From the end of the book of Acts until today, the Gospel of the Kingdom has spread geographically as well as culturally down the centuries. Despite setbacks and human failure along the way, God has been faithful to ensure that His purposes are accomplished – that men from every tongue, every tribe, every nation, and every people should be blessed in Him.
During the present era we see that the Two-Thirds World missions have taken up the baton from their Western missionary counterparts. Through all these stages we are always aware of one thing; that the people who received the Light of faith had to either pass the Blessing on or have it taken away. God has remained true to His Word which has continued to flow through each epoch of history. Starting like a small stream it has grown into a mighty river.
The Church has spread, not only to different countries but, to different "pockets" of people within them, of many varied cultures. The Protestant tradition launched several great mission pioneers, one among whom was William Carey. Carey was the first to be convinced that world evangelization was a priority with God and the very basis for Biblical revelation. He published a pamphlet entitled, An Enquiry Into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen, in which he challenged his contemporaries to form the first Protestant mission agency and then went himself as a missionary to India. Carey was to face great opposition. The British trading company viewed the Indian people purely from a commercial point of view and so they feared the influence Carey had on them. Carey's Enquiry challenged the hearts of many throughout Europe and the United States. His life's work in India inspired people and resulted in the birth of dozens of mission agencies and his ministry inaugurated the First Era. The First Era of modern missions focused on the coastlands of the world.
The mid 1800s saw Hudson Taylor arrive in China. After some time Taylor discerned that there were many more millions in the interior who had no way of hearing the Gospel. His concern for inland China led to the formation of the China Inland Mission in 1865. This burden for the interior of large countries constituted the beginning of the Second Era in Missions History.The Second Era of modern missions focused on the interior of large countries.
Other mission agencies caught the vision and the Gospel spread through the interiors of Asia, Africa and South America. Churches were planted all over the world. Alongside this successful era of mission expansion, an almost unnoticed Third Era began. Third Era of modern missions focused on language, ethnic, racial and social barriers.
Two men were to make the greatest impact on this era. One of them was Cameron Townsend. While serving as a missionary in Guatemala, Townsend began to realize there were many unreached tribal groups within that geographic nation, who spoke languages different from Spanish. They were being overlooked because linguistic barriers kept them from understanding and receiving the Gospel.
The other was Donald McGavran in India who discovered another obstacle to the spread of the Gospel – ethnic or socio-cultural barriers. He noticed that the Gospel could spread significantly within one particular cultural group but not cross that cultural barrier into another different group. That second group needed to be penetrated separately.
These two men focused the attention of the Christian world on the unreached or hidden people groups who, because of linguistic, racial, social or cultural barriers could not, as yet, be reached by the Gospel.
There was always a period of transition from the focus on the present era to a new one. While new agencies continued to mushroom and meet the need in unreached frontiers, older missions remained in the participating stage of church building, educating and socially developing new Christians.
The apostle Paul had a good balance of always moving forward to meet those who had not heard the Good News while leaving behind those who would build the new church as a mission-sending base. The spread of Christianity has served to improve education, business ethics, alleviate suffering and improve social conditions in a variety of ways throughout the world. God has been working among, and through, His people.
New research helps us today to strive for self-propagating, self-governing, self-supporting, culturally relevant churches. Earlier, some cultural misunderstanding by missionaries caused them to separate their converts into mission stations that prevented the Gospel from permeating the mainstream of their societies. It also created unhealthy dependency and paternalism. Let us learn from the lives of great men and women of faith who accomplished great things for God. Their examples provide models of inspiration and insight into actual mission work. Their obedience to the Call has changed the history of the world.