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It’s a question that frequently arises with the topic of international missions and often proceeds from a well-intentioned resistance to cross-cultural ministry.

“Why should we send missionaries overseas when there are so many people here who need the gospel?”

The question is valid. In 1972, NORC found that 90% of Americans identified as Christian. Fifty years later, that number dropped to 69%. Over that same time period, the percentage of Americans who identified as religiously unaffiliated rose from 5% to 29%.

Americans increasingly need the gospel. And yet, churches and missionary organizations around the country have emphasized the need to take the gospel to other nations.

By focusing on international missions, has the Church missed the mark?

To the Ends of the Earth

First, let’s see where the idea for international missions originated. It wasn’t a pastor, a theologian, or a seminary professor who suggested going to different places to share the gospel. Rather, it was the Author and Perfecter of the faith who mandated missions.

“‘And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.’” -Matthew 24:14, emphasis added

“Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’” -Matthew 28:18-20, emphasis added

“‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’” -Acts 1:8, emphasis added

Jesus had sent His disciples to proclaim the good news to their Jewish brethren, but then He rocked the boat when He said the gospel was for all nations. The word “nations” in Matthew 28 is translated from the Greek word ethne, which is commonly understood to mean people groups or ethnic groups. So when Jesus gave the Great Commission, He was telling the disciples to go to not just the Jews but to all peoples.

He said this before His crucifixion (Matthew 24:14), after His resurrection (Matthew 28:18-20), and before His ascension (Acts 1:8). Still, the disciples didn’t initially understand the assignment.

For Peter, it wasn’t until God showed him a vision and led him to a Gentile, Cornelius, that he fully grasped the heart of the Great Commission.

“‘I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.’” -Acts 10:34-35

Similar to what some missionaries face today, Peter received criticism from fellow believers for stepping outside of his own people group to share the gospel. Peter defended his case, explaining the vision from God and that the Lord had indiscriminately given Cornelius and others at his house the Holy Spirit.

“‘So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?’ When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.’” -Acts 11:17-18

Reaching the Unreached

Since God intends for the gospel to go to all peoples, what progress has the Church made in reaching all nations?

Today, more than 3 billion people remain unreached with the gospel. This means they have little to no access to a Bible, church, or believing friend to tell them about Jesus.

Many factors contribute to the lack of access to the gospel. Some governments restrict Christianity or evangelism. Many cultures are hostile to the faith and will attack or harass Christians and churches. In some countries, geographical barriers make it physically difficult to reach villages.

Another factor is the lack of missionaries going to unreached people groups. It’s estimated that less than 4% of Christian missionaries go to the unreached. The Joshua Project estimates that more than 71,000 workers are needed to engage the remaining 7,000-plus unreached people groups.

Cross-cultural missionaries are needed because the unreached won’t have a chance to hear the gospel unless someone goes to them.

“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” -Romans 10:14-15

Complementary Ministries

The clear need for international missions does not negate the need for local outreach. The two should not be seen as competing efforts but as complementary ministries. As believers make disciples at home, they should help give those new believers a global vision, guiding them to see God’s heart for the nations and, perhaps, preparing them for international ministry.

Jesus even told the disciples to do both local and international missions when he said to be “‘witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria,’” as well as to the ends of the Earth.

People in America absolutely need Jesus, but so do the 3 billion people worldwide who have no chance of hearing about Him unless laborers are sent into the harvest. So share the gospel at home, and actively seek out opportunities to either go to the nations yourself or send others. Only then will the “‘gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations … .’”