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The Watchword Report: What Mean These Stones?

by Jay Gary and Todd Johnson, Mar 15, 1999 Watchword Report

The book of Joshua recounts how a new generation, after reaching the west bank of the Jordan, set up twelve stones at Gilgal (Joshua 4:20-21) to provoke future generations to ask, “What do these stones mean?” The Watchword in World Missions consultation, likewise, was an act of stone-piling for future generations. Under the auspices of the Christian Futures Network, some 16 leaders gathered in Colorado Springs on March 15-16, 1999 to mark the 20th anniversary of “A Church for Every People by the Year 2000.” Our consultation theme was taken from the call of Jeremiah as a prophet to the nations, where the Lord said, “I am watching to see that my word is fulfilled” (Jeremiah 1:12). We looked at seven topics during our time together.

During the consultation we reflected on the past 20 years, and what the Watchword had brought forth. We affirmed that “A Church for Every People by the Year 2000” was a call to a new generation. In 1979, it focused the call to “frontier missions,” which Dr. Ralph Winter had been giving since the 1974 Lausanne Congress. During the consultation, Winter observed that the watchword brought a paradigm shift, toward reaching peoples, rather than just countries; toward forming churches, rather than just winning souls. We rejoiced in the fact that the Watchword gave birth to the Perspectives Study Program and the Caleb Project which exposed thousands of people to the power of unreached peoples thinking and shaped the life calling of hundreds of missionaries. In the late ’80s, the second half of the watchword, “by the year 2000” gave birth to an AD2000 vision. As we entered the ’90s, national evangelism strategies, confessional decades of evangelism, and mission and intercession strategies were all empowered toward the 10/40 window by the millennial milestone. [ icon-topTop of Page ]

We looked back at previous calls to world mission related to century’s ends. We reflected on how the 1886 watchword,”The Evangelization of the World in this Generation,” was first seen as a century-end call to finish world evangelization by the year 1900. When that campaign lost steam, YMCA leader, John Mott, kept the sense of urgency alive after 1900 and convened the Edinburgh World Missionary Conference in 1910. After World War I, the SVM watchword was recast into an open-ended call, for each generation to be responsible to evangelize its own generation. In 1939 Mott lamented that the priority list of fields, drafted at Edinburgh 29 years earlier, were still unoccupied, only their populations had increased. Dr. Todd Johnson informed us that the 1900s started with 15 percent of the missionary force working among the least evangelized. This number peaked shortly after 1910, then began to decline. By the mid-’70s, less than one percent labored among the unreached. By the ’90s, that had climbed to 2.5% of the total missionary force. Johnson felt there have been more than enough missionaries to establish “A Church for Every People” at any point during the 20th century, yet equitable field selection strategies had not been put into practice by enough mission agencies, even though the total number of missionaries worldwide had increased seven fold since 1900. On this basis, we affirmed that the “crisis of missions” is still with us in the year 2000. We conclude the 20th century with some 4,000 ethno-linguistic peoples (about 10,000 people groups) still unreached. These peoples comprise some 1.6 billion unevangelized individuals. [ icon-topTop of Page ]

As a consultation, we then turned our attention to possible scenarios of world evangelization in the 21st century. A model of futures forecasting was presented, in which one first looked at the probable future, then contrasted this with a preferred future in order to ask what change could be introduced now to arrive at an alternative future, more in line with the ideal. Todd Johnson presented one possible scenario of change where missionary deployment toward the unreached would triple over the next twenty-five years, largely through third world missions. Factoring in these variables this scenario for the year 2025 would still leave 2,500 ethno-linguistic groups, or a population of 1.6 billion individuals without the gospel. In response to this scenario, some felt it was axiomatic that the church was at the end of the age, with world evangelization and the return of Christ imminent. Others questioned this assumption, and felt that on the eve of 2000, we ought to strive for a new accountability and authenticity, both before God and the church, as to the role of human responsibility in world mission. Rather than fall back on apocalyptic assumptions, or remain in denial about a near static mission field, we were encouraged to press forward into “future fluency”–which calls for better decisions today which enable the creation of more preferable futures tomorrow. [ icon-topTop of Page ]

