The Incredible Progress of the Frontier Missions Movement: From Edinburgh 1910 to Tokyo 2010
Although it is difficult to pinpoint exact moments and fixed dates in time when historical movements begin, it is probably roughly accurate to say that the modern “frontier mission movement” began to gather significant momentum around 40 years ago, in the early 1970s. It is around this time that the first lists of unreached peoples began to be compiled, building on the research conducted by Wycliffe Bible Translators in their pursuit of identifying the world’s “bibleless” peoples. David Barrett’s comprehensive study of church growth among all the peoples in Africa (introduced at the world’s first frontier mission consultation held in 1972) became a model for research around the world. He later expanded his research to include a global list of 13,000 “ethno-linguistic” peoples, which became the foundation for many people group databases over the next two decades.
The first estimates of the number of unreached peoples were prepared for the 1974 Lasaunne conference on evangelism by Ralph Winter and the missiology team at the Fuller School of World Mission. Leading up to this conference, the first global survey of unreached peoples was also conducted, involving 2,200 questionnaires sent out around the world to mission organizations and field offices. Six years later, the Edinburgh conference in 1980, following up on the first Edinburgh gathering of 1910, gave a significant boost to the frontier mission movement. From out of this conference came the Adopt-A-People campaign (the first inter-mission cooperative effort to reach all peoples) and the AD2000 movement (the first global network focused on frontier missions). These initiatives resulted in more attention given to unreached peoples around the world, both among mission agencies as well as local churches, than any other mission mobilization effort in history. Here at this second Edinburgh consultation, the frontier mission movement finally leaped beyond the realm of missiologists and researchers and into the realm of mission sending agencies which had the capacity to act on the facts being unearthed by strategists such as Barrett and Winter.
The result of all this research and mobilization was nothing short of stellar. The last forty years have seen more Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus come to know Christ than in all previous centuries combined. Dozens of church-planting movements have been initiated among the world’s major unreached mega-peoples (those over one million in population), where just two decades before the ground remained untilled for literally centuries.
The first major breakthrough in the Muslim bloc came in South Asia, where at least half a million Muslim background believers have come to faith among the Bengali. This breakthrough proved the effectiveness of an “insider approach” for winning high-identity Muslims and became a model for many church planting movements around the world. Next door to South Asia, in Iran, a strong underground church movement continues to emerge with thousands of house fellowships multiplying throughout the country. Surveys in the country indicate that Christian satellite broadcasting in Farsi, which began in the year 2000, is being viewed by well over half the population. Equally impressive are the results of radio and satellite broadcasting throughout the Arab world. One ministry, SAT7, has a regular audience of 8.5 million people. In North Africa, the Berbers are responding to the gospel in massive numbers, with one movement among the Kabyle encompassing several hundred thousand believers.
In the Buddhist world, two significant breakthroughs occurred among the Khmer and the Mongolians. In Cambodia the church exploded from just a handful of believers twenty years ago to over 400,000 today. In Mongolia, the church grew from a few isolated believers, to over 50,000 in 200 established fellowships in the same period. Amongst Hindus, a movement has emerged, quite distinct from any form of Western Christianity, that includes at least 10 million devotees of Jesus, also known as Krista-bhaktas. Additionally, fast growing house-church movements are expanding throughout India, which are intersecting multiple spheres of Hindu and Muslim society, and giving rise to the possibility that the caste system in South Asia is not as formidable a challenge to the spread of the gospel as once thought.
In the last decade, missionary deployment among unreached peoples has increased at a rapid pace, effectively doubling the number of missionaries among the least-reached. In 1980, the ratio of missionaries to Muslims was one per million. It is now only one per hundred-thousand. Most of these missionaries are non-Western, and many of which are from nearby or related peoples. Although much work remains to be done, the significance of an increasing number of believers among the world’s non-Christian peoples cannot be underestimated. What this means is that the cultural distances dividing unreached peoples from the gospel are shrinking. Momentum is gaining. For the first time in history, the very real possibility of reaching all peoples with the gospel in one generation is well within sight.
Looking Forward: What might happen in the next decade?
The AD2000 and Beyond movement gave birth to many significant frontier mission networks and movements in the last decade with the years 2020 and 2025 as milestones. Three of the more prominent of these global initiatives focusing on missionary deployment among the “unengaged” are Finishing the Task, Vision 5:9, and the Global Network of Mission Structures. (The term unengaged is being used to refer to those unreached groups which have no long-term church-planting efforts currently among them.) The Finishing the Task network, which was launched in the year 2003, is focusing on those unreached groups over 100,000 in population which are unengaged. At the time the network was launched, there were 639 groups in this category. By the year 2010, all but 95 had been engaged. The network is now expanding its efforts to those unengaged peoples which are 50,000 in population or greater.
Another important and similar group, the Muslim Unreached Peoples Network, has become the primary forum for those agencies working in the Islamic world. Their goal is to see all Muslim peoples engaged by at least one missionary team by the year 2025. The network has grown to include every major mission sending agency working among Muslim peoples around the world. As a result, this specialized network has become a valuable global forum to discuss strategy issues relating to reaching Muslim peoples, advocating a standard of best-practices in Muslim evangelism, discipleship and church-planting. This is in contrast with the FTT network which focuses exclusively on mobilizing agencies to make commitments to “adopt” one of the unengaged peoples for future outreach.
The third network, which was founded by Ralph D. Winter is the Global Network of Mission Structures. The purpose of this network is to build an alliance of 2,000 mission agencies around a global strategy to see all peoples reached with church-planting and disciple-making movements. Part of this strategy is to organize regional, national, and people-cluster engagement task forces that will bring together field leaders of participating agencies to assess the progress being made in their area, and propose plans to deploy additional personnel as needed. These task-forces will tackle the “under-engaged” issue, which has been largely unaddressed. The under-engaged issue relates to those large groups which have an inadequate number of missionaries distributed throughout their population. The GNMS research efforts will identify every strategic population segment among the least-reached peoples requiring church-planting coordination, and then encourage member agencies to deploy church-planting coordinators among each one in the next ten to fifteen years.
Altogether, an estimated additional 30,000 missionaries are required to fully engage the least-reached peoples. Over the next ten years, many more missionaries than that will be deployed by mission agencies around the world. The Koreans alone, which are becoming increasingly frontier mission focused, have a plan to send out 100,000 missionaries in the next twenty years. The Philippine church and the Chinese church both have similar goals. All three of these mission sending movements have distinctly frontier mission DNA. The issue then of reaching the remaining least-reached peoples is not so much a lack of personnel and resources but that of coordination. There is a growing understanding of this, and the result of this increased awareness is that the next ten years may see some of the most significant cooperative efforts to finish the task in the history of the Great Commission. Should world conditions hold stable, there is no compelling reason why the vision of Revelation 5:9 could not be fulfilled in our generation. This would represent quite a milestone in the history of God’s redemptive plan announced to Abraham some 4,000 years ago!
It is interesting to note that we are approaching the two thousand year anniversary of when the Great Commission was given by Jesus. Bible scholars tell us that Jesus was probably born between 6 and 8 B.C. which would make 2025 AD the low end possible year for that anniversary marker. What a joy it would be to celebrate its fulfillment by that year! Certainly it is within our reach, if we all work together. Here lays both the challenge and the promise of the decade ahead of us.