Foundations: No.73 Autumn 2017

Exploring the Unfinished Task: Priorities for Mission Locally and Globally

Facing a task unfinished
that drives us to our knees,
a need that undiminished
rebukes our slothful ease,
we who rejoice to know thee
renew before thy throne
the solemn pledge we owe the
to go and make thee known.


With their masterful musical and lyrical skill, Keith and Kristyn Getty have revitalised Frank Houghton’s missionary classic, making it once again a popularly sung missionary song. The hymn reminds us that the task is immense, it matters because people live and die without hearing of Christ, and it remains unfinished. The concepts expressed in the hymn have had an impact on global missionary priorities for many decades. Their application to local mission has often been less evident. This article aims to explore a framework for considering priorities in both global and local mission, which takes us beyond the concept of “unreached people groups” (UPGs) which for some decades became the standard driver for missionary strategies.

The task

The hymn was written at a time when the concept of the unfinished task was very live. For large swathes of the church, both the task and its unfinished nature were related to two thrusts – the urgency of need as people in many contexts continued to live and die without hearing of Christ; and the anticipation of his return.

The first is expressed in the urgent call adopted as a watchword by the Western missionary movement in the late 1800s to evangelise the world in this generation. John Mott’s 1900 book, “The Evangelisation of the World in this Generation” offered the starting point for the 1910 Edinburgh Missionary Conference.

Mott’s work outlines the necessity and urgency of the task. Evangelism is defined here as verbal proclamation, albeit undertaken in the context of wider missionary activity in which the compassion of Christ is also expressed in other practical ways. He is clear that the missionary cannot guarantee the results of his or her evangelistic activity. He is also very clear that evangelism is not an end in itself. It must issue in transformed lives and communities, as those who hear it submit to the reign of Christ in the everydayness of their lives:

The church will not have fulfilled its task when the gospel has been preached to all men. Such evangelisation must be followed by the baptism of converts, by their organisation into churches, by building them up in knowledge, faith and character and by enlisting and training them for service.

While the missionary enterprise should not be diverted from the immediate and controlling aim of preaching the gospel where Christ has not been named, and while this work should have the right of way as the most urgent part of our task, it must ever be looked upon as but a means to the mighty and inspiring object of enthroning Christ in individual life, in family life, in social life, in national life, in international relations, in every relationship of mankind and, to this end, of planting and developing in all non-Christian lands self-supporting, self-directing and self-propagating churches which shall become so thoroughly rooted in the convictions and hearts of the people that if Christianity were to die out in Europe and America, it would abide in purity and as a missionary power in its new homes and would live on through the centuries.[1]


In this passage Mott does not seem to promote the notion of a task that can be defined in such a way as to know when it is finished, nor to define how much remains to be done. Despite the drive for the evangelisation of the world within a generation, the assumption seems to be that the task will be ongoing. This was not the view of some other missionary leaders and their views became significant in the development of the evangelical missionary movement over next century.

Two related factors were to play into this. The first is that eschatological vision in which the return of Christ may be hastened by the reaching of all peoples with the gospel. David Bosch’s discussion of the late-nineteenth-century mission movement identifies Matthew 24:14 as the major missionary text drawn upon by Grattan Guinness, A. B. Simpson and Fredrik Franson, founders of Regions Beyond Missionary Union, the Christian and Missionary Alliance and The Evangelical Alliance Mission. “Christ’s return was now understood as being dependent upon the successful completion of the missionary task; the preaching of the gospel was ‘a condition to be fulfilled before the end comes’.”[2]

In an industrial age, production management thinking began to be applied to work out how, with what resources, and how quickly this task could be completed. The American preacher, A. T. Pierson, “estimated the number of pennies and right-hearted evangelists required to bring about the millennium”.[3]

This second factor, the growth of a managerial approach to mission, came fully to the fore in the latter part of the twentieth century. In order to set about accomplishing the task within a definite timeframe, it needed to be more rigorously defined; resources needed to be deployed towards its completion; missionary leaders needed to be aware of the gaps in the completion of the task, and to prioritise those gaps.