Seeking to give context to the millennial madness surrounding 2000, Jay Gary challenged us to think biblically about the church of the third millennium. He asked, “What does it mean to be a Christian at the outset of the 21st Century?” He posed the WEF question, “How can we think wholistically, contextually and globally in our engagement with the world, rather than embrace reductionistic and managerial missiology?” We acknowledged that the church is approaching the end of the modern age, instead of the end of the world. What epoch will follow, is still uncertain, whether a global age, an information age or a space age. Whatever world history brings, we affirmed it will not replace, nor transcend the eternal aeon which Christ brought forth through the New Covenant. A missiology of the future needs to acknowledge our post-modern situation, and continually call humanity to enter that New Order in space and time. On this basis, we can be open to future horizons, whether the near-term or long-term future. We can believe God for the emergence of a worldwide church, not just a European church. We can have faith for a Pacific century, and an Indic millennium. We embrace the transforming call of Leslie Newbigin: “For the church to call for a new kind of society, she must herself be a new kind of society.” We considered how frontier missions could be seen as a call to world civilization (cf. Ephesians 2:21), rather than just a stage toward world evangelization. [ icon-topTop of Page ]

Dick Eastman, of Every Home for Christ, brought the morning message, challenging us to weave the “cords of closure” through prayer. He noted that leaders from the last century felt their effort suffered from two neglects, lack of cooperation and lack of prayer. Eastman pointed us to “God’s epilogue on the history of humanity,” found in Revelation 11:15, where loud voices in heaven proclaimed, “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.” What caused this? Eastman found the answer in Revelation 8:1. “When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.” In quoting Walter Wink, he read, “Heaven itself falls silent, the heavenly hosts and celestial spheres suspend their ceasely singing, so that the prayers of the saints on earth can be heard. The seven angels of destiny cannot blow the signal of the next times to be, until an eighth angel gathers these prayers and mingles them with incense upon the altar. Silently they rise to the nostrils of God. Human beings have intervened in the heavenly liturgy. The uninterrupted flow of consequences is damned for a moment. New alternatives become feasible. The unexpected becomes suddenly possible because God’s people on earth have invoked heaven, the home of the possibles and have become heard. What happens next happens because people prayed.” Eastman claimed the message is clear: history belongs to the intercessor! We affirmed together that prayer is the key to removing every obstacle that stands in the way of world evangelization. [ icon-topTop of Page ]

We inquired how a new agenda in world missions for the new century might be built. We felt that agenda should affirm the whole of Christian mission to the whole world. We affirm both the mission of forming new communities of faith, and calling them to use the sciences and humanities to restrain natural and human evil. The gospel, therefore, is that call into the community of New Creation which makes all things new in Christ. It brings healing to persons and whole peoples and redeems all cultures, all sciences and all ways of life. As we enter the third millennium, we asked how world Christian leaders could engage in an international conversation to create a “Global Action Plan” for mission which might embrace this wholistic mission, help mission agencies focus on global priorities, increase cooperation, refine tactics, decrease duplication, and monitor agreed upon standards. [ icon-topTop of Page ]

Finally we looked at whether the watchword of “A Church for Every People” ought to be reframed for a new generation. Beyond sloganeering, we considered how a future “governing metaphor” in world mission might reflect a cluster of values most needed for a global age. We felt that if a watchword was to emerge, it should be a transformative call to the whole church. Brad Sargent, of Golden Gate Baptist Seminary, helped us consider how both narrative theology and systematic theology could contribute to a new call in the new century. He also suggested that a new watchword, if it was to emerge, could suggest both qualitative and quantitative growth. On the question of whether any future watchword in world missions should establish a time target, a range of opinions prevailed. Some mentioned the value which a time horizon provides, others preferred a more open-ended generational sense of mission. We concluded by giving thanks, for having been able to gather on the 20th anniversary of the Watchword. We look to continue this conversation with the church from now through 2001. We welcome other invitations from other countries to continue this global conversation.

[This report was later printed in the International Journal of Frontier Missions.]

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