FeatureEvangelism & Discipleship

Finishing the Task? (Part 1): A Cautionary Analysis of Missionary Language

The church must be careful not to present the Great Commission as a numbers game.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, technological advances and transportation opportunities have made it conceivable for the first time in history that a single generation of Christians might be able to both access and evangelize all of the world’s peoples.

To this end, missionary agencies have employed mottos such as “Finish the Task” to rally Christians to complete the work of world evangelization. Often such efforts are connected to Matthew 24:14 where Jesus promises that the gospel of the kingdom will be preached to all nations before the eschaton. Such mottos imply that the missionary task is coterminous with world evangelization. Yet the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18– 20 will not allow for such a reduced conception of the essential missionary task. While world evangelization is a vital component of the Great Commission, missions strategies must not allow the promise of Jesus to distract from full obedience to his command.

Introduction

In Genesis 12 Abraham receives the promise that his offspring will be a blessing to the nations. Revelation 7:9 provides a picture of the future consummation of this promise. In this passage, men and women of every nation, and all tribes, peoples, and languages surround God’s throne shouting praises to him whom they call “our Lord.” This vision is part of the great Christian hope that has sustained believers from the earliest days of its writing. It is a vision that many have expected to dawn in their day. Today, many continue to expect the Lord’s imminent return, suggesting that the Great Commission might soon be finished and will usher in Christ’s return.

In the foreword of his book Then the End Will Come, Jim Montgomery, founder of DAWN ministries, writes, “For as I look at what is happening in the Church and in the world, I feel the prophetic word welling up within me that the consummation of the age is at hand. It is within our grasp to actually complete the Great Commission and thereby pave the way for the return of the Lord.”1 In similar fashion, Steve Smith, the author of T4T, writes, “The completion of Matthew 24:14 is approaching: This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and THEN THE END WILL COME!”2

These sentiments are pervasive in missions literature through the words of prolific theologians, missiologists, and missions strategists who espouse similar ideas about the completion or finishing of the task of the Great Commission.3 With all of the information, technology, and transportation available to believers today, it is not only conceivable that every people group might be reached, but actually possible for perhaps the first time in history.4 It is hard not to join wholeheartedly in the excitement of these men and women as they urge the church forward, just as a marathon runner who can see the finish line approaching summons all her reserves of energy, in order to finish the evangelization of the world with a flourish.

However, a caution might yet be in order. The church has not been given the task of mere world evangelization. Grander than this, she has been given the task of making disciples of all nations. Mathew 24:14, the verse cited by Smith above, promises that world evangelization will occur, yet the completion of world evangelization is not coterminous with the completion of the missionary task left to the church. Matthew 28:18–20 calls the church to a task that cannot be completed until Christ’s return. This paper will argue that confusing the promise of Matthew 24:14 with the command of Matthew 28:18–20 can result in a diminution of the missionary task. To this point, it would seem that missions mottos such as “Finish the Task” and “Bring back the King” could distract from the essential missionary task as given in the Great Commission.5

The church has not been given the task of mere world evangelization...she has been given the task of making disciples of all nations.
Matt Bennett

In order to demonstrate this claim, a brief historical survey of missiological developments since 1900 will be conducted. Following the survey, this paper will investigate what is written in Matthew 24:14 and Matthew 28:16–20. Finally, this study will conclude with some suggestions as to how missiological tools and strategies might be analyzed, not for their capacity to complete the Great Commission, but for their contribution to Great Commission obedience.

