Countries or Nations?

Our Lord Jesus made it very clear that He wants every person on earth to hear His gospel (Mark 16:15). It is humanly impossible for a few missionaries, or many, to speak to over seven billion people. But Jesus also gave us a strategy to reach this goal and obey His mandate. It is “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations…” (Matthew 28:19). If a few people from each nation are won to Christ and grounded in a local, self-propagating church, that church could then evangelize the rest of the group.

Jesus did not say to teach all countries but rather nations. We use these two terms interchangeably, but there is a difference. (If we speak of the Navajo Nation, we are speaking of an ethnic group of people living within the country of the United States. They have their own land, language, and cultural traditions.) There are 195 countries in our world today, but there are thousands of nations, or ethnic groups. Perhaps our failure to fulfill God’s Great Commission is due at least in part to our view that countries are nations.

Some churches have the worthy goal of supporting a missionary in every country. As good as this sounds, it may not accomplish the goal. Traditionally, our approach has been to reach the cities and hope the gospel filters down to the rural areas or preach in the major language and hope that the message somehow filters down to the ethnic languages. For the most part, this has not worked. It’s time to target the people groups and languages within each country.

Consider the eastern African country of Mozambique. The official language is Portuguese. A Baptist missionary sent there will need to learn this language and there are language schools to help him. But Portuguese is spoken as the first language by only seven or eight percent of the people. Thirty percent understand it only to varying degrees. However, there are forty-two other languages spoken there. We should send at least forty-two missionaries to Mozambique with the goal of learning the Portuguese trade language (to deal with government officials), and also one other language (thus targeting each language group). This strategy is being used by some missionaries, but is seldom practiced by Baptists.

Three words explain why we Baptists don’t usually apply this strategy: ignorance, inability, and impatience. First, some may be ignorant that there are so many nations and languages. They do exist! Furthermore, we fail to understand people’s need to hear heart matters in their heart language. (We heard the message in our language; why demand that others learn of Christ in a language they only partially understand?) Thank God, our ignorance of these truths is dissipating.

Secondly is the problem of inability. It’s not that we cannot; we simply have not learned how. Bible colleges fail to adequately prepare the missionary. Check out the websites of our Bible colleges and you will rarely find courses dealing with language learning or linguistics. Missing also will be culture learning, Bible translation principles, literacy training, and other skills needed to communicate to the nations. As a rule, Americans begin as students. We can  learn material only if there is a class to sit in and a teacher to direct us. But among the ethnic languages and people there are usually no schools, teachers, or books. We need missionary learners, not students. A student, when given specialized skills and a new prospective, can be converted into a learner who knows how to undertake the study of new cultures and languages (even unwritten ones).

The last obstacle in reaching the nations is impatience. The missionary naturally desires to reach his field quickly, and so he should. Pastors and churches also expect him to get there quickly. Even if the missionary is told about specialized, pre-field training, he is usually too impatient to take the time for it and fearful of what his churches will say if he does. He may have a burden for a ethnic group, but without linguistic skills, he can only attempt to reach them in the ineffective trade language. Most of his supporters have never learned a new language or communicated the gospel cross culturally and grossly underestimate the enormity of the missionary’s task. Some expect glowing reports of conversions, baptisms, and churches established; this probably will not happen quickly with the ethnic group. In frustration, the missionary may move back to the city where the trade language produces better results. The folks back home won’t notice or care as long as he is still in the country; they will be happy with results.

If we are to reach every creature, we must reach each nation. It has been nearly two millenniums since our Lord gave us the assignment, and there are still well over seven thousand of them that are unreached.  We must give top priority to them.

Other groups are doing it; we fundamentalists can do it, too! We just need to make some changes. We must eliminate the ignorance and replace it with a clear vision of Christ’s plan. Our inability must be conquered with specialized training. Impatience must be replaced by an understanding of the complexity of the task and the willingness to take the time to do it well. Otherwise, the unreached nation continues as it has always been—unreached. And the Great Commission is still the Great Omission!