In 1974, Ralph Winter introduced the paradigm of his now famous e-scale. The idea behind the scale is that there are degrees of cultural distance which separate reached peoples from unreached peoples. The most extreme distances are categorized as E3, which would be like a Norwegian taking the gospel to the pygmies in the Congo. As you go down the scale you get to what we will be examining in this paper, the subject of near-cultural missions. What Winter observed forty years ago is that there has been a gradual decrease in the necessity of E3 missions to reach the final frontiers. Two hundred years ago, over 90 percent of frontier peoples required E3 missionaries to be reached. Today, according to Ralph Winter’s estimates, it is less than 1%.
The idea of cultural and linguistic bridges was first proposed by Donald McGavran based on his reading of Scripture and his observations in mission field contexts. His landmark book, the Bridges of God, written in the 1950s is regarded as the birth of the church growth movement. The concept here is that God is sovereignly creating opportunities for the unreached to come into contact with the gospel through the intersections of languages and cultures caused by urbanization, migration and globalization.
What McGavran and Winter observed in the 20th century has now greatly increased in the 21st, and the result has been a massive acceleration of world evangelization, as both predicted would happen. While we can rejoice in this, it is also evident that this opportunity presents its own set of challenges for fulfilling the Great Commission mandate to disciple all peoples. This is especially true in the area of indigenization, a not too dissimilar challenge to what was faced in the Book of Acts by Greek Christians in Antioch.
DEFINITION AND EXAMPLES
By way of definition, near-cultural missions can be defined as reaching unreached people groups through sending missionaries from geographically, culturally, and linguistically proximate people groups. This has also been referred to as proximate missions. In contrast to the Western approach of sending foreign missionaries from far away places, proximate mission asks the question: Who is nearest to those who need the gospel? If foreign missions are involved, they are serving to be a catalyst and equipper of those who are closest geographically and culturally to the unreached peoples in their country or region. Missiologist Tom Steffen referred to this trend as the “fourth era of missions”, using the paradigm of Ralph Winter’s “Three Eras of Modern Missions.” Dr. Steffen described this era as characterized by “catalytic mission”, by which he meant an era increasingly defined by partnership between nationals and expats to reach the remaining frontiers.
To a large extent, this era has been made possible by the incredible progress of the previous three eras of Protestant mission. The result of sending well over 250,000 American and European missionaries has resulted in at least 500 million evangelical believers in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In this time period, over 2,500 peoples have become majority Christian. In contrast, less than 100 peoples were majority Christian two centuries ago.
(By the way, Ralph Winter also proposed a fourth era of mission, which he called the Kingdom Era, predicting among other things that the new movements to Christ in the final frontiers would be 1) Kingdom-centric—not bearing the labels of foreign denominations, yet seeking broader unity within the Body of Christ, 2) would embrace integral and whole-church mission—focusing on both the breadth and depth of the gospel, and 3) would be increasingly insider in their approach—creating Biblical alternatives to the Western expression and identity of Christianity.)
Today we are witnessing new harvests coming in among Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists at a pace never before seen. A recent study documented over 600 church planting movements among these three blocs that did not exist 20 years ago. In these movements are now over 50 million believers. Most of these movements came about through the partnership model identified by Dr. Steffen. We may very well be in the midst of a new global awakening that will radically alter the face of Christianity and human history. Many of these movements do not use the traditional labels we have exported around the world, choosing instead to create their own unique, culturally appropriate labels, such as the Yesu Bhakta movement in Northern India.
We can expect this to continue, and that such movements will take unexpected turns, defying our conventional missiology. All of this is to the good. We need the Holy Spirit to bust up our conventions now and again. We have often assumed, for example, that near neighbors are not the best missionaries to one another, because near neighbors are usually bad neighbors. It seems a universal principle that human beings are naturally tribal in our orientation, xenophobic, prejudiced and ethno-centric. We freely discriminate when we feel threatened and our nationalism is easily stirred by those who want to keep the outsiders out and build higher walls to keep the insiders in. Basically we are very good at building our own prisons. But inherent within the gospel is God’s mission of reconciliation, which is both vertical and horizontal in its application. God desires to reconcile us to Himself and to one another. Remember, God did not exempt Abraham from praying for Abimelech, or Jonah from going to Nineveh or the disciples from reaching the Samaritans.
