Learning from Ants: A Look at Evangelists and Cross-cultural Missionaries

Here is the problem: In 1900, 879 million people (fifty-six percent of the world’s population of 1.6 billion people) had never heard of Christ, Christianity or the gospel. They were unevangelized. They could not get access to the gospel very easily. They had no churches, no preachers, no evangelists, no scriptures, etc. What they did have was fifteen thousand cross-cultural missionaries (of all traditions) working among them.

One hundred years later, in 2000, the number of unevangelized people had grown to 1.6 billion—twenty-six percent of the world’s six billion people. Sadly, only ten thousand missionaries were working among them.

The percentage of the world that is unreached declined from fifty-six to twenty-six percent. However, because the world’s population has grown incredibly, the total number of people who are unevangelized doubled (879 million to 1.6 billion). Meanwhile, the number of missionaries working to reach them declined (see the July 2006 issue of Momentum for a full discussion). If the task of evangelizing the world could not be completed in 1900 by fifteen thousand workers, surely ten thousand workers are unlikely to finish it. We need more workers. But how many more?

History is scattered with dedicated servants of God who were used to evangelize hundreds of thousands of people. Below are examples of some of these persons or small teams:

  • Jesus. Israel, AD 33. Jesus himself evangelized the whole of Palestine in three years, thus impacting about 800,000 people.

  • Believers who fled persecution in Jerusalem. Antioch, AD 39. The population of 130,000 in Antioch was evangelized largely through believers who fled persecution in Jerusalem, then later by Paul and Barnabas.
  • Judas (Lebbaeus) and Simon the Zealot. Iran, AD 49. Judas (Lebbaeus) and Simon the Zealot had about 100,000 converts; far more must have been evangelized despite immense hostility from Iran’s priestly caste.
  • Paul and related missionary teams. Asia, AD 55. The Roman province of Asia was completely evangelized. Five hundred cities were reached in two years by Paul and related missionary teams.
  • Patrick. Ireland, AD 435. Patrick planted over two hundred churches and baptized over 100,000 converts. He created the effective Celtic monastic mission structure to extend this work.
  • Vincent Ferrer. Europe, AD 1399. Catalan Dominican preacher Ferrer wandered throughout Europe, evangelizing and bringing revival. He saw twenty-five thousand converts and preached six thousand sermons.
  • Filofei Leszczynski. Russia, AD 1712. Leszczynski, an Orthodox missionary, baptized over forty thousand people and planted over three hundred new churches.
  • George Whitefield. USA, AD 1735. Whitefield preached in public eighteen thousand times to eighteen million hearers in crowds of up to thirty thousand people. He was heard by up to eighty percent of the people in the United States.
  • John Wesley. Britain, AD 1739. Wesley traveled up to eight thousand miles per year on average, preached forty thousand sermons, made 140,000 converts and created a vast network of churches and societies.
  • A Russian Orthodox mission team on Kodiak Island. Alaska (USA), AD 1792. A Russian Orthodox mission team on Kodiak Island baptized 2,500 shamanist Eskimos in two years, and ten thousand in 1795 alone.
  • Charles Finney. USA, AD 1800s. Finney’s preaching led to the conversion of over 500,000 people.
  • D. L. Moody. USA, AD 1800s. Moody preached to over 100 million people and personally brought 750,000 people to Christ.
  • Billy Sunday. USA, AD 1800s. Sunday became a nationally known evangelist who had over 200,000 converts.
  • Billy Graham. AD 1900s. Graham preached to fifty million people in 229 crusades by 1976, with 1.5 million decisions; by 1984, there were 104 million registered decisions (apart from television audiences). By 2005, through media, he had preached to two billion people.
  • William Wade Harris. Liberia, AD 1910. Harris, a Liberian activist, preached across Ivory Coast and baptized 100,000 converts.
  • Simon Kimbangu. Africa, AD 1920. Kimbangu, sometimes called “The People’s Prophet,” had a brief but powerful ministry that inspired faith in Central Africa. Imprisoned for stirring up the Congolese people, Kimbangu became the catalyst for Africa’s largest independent church.

What about Today?
These examples seem to say that a called, gifted, trained and equipped evangelistic team (composed of multiple individuals) can impact hundreds of thousands of people—if not millions—over the space of a few years.

But are these the rule or the exception? If they are the rule, then why are there not more such people? Why don’t modern mission teams achieve this kind of success? Operation World estimates 200,000 total Protestant, Independent and Anglican missionaries worldwide. World Christian Trends says Protestant, Independent and Anglican traditions added 4.3 million new converts per year over the period 1990-2000 (not including children born into Christian households). So, it would seem that 200,000 workers were each responsible for about twenty-one converts. (This number is not quite accurate, as it ignores the work of pastors, lay evangelists and so on.)

