Fields, Gentiles, and Nations


Dani women of western China experiencing green chewing gum


When I was the Director of Anglican Frontier Missions, I spent many Sundays in different churches where I presented unreached mission fields. Over time, in conversation with clergy and mission leaders, I began to see patterns of reasons not harvesting in these fields. In this series I will present these, along with the responses I developed.

Pretty cheeky of me, right? I mean, taking up negative notions about frontier missions and presuming to set them right. Cheeky and bold, but with the effort not to be offensive. (I am a mild-mannered Virginian!)  Besides, as I noted last week, this series does allow for your feedback.

Reason: This week’s reason is really an objection.  This sample church is already heavily involved in foreign fields, mission to Gentiles. There is sacrificial ministry, mutually beneficial, with tough times and hard learnings, and borne much fruit.

This engagement often results from connections with bishops of the Anglican Communion or leaders of other denominations. These relationships can open ways for interaction between them and us. Another way into foreign mission is through local ministry with international students. These people usually return to positions of leadership and influence in their homelands. The opportunity is great: there are over 300,000 Chinese students in the United States. Unfortunately, history shows that fewer than 30% will get into an American home.

To churches like this sample congregation, they do not ask, “So why go?” but declare, “We are already there.”

Response: Truly, many are involved, and with a long history, humbling times of learning, and benefits for all who have participated. But—

We must take a close look at this term, “fields,” and ask two questions. First, what does Jesus mean by this term, and second, how do we know what fields lack workers?  It should be clear that He is not referring to political countries. Boundaries change. Consider, for example, poor Poland, how the lines of that great country have been altered over the last 150 years. No, Jesus has something else in mind.

The best place to look is Matthew’s Great Commission. There the Lord tells us to make disciples of all “nations.” The Greek for “nations” is ethne, a word we have incorporated as “ethnic.” Most translations render this as Gentiles. That is lamentable. That divides the world once—Jews and others. Whatever is done across cultural boundaries qualifies as work with Gentiles. So, churches can say, “We are already there.”

Unless… unless Jesus is speaking about ethnic tribes, people groups distinct from one another by language, custom, history, religion and more. After all, we cannot paraphrase the Great Commission by saying, “Go, make disciples of all Gentiles.” In the metaphor of fields, Jesus is telling us that many ethnic groups are without mission attention.

China gives us a good example of the difference between a political country and “nations.” . We can be amazed at the number of Chinese Christians, but when we look at the people groups, another picture emerges. Most Chinese Christians are of the majority Han nation. China recognizes 55 minority nations, but actually there are many more than 55. Of these “nations” most have very few Christians and very few workers.

Secondly, how do we know which fields?  One way to that solution is to go by number of Christians. Some fields have scads of Christians—a number of believers beyond counting.  We ask, then, what makes that growth possible? Easy: teachers, Bibles, classes, training, places to worship, absence of persecution, webinars and websites, and, of course, an ample supply of DVDs and notebook courses.

Maybe you can see where this is going. If some fields have all these things and lots of Christians, then what about fields without these. Those would be the ones waiting for the harvest. Those are the ones with few workers, few Christians, and inadequate efforts to evangelize.

Now we can see how these unharvested fields can be identified—by asking about available resources:

        Bibles. In their own language? The entire Bible or portions?  The Jesus Film? Available on the Internet? And, by the way, have the people learned to read?

        Leadership training. How recently has Christianity come to this people? Are there Christian leaders? Are there opportunities for training? What level of teaching is appropriate?

        Modes of communication. Are there radio programs, TV programs? Are these accessible to the people? How about print—magazines, correspondence courses, pamphlets on discipleship topics?

        Aids to society. Are there Christian health care workers, educational personnel, advocates for justice and kindness? These address their areas of expertise, but they also model the Christian life.

        Openness in society. Is evangelism permitted? Encouraged and taught? Can worship take place in the open? Is there persecution of Christians and churches?

Those are some of the key criteria in discerning where a particular nation or ethnic group fits. Fields without scads of these resources also are without scads of Christians, and without scads of workers.

What about those churches that are in well harvested fields, like our sample church? Hold back from their work? Shift to another field? Of course not! Press on! If anything, increase the attention and support for growth. And… don’t discount the power of the Holy Spirit to nudge you towards those unharvested fields as well.

About Tad

This trip accompanies several of the friends of St. Paul. We will eaves drop on their correspondence, look into their lives and ministries, and find some insights about what they were doing. I suspect that much of what we see will surprise us, some will challenge us, and all will fill in some spots of God's work then and now.
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