Missionaries have big dreams. When missionaries share the gospel, they dream of their listeners repenting and believing. Then they dream of new disciples growing in maturity and ongoing faith. They dream of disciples forming churches and expressing Christlike love in community with mature pastors leading these communities.
Missionaries also dream of churches multiplying and owning the Great Commission by sending out their own people to share the gospel and make disciples among other unreached peoples and places for the glory of God. It’s this final part—that adoption of the Great Commission by a formerly unreached people, demonstrated as they participate in God’s global mission—that seems problematic if we expect non-Western Christians to join in God’s mission as we do.
For a long time, God’s people have agreed that sending fully-supported, full-time missionaries is a great way to join in God’s mission. We at the IMB don’t see any reason to deviate from that. There are a few factors, however, that we Christians need to think about, not only as we evaluate how effectively we are currently carrying out God’s command to spread his glory to the nations, but also as we ponder the future of missions. First, let’s address a disconcerting current reality and then examine a historic example. My hope is that both will lead us toward an optimistic view of the future of missions.
The Best Economy Still Isn’t Enough
Christians currently living in the US are experiencing life inside the most powerful and robust economy ever known to man. That’s not necessarily something to boast about. It just means that Christians in the US are living in a time when they are able to give more to missions than ever before. But how does this compare to what is needed as God’s kingdom expands over the earth?
Well, consider that Southern Baptists, through the Cooperative Program, effectively pool the financial resources of more than forty-five thousand churches. This allows us to send thousands of fully-supported, full-time missionaries into the world. What we mean by “full-time missionary” is that each missionary engages in the missionary task on a full-time basis. A “fully-supported missionary” is one who receives most of her support for her livelihood from donations. They enter among a group of people with the purpose of leaving something behind that only God can create—a self-supporting, biblically faithful church. Full-time missionaries can do what they do because of the radical giving, support, and partnership of local churches that send them.
“Four thousand missionaries seems like a tiny drop in the world’s oceans. What we need is to figure out how to send vastly greater numbers of missionaries to join the effort to advance the spread of the gospel in the world.”
The stark reality, however, is that the number of full-time IMB missionaries who are currently being supported by over forty-five thousand churches during the most robust economy in the history of the planet may be in the thousands, but it’s not in the tens of thousands. It’s not even five thousand. Currently, it’s hovering around just four thousand! Compared to the world’s growing population and the immensity of the task, four thousand missionaries seems like a tiny drop in the world’s oceans. What we need is to figure out how to send vastly greater numbers of missionaries to join the effort to advance the spread of the gospel in the world.
Fortunately, historical examples exist that, if applied today, could increase the number of laborers, work in any economy, and be sustainable in an ongoing way.
I believe that our past could be the future of missions.
The Moravian Model
History is a helpful starting point for examining and planning for the future. The Moravian missionary movement of the eighteenth century not only increased laborers into the harvest, but it was also economically transferable and sustainable. As a member of the nobility, Ludwig von Zinzendorf, himself a devout Pietist within the Lutheran Church, could not entertain his desire to be sent as a missionary.
Yet, he persisted with a small band of like-minded followers and, together, they begged God to lead them to qualified believers who could be sent out as missionaries. In other words, Zinzendorf worked in cooperation with a cohort of missions-minded, faithful believers to raise up and send out indigenous missionaries to unreached peoples. Sounds vaguely familiar . . .
In August 1727, the inhabitants of Zinzendorf’s bustling Moravian Brethren community, Herrnhut, developed a new passion for missions. They established a system of intercessory prayer toward that end that would continue night and day. Their community prayer watch is believed to have lasted uninterrupted for more than one hundred years.
The new missions passion at Herrnhut resulted in something new in the expansion of Christianity: an entire community devoted to the propagation of the faith. They were a local church who fully embraced their role in God’s global mission and channeled their devotion to Christ by focusing on one thing: sending out missionaries. Moravian missions officially began in 1728, when Leonard Dober and David Nitschmann dedicated themselves for missionary work in the West Indies, even if it meant they would become slaves. They then migrated to the Caribbean—St. Thomas, to be precise.
With a singular devotion to Christ and a particular missions strategy, Dober and Nitschmann moved to St. Thomas, worked hard at their day jobs, shared the gospel, and established a church. They faithfully ministered in St. Thomas for fifty years before any other church joined them in the work. According to the church records, they had baptized thirteen thousand converts before a missionary from any other church arrived on the scene. Their work in the Caribbean still continues. Now, nearly three hundred years old, their mission work has been carried forward by indigenous leaders who were raised up from within.
The Moravian model of missions described above can also be described as immigratory missions. That is, the first Christians who came into an unreached area with the gospel were people who immigrated there. They left everything behind and moved to a place where Christ was not known, bringing with them a proven ability to work and sustain their own livelihood.
Moravian missionaries tended to remain in one location for many years. But their example could also be followed by Christians today who are able to travel and stay in places for short periods. The most critical component in immigratory missions is going with gospel intentionality.
With that in view, here’s what the Moravian approach yielded.
An increase of laborers
The Moravian movement led to many thousands of new converts. Therefore, an increase of Moravian Brethren sent from Europe wasn’t needed for the ministry to move forward. Future laborers were found in the harvest—new believers who were discipled, gathered into churches, and who then began to make disciples themselves.
Workability in any economy
The work in St. Thomas did not depend upon underwriting from Europe. The economy of the island was not as robust as that of Germany, but it didn’t need to be. The local economy resourced the missionaries and their ministry, so external financial support was unnecessary.
Fifty years passed before any other church joined in the work. Yet, the furtherance of the gospel continued past the first generation of workers. Those who received message carried on the work—a sustainable model.
As we endeavor to see a global missions force where we see the nations engage the nations, the Moravian model may well be the key to limitless sending.
Scott Logsdon, PhD, and his family served among Muslims and led twenty-six church-planting teams in five countries. He currently lives in Richmond, Virginia, where he serves as the associate vice president of training for the International Mission Board.