People groups

Within the flow of such thinking, the concept of people groups emerged in the 1970s as a central tool in missiological thought. The concept began to be unveiled on the global evangelical stage at the First International Congress on World Evangelisation held in Lausanne under the auspices of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. This Congress led to what we now know as the Lausanne Movement.

Two contributors, Ralph Winter and Donald McGavran, both from Fuller Seminary, Pasadena, explored a categorisation of evangelistic activities based on degrees of cultural separation between the missionary evangelist and the community in which they were working.[4] This E-scale taxonomy has been used significantly in the United States but is less well known in the UK.[5] In outline it is as follows:

E0 = evangelism directed towards nominal Christians
E1 = evangelism into the non-Christian culture within which the church is at home
E2 = evangelism outside of the church’s host culture but to one which is similar
E3 = evangelism to a totally different culture

Both McGavran and Winter argued that evangelistic strategies needed to take these cultural differences fully into account. Linguistic differences, communication styles, points of cultural bridge-building and so on were critical contextual factors to be considered. They commented that such considerations were too often all but ignored by those being sent from their own cultural context and that those sending them had too little understanding of such factors.

Moreover, Winter’s analysis of global evangelistic activity in 1974 was devastating. He demonstrated that the majority of missionary workers’ activities, along with the resources supporting those activities, addressed nominal Christians or the nurture of believers. His accompanying analysis of the populations of different parts of the world led to a stark picture.

In the Western world of the day, 95% of workers were addressing themselves to the Christian and nominal Christian community. Only 5% of workers were specifically engaged amongst those who would not self-identify as Christians – this group making up 25% of the population. Winter argued that this balance was at least understandable.

In the non-Western world the situation was far less defensible. Here, 95% of missionaries addressed the minority Christian communities and those within immediate reach of them. The other 76% of the world’s population had no missionary serving them and no nearby church to reach out to them.

Winter concluded, “Brothers and sisters, this is a grim picture. The task to be done is big enough, but precisely where the cross-cultural task is the largest, the cross-cultural workers are the fewest.”[6] The point was well made.

Moreover, Winter argued that even where there were non-Christian communities within reach of Christian churches and missionary workers, it was not uncommon for these people groups to be hidden. Winter explores this concept as he expounds the immensity of the missionary task:

Far from being a task that is now out-of-date, the shattering truth is that at least four out of five non-Christians in the world today are beyond the reach of any Christian’s E-1 evangelism.

Why is this fact not more widely known? I’m afraid that all our exultation about the fact that every country of the world has been penetrated has allowed many to suppose that every culture has by now been penetrated. This misunderstanding is a malady so widespread that it deserves a special name. Let us call it “people blindness” that is, blindness to the existence of separate peoples within countries; a blindness, I might add, which seems more prevalent in the U.S. and among U.S. missionaries than anywhere else. The Bible rightly translated could have made this plain to us. The “nations” to which Jesus often referred were mainly ethnic groups within the single political structure of the Roman government. The various nations represented on the day of Pentecost were, for the most part, not countries but peoples. In the Great Commission as it is found in Matthew, the phrase “make disciples of all ethne (peoples)” does not let us off the hook once we have a church in every country – God wants a strong church within every people!

“People blindness” is what prevents us from noticing the sub-groups within a country which are significant to development of effective evangelistic strategy.

The immensity of the task, however, lies not only in its bigness. The problem is more serious than retranslating the Great Commission in such a way that the peoples, not the countries, become the targets for evangelism. The immensity of the task is further underscored by the far greater complexity of the E-2 and E-3 task. Are we in America, for example, prepared for the fact that most non-Christians yet to be won to Christ (even in our country) will not fit readily into the kinds of churches we now have?[7]

Winter’s concerns were clearly justified. The commission given by Christ to his church was (and remains) far from being completed. His statistical analysis, supported later by the publication of the remarkably influential Operation World, and the mobilisation efforts of mission promoters like George Verwer, brought to the evangelical world a fresh appreciation of the immensity of the unfinished task. It awoke the church to the short-sightedness and injustice of missionary resource deployment.

