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The global gospel ‘gap’: What will it take to bridge it?

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–All the resources of the modern mission movement didn’t get the news of Jesus to one Asian village soon enough to save the lives of three young boys.

A Christian worker preached the gospel for the first time in the village earlier this year. The local chief sadly asked him, “Why did you not come here two weeks earlier?”

The chief explained that a sorcerer had promised him prosperity if he would sacrifice three small children. “I was carried away by his words and kidnapped two 5-year-old boys from a neighboring village, and I sacrificed them to the gods,” he confessed. “But I failed in all my attempts in kidnapping the third child. Finally, I took my 7-year-old son and sacrificed him also. If you had told me about this Jesus a little earlier, then I would have never killed those innocent children.

“Why did you come so late?” The chief asked again, weeping bitterly.

The worker could have offered several valid reasons: that the village is just one of countless communities in an unreached region, that its people are controlled by ancient superstitions, that local leaders are hostile to Christianity, that the national government opposes missionary activity. At the time, however, silence seemed the only appropriate response.

Multiply this scene millions of times over and you have a rough idea of the challenge facing Christians who seek to obey Jesus’ command to preach the good news everywhere. The gap between the biblical vision of world evangelization and reality remains a Grand Canyon-like expanse.

“Closing the Gap,” a report prepared by strategists at the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, takes a big-picture snapshot of the secular and spiritual state of the world. It also examines the “scope and range of God’s resources” among his followers — and asks some hard questions about how to bring evangelistic vision and reality closer together.

IMB trustees used the report as the basis for their detailed review of overseas strategy during their July 31-Aug. 2 meeting.

Its findings include:

CLUSTERS OF LOSTNESS: About 600 million people claim a personal, saving relationship with Jesus Christ, leaving about 1.4 billion “cultural Christians” who associate in some way with the Christian religion but don’t necessarily follow Jesus as Savior and Lord. Another 2.5 billion people are non-Christian but have some access to the gospel message by various means. More than 1.6 billion people, meanwhile, have virtually no access to the gospel, a church, Scripture or followers of Christ. More than 2,100 of the world’s nearly 13,000 distinct people groups fall into the last category.

Forty-one countries have populations that are more than 99 percent non-Christian; 45 more are close behind. The highest concentrations of lostness span the so-called “10-40 Window” from North Africa to Southeast Asia. Not surprisingly, most of the countries with fewer than 10 missionaries per 1 million lost people are in this region.

“If we are to reach the world’s more than 5 billion lost persons, how many missionaries and resources can we afford to deploy to countries, cities and people groups that already have thriving evangelical populations?” the report asks. “Can we afford not to partner with like-minded evangelical brothers and sisters wherever we find them? How can we mobilize these Great Commission co-laborers to take the gospel to a lost and needy world?”

BIG RELIGION, NO RELIGION: Nearly a third of the world’s people identify themselves — or are identified by others — as “Christian.” Islam claims more than 1 billion adherents. Hinduism has 800 million followers. Buddhism, with 350 million adherents, is experiencing a surge of growth. The third-largest bloc behind Christianity and Islam, however, is the 900 million people who profess no faith at all — including “post-Christian secularists in Europe, post-communist atheists in Asia, materialists, humanists and hedonists scattered around the world,” the report notes.

A WORLD OF CITIES: More and more people are jamming into cities, a trend that will accelerate as global economics and communications drive mass migrations to urban centers. This year alone more than 10 million people will leave poverty-stricken rural areas of China in search of work. In India, rural flooding, drought and poverty may push 300 million people — more than the entire population of the United States — into already-packed cities over the next 20 years, according to the Asian Development Bank.

Cities present plenty of challenges, but “we can find most of the world’s people groups living in some urban enclave” — even members of the hardest-to-reach groups as they flood cities looking for jobs and education. “How can we turn these opportunities for access into gateways for people group evangelism?”

ILLITERACY AND POST-LITERACY: Two-thirds of the world’s population is functionally illiterate (including millions of adult Americans). That’s more than 4 billion people who wouldn’t understand the Bible in their own language if they had it. Of more than 6,000 world languages, fewer than 1,000 have a New Testament translation. Most of the globe’s languages are purely oral, with no written forms.

“With today’s technology, many non-literate peoples are moving straight to visual and oral means of learning and communication without ever learning to read and write their own heart language. How might the Internet, compact disks and video disks allow us to communicate the gospel to non-literate and post-literate peoples?”

PULLED APART, PULLED TOGETHER: The centrifugal wave of ethnic conflict is tearing whole nations apart. Yet renewed ethnic identity and awareness worldwide has focused modern missions on identifying and reaching all of the world’s ethnolinguistic people groups, which are often “hidden” within larger countries or majority peoples.

Meanwhile, the centripetal waves of global integration in communication, economics and politics are washing over barriers to evangelism in many once-closed places — both for mission agencies and for individual churches and Christians, who increasingly seek to design their own customized mission strategies.

POPULATION GROWS EAST AND SOUTH: The world’s 6.1 billion people likely will increase to nearly 9 billion by 2050, with nearly 95 percent of the growth projected to come in the developing world. Nearly a third of the world’s current population is under age 15. More than 3.5 billion people live in Asia — greater than the rest of the globe combined — and 60 percent of expected population growth will come there. Yet it’s the region farthest away from the Christian centers of the West, making it more difficult and expensive to reach.

The population of the Middle East and North Africa will double; sub-Saharan Africa’s population will triple. Meanwhile, the aging populations of Western Europe, Japan and the former Soviet bloc will decline.

FOOD AND WATER: Malnutrition kills 17,000 people a day, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia. Nearly half the global population lives in “water-stressed” nations where wars may be fought in years to come over access to limited water. The average life span in some African countries may fall by 30 to 40 years because of the AIDS pandemic.

MISSION PERSONNEL CHANGES: If trends hold, the International Mission Board’s long-term missionary force, now at about 5,000, will climb above 8,000 by 2010. Career missionaries account for 66 percent of the total missionary force and this year the agency will appoint more career missionaries than ever before. Rapid growth in the numbers of two- and three-year workers, however, means shorter-term personnel could account for two-thirds of the total force by decade’s end.

“Are we prepared for this development? Many of the International Mission Board’s programs of personnel selection, support, training and supervision were shaped with long-term missionaries in mind. Are we adapting these programs to match a changing personnel force? Is this a desirable future?”

The report identifies eight key bridges crossing the world’s gospel “gap” — and seven major barriers.

The bridges include: increased prayer among Christians for the world’s lost; the growing phenomenon of rapid church planting movements; the emergence of large numbers of non-Western missionaries; more partnership among Baptists and evangelicals worldwide; expanding global communications; the increasing use of creative strategies to reach unreached peoples; and the mobilization of Southern Baptists and other Christians in local churches to join God on mission “as never before.”

The barriers: lack of prayer; unbalanced deployment of mission resources; runaway global urbanization; lack of communication among mission agencies, partners and churches; the non-growth of long-term missionary numbers; the sheer volume of unreached people groups; and the stubborn persistence of a “vast sector of the world’s population that has never heard the good news of Jesus Christ.”

The barriers are issues that should shape the prayer lives of all Southern Baptists — as well provide study topics for missions strategists, said Avery Willis, IMB senior vice president for overseas operations. The bridges provide strategies missions leaders can use as they focus on closing the gap and obeying Jesus’ command to preach the good news everywhere.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: BUT NOT OUT OF REACH, A WORLD OF CITIES and CLUSTERS OF LOSTNESS.

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  • Erich Bridges