World Christian Trends estimates there are 420,000 missionaries worldwide (including Orthodox, Marginals and Roman Catholics). About thirty-two million unevangelized people hear the gospel for the first time each year. Each missionary is responsible, on average, for about seventy-six newly evangelized people.

Of course, these are simply averages: the middle position between two extremes. Some missionaries see many converts; others see less. Consider the JESUS film. Over 5.4 billion people have seen it since 1979; 200 million of these have made a decision for Christ. There are 4,600 JESUS film teams, so this equates to about 1.1 million evangelized and forty-three thousand converts per team. This is, of course, a very rough estimate. The JESUS film has not always had 4,600 teams, and today’s teams are not the same as the teams thirty years ago. Even if we divided by thirty for an annual figure, it equates to thirty-six thousand evangelized people and 1,400 converts per year. This is significantly higher than the average cited above, but still far below the “heroic” levels in the first few examples.

There are more startling cases. The mostly Muslim Bhojpuri of northeast India are one. The state of Bihar, home to thirty-nine million Bhojpuri, is the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and the hyper-nationalistic movements of India. In the 100-year history of missionary work among the Bhojpuri, there has been very little fruit. Bihar has been commonly known as the “graveyard of missions and missionaries.” Yet, in the past fifteen years, a church planting movement has resulted in thirty thousand churches led and planted by indigenous peoples. Over one million believers have been baptized. Some of these churches are tenth generation church plants. A dozen Muslim imams are now baptized church planters and prayer groups are meeting in mosques.

Still, the reality is that this movement—extraordinary though it is—affects only a small part of India’s 1.2 billion people. These one million believers represent less than one percent of India. In spite of the success of the numbers, a significant task remains: more than 150,000 Bhojpuri villages are unreached, work on the Old Testament translation is unfinished and—beyond the Bhojpuri—yet another 120 million Muslims throughout the rest of India still need to hear the gospel.

The Cross-cultural Missionary versus the Mass Evangelist
To understand what we are talking about, it is necessary to look at the differences between the cross-cultural missionary team and the mass evangelist. Here are several:

  • Evangelists work in their own language. They have no need for translation. Paul, for example, was equally at home in Greek and Hebrew, and Greek was widely used throughout the Roman Empire.

  • Evangelists are already contextualized. They do not need to spend months or years learning the culture. Instead, they spend their time presenting the gospel. Many preach tens of thousands of sermons. They do not need to strive at contextualization, since they are already part of the culture they are seeking to reach. (Yes, Paul did contextualize somewhat during the whole Jews-versus-Gentiles controversy; however, that is not the same as contextualizing for a society with which you are not familiar.)

  • Evangelists have fewer security issues. Although some have faced severe hostility, most do not have the same kind of security worries that cross-cultural workers have. Most evangelists are local and “fit in.” Some as citizens have personal freedoms. Paul was protected to some degree by his Roman citizenship, as were the evangelists of the Great Awakening.

  • Evangelists find it easier to raise funds. Those who are working in their own context generally find it easier to get funding than those who are working cross-culturally. Donors can immediately see the benefits. Thus, it will typically be easier for Billy Graham to raise funds for a city-wide crusade in America than it will be for a missionary to raise funds from Americans for ministry in Algeria.

A look at the lives of several cross-cultural missionaries throughout the ages gives us a deeper picture of what we are talking about and where we, as missionaries, need to put our emphasis:

  • Robert Morrison was the first Protestant missionary in China (sent by the London Missionary Society in 1807). He arrived in Macao and ministered in China for nearly thirty years. He translated the Bible into Mandarin by 1818 and translated a dictionary by 1821. He faced numerous pressures. Imperial edicts against foreigners forced him to hide in his house. He died in 1834 having seen only ten converts.

  • Amy Carmichael did not see hundreds of thousands of converts, either. She was rejected by the China Inland Mission in 1892—for “frailty.” She went as a Keswick missionary to Japan, but decided that was not where God wanted her and eventually ended up in India in 1895. By 1899, she had developed a ministry rescuing children who had been dedicated by their families to serve as temple prostitutes; she eventually founded a society called the “Sisters of the Common Life.” She served for fifty-six years without furlough, took in more than one thousand children in her orphanages and wrote over thirty-five books.

  • Gladys Aylward was likewise rejected by mission agencies for service in China. She decided to go on her own and saved up her own money and traveled by train from London across Europe and Russia, through battle zones (China and Japan were at war at the time). She ultimately reached Yangchen where she helped a retired missionary woman at an inn for muleteers. She learned Mandarin (in spite of the fact that mission agencies had been sure she was too uneducated to do that), evangelized surrounding villages and took in orphan children. She became a Chinese citizen in 1936 and, when warfare in the region became too intense, led her one hundred orphan children over a hundred miles to a safer province.