Moreover, his recognition that even within a comparatively reached geographical area there may be sub-groups unreached by the gospel has offered an important strategic tool. Perhaps two cautionary comments are justified, however.

Firstly, the assumption that the majority, nominally-Christian community in the West was separated from the church only by a “stained glass” barrier was grossly to underestimate the challenge being faced by the Western missionary movement in its own backyard. To be fair, Winter hints at this issue in the passage quoted above. Yet he assumes too readily that traditional church life could survive with little adaptation because the churches were accessible as they were to a sufficient number of converts from the surrounding culture. This Bible-belt view under-estimated the power and pervasiveness of secularism in the West. To this we will need to return.

This leads to a second observation. His conclusion that E2 evangelism would necessarily lead to the formation of churches culturally appropriate for its converts assumed that traditional church cultures were adequate as they stood. The reality in most urban environments in the West in the 1970s was that within a short time all churches needed to find ways to adapt so that they could embrace cultural diversity. Only rarely, and mostly in Bible-belt cultures, has it been possible to maintain vibrancy in traditional and unadapted Anglo-Saxon/Anglo-American mono-cultural churches in urban settings. This is critical as it bears on a conceptual extension to Winter’s argument – that of the “homogeneous unit” principle.

The coalescing of Winter’s cultural analysis and McGavran’s church growth interest had led to the view that E2 and E3 evangelism would lead to the formation of separate churches for those converted. This would be necessary in order for church growth to occur. The formalising of this strategy led to what became known as the homogeneous unit (HU) principle. Briefly stated, this argued that church growth could best be promoted through the formation of churches comprised of people who shared a common culture. This article is not the place to evaluate the principle, save to note its close relation to the concept of “people groups”.

UPGs and missionary strategising

Winter’s concept of hidden groups of people and HU thinking drove a veritable industry of missionary strategies based on counting “unreached people groups” as the standard measure of the unfinished task, with priority being placed on those which are “unengaged”. Within this framework, a people group remained unreached until a church had been planted in it which had the capacity to engage in E1, same culture, evangelism. The concept became of such importance as to be offered an agreed definition by the Lausanne Strategy Working Group in 1982: “For evangelization purposes, a people group is the largest group within which the gospel can spread as a church-planting movement without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance.”[8]

Again it needs to be acknowledged that much here is to be commended. In his seminal book “Let the Nations be Glad”[9], John Piper notes the clear pragmatic value of seeking to identify and reach various groups. The missionary task is not simply to reach as many individual people as possible. The Bible does indeed offer focus on the diversity of those communities to be reached. Piper goes on, however, to discuss in detail the ways in which the Bible describes humanity to be reached. He notes that the biblical language of diversity is itself diverse. The Matthean Commission encompasses panta ta ethne, “all nations”, which can too easily be misunderstood as a simple geopolitical description of nation-states, a clearly facile conclusion given the relative modernity of the nation-state concept as we know it. The fourfold “nations, tribes, peoples and languages” which forms a near-missionary chorus in Revelation 5-7 is augmented by patrai or “families” (Acts 3:23).

Given that the Bible offers these diverse categorisations of humanity, the challenge of defining the remaining missionary task on the basis of a count of “unreached people groups” is clearly not trivial. Piper goes on to note the difficulty even of counting the world’s languages with missionary human geographers’ estimates varying from 8,990 to 24,000.[10] [11]

Yet the thirst to develop such definitions has been unabated. The desire to manage the missionary task into achievable (and marketable) goals has been evident in the people group movement. Movements such as Adopt-a-people, AD2000 (swiftly followed by AD2000 and beyond) have engaged the evangelical community in sending and supporting vital effort to reach the unreached based on “people group” analysis.

