Shaping a missions priority for the 21st century
By Alan Johnson
Nearly a decade into the 21st century, we as a Pentecostal
church movement numbering more than 50 million people worldwide face a great
challenge. How will we respond to the large blocks of humanity that live in
cultural settings with nonexistent or limited access to a relevant witness of
While all people are equally lost spiritually, not all
people have equal access to hear the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.
Our ability to respond to the needs of these people is currently hindered by a
shift in Christian missions away from planting the church where it does not
exist to a practice of sending Christians from one cultural setting to work
with Christians in another setting.
To meet this challenge,
we need to revisit a theme that was important to the identity of early
Pentecostals and their work. They saw themselves and their task as part of a
restoration of apostolic power and practice. Paul’s understanding of an
apostle’s work was focused on planting the church where it did not exist and
proclaiming Christ where He was not known:
“It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where
Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s
foundation” (Romans 15:20, NIV).
“... there is no more place for me
to work in these regions ... ” (Romans 15:23).
“Our hope is that, as your faith continues to grow, our area
of activity among you will greatly expand, so that we can preach the gospel in
the regions beyond you. For we do not want to boast about work already done in
another man’s territory” (2 Corinthians 10:15,16).
At this moment in history, when we are faced with such a
stark contrast between places where vibrant church movements exist and where
they do not, we must find our self-understanding and identity in mission in
this kind of apostolic vision. This means seeing ourselves and shaping our
practice of mission around “apostolic function” — a focus on the task of
preaching the gospel where it has not been heard, planting the church where it
does not exist, and leading people to the obedience of faith so they can be
witnesses of Jesus Christ and participate in God’s global mission. This notion
of apostolic function does not mean that everyone works in the same way, or that
everyone is an apostle, or that missionaries currently working where the church
exists should go somewhere else. What it means is that the apostolic vision of
planting the church of Jesus Christ where it does not exist shapes our
understanding of what we do, why we do it and how we operate.
Acts 1:8 says that we are to be
witnesses for Jesus in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth.
Applied in a geographic sense, this defines a missionary as someone who goes
somewhere else to proclaim the gospel. However, if we see this verse in terms
of doing evangelism in different cultural spheres, it creates a helpful
distinction between evangelism within one’s own cultural setting (our Jerusalem
and Judea) and cross-cultural evangelism among those of a different cultural
In the New Testament, local churches were powerful
instruments the Holy Spirit used to take the gospel to people in similar
cultural systems. From these churches, apostolic bands were called forth by the
Spirit to cross cultural boundaries to proclaim Jesus where He was not known.
Those within the body of Christ who are specially called with the Pauline sense
of apostolic function consider cross-cultural evangelism — reaching
people with no access to the message — as having higher priority than
those living in settings where an indigenous church exists that is capable of
reaching its own people. The issue, then, comes back to access.
In our world today, many spiritually lost people have the
potential for access to the gospel from believers living in the same cultural
setting. These loving neighbors look like them, eat the same foods, speak the
same language and can share their faith in Jesus in a relevant fashion. But
other vast populations have virtually no access to the message because no
loving neighbor who is a follower of Christ is present to tell them the good
news. People living in such settings need an outsider who will cross into their
culture to proclaim Jesus and plant His church.
The idea of apostolic function and the distinctions between
ministry in a single culture and cross-cultural evangelism should challenge us
as a movement to seek a fresh experience of Pentecost. Our 12,000-plus local
churches in the U.S. need to be lighthouses within their own Jerusalems while
recognizing the opportunities for cross-cultural encounters. We also need to
believe God for a new generation of cross-cultural workers who will go where
Christ is not named and plant the church where it does not exist. It is not
enough to just send our money or send workers to assist national churches in
reaching the least-reached and resistant peoples. The Holy Spirit, who loves
all people and is not willing that any should perish, is still calling North
Americans to play a part in His plan to bring the message of Jesus to those who
have no access.
ALAN JOHNSON and his wife, Lynette, are missionaries to
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