Not too long ago I was talking with a Chinese friend of mine in Malaysia. He remarked how difficult and dangerous it was for Chinese believers to reach out to Muslims in his country. He suggested that perhaps others should come from afar and they would be more successful. While this sentiment is perfectly understandable, it is nonetheless completely unbiblical. This unfortunate view misses the whole point of God’s sovereign intent, who placed us side by side for the very purpose of accomplishing His mission. What we are witnessing today is that when the transforming power of the Holy Spirit is at work, it matters little what the chasms are between us. And in fact, Jesus came to make this possible—to be the bridge across the divide.
I remember one morning when I was living in California, I opened the door to find the LA Times on the porch with the headline “Blacks and Latinos Worshipping Together.” It was a story about their Easter morning sunrise service, where two prominent ethnic churches had gathered together the previous day. Now why did this make the front page? Well, if you’re from LA you know that Blacks and Latinos do not get along so great as a generalization. So when thousands came together in solidarity, this was news. The world looked up and took notice. What was it that brought them together? Just one obvious factor, Jesus Christ—the gospel displayed in living color for all the world to see.
A similar phenomenon is taking place in the Middle East today, on a much larger scale. One hundred years ago, Turkish soldiers invaded the homeland of my Armenian ancestors and killed an estimated 1.5 million people. For Armenians, this wound is still very fresh, as if it happened yesterday. (By God’s grace I was never taught to hate Turkish people, but rather to love and forgive them. Now only Christ can do that. In fact I believe we Christians have been given a monopoly on forgiveness—God so designed it that forgiveness can only be accomplished through God’s supernatural enabling found in Jesus Christ.)
As a result of the Armenian genocide, Armenians were scattered all over the world. Some went to Iran, and here God had a plan for them which looks like something straight from the Book of Acts. In the 1980s God spoke to an Armenian pastor in Tehran named Haik Hovsepian about the need to start reaching Persians with the gospel. He began using Farsi in his services and developed contextual Bible studies and worship songs for Persian believers. When the government discovered what he was doing, they ordered him to stop. He refused. Eventually one of his Persian disciples was arrested and sentenced to death. Haik didn’t give up. He initiated an international campaign to keep him from being executed. His campaign worked, and the man was released. But that same day both would be brutally martyred by Muslim extremists.
At the funeral, many Persian believers came to pay their respects, knowing full well the secret police were documenting all who were there. The courage of Haik and his Persian friend inspired a whole generation to boldly proclaim their faith. Though the Armenian churches were closed and forced to go underground, God used this as the necessary means to covertly disciple and train the steady stream of Persian believers who were looking for truth. Today, there are thousands of underground house churches all throughout Iran and an estimated one million believers. The children of Haik continue to broadcast the gospel via satellite along with others. It is conservatively estimated that over 40 percent of the population of Iran has heard the gospel through these satellite programs.
God is now raising up Persian pastors, evangelists and leaders. He used Persian-Armenian refugees to get things started. He used a martyr. But from out of this tragedy has come a harvest no one can stop, and the whole Muslim world is now talking about. Twenty years ago, few would have predicted such a thing was possible. But our God is that amazing. He chose to turn fear and hate into love and hope. That’s what our God does, that’s who he is, and the whole world is about to know it, and see it.
This is why Jesus taught his disciples, “blessed are the peacemakers”. It was precisely because he was sending them out into the conflict-zones of the world, into the darkness of prejudice, unforgiveness and hate to shine His light of love, hope and grace. This is also why proximate missions is so important. Like nothing else can accomplish, near-cultural mission most clearly demonstrates the power and truth of the gospel of grace. Of course we all believe this, but we have sometimes wrongly assumed that it has to wait—that reconciliation cannot happen as the lead—as a primary methodology of mission. Yet when you look at Scripture, you find that is exactly what God intends to do.
