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The Crisis of 1900 and Today

by Dr. Todd M. Johnson, Mar 1, 1999

moody“I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, ‘Moody, save all you can.'” -D.L. Moody

This well-known remark by one of the greatest evangelists in the history of Christianity typified a burgeoning movement to evangelize the world by the end of the 19th century. 1  The movement had its genesis in the idea that a generation is responsible for the evangelization of all those alive in the world. Presbyterian pastor and close colleague of Moody, A.T. Pierson, tirelessly advocated this idea, setting off a debate in 1881 with an article entitled “Can the World Be Evangelized in Twenty Years?”

Pierson answered his own question, “Why not! These are days of giant enterprises in the interests of commerce, science, art and literature. Why not carry the spirit of sanctified enterprise into our religious life and work! I wish by voice and by the aid of the press to set forth a practicable business proposition, namely, that before the year 1900, the gospel shall be preached to every living soul!” Pierson hoped that enough of that enterprising activity could be redirected towards missions to evangelize the whole world before 1900.

By 1885, Moody, Pierson, and others meeting at Moody’s Northfield Conference, penned a joint declaration, “An Appeal to Disciples Everywhere” in which the authors announced the strategy “If but ten millions, out of four hundred millions of nominal Christians, would undertake such systematic labor as that each one of that number should, in the course of the next fifteen years, reach one hundred other souls with the gospel message, the whole present population of the globe would have heard the good tidings by the year 1900!” Pierson recognized the inherent dangers in the lack of coordination in such a plan and further proposed an international conference to divide up the unevangelized world.

Dividing up the world. Or not.

Indirectly the appeal led to the London Conference of 1888. There mission leaders congratulated each other on what had been done but never got around, as planned, to dividing up the remaining task. Pierson, attending the conference, warned the attendees that “the world will never be converted or evangelized at the present rate of progress.” His concern was an ongoing strategic shortcoming of the missionary enterprise. He wrote “Here has been the great mistake of the church, even in her missionary era! Christ’s principle is DIFFUSION; our practice is CONCENTRATION. We emphasize conversion, while he emphasizes evangelization; and so our human philosophy counsels us to convert as we go, and so increase the converting force. The effect is that we keep tilling a few little corners of the world field, sowing them over and over, until the soil loses power to yield, while tracts a thousand miles square have never yet borne the tread of the sower!”

The problem of concentration was a strong theme in the earliest days of the Student Volunteer Movement which began two years earlier at Moody’s 1886 Mt. Hermon conference. Stanley P. Smith, one of Cambridge Seven from England, spoke to the students with this illustration. “Imagine the disciples are here distributing the food, and that this great assembly is the hungry multitude that is waiting to be fed. They go to the first row of benches distributing the food, and to the second, and the third, and the fourth, and so on to the eighth row. But at the end of the eighth row they stop and turn back to the first, and feed these eight rows again, pouring bread and fish into their laps and piling it about them, leaving the starving multitudes behind uncared for. What do you suppose our Lord would say if He were here? Let us take the parable to ourselves, for this is what we have been doing. We have been feeding these nearest to us over and over again with the bread which our Lord has given us, and have neglected the multitudes beyond.”

This story, and many like it, provided much of the impetus to the movement of 100,000 students who signed a pledge to give their lives for foreign missions. Their slogan “The Evangelization of the World in This Generation” was a further expression of their commitment to diffusion instead of concentration.

After London, Pierson and many others continued to stress the possibility of an evangelized world by the year 1900. One of the most serious proposals was set forth by J. Hudson Taylor in 1889 showing that an army of evangelists could blanket China, reaching every person in five years time. Taylor established the China Inland Mission in 1865 on the principle that missionaries in China were concentrated in the coastal areas. He believed in and practiced diffusion so that by 1900 he had spread nearly 1000 missionaries all over China. Nonetheless, Taylor’s plan to evangelize all of China was not fully realized.

In spite of hundreds of declarations and resolutions by mission agencies and churches, the year 1900 came and went with the world not fully evangelized. Pierson attributed this failure to a lack of consecration in the church-evidenced by a lack of giving, faith, personal holiness, and perhaps, most of all, prevailing prayer. The result in Pierson’s words, was a “trifling with souls.” However, at the heart of the failure was the continued concentration of missionaries working among those who had already heard the gospel.

