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A foreign missionary’s take on why—and how—most churches must redefine their strategy to reach the lost

I was born and raised in South Africa during the apartheid and post-apartheid eras. I watched as Nelson Mandela walked free after 27 years in prison and in one year broke a 45-year bondage to racism. As a soldier in the African Bush Wars of Angola and Namibia, I was on the front lines of the largest land battle in Africa since World War II and have since shared embraces with the very freedom fighters I fought against. I saw the Berlin Wall fall and later spoke with Gen. Colin Powell about how he negotiated the close of the Cold War with Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev. I’ve met with Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza, who cycled out of the bush in 2005 to end an age-old genocidal division between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes, and establish a culture of peace and national patriotism instead of tribalism. I sat with President Frederick Chiluba while in hiding on the eve of his becoming the first democratically elected president of Zambia after Kenneth Kaunda’s 27-year reign.

I mention these things simply to show that God has, for whatever reason, consistently positioned me on the front lines of change. I’ve learned over the last 20 years in Africa that what was impossible to achieve in other generations of the church’s history is now totally possible. The winds of change are blowing—in Africa and around the world.

Over the last 10 years I have yet to see a culture that hasn’t had to re-evaluate its identity and social DNA because of the invasion of modernism and the melting pot of behaviors prevalent throughout the earth. The elders of tribes are scrambling everywhere to preserve their stories, so as to pass on their tribal cultures.

The same is true within Christendom. Whatever preservation efforts we make will determine how the future will look for the church. The Christ-like cultures of risk and sacrifice, generosity and hospitality, faith and diligence, selflessness and missiology are all being eroded—or at least challenged—by self-preservation and selfishness.

As we stand at such a crossroads, I’d like to challenge our status quo. I love the church enough to give my life for it. But like the child bold enough to say the emperor had no clothes, I cannot avoid pointing out that most Western churches have embarked on a dead-end path when it comes to reaching the lost peoples of the world. God is still using our misguided missions strategies to bring about good. But I believe if we can embrace the paradigm shift necessary for today, we will find an apostolic anointing to kindle flames of revivals like never before.

Short-Term Missions—and Fruit

The typical American church’s framework for missions is wrapped up in a short-term trip prompted by relationship with a foreign missions agency or church. Though this is understandable, sending young people on comfortable missions where all they do is paint a building—dumbing missions down to a conscience-pleasing labor force—is not the way forward. Tragically, we’ve turned missions trips into upgraded tours of duty, by which a pastor simply wants his team to be looked after long enough so they’ll return with amazing stories that can serve the church’s purpose all over again. That sounds harsh, but the truth is we no longer have the luxury of wasting time on such fruitless ventures. Entire villages and cities have never once heard the name of Jesus, and yet we continue to revisit the same gospel-saturated places every year with fresh supplies in hand.

By the same token, we continue to forget what—and who—it is we really have to offer. In most cases we highly underestimate the teams we send. Our young people are studying complex algorithms and principles of physics, yet we fail to “let the word of Christ dwell in [them] richly” (Col. 3:16) and empower them to perform like in the book of Acts. Could this be because we’ve instead filled them with a franchise understanding of church and fear that when they are confronted with presenting the gospel outside the Western church environment they will regurgitate our Western franchise?

Five Ways to Reach the Lost

This is an era in which we must think differently. It’s time to change. I’m not writing this to criticize but to encourage us to lift up our eyes and embrace a more effective way of accomplishing the task Jesus gave us. With that in mind, here are a few ideas for improving our approach to reaching the lost.

1. Go to the people who need you most. One of the first questions I ask pastors interested in joining with our ministry, Overland Missions, is what overseas missions experiences they’ve had. Most of the time, they’ll tell me a story about building homes for the homeless in Costa Rica or feeding widows and orphans in Kenya or, in the extreme cases, caring for HIV/AIDS victims in a lesser-known country such as Botswana. Every country has places of need. But are we truly making the effort to reach “the least of these” when we simply attend to those who have been—or at least can be—reached?

Take Botswana, for example. With a population of only 2 million people, this landlocked nation has one of the strongest currencies in the entire African continent and shares a border with one of the richest—South Africa. Virtually every person in the country is within reach of a hospital or school. Yet too often I find churches that, having seen The Gods Must Be Crazy and fallen in love with the idea of “saving” those poor bush people, plow their resources into those who, in reality, already have. What about the absolute have-nots? What about those living in the countries bordering Botswana who have been forgotten by their government, who don’t have running water, don’t have schools or hospitals and, worse still, have little chance of ever hearing the gospel?

I believe these are the ones for whom Christ would leave the 99. They are the harvest awaiting today’s church. To not invest in reaching these people is to be poor stewards of the gospel given freely to us. And yet to reach them, we must ...