Recently I learned of a movement in Myanmar among the Rakhine Buddhists that demonstrates this beautifully. Thousands are coming to know Jesus in a house-church movement along the Western coast of Myanmar. The movement is highly contextual—they pray, for example, with their hands upright, together but unfolded in the Buddhist style. Now as Jesus is transforming their hearts, he is also giving them a burden to reach out to their neighbors, the Rohingya people. At first glance this might seem like a terrible idea. The Rohingya are in the midst of being ethnically cleansed by their Buddhist neighbors. But that may also be the very reason why the witness of these new Rakhine believers is so outstanding and effective. Being sensitive to the need for contextualization, when they came to the Rohingya, they came as culturally appropriate as possible. Their female missionaries covered their heads to show respect for the Rohingya’s Muslim culture. They had the wisdom to teach new believers to pray in a way that was culturally relevant to their context. They also saw that they needed help economically, and so they created businesses to employ them—no strings attached. It wasn’t long before God raised up a local Rohingya leader who caught the vision and begin evangelizing his own people. The transfer was complete! You see, as the adage goes, it only takes a spark to get a fire going, and many times the heat from a burning fire among one people group is all you need to get the process started in another. In fact, wherever there is sufficient gospel movement heat you can expect that to happen. When it doesn’t happen, buyer beware! Such lifeless Christianity is not worth living for.
Another good example of proximate mission is happening today in the country of Chad. The early missionaries there reached the South of the country, which was mostly animistic. They did little to reach the northern Muslim areas and were discouraged from doing so. Today the capital city of Ndjamena reflects this reality even though it is located in the north of the country. There is an invisible line down the middle of the city dividing the Christians in the south and the Muslims in the north. There are no churches in north Ndjamena and Christians have been afraid to go there—until recently.
A group of MBBs from the central Guerra region in Chad have dared to open a school there and are actively evangelizing the Chadian Arabs who live there. The Guerra region is a geographical bridge between north and south where 5,000 MBBs have come to faith in Christ. Though the MBBs from Guerra are not Arabs, they speak Arabic with a much purer accent than their Southern Christian counterparts in the city, who prefer French. The Guerra believers have turned out to be the perfect bridge to reach the Chadian Arabs and other northern peoples. Now, does this exempt everyone else from participation? Obviously not. While this has been happening, God has also been awakening the Southern Christian diaspora that has been scattered through government jobs all over the country. In every northern Muslim city you have at least one church made up of Southern Christians. In the past they have done little to reach their Muslim neighbors, but today, this is beginning to change.
Recently a group of Southern Christians, in partnership with believers from the Guerra region, went door to door to every home in the city of Mao, the capital of the Kanem province. The people who live there, known as the Kanembu, are a completely unreached group of 750,000 people. In this small evangelistic campaign more Kanembu came to Christ than ever before in history. It was less than twenty out of a town of 10,000 people. But that’s a beginning. Now they must believe God to soon raise up Kanembu pastors, teachers and evangelists. Eventually, the proximate outsiders must step aside, allowing the Kanembu church to develop their own expression of their faith.
One more example must be given, which is quite different from the others, but with the same principles applied. In India, near-cultural missions is often vertical rather than horizontal. In other words, it is defined by degrees of separation created by India’s complex social hierarchy—reaching up the social ladder as opposed to reaching across linguistic or geographic barriers. In the beginning missionaries to India planned to reach those at the top first, expecting that breakthroughs among the forward castes would guarantee everyone else could be reached as well.
It didn’t turn out that way and instead the first mass movements began at the bottom. As a result of foreign missionaries being removed from the country after India’s independence, the gospel has been forced to trickle up instead of down. It has been slow going to be sure. Yet the progress we have observed has been achieved in a way that may have seemed completely counter-intuitive to the early foreign missionaries. Untouchables at the bottom are reaching those closest to them on the social hierarchy and gradually the gospel is moving its way up. At the same time, through the Holy Spirit’s enabling, from time to time the gospel movement makes a giant leap. In the city of Hyderabad there is a Dalit pastor whom God has given a ministry of healing. As a result of this over 500 from the wealthy Reddi caste have become believers. Normally these two groups would never interact at this social level. But now these Reddi believers are building this Dalit pastor a 20,000 seat capacity building in the heart of Hyderabad.