“Finish the Task”: Historical Development

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, great effort has been directed toward the completion of world evangelization. A grassroots movement calling itself the Student Volunteer Movement (SVM) began around the motto, “The evangelization of the world in this generation.”6 Around the same time as this missions emphasis was developing, the Scofield Reference Bible was published.7 Partly due to the popularity of this dispensational study of the Bible, various influential voices in the United States wed the concepts of world evangelism and dispensational premillennial eschatology.8 This particular view of the end times expects the imminent return of Christ prior to the thousand-year reign of Christ’s kingdom on earth. One of the signs of Christ’s coming is world evangelization, as promised in Matthew 24:14.9 Thus, some efforts towards world evangelization simultaneously became efforts to “Bring back the King.”10

While not all those focusing on world evangelization were premillennialists, nor were all premillennialists dispensationalists, this theological perspective paired particularly well with missions excitement such that, “It is impossible to fully appreciate the twin emphases on world evangelization and the Second Coming in closure strategies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries apart from dispensational premillennialism.”11 The excitement of seeing Christ proclaimed in every territory in the near future coupled with the idea that world evangelization would “bring back the King” led many missionaries and missions agencies to put their re- sources exclusively towards “providing all people with the opportunity to hear the Gospel.”12

Unoccupied Fields

Building on this growing interest in missions, a major conference was held in 1910 in Edinburgh, bringing missionary delegates together representing missions work around the globe.13 This conference focused on “unoccupied fields” that would need to be targeted in order to finish the job of world evangelization.14 The conference resulted in a fresh effort among missions agencies to establish a Christian presence in lands and territories that currently had none.15

πάντα τὰ ἐθνη

In the years between the Edinburgh 1910 conference and what would be another landmark conference in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1974, many missions agencies advanced into territories formerly unreached with the primary goal of evangelization.16 However, as would be pointed out by Ralph Winter in Lausanne, the Greek root translated “nations” (ἔθνη) in both Matthew 24:14 and 28:18–20 means much more than the individuals living within geo-political boundaries: “[ἔθνη] points to the ethnicities, the languages and the extended families which constitute the peoples of the earth.”17 Geo-political territories often contain many of these people groups, each of which must be able to receive the gospel in a linguistically and culturally meaningful way.

Ever since Winter brought this ethno-linguistic, relationally-based “people group” concept to the fore of evangelical missiology, much time and research has gone into the process of charting the number of those people groups who are yet unreached.18 Organizations like the Joshua Project have provided the world with an up-to-date listing of known people groups along with noting which are engaged with the gospel, which have been “reached” with the gospel, and which remain without a known gospel witness.19 These are all helpful developments that bring clarity to the cultural and ethnic realities present in the world in which we live. The Joshua Project sheds light on the peoples of the world—wherever they are and whoever may surround them—who are yet in need of the gospel and the opportunity to become disciples of Christ.

Matthew 24:14 and the Missionary Task

Despite this appropriate enthusiasm for the idea that the ends of the earth could soon hear the gospel, there remains a troubling conflation of promise and command in some of the literature. This conflation can lead to an overemphasis on rapidly reaching the unreached with the gospel, often at the expense of full obedience to the command to make disciples and to teach them to obey all that Christ commands.20 The missionary task becomes reaching, with robust teaching being jettisoned as of secondary priority. In part, this may be due to missions strategies that root themselves in Matthew 24:14, seeing in it a command to evangelize all the earth’s peoples.

Winter provides a clear example of this conflation when he writes, “What matters most is not that the peoples can be counted, but that God has given us a task that can be completed.”21 Again, he states, “Matthew 24:14 makes it clear that we must make it our first priority to see that every people has a living testimony of the gospel of the kingdom. . . . [the irreducible, essential mission task] is in fact the only task given to his people that actually has a completable dimension to it.”22 Here, in a discussion of Matthew 24:14, Winter refers to the task left to the church to complete: evangelization of the world’s peoples. As this essay intends to demonstrate, however, world evangelization is but a partial aspect of the missions task given in the Great Commission.

What matters most is not that the peoples can be counted, but that God has given us a task that can be completed.
Ralph D. Winter

This survey has shown that the trend toward using Matthew 24:14 as a chair text for evangelical missions began long ago. As David Bosch records, “During the second half of the nineteenth century several missionary leaders and the mission organizations they founded . . . began to use Matthew 24:14 as the major ‘missionary text’. Christ’s return was now understood as being dependent upon the successful completion of the missionary task.”23 One sees this trend, then, in the progression from the SVM and dispensational premillennialism through Edinburgh and to Lausanne. Still today, a global network of missions agencies called “Student Volunteer Movement 2” (SVM2) exhibits this tendency clearly, claiming that “the fulfillment of the Great Commission centers primarily around Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24:14.”24

Surely evangelism is a first step toward discipleship, church planting, and teaching believers to obey all that Christ commanded. Likewise, it is right that Christians should be motivated to go anywhere to bring the saving gospel of Jesus to all who are perishing without it. It is fitting that urgency to proclaim God’s goodness to everyone should undergird strategy. However, if, in an attempt to hasten the promise made, one’s strategy or method drifts abroad of robust obedience to the full command given in Christ’s commission, readjustment is required.


