There is a fair amount of conversation today about the need for the local church to think of its ministry in much the same way that overseas missionaries think about theirs. Voices in mission today frequently refer to North America as the largest mission field in the western hemisphere. It is a little-known fact that one finds almost 90% of the world’s Christians outside of North America (David B. Barrett, ed. World Christian Encyclopedia, NY: Oxford University Press, 1982, p.4). The secularization of our western culture has created new challenges for us: Christendom has faded, and so Christian culture is no longer the powerful and dominant force that it once was.
I happily welcome this conversation—it’s an extremely important conversation to have. We very much need to rethink what it means to be the Church in our ever-changing environment. God has sent us, his missionary people, into this world to actively participate in his worldwide mission, wherever we find ourselves (John 20:21, Matthew 28:18-20).
Now, there is another conversation that we need to keep going. As missiologist Klaus Detlev Schulz put it, “The call for mission in the home country and that of placing it predominantly in the local congregation has not diminished the overall need and support for overseas mission” (Schultz, Mission From the Cross: The Lutheran Theology of Mission, Concordia Publishing House, 2009, p. 4). “Home” and “abroad” must never be in competition—it’s all God’s mission. Yet we must not lose sight of the fact that in many pockets of the world today, there are people who have never once heard the name of Jesus. Prayer leader David Bryant used to talk about the many who have no one near them like them to tell them that God loves them.
According to researchers David Barrett and Todd Johnson, the number of unevangelized people in the world has not changed much since 1976, and for the next 50 years, Christianity will continue to be claimed by 33-34% of the world population, while 42% of the world—3 billion souls—has very limited, if any, access to the gospel. In spite of this, about 95% of the world’s mission activity is presently carried out among nominally Christian people, where local Christians could take on more of the task of mission themselves (Schulz, pp. 4-5). There remains an overwhelming need to plant new churches among unreached people groups by career missionaries who are required to make great efforts to cross significant boundaries of language and culture. These unreached people are very much on God’s heart, and he longs to have them come into his family.
Back in 1990, I attended the first all-Asia mission congress, held in Seoul, Korea. There I heard Dr. Theodore Williams, a prominent theologian and missionary statesman of India, speak on the parable of the lost sheep. The shepherd in the parable left the 99 sheep safe in the fold in order to go out and search for the one that wandered off. We all get the point—that one lost sheep is of great value to the Divine Shepherd—he will spare nothing to get it back. And yet, said Dr. Williams, in much of Asia there are at most two sheep safe in the fold, while the other ninety-eight are out wandering the hillsides, lost and in grave danger. What do you suppose, he asked, is on the heart of the Good Shepherd as he looks down on that situation?
In response to this urgent need, the Church has in recent decades focused a lot of attention on an area of the world that stretches across North Africa and South Asia, which is home to the world’s major religions and is also an area of great population density and deep poverty. This region lies between 10 and 40 degrees latitude north of the equator. In this “10-40 Window,” the enormous challenges in terms of geography, poverty, indigenous religions and culture have combined to make the deployment of missionaries challenging to say the least. And yet, from the earliest days of our Lutheran Brethren history, this is where the Lord has led us to join him in his mission. First in China, then in Cameroon and Chad, Japan and Taiwan, God raised up for himself in the Church of the Lutheran Brethren teams of missionaries with a passion to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ where he is not yet known.
For us to remain responsive to the call of God to plant the Church where his Name is not heard requires ongoing awareness and appreciation for what is on the heart of our Missionary God. Lutheran Brethren congregations have long exhibited a zeal for participating in what God is doing in the world, often in the hardest places. As we now apply this same missionary spirit to the ministries of our local congregations, let us exhibit faithfulness to the Lord of the Harvest, who calls us to join with him in making disciples in those distant pockets of the world where Jesus Christ is yet not known. While it is certainly true that we are all God’s missionary people sent to our local mission fields, there remains an ever-urgent need for support of those among us who respond to God’s call as long-term, cross-cultural career missionaries to distant lands.
Rather than a calling to “either/or,” it’s a calling to “both/and.” So let us embrace “Glocal” mission: Global + Local = Glocal. Jesus said to his followers long ago that we will be his witnesses “both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8, KJV). God wants all of his lost sheep back in the fold.
Dr. Gaylan Mathiesen, Ph.D, is Professor of Missions at Lutheran Brethren Seminary, Fergus Falls, Minnesota.