Does this sound familiar? God did something similar with the early disciples, the untouchables, you might say, from Galilee. He could have started with the elite, pharisee educated, citizen of Rome, Paul of Tarsus. But he decided to start with fishermen, carpenters, prostitutes and tax collectors. This trend continued throughout the Roman Empire, and to this day all over the world. Not many of you were wise, influential or of noble birth, Paul wrote. But God choose the uneducated and the weak, the poor, the slaves, and the illiterate to shame the wise and the powerful. He did this to demonstrate His power and illuminate His glory in the most brilliant way for the darkest places of our human condition.
BIBLICAL AND HISTORICAL MOVEMENTS
The Bible has much to say about near-cultural missions from beginning to end, and the continuation of the story in Christian history has much to teach us that is still relevant for today.
One of the first examples of near-cultural mission in the Bible is the encounter between Abimelech and Abraham in Genesis 20. You may recall, Abraham wrongly assumes there is no fear of God in this place, and so he lies about his wife Sarah, resulting in disaster for Abimelech’s family. Yet we find Abimelech readily responding to God when he encounters him, in the first instance of what you might call “accidental mission”—basically God accomplishing his purposes in spite of us. Here in this story we see the first instance of repentance in Scripture. It is also the first time that the words pray, dream, healing, and prophet are found in the Bible, all occurring in the context of a near-cultural missional encounter.
Another similar pattern can be found in the story of Jonah and Nineveh, where again our proximate missionary assumes the Ninevites are much further from God than they actually are. When they sincerely repent he can barely handle it. In both stories, the recipients of mission come out looking much better than the missionaries themselves!
Now move forward to the time of Christ, and you see something parallel in John 4. Here we have what you might call the first short-term mission trip in Christian history, when Jesus takes the disciples into Samaria. In his encounter with the Samaritan women Jesus defies all the conventions of the time, and all the rules we traditionally teach in cross-cultural missions. His “man of peace” in this case was a woman who had the worst reputation in her village. Yet Jesus choose her to be the first evangelist to her people. He was looking for where the hurt was and where the receptivity was greatest. Now you may recall the disciples went off to get lunch, probably in the very same town where this woman was from. What they could not see is that this entire village was about to enter into the kingdom of God. Jesus ends the lesson by exhorting the disciples to lift up their eyes for the fields are white and ready for harvest. Then he makes this remarkable statement, “I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor” (John 4:38).
God’s work in the world is often compared to a harvest, and what this means is God is sovereign over the times and seasons when movements shall occur. When they happen, we need to be ready. We need to lift up our eyes and get ready to work. I believe we are in such a moment today in human history.
Finally, in the Book of Acts, we see perhaps the best examples of near-cultural missions in the Bible. In fact, I believe it is the thesis of the book. Luke documents for us the way in which the gospel breaks out from the Jewish cultural sphere into the Greco-Roman world. In Acts 11 we see this in detailed form. We are told that believers who were scattered from the persecution in Jerusalem went out and talked to Jews only. But some from Cyprus and Cyrene shared their faith with Greeks as well in Antioch. Now why was that? What made the difference? Here was the key to God’s strategy. These believers were Hellenistic Jews—a blend between Jewish and Greek culture. They were a bridge between two worlds. As a result of this transference, the first major breakthrough occurred in the Greco-Roman sphere, leading to millions of conversions in the centuries to come.
Luke was part of Paul’s team and he faithfully documents Paul’s unique strategy of identifying the bridges of God wherever they went. Paul understood that God had prepared the nations for the gospel by scattering the Jewish diaspora in major cities around the world. His strategy was to go into these cities where such cultural and linguistic bridges could be found, and evangelize the Gentile “god-fearers” who had been attracted to the light found in Judaism.
Donald McGavran describes this process as follows in the Bridges of God: I quote
“There were Gentile servants in Jewish homes, and Gentile patients of Jewish physicians, and Gentile officers under the influence of Jewish teachers, and many others. Each one was a small bridge into the Gentile community. Paul sought to bring them all into the existing Christian movement which started out by being Jewish and ended up with the conversion of the Roman world. But at the outset he preached Christ mainly to a limited group of Gentiles, those Gentiles who were predisposed to become Christians by their Jewish contacts. . .