At its zenith the movement demonstrated a remarkable degree of certainty about the nature of the missionary task and its “finishability”. A stunning example of this is to be seen in the conversation between mission leaders held under the auspices of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Amsterdam in 2000. Six hundred mission leaders had been invited to “talk about everything that had to do with the completion and fulfilment of the Great Commission”. In discussing the scandal that there were (as was calculated) 230 untargeted people groups, Bruce Wilkinson (Walk Thru the Bible Ministries) said to those assembled, “We lead the vast majority of the earth’s Christian army, in this room. And if we decided today, let’s finish it…”[12]

Wilkinson went on to challenge the delegates to consult with organisational colleagues present and to pick people groups of which they would “take ownership” to reach. Different leaders around the room agreed to take on one, two, three, more… until the last 60 of the 230 people groups were taken by a coalition of the International Missions Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, Campus Crusade and YWAM. The leaders were euphoric. Wilkinson described it in this way:

There was shouting in heaven, literally. I can’t imagine what the angels must have sounded like when finally the sons of men stepped up to the bat in such a way that Christ’s agenda, what he’s waiting to be completed, finally became our most important finishing line.

We need to be clear – these were major players in world mission. This was not some fringe event and those involved were serious-minded evangelical leaders. Yet here in the heart of the mission world, there was a sense that Jesus is waiting for us to set in place strategies to complete the task of reaching the unreached people groups, of which only 230 or so were left to go.

As a postscript to the account of this occasion we should note that it is currently reckoned that there are 3,180 unengaged, unreached people groups.[13] Those calculating the figures use the same basic definition of people group as the statisticians advising the Amsterdam meeting.

Rehabilitating the “Unfinished Task”

Against the background of such a remarkable claim to our capacity to finish the task through the management of human missionary resource, it behoves us to attempt to rehabilitate the notion of the unfinished task.

John Piper’s sober analysis of the meaning of people groups helpfully establishes that the NT evidence does not support a single tight definition of the concept of a people group. Still he maintains that the task is to reach all the people groups that there are. He certainly does not take the next step of suggesting that such a definition of the task would allow us to define and accomplish its completion so that Jesus can return. Rather, he concludes that “there is no good reason for construing [the Matthean Commission] to mean any other than that the missionary task of the church is to press on to all the unreached peoples until Jesus comes”.[14]

Timothy Tennent would take it further:

We must increasingly recognize that the language of “completion” [often used by the Church] can be comprehended only when missions is built on the foundation of Christendom, not on the foundation of the Trinity… [however], even when every person has had an opportunity to hear the gospel, or even if a church is planted in every people group of the world, missions will not be over. Once mission is linked inseparably to the triune God, then the church recognizes that the ultimate goal of missions can be found only in the New Creation. This does not negate important goals such as planting a church in every people group in the world. However, it does mean that the church must always live in the tension of “unfinished business.” The mission of the church (missions) is to participate in the missio dei by continuing the mission of Jesus throughout the world until the end of history.[15]

The task then is essentially ongoing. Its completion, rather than signalling Jesus’ return, will be heralded by his glorious Parousia.

Indeed, the history of the church in Turkey, North Africa and the Middle East makes it plain that a people once reached does not necessarily stay reached. The commonly used lists of unreached peoples include the descendants of those who once inhabited “Bible belts” of the early church; the unreached become reached and the reached become unreached.

This reflection is important for the increasingly unreached cities of the Western world. Many traditional mission agencies were born with a focus on the inland regions of European colonies and those areas within reach of colonial trading posts. These were the obvious unreached communities of their day. They were remote, often inhospitable, and relatively disconnected from what was known as the developed world.

Today, least-reached communities may be found in cities where there is strong gospel witness. Even where there are whole cities in Europe which lack gospel witness, they are accessible and highly developed. The barriers to gospel advance in such once-reached contexts are distinctly different from those which pertain to remote, never-reached peoples. They present new challenges to agencies and to sending churches to which we will return later.

