The Unoccupied Fields

A century ago this year, Samuel Zwemer wrote one of the first detailed descriptions of the unfinished task of worldwide evangelization. It was titled The Unoccupied Fields. Today we have a comprehensive online survey called the Joshua Project. With a few keystrokes, a vast encyclopedic survey of nearly 7,000 unreached people groups is available. Long before Google, though, Zwemer’s reports were gathered from books, news clippings, telegrams, and saddlebags. It’s interesting that Zwemer chose to use the word “unoccupied” rather than “unreached.” By that, he was emphasizing the risen, returning King’s words, “All authority is given unto me in heaven and in earth.” With scarred Hands outstretched, He said, “Go, therefore, and make disciples.” His authority extends to the ends of the earth out of which He ransomed people for God from every nation, tongue, and tribe. So He sends His messengers out to occupy the world over which He has all authority, taking the Gospel and extending His Kingdom as more and more people hear, believe, and receive their King. By “unoccupied,” Zwemer was also recalling a parable the Lord gave His disciples just weeks before His Ascension. Fittingly, it’s a parable about a king going to a far country and before leaving, he charges his servants to “occupy till I come.” My copy of Zwemer’s book is battered and yellowed, its statistics and even some country names outdated, but Zwemer was a pioneer missionary to Arabia, and his words have both the weight and the glory of the Cross about them. With 40% of the world yet unreached, with vast lands and teeming cities “unoccupied,” his words still speak forcefully:

The challenge of the unoccupied fields of the world is one to great faith and, therefore, to great sacrifice. Our willingness to sacrifice for an enterprise is always in proportion to our faith in that enterprise. Great victory has never been possible without great sacrifice. . . . The unoccupied fields of the world must have their Calvary before they can have their Pentecost.”

The stubborn citadels of the world in Zwemer’s day remain largely unoccupied in our day as well—a Great Wall that extends from south and central Asia to the Middle East and across Saharan Africa. This short article can hardly begin to address the challenges of the unfinished task of worldwide evangelization, but hopefully it can cause us to “lift up our eyes,” to risk, to obey.

Second Wave

The world is very different from the one in which William Carey, Adoniram Judson, and Hudson Taylor lived. They and other missionary trailblazers inspired their generation to answer the Great Call. In the 19th and 20th centuries, missionary ranks were filled mostly by those from the English-speaking world: British, American, and Canadian. As they crossed continents and cultures with the Gospel, though, things changed. People of every nation, tongue, and tribe were saved through faith in Christ. Churches sprang up, and Christians in many lands began sharing the Gospel with their own people. In the 20th century, political boundaries grew dramatically. There were 55 independent countries when Zwemer wrote The Unoccupied Fields. Today there are nearly 200 countries in the world. As the number of countries has grown, so, too, have the political barriers to Western missionaries. Yet, not surprisingly, the advance of the Gospel was unhindered because Christ is building His Church! Tremendous growth in churches has taken place in parts of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. This is taking place in large part through effective indigenous evangelism.

This second wave of missionary forces is, therefore, much more diverse than in the past. Just this year I’ve seen African believers penetrating unreached parts of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, sharing Christ for the first time to people of the Loma, Golla, and Susu tribes. In northern India, Frontline’s team is systematically reaching 15 new unreached villages this year. Over the past decade, 170 villages representing a mosaic of tribal groups have been reached in this way and several churches planted and pastored by Indians. On the Siberian front, Ukrainians and Russians are joining hands to evangelize migrant workers from as far away as North Korea and praying for outreach further up to peoples above the Arctic Circle. This is just a glimpse of the Big Picture of how Christ is building His Church. Thankfully it’s not dependent on us—it’s dependent on Him!

Creative, Visionary, Opportunistic

Here at home our King is still calling faithful men and women to risk-taking Gospel ministry to the hard places. Oftentimes, though, the first barrier they encounter isn’t a distant border crossing—it’s a lack of vision and resources in our churches for the unoccupied territories. Missions in such places requires the sending and the sent to embrace creative, non-traditional roles in order to get in and stay in. There’s no blank for “church planter” on visa applications to Algeria, Afghanistan, or Laos, but there may be one for “nurse,” “English teacher,” “entrepreneur,” or “barista.” The goal in all of it is to see vibrant churches planted in native soil, but in hostile territory, frontline soldiers must adapt in order to survive and to serve. Churches here at home need to adapt, too, adjusting to the realities of the unfinished task and positioning themselves to be at the forefront of creative, visionary, and opportunistic missions.

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Pioneers Needed

About the same time Zwemer wrote his book, Sir Ernest Shackleton was seeking men for another kind of unoccupied territory—his expedition to Antarctica. His now famous recruiting poster called for:

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.

These words could well apply to men and women whom Christ is calling to venture out to those who have yet to hear the Gospel. Our motivation is not thrill-seeking or fame—it is Christ! His grace and mercy is so beautiful and abundant in our own lives that we want to find others who are like we were before we met Jesus—blind and shackled—and see them made new.

The simple, life-changing joy of the Gospel is what sustains the pioneer and draws others to take up the hard, unfinished task. Christ alone can help us see past the mounting statistics, past the beards and turbans, past the fierce faces and the dreary, lonely places to the happy work of bringing men and women to the King.