By means of “the Gentiles on the bridge” there came to be in town after town within a comparatively short time a considerable number of Gentile converts who remained in close organic connection with large numbers of unconverted relatives. These new churches which had in them now large numbers of Greeks, were immersed in a Greek milieu (meel-you), and a People Movement among the Greeks was underway. (p. 34)”
We can see in this a deeper understanding of what the “fullness of time” actually meant. God sent his son at just the right moment to capture the progress that had been made from three centuries of Jewish diaspora development from Spain to the China Sea.
Acts also records for us what happens when two proximate cultures diverge in their expression of the gospel. The first church council in Acts 15 was the result of this divergence. What came out of the council was very promising – for the first time we see articulated in Scripture the essentials of the gospel – that it is by grace through faith we are saved. In fact you might say that all of Paul’s subsequent letters were written to Gentile churches to help them understand the decision of the Jerusalem Council and more importantly how to apply it. This process reveals the value of mission for the health of the church. It is through attempting to transfer the gospel from one culture to another that we often rediscover the essentials of the faith ourselves.
This same process of gospel transference, and even reformation, which we see documented in Acts was repeated in hundreds of places throughout the world in the first few centuries after Christ.
In North Africa we observe significant breakthroughs among the Latin speaking diaspora, more so than what first occurred in Italy. Why might that be? The answer is probably similar to what took place among the Greeks in Antioch. It is often at the edges of a culture where you find the first open doors. In both cases, it was among the dispersed Greeks and Latins where we see the first strong churches emerge in these cultural spheres. (Note that Paul’s letter to Rome was not addressing Latin Christians but written to the Greek and Jewish diaspora living in Rome.)
A similar story could be told of the breakthrough among Assyrians. It first began at the intersections of Jewish, Greek and Assyrian culture in Adiabene, which was not too far from Antioch. Later it spread into the heartland of the Assyrian culture found in modern-day Iraq. The Assyrians were the gateway people to Asia, and their early conversion was a significant step in reaching the region for Christ. Their language was the lingua-franca of the East, like Greek and Latin in the West. By the fourth century they had fully converted to the Christian faith. They evangelized far and wide, sending missionaries into Persia and Central Asia, and as far as China, Japan and India. They also evangelized in Arabia. But like their Latin brethren they made the mistake of imposing their language and culture on those they reached. Some speculate this was one of the reasons for the later emergence of Islam. This same factor also inhibited the gospel from advancing in India through the Malayali speaking believers who eventually adopted Syriac as their liturgical language.
In the 7th century, in the sovereignty of God, He allowed the rise of the Arab empire, which suppressed the spread of Assyrian missions and isolated Europe from the rest of the world for the next 800 years. Some believe this was a judgment on his Church for compromise with idolatry. One thing seems sure, had Islam not emerged as the religion of the Arab empire, very likely the Christian movements into Central Asia would have spread into Siberia and then across the Bering straight into North America via the Inuit peoples who bridged both continents. In Africa, the movement among Ethiopians and Nubians would have eventually spread into sub-saharan Africa to impact the Bantu peoples as they were migrating southward. But instead, the proximate mission movement had been broken and sealed off, largely confined to Europe for the next eight centuries.
By the time of the Protestant reformation, the process in Europe was largely complete and every European people had experienced Christian movements in one form or another. From this continent a new mission effort would be launched that has transformed the whole world. Today we are in a new era that is witnessing the recovery of proximate missions as the principle driving force for gospel advance. Now after many centuries of European missions, and the widespread extension of the Christian faith, the process of proximate missions that was interrupted in the 7th century is accelerating with great momentum as it once did before. This reality holds great promise for the fulfillment of the Great Commission in our generation.
Ten years ago, there were over 3,000 unengaged people groups identified, who had never received their first missionary. At the last Finish the Task gathering in December 2019, it was announced we are down to less than 500. This means we are engaging new peoples at the rate of between two to three hundred per year. Ninety percent of these new engagements are occurring in the context of near-cultural mission.
PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS AND CHALLENGES
There are numerous challenges to consider as we pursue the Biblical strategy of proximate missions. Three challenges in particular are of pressing concern.