Focussing the task – beyond people groups

Such a perspective means that we are released from defining the missionary task in programmatic terms – the reaching of everyone of a definable and countable set of people groups. We are freed from managerial, military-style mission which sees a cluster of people as a target to be picked off, to be engaged until a sustainable church is planted. We are freed from mathematical mission in which an ethnolinguistic population are worthy of mission engagement if 1% of them are Christians but not if 3% are. And yet, as Piper indicates, there is a place for focus, for prioritising in mission.[16]

The Apostle Paul focussed on places where Christ was not named (Rom 15:20f). Verse 20 could be understood as indicating a desire not to tread on others’ toes but v21 makes it clear, rather, that the issue is a sense of indebtedness (1:14) to those who have not heard. Moreover, this sense of indebtedness drove him to move from one context of ministry to the next.

Indeed, Paul’s explicit strategy of focussing on contexts where Christ is unknown, exemplified in the account of his ministry in Acts, is of a piece with the whole storyline of Luke-Acts – Luke’s Gospel is an account of all that Jesus began to do and to teach; Acts is the continuation. It is summarised in the prophetic words of Jesus at the end of Luke (24:46-49) and the beginning of Acts (1:8).

Acts records the phases of Jesus’ summary as the gospel moves from Jerusalem (Acts 1-7) to Judaea and Samaria (Acts 8-12), then out to the ends of the earth (Acts 13-). Moreover, the literary punctuation of the book draws attention to the barrier-crossing nature of the gospel in terms of Pentecost (Acts 2) and the mini-Pentecosts of chapters 10 and 19 where Jesus’ reign breaks out of the Jewish world to reach first God-fearing Gentiles and then pagan Artemis worshippers.

The story of Acts, which closes in such a way as to leave the clear impression that all that Jesus was continuing to do remained unfinished, has at its heart the crossing of barriers to proclaim Christ, expressing his love and compassion. It affirms Tennent’s conviction that our missionary task is nothing less, and certainly nothing more, than a participation in the missio dei. It is the missio Christi, in which he crosses barriers to reach the world of sinners he came to save.

In casting the missionary task of the church in this way, we are freed to revisit those passages from which Winter and others have drawn their understanding of people groups. We do not need fully to rehearse Piper’s careful discussion. He points to the fact that those passages that speak of the groups of people who will become beneficiaries of salvation describe them in a variety of terms – nations, peoples, tongues, tribes, families. In some cases only one term is used, in others they are piled on top of each other, as in Rev 7:9. Piper wisely concludes that,

God probably did not intend for us to use a precise definition of people groups so as to think we could ever stop doing pioneer missionary work just because we conclude that all the groups with our definition have been reached.[17]

Indeed so. Yet we could go further. Texts such as Rev 7:9 should warn us explicitly not to attempt to define the missionary task based on a singular definition of a social grouping as the unit by which we might count progress towards a definable point of completion. Rather, in the context, the use of four terms to describe the divisions of humanity might be seen as indicating that the salvific impact of the Cross will reach across all barriers including – but not limited to – political, linguistic, ethnic or other barriers between affinity groups.

Such a conclusion fits the wider context of Revelation 7. The previous chapter ends by prophesying the completion of the work of Christ in the gathering of the full number of the elect, symbolised in the 144,000. Chapter 7 makes clear that the number is symbolic by affirming that the company of the saved cannot be counted, rather like grains of sand or the stars in the night sky (Gen 15:5). This vast, but definite, number of the elect are united in being washed in the blood of the Lamb. Yet there is huge diversity; no facet of the diversity of the human race is missing; every barrier has been crossed by the gospel. This is what the finished task looks like. The picture is essentially one of universality, but the lines traced out by the artist’s brushwork are those of diversity and of unity.

Such a picture resonates with other New Testament material. In Galatians 5 Paul paints a picture of the unity of the church, deploying a pallet in which the colours of diversity are used. Here, however, they move beyond the language of geopolitics and ethno-linguistics. Paul includes status in society and gender within his taxonomy. Similar diversity appears in 1 Corinthians 1 where he considers the make-up of the church and notes that not many were wise, powerful or noble by the world’s standards – but the implication is that some were. We know that the earliest converts included people of all stations of life. In chapter 6 he speaks of a diversity of wickednesses, but then concludes his breviary of sin with the stunning assertion – “and such were some of you”. The gospel had reached into parts of society in ways which demanded the crossing of social barriers, even into communities characterised by one or more manifestations of human sinfulness.

