When it comes to missions, we often hear reference to “The Unfinished Task,” or, sometimes just “The Task.” I’ve heard it presented as our mission agency’s slogan, other times it seems to be offered as the key to mission strategies. This term is often left undefined, but its implications are disconcerting. What is our task? As individuals, we are accountable to the leadership of the Holy Spirit in whatever form of service He has for us. As disciples, we have been instructed to “go and make disciples all nations.” Many have received a specific calling to some sort of international service. We call these people “missionaries.” But as a missions organization, it seems we have misunderstood that mandate to mean that we are to bear the burden of strategy for global evangelization. We have meetings of committees and leaders in which we try to map out a plan to reach the unreached. We calculate “need” and “priority” based on what we think will “get the job done.” But maybe we’re getting ahead of God. Maybe it’s a mistake to allow the “lostness” of a people to dictate our strategy for the work we do. Perhaps we’ve fallen into the trap of depending on statistics to determine how many missionaries we send and where. After all, how do we measure “lostness,” “need,” or “priority?” Does the number of churches in a given country or among a given people group determine its status before God? What if those churches are dead, ineffective, and irrelevant? What if, by the disobedience and unfaithfulness of God’s people the gospel leaves a place that was once “reached?”
We depend on the terms “lostness,” “unreached,” and “the Task” to provide a standard by which we can measure our success. They were invented by strategists to help us get a handle on what we’re doing, and to assure the people back home that we’re making progress. We recently received a strategy report from the home office, in which our leadership outlined our strategy for the coming year. Basically, it stated that our organization needs X number of missionaries on the field in order to “finish the task.” They looked at the number of “unreached” people groups and decided that if we placed missionaries from our organization among those peoples, our job would be done. This plan was passed by the board and sent on to our leadership in the field. But this is a case of the performer dictating the standard by which his own performance should be measured. By sending out brochures and flyers and promotional videos, we teach people that success is possible and tangible and just around the corner. This works well to show that we are professionals who know what we’re doing. We’re in control, and you can trust us to use your donations well. But the basic ideas behind the strategy we teach and follow are flawed.
The first problem with “unfinished Task” strategy is that it maintains a static view of a dynamic world. We use terms like “the final frontier” to refer to those people that have yet to hear the gospel in a way that they can understand and respond to. Most of those people live in certain area that covers northern Africa, the Middle East, India, and most of Asia. The idea of the “10/40 window” was first proposed and promoted by Donald McGavran and C. Peter Wagner in the early 1970s. It says that as the church, our task is to reach all of the unreached people groups in the world with the good news. They said that the 10/40 window was the Last Frontier of the gospel, and that we needed to focus our energy and resources there. But casting this “Final Frontier” as the last place on earth that has never heard the gospel really overlooks a few things. Firstly, that the heart of the 10/40 window is precisely the geographical region where Jesus himself preached His message. The disciples were sent out from this place where the gospel supposedly never has been!
Secondly, the “Final Frontier” ignores the fact that people groups change. Through moves and intermarriages and other societal changes, some people groups have ceased to exist. Today the world is full of dead languages and lost cultures. At the same time, new people groups are being born all the time. Forty years ago, it would have been ridiculous to talk about “the Homosexual Community” or “the Postmodern World,” but today, these are people groups; they have culture and language unique to them.
Most importantly, a focus on the 10/40 window’s “unreached” people groups assumes that once a people group is “reached” with the gospel, it will always remain so. My time in Western Europe, in a “Christian” nation full of empty churches and faithless people, has taught me otherwise. Just as by faithful people the good news comes to a people, so too, by unfaithful ones, does it leave a people after just a few short generations.
The idea of “lostness” as our motivation is not a new one, but it is based on human logic rather than what the Bible says. In His “Olivet Discourse” (Mt. 24- 25, Mk.13), Jesus answers the disciple’s questions about the time and events of His return. “…and this gospel will be preached to all nations, and then the end will come.” Many missionaries and missiologists use this verse as a foundation for their “unfinished task” motivation. But the verse is meant to be descriptive rather than prescriptive; that is to say, Jesus is here providing a general idea, setting the background for the time of His return, not giving a mandate or outlining a strategy for global missions.