I have often heard it stated that foreign missionaries are a misallocated resource. It has been pointed out that most foreign missionaries are sent to areas of the world which are already evangelized or Christianized. According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, foreign missionaries worldwide are currently allocated disproportionately to either predominantly Christian areas of the world or areas which are already evangelized but remain largely non-Christian. The unevangelized world makes up about 30% of the world’s population, but receives only 4% of the total foreign missionary force. This is in contrast to Christian areas of the world, which make up 33% of the world’s population while receiving 80% of the world’s missionaries. David Barrett and Todd Johnson contend that the only scenario which would be a worse strategic deployment of missionaries would be if missionaries were deployed in exact proportion to the number of Christians in any given area – thus an area with the most Christians would receive the most missionaries, and the area with the fewest Christians would receive the fewest missionaries.
While there does seem to be an appealing logic to this, I can’t help but wonder how correct it is. As a missionary to Hungary, this analysis leaves me somewhat cold, partly because Hungary is listed as being part of the Christian world because of its historic Catholic roots. And yet it seems to me that Hungary could easily be listed as an evangelized non-Christian area. While most Hungarians might call themselves Christians, that word means very little in terms of what they actually believe or how they actually live. It certainly doesn’t for the most part include a belief in any of the historic doctrines of the faith.
But beyond this, I also wonder if it’s necessarily the case that missionaries should be strategically deployed with the majority sent to the least evangelized areas of the world. Looking at the biblical pattern, I’m not so sure. Those who say this often take the apostle Paul as their role model, who made it his aim to preach Christ where he had never been preached as he said in Romans 15:20. It’s undeniable that this was Paul’s calling, to spend his life in “pioneer” missions. But there’s no indication that Paul thought that this should be the case with most missionaries. In fact, he seemed to revel in this as a somewhat unique and special calling. Someone will point out that when the Gospel began to be preached on the day of Pentecost, the entire world was essentially unevangelized. By the time Paul wrote the letter to the Romans, however, the Gospel had already spread throughout the Empire. Many missionaries even in the New Testament were sent to teach and to strengthen existing churches. Timothy and Apollos are two examples. There’s no indication that Paul thought more missionaries should be sent to the unevangelized regions. Instead, his aim was to plant churches and teach those living in those places to do the work of the ministry themselves. It seems to me that the task of evangelism is more likely to progress rapidly by indigenous workers rather than by foreign missionaries who need the time to learn the language and culture and for a long time remain as outsiders even then.
The biblical picture could actually lead us to the conclusion that the kind of pioneering missions done by Paul is a special calling which is only given to a few, even to a small percentage of total missionaries. I had the privilege recently of listening to a young woman sharing about her calling to spread the Gospel in a country in central Asia which she couldn’t even name because evangelism there is illegal. It’s a dangerous work and a special calling, and this young woman exuded joy as she told of some of the Muslim women she had shared her faith with. But in such places sending large numbers of missionaries would be prohibitive, not the least because they would draw attention to themselves.
It’s interesting that perhaps the greatest church growth movement in history took place only after all the missionaries were kicked out! Those familiar with modern church history will know that I’m talking about China, and the underground house church movement which sprang up after the Maoist revolution and the expulsion of all foreign missionaries. After decades of little or no contact with Christians from the outside, Western Christians returned to find a church that had exploded numerically, albeit with many problems from the lack of trained leaders and teachers and scarcity of Bibles and teaching materials. Nevertheless, it underscores the point that more missionaries isn’t always a good thing and fewer missionaries isn’t always a bad thing (and I say this as a missionary myself!).
I’m not saying that there isn’t still a great need for missionaries in unreached areas of the world. Nor am I saying we should be satisfied with the status quo in missions. But I am saying that sometimes I think we kick ourselves a little too much over not doing enough. The task of missions was given to the church, but Jesus is head of the church! He is still in the business of calling and sending workers into his harvest field, and He knows best where those missionaries should be sent. Jesus was confident that the task would be completed. While I certainly think we should be wise in how we do our part, I think we also should realize that God’s strategy is not always the same as ours. In fact, if one examines the activities of God throughout biblical history, isn’t it safer to conclude that God’s strategy is never the same as ours? Who else would conquer a city by marching around the walls for seven days, conquer an invading army by whittling down the Israelites to a force of 300, or save the world through a baby born in a stable in Bethlehem?