Concentration in the 20th century

More remarkable is the fact that over the entire 100 years of the twentieth century, 9 out of every 10 missionaries sent out by the church went to work where the church already existed. The 20th century started with about 15% of the missionary force working among the least evangelized. This number peaked shortly after 1910 and then began a decline until in the mid1970s when it was less than 1%. By the year 2000 it is expected to be between 2-3%. This has to be viewed in light of the fact that the number of missionaries multiplied by over 7 times during the 20th century. We can only conclude that although there were more than enough missionaries to evangelize the world at any point in the 20th century, mission societies in the past one hundred years have practiced “concentration”–leaving over a billion people constantly beyond the reach of the gospel. 2

Where are the unevangelized?

Were Christians in the 20th century unaware of the location of the unevangelized? Apparently not. The century began with an ecumenical conference in New York, a survey of the unevangelized, and the largest movement of students towards missions in Christian history. This culminated in the first specifically missionary conference with a global strategy to evangelize the world-the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1910. A survey commissioned by the conference produced a clear vision of the unfinished task (complete with 10/40 Window) in Samuel Zwemer’s The unoccupied mission fields of Africa and Asia. Over the next several decades, dozens of atlases and surveys were produced by Protestant and Anglican researchers, clearly delineating the unfinished task. (Equally impressive were a series of Roman Catholic surveys). Nonetheless, in the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in 1974 it was stated that nearly half of the world’s population was still beyond the reach of the gospel.

Table 1. World Evangelization in the 20th and 21st centuries

          1900 1970 2000 2025
World population 1,619,886,800 3,701,909,000 6,091,351,000 8,039,130,000
Christians 558,056,300 1,222,585,000 2,015,743,000 2,710,800,000
Missionaries 62,000 240,000 420,000 550,000
Missionaries: among unreached 15,500 3,000 10,500 50,000
Unreached peoples 18,000 13,000 10,000 6,000
Unevangelized individuals 813,232,000 1,634,812,000 1,543,010,000 1,655,000,000

Finishing by AD 2000? or not?

The year 2000 became an increasingly visible target for world evangelization after Lausanne. Many agencies announced global plans to evangelize the world by AD 2000. 3  By 1980, at the second Edinburgh conference, a slogan, “A Church for Every People by the Year 2000” had emerged. The focus on peoples gave a new strategic boost to the principle of diffusion. Penetrating all peoples implied that missionaries could not concentrate on a limited number but clearly had to be deployed among all peoples. Nonetheless a major study in the early 1990s showed that most agencies had less than 3% of their missionaries among the least evangelized peoples (who represented over 30% of the world’s population). Despite more plans and considerable publicity, the twentieth century is ending with over 4,000 ethnolinguistic peoples (or about 10,000 unreached peoples) and over 1.5 billion individuals completely unaware of Christ, Christianity, or the gospel.

Great Commission Christians today ought to be concerned about the fact that given current trends and momentum it is entirely likely that the world of 2025 will still contain thousands of unreached peoples and over 1.6 billion unevangelized individuals. Will it take a miracle to change the situation or do God’s people simply have to turn towards Him in worship and obedience-practicing diffusion instead of concentration?

(Click on the footnote numbers to return to the article.)

1.  The story of the attempt to evangelize the world by the year 1900 can be found in my short book Countdown to 1900: world evangelization at the end of the 19th century (New Hope, 1988).

2.  All statistics in the text and in the accompanying table are from the “Annual Statistical Table on Global Mission” by David B. Barrett and Todd M. Johnson in the January 1999 issue of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research. Estimates for unreached peoples are the author’s estimates.

3.  These are documented in Seven hundred plans to evangelize the world: the rise of a global evangelization movement by David B. Barrett and James W. Reapsome (New Hope, 1988).

This article was first published in World Christian Magazine, March 1999.

todd-xsDr. Todd M. Johnson is the director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and co-author of the World Christian Encyclopedia, 2nd edition, 2001.

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