people groups — not just lost individuals — and working with God to spark church-planting movements among them. Southern Baptists have caught the front of this strategic wave over the last decade and a half.
Since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and the Soviet empire collapsed, huge harvest fields in the former Soviet bloc also have opened to the gospel.
In China, radical communists failed in their 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, “history’s most systematic attempt ever, by a single nation, to eradicate and destroy Christianity,” according to one mission researcher. Christians have expanded by the millions. Periodic persecution continues, and the Chinese church continues to grow.
Cracks in the wall of Islam also have appeared, and Christians are responding this time with love. The 900-million-strong Hindu world, likewise, shows significant signs of opening up to Jesus. Major new inroads among the world’s tribal peoples also have liberated millions to follow Christ.
Evangelical faith, meanwhile, has swept Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia in recent decades. That movement, observes mission researcher Patrick Johnstone, has “decisively shifted the center of gravity of evangelical Christianity away from the lands that were for centuries its birthplace, haven and prison.”
The “Two-Thirds World” missionary movement has taken hold as former missionary receivers become senders of thousands of workers, while Western evangelicals unite to work beside them through prayer, church mobilization, new technology and other advances. As these trends approach critical mass, the number of unreached peoples continues to decline.
What does it all mean? Is the Lord’s return nigh, as many of our spiritual forebears expected a millennium ago?
“One thing we know: We’re closer than we’ve ever been before to the second coming of Christ,” Willis reflects. “It has become a motivation for Christians to get the job done. Obviously none of us knows what God has out there. You could write a history of missions called ‘Surprised by God.’ He keeps doing things we could not have anticipated. But he also puts us in position to be ready for them.
“My own personal interpretation,” Willis says, “is that the Lord doesn’t have to come back the minute we get the gospel to the last people group. He does say (in Matthew 24:14), however, that it will have happened before he comes back. I don’t think it’s happened yet.
“But it will. It will.”