Drawing this material together allows us to conclude that the classically understood concept of “people groups” has indeed been of huge value in drawing attention to the lostness of vast numbers of communities. However, if used as the only indicator towards mission strategy it may risk creating a new set of hidden peoples. The New Testament witness is that it is the Lord’s intention that the gospel will be carried across all barriers and will reach into every community, every stratum of human society. Moreover, in doing so the impact of the gospel will not be to create homogeneous groups, each reflecting one of the divisions that exist amongst human beings. Rather it will transcend and unite the full diversity of redeemed people, reconciling them into local church communities, each expressing a diversity which bears testimony to the uniqueness and power of Christ.

Such a vision of the missional intent of Christ means that any conception of the mission of the church which falls short of that glorious goal will leave the task not only unfinished but shamefully unengaged. Such a statement is not intended to contradict the 1974 call to reach the many distinct ethno-linguistic groups of people who lived and died without hearing of Christ. Rather, it is to expand upon it. The missional task is to seek out all those communities living behind the whole range of barriers between peoples, to cross those barriers, and to bear witness to Christ amongst those who have not heard. It is furthermore to seek to see those barriers transcended as the impact of the Cross brings the elect to understand that they have a new common identity in Christ and thus to embrace one another in new communities supernaturally constituted in Christ by his Spirit.

Renewing strategies for mission

There are indications that the missions community is revisiting the “people groups” orthodoxy which has prevailed over recent decades:

  1. Voices from the Global South have raised proper concerns that approaches such as those exemplified in the Amsterdam meeting reported above, along with the propensity for some agencies to withdraw workers and resources in order to refocus on Unengaged People Groups, betray an attitude which makes other peoples the objects of Western Christianity’s projects.
  2. The apparently insuperable difficulty of defining and counting UUPGs[18] as they have become known has served to challenge the concept itself.
  3. Moderate voices in the USA such as Piper’s have allowed the theological cracks in the concept to be opened out.
  4. The growth of diaspora ministries reflects a recognition that significant communities of recent arrivals exist in urban centres which may be geographically within reach of gospel churches but which are as far away culturally from them as those they have left in their homelands.

Many mission agencies have been adapting to these realities and have taken on board the missiological issues explored above. Some continue to use UPGs as the primary determinant of strategic priority. This is more likely to be true of those agencies which exhibit limited internal cultural diversity and thus are locked in a “from here to there” view of mission with its attendant cultural limitations.

Piper’s proper recognition of the value of the older UPG definition as a mechanism to aid prioritisation by both agencies and sending churches needs to be revisited. For sure, the needs of unreached peoples as traditionally defined are urgent, but the needs of many European cities are no less so.

Such a refocussing, away from the traditional definition of UPGs towards today’s communities where Christ is least known, will demand the development of fresh strategies for mission. Older strategies based on the economic, educational and technical capacities of the Western church will need to be replaced by strategies for engagement in workplaces as peers, in communities as neighbours, in places of learning as fellow students and researchers. Western agencies have tended to draw their workforces from the middle classes where Bible belt churches are strongest. This reality creates cultural and religious gaps to be crossed by workers if other sectors of European and North American cities are to be reached.

It also has impact on the identity of the missional worker. Missionary identity needs to consistently align with identity as an employee within a secular workplace, as a graduate student in a university, as a neighbour in a deeply materialistic community. Selection and training must take this into account. Financial arrangements for professionals and business people are markedly different than the traditional missionary sent to a desert tribe. Such changes are happening in the world of mission, but challenge the agencies at many levels – sub-cultural, organisational, financial, etc.

It also remains the case that some church leaders are behind the times in this matter as they consider where to invest the missionary giving of their churches. For some the priority of what they may call “frontier” missions continues to be shaped by a caricature of the unreached which is dominated by a narrow ethno-linguistic definition of UPGs.

