In the late 188Os, prominent American evangelist D. L. Moody enthusiastically led an Anglo-American clarion call to spread the Christian Gospel to all the world by 1900, and thus set the stage for the return of Christ.
The missionary efforts fell far short of their goals, however.
Now in the late 1980s, a number of Christian groups--emboldened by technological advances, research data and redefined measures of success--have targeted AD 2000 for the fulfillment of what is known as Jesus' "great commission" to evangelize the world.
The Southern Baptists and the San Bernardino-based Campus Crusade for Christ are among a host of evangelical Protestant bodies that have found the turn of the century a suitable target for reaching the "unreached peoples." A well-financed Roman Catholic project with the backing of the Vatican, "Evangelization 2000," hopes to give Jesus a "2,000th birthday present" of a world that is 50% Christian.
Obstacles Are Daunting
However, the obstacles are daunting:
Some countries, especially Communist and Islamic governments, bar evangelism. Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board officials, meeting Dec. 9, said a growing number of the world's 235 countries are closed to a traditional missionary approach. They said 44 are closed or are extremely difficult to enter and 52 allow only limited access. One estimate says that 3 billion of the world's population is inaccessible to professional, resident missionaries.
- The majority of non-Christian people--notably Muslims and Buddhists--are "resistant" to a religious conversion, not simply people who have been neglected by Christian missions, according to one authority. By the same token, Muslims are active spreading their faith in many parts of the world.
- Much of the Christian world has little desire to seek conversions and some would question attempts to convert believers from the other great world religions. Missionary work for mainline Protestants and many Catholics means a low-key witness to faith and helping Third World people with medical, agricultural and educational needs.
- The declining value of the U.S. dollar in relation to other currencies and missionary attrition form a two-headed problem. Denominations have found it increasingly expensive to maintain, much less expand, overseas personnel and programs. Besides the retirement rate, it is thought that as many as half of all new missionaries do not stay beyond their first term, according to the 13th Mission Handbook of the Missions Advanced Research and Communications Center in Monrovia.
- The ratio of Christians in the world population is less now than it was in 1900, according to the Mission Handbook. Whereas an estimated 29% in the world were Christians in 1900, about 23% were in 1985.
Success or failure over the next dozen years depends largely on how the goals are defined, but serious obstacles remain even with redefinition of what it means to "spread the gospel."
David Barrett, editor of the authoritative World Christian Encyclopedia, has calculated that the world's nations were 51.3% "evangelized" in 1900, 68.4% in 1980 and 72.7% in 1986. He estimated that the world will be 83.5% evangelized by the year 2000. A country is considered "evangelized" if its people are "aware of Christianity, Christ and the Gospel."
Barrett's World Christian Encyclopedia has designated Bangladesh, India and Japan as "evangelized" countries despite their respective Christian populations of 0.4%, 3.3% and 1.4%.
The criteria have been criticized by Robert T. Coote, former managing editor of Eternity magazine who wrote for the 13th Mission Handbook. Coote cited the encyclopedia's "blindness" to nominal Christian countries and for the portrayal of certain countries "as more evangelized than they really are."
The most commonly used figure on "unreached peoples" has been 17,000--arrived at by Ralph D. Winter, a former Fuller Theological Seminary professor and the founding director of the U.S. Center for World Mission, headquartered in Pasadena. Winter estimated that 7,000 peoples--defined by language, ethnicity, culture, social status and religion--have been "reached" with the Gospel.
Winter follows a distinction worked out in 1982 by World Vision's Ed Dayton, representing the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, and several other key mission leaders. A "people" was defined as the largest group within which the gospel can spread as a "church-planting movement" without encountering barriers of acceptance and understanding.
The "unreached" was defined as a group in which there is "no indigenous community of believing Christians with adequate numbers and resources to evangelize this people group without outside assistance."
The goal of identifying unreached peoples is tied directly to fulfilling the "great commission" of Jesus.
"When Jesus commanded us to disciple all 'nations' (Matthew 28:19-20)," Winter said, "he was telling us to disciple all people or tribes--ethnic groups--in the sense of the Cherokee nation." Many evangelicals, including Winter, link the fulfillment of the "great commission" to the Second Coming because of Matthew 24:14 and other biblical passages.
"No one I know is trying to predict when Jesus will return," Winter has written, "but many are convinced that it is possible for every tribe and tongue and nation to have a resident church community by the year 2000, a goal which might be one of the bases for the return of Christ."
At the same time, Winter has indicated that the year 2000 was not picked because of any biblical imperatives linked to that year, but simply because of the dramatic effect that completion of the missionizing task would have at the turn of the century.
Winter warned that enthusiasm and support for the missionary task could be sapped if conservative Christians get caught up in a new wave of speculation about Armageddon, such as was exemplified by the popularity of books by Hal Lindsay in the 1960s and 1970s.
At the optimistic end of the evangelical spectrum is Campus Crusade's Founder-President Bill Bright, whose New Life 2000 campaign calls for $5.5 million in initial funds to establish 5,000 training centers around the world. Campus Crusade, which occasionally uses satellite television broadcasts to train its leaders, has been using the two-hour film, "Jesus," as an evangelizing tool. The movie, based on the Gospel of Luke, is available with dubbed-in dialogue in more than 100 languages.
Following a Sept. 17-18 meeting in Dallas of a wide range of mission agencies, Bright said that proclaiming the Gospel to everyone is possible. "We have the technology and the money, but the main stumbling block is the lack of prayerful concern on the part of Christians," Bright said.
At the skeptical end, observers have been recalling the failed goals of the past. When world evangelization was not reached by 1900, evangelical leaders then called for its fulfillment "in the present generation." Twenty-five years ago, evangelist Billy Graham called for it to be finished in one decade.
"Let us be modest, lest our grandiose goals presume upon the sovereignty and mystery of God," Coote wrote.