Editor’s Note: This article is part 1 of the Finishing the Task series.


1. Jim Montgomery, Then the End Will Come (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1997).

2. Steve Smith, “No Place Left Novel: Hastening,” noplaceleft.net, http://no- placeleft.net/tag/steve-smith/.

3. Cf. John Piper and David Mathis, eds., Finish the Mission: Bringing the Gospel to the Unreached and Unengaged (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012); Ralph D. Winter and Bruce A. Koch, “Finishing the Task: The Unreached Peoples Challenge,” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, ed. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, 4th ed. (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2009), 531–46; Edgar J. Elliston and Stephen E. Burris, eds., Completing the Task: Reaching the World for Christ (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1995); Rondal Smith, “Finishing the Task,” in Completing the Task: Reaching the World for Christ, ed. Edgar J. Elliston and Stephen E. Burris (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1995), 115–36; Montgomery, Then the End Will Come.

4. Winter and Koch, “Finishing the Task,” 531–46.

5. David J. Hesselgrave, Paradigms in Conflict: 10 Key Questions in Christian Missions Today (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005), 288. Hesselgrave is here citing a list of such mottos as compiled by Todd M. Johnson, director of the World Evangelization Research Center.

6. Ibid., 282.

7. Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 455.

8. Hesselgrave, Paradigms in Conflict, 284.

9. McGrath, Christian Theology, 455.

10. David M. Sills, Reaching and Teaching: A Call to Great Commission Obedience (Chicago: Moody, 2010), 18. Sills notes that entire strategies focus on the idea that reaching all people groups will bring Jesus back.

11. Hesselgrave, Paradigms in Conflict, 283, 286.

12. David J. Hesselgrave, Today’s Choices for Tomorrow’s Mission: An Evangelical Perspective on Trends and Issues in Missions (Grand Rapids: Academie, 1988), 49.

13. Zane G. Pratt, Michael David Sills, and Jeffrey Kirk Walters, Introduction to Global Missions (Nashville: B&H, 2014), 127.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, 20th anniversary ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2011), 396.

17. Winter and Koch, “Finishing the Task,” 533.

18. Harold Fickett, “A Genius for God: Ralph Winter’s Recasting of World Evangelization,” Int. J. Front. Missiology 31.2 (2014): 85; Hesselgrave, Paradigms in Conflict, 188–92.

19. The Joshua Project, “Bringing Definition to the Unfinished Task,” https://joshuaproject.net.

20. Cf. Sills, Reaching and Teaching, 15; Bosch, Transforming Mission, 397; Craig Ott and Gene Wilson, Global Church Planting: Biblical Principles and Best Practices for Multiplication (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 78. Contra Garrison, Ott and Wilson prioritize healthy over merely rapid reproduction of churches.

21. Winter and Koch, “Finishing the Task,” 533.

22. Ibid.,” 534, 539. It should be noted that Winter is here speaking of a people-movement to Christ, which is a forerunner to the idea of CPMs. Elsewhere Winter is more robust in his understanding of the missionary task, but in this article he draws it, troublingly, from Matthew 24:14.

23. Bosch, Transforming Mission, 316.

24. “Student Volunteer Movement 2,” SVM2.com, http://www.svm2.net/about-us/what-is-the-great-commission/.

About the Author

Matt Bennett is an Assistant Professor of Missions and Theology at Cedarville University. Previously, Matt served as a missionary in North Africa and the Middle East. Matt holds a Ph.D. in missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Follow Matt on Twitter.

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