2. Embrace the risk. Pastors sometimes turn us down as a missions-sending organization because they think we are too risky. Granted, not many agencies send volunteers into areas of the world where they may be days away from even a hint of civilization. Yet if we won’t make the effort to reach those who seemingly can’t be reached, then who will?

Unfortunately, churches too often select the target of their missions efforts based not on prayer but on safety and budget. This type of administration of human resource is far removed from the early church culture. Unreached souls cost money and always have. It takes unwavering faith, sacrifice and risk to do the work of the ministry. It takes an understanding of what God has deposited into the church by His grace and the shed blood of Jesus. “To whom much is given, from him much will be required” (Luke 12:48).

Years ago, missionaries left England with their belongings in a casket that doubled as a coffin so that they could be buried at home. Most missionaries landing in Mombasa, Kenya, in the late 1800s died within two years. Today we have insurance policies that promise a helicopter on location within two hours of any medical emergency. Missionaries have a full life expectancy now. As rough as things can get at times, life-threatening danger is certainly not the deterrent it once was. Don’t succumb to producing believers full of fear and unbelief with no unction of the Holy Spirit. Instead ...

3. Be a pioneer. The church has always been on the cutting edge of exploration and at the forefront of expeditions. Yet in recent generations, the majority of those venturing to the outer corners of the earth are young travelers searching for the next high, cheapest thrill or magic mushroom. It has become rare to find a Christian believer or two on a mission for God, pioneering into unchartered territories with the message of the gospel.

One of the reasons for this in the Western church is our limited worldview. Last year I sent a convoy of our trucks down to Africa. We started in Holland and ended in Zambia, crossing such countries as Greece, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Ethiopia and Tanzania among others. When I recounted this trip to American churches, people stood to applaud, hailing me as the “Indiana Jones of the Gospel.” Sadly, this was simply the church showing its ignorance again—people make similar journeys all the time. Although these expeditions aren’t always for amateurs, we as missionaries should be without question the most world-traveled, world-savvy and pioneering people around, particularly when it comes to remote areas of the globe. These territories are, after all, our assignment!

4. Don’t underestimate your value to the kingdom. Church members aren’t there to pay the bills, fill the seats or make the church look successful. They are there to make a difference in the world—even when it doesn’t always seem that way. God has declared every person within the church a fully qualified, fully equipped new creation with all the investment of heaven and lacking nothing. Every church member is a leader, and every leader a soul-winner.

Sure, if we choose to look at our churches purely in the natural, things will often seem different. Yet we are called to “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). When we choose to believe what our natural eyes may see, we simply reiterate what the devil has been telling the church since the beginning of its formation—namely, that we are insufficient, unequipped, incomplete and lacking in everything. Whose perspective will we believe?

5. Believe in the power of the gospel. It’s one thing to underestimate ourselves; it’s an entirely different problem when we do the same with the gospel. Our paradigm for missions has generally been to serve until we gain the right to preach, then preach in a manner that explains the gospel. Intellect has replaced the power of the gospel. We lean more on our ability to persuade than in the power of the gospel to save.

The power of the gospel to save isn’t in persuasion—if you can be persuaded, you can be dissuaded. But when you are convicted, you can’t be unconvicted. The power of the gospel comes “with full conviction” (1 Thess. 1:5, NASB), and the Holy Spirit comes to convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgment, not persuade (see John 16:8). Discipleship takes years and must be engaged after preaching the gospel unto salvation.

We must release our evangelistic missions teams to speak the written Word with the unction of the Holy Spirit and watch what happens. I’ve seen the results for more than 20 years: Recipients of the Word won’t be able to sleep, they will find their minds constantly dwelling on the encounters they had with the message, and they won’t rest until they find out more about this Jesus we speak of.

Called to Be Sent

My mandate is to reach remote tribes around the world and mobilize believers into the nations. I realize not everyone is called to the extreme lengths my team and I go to reach those people. The tribes or villages we target usually lack every trigger of success you can imagine: no schools, no language translation, no running water, no farming tools, no medication, no natural hope.

Each of us, however, is called to the apostolic nature of the gospel—to go to those who haven’t heard. To do that, we must change our usual approach of reaching a “village” (whatever cultural tribe you are called to) by which we aren’t filled with the Word of God but instead with fear, unbelief and only an understanding of the Western franchise church. If we see things only with fleshly eyes, we’ll be moved with compassion only because of their lack. A believer filled with faith, on the other hand, can see through a culture’s lack into the abundance of God’s provision toward them through Christ—and that believer can then begin to communicate this faith via their actions. If we mobilize the church with this kind of faith, there will not be one stone unturned or not one village forgotten in our lifetime, and every soul will have the opportunity to hear the gospel at least once.

Philip Smethurst is the founder of Overland Missions (overlandmissions .com), a missions organization dedicated to empowering the Third World indigenous church and taking the gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth.

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