Just as the contemporary missional challenge demands that the agencies learn new ways of being and of doing mission, so that same challenge has impact on how churches may identify, commission and support sent workers. Indeed it reinforces the need for churches to equip their members for local mission.

Whilst the need to send workers to foreign contexts remains, indeed is increasing, the huge challenge of mission in urban centres is becoming ever clearer. The spiritual needs of cities in India and China have long been recognised. Evangelicals in the US have been alerted in recent decades to the needs of Europe and its secularised cities. In Africa, mobilisation towards ministry in Europe proceeds on the basis of seeing Europe as the new Dark Continent. Yet the needs of a city like Chicago may be overlooked on the basis that there are significant known churches there. Notwithstanding this penetration of the gospel into the city, there are also significant communities in Chicago where people have almost no knowledge of the gospel and where church planting is desperately needed and is very tough. The same could be said of many other Western cities.

In the UK, recent research indicates that though some of the better-known evangelical networks are growing, the socio-cultural breadth of those church networks is often limited.[19] Specific initiatives such as 20schemes in Scotland seek to address this imbalance and are to be highly welcomed. But there is an ongoing need for the large church networks to build capacity so that their traditional core churches become effective in local cross-cultural mission.

It is arguable that the 1970s E-scale is waning in its applicability to today’s reality. The E1 category of a community of non-Christians within which the church is at home fitted the realities of 1970s USA. The notion that the post-Christian communities of Europe are ones where the church is at home is less and less tenable. Our churches exist in a context of hostility.

Yet it is not clear that UK or other European churches have moved beyond a Christendom model of witness; to do so means re-learning how to “love our enemies”, how to exercise “wise courage” and “courageous wisdom”. A practical understanding of such phrases is far more common amongst Christian in the Middle East, China or Pakistan. As much as the UK and Europe may benefit from incoming workers from Western Bible-belt churches, such workers will do well to be members of multi-cultural teams including colleagues from contexts where standing for Christ is tough. Meanwhile, UK churches will need to learn how to receive from those who were once colonised by us. The parents need to learn what it means to become dependent.

A number of skills are needed if we are to engage the unfinished task in our home and overseas contexts. The following observations are offered in drawing this article to a close as starting points for exploring the barriers to be crossed in engaging our task. They are cast at congregational level. This is out of the conviction that, at the end of the day, it is the church that matters. Yet they can readily be recast in order to think about the missionary task from a mission agency perspective.

Rejoicing in and reflecting diversity in church life – who is here?

Every congregation will exhibit degrees of diversity. The question is whether that diversity is noted, rejoiced in and reflected in church life. Our skill in crossing barriers to reach those who do not know Christ, is likely to be limited if church life makes unbalanced demands of those who already come to us. What we mean is this: If there are minorities within our churches for whom coming to church means undertaking a painful cross-cultural journey on a weekly basis, or if coming to church demands an assimilation which squeezes their sense of cultural identity, then we may have a lot to learn from their pain and its causes.

A church which fully reflects its internal diversity (cultural, linguistic, demographic, economic, etc.) in its corporate life will already be teaching all its members what crossing barriers means. This will be true not least of those who would otherwise form the dominant culture. They will benefit as they learn not to dominate with their powerful cultural preferences, but to rejoice in mutual submission. Such church life will inculcate first base skills that will allow it to cross the barriers existing within the wider community.

Critical to this transformation is the inclusion of people from diverse cultural and social backgrounds in a church’s leadership. Such is the rarity of truly diverse churches that the literature on diversity in church leadership is somewhat thin. However, anecdotal research suggests that where churches have broken out of mono-culturalism they have needed to include leaders from minority cultures. Indeed, some workers would reckon that if this does not happen the majority community will remain dominant at 80% or more of the congregation. Those from minority cultures consistently find themselves required to accommodate to the norms of the dominant culture.