  • Adoniram Judson was the first American missionary to Burma (modern Myanmar). He served for thirty-seven years with only one home leave. During his ministry, he translated the Bible, planted one hundred churches and saw eight thousand converts. The believers continued to grow and multiply after his death, and Burma eventually attained the status it now holds: the country with the third largest number of Baptist believers worldwide.

  • Hudson Taylor served in China for over fifty years, where he founded a missionary society, bringing nearly eight hundred missionaries to the country and personally baptizing an estimated fifty thousand converts. The largest part of this happened late in his missionary career. His legacy was the China Inland Mission (today’s Overseas Missionary Fellowship) and what would eventually become millions of believers in China. Taylor was also one of the first Protestant missionaries to contextualize the gospel into Chinese culture (adopting Chinese dress, language and food). He was one of the first to accept single and married women as missionaries—including Lottie Moon, who become a prominent figure in Southern Baptist churches and the inspiration for an annual fundraising campaign.

  • Samuel Zwemer’s story is told by J. Christy Wilson in “The Apostle to Islam: the Legacy of Samuel Zwemer” (International Journal of Frontier Missions, Oct-Dec 1996). Zwemer and his friend James Cantine wanted to go to a “needy field.” They looked for the most difficult field they could find and chose Arabia. No society would sponsor them, saying it was foolish for them to go to such a resistant people. Zwemer said, “If God calls you and no board will send you, bore a hole through the board and go anyway.” They went to churches and raised their own support, forming the Arabian Mission. In 1890, they headed to Beirut to learn Arabic. During Zwemer’s ministry he traveled extensively through the Muslim world, distributing tracts and Bibles; at many conferences he was an outspoken advocate for mission to Muslims. Still, the work he started remains unfinished.

Understanding Missionary Success
When it comes to cross-cultural work, it seems long-term significance is far more important than short-term success. The role of the missionary is to raise up a core of nationals who will present the gospel and make disciples. If we begin with two people and each “generation” doubles, then by the twentieth generation there will be more than one million converts. How long it should take to get from generation one to generation twenty is central to church growth debates. If each generation doubled every six months (a radically rapid pace), it would take ten years. The Bhojpuri movement is considered rapid, and it took fifteen years to reach the tenth generation.

What we need are not individuals who can evangelize large numbers, but people who can ensure that large numbers are and continue to be evangelized and discipled and that communities continue to be transformed. In other words, we need Roberts, Amys, Gladyses, Adonirams, Hudsons and Samuels who can identify and serve the Pauls, Patricks, Georges, Johns and Billys within other cultures.

Back to our original question—how many do we need? Let us assume any given missionary team can mentor a local church planting movement that will impact at least 100,000 people over the space of a decade. If so, we arrive at a simple number: about forty-three thousand such teams are needed (see the chart1).

How we recruit and send that many teams is a question we will address in the next issue.

 Name  Unevangelized  Evangelized Non-Christian  Teams Needed
 WORLD  1,849,722,854  2,468,121,056  43,178
 AFRICA  222,816,389  254,174,136  4,770
 Eastern Africa  43,080,556  65,760,569  1,088
 Middle Africa  9,461,624  10,237,230  197
 Northern Africa  88,935,669  84,380,581  1,733
 Southern Africa  1,193,130  8,134,617  93
 Western Africa  80,145,410  85,661,139  1,658
 ASIA  1,590,549,735  1,976,330,729  35,669
 Eastern Asia  543,932,954  850,376,910  13,943
 South-central Asia  751,457,089  783,448,570  15,349
 South-eastern Asia  187,108,214  249,812,980  4,369
 Western Asia  108,051,478  92,692,269  2,007
 EUROPE  25,162,182  146,060,373  1,712
 Eastern Europe  12,094,810  68,590,481  807
 Northern Europe  2,075,620  15,095,314  172
 Southern Europe  4,497,993  20,522,772  250
 Western Europe  6,493,759  41,851,806  483
 LATIN AMERICA  4,538,383  36,634,438  412
 Caribbean  387,522  6,863,714  73
 Central America  941,339  5,013,973  60
 South America  3,209,522  24,756,751  280
 NORTH AMERICA  5,901,825  49,138,679  550
 PACIFIC  754,340  5,782,701  65
 Australia-New Zealand  546,893  5,145,271  57
 Melanesia  195,345  555,979  8
 Micronesia  5,929  33,876  0
 Polynesia  6,173  47,575  1

























1. Unevangelized and Evangelized non-Christian totals come from the World Christian Database.

Justin Long manages strategicnetwork.org and is senior editor for Momentum, a magazine devoted to unreached peoples. He can be reached at justinlong@gmail.com. Justin and his wife Heidi minister in Southeast Asia.