I recently suggested that the term “missions” had become a dirty world in the evangelical lexicon and that perhaps we need to have some creative “wordsmithing” to come up with something better. In attempt to explain myself, let me go a little further…
When I first went into fulltime missions mobilization over three years ago, it was tough to explain to people what I would be doing. I mean, I wasn’t even sure what I would be doing, so how could I describe it to someone else?
Anyway, as I would begin to try to explain my new ministry, some would try to assist by helpfully inquiring, “Oh…well…will you be involved in ‘foreign’ missions?”
While I appreciated the attempt to help me bring some order to my chaotic answer, I found that this question actually serve to add a layer of confusion to an already misunderstood topic.
The term “foreign missions” was originally a good way to describe missions activity as it was in previous generations before the acceleration of global emigration and immigration. It is also a verbal relic from an era when the western church was still unaware of the kind of information that Ralph Winter dumped on us in 1974. It was almost 40 years ago that Winter alerted us to the reality that the Great Commission is not strictly about saving individuals, nor is it about sending missionaries to countries (geo-political entities). At that time Winter prophetically (in the sense of forth-telling and fore-telling) laid out for the western church the true status of the unreached peoples of the world.
Speaking of missions as “foreign” or “local” in the 21st century merely reinforces the now-outdated thinking that locality and geography are primary factors in carrying out God’s mission.
When I was young, we used to thinking of “going somewhere else” to be a missionary. The reality is much different in that that there is no longer a specific and exclusive “somewhere else” where the unreached are located.
From Gen. 12:3 to Mt. 28:19-20 to Rev. 5:9 and 7:9, the Bible couches God’s passion in terms of the ethne (groups identified by ethnic, cultural, and linguistic characteristics), and not primarily in terms of reaching individuals or by reaching people geographically.
As Dave Imboden states, “The Joshua Project (joshuaproject.net) lists over 160 ethnolinguistic people groups considered ‘Least Reached’ who now call the U.S. home” (Mission Frontiers, 34:6, Nov/Dec 2012, p. 20).
Because of this, as long as we think in terms of “foreign” and “domestic” missions when we think of reaching the world with the Good News, our churches will never be able to develop an effective strategy for fulfilling the Great Commission. Sadly, we will miss the presence of desperately needy “unreached people groups” in our own back yard and other “Christianized” parts of the world.
So, not only do we have a problematic noun – “missions” – to describe God’s passion that all peoples might know his Son, but we complicate the development of an effective strategy to carry out the work assigned to the church when we use an outdated adjective – “foreign” – to describe it.
Stay tuned to www.unmissions.net for more thoughts on this critical topic… — Dave Shive