The first is the challenge and opportunity of an emerging global youth culture. Within almost every people there is a younger generation emerging that has vastly different influences from the previous generation. Although we can say this has been generally true throughout history, it is happening at a pace now that is without parallel, and perhaps will never be seen again at this level of change and contrast. This trend has the effect of creating almost two people groups within every people that require unique approaches to the gospel. However, rather than see this as an obstacle, we must consider the possibility that God is raising up these interconnected, hybrid social groups as a kind of superhighway for proximate missions. Through social media, universal education and global commerce, young people are increasingly being influenced by the same phenomenon in real time. In many cases, these “globalized” young people are the first responders to the gospel among their people group. It is essential that we give adequate vision to these emergent believers to reach back into their families (and in some cases to reconnect with them) for the sake of the gospel. Each of the first-fruits of the gospel among a frontier people group must understand their significance in God’s plan – that it’s not just about them. God is seeing their entire family network and he has appointed them as his ambassadors of grace.
The second area is that of Scripture access. The emerging trend today in the Bible translation world is to equip mother-tongue speakers to translate the Bible in their own language. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? But unfortunately 90% of our translations in existence were not done this way. As a result, many of them are not being used. Most of these translations have also fallen victim to the same factors that make proximate mission possible. Nationalization, regionalization and globalization have created demand for Bibles in the languages that people are educated in, not necessarily the language of their people. However, there is real concern that this trend may inhibit reaching back into that older segment of the population being left behind by modernization. One solution has been to produce hybrid, parallel versions that have the mother-tongue on one side, and the national or regional preference on the other. This is working quite well in Mexico today.
The third area is the challenge and opportunity of emerging technologies for evangelism and discipleship. Here again we find a double-edged sword. Technology gives new believers access to the gospel in unprecedented ways, but may also hinder leaders from growing in maturity, as they are tempted to import ready-made resources from other cultures. Modern technology will soon take this trend to a whole new level. For example, the day will soon come when hologram technology will enable believers everywhere to participate in services half-way around the world, in real time, as if they were actually there. Holograms will enable gospel presentations to be made through compelling three-dimensional dramas—imagine Jesus standing before you in life-size, interacting with his disciples, and then turning to the audience to call them as well. Worship teams will be assembled with the flick of a switch, just like rock-stars are being resurrected from the dead to perform concerts all over the world today. It’s a church in a box, with a ready-made drama ministry, worship service and teaching staff. We may laugh at the thought now, but it is not too far from becoming a deadly serious reality. You and I will live to see it. For many of us this may sound rather dystopian, but for future generations what I have just described will sound completely normal. So, the question is, how do we get ready? Well, if you want to be the first to develop a made-for-hologram Christian drama, you better get started now! Kids will be making these in their basement someday. But as it relates to proximate mission, the solution to this challenge is likely the same as with any technology. Rather than avoid it, we need to empower and train locals to use it appropriately, and to develop their own content as they deploy it. Contextualization should take care of itself in due course.
Finally, I would like to recommend three suggestions for our consideration as a global mission community.
First, I believe we should do more to encourage international missionaries to consider proximate mission strategies as a first approach when reaching frontier areas. Again, the question here is “Who are the closest believers to those I am seeking to reach?” Very often it is in this discovery phase that we find the bridges we are looking for, whom God has already prepared for us to equip. Barnabas did this with Paul, and Paul did this with Timothy.
Second, I believe we should do more to encourage proximate missionaries to empower local leaders in taking the lead on the process of indigenization. Intentionality, as Paul and Barnabas did with Greeks in Antioch, is usually required to get this process started. Local believers need to be instructed about how to pursue their freedom in Christ with the Holy Spirit and His Word as their guide. In such a context, the proximate outsider should act more as a consultant than a driver of this process.
Third, I believe we should consider a global mission survey project and process that identifies where bridges for the gospel are emerging and recommend strategies for engaging them. This is one way we can collectively lift our eyes to the fields, as well as that of churches everywhere, who are often unaware of the significant bridges to unreached people groups right in their own backyards, even in their own fellowships.
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with each of us as we pursue the millions of bridges to the harvest which God is creating in every people and place to reach every person with his love and redemption, in what may be the final ingathering before his coming.
David Bogosian serves as chairman of the Coalition on the Support of Indigenous Missions. He is the author of Eternal Vision and Operation 10/40 Window. For ten years David served in the Philippines with the Frontier Mission Fellowship as a researcher and consultant for the Adopt-A-People program. He is the senior editor of the Global Mission Database for the Global Network of Mission Structures.