Diversity in leadership allows breakthrough, but only if that diversity allows leaders from minority cultures to be themselves. This applies both to public leadership and to the way the leadership functions in decision-making. Perhaps the deepest challenge for the majority is to learn to receive leadership from minority culture leaders, and for majority culture leaders to facilitate that. For this to happen they will need to adjust how they structure and discuss in leadership meetings. Leading across cultures is a whole topic in itself and has been helpfully explored by Jim Plueddemann.[20]

Identifying local communities which the church is missing – who is not here?

Winter’s original concern in 1974 was that the unreached may be invisible to the reached. A majority or culturally-dominant community can readily fail to spot those who are missing from church life. The necessary process of discovery may be aided by careful research and intentional community engagement, yet in many cases a church may already possess much of the information it needs within its existing congregation members. In particular, those within the congregation who themselves reflect cultural margins will have insights that the majority community reflected in the church needs to hear. Their voice is critical but may be unheard unless leaders give time to listening. Local community leaders and workers with statutory agencies are also valuable collaborators in seeking to identify and understand the hidden parts of the community.

Identifying barriers as a means to discovering hidden communities – what’s in the way?

At times, barriers of different kinds – economic, social, ethnic, cultural, educational – can be so high that our knowledge of those living behind them is limited; the community is effectively hidden by the barrier. This may be true at all sorts of levels. What is certainly the case is that barriers tend to hide from view the things that shape a community from the inside.

A barrier may demarcate but not define the community behind it. A moment’s reflection makes this obvious, for the barrier works in both directions. From the perspective of the community that is hidden from our view we are the other side of the barrier. Yet we do not consider ourselves to be defined by it. Neither will they, yet the temptation is for us to define others by the barrier between us.

A first step, therefore, in engaging a hidden community may be deliberately to identify and cross a barrier on a journey of discovery. The process itself is one in which crossing points may be established. It will allow the believing community to discover those features of the hidden community which are less alien, or even attractive from the perspective of Christian values.

It will also highlight those features of the hidden community which will make it challenging to reach, and which will demand the greatest attention if members of that community come to faith and are to be integrated in the church.

Understanding the dynamics of division and gospel reconciliation – how to overcome?

The New Testament is full of material to assist us in an understanding of how societal divisions work and the ways in which the gospel reconciles. There are case studies – the Jerusalem widows, the conversion of Saul, the acceptance of Cornelius and his family. There is didactic material – Ephesians 2, Galatians 5. What is clear in the biblical material and in contemporary experience is that barriers between communities are rarely singular.

The Jerusalem widows of Acts 6 were divided by language, but the issue which came to the fore was economic. This is not uncommon. Take, for example, a relatively diverse church in an English city. It is populated by middle-class, white, British people and by upwardly-mobile graduate migrants many of whom came as students from Africa and were able to obtain well-paid jobs in the UK marketplace. Close by are two other communities: a white, British community where multiple generations have had no work; a predominantly Muslim, refugee community populated by people who have survived through and fled from oppression. Those in the latter community continue in survival mode, living on their wits, making a bit of money as they are able, below the radar of regulatory authorities.

From the church’s perspective the presenting barriers might well appear to be linguistic, racial or religious, but the most pressing social divisions may actually lie elsewhere. The poor, white British community may tend to feel aggrieved with all those of a different skin colour. Yet their real grievance is with those with whom they are in closest competition, the refugee community. The refugee community may feel envious of the upwardly mobile migrants who look like them but who are aspirational and successful in ways that seem out of reach.

Such deeper analysis of the dynamics of division between communities is vital if we are to understand how the gospel may bring healing and create a community of believers where diversity coexists with deep unity in Christ.

The finish

When Christ appears in glory the Holy City will be resplendent as a bride is presented to her husband. He will be its light and into her the kings of the nations will bring their splendour. The task of carrying the gospel to every community, not least to those where Christ’s name is not known, will remain unfinished until then. Until then…


We go to all the world
with Kingdom hope unfurled.
no other name has power to save,
but Jesus Christ the Lord.


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