The Geographic Barrier
If the objective of the Great Commission is to make disciples of every nation, it naturally follows that, in order to accomplish this task, one must first go where the people are. Though the Greek participle poreuthentes, translated “go” or “going” in most English versions of Matthew 28:19, does not necessarily connote geographic movement, it is a logical implication of the overall force of the verse. Verses such as Acts 1:8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” and Acts 8:4, “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went”—together with the general New Testament record of the geographic expansion of the Christian movement—serve to confirm this interpretation.
In recent years, there has been a significant amount of discussion on the meaning of the phrase panta ta ethne (“all nations”). Independently of whether this phrase points toward a “people group” focus or a “nation-state” focus, however, it is evident that, in order to carry out the command given to Jesus’ disciples, some will have to intentionally go from places where there is a relatively high percent of believers to places where there is a relatively low percent of believers.
Jim Montgomery, founder of the DAWN (Discipling A Whole Nation) Movement, comments:
Church and mission leaders at every level in a country need to make this goal [e.g. saturating a country with churches] their own and work most directly towards it. Every local congregation must be challenged to find those neighborhoods, villages, classes, and conditions of men within their reach that have yet to have a congregation established in their midst, and then to do something about it. (11)
Missiologist and church growth expert Peter Wagner, while assenting to the need for the church to go to those places that are comparatively unreached, points to varying degrees of receptivity as an additional guiding factor for prioritization in missionary placement:
If resources are unlimited, then proper strategy would dictate an equal effort for every unreached people group. But as a matter of realistic fact, our resources are not unlimited, at least at the present time. This means that when resources are limited, priority decisions are forced upon any plan for action. . . . Every farmer knows that all crops do not reach the harvest point at the same time. But when a particular harvest is ripe, that is where the bulk of the agricultural workers must be concentrated. The unripe crops cannot be bypassed—they must be cared for—but at all stages up to the harvest, a relatively small number can handle the work. Jesus said, “Pray the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers.” But where? Obviously into the ripened harvest fields. (12)
Marten Visser points out, however, some of the complications involved in objectively determining a proper geographic allocation of missionary resources: “The need for pioneer missionaries—evangelists and church planters—is challenging to present in a straightforward way. How do you compare Thailand’s need, where there are few evangelical Christians but many missionaries, with Burma’s need, where there are few missionaries but far more evangelicals?” (13)
In spite of all the arguments in favor of one model of mission resource allocation or another, though, it is undeniable that the essence of the missionary task involves the sending of missionary workers from one place to another. The very term “missionary,” though not present in Scripture, is the etymological equivalent of the biblical term “apostle” (apostolos), literally meaning “sent one.” And the example of the church in Antioch in Acts 13:2–3—“While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off”—undoubtedly serves as a model worthy of imitation for churches today committed to obeying Jesus’ command in the Great Commission, and overcoming the geographic barrier to its fulfillment.
(to be continued…)
(11) James Montgomery, “Can We Disciple Whole Countries?” EMQ (1984): 55.
(12) C. Peter Wagner, “Another View of Receptivity: Reaping the Harvest,” EMQ (1982): 210–11.
(13) Marten Visser, “Where Are Pioneer Missionaries Needed? The N-Formula,” EMQ (2004): 221.